Without getting deeply into the how and why of dreams, I’d like to share a classroom discussion that took place recently while I was asleep and in fact, dreaming. Over the years, there have been many instances in which I have fallen asleep rehearsing how I wanted to introduce a word family or some specific characteristic of a word family to my students. If I woke up in the night, I woke up to my brain having that discussion “live” with the students participating. In the morning, I would realize that our brave discoveries–the ones I couldn’t wait to talk about now that I was awake–weren’t possible. They weren’t actually words I could find–even as obsolete words in the OED. My brain totally made them up, using what I understood about structure and meaning. Well, I had another one of those dreams the other night.
I don’t recall why, but my students and I were looking at the word ‘companion.’ We defined it as a person you spend time with. The students shared their thoughts on whether or not a companion had to be a close friend, a sibling, or even a person at all. One student claimed her dog was her companion. Next, people named places they visited or activities they enjoyed with companions.
And then, as has happened so often in my classroom, a student asked a question that made me pause. “Is the word ‘companion’ implying only one other person? Is there a member of this word family that could imply several people were spending time together?
Of course, if I had been having this discussion while awake, we would have discussed simply making the word ‘companion’ plural. But this discussion was happening in a dream where the obvious often seems like the least logical. So we didn’t even consider making the word plural and instead looked for a related word that would imply more than one companion. When someone suggested the word ‘polypanion,’ I yipped with delight! Here was a perfectly useful word that I never heard of before! The morpheme <poly> was suggested because earlier in the year we had made slime, which prompted an investigation of the word ‘polymer’ meaning “many parts”.
After a moment of thought, I brought up the fact that the base <pane> (I assumed this was the base – we hadn’t looked it up yet) was from Latin (again, an assumption because of the Latinate <-ion> suffix). I suggested that if the base was Latinate, maybe we should see if there’s a Latinate element that would work in place of <poly> which is Greek. You see, in the course of our school year together we had discovered many compound words in which there were bases from two different languages. This hybrid word, ‘polypanion,’ is an example of just that. The word ‘speedometer’ is another great example. The first base, <speed> is Germanic and the second base <meter> is Greek. A word that similarly means to “measure speed” is ‘tachometer.’ Both <tach> and <meter> are Hellenic, so this is not a hybrid. As a speaker of English, we sometimes have a choice of whether to use a hybrid word or not!
Considering that information, a student suggested ‘multipanion’ as a word in which all elements were from Latin. (When we had investigated ‘polymer’, we had compared Greek <poly> “many” to Latin <mult> “many” and collected familiar words that included each. I remember that the words ‘multisyllabic’ and ‘polysyllabic’ were on our lists. These two words carry the same sense and meaning. It’s just that multisyllabic is a hybrid and polysyllabic is not–all of its elements are from Greek.)
Once we were satisfied that we could use either polypanion or multipanion, someone asked about a word to indicate having only one companion. (Remember that this is a dream and in this “dream discussion” we already considered that the word ‘companion’ implies one. But now, here we are in the same dream trying to be even more precise–looking for the opposite of our word ‘polypanion.’) if we can have a polypanion “group of many companions,” can we then have a monopanion “only one companion?” And if monopanion works, what about unipanion? (When my students had compared Greek <poly> to Latin <mult>, they had also compared Greek <mone> “only one” to Latin <une> “one”.)
This is where the dream ended. I woke up excited, with this discussion still clear in my head. I told myself not to forget any details of this dream, especially the related words we had discovered! But as I said aloud the words polypanion, multipanion, monopanion, and unipanion, I recognized that they probably wouldn’t be part of our English lexicon because they aren’t needed. The word ‘companion’ is good on its own. It refers to spending time with one other being. The word is easily pluralized, so there is no need for the forms my mind created. Still, they do make meaning and structural sense. I could see calling an extra special friend my “one and only,” my monopanion, couldn’t you?
While dreaming, I created four words by combining familiar morphemes in unfamiliar ways. If you work with children, you have probably experienced this same thing happening. Back when I was new to SWI, I found that if I was too quick to hand students a matrix and asking them to use it to write word sums, they created all sorts of words not found in our lexicon. On the one hand, it is good to talk about how new words are created and to have that discussion about “when is a word a word.” On the other hand, it made me realize that they needed practice with writing word sums and creating their own matrices first. They needed to understand, for themselves, what a matrix can show us.
Unfortunately, students are sometimes given tasks they are able to complete without really thinking through what they have been asked to do. Writing word sums based on a specific matrix should not be one of those tasks. Without a solid understanding of word structure and its relation to word meaning, they won’t always stop to ask themselves if the morphemes they have paired create a familiar word or not. They are also less likely to go the dictionary to check to see if they created a word that exists, but is, perhaps, unfamiliar to them. In my experience, there is a deeper level of engagement and learning happening when a student goes through the necessary steps to create their own matrix. Once students have had repeated experience investigating words and their families, they are better prepared to consider someone else’s matrix and will seek to make sense of it. It is at this point that doing what I did in my dream — combining familiar morphemes in unfamiliar ways — becomes a thoughtful and enjoyable activity. The new words are formed purposefully and fit our criteria for “what a word is” — the structure makes sense and its meaning is clear to others.
Back to ‘companion.’
Now that I was awake, my curiosity took me to the structure of the word ‘companion.’ In my dream I hypothesized that the structure was <com + pane + ion>. I wasn’t familiar with the base <pane> but assumed it had something to do with “spend time” or maybe “person.” I could think of words like companions and company that are probably sharing the same base because they share meaning. If I am in the company of someone, I might also refer to them as my companion. If I am expecting company, it might mean I am having friends or guests in my home.
I hope you will be as delighted with the sense and meaning of this word as I am! According to Etymonline, the prefix <com-> brings a sense of “with, together” and the base <pane> is derived from Latin panis “bread.” The Late Latin companionem literally meant “bread fellow, messmate.” In other words a companion is a person you might break bread with (share a meal). I love it. It makes so much sense. So often, when I am in the company of friends, we eat!
Other words that derive from Latin panis are
pannier – a basket for bread and other foods (once referring to two large baskets carried on either side of a donkey – currently refers to pouches on either side of a rear bicycle tire)
pantry – originally a storeroom for bread
empanada – Spanish turnover
panettone – sweet Italian bread
panini – Italian for “small bread rolls”
As always, an investigation into one word broadens my sense of of many! I wouldn’t have assumed there was a connection between the words ’empanada,’ ‘panettone,’ and ‘panini,’ but now I see it! They share that sense and meaning of “bread” and all, ultimately, derive from Latin panis. Their basis in Latin is why Italian and Spanish (but also French, Portuguese, Romanian, and several other languages) are known as the Romance Languages. In this case, the word ‘romance’ refers to the language spoken by the Romans. These structured word inquiries don’t just explain English spelling, they expose me to connections across languages. I love that!
By Tamorlan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14941288
By Codice1000 at Italian Wikipedia – Transferred from it.wikipedia to Commons. Transfer was stated to be made by User:Xaura., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3180469
By Breville USA – Soup and Sandwich 3of12 BGR820XL, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55047014
Not long ago in a Science of Reading Facebook group, someone posted a short video created by Reading Horizons in 2016 in which the idea of a ‘scribal o’ was featured. The video explained that when scribes encountered words in which a <u> was adjacent to <m>’s, <n>’s, <w>’s, <u>’s, <r>’s, or <v>’s, they changed that <u> to an <o> to make the word easier to read. You see, the script that scribes used had a lot of broad downstrokes, so sometimes it was difficult to distinguish one letter from the next when similarly formed letters were next to one another.
To clarify why the scribes might have thought to make this change, I am sharing a sample of the script known as Blackletter hand. It was used between the 12th and 17th centuries. It may take you a minute to get used to it and to recognize specific letters. Letters I had an easier time spotting were <g>, <a>, <e>, and <f>. With other letters it depended on what letter was adjacent to it. With some words it felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me. Was I looking at an <mi> letter string or an <nu> letter string?
Arpingstone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Let me illustrate with the following letter strings. In the first, it could be an ‘n-u-i-n’ or it could be an ‘m-u-n.’ In the second letter string, the <o> in the middle helps make the identity of the adjacent letters more obvious, doesn’t it?
So that is the gist of what is meant by ‘scribal o.’ The pronunciation of the vowel didn’t change, but in certain circumstances the spelling did — the <u> was changed to an <o>. Because of videos like the one I mentioned, the idea of a ‘scribal o’ is becoming more commonly accepted and understood. Classroom teachers, interventionists, tutors and others who work with children have been looking for a way to explain the spelling of words like love, some, done, mother, and Monday, to name just a few.
For teachers who start with pronunciation and then try to explain the spelling based on that pronunciation, words like these stick out like sore thumbs. We would expect the stressed vowel in these words to be a <u> because of how they are pronounced. But in these words that pronunciation is spelled with an <o>. Naturally, teachers want to know why. This idea of a ‘scribal o’ seems to be the answer people have been seeking. In the video by Reading Horizons, the ‘scribal o’ explained the <o> in month, brother, love, come, done, and wonderful.
However, when I saw that list of words, I began to wonder if the idea of a ‘scribal o’ isn’t one of those things that is being broadly and mistakenly applied to any word in which the grapheme <o> represents the /ʌ/ phoneme (the stressed short u).
I responded with the following to both the post in the Science of Reading Facebook group and also with an email to Reading Horizons.
“I can’t seem to find any evidence that ‘Monday’ was ever spelled as *Munday. According to the Oxford English Dictionary and also Etymonline, it is an Old English word spelled then as mōnandæg, literally meaning “day of the moon.” The first part of the word is from monan, meaning “moon” and the second part, dæg, meaning “day.” The word ‘month’ is also connected to the moon as it was thought that a month was the length of time between one full moon and the next. It was never spelled as *munth.
I agree that the ‘scribal o’ explains the spelling in words like ‘love’ which was spelled lufu in Old English, ‘come’ which was spelled cuman in Old English, and ‘some’ which was spelled sum in Old English, but we should be careful about applying that explanation broadly without checking resources.
As I’m looking further, ‘brother’ was spelled broþor (the letter in the middle is like our modern <th> digraph). There was never a ‘u’ in the spelling. And there was never a ‘u’ in the spelling of ‘done’ either. It was always (and should continue to be ) explained as built on the base <do>. The <-ne> is not a productive suffix in English anymore, but we see it on ‘done’ and ‘gone.’ It is negativizing. If something is done, someone is no longer doing it.
Looks like this video, which appears to be a great resource, is misinforming anyone who uses it. Of the six words highlighted in the video, only three have a scribal o.”
I was quite impressed with my response from Reading Horizons. The curriculum developer thanked me for contacting them and apologized for this information not having been researched appropriately. Per my suggestion they are redoing the video and including words that have been verified as having the ‘scribal o.’ In the meantime, they are doing the responsible thing and have removed their video so as not to spread misinformation. I have such respect for a group that responds in this way! I look forward to sharing their new version of this video when it is published!
I’m not sure where the term ‘scribal o’ originated. but I think it is fair to say that most people understand what you mean if you use it. I haven’t been able to find reference to the ‘scribal o’ in any of my resource books which include Richard Venezky’s book, The American Way of Spelling, and several of David Crystal’s books. I have found reference to it at Reading Horizons in a post from 2013, but I don’t get the impression that the term originated with them. I’ve also run across it by watching two videos of teachers instructing their students in regards to this <o>. One of the videos specifically mentions that teaching about ‘scribal o’ was part of Saxon Phonics. In the second video the teacher seemed to be reading from the exact same script, so I’m assuming that the program she was using was part of Saxon Phonics as well.
When I listened to what the teachers were telling their students, I became concerned. The teachers were saying that the words ‘son,’ ‘month,’ and ‘wonder’ were originally spelled with <u>’s. That <u> was changed to an <o> because of mistakes by the scribes who had to copy words by hand. The ink the scribes used ran, making the <u>’s look like <o>’s. Then the teacher went on to say that when an <o> makes the short u sound, it is a schwa. Next the students were to code the words making sure the <o> was coded as a schwa.
My first concern is that this story being told to the children seems unlikely. I can picture this situation of running ink happening in one instance, but over and over? And only with these particular <u>’s? Were there other letters affected by this running ink? I’d love to know the source of this account, wouldn’t you?
My second concern is that the word ‘month’ was never spelled with a <u>! It began in Old English as monað. The Old English letter final in that spelling is eth and is equivalent to the modern digraph <th>. The Old English word is related to the moon. According to Etymonline, the month originally marked the time between one new moon and the next.
My third concern is that the teacher was telling the students that the <o> in son, month, and wonder was a schwa. By definition a schwa is an unstressed vowel. This teacher is telling the students that the only vowel in the word ‘son’ and ‘month’ is a schwa, which conflicts with the fact that we pronounce these words with one principal stress. It is not possible to pronounce these monosyllabic words with unstressed vowels! The third word, ‘wonder,’ has stress on the first syllabic beat and none on the second, yet the teacher is telling the students to mark the first vowel as an unstressed schwa. When the teacher announces the word, the stress is clearly on that first syllabic beat. The teacher does not say, “won-DER,” but rather “WON-der.”
I don’t blame the teachers in this situation as much as I blame the program they are using. The teachers are trusting the makers of the program to have done their due diligence and to be supplying them with accurate information. In this case, they have let the teachers down. Man, have they let the teachers down! It makes you question the other information presented in this program. Unfortunately, the teacher obviously doesn’t understand enough about stress or the schwa to even question this.
But wait. It gets worse. As I was looking through other sites to see what they had to say about this ‘scribal o,’ I came upon another video. This one is called, “Nessy Spelling Strategy -Why is ‘money’ spelled with ‘o’ instead of ‘u’? – Learn to Spell.” There is no mention of the ‘scribal o’ here, but there are questionable rules for teaching students why <o> represents /ʌ/ when followed by certain letters. The letters that supposedly cause this change are called “professors” in the video and they make the <o> go through what appears to be an unpleasant physical change that results in it representing /ʌ/ (as in oven instead of its usual /oʊ/ (as in go).
