Words and Reason: Getting Back to our Roots

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Because a lot of freelancers work in educational publishing, I thought I’d offer a little help with something that is increasingly demanded by publishers—because it’s demanded by state and national standards. I’m offering this because I worked for years as an in-house editor at a major publisher, and I saw over and over again that this is an issue.

It has been my experience that few freelance writers understand how to teach Greek and Latin roots as a skill to aid students in comprehension and language acquisition. I’ve already mentioned, in a previous column, the most frequent (almost universal, in fact) error I saw: teaching that export and import mean coming out of or going into a port. Even in situations where we’d had meetings with development houses where I stated explicitly, “Do NOT send me a lesson that teaches that export and import are things moving out of or into a port,” I’d still, often as early as a week later, get the dreaded lesson. (Of course, if you were following my earlier suggestion to look everything up, you probably wouldn’t be turning this in.)

That is an example of a lesson that understands the concept but gets the information wrong. The other problem I’d see is a complete lack of understanding of the concept. I received many lessons that ran along the lines of, “The word “volunteer” comes from the Latin voluntarius, which means, “voluntary.” Umm, yeah. But what have you just taught?

The point of teaching Greek and Latin roots is to help students understand English, not to teach Greek and Latin.

So what is the concept? Taking the export/import example, a lesson might go something like this: The Latin portare means “to carry.” We can see this root in export and import, which mean to carry out and carry in. It is also in transport, which is to carry across—if you transport something, you’re carrying it across some distance. A porter is someone who carries things. The word portable also shares this root. Using what you know about the suffix “able” and the root “portare,” what do you think portable means?

You might, if there is space (though there rarely is) add a note that student should not confuse this with the port in seaport or airport. That comes from the Latin portus, which means entrance, passage, or harbor.

Always remember that you have to have more than one word derived from a root. If, as in the “voluntaris” example above, there is only one word in English related to the root, you have not given students a useful tool for understanding new words—and that’s the objective—handing out tools.

Here are some examples of roots with multiple derivatives—though there are many others.

From Latin, manus means “hand.” From that, we get manufacture, manual labor, manuscript, and manicure.

The Latin scriptus, the past participle of scribere, which means “to write,” gives us script, scribe, scripture, scribble, describe, manuscript (written by hand), and conscript (write together).

Factura, also Latin, means “a working,” so manufacture is working by hand or something made by hand, an artifact is something that has been made, and a factory is where work is done.

From Greek, we have graphein, which means “to write.” Derived from this is autograph (writing yourself), telegraph (far writing), graphite (the black stuff in pencils that lets you write), biography (writing about life), geography (writing about the earth), phonograph (writing with sound), photograph (writing with light), and so on.

Tele comes from the Greek. It means “far off,” “at a distance,” or “to a distance.” Over the years, this word part has been used to describe a wide range of things that were done “at or to a distance”—seeing (television or telescope), sound (telephone), and writing (telegraph/telegram). Do NOT, however (as I saw recently), include telecommuting or telemarketing if teaching this (unless you include them as a “does not apply” item), as these words are recent constructs that are combining “telephone” and a following word. Telecommuting is not commuting far, but using the phone to “commute.”

There are many more possibilities, but these should give you an idea what is being looked for in these exercises.

The Internet is rife with resources that show Latin and Greek roots, but even faithful old Webster’s Dictionary shows roots for words, and some dictionaries list word families. So there are resources for those who weren’t language arts majors.

In addition to offering kids effective tools for understanding language, knowing how to teach word roots is an effective tool for making editors at publishers and development houses love you.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.