Yesterday was one of those days when the orthographic sun was shining brightly. I was bathed in the light, and that light warmed me from the inside out.
It all started when a teacher on our fifth grade team said she was talking about suffrage with her class, and one of the students wondered out loud if the word suffrage was related to suffer in any way since they had so many letters in common.
(Yes! Trying to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for relationships to known words.)
A bit later, another teacher who works with one of my students asked me to follow her to her room. She had something to show me. The student had read a story about someone who was a philanthropist, and when the teacher drew attention to that unfamiliar word, the student began writing a word sum. The teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to the word sum and called me in. Here is what the student wrote: <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>.
(Yes! My students are aware that words are made up of morphemes, and they carry clues about their language of origin.)
Later that same day, a student ran across the word aquatic while doing some science research. She wondered aloud if the <quat> in <aquatic> was the same <quat> we see in <quaternary> (we’ve been studying primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary consumers in a food web). She also wondered about the <a>, and if it was the same <a> that we saw in <asexual> when we discussed living things reproducing.
(Yes! Words are made up of morphemes and those morphemes are categorized as bases and affixes. Some bases and affixes show up in a large number of words. Research is the only way to know for sure whether two words share a base or an affix.)
So today when class began, I shared my joy with my students. I wanted them to know that what pleased me more than anything was the fact that they were wondering and asking questions. They were looking for connections and recognizing previously used affixes and bases.
I wrote <suffrage> on the board. Below it I wrote <suffer>. Then someone called out <suffix>, so I wrote that down also. Because we had talked about <suffer> and <suffix> earlier this year, it was remembered that <suf-> (sub-) was the prefix in each of these words. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was a prefix in <suffrage>. We needed to do some research. I pulled up Etymonline on the Smartboard and we looked it up together.
We found that it was from the Latin suffragari “lend support, vote for someone”. The next bit was quite interesting. [Conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” and fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval), related to frangere “to break”. On another theory the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot”. The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.]
The words “conjectured to be” and “on another theory” brought interesting discussion in and of themselves. Both possibilities broaden the sense of the word. For now we are satisfied that the <suf-> in <suffrage> might be a prefix just as it is in <suffix> and <suffer> … and then again it might not be.
The conversation we had about <philanthropist> took us meandering through several words. I wrote the student’s word sum for it: <phil> + <an> + <thr> + <o> + <pist>. I said, ” Looks like this student is considering whether or not this word has an <o> connecting vowel. What language would we associate with an <o> connecting vowel?” Several students piped up with “Greek”. Then I asked if there were any other clues in this word that it was in fact from Greek. After a thoughtful pause several said <ph> at once. Beautiful. At this point I asked everyone to consider the word sum and whether or not they agreed that there was an <o> connecting vowel.
Right away someone pointed out that <ist> is a common suffix found in words like <scientist>, <artist> and <therapist>. So if the <ist> was indeed a suffix, then the <p> would not be by itself – that perhaps <throp> all go together. At this point we went back to Etymonline. We found evidence that <ist> was a suffix and that this word came from the Greek philanthropia “kindliness, humanity, benevolence, love to mankind” from phil- “loving” + anthropos “mankind”. I shared with my students that when in college I had taken a course in anthropology.
With this information we created a new hypothesis: <phil> + <anthrop> + <ist>. We talked about what philanthropists do. I reminded them that a few years back our school was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generosity when someone purchased Smartboards for each of our classrooms!
But as we were finishing up that discussion, I wondered out loud if there were other words with <phil> as the base. Immediately the word <philosophy> was mentioned. We looked it up. We found that it comes from the Greek philosophia “love of knowledge, pursuit of wisdom”. How delightful!
Lastly we looked at <aquatic>. When we looked at Etymonline, we could not find any evidence to support <a> being a prefix or <quat> having to do with fourth. We only saw references to <aqua> meaning water. Some students may have been able to guess that without having to look, but I want to develop the habit of looking. There have been far too many unexpected connections (delightful surprises) when we have.
I leave you with a student/teacher exchange that happened later that day (inspired by our discussions):
“I’m thinking of the word <dinosaur> and thinking that if the <o> is a connecting vowel, then the word is probably from Greek. What do you think?”
“I’m thinking that you know how to find out.” (said with a smile)
“Yup.” (said with an even bigger smile)