The first of these “professors” is <v>. According to the video, whenever “professor v” stands behind an <o>, it forces the pronunciation change. To show the effect of “professor v,” the letter <o> goes from having tired looking eyes to having scared looking eyes to looking like a hairy Frankenstein <o>. This rule may work for words like love, oven, above, and dove, but the video forgets to mention that it doesn’t work for stove, clover, move, or prove. The second “professor” is <n>. This rule explains the pronunciation of the <o> in words like month, son, done, and none, but again the video forgets to mention that this doesn’t work in bone, gone, pony, and donut. The third “professor” is <th>. This rule explains the pronunciation of the <o> in words like mother, brother, other, and another, but you guessed it, the video forgets to mention that it doesn’t work for moth, cloth, clothes, and both.
Why teach something as if it is a rule you can count on when, in fact, you can’t? It was not difficult to find words for which these made-up rules didn’t work. What nonsense! What will children think when they encounter words like bone, move, and both? My guess is that they won’t blame this silly video, but rather they will blame a spelling system that seems to make no sense.
If you are wondering how to explain some of this without using silly, half-true gimmicks, let me direct you to the Real Spelling Toolbox. There you will find an excellent description of why we use the letter combination <ov> instead of <uv> when the vowel is representing the /ʌ/ phoneme (the stressed “short u”). In fact, before you decide whether or not to subscribe to the Toolbox, you can read this explanation for yourself (and realize how much else you could learn by subscribing and reading more!) On the homepage there is a link to the sample theme “Learning from Love.” The term ‘scribal o’ is not used, but you will recognize the mention of the scribes, the Black Adder script used at the time, and the confusion caused when certain letters or other similarly formed letters were adjacent to each other.
Another great resource for understanding this switch from <u> to <o> is this video put out by the Endless Knot. Not only do you get an explanation that is similar to that in the Real Spelling Toolbox, you also get some information about the letters <u>, <v>, <w>, and <f>! Ever wonder why the <f> in ‘of’ is pronounced as /v/? Watch this video for an accurate understanding. I guarantee you that no letters will be poked, choked, scared, or harmed in the process!
Is there a “one size fits all’ rule that pertains to an <o> that corresponds to an /ʌ/ phoneme as it does in ‘some’ and ‘Monday?’ No. How unfortunate that we even think there should be. We are so used to quick and easy go-to rules that we have forgotten to use our own sense of logic to interrogate those rules. How easy is it to falsify the rules put out by the professors <v>, <n>, and <th>? Or the explanation that scribes routinely had runny ink every time they wrote a <u> in certain situations? If you want to make this idea of a ‘scribal o’ memorable, ask your students to be investigators. Ask them to find words that falsify what the three professors want them to believe. Ask them whether or not the “runny ink” story seems likely. Then ask them to make a list of words in which the <o> corresponds to an /ʌ/ phoneme. I’ll get you started below. then have them use Etymonline to see whether they were first spelled with an <o> or a <u>. Make two lists and keep adding to those lists as you and your students encounter other words with this <o> to /ʌ/ correspondence.
If you hesitate involving your students in using Etymonline for this, let me show you what you are looking for. Here is an Etymonline entry for the word ‘other.’
The information you need is the third word in! It is how this word was spelled in Old English. Notice that it has always been spelled with an <o>. That means that the scribes didn’t need to change it! This isn’t an example of a ‘scribal o’! In case your students are curious about the second letter in the Old English spelling (þ), that is the letter thorn. It represented the <th> digraph we have in Modern English!
So here are words in which the <o> corresponds to /ʌ/. Some of these were originally spelled with a <u>. Some have always been spelled with an <o>. But which are which? Have your students find out!
Someone asked a really great question in a Facebook group the other day. They specifically wondered why the word ‘chocolate’ didn’t follow the “a_e” rule. In other words, the pronunciation of the last three letters isn’t what is expected. (Just in case you are unfamiliar with this rule, many phonics programs refer to this as the “split vowel magic e rule” or the “split digraph magic e rule”. The underscore represents a consonant. When students see this pattern and the ‘e’ is silent, the ‘a’ will have its long pronunciation.)
The first two people responded with saying that ‘chocolate’ isn’t a word from English, so it won’t follow English conventions. That idea is generally true. Recognizing that a word is not following English spelling conventions is actually a way to spot that a word is probably a loan word. I’m thinking of words like kiwi, ski, khaki, and bikini that have a final ‘i.’ Typically complete English words won’t have an ‘i’ final. They won’t typically have a final ‘u’ either. Examples of words from other languages that don’t follow this English convention are bayou, haiku, tofu, tutu, caribou, and plateau.
While stating that chocolate is a loan word so it won’t follow English spelling rules isn’t false, it won’t help much when a student asks about fortunate, delicate, accurate, or desperate. In my mind, the question broadens to become, “Why aren’t these other words (and perhaps ‘chocolate’ as well) following this rule?” Other people commenting on the post identified words such as I have listed as exceptions. That is unfortunate.
Let’s think for a moment about labeling a word as an exception. What happens then? Nothing. The door shuts on that word. No one tries any further to understand what else might be affecting that word’s ability to follow the rule. (Or to consider that the “rule” might be worthy of critical contemplation.) Students are expected to accept that “exception” is the only understanding they will receive. They will need to remember which words follow the rule and which words are exceptions to that rule.
What I have always taught students is, “Just because I don’t know something about a certain spelling doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it.” With that kind of thinking, we are opening the door again on any word that others label as an exception. We are free to think further and collect evidence so we have something to consider. Who knows? We may garner an understanding that will help with remembering a word’s spelling in a way that calling it an exception just doesn’t.
Let’s take a further look at these words considered to be exceptions. I went to Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher to quickly find words that had the same ending pronunciation as ‘chocolate.’
With a list this long, it seems a burden to ask students to remember that these are exceptions to the “a_e” rule. If they don’t remember, and spell the words according to how they pronounce them, they are likely to use ‘it’ or ‘ite’ at the end of each of these words. To add to this, I found words in which the final <ate> can be pronounced in two ways, depending on how the word is used in a sentence. Notice how the pronunciation of the same word changes as it changes its grammatical function (adjective or noun to verb).
Again, this seems like another burden for students who will now be taught that sometimes a word will be an exception and sometimes it will not. There just has to be a more elegant explanation that will truly help our students. What is it that is different in the pronunciation of animate and chocolate? It is the pronunciation of the final ‘ate.’ We’ve known that from the start. But what governs the pronunciation of that final part of the word? Stress. In all of the discussions about spelling “rules” that I see online, very few ever address stress. Stress is one of those things about our language that sets it apart from other languages. It is also one of the things that makes learning our language and speaking it as a native would difficult for many.
Our language is stress timed. If you’re not familiar with that idea (as I wasn’t when I began studying English spelling), you might be wondering what that even means. Simply put, it means that when we speak, we put the main stress or emphasis on one of the syllabic beats in a word. If a word has only one syllabic beat, then that is where we place the stress. Examples of words with one syllabic beat are frog, bed, mask, and light. When you announce those words, you put emphasis on the beginning of the word.
Now consider a word with two syllabic beats such as open, garden, begin, and exposed. Think about where we put the stress when we pronounce those words. Do we say “Open the door,” or do we say, “oPEN the door?” We put the stress on the first beat in that word. It is the same with ‘garden.’ We say GARden instead of garDEN. What about ‘begin?’ With this word, we actually put the main stress on the second syllabic beat. Think about it. Do we say “BEgin your work,” or “beGIN your work?” We put the stress on the second syllabic beat. It is the same with ‘exposed.’ Test it for yourself. Do you say EXposed or exPOSED? My guess is you say it with the stress on the second beat.
In polysyllabic words, one syllabic beat will have the main stress. We may raise our pitch as we announce it and we may hold it longer than we hold other syllables. Sometimes other beats have stress as well – just not has heavy. That is called secondary stress. But the remaining syllabic beats in those words? They are unstressed. And when a syllabic beat is unstressed, the vowel in that particular beat will become reduced to the point that we call it a schwa.
When I have introduced IPA and the idea of stress to my students, I did so by showing them the IPA symbols that correspond to the graphemes in their names, including the stress marks. One year I had boys whose names were Jaydin, Jackson, Aidan, and Kayden. When you say those names, you will notice that you put the main stress on the first syllabic beat of each name. That means that the second syllabic beat of each name is unstressed. With these names, it doesn’t matter which vowel letter we see in front of the final <n>. They are all pronounced the same because they all are unstressed and therefore are reduced in their quality enough to be considered a schwa. When I pointed this out to my students, they thought it was pretty cool. They always wondered why the pronunciation of the second part of their names was the same even though the spelling wasn’t. Here’s a small video clip of two students talking about having learned IPA.
The second student in the video is named Ava. Now that she understands that there is stress on the first syllabic beat in her name, but not on the second, she understands why the two a’s are not pronounced the same! I know that many teachers talk about the schwa sound with students, but I don’t believe that many talk about stress in words or stress in sentences. My guess is that they don’t spend time talking about it because they didn’t learn about it themselves. Because of that, they don’t know quite what to say.
There is a great resource for people who fall into the category of not knowing how to talk about stress seeing as how it was never explicitly taught to them. It’s called Rachel’s English. She has a series of videos that are actually there to help non-native English speakers sound more like native English speakers. One of the things someone learning English probably struggles with is stress – especially if their native language is a syllable timed language like French, Italian, Korean, or Spanish. In those languages, each syllable has the same amount of emphasis. No part of the word or sentence stands out in the same way that they do in English.
When I was first trying to wrap my head around this idea of our language being stress timed, I watched several of these videos. Here is another one that I found to be very helpful.
In the second video, Rachel demonstrates stress with the sentence, “I saw her at the meeting.” When she says it, the primary stress is on the verb ‘saw’ and the secondary stress is on the first syllabic beat of ‘meeting.’ One of the joys of English is that we can change the meaning of a simple sentence like this by changing where we put the stress. I can imagine reading this sentence with the primary stress on ‘I’ and meaning something different than if I put that stress on ‘her.’ The two function words in this sentence (at, the) would probably not carry the primary stress in this sentence very often.
Her next example sentence illustrates that the words in a sentence that are not stressed are reduced. The sentence she uses is, “I got this for you.” It is the function word ‘for’ that is reduced and announced more like ‘frr.’ Can you picture a student who is saying that sentence to themselves as they write it, spelling the word ‘for’ as ‘fer?’ Me too. It makes me wonder about the students I have had who misspelled a word different ways in a single writing. Could it be that the placement of stress in those sentences affected the way the student pronounced the word in that sentence? And if a student is taught to sound out words in order to spell them, they might indeed spell a word one way in one sentence and another way in another sentence.
The next video I’m including is longer than the first two, but continues on with this idea of what we do as we speak. I am fascinated watching these videos of Rachel’s. When we don’t introduce stress to students either at the word level or at the sentence level, we are leaving out such a crucial piece! This kind of discussion could help students understand why they are misspelling some words. It could also lead to a discussion that spelling based solely on pronunciation is prone to error. There are just too many contributing factors. Spelling based on morphemes, on the other hand, leads to spelling accuracy and a built-in understanding of a word’s sense and meaning.
Now that you have a better idea of how inherent stress is to our speech and how important it is to our understanding of spelling, I’d like to return to the words that were mentioned at the beginning of this post. Below I’ve given you the opportunity to compare the graphemes to the phonemes in each word including stress marks. I used toPhonetics to get a spelling to IPA transcription. What do you now notice?
Every one of these words has its primary stress on the very first syllabic beat. That means that the other syllables in each word are unstressed. This explains why the first <e> in ‘delicate’ is representing the phoneme /ɛ/, but the following <i> and <a> graphemes are both representing the phoneme /ə/. The same thing happens in ‘fortunate’, ‘accurate’, and ‘chocolate.’
The words ‘chocolate’ and ‘desperate’ have something else in common. Each looks like it would have three written syllabic beats, but when spoken, there would only be two. Notice the greyed ‘o’ in ‘chocolate’ and the greyed medial ‘e’ in ‘desperate.’ They are greyed because they are not graphemes representing phonemes. Those two particular letters in those particular spellings are so unstressed in the pronunciations of those words that they have been zeroed! The other greyed letters in this collection of words are all the single final non-syllabic ‘e’ that is also not a grapheme. It is there as part of the <ate> suffix. It may mark the pronunciation of the ‘a’ in the suffix when we see it in another member of the word family (desperation), but not necessarily. The <ate> suffix is usually seen on nouns and adjectives whose base derived from Latin. It is the stress placement in the word that determines the pronunciation of the <a> in that suffix.
Above, I gave you examples of words with this <ate> suffix that can be used in two ways. Below I compare the IPA and stress marks on two of those words when the words are used in the two ways.
The difference, as you can see, is that when the word is used as an adjective or noun, there is only one primary stress in the word. That leaves the remaining syllables unstressed and the pronunciation will reflect that by way of reducing the pronunciation of the vowels until they are a schwa. When the same word is functioning as a verb, you can see that the word now has two stress marks. One is primary (ˈ) and one is secondary (ˌ). In both words, there are two syllabic beats that are stressed and one that is not. That unstressed syllable is where we see the schwa.
If you are telling your students that sometimes a vowel is pronounced as a schwa, but you’re not telling them why, then you’re not helping them see the logic of English spelling. Without meaning to, you are contributing to the misconception that spelling is weird and hard to understand. How confusing must it be for a student to hear that sometimes vowels are reduced and can all sound similar, but then not to be told when this might happen. This assignment of a schwa must feel very random to a student when in fact it is not. Not at all.
English is a stress-timed language. It is not syllable-timed. Yet, many children are exposed to hours and hours of work with syllables and syllable types and little to no time spent understanding how the stress-timing of our language affects our speech. It is time to recognize the problems created by looking at English spelling with such a superficial lens as pronunciation. It is time to prepare the students for words they are encountering now and the words they will encounter in the future. To do that, we must teach how the English spelling system works. And to do that we must include instruction on morphology, etymology, and phonology (including stress). Trying to explain a spelling without considering stress, morphemes, or etymology is like trying to explain how a plant gets its nutrients by only looking at the surface of a leaf. If you want to understand the system, you have to be aware of all of the components and see how they work together. You can’t peek through the curtain and expect to see the full view. You must open the window and really take in the view.
