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Archive for the ‘Evidence in Education’ Category

Most people would agree that a teacher cannot be effective if she is ignorant about her subject. A skilled math teacher, for example, can’t just ignore the long-proven axioms of mathematics. An effective science teacher cannot remain agnostic about scientific principles, and a music teacher who cannot read music probably won’t have a good professional prognosis. No one can teach a subject before first studying it closely.

It is likewise with language education. In order to teach people accurately and effectively how the English writing system works, one must first study it closely. Yet, in spite of a growing emphasis on ‘evidence-based’ instruction, language education remains a discipline where surface observations go unexamined and guesswork often supplants analysis.

Besides investigating the English language itself, I also investigate the origins of the linguistic information presented in materials for language teaching, especially when those materials diverge from what the language structure reveals about itself. Recently, while reading the blog of a fellow language educator, I came across the following proclamation:

“When words share a similar meaning and spelling across languages they are called cognates (from -cog-, meaning ‘to think’, to recognize).”

This language educator’s assertion about thinking got me thinking. Is there really a meaningful element <cog> in the word <cognate>? If so, then what does the <nate> mean? This piece of “language education” bears further investigation.

Now, I’m already familiar with cognates. Most anyone who’s studied another language has learned about linguistic cognates: the French word rendez in rendez-vous is cognate with the English word render, for example. But the idea of cognates is broader than just linguistics, and understanding how it’s used outside of language helps us understand it within language. Here’s what my trusty Oxford English-based Mac dictionary (my Mactionary?) has to say on the issue:

cognate |’kɑgˈneɪt|
adjective
1 LINGUISTICS (of a word) having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root (e.g., English is, German ist, Latin est from Indo-European esti).
2 FORMAL related; connected : cognate subjects such as physics and chemistry.
• related to or descended from a common ancestor. Compare with agnate.
noun
1 LINGUISTICS a cognate word.
2 LAW a blood relative.

Interesting. Okay, so to be “cognate” means to be related or connected. In fact, in a court of law, the word cognate would mean “a blood relative.”

So what’s this all got to do with thinking? Um . . . nothing.

Does it have anything to do with recognizing? The blogger’s parenthesis suggests a relationship between cognate and recognize. They do both have the letters <cog> in them. They sound similar. Could they be related? Do they share a meaning or a history, or just a surface appearance? Let’s investigate.

I can’t think of a meaning for recognize that has anything to do with being related, but I check the Mactionary just to be sure. That resource suggests that recognize means “to identify, acknowledge, approve of or pay tribute to.” While we might decide whether we want to identify or acknowledge our relatives, the words recognize and cognate don’t appear to have related meanings. But maybe I’m missing something, so I decide to look further into the words’ morphology (structure) and etymology (history) in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

cognate: from L. cognatus “of common descent,” from com- “together” + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci “to be born” (see genus). Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings.

Oh! So there’s no <cog> in <cognate>, not morphologically or etymologically, anyhow. The letter <g> in <cognate> belongs with the <nate>, not with the <co>. The structure of the word is <co> + <gnate>. While the /g/ and the /n/ may be in different syllables, syllables have nothing to do with meaning, and it’s important for teachers not to confuse syllables with morphemes. The <g> and the <n> are within a single English morpheme, <gnate>, ‘to be born.’  With a little further investigation at etymonline, I learn that <gnate> has a variant form which appears more commonly in Modern English, as in <innate>, <nation>, <native> and <prenatal>.  Hence, words that are cognates are ‘born together;’ they are always etymologically related.

Now that I know that <gnate> is the base of cognate, then I can see that the word is not morphologically related to recognize. The two words do share a string of letters, <cog>, but that’s just a clip in <cognate> where the <g>belongs to the morpheme <gnate>. There’s no <gnate> in <recognize>. So they don’t share a base element.

What about their history, though? Could these words be related etymologically? Here’s the Online Etymology for recognize:

recognize: from O.Fr., from L. recognoscere “acknowledge, recall to mind, know again, examine, certify,” from re- “again” + cognoscere “know” (from co- “with” + gnoscere “become acquainted;” see notice). Meaning “perceive something or someone as already known” first recorded 1530s. Related: Recognized; recognizing.

Just to be sure, I check both Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and the Oxford English Dictionary. I confirm that recognize entered English <g>-less from French, but regained its <g> later on in association with its original Latin form, recognoscere, from cognoscere, ‘to become thoroughly acquainted with, investigate, get to know.’ When we peel off the prefix co, meaning ‘altogether,’ we are left with the root (g)noscere, which means simply ‘to know.’

What we have in recognize is the root gnoscere, entirely distinct from the root gnatus that gives us cognate. One means ‘to know,’ and the other means ‘to be born.’ Neither one means ‘to think.’

So where did the edublogger get her information? Well, since she doesn’t explain her methodology or even cite a source, that’s hard to say. The blog claims to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” so I decide to investigate a little further. Where might her linguistic explorations have led her? What word knowledge is being explored, and how?

