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:
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.
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