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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Roots (2)

I didn't know it at the time, but there was one subject we did at primary school that was one of the greatest shaping forces in my life.

It was called "Derivation". Now I think about it, I doubt if any child in the class who learned Derivation was very clear on the precise meaning of the term, though it is obvious enough to any adult with some language skills.

This subject was taught in every state government classroom in the upper grades of primary school. I'm sure no kid was especially enthusiastic about it, because it involved a bit of rote learning done on a regular basis as homework, and I've yet to see the child who is keen on homework.

We had a slim textbook for each grade, called Grade [whichever] Derivation. That little book went home with us and back to school daily.

It contained Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots – Latin and Greek.

Prefixes and suffixes don't need any explanation, I'm sure. A prefix goes before a word to change its meaning, and a suffix comes after. "Pre" means before, so if your phone is prepaid, you pay the charges before you get the service. Add a suffix like "-ock" (meaning "small") to the end of a word like "hill", and we get a hillock – a little hill.

These are often things we come to know just by using them, although we had to learn many others as well by rote and commit them to memory. That was very useful. Here I want to focus on roots.

We were required to learn five new Latin or Greek roots for homework each Monday and Tuesday, were tested on them the next day, and we revised them on Thursday nights for a Friday test. Thus we learned ten new roots a week and by the time we'd finished Grade 8, the last grade at primary school, we had a good stock of them in our heads.

But what use were they?

Studying roots is like the poor man's version of studying Latin and Greek. We didn't know it at the time, but they were vital tools of understanding language and meaning, and therefore of the world around us. They allowed us to meet up with an entirely new word and have a fair chance of deriving its meaning.

If you never learned any at school, then the best way to understand what value they had was to give you some examples. Take "submarine" for example. We learnt that the prefix sub meant under, and the Latin root mare (maris) = sea.

In the unlikely event that we had never met up with a submarine in a picture book, we would have known from derivation that it meant under the sea. Submarine life was underwater sea life. A mariner was a seaman. (If you pick me up on gendered language here I'll have to kill you.)

You don't have to learn five years of Latin and Greek roots to be aware of that derivation, but knowing roots gave us the chance at precision in language that is easy to miss otherwise. Take the word civilisation. We learned that civis meant a city, so it had a different meaning to culture. This affects the perception of the meaning of civilised, when we say that someone was civil to us. Not rude, or rustic, but urbane, related to but different from urban. Sophisticated. We learnt that sophis was the root for knowledge, so we extracted from it the idea of a person who was sophisticated. Philosophy. Philos means loving, so philosopher means a lover of knowledge. No more and no less.

We could work this stuff out without needing Wikipedia or a dictionary!

This gave us vital tools of learning for every subject at high school, and for later in life. In physics, we learned about reflection and refraction. No-one needed to tell us the difference. The prefix re meant back or again, flecto [flexus] meant I bend. Frango [fractus]: I break. So reflection meant turning something back [in this case, light] as a mirror does, and refraction meant breaking light up into its colour spectrum.

In geometry, we got hit with the terms diameter and circumference. Our Derivation told us that dia means through, and meter = a measure. Diameter meant to measure something like a circle straight across or through it. Circum means around, so for a circle, circumference meant going round its edge, not through the centre. Circumnavigate: if we put together circum = around and navis = I steer, no-one needed to tell us hick kids from a tiny country school what that big word meant.

It meant that we could have a go at any unknown word or term. Terra incognita. Terra = the earth, in = not, and cog.... = aware – so that term meant an unknown land. Terra nullius. Null = nothing, we learned, so that was a place where no-one lived [or was supposed to be living!] How useful is that for studying Law? A host of other Latin and Greek roots provide clues to legal terminology.

As I said, we could have a good stab at any old word. Defenestration. De = down, or away. I mightn't have known the other bit, but from studying French, I did know that fenĂȘtre meant window. The suffix ation means the act of – so, defenestration: the act of [throwing something or someone] down from a window.

There you go. Getting rural now [ruris = the country]; take the tractor. Traho [tractus] = I draw or pull, we learned, on pain of staying in at school and writing it out twenty times. Then we get 'intractable'. In = not; tractus = pull + able. Something or someone you can't get to change.

I met up with the word amanuensis for the first time at Queensland University when I was tutoring, when the Head of Department said, "We're going to need an amanuensis for that student in the exams." "A what?" I thought, but remembered the student was disabled. Manus came back to me from Grade 5 Latin roots. Manus = the hand. The student was going to need someone to write for them. They'd need to dictate their exam paper to the amanuensis. Dicto = I say or write. Dictate. Got it?

"I'll arrange it," I said to the Head of Dept, not batting an eyelid. Thank God for the roots!