Sitting at my desk, I’ve always had a clear view down the hallway. Each morning I heard the excited voices of the children seconds before they turned the corner and headed towards my room. One morning there was a student in the lead who wasn’t in the habit of being in the lead. I noticed but didn’t think too much of it. That is until the student came right into my room, even before going to her locker! And even before I could greet her, she asked, “Do you think that pediatrician and pedestrian have the same base?”
It’s a question I will never forget. Imagine! This student had two words in her head that seemed to share a base. She wasn’t quite sure about what meaning they shared and that was why she was there, asking me that question before she did anything else to begin her school day! I was thrilled that the question came from her own noticing of words while away from school. The curiosity and questioning I was hoping to nurture was evidently taking hold! All I remember besides her urgency and her question was that I didn’t have an immediate answer for her. But then she knew well enough that I didn’t always have an immediate answer to most word questions. (Sometimes I genuinely didn’t know, and sometimes I pretended I didn’t know so as to let the student own the moment of discovery.) She also knew I would be excited by the question and would partner with her to see what we could find out by talking about the words, thinking of other words that were possibly related and then looking in the references. As I recall, we looked at the words, talked about their meanings and how we use them, and decided they were probably not sharing a base. But because it appeared that they did, we checked with Etymonline to see if we could figure out the most likely base of each.
We knew that a pedestrian was a person who traveled by foot. We related the <ped> to bicycle pedals, the place where we put and also push with our feet. We also thought of a pedometer since the physical education teacher at our school had purchased a set for the students to use while in their gym class so they could measure how many steps they were taking. We wondered aloud if a pediatrician was a doctor who specialized in people’s feet, but were doubtful because we had heard of children going to a pediatrician and not because of anything to do with their feet. Was it the same base? The only way to know for sure was to head to Etymonline.
We saw that the noun ‘pediatrician,’ was first the adjective ‘pediatric.’ That information alone helped us understand that <-ian> was a suffix in this word. As an adjective the word ‘pediatric’ was coined in 1849 and referred to “of or pertaining to the medical care or diseases of children.” The base <ped> derives from the Greek παΐς (pais) “child.” According to the Cambridge Greek Lexicon, there was a dialectal difference that resulted in πης (pes) male and πηδός (pedos) female. The second base in this word is <iatr> which derives from Greek ιατρός (iatros) “physician, healer.” What other words can we think of that share this base?
pediatrician – one who specializes in the medical care or diseases of children. orthopedics – (Do you recognize <orth> meaning “straight, correct” from the word ‘orthography?’) Correcting bodily deformities of children or of people in general. pedophile – One who has an abnormal love of children (often sexual). encyclopedia – Originally (in Greek) it meant training a child in a circle of the arts and sciences. Do you see the morphemes in the word that represent those senses? First there’s <en> “in” and then <cycl> “circle.” According to Etymonline it is now thought that Latin authors misinterpreted this word to mean “general education.” pedagogy – The science of teaching children (originally referred to boys more than girls).
An interesting statement to note from Etymonline is this. “The British form paed- is better because it avoids confusion with the ped- that means “foot” (from PIE root *ped-) and the ped- that means “soil, ground, earth.” You may have seen the British spelling of pediatrician as paediatrician. While it is clarifying to have that British spelling explained, this statement also brings up a new question regarding a <ped> base that means soil, ground, earth. I’ve never heard of it. What words might I know that have it?
I found one quite by accident. Pedology. When I was looking for words that share the base <ped> “child,” I ran across it and assumed it meant “the study of children.” Well, it actually was used that way at one time (1894). But in 1924, its use became specific to “scientific study of the soil” based on the German word pedologie from 1862. Ultimately the base in this word derives from Greek πέδον (pedon) “surface of the earth, ground, earth.” According to Wikipedia, pedology “focuses on understanding and characterizing soil formation, evolution, and the theoretical frameworks through which we understand a soil body(s), often in the context of the natural environment.” Knowing its root makes it obvious that pedology couldn’t have anything to do with children – even if they sometimes get covered in dirt!
Next we decided to confirm what we felt sure of with ‘pedestrian.’ According to Etymonline, there is evidence of it being used more commonly as an adjective before it was used as a noun. Its adjective use has been attested as early as 1610 (Oxford English Dictionary). Interestingly enough, at that time it was used to refer to something as dull and plain. So if your writing was described as pedestrian, there was nothing out of the ordinary about it. At the OED I found this sentence from a 1969 writing. “Failing to live up to its sudden notoriety, the series has nothing to offer; just another pedestrian crime yarn.”
That sense of plain or dull comes from the literal sense of this word which has to do with traveling by foot. It was the expected thing to do before the invention of automobiles or bicycles unless you happened to have a horse! In fact, the word pedestrian can be compared to equestrian. Are you noticing the similarities in the second half of each word (-estrian)? In Latin, the word pedester was used when referring to foot soldiers. And as Etymonline shows us, you can contrast pedester “on foot” with equester “on horseback.”
The base here is not from Greek like the <ped> base (<paed> in British English) in pediatrician and the <ped> base in pedology. It is from Latin pedis “foot.”
pedestrian – A person who is walking (noun use). Something expected or plain (adj. use). pedometer – A device that measures the distance walked. pedals – The part on which you push with your feet. pedicure – A treatment for the care of one’s feet. expedite – To hasten. Literally, “to free the feet from fetters.” impede – For something to be in the way. Literally, “to shackle the feet.” centipede – A long, thin arthropod with many legs. biped – Animal with two feet. pedestrianism – Walking as exercise or as a competitive sport.
Have you noticed that I included a final potential <e> on the base in this matrix? A final <e> is always potential, and this word family illustrates that beautifully. In words like ‘centipede’ and ‘impede’ that final <e> has reached its potential and is part of the base. Notice how it signals the pronunciation of the previous ‘e’ in an expected way (/i/). In words like ‘biped’ and ‘quadruped’ that ‘e’ is not part of the base. And because it isn’t part of the base, the ‘e’ in this base is pronounced as /ɛ/ in words like ‘biped’ and ‘quadruped.’
Recently I came across the word ‘pedestrianism’ and since it was unfamiliar to me, I had a closer look. I found it when listening to a podcast. Immediately it brought this whole wonderful investigation of <ped> to life once more. It’s like one of my students said, “In orthography, you can explore words and come back to them as many times as you want, and it, like, never stops. But in spelling, once you memorize the word, the door is shut. You don’t need to go back. It’s done.” The student was spot on. Here I am revisiting what I understood previously and adding to it!
The podcast was called “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.” , and it took me by surprise! I had heard of the dance marathons of the 1930s, but I hadn’t heard of competitive walking like this! According to a second article I read ( The strange 19th-Century sport that was cooler than football), what started as a bet in 1859, grew to a competitive sport that drew crowds as large as 10,000 by 1879! The original bet centered around a worker, Edward Payson Weston, who had missed a delivery truck and walked a long distance to catch up to it. When he succeeded at that, he made another bet with a friend based on the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. He bet on Lincoln’s opponent, John Breckinridge, to win. As previously agreed upon, the loser had to walk from New York to Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration. It took Mr. Weston ten days to get there, but when he did, the idea of endurance walking was born!
One of the biggest competitions was in 1879 and was held in the original Madison Square Gardens in New York. There were 13 athletes and around 10,000 spectators. Each athlete brought their own dieticians, trainers, doctors, and chefs. Why such an entourage? Because the expectation was that these athletes would walk a circular track for six days or until they had walked the equivalent of 450 miles! They were not allowed to leave the track, but they were allowed to have their own tent in which they could eat, drink, and nap during the walk. Whoever traveled the farthest in the time allowed was promised $25,000 dollars ($679,000 by today’s standards) and a belt of solid silver with the inscription, “Long Distance Champion of the World.” As you might imagine, there were many injuries and towards the end of the event the athletes were crawling, barely making their way around the track. It became less about athleticism and more about enduring exhaustion, pain, and injuries.
If I’ve piqued your interest, as mine was piqued, I recommend that you go to the links I’ve provided and learn more. Fascinating! It does make you wonder whether these pedestrianisms had been sort of romanticized over time, and when the Great Depression rolled around, someone suggested holding dance marathons as a way to raise (and win) money. The idea of testing endurance to such an extreme seems to be a common feature of both!
Image is available with the kind permission of www.kingofthepeds.com
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I ran across a fascinating article recently called “Anumeric People: What Happens When a Language Has No Words for Numbers?” While I immediately noticed the word ‘anumeric’ in the title, I set it aside while I read the article and imagined a life without words for numbers. What are the advantages/disadvantages? It’s quite likely that there are people in remote areas of the world whose lives don’t revolve around clocks and other numbered things. But is the ability to distinguish by number the difference between 3 and 6 items crucial to one’s existence? Obviously not, for the people who only have words to name “some,” have lived for generations. The interesting focus in this article is “how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience.” The article is not particularly long, but certainly gave me something to think about!
Now. Back to the word ‘anumeric.’
Right away I connected it to the following.
If you compare the spelling of these words, you’ll notice (as my students would) that they each have <numer> in common. If given the opportunity to write a word sum hypothesis for ‘numeric’, I might see students write both <numer + ic> and <num + er + ic>. They are both logical. The first includes the letter string that is consistent among the words and might be the base. The second includes prior knowledge of <er> being the suffix in baker, teacher, and colder.
Once we have discussed the hypotheses and the fact that both are based on what we already know to be true about word construction, it is time to find evidence that will support one more than the other. If I look in either Etymonline, Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology, or the Oxford English Dictionary, I find that all the words on our list derive from Latin numerus “a number.” Once the Latin suffix <us> is removed, we see the Latin stem that came into English as the base <numer>. This evidence shows that the <er> was part of the word’s spelling in Latin and is part of the base in English. I like to compare this situation to the <ing> in ‘bring.’ We know there to be an <ing> suffix, but that doesn’t mean that every time we see that letter string we are looking at a suffix. It’s logical to wonder about it, and scholarly to check with a reference!
Once I had looked closer at the base of ‘anumeric,’ I thought more about the prefix <a>. Thinking about its use in the article where I found it, it obviously has a negativizing sense. It has a similar use in the following.
apnea – without breathing
amnesia – not remembering
atheist – without a god
apathy – without feeling or emotion
atypical – not typical
aphotic – without light
The prefix <a> that incorporates a sense of “not, without” is sometimes spelled <an>. According to Etymonline, it is “a fuller form of the one represented in English by <a>.” You may recognize the <an> prefix in the following.
anarchy – without a ruler
anonymous – without a name
anomaly – not the same
anesthesia – without feeling
anhydrous – without water
So does this mean that every time we see a word with an <a> or <an> prefix that it contributes a sense of “not, without?” No. No it doesn’t. There are a number of words like asleep, awash, aside, and aflame that originated in Old English and in which the prefix <a-> contributes a sense of “on, in, into.” That <a> prefix can also be an intensifying prefix as it is in ashamed. An intensifying prefix is one that doesn’t contribute a separate sense to the base, but instead intensifies the action of the base. (More about intensifying prefixes to come.)
An unexpected sense
As I began a deeper dive, looking at words with an <a> prefix, I came across afraid, award, and astonish. The word ‘afraid’ was derived from Anglo-French (afrayer) and further back from Old French which influenced the spelling (affrai, effrei, esfrei) and further back from esfreer “to worry, concern.” The first part of this word is actually derived from Old French es-; Latin <ex-> prefix “out” and the second part is from Vulgar Latin *exfridare “to take out of peace.” Please note that the asterisk in this ancestor means that the spelling is unattested. This spelling is thought to be a likely spelling by those who study languages. Beyond that, just think about the denotation of this word! To be afraid is to have been taken out of peace! Don’t you love it?
Looking at ‘award,’ this is another word that was derived from Old French. It is from Old French (awarder) and further back from Old North French (eswarder). Do you notice the initial <es> spelling? To award something to someone is to give one’s opinion after careful consideration. As with ‘afraid,’ the first part is actually from the Latin <ex-> prefix “out” and the second part is from Germanic warder “to watch.” So the person choosing who will receive an award is the one who watches out for which person will be deemed most worthy!
That brings us to the word ‘astonish.’ This word, too, was influenced by its use in Old French. It is from Old French estoner “to stun, daze, deafen, astound.” If you noticed the ‘es’ in the Old French word estoner, you may be expecting that the first part of this word is from Latin <ex-> “out,” and you’d be right! The base is from Latin tonare “to thunder.” If something astonishes you, it leaves you a bit stunned or dazed, as if you were shook by thunder!
So the question with afraid, award, and astonish is whether or not they have an <a> prefix. The etymology clearly reveals that the prefix sense here is from <ex> even though we see an <a> prefix. The story of how the <ex> prefix came to be spelled as <a> can be found in the influence of Anglo-French and Old French spellings! So here we have evidence of words with an <a> prefix that represents Latin <ex>.
Assimilated forms of other prefixes
The prefix <an> can also be an assimilated form of the prefix <ad> “to” as it is in announce, annul, and annexation. You’ll notice that the <ad> assimilates to <an> when the next element in the word begins with an ‘n.’ The <ad> prefix can reduce to <a> in words like ascend, ascribe, avenue, and avenge.
In the word ‘avert,’ the <a> is a reduced form of the <ab> prefix “off, away from.”
If you’re wondering, “How will I know which prefix it is or which sense it brings to the word I’m investigating?” Fear not! A quick check with a reliable source like Etymonline will clear up which <an> you are looking at as well as which sense it brings to the base or stem!
What about other prefixes? Are they all like this?
Once I got thinking about <a> and <an> as a prefix, about all the different ways it can contribute sense to a word, I thought about all the other prefixes that I have been similarly surprised at. You see, prior to SWI, my understanding was that prefixes contribute a consistent meaning to each word they are attached to. For instance, in books that I was using to understand prefixes, suffixes, and “root words,” the prefix <re> was listed as meaning “again.” The examples given were similar to remarry, reuse, and resupply. Every prefix that was mentioned had a specific definition. Examples of some of those are below.
de – down
dis – away
ex – out
in – not, without
pre – before
un – not
con – with
I bet you’ve seen lists like this. Taking a close look at the English spelling system by incorporating Structured Word Inquiry into my teaching and learning has made me realize so much! For instance, the way in which a prefix steers the meaning of the base isn’t as “set in stone’ as we have been led to think. We’ve already had a glimpse of that with our look at the <a> prefix!