First, I look for words in English where perhaps the letters <cog> do indicate a morpheme meaning ‘to think.’  I find a couple of English word families that have the letters <cog> — without the <n> — that could connote ‘thinking.’ The word cogent means “Having power to compel assent or belief; argumentatively forcible, convincing” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the word cogitate means “To think, reflect, ponder, meditate; to exercise the thinking faculties.” This investigation calls to mind the famous Cartesian maxim, Cogito ergo sum, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’

However, while both cogent and cogitate have the letters ,<cog>, they do not spell the base element of these words. According to my standard sources, the <co> is again a prefix (I’m starting to notice a pattern again!), and words are related to agent and agitate. All of these words are cognate with act and come from a Latin root meaning ‘to drive, to move.’  As we can see, there’s no <cog> and no thinking here either.

Phew! What we have now is several word families that are similar on the surface, but which have completely distinct histories. Let’s sort out what we’ve got so far, with a little help from the standard resources:

1. Latin (g)nasci/(g)natus ‘to be born’ gives us Modern English cognate, ‘related.’ Words that share the this same etymological root (but not necessarily the same morphological base) include native, nature, and nativity, but also noble (‘high-born’), ignoble (there’s that <n> /<gn> alternation again), nascent, nee, pregnant (‘pre-born’), gentle (see noble), renaissance (a ‘rebirth’), genus, generation, all Latinate. From the same Indo-European etymology, we have the Greek gene and the Germanic kin. The <gn> is etymologically cognate with <g>-vowel-<n> in some words, with just <n> in others, and with <k>-vowel-<n> as in <kin>. All of these words were checked in the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. Latin agere ‘to act, move, to drive’ give us Modern English cogent, and agent, and their cousin (or cognate) act and its many derivatives (activity, actual, reactionary . . .).  The related Latin frequentive agitare gave us agitate and possible cogitate as well.

3. Latin (g)noscere/(g)notum/(g)nitum ‘to know’ gives us Modern English cognizant, recognize, cognition, cognitive, and the etymologically related Latinate words narrate, ignore, note, notion and notice. But like #1, this root is old, old, old, and has lots of historical relatives. Cognates from Germanic include know, acknowledge, cunning, can (‘to know how’), could, uncouth, uncanny, and ken (‘range of knowledge‘). Greek relatives include agnostic, prognosis, diagnose and gnomic, ‘dealing in maxims.’ Again, we have surface forms with <gn> and <n> and , but also with /k/-vowel-/n/ and the digraph <kn>, all from the same Proto-Indo-European etymological roots. These historical relationships were verified by the Oxford English Dictionary, etymonline.com, and a linguist friend who knows both Greek and Latin.

This etymological family gives us the tiny-but-powerful Modern English bound base <gn>, which yields a significant body of words of both Greek and Latinate origins.

Now, I acknowledge that no one can know everything about a subject, and everyone makes mistakes. Even popular and highly-regarded structured language curricula make errors in regard to this rich etymological family (#3). The SLANT System gives *<cogn> as a Greek base (it’s not: it’s two Latinate morphemes) and Patterns for Success offers both *<cogn> and *<gnosi> as Greek bases. Of course, offering the letters <gnosi> as a morpheme (1) excludes words like diagnose, agnostic and prognosticate, and (2) actually present a clip that appears only in diagnosis, prognosis and the less common agnosia and gnosis.

Such errors could be quite confusing to learners, especially those who struggle inordinately with reading and spelling. I would suggest the following analysis instead, as it’s more parsimonious and accounts for the greatest number of cases (see Pete Bowers and Melvyn Ramsden on ‘elegance‘ in the writing system):

<dia> + <gn> + <ose> + <is>           and

<pro> + <gn> + <ost> + <ic> + <ate>

Certainly educators and authors do not intend to be in error; they are just ignorant (‘unknowing’) of the structure that underlies the surface appearance of these words, and they are agnostic about the tools to investigate it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an agnostic as “One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable.”  Surface patterns are the ‘material phenomena’ of the written language, but relying on them without investigation leaves the deeper, meaningful structure of words in the realm of the unknown and perceived wrongly to be unknowable.

Somehow, in her intent to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” our edublogger managed to conflate three large but distinct word families into one gnarled, misleading and unchecked assertion. Perhaps her educational lens is out of focus.

Or perhaps she just confused thinking with knowing.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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Frequently, when I show fellow educators what I’ve learned about the written word, they balk.  The linguistic evidence I provide sometimes goes against tradition and conventional wisdom in language education.  Instead of offering counter-evidence, however, I find that more often, they offer citations.  They cite other people, like authors, researchers, or even linguists, or published materials, like references, dictionaries, curricula, and websites.  To be sure, that’s often how academic writing works, and much angst and effort goes in to teaching and learning how to cite “correctly.”

But is a citation really the same as evidence? What do those words really mean? Let’s investigate.

My starting place, for convenience, is always my Mac references application.  This time, I’m starting in the thesaurus.  Here’s what I find:

citation

noun

1 a citation from an eighteenth-century text quotation, quote, extract, excerpt, passage, line; reference, allusion.

2 a citation for gallantry commendation, mention, honorable mention.