Dictate. Dictator. Someone who decides [the laws]. Tyrant. From tyro = I rule. Subtle difference there. A tyrant is not necessarily a dictator. Handy for politics study. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Rex = king. Our Jurassic T-Rex is the king over all the reptilian rulers. Jurassic? Jura = a forest. Such linguistic tools are invaluable for natural history too.

There's no end to the usefulness of roots. None at all. Even for spelling. If you know mille = one thousand and annis = a year, then you'll get the right number of Ls and Ns in millennium. You won't spell Happy Anniversary wrongly on the card.

Just last night I was reading this article by [believe it or not] Dennis Wright, on brand-new brain tumour research:
Monitoring the progress and approval process for a completely new chemical entity (NCE) invented by applied molecular biologist, Dennis Wright. A new class of alpha amino acids is reproducing and extending prior antineoplastic indications.
See that word antineoplastic?

What exactly does it mean? It looks daunting till you put in some hyphens. anti-neo-plastic. All I had to do to know its meaning was to go back to my primary school derivation. Anti = against. Neo = new. Plast.... = I flow. Against new flow.

In context, it obviously meant something to counter the development of new growth in brain tumours, given their plasticity.

If kids were taught the 3 Rs, and a healthy dose of Derivation from as early a grade as possible, they would get to appreciate the subtleties of language and the value of knowing precision in meaning. This can be made interesting and lively by a good teacher. It doesn't have to be tedious and dull.

My poor Mum, standing there in her yard galoshes in the dairy, with the muck up over her ankles, hearing me my Latin and Greek roots before I went off to school, gave me a programmed power over language and comprehension of meaning that I could never have imagined, and each kid in that tiny school and every other all over the country had access to that same power.

That's part of the reason why older people can write decent English. They also learned Analysis and Parsing, and Grammar, as we did. I know the difference it makes, because I've assessed thousands of university essays from people between the ages of 18 and 85. The old geezers get the form right every time, and often (because they have had many decades of experience) the substance as well.

I'm not smart, you see. I just know my roots.

P.S. The Latin endings up there may not be dead right as to structure. You see, at high school I had to make a choice between Latin and History, and I chose History. If I hadn't, I wouldn't be here right now. If I had chosen Latin, I haven't the foggiest where I'd be – a retired school headmaster, I suspect. Probably not a Latin master, because universities, like every other corporate entity whose business it is to make money, are turfing out their Classics scholars by the score. 

We don't need people who can write literature, you see – we need frackers.

roots (1) | roots (2) (final)


  1. Why exactly don't our kids learn this at school today? My cousin was Dame Marie Clay a wonderful educator & developer of the Reading Recovery intervention programme which I believe was used in Aust schools, certainly Qld up until a few years ago when it was superceded by the "new beaut programme" which I'm also lead to believe isn't a patch on RR. I understand progress but these basics have been, and in my opinion, remain a strong foundation on which to build. It is our children's loss.
    Thinking of printing your article out for Son16. Holiday reading
    Warmly Debbie Green

    1. Shucks, I nearly missed this one after an initial reading. Thanks, Debbie.

      In this household we have a huge debt to RR intervention. Take someone with an IQ over the moon but with strange initial problems deciphering bs and ds and apparently ridiculously easy reading tasks - now a person whose reading ability and comprehension skills are second to none.

      I shudder to think what this child could have lost without RR. Maybe he would have self-taught, as he does in most things. But without the basic tools, that self-learning would have been extremely difficult.

      We can only hope the replacement program is "beaut". But here we have taken on new programs that the originating country [usually the US] is discarding because they have failed in too many of their objectives. Sad.

  2. Hello Denis. I follow your 'What's New' daily and ache at the thought of constantly fighting to slow the slide downhill, which is quite different to the struggle involved in progressively improving. I am not much good at words of comfort, if such are possible, but your blog sparked some thoughts on education. Here beginneth a pointless ramble:

    I am always envious of scholarship and academic background and hesitate to comment on matters educational. I think, however, (having learned from you, not to start a sentence with the word ‘however’) that I am now qualified to express some thoughts on educational experience.

    Education is a strange thing. To many people it is the ability to learn, to pass exams, to get a job and then stop learning. I think anyone who looks back thoughtfully, sees education as providing a basic grounding in a wide range of subjects (not just productive, earning skills) and from there onwards, to continue learning exponentially. The broader the base of your education, at school and throughout life, the firmer is the platform on which you stand when decisions or opinions are called for.