Recently the International Dyslexia Association presented a live Facebook chat featuring Sue Scibetta Hegland, who spoke on the topic of incorporating morphology in spelling instruction. The presentation was recorded and you can watch it below. In this talk, Sue uses the prefix <dis> to address the very point I am making in this post. I encourage you to watch it. Besides her point about prefixes, she makes many many others that are so eye-opening! In the paragraphs following the video, I have elaborated on the point she made with <dis>.
If you think about words in which you’ve seen a <dis-> prefix, you might think of words like disapprove, disappear, and disable. In all three of these words, the prefix brings a sense of “opposite of.” If you disapprove of something, that is the opposite of approving. When something disappears, it does the opposite of appearing. When a machine is disabled, it is the opposite of when it is able to do its intended job.
In the words distract, disrupt, and dismiss, the <dis-> prefix contributes a sense of “away” to the denotation of the base. In all three of these examples, the prefix is paired with a bound base. Looking closer at ‘distract,’ the base <tract> is from Latin trahere “to draw.” When someone is distracted, their attention has been drawn away from where it was. Looking closer at ‘disrupt,’ the base <rupt> is from Latin rumpere “to break.” When a meeting is disrupted, everyone’s attention is broken away from what it had been focused on. Looking closer at ‘dismiss,’ the base <miss> is from Latin mittere “to send, let go.” When you dismiss your students, you send them away!
A third sense that the <dis-> prefix might bring to a base or stem is “not.” This is the case in the words displease, dislike, and dishonest. When you are displeased, you are not pleased, When you dislike something, you do not like it. When you are dishonest, you are not being honest.
There are other senses as well. In the word ‘distribute,’ the base is from Latin tribuere “to pay, assign, grant.” The prefix <dis-> contributes a sense of “individually.” When you distribute materials, you are assigning those materials to each individual in the group. In the word ‘distort,’ the base is from Latin torquere “to twist.” The prefix <dis-> contributes a sense of “completely.” When something is distorted, it is completely twisted (whether physically or metaphorically). In the word ‘dissension,’ the base is from Latin sentire “to feel, think.” the prefix <dis-> contributes a sense of “differently.” When there is dissension within a group of people, they no longer are in agreement. Some or all think differently than the leader of that group.
I spoke earlier about prefixes that act as intensifiers. The example I gave was ashamed. In ‘ashamed,’ the state of feeling shame is intensified. There are others, of course. Once you begin finding them for yourself, you’ll experience a new kind of fun! Until then, here are a few I’ve discovered.
Let’s compare the words ‘reunion’ and ‘refine.’ A reunion happens when people are coming back together again to become one group with something in common. The main sense and meaning of that word, “the act of joining one thing to another,” has been consistent since it was first attested in the early 15c. The prefix ‘re’ adds that the act of joining one thing to another is happening again. These people have come together before and now they are coming together again. According to Etymonline, the word ‘refine’ was first used with a reference to metals (1580) and later to manners (1590). It has to do with reducing something to its purest form (or as close to it as one can get). The main sense and meaning of that word is “make fine.” In this word, the prefix <re-> does not indicate that a thing is becoming fine again. Instead, the <re-> prefix is an intensifier. It is intensifying the action. Whatever it is that is being refined is being made super fine.
Another example of a prefix that can intensify the action of the base is found in the word ‘corrode.’ The sense and meaning of the word since it was first attested in the late 14c is “wear away by gradually separating small bits of it” according to Etymonline. You might recognize the base as <rode>. It is from Latin and has a denotation of “to gnaw.” We see it in rodent and erode as well. The meaning connection is pretty obvious, isn’t it? That leaves <cor-> as the prefix. It is an assimilated form of <com->. We often think of <com-> or one of its assimilated forms (<col->, <con->, <cor->, or <co->) as bringing a sense of together to the base’s denotation. But that’s not what is happening here. Instead, the <cor-> of ‘corrode’ is intensifying the “wearing away.”
One more example of a prefix being an intensifier is found in the word ‘complete.’ The Latin bound base <pl> has a denotation of “to fill.” If you think about how you use the word ‘complete,’ you’ll realize that the <com-> doesn’t bring a sense of “together” to this word. The act of finishing or concluding something can be done together with others, but it can also be done alone. The prefix <com-> in this word is intensifying the “filling of something.” Check out the entry at Etymonline to see for yourself.
I hope I’ve made it obvious that when we teach children that <con> means together and <re> means again, we are teaching them only one possible sense when the truth is there are many. There’s nothing wrong with saying that <re> typically incorporates a sense of “again” to a word it is part of as long as we also say, “but let’s check to be sure. It could be doing something else as well!”
People who are hesitant to use SWI with their struggling students often say it is because their students don’t find dictionaries friendly. Mine didn’t either. That is, until they had a reason to use them. I remember the days when my dictionaries sat unused on the shelf. If I sent a student to grab one so we could look up a word, the student often said, “Nevermind. I’ll use a different word.” Since the students and I started asking questions that we were genuinely interested in exploring, those same dictionaries have become dog-eared and in come cases the pages have popped out. I couldn’t be happier! Once there was an authentic need to use the dictionaries, the students picked up the skills necessary more quickly than when we used to make up a fake scenario so they could practice. “Let’s check to make sure,” became the quick look it’s supposed to be. Students like knowing whether they’re on the right track or not, and using a dictionary lets them do that for themselves. They learn confidence by not needing to run every hunch they have by the teacher. When you avoid using dictionaries with your students because they are uncomfortable with them, you lose a huge opportunity to show them how to use reference materials and how to find out things on their own. In effect, you are helping them stay uncomfortable with them.
So do your students a favor. Make, “Let’s check to be sure,” a common practice in your classroom. Let them discover the value and worthiness of a great reference material! Thank goodness we have dictionaries and solid etymological resources like Etymonline, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and the Oxford English Dictionary! That is where you and your students will be able to distinguish which sense a prefix is contributing to a word! You don’t want your students to sort-of, kind-of understand the words they read and use in their writing. A quick “check to be sure” will create a solid definition of a word as well as a scholarly habit.
When I read about a woman in Mali having nonuplets a month ago, naturally my first thought was, “Yikes! Nine babies born at one birth?” But just this morning that news was topped when I read of a South African woman giving birth to decuplets two days ago! Most of us have heard of triplets and quadruplets, but having nonuplets and decuplets is so rare, they may be world record setting! The more I thought about the words ‘nonuplets’ and ‘decuplets,’ the more I was reminded of how many times I’ve come across familiar morphemes in words that help indicate a particular number. I also thought about the different ways we use these elements in different contexts. In thinking about these different ways to group things and the common morphemes we use to represent those numbers in words, I learned some interesting things!
Numbered sets – usually at one birth
The headline read, “Nonuplets: Woman From Mali Gives Birth To 9 Babies : NPR.” Nonuplets. How many is that? Well, obviously, the headline tells us it is nine. Nine babies born in a single birth. We recognize this word ending as connected to numbers of babies born at one delivery. And now there is this new report out of South Africa that a woman has delivered decuplets! Etymonline explains that the spelling of ‘quadruple’ came from ‘quadruplet,’ and the spelling of the ‘plet’ came from the ending on ‘triplet.’ Are these words uniquely fitted to babies? Not at all. Quadruplets are sets of four. They don’t have to be four babies. Triplets are sets of three. They don’t have to be three babies. But my guess is that most people picture sets of babies when they hear these.
According to Wikipedia (and this will come as no surprise to you either), twins are the most common type of multiple birth. Without fertility treatments, the chances of having twins is 1 in 60. The possibility of having fraternal twins runs in families. The possibility of having identical twins does not. The chances of having identical twins is more like 1 in 250.
Having triplets is much less common with the possibility being 1 in 1000. Triplets can be identical (least common), fraternal (most common), or a combination of those. According to Etymonline, in 1831 another name for triplet was ‘trin’. As you can probably guess, it was modeled on ‘twin’. Quadruplets are even less common than triplets. Although as fertility treatments become more widely used, the possibility is increasing. Quadruplets are usually a combination of fraternal and identical.
Quintuplets occur once in 55,000,000 births (without fertility treatments). The most famous set of quints to survive infancy were the Dionne sisters who were born in 1934. I have watched documentaries about these sisters. Unfortunately, the government feared the parents would exploit the quints and took custody of them. In the end, these girls were exploited by everyone. While they were at play each day, some 6,000 visitors stopped to watch them. Yikes! My mother-in-law shared a first name with one of the quints and was given this spoon at some point in her life. It was one of many souvenirs being sold. If you are interested, here is an article about the life of these five identical sisters.
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A well-known set of sextuplets are the Gosselin siblings. They were born in 2004 and became well-known when their parents agreed to be part of a reality tv show that chronicled what life was like with a set of six babies! It was a very popular show for a while, but it took a toll on the family. Must be difficult to have a camera recording so much of your life.
When the McCaughey septuplets were born in 1997, they received a lot of media attention. One of the more interesting letters they received was from the three surviving Dionne quintuplets. The Dionne sisters offered their congratulations, but also warned the parents to keep the children out of the public eye as much as possible to avoid what they themselves experienced.
The first confirmed set of octuplets was born in 1969. Unfortunately, all eight babies died within 13 hours. It wasn’t until 2009 that a full set of octuplets (Suleman) survived infancy. It illustrates how risky multiple births are, and yet also how the field of premature infant health care keeps improving.
With the birth of nonuplets to a couple in Mali, it appears another world record has been set. Interestingly enough, the couple and their doctors thought they were having septuplets. Apparently two of the babies were hidden during the ultrasounds.
As of June 9th I read of a woman in South Africa who gave birth to decuplets! Like the couple who thought they were having seven but had nine, this couple thought they were having eight and had ten! They were delivered at 29 weeks. Guinness World Records is the group that officially verifies these things and determines world records.
Numbered sets of legs/feet
If you want to group creatures by the number of legs/feet they have, you’ll work from this short list.
Snails and slugs are obviously unipeds. You can see the one foot they use to move with. The organisms that belong to this class Gastropoda were previously called univalves. That descriptive term referred to the fact that they have one valve or shell. The name Gastropoda is equally as descriptive and revealing. It comes from the Greek γαστήρ (gastér “stomach”) and Greek πούς (poús “foot”). Its stomach is positioned above its single foot.
Other unipeds are marine and freshwater mollusks, also known as bivalvia. I bet that after learning about univalves, you can hypothesize the meaning of ‘bivalvia!’ These are mollusks with shells that have two valves (hinged parts).
Much of the information in this section of the post is coming from Wikipedia which also has some interesting information about bipedalism. They describe it as “a means of moving forward by means of two legs and feet.” Picture a moving kangaroo or ostrich for a clear idea of an organism that uses bipedalism. Of course, humans are bipeds too! Some animals like bears and some lizards who are quadrupeds move bipedally when needing to move quickly or get to a food source. Can you picture it? Here’s a pretty cool video from National Geographic that shows a lizard running bipedally across the surface of the water!
Isn’t it interesting to see the use of biped, bipedally, and bipedalism in the same paragraph? Once you understand the structure of biped (<bi + ped>), you can also understand the suffixes that have been added to change how the word might be used. As an adverb, we would use <bi + ped + al + ly –> bipedally> and as a noun describing the condition of moving on two feet we would use <bi + ped + al + ism>.
If bipedalism is a means of moving by the use of two legs, then quadrupedalism is a means of moving by the use of four legs to bear the weight of the body. The word ‘quadruped’ can also refer to a machine. It simply means anything “that usually maintains a four-legged posture and moves using all four limbs.” Most often we use this word to refer to terrestrial mammals and reptiles, but there are also aquatic quadrupeds such as turtles, amphibians, and pinnipeds. If you’re wondering what a pinniped is, I’m right there with you! At Etymonline, the entry provides us with this information.
Word investigations lead to such interesting unintended discoveries, don’t they? So seals, sea-lions, and walruses are quadrupeds in a similar fashion to zebras, dogs, and giraffe’s! A look at the entry for ‘quadruped’ reveals more information. This word is from Latin quadrupes “four-footed, on all fours.” In contrast to the word ‘quadruped,’ there is also the word ‘quadrumane.’ That refers to an animal that is four handed or with four hands and feet with opposable digits. Merriam-Webster describes quadrumanes as having hand-shaped feet. I bet you are already picturing monkeys or other animals that are primates. This word was once used more commonly in the field of zoology, even being the name of the order of mammals Quadrumana, which included non-human primates. It is now considered obsolete. As an adjective, someone might refer to another creature as quadrumanous. In that instance, they are describing that creature as ape-like.
By Dave59 at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
While reading about quadrupeds at Wikipedia, I learned that while the word ‘tetrapod’ literally means four-footed in the same way that quadruped does, there is a very specific difference between how the two words are used. When comparing the structure and etymology of these two words, you may have guessed that ‘quadruped’ has two elements from Latin (quandri- “four” and pes “foot”), and ‘tetrapod’ has two elements from Greek (τετρα “four” and πούς “foot”). Tetrapods descended from a four-limbed ancestor. Quadrupeds use all four limbs to walk/run.
“The distinction between quadrupeds and tetrapods is important in evolutionary biology, particularly in the context of tetrapods whose limbs have adapted to other roles (e.g., hands in the case of humans, wings in the case of birds, and fins in the case of whales). All of these animals are tetrapods, but none is a quadruped. Even snakes, whose limbs have become vestigial or lost entirely, are nevertheless tetrapods.”
It wasn’t until I published this post that I heard about pentapeds. It is one of the reasons I am so grateful for the broad audience my posts reach! Not having much exposure to kangaroos, I always picture them as moving fast and in that case moving bipedally. But check out this video of the walking movement of a kangaroo. Its tail is like another foot!
Another fascinating creature that I initially forgot to mention is the octopus, an eight limbed mollusc. There are 300 species of octopuses. According to Wikipedia, the largest octopus ever recorded weighed 600 pounds with an arm span of 30 feet! It was a giant Pacific octopus. The octopus wolfi, on the other hand is the smallest known. It weighs less than 1 gram and is about 1 inch in size.
albert kok, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
There is a character in the movie Finding Dory called Hank the septapus. Apparently, Hank was born with eight limbs, but one was pulled off by a human child who played too roughly. So in a sense, he might now be referred to as a septapus. But the reality of it is that he is an octopus. He was born with eight limbs, and if one was cut off, another would grow in its place. (I hope I’m not ruining the movie for anyone.) I found this information at Scientific American. It is quite a fascinating article!
