Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cross-Linguistic Transfer (poll)

In his post two weeks ago, P. David Pearson spoke of working actively with words in multiple contexts, with the habitat slide from Seeds and Roots.  David suggested adding a morphological setting. A morphological connection to habitat would include inhabit and inhabitants, the Spanish word hábitat, and perhaps habitual and habit. This relates to my earlier blog on making connections within and across words.

   (click image to enlarge)
We can also make connections across languages, using pantry as an example. The votes are in and most people (64%) selected bread as the original core meaning, not cooking pans. Yes, true, but a pan-try could contain a cooking pan, so that's also a cool way to remember it. This thought process is much like the mnemonic keyword method for learning new words (Pressley, Levin, & Delaney, 1982). Note, a pantry is not typically found in small homes, so familiarity may be somewhat dependent on SES.

Let's look across languages. About 60% of English is based in Latin, even though English is a Germanic language. The word bread is Germanic in origin, spelled brot in Germany today. Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian are Romance languages, based in Latin, the lingo used by the Romans (hence Romance). It's a small world, rich with word relationships. In Spanish, pan means 'bread'. French is pain. Likewise, the Italian word is pane and a sandwich is a panini. You won't be surprised to learn that pantry flows from Latin panis, meaning 'bread.' Check it out for yourself at Etymonline, given in the useful links for morphology and etymology, in the page footer. The Sp. word for bread box is panera, but the Sp. word for pantry is quite different---despensa. That opens the door to a discussion of the academic word dispense, yes?

When words share a common root, having a similar meaning and spelling across languages, they are called cognates. When we infer word meaning by thinking of a similar word we know in a different language, cross-linguistic transfer is at work. Cognates and near-cognates must be made explicit until students adopt this type of thinking. These lookalikes are easier to see in print than to hear in passing speech. 

Resources on this topic are available at the Center for Applied Linguistics. Additional applicable hyperlinks are listed at the bottom of this website.


  1. Indispensable information. But is there such a thing as false morphological cognates? I would like to dispense with any bad habits before they cause pandemonium.

  2. Hi. Thank you. Clever, using habit, dispense, and indispensable at once--a nice model assignment for everyone ; ).

    Yes, there are false cognates, sometimes called false friends. For example, Spanish embarazada means pregnant, not embarrassed. Also, in Sp. una decepción means 'disappointment', not deception. Because of the greater value in promoting word query and interest, I agree with the stance taken by Snow and Kim (2007) who suggest that rather than dismissing false cognates, we discuss the similarities as well as the differences, paying attention to issues of polysemy and semantic relations (or lack thereof). So, a deception IS disappointing, and to be pregnant COULD cause embarrassment in days gone by, when polite society were not to speak of it.

    PS--I love pandemonium--such a cool backstory--should be the title of a horror film. But here pan has nothing to do with bread (as you hint). This is Greek prefix pan-, meaning all, as in pandemic, panorama, or panacea.

    Also, in many cases, a purely morphemic approach will not work--one must pay attention to context (is that also where you are going?). Next blog, we'll talk about morphemic analysis in context--much more reliable.


Comments are published after they are reviewed, to ensure they are not SPAM.