Monday, December 28, 2009

The Troubles with –ibles (and –ables)

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


I’ve dedicated this month to the deep knowledge of language that comes from the study of the humanities. But in my previous entries, I’ve defined the humanities almost exclusively as the study of literature. The humanities, however, encompass both literature and languages. It’s easy to see the practical application of a foreign language for travel, or for dealing with tourists in the United States. But how does the study of a foreign language, like Italian, help in the knowledge of English?

Those of us who teach second languages know that they help a great deal in understanding English. The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has a national standard based on five “c’s”: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The fourth “c,” comparisons, is about learning about one’s first language by reference to the second.

All of this is pretty abstract, so let me use one simple example—spelling. Spelling is the bane of every learner of English, whether it’s your first or second language. The reason is simple: English spelling isn’t phonological, but etymological. That means that it doesn’t reflect present-day pronunciation, but the history of the word. Right, write, and rite all sound the same now, but are spelled differently because in the past they were entirely different. The fact is, the spelling of many words simply needs to be memorized.

As kids, we all faced two lists of words to be memorized, -ibles and –ables. As in edible and eatable; responsible and answerable. The differences between the two lists were imponderable. We suffered considerable anguish and spent unreasonable amounts of time, but our results were often risible. English is incredible! Sometimes the pronunciation helped, as in possible and probable. Much of the time it didn’t. If only there were a rule…

Actually, there is an easy rule as to when it’s –ible or –able. In Latin, verbs came in three forms, with endings that were either –are, -ere or –ire. The rule is this: if the word’s derived from a Latin –are verb it’s –able; if –ere or –ire it’s –ible. And any verbs of non-Latin origin get treated as if –are, hence doable, drinkable and readable.

Ok, few English-speakers know Latin etymologies. Is there any other way to learn the rule?

In its evolution from Latin, almost no Italian verbs changed category. So –are verbs in Latin are almost always –are in Italian (likewise with –ere and –ire). Hence, in Italian we have adjectives that are either –abile or –ibile. Those adjectives are almost identical to their English equivalents (i.e., possibile, probabile). The difference is, in Italian, -abile and –ibile are pronounced differently from each other, so spelling them is rather easy. The shortcut is this: if it’s –abile in Italian then it’s –able in English, -ibile in Italian then –ible in English.

But if you’ve never learned Latin or Italian, well then you’re just plain out of luck. Start memorizing!

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