“Like a starfish, an octopus can regrow lost arms. … Rare is the octopus with fewer than eight—at least partial—arms. Because as soon as an arm is lost or damaged, a regrowth process kicks off to make the limb whole again—from the inner nerve bundles to the outer, flexible suckers. Aug 28, 2013″
That being said, while I was looking in Wikipedia for information about the octopus, I came across a species known as the seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus. One of its earlier names (1929) was heptopus! You might recognize that hepta is Greek for “seven” whereas <sept> derives from Latin septem “seven.” Seeing as the second base in the word heptopus is from Greek pous “foot,” it makes sense that this species was once named using all Greek elements. As I read further about this specific octopus, it was revealed that it only appears to have seven limbs. One of males’ limbs has the specific function of helping with egg fertilization. Because of that specific function, that particular limb is kept coiled in a sac beneath the right eye. So the reality is that it has eight limbs like all octopuses; we just don’t see them all!
Whoever created the character Hank, knew about the Latin element for “seven” and knew of the spelling of ‘octopus’ and blended the two. You might call this a hybrid word because it combines elements from two languages.
I bet you think you know about centipedes. Well, at least you think you know how many legs they have. According to Wikipedia, centipedes always have an odd number of legs. That means they would never have exactly 100! Surprising, isn’t it? In fact they can have anywhere from 30 to 354 legs! I bet they were named centipedes because it seemed like they had a hundred legs when they were seen moving. A few more interesting facts are that they are carnivorous and range in length from a few millimeters to 12 inches. Wow.
Centipede: Kingsley, J. Sterling (1890) Popular natural history: a description of animal life, from the lowest forms up to man – Vol. 1
The name ‘millipede’ comes from Latin and means “1000 feet.” If you’re going to guess that they don’t actually have one thousand feet based on what you just learned about centipedes, you’d be correct. There is one species of millipede (Illacme plenipes) that holds the record for having 750 legs. That is more than any other animal in the world! Millipedes are detritivores (eat dead plant matter) and are found in central California.
Grouped by months
There are four months in our year that also contain one of these word elements that indicate a number.
Many people might guess that October might have something to do with “eight,” but they’re not sure what. Well, it used to be the eighth month, that’s what! In Ancient Rome, March was considered the first month of the year. Interestingly enough, July was originally named Quintilis “fifth” and August was originally named Sextillia “sixth.” While March, April, May, and June were named with other ideas in mind, July, August, September, October, November, and December were named for their order. January and February were added to the end .
Julius Caesar brought about changes to the calendar when he aligned it to the earth’s revolutions around the sun. January and February were moved to the beginning of the calendar. This caused some of the months to be out of alignment with their numbered names. That’s why September, October, November, and December are no longer the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months.
It was in remembrance of Julius Caesar (and to honor him for his adjustments to the Julian calendar) that Quintilis was renamed as July. In a similar way, the month of Sextillia was renamed August to honor Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor.
Final adjustments to the calendar were made in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII who corrected some inaccuracies with the Julian calendar. We refer to the calendar we use today as the Gregorian calendar! Look at these two links (Wonderopolis and The Old Farmer’s Almanac) for more information about the naming of the months that you and your students can read together.
Grouped by millions
The following is a list that I have purposely shared with my students each year. There are so many great morphemes to know here! Let’s start with the word ‘million.’ After all, all the rest of these words share part of its spelling. According to Etymonline, it was first attested in the late 14c. At that time it was spelled milioun and used to mean “a thousand thousands.” Further back it was from Old French and spelled million. Further back yet it was from Italian millione and literally meant “a great thousand.” And the furthest back ancestor we find is Latin mille. You can see that the structure would be <mille/ + ion>. According to the Century Dictionary, “The French, who like other northern peoples, took most if not all their knowledge of modern or Arabic arithmetic from the Italians.” (I found that quote at Etymonline in the entry for ‘billion’).
Now when you look at the entry for ‘billion,’ you see that it was created from Latin <bi> “two” and million. When you look at the entry for ‘trillion,’ you see that it was created from Latin <tri> “three” and million. It is described as the third power of million. There is a pattern developing here. we can see the structure of ‘million,’ but can’t see the same structure in ‘billion’ and ‘trillion.’ Interesting, isn’t it? Every once in a while I come across words like this that are modeled on another spelling which makes them hard to analyze on their own. We can know how they came to be that way, but we can’t analyze them as we might like to. Instead, in a list like the following, we might underline the morphemic element that indicates a number. An example would be to underline the <quint> in ‘quintillion’ and mark that it means “five.”
The following link takes you to Sbiis Saibian’s Large Number Site. It is a web book on large numbers. The link takes you to the specific chapter called “The -illions Series.” I found that this chapter thoroughly tells the story of large numbers beginning with ‘million.’ I found much of the same information in my research, so I trust that this information is accurate. What’s nice is that this author has the story, along with the different versions of what to call the numbers larger than million all in one place! It’s quite fascinating, and I encourage you to take a look! The part of the chapter that deals with how these numbers came to have these names is under the the article 2.4.2 – Origin & Development of the -illions . Here’s a brief excerpt to whet your appetite!
[The term “million” doesn’t seem to exist at any time before the 13th century (1200’s). Apparently it is an augmented form of the latin word “mille” meaning thousand. By dropping the e and adding the -ion as a suffix one could translate “million” as literally “Great thousand”. It is not known who first coined this term. It was used sparingly in the centuries to follow and was sometimes regarded as a kind of slang and not legitimate language (perhaps much the same way neolisms today are regarded as unofficial ), and writers more often than not preferred the non-ambiguous “thousand thousand.”]
A particularly interesting fact is that the list doesn’t continue beyond the 20th family of million. But then, it is actually quite rare that any of these number names are used with any regularity beyond the use of trillion!
Grouped by shape
The following list is no doubt very familiar to anyone who has studied geometry. It is a list that I’m sure many school children have seen before and perhaps struggled with figuring out how to remember what each word means. To make that task easier, I usually put it side by side with the list you were just reading about – the list of numbers beyond millions. It is so interesting when you compare the two lists. Instead of me pointing out similarities and differences, the students can do it for themselves. I’ve made a chart so that you can see at a glance how all the numbered groups I’ve mentioned relate to one another in meaning. You’ll find the chart below this list of shapes.
What I have found interesting in looking at the list of shapes is that the first one (triangle) pretty clearly refers to a shape with three angles. The second shape listed is a quadrilateral which in math books is also referred to as a quadrangle. But why the two names? The word quadrangle originated in Latin as quandrangulum and was used to mean a “four-sided figure.” What’s interesting to me is that the word literally means “four angles” and yet it is defined as a “four sided figure”. Perhaps it is nothing to get hung up on since a four-sided figure will have four angles and a shape with four angles will have four sides. The word quadrilateral originated in Latin as quadrilaterus and was used to mean “figure formed of four straight lines.” That makes sense to me because I’ve seen ‘lateral’ in other words and it has always had something to do with “side.”
Sometimes the word is used generally. In the following pictures you are looking at a lateral view (side view) of a goat skeleton and also a building.
Wilhelm Ellenberger and Hermann Baum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Other times the use of lateral is more specific. Notice the darkly pigmented lateral line on this fish? Many fish have a lateral line.
Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Here is an example of a lateral pass in football. According to Wikipedia, “The ball carrier throws the football to a teammate in a direction parallel to or away from the opponents’ goal line.” So the ball is moved to one side or the other. In Canadian football this is more commonly known as an onside pass and in American football it is known as a backward pass.
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Warrant Officer 4 Seth Rossman., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Getting back to the mathematical use of these words, I also recall seeing ‘equilateral’ in math texts that I have used with children. This indicates that a shape has equal sides. And just as I have seen quadrilateral and quadrangle referring to the same shape, I have also see equilateral and equiangular referring to the same shape. Again, when we have a shape with equal sides, it will have equal angles.
Now let’s look at ‘pentagon’ which will help us understand the spellings of the rest of the words on this list. According to Etymonline, its Greek root is πεντά–γωνος (pentagōnos) meaning “five-angled or five-cornered.” The Greek root is a compound made up of pente “five” and gōnia “angle.” From this information we can see that hexagon, septagon, octagon, and the rest are words for a shape with a particular number of angles.
An interesting relative of Greek gōnia is Greek gony “knee.” Do you see what a knee and an angle have in common? The Latin equivalent to Greek gony is genu. You may be familiar with that base in the word ‘genuflect’ which is when someone bends their knee in worship or out of respect. The Old English word for knee was cneo or cneow. In Old English, the initial <c> would have been pronounced as /k/. Now you can see where our <kn> digraph spelling came from!
I brought together all of the words I’ve mentioned that have something to do with a numbered group. Might be a great discussion starter! Perhaps someone will think of another kind of group that gets numbered in this way that I haven’t thought to include. How exciting!
Can you and your students spot instances in which the same element is used in the different lists? Do you notice that The Hellenic people and the Romans had different names for elements that represented the same amount? Do any of the word elements we see remind you of words from other languages? What does the rest of the word (besides the element that indicates a number) in each list mean?
Here’s an idea for those of you in classrooms. Split your class into groups and pair up each group with one of these categories. Let the students find what they can about the words, their origins, and the way we use these words in our society. This would obviously be a project they work at each day for a week or two depending on your students. Your job is to circulate between the groups to offer guidance and celebrate what they are finding. Then let each group rehearse in a corner of the room before present their findings to the rest of the class. In my experience, the groups may not finish at the same time. That’s fine. Let them present when they are ready. Have some new investigations ready for the groups who finish first.
The sources I used today were Wikipedia, Merriam-Webster, Etymonline, Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, and the OED.
Lately, the use of the title ‘doctor’ has come into question. The wife of our newly elected President has the title of Dr. Biden, and yet she holds no medical license. She has been accused of using the title to give herself fake importance. Is it fake though? Where does this practice of granting people this title come from? What does it take to be a doctor? Can anyone be one? As usual, we need to look into the story of this word. How long has it been in use? Has it always indicated a person with medical knowledge? When did it refer to others with particular knowledge in their respective fields as well?
I started at Etymonline and found that the word doctor was first attested c. 1300 and spelled doctour. At the time it was used to mean “Church father.” Before that it was used in Old French where it came directly from Medieval Latin doctor meaning “religious teacher, advisor, scholar.” In Classical Latin it was used to mean “teacher.”
So far the only tie to a specific area of knowledge is that of religion. I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and found examples of this word in use. In the late 1300’s saints were known as doctors. In one example, a saint was known as a doctor of truth. In an example from the mid-1500’s, Christ Jesus was referred to as the heavenly doctor. And in the mid-1600’s a person was referred to as a doctor of divinity, while another a doctor of theology.
Around this same time, the sense of this word broadened to include other areas beyond religion. Notice this definition listed at Etymonline.
Look at that! Since the late 14th century, we as a society have been referring to people who hold the highest degree in a university as doctor. I looked back at the OED to verify this with actual examples and found that in the late 1600’s there was a person given the title of “Doctor of Music.” An excerpt from roughly a hundred years later mentions someone being named a “Doctor of Laws.” But as I continue to scroll through the entry, I find that people were called doctors of law as early as 1377! The noun ‘doctorate’ as in the degree of learning earned is from the 1670’s. This is not new, and it is not a fake title!
In the same way that the title of ‘doctor’ was given to someone with extensive learning in law or music, it was also given to someone with extensive learning in the medical field, although according to Etymonline it did not become popular until the late 16th century. The term “medical professional” replaced the term “leech.” How about that! Here is the Etymonline entry.
It is interesting to look at the possible roots of this word and see that they include things like “enchanter, one who speaks magic words, healer, physician, charmer, exorcist, one who counsels, and conjurer.” This speaks to the attitudes and perceptions regarding medicine as the field grew, doesn’t it? It may be difficult to separate the idea of a leech being a physician from the idea of a leech being a bloodsucking aquatic worm, but according to Etymonline they were indeed two separate words with distinctive uses. One (worm) became assimilated to the other (physician) by way of folk etymology. (Folk etymology is a popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase.) Here are some interesting compound words I found at the OED.
Leech-fee … a physician’s fee
Leech-house … a hospital
Leechman … a physician
Leech-finger … what we typically refer to as our ring finger. Old English spelling was læcefinger. It was translated from Latin digitus medicus which was in turn transcribed from Greek δακτυλος ιατρικος. It was called that because it was believed that this finger had a vein that stretched to the heart.
Apparently this term narrowed in its use to refer only to veterinary practices until the 17th century when it slowly became archaic. What a great example of how the people who speak the language determining by their use of words which ones stay and which ones fall out of use! If you are wondering where the connection is between physicians and the use of leeches as a medicinal practice, that wasn’t attested until 1802. In my own mind, I thought it was earlier than that, but I’m probably thinking of the related practice of bloodletting which happened much earlier.
If we renew our focus on the word ‘doctor’, and note its root of docere “to know, teach, cause to know,” we’ll recognize the following related words.
doctor – a person who holds a doctorate.
doctorate – the highest degree awarded by a graduate school or other approved educational organization.
doctoral – relating to achieving a doctorate.
doctiloquent – this word is rare but one I enjoy. It describes one who speaks learnedly.
doctrine – beliefs held and taught by a church, political party or other group.
indoctrinate – teach someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
doctrinaire – someone who seeks to impose a doctrine without regard to practical considerations.
doctress – female doctor. Becoming less common as woman-doctor becomes more common.
docile – ready to accept control or instruction; submissive.
docility – this word began as “readiness or aptness to learn”, but since the 1600’s has meant “submissiveness to management.”
docent – a person who acts as a guide in a museum, art gallery, or zoo.
document – written work that provides information or evidence that serves as an official record.
