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We all know what new means,
but what about nov-?

The importance of word elements

Language Interference
Maltese - an unusual formula

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Capital letters and
punctuation in English

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We all know what new means, but what about nov-?
by Michael Vaughan-Rees

• A neglected area of language study
• What are 'elements'?
Why learn the meaning of elements?
Why not learn the words instead?
Why aren't we teaching elements already?
Further reading

A neglected area of language study

Thousands of books have been written about the meaning and/or structure of English words. But, whether their aim is primarily to describe the language or to help teachers, they have tended to concentrate on these two types of units:

1 Words in the popular sense, i.e. free morphemes such as law, read, new, saint, shape.

2 Affixes which can be placed at the beginning or end of words (prefixes and suffixes) to form new, longer words, e.g. lawful, unlawful, reader, readable, readability, renew, newish, saintly, sainthood, shapely, misshapen and so on.

There is, however, a third type of unit, one which is almost completely neglected. By this I mean elements such as:

<leg> as in legal, legalize, legality, legislate, legislature
<leg/lec> as in legible, legend, legendary, lectern, lecture
<nov> as in novel, novelty, renovate, innovate, novice
<sacr/secr/sanc> as in sacred, sanctity, consecrate, desecrate, sanctify
<morph> as in morphology, amorphous, anthropomorphism


What are 'elements'?

'Elements', in the sense used here, derive from Greek and Latin words (the latter often via French) which, over the centuries, have become part of the English language. Even to native speakers of English such elements are usually meaningless. Most will know that an autobiography, for example is 'a book about your life that you write yourself', but only a highly educated minority is likely to know that the word contains the following three elements, all of Greek origin:
<auto> meaning 'self' as in automobile, autograph, automatic, autonomous etc.
<bio> meaning 'life' as in biology, symbiosis, biography, biosphere etc.
<graph> meaning 'write' as in telegraph, graphology, monograph etc.


Why learn the meaning of elements?

One reason for making learners aware of the meaning of elements is that we can help them to see links between words and elements inherited from different languages. Here are a few examples:

Germanic Greek Latin
book, bookish bibliography, bibliophile library, librarian
old, elderly geriatric, gerontology senior
word, wordy dialogue, lexical loquacious, eloquent, elocution
god, ungodly atheism, theology deify
one, once monocle, monotone soliloquy, solitary, uniform, unite
five, fifth pentagon, pentameter quintet
water, watery hydraulic, hydroelectric aquatic, aquarium

In addition we can also see the links between elements which have entered English more than once. Why, for example, are the words bishop and episcopal (= relating to a bishop) so different?

The Latin word episcopus (itself deriving from Greek) entered most European languages with the early spread of Christianity. In time it became vescovo in Italian, obispo in Spanish, évêque in French, Bischof in German, and bishop in English. But when, in the late 15th century, the English started writing about religious questions in English (instead of Latin) they went back to Latin to form the adjective episcopal.

The older the borrowing, the more chance a word has to change. And it is this which explains why cognate words (i.e. words deriving from the same original word) can look quite different, as in for example:
new, news, renew, novelty, renovate, innovate, novice, supernova
legal, legislate, illegal, legitimate, law, lawyer, lawful, lawless, illicit

Of course, if a learner is only aiming to use everyday English, then there is little need to become aware of much formal vocabulary, which is where elements are normally found. You don't need to say myopic when you can use short-sighted; and shapeless is a simple, accessible alternative to amorphous.

However, if a learner wants to understand technical and scientific English, then the exposure to elements will rapidly increase. In the following table (based on a survey reported in Corson, 1985), the percentages refer to the incidence of words of Latin or Greek origin found in random passages of 100 consecutive words.

source or topic %
Linguistic philosophy 40
Social science methodology 34
Physics 31
Mathematics 29
English literature 26
'highbrow' newspaper; editorial on economics 24
'highbrow' newspaper; sports story 21
'highbrow' newspaper; courtroom story 18
'middlebrow' newspaper; fuel crisis story 13
'lowbrow' newspaper; editorial on economics 12
'middlebrow' newspaper; sports story 11
'lowbrow' newspaper; sports story 9
children's fiction; 10-11 years 4
children's fiction; 7-8 years 3
children's fiction; 5-6 years 0

So it's all right not to know any English words of Latin or Greek origin, provided you don't intend to read anything more complicated than 'Jane lives in a big white house.'


Why not learn the words instead?

But why bother with learning the elements? You can learn autobiography without knowing the meaning of the three elements within the word. Fair enough. But my contention is that a knowledge of the most common elements will help the learner to predict the meaning of new words.

Take that word predict. You can make a pretty good guess as to its meaning if you know that <pre> means 'before' (as in pre-war, preliminary, prehistoric, predetermine etc.) and that <dict> has to do with 'speech' (as in dictate, dictionary, edict and so on). In fact you can even predict the existence of words you have never met. Let's take two of the words we've already met in this piece: atheism and amorphous. Assuming we know that they mean 'the belief that there is no god' and 'shapeless' we can infer that the <a> element means something like 'lack of' or 'negativity'. Now if you were to know that the element <poly> means 'many' then it's not much of a leap into the unknown to work out that 'having many shapes' should be polymorphous and that 'a person who believes that there are many gods' would be a polytheist.

If students of English were to be made aware of the meaning of a few hundred elements then, I believe, this would be the key to immediate access to the many thousands of words of Latin or Greek origin in English.


Why aren't we teaching elements already?

My feeling is that it is the fault of teachers like myself who started off by teaching English to speakers of other European languages. In a number of these – Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish – the word stock is mainly Latin, with its many borrowings from Greek. This means that even rare words such as amorphous or myopic would cause no problems: amorphe and myope in French; amorfo and myope in Italian; amorfo and miope in Spanish. And even in non-Romance languages such as Danish, Dutch, German, Polish and Russian there are a large number of Latin/Greek loan words. So we didn't really consider that our formal words – with their formal elements – would cause any problems. After all, to many of our students these words weren't formal at all; they were the ordinary, everyday words.

But how about the majority of the world's population, whose languages contain few if any such words: the speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Turkish, Urdu and so on? I think they deserve a break.


Further reading

The Lexical Bar, D. Corson (Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1985)

For a selection of Latin and Greek word roots, prefixes and suffixes, see this website:

If you'd like to read more about the common processes of word formation in English, visit the August 2003 issue of MED Magazine.