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  • Skye Shirley

Actūs II: Vocabula Ignota

Updated: May 12, 2018

For Act II, I decided to focus on vocabulary rather than grammar, plot, or characters. How does vocabulary inform our pre-reading, reading, and reflection on a text? First, I like to start with a "word cloud." By going to this site, you can paste a text to generate an image with the top vocabulary words, with the most frequent words written larger than the others. You can pick colors, shapes, and even doctor up your word lists (taking out "et," for example) as needed. Another approach is to create a word cloud prediction, in which you anticipate the results of the process before actually applying them in the document. Below is my word cloud for Act II.

I chose a question mark because it communicates the utter confusion present in Act II, as the real Amphitryo and real Sosia encounter Alcmena, who is convinced she has just seen both of them (but has in fact seen Jupiter and Mercury, disguised). There are a lot of questions in this act, and the frequent interrogatives feature prominently in this word cloud.


You can use a word cloud to:

-Pinpoint vocabulary words that you will need to know to understand the text. According to the theory of comprehensible input, 90% or more of the words in a text need to be understood to adequately comprehend the unknown ones.

-Lead discussions about key themes, based on words used most frequently

-Observe differences in vocabulary between genres (for example, tibi and mihi would be used more frequently in dialogues, letters, or plays, whereas the third person is likely more common in historical writing)

-Facilitate "Think-Pair-Share" reflections within students

-Do a "Think-Aloud" like the one I will do... right now!


Pre-Reading Vocabulary: My Think-Aloud with a Word Cloud


When I see this word cloud, I notice how often the word Quid (What?) shows up. It's because characters are constantly asking each other to clarify or explain these odd circumstances. Ego also makes a surprising appearance. Latin teachers regularly emphasize that subject pronouns are not as necessary as in English, because of verb endings, yet here, in a text in which characters are insisting "I am who I say I am!" the word for "I" is used again and again. Another one that jumped out at me is pateram (in the upper part of the question mark). This refers to the golden bowl which Amphitryo brought home as war booty, and which provides tangible proof that "Amphitryo" (who is really Jupiter) has already been home.


Reading Method: Vocabulary Notes

As I read this week, I wrote down the words that were new to me, just in the order I read them in. I've had my students do the activity I'll explain for years, but it was actually the first time I tried it! After having a handful of words written down, I selected five from my list to look up and write sentences with. You can do sentence writing during or after reading, but I prefer to do it after, and then re-read the text, since many vocabulary words actually become clearer once you have seen them in context many times, therefore it's possible that by the end of the reading, I know words I didn't at the beginning.


How did I select those five words from my longer list? Well, I aimed for ones that I really didn't know-- for example, I eliminated morigerus because it happened to show up in a text I taught this weekend (Dialogus Abbatis et Eruditiae by Erasmus) at the Living Latin in NYC Conference, so by the time I sat down to write the sentences, I had learned the word. I also try not to use words that are easy to illustrate, since my visual learning style means I usually absorb it more quickly just by doodling it (hence, sistula was off the list).

For vocabulary acquisition, it's very important to maximize any dictionary search by starting (and remaining, if possible) within the target language. I start with Hans Ørberg's definitions, because he wrote his glosses in-line with the text and sometimes included pictures.


Latin-to-Latin Dictionaries:

I also always have bookmarked (and open tabbed on my browser, during the school day) two cimelia, or gems, of online Latin dictionaries: Wagner and Forcellini. I love these guys! Who knew that such complete Latin-Latin dictionaries and thesauri were available online for free? Wagner often includes words in other languages like French, German, and Italian-- it's any polyglot's heaven.


After having looked up Latin definitions through these sites, and browsed some of their sample sentences, I sometimes also hop over to Packhard Humanities Institute's Latin Word Search, where I can access dozens, sometimes hundreds, of sample sentences using the word.


Being my own discipula: Sentence Composition

Now the process of using the word accurately is significantly more within reach, and I can make my own sentence from the word.


To be honest, I understand now why my students regularly use the new word in the nominative case-- not out of laziness, but because it's only natural for our brains to think "hmm, now what would this noun do" versus "whom is this noun with," etc. I also have to admit that the sentence writing part is a lot less fun than hanging out with my boys Orberg, Wagner, and Forcellini-- but perhaps that's because I need to write longer sentences about topics I'm actually invested in? At any rate, it was a great exercise to turn on myself because not only do I feel like I learned these words, but I now am closer to the experiences of my students.


If there's any take-away from this post, it's that if you want to get the most mileage out of vocabulary acquisition, try to work it into pre-reading, reading, and post-reading. We don't just learn vocabulary so that reading is easier: we need to consider its role at every step of the process. I hope that a few weeks from now, I'll still be cycling back through these vocabula ignota and learning them on deeper levels.


What do you do to learn vocabulary in a different language? What do you think of these strategies? Try one out and let me know how it goes!

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