The Study of Photosynthesis — It’s All Greek to Us!

Another fabulous week of orthographic discoveries!  On my last orthography post I reported that most of the students were thinking that <photo> is the prefix in the word <photosynthesis>.  Then our friend Old Grouch left a comment that gave us much to think about, and led to wonderful discoveries!  The specific comment that he began with was, “I know that spellings which have the digraph ‘ph’ to represent /f/ are signalling a near certain Greek connection.”  Right away the students named other words in which the digraph<ph> represented /f/:  photosynthesis, phloem, cell phone, photograph, photographer, and elephant.  So now we know that these and others like them may well have a Greek connection.

Another signal for a Greek connection that I was aware of was the digraph <ch> and how it sometimes represents /k/.  The students began to name words like chorus, choir, synchronize (this was still on the board since we were discussing the prefix <syn> earlier), and chemical.

That’s when I threw out the thought, ” Isn’t it interesting that many of the words we’ve been using in our study of photosynthesis are tied to Greek?”
Bing!  Light bulbs were going off in heads all over the room!  Words were thrown out like photosynthesis, chloroplast, chlorophyll, and phloem.

From these rich discussions we went back to Old Grouch’s next comment, “Add to that the fact that the connecting vowel letter ‘-o-‘ is also a strong signal of Greek origin, and I was beginning to get the feeling that ‘photo’ is not only complex (that means it contains more than one element), but also that one of its elements could well actually be a base.”  Hmmmm.  What would that mean if the word had two bases?

As Allison, a student in my class last year once said, “It’s fun to discover new compound words.  Everybody knows that  starfish and rainbows are compound words.  But not everybody knows that emancipation (or in this case photosynthesis) is a compound word.”

So Old Grouch, approaching this idea with a scientific mindset, searched for words that had the <phot> morpheme but were not followed by an <o>.  He found one!  He found the word <photic>!  He even found the word used to describe a sneeze.  He found that a photic sneeze is when someone sneezes because of a bright light.  So here is the evidence that the <o> in <photo> is a connecting vowel and not part of the base which is <phote>.  If you are wondering why there is an <e> on this base, please read the comment on this post.  Old Grouch has enlightened us again.  Such interesting things to ponder!

At this point we went back to our word sum and rewrote it to say, <phote>+<o>+<syn>+<thesis> –> <photosynthesis>.    My final question?  How does knowing what these morphemes mean help us have a better understanding of <photosynthesis>?  After a brief moment of thinking, one of the students offered this, ” Well, the water and carbon dioxide are being put <thesis> together <syn>, and that can’t happen without light energy <photo>.  How’s that for brilliant?  Even if we had done nothing else today, because of these 45 minutes, our day was well spent!

So what did they head into the weekend with?  The desire to discover the true meaning of <hypothesis> and how its base is related in meaning to <photosynthesis>.

3 thoughts on “The Study of Photosynthesis — It’s All Greek to Us!

  1. I’ve been away from this blog for too long! So much great stuff. Learning that what is typically referred to as a “combining form” is very often just a bound base with a connecting vowel letter is such an important step in being able to get to the deepest structures of words that account for more cases.

    A rich story of this kind of investigation occurred in Skot Caldwell’s class years ago when they were looking at the words “automatic,” “automobile,” and “automatic.” I suspected that we might be missing some related words if that “auto” was actually a complex word. That was enough of a prompt to investigate the word “autism”. You can see that account at this link:

    I also highly recommend visiting the Real Spelling Morphology Gallery (at this link and studying the tutorial films on combining forms and connecting vowel letters. These will bring much clarity to these concepts.

    Finally, I just did a Zoom lesson with a school in San Francisco that wanted to investigate the word “geography”. Having worked on this one before, I decided to set up an inquiry studying the words “geography” “geographic” and “geode”.

    I bet your crew will find this an interesting challenge given all the learning you have already done. Be careful in considering the orthographic status of the “o” in these words. They may not always be what you think!

    Perhaps we could Zoom early next week to discuss this investigation?

  2. Hey Mrs. Steven. I made a Fact chart on Praying Mantises, and I came across a fact that could help out with Orthography on the word mantis. The word mantis comes from the Greek word prophet. I hope sometime we can investigate the words mantis and praying.

    Keep on blogging Mrs. Steven,

    -Farmboy 920

  3. Tracking down the bound base element ‘phot’ → “light” shows what an enlightened group of scholars you are! You also gave me something further to think about; “Shouldn’t that base actually be written as ‘phote’?” said I to myself.

    If the word sum for ‘photosynthesis’ were actually ‘phote/ + o + syn + thesis’, then it would certainly resolve properly since connecting vowel letters, like vowel suffixes, replace a previous single final non-syllabic ‘e’.

    But… Even if I do write the base as ‘phot’ in the word sum, the ’t’ would not be forced to double (as it would have to if it was followed by a vowel suffix) because – this time, unlike suffixes – connecting vowel letters do not usually force a previous consonant letter to double.

    No convincing evidence for ‘phote’ yet, so I launch into a word search. Bingo! I find ‘isophote’ (1909) → “a line in a diagram connecting points where the intensity of light is the same” (compare ‘isotherm’ and ‘isobar’).

    While I was searching I came across ‘photon’ and had made a note of it for later. Since I now had evidence from ‘isophote’ that the base’s spelling should be ‘phote’, I looked again at ‘photon’ to see if that would confirm it. And yes, the word sum ‘phote/ + on’ does works – AS LONG AS I can prove that’-on’ is a suffix!

    So off I go a-searching again, and here are some other Greek-origin words that I found.

    neuron micron proton electron

    So yes; the word sum ‘phote/ + on’ does resolve properly. But there’s still more; I can now prove that the spelling of the base can not be ‘phot’! Look what happens if we try to construct ‘photon’ from just ‘phot’.

    phot + on → *photton

    So thanks both for the pleasure of reading the account of your investigation, and also for having helped me to take my own understanding forward a as well.

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