Saturday, September 20, 2008

LiveScripts - Cognate Bilingual Dictionaries

Domenec Mendez
Foreign Language Teacher. EOI Terrassa College. Spain.
President. LiveScripts non-profit association
Abstract. This research in modern bilingual lexicography compares the 6000 most common English and Spanish words according to the degree of morpho-semantic similarity between one term in L1 and its most common translation in L2, and classifies this corpus into five groups: First group of True Cognates show obvious morphological and semantic similarity between both terms compared, like loaned words, scientific or technical inventions, etc... including Indo-European cognates; in second group of Partial Cognates, one term and its translation can have or not a similar morphology but they do not share their main moneme; third group is made of False Friends; fourth group consists of non-cognate close set members because of their high frequency of use; and finally, fifth group comprises all Dissimilar Pairs of terms in L1 and translations in L2.
The resulting statistics (which should be very similar to those of comparing English with French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc...) confirm the viability of a Cognate Bilingual Dictionary series among all Western languages, that is, about twenty volumes half way between a reference and an activity book which remark true and partial cognates as well as false friends but also cognate syntactic structures. This new tool in applied linguistics blends cultural differences and fosters multilingual skills. It abides by the most important principles of the Common European Framework of Reference for Language Learning and it should have a tremendous marketing potential if properly tackled.

This is a typological research on semantics which occasionally relies on the comparative method to classify some dubious morphemes as cognates. Or, in other words, a synchronic approach to moderns semantics with an implied diachronic perspective and with the strictest objective of being implemented in applied linguistics and bilingual lexicography.
Key words: Cognate Bilingual Dictionaries Grammar Activities
Sir William Jones' fascinating findings in the XVIII century, although widely accepted, have been scarcely implemented in applied linguistics. However, first, “There is little question that lexical similarities in two languages can greatly influence comprehension and production in a second language. Cognates can provide not only semantic but also morphological and syntactic information, and while some of the information can be misleading, some can facilitate acquisition.” (Terenci Odlin 1989: 83) And second, the etymological background behind these lexical similarities could significantly blur cultural differences, unblock psycholinguistics processes associated with the acquisition of a new code and really contribute to a unified European -and global- identity.
Moreover, after quite a few years of teaching modern languages, it is obvious that even good students are, on one hand, unable to use basic cognate vocabulary and, on the other hand, they make mistakes of false friends and partial cognates which do not fit in with the several years of studying and being exposed to the foreign language. For sure, we teachers have prevented them, remarking similarities and differences of meaning and collocation, but this task should be reinforced by a reference book.
Now, if this British officer was able to relate the Sanskrit in India, with Latin and Greek in Europe, that is, 5000 years and miles apart one from the others, what is left of that primitive Indo-European common source in our daily speech? Besides, considering the frequent loan of expressions among cultures throughout history, considering the sharing of scientific information and the spread of technical advances, considering the proximity of communities of speakers of different languages, the improvements and increase of communications, international trade and tourism, what would be the result of comparing the most common 6000 words of English with their corresponding translation, in Spanish for instance, although both languages belong to different linguistic branches? Which criteria would be adequate to establish such comparison between both lexis in an objective way to compare other pairs of languages?

On these regards, language and Identity attempts to:
1. Setting up a criteria to compare the lexicon of two languages based on the morphological and semantic similarity between one term from one language and the most common translation/s for that term in another language but considering use-frequency rates as well;
2. Applying such criteria to compare the vocabulary of two languages (the 6000 most common word or entries) in order to quantify the results.
3. Identifying and quantifying the amount of true and partial cognates between both languages (columns named Group 1 and Group 2 on the following charts), so that they can be furthermore classified into semantic fields for a more appropriate use in FLT.
This research could also be used as the basis for other investigations searching for cognate Noun Phrases, and Verb patterns or structures with a similar word collocation;

4. Quantifying the amount of false friends (column named Group 3 on the following charts) not to prevent students against their wrong use, because there are already specialized wordbooks of this kind, but in order to make a call to the common sense of publishers as to integrate this list of false cognates with another much more numerous list of true and partial cognates;

5. Quantifying especially those completely dissimilar pairs of terms between L1 and L2 (column named Group 5 on the following charts) because it was precisely this percentage (indicated on the next column) the one needed to determine the viability of a new tool in Applied Linguistics which I started to conceive, a series of Cognate Bilingual Dictionaries among main Western languages whose main features and contents will be explained later;

6. And finally, commenting on the expectations and consequences that these new resources in foreign language teaching could have in students as well as the marketing impact of this implementation.

Criteria of Classification
1. True Cognates show obvious morphological and semantic similarity between both terms in L1 and L2, like loaned words, scientific or technical inventions, etc... including Indo-European cognates,
ie. corral, patio, telephone, window, hill, horse, house, etc...
2. Partial Cogates. Both terms in L1 and L2 can have or not a similar morphology but do not share their main moneme. ie. Crystal, embarrased, professor, college, etc...
3. False Friends, ie, actual, assist, attend, etc...
4. Non-Cognate Close Set Members, ie. The, as, while, etc...
5. Dissimilar Pairs of terms in L1 and translations in L2.

Results of English-Spanish Morpho-Semantic comparison:
2830 610 515 153 1772 5880
(see chart 1 for complete recounts per initial)
Results of Spanish-English Morpho-Semantic comparison:

3045 589 604 92 1685 6015
(see chart 2 for complete recounts per initial)


First of all, we should indicate that in spite of the corpus’ oral language preference, the sample can not compensate for the fact that real communication, whether written or spoken, follows other patterns of production and word selection, which are totally unrelated to the trends of semantic similarity described on these charts. Furthermore, if rigorous criteria of spoken intelligibility or phonetics had been considered, dissimilarities would have increased dramatically, even in the first category of identically spelled bound morphemes. For instance, the pronunciation of literature and comfortable have almost nothing in common with the pronunciation of those terms in another language, although their spelling hardly changes.

Therefore, it is extremely important to point out that the value of these reckonings are entirely restricted to the confirmation of our premises and objectives regarding their use in applied linguistics, particularly bilingual lexicography, which mainly uses written resources to classify and display their findings, and on this account, the sample should be perfectly representative of other dictionaries with an equal coverage as well as the vocabularies of some other languages. For example, it seems obvious that still higher rates of cognate terms will be found if, unlike this study, the languages compared belong to the same Indo-European branch like Spanish/French, English/Dutch or English/German. (Ethnologue 1988: 343; Hood R. 1965: 37; The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language 1980: 447)

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