    For the record, my formal schooling was rudimentary - English Grammar school, with basic Latin, French, heaps of history, geography and literature (failed maths in early school because my handwriting was untidy), occasional canings and being 'bashed' for bad behaviour. Just scraped by to age 15, when thankfully I left to earn $3 a week all-found.

    But that very elementary grounding in so many things, the classics - literature and poetry, history, music, glimpses of the wider world, our heritage, all these things stayed with me and developed as I grew older. What I had gained was a broad basic education, the ability to think for myself, a ‘need to know’ and the curiosity to continue learning all my life.

    In later life, as a newspaper editor I couldn't tell an intransitive verb from a hanging participle (still can't) but was regarded as a fount of wisdom among grammatically ignorant journalists - not because I understood the grammar, but because I had somehow learned to use the language. This was, in part, my early educational foundations, partly the books this education had encouraged me to read, partly the company I chose to keep.

    Similarly, apart from the Battle of Hastings, I can't remember the date of a single battle, but I do clearly remember the lessons of war.

    Just as ‘useless’ pure research today is not funded unless it can lead to ‘productive’ research and profits within three years, so the shift towards profit-driven education is destroying our language, visions, humanity, poetry, aspirations … ad infinitum.

    Eventually I completed four years of university education in five years external studies in my late 50s and early 60s. My final Masters was in a pointless, soft discipline, with no productive angle at all. My colleagues were nearly all feminists (only a few blokes) and their world views were quite alien to me. Yet it was one of the most valuable periods in my life – new ideas, challenges, frustrations – it was wonderful.

    Looking back today, if I could have my time over again, I would choose to follow a career like yours. Continuing to learn and teach in a field that, while not productively mainstream, is one that enriches people’s lives with knowledge and understanding. How I would have loved to have been an academic in history, archaeology, anthropology, palaeontology, English literature, philosophy.

    Well, there is still plenty of scope for the amateur, so I don’t despair.

    With love to you both.

    1. Will get back to this later, Bob. But I don't believe you don't know the date of the French Revolution! :)

    2. Bob - summarising.... and forgive its choppiness:

      I'm more lazy about 'however' these days, and have even been known to use the terrible word in a blog posting!

      I believe in the maxim "Education is what you have left when you have forgotten [or think you have!] everything you learned at school."

      To me the focus in education is to learn things that make you as 'rounded' a person as possible. You never know what is going to lead somewhere, as I'm sure Fleming discovered when he found that nasty penicillin mould all over his experiment. Breadth is good – as long as it's not spread too thinly.

      The foundation of spelling and grammar is to have the language spoken properly right from birth. If a parent says 'umberella' then the poor kid is likely to say and spell it that way. If they say, 'I rung him yesterday', then that will be a very hard habit for the child to break, and s/he may fail a job interview if it involves speaking properly. It may be the only thing the interviewee gets wrong, but for some selection committee or employer, that would do it.

      I used to tell my students that it's not the date that's critical – usually – it's the sequence of events.

      'Pure' research is vital. Einstein wouldn't have got a job in a university today, unless he could justify his thought experiments with concrete results, like a fat contract with a military designer/developer company.

      The word 'feminist', as in so many other cases, only has meaning when the person using it tells me what they understand it to be. For some it means male-hating harridans; for others it means a person of any sex who wants everyone to have the same chances without barriers being put in their way for no reason other than gender.

      I have been hugely privileged to have had the career I did. In many ways it was as near perfect [for me] as I might have asked for.

      You are who and what you are because of the life you have had. It may be that if you had had the career that is so appealing to you, it might have turned out less fulfilling than what you have now, and can look back on.

      The 'amateur' is often the best at what they do, because their motives tend to be different from those of the professional. I remember when we started making movies on contract. The whole ballgame changed, and not in a good way when it came to satisfaction in the task.

      Whoa. I want to do other things, but this is fine. If I were responding only because this blog was part of a paid job, I wouldn't enjoy it half so much, I'm sure.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments and good wishes. We go with what we have!

  3. Bring back 'derivation' - I wish I'd been taught all this. It was just Cuisenaire rods and expressing yourself for me (mind you, I went to a pretty odd school, to be honest).

    1. You were taught using Cuisinaire rods? They were forced on us just as I began teaching, so I had to learn them along with the kids.

      They are an excellent adjunct to understanding some principles of maths operations, but not to build an entire teaching programme on. Not in the way we had to teach it anyway. It was like 10th Grade algebra for 7 year-olds.

      Would that I were exaggerating. As to Derivation, yes; absolutely. But who will bell the cat?

      I'm sure it's not your fault you were sent to that reform school in London like one of my best friends was. ☺

  4. The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough-Tagore.

    1. It's all relative, isn't it? It reminds me of the very old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch on the Humble Mayfly....


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