3 Law: a traffic citation summons, ticket, subpoena, writ, court order.

Okay, all of these are pretty familiar connotations for the word, and they’re in keeping with the common use of citation in academic writing.  From the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learn that citation, and of course cite, derive from a Latin root meaning ‘to cause to move, arouse, summon, urge, call.’  That makes sense: when we cite we call on another author, summon another’s research, and cause the reader to move to another work if they want to understand the original methodology.

If we consider words that share the morpheme <cite> with citation, a stronger sense of the word begins to emerge: excite, incite, recite, resuscitate . . . all involve stirring something up, summoning, calling, even reviving something nearly dead.

If we go back further historically from Latin, we find that citation shares an Indo-European etymology with the Germanic words hest and behest, both of which denote urging or commanding, and with the Greek terms cinema and kinesthetic, both denoting movement.

A citation, then, summons up someone else’s text, moves the reader to someone else’s woven ideas, someone else’s evidence.  But a citation itself offers no real proof, no independent confirmation of the validity of the cited source.

On the other hand, evidence boasts some pretty impressive semantic partners.  Let’s check back with the Mac thesaurus:

evidence

noun

1 they found evidence of his plotting proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, attestation.

2 the court accepted her evidence testimony, statement, attestation, declaration, avowal, submission, claim, contention, allegation; Law deposition, representation, affidavit.

3 evidence of a struggle signs, indications, pointers, marks, traces, suggestions, hints; manifestation.

Wow!  Proof.  Verification. Confirmation.   Okay, so evidence can mean just a hint or a suggestion, but if it does, it implies that there’s a trace, a vestige, a trail to follow.   Do these connotations hold up under closer morphological and etymological investigation?

Yep.  Using the Word Searcher, I determine that the base element in the word evidence is <vide>, which also surfaces, along with its twin, <vise>, in the words, provide, provision, vision, advise, and supervision.  This twin base hails from the Latin videre, ‘to see.’ The word evidence is built from the prefix <e->, meaning ‘out’ or ‘out of’ and <vide>, ‘to see.’  So evidence is something we can see out completely.

Beyond the morphological family of evidence, we can link the word etymologically to the following list: witness, guide, wit, wisdom, survey, view, clairvoyant, idea and even envy. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn that these words come from an Indo-European root meaning  ‘to know, to see.’  When something is visible, obvious, or apparent, we say that it’s evident, not that it’s cited.

Let’s consider, as an example, the base of words such as credit, incredible, credulous, credential, and credence.  Several published sources, including the NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins, list <cred> as the base of these words, from the Latin credere, ‘to believe.’  But let’s consider the following linguistic evidence:

In English, when a base has 1 vowel and ends with 1 consonant, we double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix, as in the following example:

<rob> + <er> → <robber>

When we add a vowel suffix to a base ending with a final, non-syllabic (‘silent’) <e>, we drop the <e>, as we see in

<love> + <ing> → <loving>

Understanding these basic rules, then, let’s consider the base of credit, incredible, credence, etc.  If we credit NTC and other resources as credible sources, we would be stuck with such ungainly derivations as

<cred> + <ence> → *<creddence>

and

<in> + <cred> + <ible> → *<increddible>

If we consider the linguistic evidence, we would have to recognize that the actual structure of such words is, in fact, as follows:

<crede> + <ence> → <credence>

<in> + <crede> + <ible> → <incredible>

<crede> + <ent> + <i> + <al> → <credential>

It may be hard to believe, since the base <crede> does not surface in English anymore.  Its Old English form has long been respelled as <creed>, and all of its modern derivations have vowel suffixes, replacing that final <e> and giving the surface appearance of <cred> as a base.

But wait, what difference does it really make?  You say tomayto, I say tomahto, right?  Can’t we just cite the sources that claim that <cred> is correct?  Not if we’re concerned with ensuring that our writing system that is at work in robber and loving holds up through the whole of English.

In the professional development I’ve offered teachers for the past 15 years, I’ve cited experts plenty.  When something didn’t make sense to a student or a teacher, or to me, the only response I had was to cite the person or the resource that had said it was thus and so.  Now, however, if something about written language isn’t immediately clear to me, I’ve learned to investigate it: the evidence is right there, waiting to be discovered!  I’ve stopped taking resources at face value, and started interrogating them instead.

A good bit of my doctoral research now involves tracking down the original source of ‘linguistic’ information as cited in reading and spelling curricula and teaching materials.  Where was it cited from? What was the methodology of the original source? How did the original source gather its evidence?  Too often, it seems, folks are willing to parade published information as fact, just because it’s published. But the NTC dictionary‘s only methodology for ascertaining a base in a word is to boldface the letters that the words have in common.  But that’s not a real methodology; it’s just a surface observation.

So what’ll it be?  Moving the reader to another text, or proving how language works? Do we insist on seeing for ourselves or are we content with believing what others have written?  Are we too comfortable merely citing resources rather than interrogating them?  How do we know if what a source says about language is credible?

In math and science, we don’t cite sources as proof that 2+2=4, or that baking soda and vinegar react.  We demonstrate, we show, we provide visible evidence. Likewise, teaching language from an examination of linguistic evidence trumps whatever street ‘cred’ a famous person or published source — even the OED itself — might have.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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