Tag Archives: cognates

Vocabulary: to gloss or not to gloss?

Everybody knows that flossing is good for you. But what about glossing?

The Spanish textbook series we currently use at Fordham University is Pearson’s Gente. The beginning and intermediate books in the series provide glosses, or translations, for the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter. But the advanced textbook does not. There is a Spanish-English glossary at the end of the book that students can use to look up words.

The first time I taught this course, I was struck by how inefficient it was for each student to have to look up the words. Moreover, I found some mistakes, or at least weaknesses, in the glosses:

  • missing words
  • glosses that average college students wouldn’t necessarily understand (‘foment’, ‘infusion’)
  • glosses that are correct but not necessarily satisfactory, such as ‘commitment, engagement’ for compromiso (leaving out that it’s often a pre-marital engagement) or ‘offer’ for oferta, where the usual meaning involves a special price.
  • glosses that conflate differences, such as genialidad and genio both glossed as ‘genius’
  • no heads-up for false cognates such as compromiso, which doesn’t mean ‘compromise’

So this semester, at the beginning of each chapter I gave the students a screen shot of the vocabulary page on which I had written on my own glosses. I photocopied these onto yellow paper — a teaching trick I picked up somewhere along the way. Here’s an example: my original, hence not yellow. Note that I don’t generally gloss cognates. This drives home their ubiquity, and also makes false cognates stand out.

(post continues after graphic)

When I told a colleague about my approach, she was mildly horrified. She thought that it was important for students to look up the glosses themselves, and that this was their first step in learning vocabulary. I believe that while it’s beneficial to use a dictionary while reading, and that this is a special skill that we need to teach our students, looking up 100 words, in alphabetical order, in a simple glossary is fundamentally different. It’s mechanical, rather than intellectual, essentially a secretarial task of collating two lists.

What do you think?

In this follow-up post, I describe my students’ unanimously favorable assessment of the glosses.



Spanish vocabulary that’s hard to learn

Writing Sunday’s post about unfamiliar vocabulary in El séptimo velo, and in particular the words metralla and ametrrallada, started me thinking somewhat nostalgically about Spanish vocabulary I’ve found hard to learn, and what strategies have worked for me. In general, since I’m an analytic thinker, especially when it comes to language, I have trouble with words that I can’t tackle using cognates or other types of linguistic analysis. Strangely, the best solution for me in such cases is often anti-analytic. I specialize in truly ad hoc mnemonics, often based on false cognates (so-called amigos falsos). The more far-fetched, the better.

Some kinship terms beyond the basics caused me a headache “back in the day”. Sobrino and sobrina “nephew/niece”, for instance, lack an English cognate. My ad hoc mnemonic for them is therefore based on a false cognate: I think of a “sober” (i.e. non-drinking) nephew. Nieto and nieta “grandchild” are cognate with “nephew”, unfortunately; we owe to French the perversion of the original Latin meaning, which Spanish has preserved. My solution, then, is to picture a “nice” grandchild.

In-law terms were a mixed bag for me. Suegro and suegra “parents-in-law” came easily. These are ugly words — they sound like sweat or suet — which I have always found reminiscent of the negative stereotype of these relatives, especially mothers-in-law. (My own mother-in-law is an exception, thank goodness.) I had more trouble with other in-law terms. I finally mastered cuñado/cuñada “brother/sister-in-law” after learning the word cuna “cradle”, since one might visit one’s sister-in-law to admire her baby. My mnemonics for yerno and nuera “son/daughter-in-law” are truly bizarre. To me these sound like terms one might associate with animal husbandry, like yearling or nursling. And the propagation of the family line is, after all, the point of acquiring these relations.

Going back to metralla and ametrrallada, I’ve been seeing the word ametralladora “machine gun” for years without managing to remember it. I think the noun’s ending was playing with my analytic brain. The noun suffix or or -ora usually connotes a person or object that produces something. A tostador (or tostadora) makes toast. An escritor creates written work. An aspirador creates suction. But an ametralladora doesn’t make anything; it just kills.

Had I looked up the word’s etymology, as I finally did on Sunday, I would have known that metralla means shrapnel. Now I will always remember the word, because an ametralladora produces metralla. I guess the moral here is that one should always research etymology when dealing with a stubborn word.

My current struggle is with a substantial class of action verbs beginning with de- or des-, including derrotar, derretirse, derrumbar, deslizar, and desmoronar. These all have negative meanings: defeat, melt, demolish, slide (this can be negative if you’re on a cliff), and collapse. I have trouble with these words because I encountered all of them at about the same time, when I started teaching Spanish and began working on my language skills seriously again. I think of this as the geshem/shemesh problem. These two words mean “snow” and “rain” in Hebrew (or is it “sun” and “rain”?), but because I learned them together, I can never remember which is which.

The solution for the de(s)- set seems to be continued vigorous reading. Each time I see one of these words in context it becomes a little more distinct. Maybe in the not-to-distant future I’ll be ready to use them in conversation. Then I can go on to the next hurdle! There is always more to learn.