Back to where this started …
Dr. Biden holds two masters degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership. Since the late 14th century, that kind of commitment to learning has earned a person the title of ‘doctor’. Granted, it probably didn’t include women back then, but we’re past that part, aren’t we? It can take between four and six years to complete a doctorate. That is in addition to the time it takes to get a masters. Many countries require a masters before one can study for a doctorate. The U.S. has been changing that requirement in recent years, but you can see that Dr. Biden earned two masters degrees before earning her doctorate.
Instead of choosing one doctorate program (medical) as important and all others as fake or undeserving of the title that goes along with that level of time commitment to learning, I say we encourage more people to seek that title. Our society needs experts in all areas! Our society needs more people committed to learning which in turn will benefit all of us!
This week I will be observing a lesson in a high school science class. The lesson will focus on naming ionic compounds. In preparation for this observation I asked to look over the reading materials the students will use. Having very little background in chemistry beyond that of what fifth grade students are expected to understand, I found words being used that I didn’t clearly understand. And, of course, knowing that if I want to increase my understanding of the lesson, I’ll need to understand the specific terminology, I did some word investigation.
The information tells us that this word was first attested in 1834. That means that the first time we have written evidence of this word existing is in 1834. And if you read further, you will see that it was coined by Michael Faraday on the suggestion by Rev. William Whewell and derived from the Greek word ion (ἰόν) which was a form of Greek ienai (ἰέναι) “go.” It is common to find scientific names for things attested from 1500 to present. During that time and in some cases even earlier, the Latin language was revived for scholarly and scientific purposes. This time period and the idea of coining words using stems derived from Latin and Greek is called Modern Latin. These words were coined in Modern Latin.
It is helpful to understand that the denotation of ‘ion’ is “go” because as it says at Etymonline, “ions move toward the electrode of opposite charge.” To see if I could find some more etymology, I went to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). The word ‘ion’ is defined as either a single atom, molecule, or a group that has a net electric charge. It doesn’t matter whether that charge is positive or negative, only that that charge is a result of either the loss or addition of an electron. Next I set out to find some related words.
ionic – <ion + ic> “relating to or composed of ions.” adjective
ionically – <ion + ic + al + ly> “relating to or composed of ions.” adverb
ionicity – <ion + ic + ity> “the degree to which something is ionic.”
ionizer – <ion + ize + er> “a device that helps an air purifier be more effective.”
ionogen – <ion + o + gen> “a substance able to produce ions.”
ionography – <ion + o + graph + y> “a form of printing in which a static electric charge draws toner particles from the drum to the paper.”
ionomer – <ion + o + mer> “a polymer that contains ions.”
ionosphere – <ion + o + sphere> “layer of the atmosphere that contains a high level of ions and reflects radio waves.”
ionopause – <ion + o + pause> “the boundary layer of the ionosphere where it meets either the mesosphere at one side or the exosphere on its other.”
ionosonde – <ion + o + sonde> “special radar used to examine the ionosphere.”
cation – <cat + ion> “positively charged ion.”
anion – <an + ion> “negatively charged ion.”
You will notice that the only two words on my matrix that form a compound word with ‘ion’ being the second base are ‘anion’ and ‘cation’. A closer look at these two words brings with it many interesting finds!
The Etymonline entry is interesting.
Notice that the word ‘anode’ is bolded. When I see that, I always follow such a word to find out more. In this case, I see that ‘anode’ is first attested in 1834. As is the case with ion, cation, anode, and cathode, the word was proposed by Rev. William Whewell and published by Michael Faraday. It’s pretty obvious that these two were needing to name components of what they were studying and finding! The first base is derived from Greek ana “up”, and the second base is derived from Greek hodos “way, path, track.”
According to Wikipedia, “An anode is an electrode through which the conventional current enters into a polarized electrical device. This contrasts with a cathode, an electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device.” This definition makes sense if we think about the literal translation of ‘anode’ as “up a path or way.” If ‘cathode’ is the electrode through which conventional current leaves an electrical device, then I’m guessing that the first base in ‘cathode’ must have a denotation of down. According to Etymonline, <cat> is indeed derived from Greek kata “down.” So in this case, as the current enters the device it is on its way up (anode), and when it leaves it is on its way down (cathode).
Back to ‘anion’. This word has a literal translation of “go up.” An anion has more electrons than protons, so it is negatively charged. You might say that the number of electrons is what “goes up” in an anion.
Here is the Etymonline entry.
Are you noting the same year of attestation once again? And the same scientists who coined this word? Another interesting thing to note is written right after the date of attestation (1834). It says that ‘cation’ is from a Latinized form of Greek kation “going down.” It is a Latinized form because the Roman scribes wrote the Greek letter kappa as a <c>. Since we now know that an ‘anion’ has more electrons than protons and has a literal sense of “go up”, it makes sense to think of a cation as having less electrons than protons (positive charge). The number of electrons is what “goes down” in an cation.
A word about the pronunciation of anion and cation.
It might be tempting to pronounce ‘anion’ similarly to ‘onion’ and ‘cation’ to what we hear in the portmanteau word ‘staycation’. But we would only be tempted to do that because of the commonly used suffix <-ion>! When the <-ion> suffix is added to a word like ‘one’, we end up with ‘onion’. The IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘onion’ is /ˈʌnjən/. The IPA representation for ‘anion’ is /ˈænaɪən/. Compare this pronunciation to that of ‘ion’, /ˈaɪən/. Do you see what is similar? The <ion> base is pronounced differently than the <-ion> suffix! Let’s see if it is the same with ‘cation’. If we think of the pronunciation of ‘staycation’, we would represent it with IPA like this /steɪˈkeɪʃən/. But the IPA for the American pronunciation of ‘cation’ is /ˈkædˌaɪən/. If you compare this with the pronunciation of ‘ion’, you will once again notice that the base <ion> is not pronounced the same as the <-ion> suffix!
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <cat>?
cataclysm – <cata + clysm> “wash down.” Originally a flood, now a large-scale or violent event.
catalog – <cata + log> “list down.” Also spelled <catalogue>.
cataplexy – <cata + plexy> “strike down.” An example is when an animal pretends it’s dead.
catarrh – <cata + rrh> “flowing down.” It is inflammation and discharge from a head cold.
catastrophe – <cata + strophe> “turning down.” It is the reverse of what is expected.
catatonic – <cata + tone + ic> “toned down.” A mental illness in which the person is immobile in both movement and behavior.
catabolic – <cata + bole + ic> “thrown down.” According to Wikipedia it is the breaking-down aspect of metabolism.
There are other words that also have this Helenic base, and its sense and meaning isn’t just limited to “down.” I just included a few words with that specific sense so we could easily connect it to what we see in ‘cation’.
Where else do we see this Hellenic base <ana>?
anadromous – <ana + drome + ous> “running upward.” An example is fish going upstream to spawn. (The <drome> base “run” is the same as in ‘dromedary’)
analeptic – <ana + lept + ic> “take up.” A drug that restores your health.
analysis – <ana + lysis> “loosen up.” A loosening of something complex into smaller segments.
anabolic – <ana + bole + ic> “thrown up.” According to Wikipedia it is the building-up aspect of metabolism.
Like <cata>, <ana> isn’t just limited to one sense and meaning. I chose words with this base and this sense so we could more easily see the connections to ‘anion’.
I always find it helpful to collect more information about words I’ve heard, but am not completely familiar with. When I saw similar words like anode and anion, and also cathode and cation, I knew that I would need to understand both bases in each of these compound words in order to keep their meanings straight. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ has to do with a path or track. An anode is the electrode through which the electrical current enters a polarized electrical device, and a cathode is the electrode through which the current leaves. I’ve learned that the second base in ‘anion’ and ‘cation’ has to do with movement. An anion has more electrons than protons and is negatively charged. A cation has more protons than electrons and is positively charged.
Knowing that <ana> has a denotation of “up” helps me picture an arrow pointed up indicating that the number of electrons is higher than that of the protons in an anion. Knowing that <cata> has a denotation of “down” helps me picture an arrow pointed down, indicating that the number of electrons is lower than that of the protons in an cation.
Now I feel better prepared to learn about naming ionic compounds.
The more I bring up morphology with people (as it relates to teaching reading and spelling), the more I realize that it is not very well understood. Just a day or two ago a teacher asked how to help her 5th grade students who read quite well, but had significant problems with spelling. Man. Her students sounded like so many of the students I have known! So I responded with this. (It may seem like a long response, but I wanted to be clear about what I was saying.)
“I would be interested in knowing the types of spelling errors they are making. Does it have to do with an unawareness of morphology? It is common for me to see ‘barely’ spelled as ‘barley’ until I ask what the structure of this word is. In my first question to the student I ask if they think the word has a prefix or suffix. The student will say <ly>. Then I ask what the base is, and they tell me it is <bare>. I ask them to announce the word sum for the word. They will say <bare + ly>. Then I ask them if the <ly> will replace a single, final, non-syllabic <e>, and they respond with, “no.” Finally I’ll ask them to spell the word. They say, “bare ly.” (I teach them to leave an ever so slight pause between the morphemes to show they recognize those morpheme boundaries.)
My guess is that your students are spelling phonetically which is rarely the same as correctly by the time they are in fifth grade. You mentioned having checked the usual things, but you didn’t mention word structure. It can account for misspellings that indicate a lack of understanding about suffixing conventions, unfamiliarity with free and bound bases, and unfamiliarity with prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowels.
No matter what grade you are teaching, if you are teaching children to spell words based on sounds they hear as they pronounce the word, sooner or later that strategy will fail for them. Incorporating the influence of morphology and etymology on English spelling is a huge missing piece. It helps with reading AND writing.
If you’d be willing to share some of the students’ misspellings, I’d be interested in seeing them. I have taught spelling through morphology, etymology, and phonology in fifth grade for 8 years now. Students come in spelling phonetically, and I teach them to spell with word sums. The discussions we have, and how quickly they establish a broader understanding of English spelling is something to behold.”
The woman thanked me for my response but then said something very telling as far as her understanding about morphology. She said that she lives in a foreign country and the words in their language don’t have many Greek or Latin roots, so she doesn’t teach much morphology. Hmmm. It isn’t hard to imagine how this woman got the impression that teaching students about morphology means teaching Greek and Latin bases. Many teachers who don’t have the background knowledge to truly understand English spelling rely on materials put out by people who may be focused on vocabulary building rather than focusing on a word’s structure. So often the teaching of morphology gets reduced to teaching words that have common Greek or Latin bases as if that’s all there is to it.
Teaching students to understand and use morphology in order to understand English spelling will often involve looking at Greek or Latin bases. That’s a fact. But it may not! Looking to understand a word’s structure may lead students to Old English or Old French or any of a number of languages that are left out of the books that focus solely on Greek or Latin roots. And my biggest complaint about the materials I’ve seen that are currently available to teachers is that they don’t really address the morphemic structure of words at all!
For instance, let’s say they pick the Latin verb ducere “to lead,” and state that it might be spelled ‘duce’, ‘duc’, or ‘duct’. That is followed by a list of words that might include introduce, deduces, seduction, education, and reducing. The rest of the page is a fill-in-the-blank for the students, usually related to the meaning of the words. Is this terribly false information? Not really. But does it teach morphology? Not really.
Are the students asked to hypothesize a word sum for the words? Do they recognize for themselves the prefixes and suffixes in each of these words? Do they know the sense that each prefix used brings to the denotation of the base? Do they know whether the suffix is inflectional or derivational? Do they find out why the author says the spelling is sometimes ‘duce’ and sometimes ‘duc’? And what about ‘duct’? There’s no <t> in the Latin verb ducere, so where is that <t> coming from? Do they find out why the ‘duc’ in ‘education’ is pronounced differently than the ‘duc’ in ‘reducing’?
Some of you reading this may know enough to recognize that some of my proposed questions could be investigated by looking at the word’s etymology and at least one question needs to involve an understanding of grapheme/phoneme correspondences. It just goes to show you that if you want a full explanation of a word’s spelling, you need to look at the interrelationship between the morphology, the etymology, and the phonology. The etymology and the morphology inform the phonology. They provide the reasons for the grapheme/phoneme choices.
I found the following video on Youtube. I was searching for information on morphology that might broaden some of the narrow views some people have of it. Overall I like this video. It addresses content and function words which is a very helpful classification to know. Understanding the difference between these two groups of words has been helpful when teaching spelling and grammar! I also like the tree diagram that explains what is included under the heading of “Morphology.”
If I could change anything though, it would be to use the word ‘bases’ instead of ‘roots’. It makes sense to me to reserve the use of the word ‘roots’ to refer to the furthest back relative of a word. So, if the furthest back we can trace the <duce> in ‘reduce’ is Latin ducere, that Latin ducere is what I would call the ‘root’. For discussions of the main morpheme in a Modern English word (<duce> in ‘reduce’), I would call that main morpheme a ‘base’. I don’t see these two as interchangeable since they describe distinct situations.
The other thing I would change about this video is to have the host spell out all morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words. I know that pronouncing morphemes is a very common practice, but just think of how the repetition of spelling out those morphemes would help them hold a place in a student’s memory. If the student is trained to remember a pronunciation, there is no guarantee two children with slightly different personal pronunciations of a morpheme will spell it the same!
But an even bigger reason for not pronouncing morphemes when announcing a word sum is because until the word is complete, we don’t know the pronunciation. One of my favorite examples of this is the bound base <dict>. If you try to pronounce it as you would a finished word, how would you do it? Would you pronounce it as you do in ‘diction’, ‘indictment’, or ‘predictable’? Have you noticed that the base is pronounced differently in each word I mentioned? If we model pronouncing it as we hear it in ‘predictable’, then a student is sure to mispronounce the word ‘indictment’. Or when hearing the pronunciation of ‘indictment’, the student probably won’t recognize that ‘indictment’ has the same base as ‘diction’, and therefore a meaning connection between them. After all, the vast majority of students are not taught that a specific spelling represents a specific meaning. They are taught instead that a specific spelling represents a pronunciation and that a word’s meaning is what you will find in a dictionary. What a loss for the student!
This video points out that morphemes can be free or bound. By definition all affixes are bound. The name ‘prefix’ and the name ‘suffix’ give that away, don’t they? Looking at each word’s morphemes we can understand how they both function in a word. ‘Prefix’ is composed of the morphemes <pre-> “before” and <fix> which derives from Latin figere “fasten.” Its literal meaning is “fasten before.” ‘Suffix’ is composed of the morphemes <suf>, an assimilated form of <sub> “up from under” and <fix> “fasten.” Its literal meaning is “fasten or place under.” So a prefix is fastened before the base and the suffix is fastened after the base. No matter how many suffixes a word has, they all follow the base. Similarly, all prefixes are found in front of a base.
