Unpossible Words

The Romans were never able to conquer Germany, but they certainly stole English from the Germans. Originally a first cousin of German, English has acquired so many words from other languages, mainly Latin, that they now outnumber the Germanic roots four to one.

The resulting language is is a strange, hybrid monster.

Since English isn’t picky about how it creates new words, we’re always adding vocabulary. When students complain about how many words Latin has, I remind them that by some counts, English has over a million words. The Oxford Latin Dictionary has only about 40,000.

Prefixes are one way we add words in English, and many of these are stuck to Latin words. Because English draws both from Latin and German there are many redundancies: in– (along with its clones ir-, im-, and il-) and un– mean the same thing. Both turn a word into its opposite: necessary, unnecessary; sincere, insincere.

What’s sort of strange is that there are tacit rules about which prefix is used. We don’t have inhappy or unpossible. Who decides these things? In– is usually preferred with Latin roots, but necessary, a Latin word, has unnecessary as its opposite.

Further confusing things is the other prefix in- that means ‘into’: influence, induction, influx.

When we see a word like inflammable, how do we know whether it means ‘not flammable’ or ‘able to burst into flames’? It means the latter, but most trucks carrying combustible material use flammable, just so there’s no confusion.

And then there’s anti-, contra– (counter-), non-, dis– and a-, all used in much the same way: matter / antimatter, clockwise / counter-clockwise, advantage / disadvantage, sense / nonsense, symmetrical / asymmetrical.

When my students complain that Latin doesn’t make sense, these are the examples I pull out and ramble about for twenty minutes or so. By then, they’re all saying, “Can we just get back to Latin?” Mission accomplished.


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Happy Easter

The two biggests dates on the calendar of the Christian Church – Easter and Christmas – have their origins in pagan festivals.

It shouldn’t upset Christians to hear this; all it means is that Christianity won. There are still pagans around, but Christians own a lot more real estate.

This is something the early Christians learned from the Romans: when you’re conquering people, it works best if you change their culture. Make your own culture indispensible, and people will pay taxes without complaining. The Romans built things – roads, bridges, amphitheaters, baths. People who didn’t have these things started to want them. Before they knew it, they were speaking Latin.

The Romans didn’t like Christians when they first started popping up. Part of the Roman plan for world domination was to let everybody keep their own religions. They built temples to their own gods – impressive-looking buildings that sent a message: our gods are bigger than yours. People paid attention. It didn’t hurt to offer sacrifices to a few extra gods. In the ancient view, the gods’ realm is vast. More

Corpus Humanum

After a few weeks of Latin, my students feel comfortable enough with me to ask what they really want to know: “Can you teach us some bad words?”

If a student makes it to chapter twenty-one in our book, he will be rewarded with the word stercus, which means ‘dung’ or ‘manure.’ By then he already knows to call other kids fatue (‘stupid’) or asine (‘ass’).

But way back in October, I put my skeleton with the moveable joints on the board and we learn the parts of the body and the major bones.

After dutifully copying down bracchium, ‘arm,’ and pes, ‘foot,’ their thoughts turn to more interesting parts. Caput (‘head’) and clunes (‘buttocks’) could yield clunes-caput, in a student’s mind, but even they know that Romans had better profanity than that.

When I was a student of Latin, I had a Cassell’s Latin dictionary. Like all fourteen-year-olds, I looked up every bad word I could think of. Very disappointing. It was as if Mr. Cassell were looking over the tops of his glasses at me, saying, “Shame! Did you think I would put those words in my dictionary?” More

Shake the Box

New ideas are the Holy Grail of fantasy novelists. Be the first one to write the story of a time-traveling vampire who falls in love with a hobbit living under a moon rock and you might just make publishing history.

Already been done? Write it in dactylic hexameter. Why not? They turn poems into musicals, musicals into comic books, comic books into movies these days, and probably movies into poems (though I couldn’t find and examples of that sub-sub-genre.) As far as I know, nobody’s claimed dactylic hexameter in a very long time.

When I sit down to write something I hardly ever have a unique idea. My only alternative is to toss my few once-bright ideas around and see what falls out. Those of us who write fantasy know there are so many cliches in our genre that it’s hard not to bump into a few of them when writing.

Bumping into a cliche isn’t all bad. It allows me to think the same thought that every other writer has thought; “Cliche? Aha! Let’s turn in on its head, then! They won’t expect the elves and the dwarves to be friends!”

Actually, I stole that idea (see #22). “Well, they won’t expect the vampires to be the good guys!” Or: “They won’t expect the dragons to capture human babies so they can raise them to fight other humans!” I could reverse cliches all day. More

Teaching Stories

Teaching is never boring. It may be stressful as well, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go for stress. Without stress we’d all be dead, right? — or at least really bored.

When I tell people that I teach Latin in a high school, they usually question my sanity. Why would anyone want to spend all day with teenagers? And try to make them learn Latin?

First of all, teenagers are some of my favorite people. They have many of the same concerns as adults, just less experience. They are people in transition, and change interests me.

And teaching is a job I will never completely master. I will never arrived at the point where I can say, “Now I can laminate my lesson plans.” There’s always something new to think about, so it never gets boring.

But kids get bored, and no matter how much fun I’m having with participles or subordinate clauses, nobody listens if I don’t make it interesting. Their eyes glaze over. Finding ways to keep them wide-eyed is my quest. More

Edaxicon Makes Bid to Acquire Dutch

Nobody’s been using Latin much — at least not for a couple hundred years — so the British have taken possession of it.

Americans could never own Latin. For one thing, the Romans never even visited New York. And the Brits had already beaten them to it. By the time America was breaking free of England, Latin was already a wholly-owned subsidiary of English. This is ironic, because if the Romans had kept their empire intact a bit longer, English would have been an obscure Germanic dialect.

The Brits own Latin. They write all the textbooks. The definitive texts of Roman authors are the Oxford editions. In movies, Romans almost always speak with a British accent. Even Russell Crowe, who is Australian, followed this rule.

If America wants to take over any language, it should be Dutch. After all, New York used to be called Nieuw Amsterdam. It was the capital of Nieuw Nederland, which took up a good part of what is now New England. There are all sorts of Dutch names on maps of New York: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Coney Island, the Bowery, Yonkers. Like the Romans, the Dutch once ruled a mighty empire. And they make great chocolate, something the Romans never mastered, since they never got around to conquering Mexico. More

More Rules to Ignore

Grammar is important. Dax would never advocate ignoring rules, but even he notices all sorts of new writing laws popping up. Is there a committee that votes on these? How can he get elected to this committee?

gears_Elsie_esqEven now, the cogs of this impressive grammar/style machine are turning. The Committee on Grammar and Style (COGS) is most likely scrutinizing this post and pointing out its errors to one another. They are enjoying themselves, he knows. He would too.

But (never begin a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’) he also knows that there is a difference between grammar and style. Maybe not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless (fragment). Grammatical errors are heard in everyday speech (passive voice), and can be used (more passive voice) to create a narrative voice or to make dialog realistic. Nobody says, “Go back from whence you came!” Characters need to should talk the way normal people talk. (Hmm. ‘need to’ vs. ‘should.’ There ought to be a rule about that.) More

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