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Vocabulary Words: Our Greek, Latin Roots

Jordan Catapano


The Global Language Monitor declared on June 10, 2009, at 10:22 a.m. (GMT) that the English language had surpassed 1 million words.

How they pinpoint this seminal threshold with to-the-minute accuracy is beyond me; but they continue to note that the English language – like the universe itself – is rapidly expanding. Each day approximately 14.7 words are added to the language. That’s one new word every 98 minutes.

This makes the English language the largest language the world has ever known. An adult can use about 12,000 to 20,000 words; an educated adult around 25,000 to 40,000 (and somehow Shakespeare managed nearly 100,000 words). So what makes our language so robust, and why is it that educated adults have access to nearly twice as many words?

One of the secrets -- and there are many secrets, but here’s one of them -- one of the secrets comes from mastering the building blocks of the language itself. And some of those building blocks are Greek and Latin root words.

English is not a descendent of Greek or Latin. In fact, lots of silly grammar rules (like “don’t split the infinitive”) come from trying to synthesize English with anything other than its Germanic origins. However, thanks to William the Conqueror, bunches of pedantic Renaissance Brits, and scores of other linguistic oddities, the English language is in a serious dating relationship with Greek and Latin.

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For hundreds of years, traditional educations consisted of scholars learning Greek and Latin. Just look at Thomas Jefferson’s letters to his nephew, urging him to read Plato, Virgil and the like in their original tongues. This depth of linguistic mastery is incredibly unnecessary for today’s budding generation. However, because many building blocks of educated English words stem from Greek and Latin, it is important that knowledge of these building blocks is established.

Sometimes our focus as educators can be on teaching entire vocabulary words to students. Unfortunately, the likelihood of students finding these vocabulary words in the real world, identifying them, recalling their definition, and applying that definition to the word’s context are slim. Often the traditional vocabulary words that students learn get thrown out the window right after the test.

Greek and Latin roots, on the other hand, are like keys to unlocking many unfamiliar English words. For example, a student could learn the Latin root loqu which means “speak.” Then, when the student encounters any word with loqu in it (like soliloquy, somniloquy, loquacious, eloquent, locution, and so on), they can easily identify that each word has something to do with speaking. Instead of trying to learn and memorize vocabulary word by word, they are given the keys to unlocking many difficult words.

Learning root words is also advantageous because they are not difficult at all. When introduced to a root, students can easily identify words they already know with that root in it. For example, students might know that “sol” – which means “alone” – is in the word solo. But this also allows them to build a bridge to other related words, like solitude, solitary and solace. The concept is not complex, but makes a remarkable difference in the way students approach and understand words for a long time to come.

So as you’re planning out vocabulary words for this year, consider how you can make the learning of roots a regular component of your students’ vocabulary and word attack skill instruction. The learning is easy, the results impressive, and the effects are long-lasting!

Have you taught root words to your students? How did you go about instructing them and what results did you have? Share in the comments below!

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