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Volume 3 • #2 • October/November 2003


When I started Latin in the ninth grade, I happened to be the only Protestant student in my parochial school classroom. At the beginning of each class, the students would stand and recite the Hail Mary. In French class, you said it in French. In Spanish class, in Spanish. On the first day in Latin class, Sister Cordula asked whether anyone knew it in Latin. To Sister Cordula’ s dismay, mine was the only hand that went up. What she didn’t know was that I was a long time piano student who had been subjected to an endless string of student recitals. There was always some little voice student who sang either “Pale hands I love, beside the Shalimar,” or the “Ave Maria.” Never mind. It made an impression on Sister Cordula.

The other day I was reminded of how a little Latin can sometimes go a long way, by an e-mail asking me how to get a student to put the “g” in recognize since it is almost universally pronounced without it. The “g” is there because it comes from the Latin verb, “I think,” or “cogito.” It is related to cognition-- thinking or understanding, where you can actually hear it. The prefix, “re” often means again, and if you think again about something, you re-cog-nize it. (Without that “g” you might be re-conning somebody. Dear me.)

The same approach can be used to spell “necessary”. Ne- is a prefix that means “not”. Cede and cess are Latin roots that mean to give up something. If you are not (ne) willing to give up (cess) something, it is ne-cess-ary to you.

A lot of funny looking spellings in English can be attributed to the huge number of words we have that have been borrowed from other languages. For instance, the letter, G, is sometimes “soft”, when followed by an e, i, or y, as in George, gym, or gin. (Don’t write. I know there are a lot of exceptions.) A ‘”g” followed by a, u, or o, is “hard”, as in goat. Now the French have the same rule about g’s, and their final letter, e, is silent, just like ours. So with Gallic logic, they finish a word that ends in a hard g by spelling that sound with -gue to give us vague, plague, league, vogue, fugue, etc. Also they tuck in a u to keep the hard g before an i or an e, s in guilt, guest, guitar, guild, or guide. Did I forget Huguenot and guillotine?

Obviously you don’t make your hapless student memorize all this. You just need to know it so that you can explain why some English spelling seems so weird.

Teaching Tip:

Often students will need to do a particular spelling exercise several times before it is all right. These papers I call “practice” papers. Then I keep the last, best ones for students’ folders. One clever tutor told me that she gives her students all the practice papers and lets them tear them up and throw them in the wastebasket, themselves.

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