Forms & meanings

Addressees: Learners and teachers

Unmasking words…

All words of a plurilingual series have a common core meaning. One such encounters e.g. between fr. travail/emploi/job/boulot... – it. lavoro/fatica/impiego… – en. job/work/employment… – pt. labor/trabalho/emprego… – sp. labor/trabajo/obra/curro/faenca…, en. paine/fr. peine/it. pena… for example, in the intersection of meanings about ‘trouble – work – punishment – pain – opportunity to make money, dullness/fatigue’. Knowing a core meaning already allows a rough understanding, but requires further concretization. With the knowledge of only three closely adjacent words esfuerzo, peine, labor you already understand ten (see above). Between the different semantic cues you can create mnemonics: “Work (labor, travail… ) makes trouble (peine), requires effort (effort, esfuerzo), possibly brings even pain (peine, dolore … ), makes you tire (fatiga), can even be a punishment (pena, castigo, punizione).” Only the co-texts (i.e. the textual environment of a word) and contexts (the situation in which a word is encountered or used) bring clarity about what exactly is meant. What will you have to do to identify the core meaning?

  1. Put the meaning frame (search frame) of the word wide, it should capture all meaning features.
  2. Analyze the word’s form or surface by de- and recomposing it (prefixes, radicals, conjugated forms, suffixes). Do you know words of other languages which look the same.
  3. Pay attention to the target word’s textual environment (co-text) and the situational context.
  4. Check whether the concrete meaning of the word you suppose fits into the overall message of the text (content-related plausibility check). Does your first attempt already seem plausible? Possibly use tools, e.g. dictionaries, for verification. A further specification may be required.
  5. Find out the properties of the word of interest (word type, genus, conjugation type, transitivity/intransivity, parent/subordinate term, multilingual word family and description [effort, s’efforcer de f.qc., fort/force]). Question about the equivalents in other languages (does en. *to effort exist? No, English prefers to make an effort, to put some effort into…). Create monolingual and multilingual word networks to consolidate your insights.
  6. Speaking of content: Differentiate according to possible meanings and concretize the core meaning by finding out what the neighboring meanings have in common. Below, the parent feature is ‘bad’; its subordinate associations: effort > work > hurts/is unpleasant > punishment (disagreable, effort, gives pain, punishment. ..; sp. malo > duele/dolor > pena. Does the word appear in idioms (vale la ~…, fr. ça vaut la peine)? Expand your knowledge of the target language and the bridge language.
  7. Check your result by carrying out another plausibility check or by using reliable help(s) (dictionaries, concordances, grammars, a target language competent person).
  8. Insert the findings into your hypothesis grammar. This includes the assumptions you develop about the new word/structure. The hypothesis grammar, as already said, needs to be reviewed at the end. The language hypotheses can refer both to a single target language and to the correspondences between languages. Example: fr. charité and it. carità, pt. caridade, sp. caridad show the rule “fr. ch-+ vowel in the initial position corresponds to it./pt./sp. /k/ or c- if a dark vowel (like a,o,u) follows”. You will find the hypothesis confirmed in fr. chien, it. cane, pt. cão, sp. can (next to perro). Of course, there are exceptions, a calamity, une calamité, calamità, calamidade, calamidad.

Happy unmasking of words’ forms and meanings!