Bases are the only morpheme that can be free. Most of us are familiar with free bases and recognize them easily. When asked to name compound words, a student might say, “chalkboard, playground, rainbow, hallway, and starfish.” They have been taught that compound words are the result of two words being combined and becoming a new word with a new meaning. So, for example, a star and a fish are different than a starfish. That is true information about a compound word, but it isn’t the whole picture.
If I was asked to name some compound words, I might name a familiar one like doghouse, but then I might also name emancipation, automatic, ice cream, and biography. Don’t recognize them as compounds? It’s probably because instead of including only free bases, they include one or more bound bases. And in just the same way that an affix must be fixed to another morpheme, so must a bound base. The reason that you might not recognize these as compound words is because you have most likely only been taught to recognize free bases. So when you look at one of the words I’ve mentioned, you’re not sure how to identify its structure because you haven’t been taught morphology.
Let’s take a closer look at the compound words I named. (The etymological information that is included in this post was found at Etymonline.)
‘Emancipation’ is composed of two bases along with one prefix and two suffixes. The prefix is <e->. It is a clip of the prefix <ex-> “out.” This prefix is fastened to the first bound base <man> from Latin manus “hand.” The next morpheme is another bound base <-cip>. It is a vowel shifted form of the Latin verb capere “take.” That bound base is followed by the suffix <ate> which would make this a verb if there wasn’t the final suffix <ion> (noun forming). The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “the act of taking out of one’s hands.”
‘Automatic’ is composed of two bound bases that are joined by a connecting vowel. It is a connected compound. The first base, <aut> from Greek autos “self,” is joined to the second base, <mate> from Greek matos “thinking, animated,” by the Helenic connecting vowel <o>. The <-ic> suffix signals that this word is an adjective. The word sum is <aut + o + mate/ + ic>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “self thinking or self animated.”
‘Ice Cream’ is composed of two bases that are not connected. It is an open compound. The first free base <ice> is from Old English is “ice, piece of ice.” The second free base <cream> is from Middle English creyme, creme, creem “the rich and buttery part of milk.” When we see this word, we recognize that it is a compound word. Some interesting etymological information is that in the 1680’s the word was ‘iced cream’. The word sum is <ice + cream>. The bases provide the sense of a dessert in which flavored cream is partially frozen through a process.
‘Biography’ is composed of two bound bases joined by a connecting vowel. It also contains a suffix. It is a connected compound. The first base is <bi> from Greek bios “life”. It is joined to the second base <graph> from Greek graphia “record, account” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>. The <-y> suffix in this word signals that it is a noun. The word sum is <bi + o + graph + y>. The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “a record of someone’s life.”
Now that we’ve looked at a few different kinds of compound words, let’s go back and update the definition of a compound word. Instead of stating that a compound word is the result of two words being combined, let’s say that it is the result of two or more bases being combined. In this way, the bases don’t have to be free bases (able to stand alone as a word). They can be free bases, bound bases, or a combination of the two!
At this point, you may be saying, “Is it really worth going into such detail about the structure of a word?” And I would argue that it definitely is. The true benefit of teaching students that words have structure and guiding them as they hypothesize what that structure might be is that the students will quickly realize that bases and affixes that they see in one word will appear in others as well! Let’s take another look at one of the compound words I mentioned.
‘Emancipation’. The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion –> emancipation>.
Where else might we see the <e-> prefix?
erupt “break out”
educate “lead out”
erode “gnaw away”
evade “go or walk away”
Where else might we see the <man> bound base?
manufacture “something made by hand”
manicure “care for hands”
Where else might we see the <-cip> bound base?
participate “take part”
anticipate “take care of before”
principal “take first position; chief leader”
principle “take first; origin, source”
Where else might we see the <-ate> verbal suffix?
excavate “hollow out”
irrigate “bring water in”
decorate “embellish or beautify”
estimate “approximate judgement”
As we now look at the <-ion> noun-forming suffix, it is interesting to note that it is often paired with the <-ate> suffix!
excavation “action of hollowing out”
irrigation “action of bringing water in”
decoration “action of embellishing or beautifying”
estimation “action of approximately judging something”
Besides noting the suffix convention of replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e> on the <-ate> suffix when adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, there is also the phonology of the <t> in the <-ate> suffix to notice. The list of words that have <ate> final are pronounced with a final /t/. But once the <-ion> suffix is added and the single, final, non-syllabic <e> has been replaced, the <t> now has a /ʃ/pronunciation. I have found that students make less spelling errors when they understand the structure. Let me explain what I mean. So with ‘excavation’, the word sum is <ex + cave/ + ate/ + ion>. From the first day of the school year, I tell my students that my goal for them is to spell words by spelling out the morphemes rather than spelling the words letter by letter. They can’t imagine spelling a word any other way than letter by letter, but by the end of the year many have indeed made that change. And they feel like their spelling is stronger for it. This word is a good example of how that can be possible. The student announces the word they are spelling. Then they parse it into morphemes. When they get as far as <ex + cave + ate>, they know that in adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, they will be replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e>. Then they proceed to spell out the <-ion> suffix. At no point does the consideration of a ‘shun’ spelling cross their mind. Through our repeated writing of word sums, the students have come to know that even when pronunciation shifts in a word family, the spelling doesn’t. ‘Excavate’ wouldn’t become *’excavashun’ because they know the structure. They are no longer spelling by what they hear, but by what they know of the morphemic structure. And that structure is, of course, aided by etymological information.
You can see that in noting the morphological structure of one word (emancipation), my students have thought about the structures and meaning connections to at least 16 others! THIS is how we build vocabulary (which aides in comprehension) and strengthen spelling (which makes writing less laborious). When we seek connections in this way, students become aware of many more affixes which in turn helps them hypothesize logical and reasoned word sums. This isn’t to say we never get stumped in trying to fully analyze a word’s structure. We get stumped often. But we don’t give up or call English crazy. We look at our resources and based on the evidence we find, we write a word sum. That means that at times we are limited by our resources and sometimes our ability to understand the resources. That’s okay. The really important thing is not to analyze further than you have evidence for. Offer a word sum you can support with evidence. Once you parse a word by how it looks or how it sounds, you have abandoned the methodical scientific aspect of Structured Word Inquiry.
Now spotting a particular base or affix doesn’t guarantee the student will automatically know the word it is in. But it does mean that the student will pause and think about the word. They will wonder if the morpheme they recognize is indeed the same morpheme that we have looked at in class. If they have recognized a base element, they will pause and try to see if the denotation of the base element can give them a clue to the meaning of the word they have just found it in. It might also be that the word is very familiar, but the student never before recognized that it could be further analyzed. In this case they are often delighted to now see the structure they were previously unaware of. For me, I remember how I felt when I realized that ‘been’ was really <be + en> and that ‘happen’ was <hap + en>. Having a real understanding of how words are structured, where those morphemes come from, and what sense and/or meaning they bring to a word has brought me such joy! I wonder about words all the time. And researching their heritage to better determine the morphemes is a pursuit powered by fascination. I never know what I will find and that is so motivating!
The benefits of teaching morphology are many. Here are a few specific benefits that I have seen in my classroom.
~ Students are able to identify the structure of the words they use. They don’t have to wait to know about an <-ous> suffix because of some arbitrary suffix scope and sequence. If it is used in the words they use, and they routinely identify other suffixes, then they will already understand some things about suffixes in general and grow their understanding of word structure in general.
~ Students will recognize that frequently the words they read have more than one suffix or more than one prefix. There is so much information revealed when the structure is understood. Often the stress in the word shifts with the addition of a suffix (when adding that suffix adds another syllabic beat). Specifically pointing that out to children helps them see that ‘photograph’ and ‘photography’ or ‘interrogate’ and ‘interrogative’ are related words even though they are pronounced in a way that makes them feel like two totally different words.
~ Students will learn the difference between free and bound bases. They will recognize familiar bases when they encounter them in unfamiliar words and quite possible by able to figure out what the unfamiliar word means. My students have given me numerous examples of this happening to them.
~ Students will come to know the suffixing conventions well because they will encounter it often as they write and announce word sums. Not only will they understand what the suffixing convention is, but they will understand why it is needed or why it is not in a specific word. That means that they will be able to apply that understanding on their own to the vast number of words they will encounter for the rest of their lives!
~ Students will spell a word by thinking through its structure and by spelling it out morpheme by morpheme. They will write words sums and announce them, acknowledging any suffixing conventions that were applied.
~ Students will learn the functions of the single, final, non-syllabic <e>. My students have typically come into fifth grade with only a “sound it out” spelling strategy which doesn’t work at all for a non-syllabic <e>. Understanding why that <e> is there has helped many of my students who used to leave it off in words like continue, house, and breathe.
~ Students will understand that a prefix brings a sense to a word, but that the same prefix doesn’t always bring the same sense to every word it is a part of. This is when an etymological resource is important. An example of this is in the word ‘corrode’. The prefix <cor-> is an assimilated form of <con-> (which is generally thought to bring a sense of “together” to words it is part of). The base is <rode> and has a sense and meaning of “gnaw”. (If you are recognizing that it might also be a base in the word ‘rodent’, you are right!) In the word ‘corrode’, though, the prefix is an intensifier. It intensifies the action of the base. So if a battery corrodes, you can imagine it intensely gnawing at the components around it!
~ When a student is reading and comes to a word they don’t think they know, they can spell it out, looking for recognizable morphemes. It might just be that they haven’t yet encountered that base with an attached prefix before. This strategy works more often that you might think.
~ Students will become familiar with the idea that one grapheme can represent more than one phoneme. The example I will use is the grapheme <t> in <act> representing the phoneme /t/. When we add the <-ion> suffix, the grapheme <t> now represents the phoneme /ʃ/. In word families where the pronunciation shifts, it is crucial that the student understand that it is the spelling that is consistent. When they know the morphemes in ‘act’ and ‘action’, they won’t be tempted to use an <sh> in the spelling of ‘action’. They will understand the difference between a word divided into syllabic parts and a word analyzed into its morphemes. Students acquire word meaning and spelling by learning morphemes. Syllabic division is used as an aide to pronunciation.
~ Students will learn that words have a history and that even alphabet letters have a history. Often this history part, this etymology, helps us understand a modern spelling. As an example, my students understood the <ph> spelling in ‘sphere’ when we learned that the word is from Greek sphaira and I was able to show them the actual Greek spelling, σφαιρα. The second letter in the Greek spelling is phi. It was the Roman scribes who transcribed it as <ph> since they didn’t have the letter phi in their alphabet.
~ Students will encounter and build an understanding of connecting vowels. These vowels can connect two bases, a base to a suffix, or a suffix to another suffix. They are used when one or more of the bases in the word is from either Greek or Latin. The use of <o> as a connecting vowel is specific to Greek and the use of <i>, <u>, or <e> is specific to Latin.
~ Students will learn about bases that derived from Greek and Latin, many of which we notice when studying the sciences. They will also learn that the majority of the words we use every day are in fact from Old English. When identifying a morpheme such as the base element, finding out its language of origin helps us see the bigger picture of how our language has evolved. They will become aware of the influence of Old French and more.
~ Because we don’t deal in “right” or “wrong” answers and instead deal with “likely” or “less likely” based on the evidence, students are much more willing to hypothesize a word sum. They also discover that once you investigate a word, even though you learned a lot, there is always more to learn. Once the awareness is established, specific bases and affixes seem to appear left and right! My students have described it this way, “With spelling, once you know the word the door is shut. You don’t need to go back. With orthography, you can come back to the word as many times as you want. There will always be something else to notice.”
Morphology can’t be taught as a stand alone any more than phonology or etymology. You have probably noticed in the list above that in identifying a word’s structure, etymological information is often necessary. Once the etymology has been considered and the morphemes in the word sum identified (matching the understanding of the person writing the word sum), the grapheme/phoneme correspondences are noted and oftentimes better understood because of the etymological research involved. Deciding for a child that learning morphology, etymology AND phonology is just too much, and that they only need to focus on sounds in order to read, is denying them the opportunity to see the bigger picture of our language. It is setting them up to view English spelling as full of exceptions that have no explanations. And it’s not that there aren’t explanations, it’s that someone is keeping a full two-thirds of the story from the child, thinking that later on some other teacher will supply that. The problem is that when reading and spelling difficulties arise, no matter the grade level, the advice is to start back at step one. Many children are never offered the full picture, the complete story, the understanding they deserve. Teaching morphology can’t be taught in isolation. So making the commitment to teach morphology is making the commitment to teach the combination of morphology, etymology, and phonology. It is making the commitment to show students how all the parts work together to build an understanding of a word within a language. It is empowering the student with the ability to read a word, write that word, and to see meaning connections across words because of what they understand about morphemes.
“Prejudice feels like a white-hot wire being pressed to your heart.
Even when the sting goes away, a mark is left there.” (M.F.)
“Prejudice feels like you are the broom
being pushed against the floor.” (K.M.)
“You are separated by an imaginary wall from everyone else.
You just keep losing over and over again.” (C.L.)
Such powerful images. Illustrating feelings of being uncomfortable and not at all in control. It might surprise you to learn that these feelings are being described by ten-year-old White children in a predominately White school in a small, predominately White village. How could they possibly understand what being on the receiving end of prejudice might feel like? How does anyone begin to understand an experience that has never been their own?
I credit Jane Elliot. She is one of many people have inspired me to try new things throughout my teaching career. Even though I never personally met Jane Elliot, I couldn’t shake the impact she had (continues to have) on both adults and children. I first heard of her in 1998 when we were showing a video to our fifth grade students entitled ABC News: Prejudice – Answering Children’s Questions. The video was hosted by Peter Jennings, and Jane Elliot was a guest on the show. As part of the show, Jane Elliot conducted an experiment. She gave green collars to all of the children who had blue eyes. Then she proceeded to treat them as if the color of their eyes indicated that they were not as smart, not as able, not as trustworthy, and not as patient as the children with brown eyes. It was something to watch.
