Going Back to the Classics
To See How Words Work

Iconoclast Uses Ancient Roots

by Lawrie Mifflin
printed New York Times March 18, 1992 page B7
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Ted Nellen is an iconoclast when it comes to Latin and Greek. That's "iconoclast" from the Greek "eikon" a figure of our image, and "kalein," to break. As Webster's New World Dictionary defines it, "one who attacks and seeks to destroy widely accepted ideas, beliefs, etc."

Any of Mr. Nellen's ninth grade students at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in lower Manhattan could have figured that out.

Mr. Nellen seeks to destroy some widely held beliefs about Latin and Greek: that they are unimportant languages, one dead, the other minor; that they are irrelevant to today's students; that they are difficult to teach, and that they are tedious to learn.

But he is not a teacher of Latin and Greek. Mr. Nellen is an English teacher. And he does not teach exactly Latin or Greek to his students either; what he does is show them the Latin and Greek roots found in so many English words.

Keeping a Sense of Fun

To Mr. Nellen, learning these ancient roots to modern words is fun, like doing a crossword puzzle or playing a game. And he conveys this sense to his students, who are ordinary New Yorkers of varying academic aptitudes.

"It makes a puzzle but a solvable one," Mr. Nellen said his method which teaches students 300 latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes by the end of a semester. "They learn not to be afraid of the big words, because they can break them up into related parts. And even if they don't always get it right they have fun figuring it out."

Mr Nellen's system works like this: Each week for 15 weeks, the students are given a list of 20 "words." Actually they are word parts from Latin or Greek. He calls them VETY lists, an acronym he invented for Vocabulary Etymology.

The students write words on index cards and are responsible for learning them by searching the dictionary for English word that begin or end with part. Then on the same index card, they write some of the English words they have found with that word part. There is a quiz every week.

A word part on the list for Week 9 from example, is "lith." A student might find the word "lithograph" in the dictionary and discover that it comes from "lith," meaning "stone" and "graph," meaning " to write or to draw."

Or remembering the word "mono" from the first week, a week in which numerical roots are taught, the student might put it together with "lith" and get "monolith," from the Greek "mono," for one or single, and "lith," stone.

Reading the dictionary definitions for monolith, the student will find a range from the first meaning-"something made of a single large piece of stone"-to the third meaning, "something like a monolith in size, unity of structure or purpose, unyielding quality."

"In class, we can then talk about examples of monoliths, or talk about what makes something monolithic," Mr. Nellen said.

Sometimes students are stumped by the many definitions, or the varying meanings of certain prefixes or suffixes. But the exploration alone helps them learn about vocabulary, said the 42-year-old Mr. Nellen, who began teaching in 1974 in a private school where Latin was required. He has been at Murry Bergtraum since 1983.

"All of a sudden vocabulary isn't a frightening thing," he said of his method, adding that many people use word roots in teaching vocabulary. "One of the beauties is, they aren't just memorizing; they are learning how language works, and also how to look things up."

Another benefit is that his students learn to recognize different categories of words, he said.

"About 60 to 70 percent of English words have Latin or Greek roots," he said. "Some others have specific name derivations, such as mythological names, which means they have to learn something about mythology. Some words are onomatopoeic, and about 5 percent are what I call weird words."

The common Latin roots in Spanish and French are intriguing to the Hispanic or Caribbean students who know those languages, he said. "They can see the commonality, except in the Asian languages, but this really helps the Asian students learn English. I think they profit the most from it."