Spanish vocabulary in El séptimo velo

For the last several weeks I’ve been making slow but steady progress through Juan Manuel de Prada’s towering novel El séptimo velo. Like this blog, it’s been taking back seat to my teaching. As described in an earlier post, El séptimo velo is a romantic novel set mostly in post-war France and contemporary Spain. I learned of it from a reading list distributed by a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

This novel is unbelievably rich in vocabulary. My Spanish is excellent, I think, good enough to tear through a sophisticated thriller like Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. in a matter of hours, and in a typical book I rarely find more than two or three new words on a page. De Prada’s Spanish came as such a shock that I decided, as an intellectual exercise, to (i) write down all the new words I encountered on a random page, (ii) record what I thought they meant, and why (iii) look up their actual meanings, and (iv) blog the results. The random page was p. 315 of the 2008 Harper Collins Planeta paperback.

This humbling experiment turned up 30 new words on one page!!! — of which I correctly interpreted more than half. The first part of this statistic gave me second thoughts — and even third and fourth — about writing this post. Revealing how much Spanish vocabulary I still don’t know, after years of studying and teaching the language, is somewhat embarrassing. But I decided to go ahead because vocabulary, and how we learn it, is such an important topic.

For one thing, while English speakers may be aware that English has an enormous lexicon — over 450,000 words, according to David Crystal — they may not realize the extent of the Spanish lexicon. The Real Academia‘s dictionary has about 162,000 words, almost 100,000 more than an educated person learns in a lifetime (again according to Crystal). The Spanish lexicon combines a native Latin base with substantial borrowings, mostly from Arabic, Germanic, other Romance languages, Latin (again) and Greek, English, and native American languages.

Second, since I’m always telling my students to use context, cognates, and familiar Spanish vocabulary to deduce meanings, I was curious to see how far this actually takes a reader (i.e., me). The use of context in particular is of broad linguistic interest, because it enables babies to learn language, and adults to communicate under difficult conditions, for example over a poor telephone connection.

Finally, I’ve become fascinated with de Prada’s Spanish. His vocabulary is not only immense but also erudite.  Elsewhere in the book, for example, he uses preñada, instead of embarazada, to mean “pregnant”. I would love to hear how native Spanish readers of this blog respond to the vocabulary listed below. How obscure is it?

The table below details the fruits of my analysis. As a summary:

  • The only word I couldn’t even guess at was chabola.
  • I misinterpreted several words: troncho, deje, forzar (in a weird context), barullo, ráfaga, metralla and ametrralladaatronar, corduraquincalleros, and zalamero. Of these, I came closest on deje (“accent”), recognizing its connection with dejar, and with barullo “racket, din” — I guessed “crowd”. The most personally galling were metralla and ametrrallada, because I’ve tried to memorize the word ametralladora (“machine gun”) several times. I’ve also run into zalamero and may even have flash-carded it a few years ago.
  • I correctly deduced the general semantic category of several words from context, like a good Spanish student (or baby). For example, I assumed that berza “cabbage” was a kind of food, and batahola “racket, din” a kind of noise. Other words in this category were chalánproleenjutoestrépitoapelmazado, esportillero, and arrumbadero. The last two were quite obscure. Esportillero wasn’t in wordreference.com, though I found it in the RAE. Arrumbadero was in neither. I “looked it up” by consulting the friendly and expert participants in the Word Reference Spanish vocabulary forum.
  • I figured out several meanings thanks to English cognates and my existing Spanish vocabulary. For example, English amble and ambulatory gave me deambuló, and Spanish hormiga “ant” gave me hormiguear “to swarm”.
  • Context made estraperlo and traquateo absolutely clear. Onomatopoeia also helped with the latter.

Séptimo velo

Some surprising Spanish-English cognates

I’ve always been a big fan of cognates, i.e. genetically related words across languages, like Spanish insistir and English insist. As a language learner, I’ve found cognates enormously helpful in reading and in memorizing vocabulary. I really missed them when I studied Hebrew.

As a teacher, I point out cognates and also teach my students to use them just as I do: as an aid in reading and in memorization. An additional benefit is intellectual. Articles in the popular press with titles like “Latin comeback in the schools” invariably make the claim that studying Latin helps students learn the roots of English vocabulary. There’s no reason why students can’t have the same benefit from studying Spanish or other Romance languages.

As a linguist, I’m happiest when I learn a non-obvious cognate: the kind that gives you an “Aha!” or “Really?” moment. The table below lists my favorite “Aha!” Spanish/English verb cognates. For example, I’ve always explained the verb disfrutar to my students metaphorically, as enjoying the fruits of life (or whatever) — here I normally mime plucking fruit from a tree – but until I looked it up I didn’t realize that this was the verb’s actual etymology. Again, I’ve left out what I consider to be more obvious cognates, such as savvy, savory, or homo sapiens for sabercognitive or acquaintance for conocer, or dictate for decir. [There, I worked them in anyway!] My sources for the table are the etymologies on the Real Academia website and Douglas Harper’s very impressive Online Etymology Dictionary, which is great fun to browse.

Please write in with your own favorite cognates, including cognates for nouns and adjectives.

Some verb cognates