After seeing how she conducted this experiment and how the students reacted, I was fascinated and wanted to learn more about her. I found this video and watched it. It is a documentary of the full experiment she implemented in her all White classroom in the late 1960’s. The very first time she conducted this experiment was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She knew that something had to be done so that her White students could understand what Black people were experiencing in our society. Over the years she has continued to use this same approach to illustrate what discrimination feels like to people of all ages and in a multitude of situations.
Watching the shorter segment on the Prejudice: Answering Children’s Questions video, we saw how angry the students became who were told to wear green collars. Some wore expressions of confusion and hurt. Others became belligerent, which only made things worse for them. It was powerful because it was quite obvious those children hadn’t ever experienced such unfairness based on something they couldn’t control (eye color). My students said they could understand what those with green collars must have been feeling based on the demeaning language and harsh condescending tones coming from Jane Elliot. But was simply watching it enough to leave a lasting impression? I didn’t think so. So I asked my students if they wanted to do this same experiment in our classroom. They didn’t hesitate. This was something they wanted to try.
Before we actually carried out this experiment, the students had an idea of the role I would play and what might occur with them. But still, we needed to have a heart to heart. I warned them that we would all need to take this very seriously. I would still be their teacher, Mrs. Steven, but there would be things I said and did that would surprise them. And not in a good way. I would need to play the part of a teacher who truly thought some of the students were “less special” than the others. The fact that they were still excited to do this and thought it would be fun, told me just how necessary it was. I hoped I could pull it off. I told the students to go home and discuss with their families what we would be doing based on what they saw in the video. There were about three parents who contacted me to let me know they were strongly in favor of this.
In preparation, I brainstormed several things I could do that children would think of as unfair. That wasn’t a difficult task. I decided that dividing them by eye color was probably the best. I happened to have some pink felt, so as the students came in the next day, I looked into their eyes and handed the blue-eyed children a piece of felt and a safety pin. That way it was more obvious to all which students had blue eyes, and which didn’t.
I knew my students had gym first thing, so I contacted the gym teacher the day before to ask if she would be willing to participate. She thought it was a great idea, and thought of her own ways to discriminate. As the students came in, she told the students wearing pink felt that they had to jump rope for a warm up and that they had better get going. The rest of the students were given a choice of running laps or jumping rope. It was the first of many times that morning that feelings would be hurt and things would not feel fair.
After gym, it was normal to let the students get a drink at the bubbler, and then walk back to class. However on that day only some were allowed to get a drink at the bubbler outside the gym. The students wearing pink felt had to use the bubbler in the first grade hallway. When they arrived back in the classroom, they were scolded for having taken too long.
I had some desks arranged in a circle and the rest in rows toward the back of the room. My tone was sharp and impatient with students wearing the pink felt, whereas it was smooth and friendly with the rest. When there were questions about the work, I answered the questions asked by the brown-eyed students first and was very thorough in my response. If that group had no questions, I answered the questions asked by the blue-eyed students, but hinted that they should have learned the information last year. I suggested they work harder and pay better attention in class.
The students noted later that our room had never worked so quietly. But it wasn’t a comfortable quiet. The morning subjects were interrupted by one 15 minute recess, and the students came back grumbling about having had a rotten time. When it was time for lunch, I joked with some and sent them off with a smile. With others, I implied they were holding up the line and to hurry! When they returned from lunch and recess, they were visibly upset. Their emotions were so stoked that the littlest look or the smallest criticism was crushing. They hated this day and this experiment. It hadn’t been fun for anyone, including me. But did it hit its intended target? We would see.
I told them that the experiment was officially over and that those with the piece of pink felt could now remove it. There were cheers signaling relief. As I was collecting the felt pieces, I had everyone put their desks back into the normal arrangement and then get out a piece of paper. I told them how important it was for them to write down what they were thinking and feeling while it was still fresh in their minds. What follows is a sampling of those responses.
Today freaked me out. It was scary. So what if I have blue eyes. I heard tons of comments Mrs. Steven made about us and saw the things she did. I would almost be the saddest person on earth if this happened to me every day. This whole day I have been writing things down on my desk about what happened. For one, there were two milk counts. Eli, a “bluey,” had to go get the milk for his group in a cardboard box, and Sam got to use the regular milk crate for the rest of the students. The “blueys” even had to use the third grade bathroom which is all the way down the hall, when the fifth grade bathroom is right outside our door!
During science, she only let the “brownies” read aloud from the book. When she handed back papers, the people with blue eyes had to get up and get their papers while people with brown eyes got to stay seated and Mrs. Steven handed their papers to them. When we called the other students “brownies,” Mrs. Steven said, “Don’t call names!” When we said, “But they were calling us blueys.” She said, “Well, you are.”
I hated it soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much. I was treated so badly. I wanted to go home all day. I was wishing I had brown eyes. I felt like getting my stuff and walking home. I felt like almost hurting someone. I felt mad at some of my friends. I felt alone and stupid. I felt like if someone shot and killed me, nobody would care. It was a horrible/awful/hateful experience.
I felt like I was very special compared to the blue eyed people.
I wanted to tell her not to treat us like that just because we’re different. She wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. When Mrs. Steven did that to us, I felt like nothing … like a piece of dust in the wind … or an atom, because I was so tiny.
I liked it because Mrs. Steven trusted the “brownies.” I hated it because at lunch recess I was playing four square, and some people that were “blueys” said I couldn’t play because I had brown eyes. That right there cut me real deep. I don’t know if they were joking or serious. Either way it cut. I didn’t like how my friends separated from me.
The blue-eyed people asked for help on math, but all she said was, “You’re smart kids, aren’t you?” It would hurt my feelings if she said that to me. It hurt my feelings, and she didn’t say it to me.
Today Mrs. Steven was being prejudiced. Even though I wasn’t hurt by her words, I could tell other people were. I care about my friends, so that’s why I got mad when she was being mean to them.”
This was the worst day ever. It was awful. I didn’t know Mrs. Steven could be such a pain. She acted so serious. The only reason muddy eyed people got to go first at everything and get treated better is because Mrs. Steven doesn’t want to be second class. She wants to be “Little Miss Perfect.” Man, Mrs. Steven must really love being born with muddy eyes. I hope she is not offended, but I feel like I could punch her.
Prejudice is awful. It’s a problem. I liked it at first, but then it got serious. All this fighting about something stupid. My friends hating me. Me hating them. At one recess no one would play with me except the other “brownies.” I didn’t have any fun. When we came in, some of us were calling the other kids names. It got so out of hand.
This experiment began at roughly 8:15 am and ended at 12:45 pm. I stopped it when I did so that we would have the afternoon to reflect and process. What you’ve just read is really something, isn’t it? This half day experiment had a big impact. Some were hurt and took the pain inward. They felt defeated and wished they weren’t born with blue eyes. Others were angry at the unfairness. Some of that anger was directed at other children, and some of it was directed at me. You could sense that the anger was bubbling, and if this had continued much longer it might have turned into something physical. Those were some of the reactions to those with blue eyes, anyway. The reactions of the brown-eyed children were different. Some were angry, yes. They saw the unfairness and felt bad for the blue-eyed children, but they didn’t cross the line I had drawn. They didn’t get as angry and didn’t reach out to those for whom they felt sorry. In a very real sense, both groups displayed a kind of powerlessness regarding the situation. At any rate, I’m glad the feelings were real and that they were strong enough to become embedded in their memory.
Let me clearly state that even with their “powerful” feelings, I think these children had only an inkling of an understanding about prejudice and discrimination. How could it be more than that when they have not experienced it in the real world day after day after day? But an inkling may be enough for them to develop an empathy for people who do experience these things. It may be enough for these children to remember that everyone isn’t always treated equally in our society.
After the initial writing was finished and people said what they wanted to say about the experiment, I handed out big 12 x 18 inch pieces of construction paper and colored chalk. We spaced out our desks so that each person had a bit of privacy. It was to be a quiet time to explore feelings about prejudice and discrimination. I told them I wasn’t looking for recognizable images, but rather for them to choose a color to begin with and to let how they were feeling be the thing that moved that piece of chalk on the paper. They could change chalk colors as they wanted. After I felt students had had enough time to express what they maybe hadn’t yet put into words, I had them wash their desk, their hands, and then stand in a large circle with the desks displaying their drawings in the middle. I made it very clear that no one would be asked to defend or explain their drawing. We were going to look at the drawings and see what we noticed.
One of the things that stood out was that several drawings were full of dark colors that were kind of scribbled reminding us of a tornado or a knotted ball of string. Others had sharp angled lines or zigzags with marks that looked like tears falling. There were squares within squares drawn that were dark and smudged on the inside. These did not evoke feelings of happiness or cheeriness. More often the words offered by the students were trapped, confused, angry, sad, hurt, helpless, and furious. Now contrast those drawings with the few that had suns drawn on them and included lots of flowy bright colors. Happy, fearless, content.
The drawings were a meaningful way to share what other people were feeling without those people having to say a thing. And yet the drawings themselves speak loudly about what prejudice and discrimination do to the members of a society. The children with brown eyes felt bad momentarily for the other children, but in the end their own life was still represented by sunshine and cheery colors. They saw, they recognized the difference, but felt it wasn’t something they could change. There was at least one or two who drew images that evoked conflicted feelings. One side of the paper would have a light fluffy kind of feel, but the other would have an image that became swirled into a colorful mess. It wasn’t dark or smudgy or angry feeling like some of the images drawn by the blue-eyed children, but there was a feeling of unrest.
Can you see how these feelings reflect some of the real life tensions we see in our world today? Those who are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination don’t all react to it in the same way. Some push and question the authority of those whose actions are discriminatory. Some are overwhelmed with feelings of anger and frustration at how unjust the system is, and they physically, sometimes violently, react to it. Some become withdrawn, powerless, and lose self-worth. And what about those watching the discrimination and prejudice? Some speak up about the unfairness, but many like being first and the privilege that comes with “having brown eyes.” They tend to look at things as fine the way they are, even though they wouldn’t want to trade places with the group being discriminated against.
The last part of the day was spent writing poetry. I asked them to try to put into words what they saw in their drawings. What follows is a sampling of those poems which were formatted and finished the next day.
Prejudice really stinks.
All the anger builds up and up.
I hate it.
It’s like a rainstorm on a party,
a bomb exploding in my head.
I want to run away from it. (J.B.)
Laughing was not allowed Eyes made us different From everybody else Today.
Out of the way, the brownies say U are not the best Today. (E.G.)
like I’m a squirrel trapped in a cage with bears,
like I have no power,
like everyone is an eye, and I am blind,
like I’m a rabbit in a wolf family,
like I’m being blamed for something I didn’t do. (D.P.)
Prejudice feels like getting trapped under
a dock in the middle of the sea.
It’s like the devil pulling you to the core of the earth. (K.S.)
Prejudice is like you’re in a glass cage trying to get out.
It’s like walking up an escalator that goes down. (N J.)
Prejudice makes you feel like a rain drop in a pit of flames,
like there’s a dark wall, or maybe a giant not wanting to move out of your way.
Don’t people know? It’s what’s inside that counts. (A.H.)
Prejudice is a storm, screaming and yelling,
laughing, not with me, but at me. (L.S.)
Prejudice feels like someone keeps hitting you
until you just fall down in pain.
It feels like the rage of a storm over only your head.
Prejudice feels like walking through a jungle of people
determined to make you feel hurt. (G.L.)
To me prejudice felt like no one cared about me.
It made me feel all alone. It’s hard to describe with words.
I felt hatred, anger, sadness, and confusion.
I wanted to scream. (M.M.)
I have many many more poems in my collection. Because from 1999 until 2014, I repeated this experiment with every new group of fifth grade students. We usually did it in January while we were reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s biography. That was when we were encountering those words, so it made sense to do it then. Later on, in March and April, we applied this deeper understanding of what Black people have been up against in our country when we were studying the American Civil War. We stepped away from the textbook and each were responsible for several researched reports that when pieced together gave us a broad picture of how the War affected people from all walks of life at that time. One of my preferred read-alouds during this study was Day of Tears by Julius Lester. It is a story of the largest auction of slaves in American history. Over 400 slaves were sold in two days. I felt as if my students were better equipped now to imagine what it would be like in someone else’s shoes.
Many times we also wrote poems to reflect on our study of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Some wrote letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. instead. In 2012, we published a book of our poems called An Unequal Freedom. Each student (and the teacher) contributed a poem and a drawing. The students named the book and they each submitted art for the cover that we later selected by a vote.
Here are some samples from our book.
Even though this was an uncomfortable kind of experiment, I am glad I saw Jane Elliot when I did. I’ve been reminded of her recently. Because of the racial unrest in our country, she has been interviewed and many of her videos have resurfaced. If you haven’t heard of her, I suggest you read this NPR article about Jane Elliot, or search for her on Youtube and watch some of the other videos of her in action. Over the years she has continued to use this same approach to illustrate what discrimination feels like to people of all ages and in many situations. Every time I watch her in action I am reminded that it is the experience that helps you “get it.”
Every once in a while I will run into a former student who will mention that this experiment is something that has left a lasting impression. Below is a recent comment I received from just such a student.
“One lesson I will never forget was when our all White class was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, our all White class that lived in an all White community, and you divided us up by eye color to teach us about racial prejudice. It was a lesson for a lifetime. I remember that day so clearly, and I was in the 5th grade!”
As much as I love that comment, what I love even more is that this student was in my fifth grade classroom in 1999! That is 21 years ago! Talk about a classroom activity having a lasting impression! But did it change the way those children thought about Black people? I know it did at the time, but how many of my former students took this understanding into their adult lives? I think it is pretty obvious that the effectiveness of this experiment isn’t the kind of thing I can measure properly. So many experiences contribute to the shaping of who we are at any given moment. And I have no way of knowing what other experiences those students have had that may have either strengthened or weakened what they learned that day. But I believe it was important to do. Many students have mentioned it over the years as we have talked and reminisced. Much like the student I’ve quoted above, they didn’t really feel the full impact of it until they were adults navigating jobs and social situations in the real world. And I believe that it provided a glimpse of something they wouldn’t experience and understand in any other way.
“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” Wayne Dyer