Cognates & Latinglish: I’m Not Finished.

Gotta love a trilogy, right? This is my final Winter 2023 post on the whole cognate kerfuffle.

One reason Chinese takes native English speakers a LOT longer to acquire than something like Spanish is because Chinese has approximately zero cognates. Terry Waltz has reported that Spanish has about 3,000 words most English speakers can understand without being taught any of them. Languages with more cognates are acquired faster because cognates play a role in the first developmental stage of second language learning. Check out what ACTFL has to say about the novice language learner and cognates:

This means that if cognates are NOT present in the input, either due to the language itself or the texts chosen by the teacher, the novice learner has less to derive meaning from. No one’s saying they have nothing, but they positively have less (hence, the time it takes to acquire Chinese). We’re talking about a developmental stage that all learners go through that we can use as a tool when available, not unlike using a shared language (i.e., English in my teaching context). There are, in fact, language teachers who insist on avoiding English to establish meaning of Latin words. This baffles me, but it’s a choice nonetheless. Just the same, there’s often a choice to use a particular kind of Latin when teachers a) write Latin for their students (vs. using someone else’s curriculum), or b) select already-written texts that have more cognates in them.

To summarize, when there are cognates—yes, that the learner recognizes, duh—those are gonna be used by the learner to make meaning in the earliest stages. I teach students in their first year of learning Latin. Therefore, I use as many cognates as I can, so students at the novice level can make meaning from reading a text on their own (vs. being taken through a text with a teacher). Let’s list these just to be sure:

  • cognates
  • novice learners
  • reading on their own

If students are far beyond novice, they can derive meaning at a vocab level that doesn’t rely on cognates. And that’s great. I suspect that those with cognate concerns are already beyond teaching novice learners. Otherwise, they’d be keen on the implications of avoiding cognates, making the initial developmental stage harder than it should be. So, if teachers do have Latin I & II students—because it’s not uncommon to hang out at the novice level for a year or two—it’s probably a good idea to question why they’re withholding what would otherwise benefit their students. It’s still a choice, but it’s a choice with a lot of support.

Cognates As Tool
Latin shares a decent number of cognates with English. The problem? Latin to English cognates have been dismissed by Latin teachers as…lesser. Metallica has a song about the state of this. Granted, once the “whose Latin?” arguments dismantle such elitist concerns, an even more specific kind of cognate is unveiled as the true concern: a false one. Since it’s one of the most cited examples coming from those with cognate concerns, the word ōrdinārium does mean “ordinary,” but not that kind of “ordinary.” A different kind of ordinary. And?

It doesn’t really matter, at least not to the people who are front and center: students, and most of their teachers, too. Perhaps that’s a root problem. Something that matters seemingly so much to some teachers just doesn’t really matter in the long run, and this can be uncomfortable for anyone who cannot fathom mixing languages over time. Weeks ago, I wrote about a forthcoming book of mine having fewer unranked words (5%) than AP Virgil (6%) or Caesar (7%). It turns out that instances of a related extraōrdinārium in that book accounts for 1%. Much ado about nothing, right? Again, cognate concerns are more about controlling people’s Latin than anything. The true concern—that “it’s not really Latin”—is what bothers some people. I wondered if the same thing would be said about Spanglish (i.e., that “it’s not really Spanish.”)…

There’s fascinating research and scholarship supporting Spanglish, especially in a pedagogical setting. What’s Spanglish exactly? It’s hard to say if the language is a dialect, a variety, or hybrid. Suffice to say there’s been mixing of languages that includes loan words, calques, and code-switching (Sayer, 2008). Have I been writing a bit of Latinglish by using ōrdinīarium that meant “according to the usual order” (but then went through French and English to mean “not distinguished in any way” in the 1500s), and now translate it as “ordinary” (yes, that “ordinary”)? Yes. Yes I have.

My main position going on seven years now has been trying to support my pedagogical decisions as an author, mostly about the use of cognates and the occasional Latinglish. I think I’m done with all that now. We know that plenty of Latin teachers are looking for the kind of Latin me and others are writing, which is part of the larger group of teacher-authors writing their own Latin (or Latin imitating Classical authors). Knowing that a different kind of Latin is wanted and needed, I’ll continue for that reason alone. Knowing that that majority of teachers aren’t bothered by the rare Latinglish, we’re good. We’re not totally sure at what level of Latinglish you’d start to get questionable results. Would 10% Latinglish every day get students processing the 90% Latin faster? Would something like…50% have any measurable effect? Would reading a 90% Latinglish book—just once—ruin a student’s ability to read Latin in the future?! No author is anywhere close to this amount of Latinglish, though as a person who floats between and agent of change and an agent of chaos, I might be tempted to write a 100% Latinglish book! N.B. even the concept book Pīsō et Syra et pōtiōnēs mysticae would clock in well below any of the higher figures. I counted at least 100 words (of the 170) that are undoubtedly fully Latin before I moved on. The seven function words alone (i.e., ad, est, et, in, nōn, quoque, sed) and the first handful of fully Latin words I counted up already comprise 45% of the book. Anyway, the Latinglish concerns are more about control. They’re not actually about students. As with most pedagogical discussions I’ve been a part of, students are usually the last thing anyone focuses on.

The Students
There are dubious claims that Latinglish (of unknown but very small percentages) is going to inhibit student learning. That’s not gonna happen. You know what will happen? Students reading books with 1% (or whatever) Latinglish will look back at Latin class with a fondness—or hatred—for those random novella characters and scenes, or have the basic details of some myth ready-to-go. They’ll remember more about character traits and plots of the books that gave them a positive second-language experience. You know what will not happen? They won’t be remembering much at the vocab level. They won’t read clam instead of sēcrētē one day and have their head explode. Kids understand what synonyms are. Please.

P.S. I’ve just updated the cognate sheet to include a column to identify Latinglish. Those who want to avoid it can. As for everyone else who knows it doesn’t matter, keep adding words when they pop up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.