As my students and I were reading about the characteristics of living things, we came across the word <unicellular>. I said aloud, “Calling a one-celled organism unicellular makes perfect sense to me. Does anyone else feel that way?” In response I could feel a pinging of recognition going on around the room.
“Yes. I’m thinking of the word unicycle. It has one wheel.”
“And what about unicorn? It has one horn.”
“And then there’s the universe!”
“What about unit? Is it related?” (We put that one on the ‘Wonder Wall’ for later investigation)
“What about united?” (Added it to the ‘Wonder Wall’)
Then I asked two people to come to the board and write possible word sums for <unicellular>. What a wonderfully thought provoking activity that was! Here are a few of the word sums from throughout the day:
<un> + <i> + <cell> + <ul> + <ar>
<uni> + <ce> + <llu> + <lar>
<uni> + <cell> + <ular>
<uni> + <cell> + <u> <lar>
There was talk about the meaning of unicellular. If the word was basically about the cell, it made sense to look at <cell> as a possible free base in this word.
Students also wanted to talk about the possibility of the prefix (at this point and without further analysis, the consensus among the students was that we were looking at a prefix) being either <uni> or <un> plus the connecting vowel <i>. One boy had an interesting comment. “If the <i> is a connecting vowel, and the prefix is just <un>, ….. isn’t there already a <un> prefix that means not?”
First of all, I was thrilled that this boy was bringing what he felt was a secure understanding of the prefix <un> to the discussion. Secondly, this observation raised some questions about when connecting vowels are used. Thirdly, what a perfect opportunity to talk about changing the way we reference prefixes and their denotations, and thereby broadening our word sense . The boy was confident that <un> was a prefix that meant not. And why wouldn’t he be? Throughout our years of schooling, we have been taught that each word or prefix has a definition. And in order to aid in memorization of that definition, it has been trimmed down to one word when possible. But in doing so, we have given ourselves a very narrow (and sometimes quite incorrect) sense of these morphemes.
My current endeavor to learn about the etymology of words has made that clear. It is as if we have been looking through a dirty smudgy window that had only a fist sized clean spot. With practice at this type of research we understand more and more of what we are seeing. The clean spot on the window is getting larger and larger. We visualize and understand more and more about each word’s sense and meaning. There is true fascination when we recognize one word’s ties and kinship to so many others.
To illustrate what I am talking about, think of the prefix <un>. Most students can tell you that it means ‘not’. But does it? Always? In a word like <unhappy>, the prefix <un> does indeed indicate that something or someone is not happy. But what about the word <unbutton>? To not button something is different than to reverse the process of buttoning something. See what I mean? Now look at the prefix <re>. Most students think of it as an indication that something has or is happening ‘again’. In the word <rewrite>, that is the case. But what about the word <remarkable>? Here the <re> prefix is intensifying or adding emphasis to the base.
By simply changing the way we refer to morphemes (and so much more, really), we will help leave the students open to the possibility of these differences. So instead of saying, “<re> means again,” I say, “<re> CAN indicate something is happening again.” Or,” One of the things <re> indicates is the sense of something happening again.”
Getting back to the word <unicellular> and our classroom discussion…..
We were ready to investigate the word to find out if:
-<un(e)> was a base and <i> was a connecting vowel
-<uni> was a prefix
-the suffix(es) is/are <ular> or <ul(e)>+>ar>
At Etymonline we found that <un(e)> is from the Latin unus meaning one. So this is a compound word with <une> and <cell> as bases, joined by the connecting vowel <i>. We also found that <-ular> can be further analyzed as <-ule>(indicating small or little)+<-ar>(meaning pertaining to). Therefore, the evidence we’ve found at Etymonline supports the following analysis of this word: <une/> + <i> + <cell> + <ule/> + <ar>.
When we searched the Latin unus, we came up with these words that relate to the sense of one, oneness, sameness, uniqueness: unite, unity, unique, commune, universe, triune,
unanimous, inch, unilateral, ounce, union, and even the phrase “E pluribus unum”, which the students recognized as something they have seen on a quarter. It has been the motto of the United States since 1782 (the end of the American Revolutionary War). Looking a bit closer at what Doug Harper (Etymonline author) had to say about it, the <E> gives a sense of ‘out’ for it is a clip of the prefix <ex>, <pluribus> gives a sense of ‘many’, and <unum> is that sense of ‘one’. So, ‘out of many – one’. Out of many states we become one country.
But I have to say that when doing this kind of scholarship in class, it is quite the opposite. It is usually ‘out of one word – many”.