Nothing motivates learning like understanding:

Moving forward in these investigations requires understanding of the relationship between etymology and morphology.


Rejecting the flawed analyses of <wisdom> and <please> opens the door to deeper understanding of the spelling system, and how to investigate the structure and meaning of countless words.

The rest of this page offers guidance for what is available to learn about the spelling system by following the trail signaled by the questions raised by investigating these two words with word sums. The goal of understanding these spellings makes it necessary to establish a number of orthographic concepts and terms. The need to understand these concepts could be illustrated by an almost countless number of words. I chose these two simply due to the fact that it happened to be investigating these words that launched my own understanding that I am sharing here.

What do we draw on when we don’t have evidence to resolve a tempting word sum?

The evidence is that these word sums DO NOT work, so if we accept the principles of scientific inquiry, we can’t conclude that these word pairs are morphologically related by a base element.

However, their similar meanings and spellings DO mark an etymological relationship.

In order to answer such questions it is necessary to develop an understanding of how to draw a clear distinction between words that are of the same orthographic morphological family (those that share a base element) and those that are of the same etymological family, but do not share a base element (those that share a root but not a base element).

(Note: the term “element” in “base element” denotes a written base rather than a spoken base.)

One problem facing teachers trying to make sense of such questions is the common confused use of the term “root” to refer both to morphological and etymological relations. This page shares a variety of resources to help teachers bring clarity to these concepts, and terms.

Real Spelling Film on “Base” and “Root”

Perhaps the richest start would be to click this link to the “General” Album of the Real Spelling Gallery so that you can watch the tutorial film pictured at right on the terms ‘base’ and ‘root’.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of developing a clear understanding about these concepts and terms. Everyone who works seriously with structured word inquiry runs into questions like these. This film offers understanding to guide you through countless spelling investigations.

Real Spelling Film on the Spelling of <wisdom>

Click this link to the “Word Studies” Album of the Real Spelling Gallery to see an analysis of this word that will take you through these key concepts.

As an aside, this film is an updated version of the film the Old Grouch built in response to a correspondence between a teacher friend and I looking at this word <wisdom>. I’ve included that early correspondence below.



The Structure and Meaning Test
  

The “structure and meaning test” is a frame that I use to help teachers address the question of whether or not any two words belong on the same matrix. Go to this link to read a short description of what this “test” means and the steps it reminds learners to take when taking on such a question. That page also includes an activity (pictures at right) I designed for a class to practice applying this “test”.

It shouldn’t surprise that the word sum is the means of conducting the “structure test” and finding the etymological family of a word is how the “meaning test” is conducted.


A Diagram of the Morphology and Etymology of <please> and <plea>

Below, I have pasted two pages from my teacher resource book that help to clarify the crucial distinction between morphological and etymological relatives. This diagram started on a white board (pictured at right!) during a workshop in Ghana when teachers were asking for help with this exact question. See this old WW Newsletter for more on that story .





A look back at my own early encounter with this question

I suggested earlier that these types of questions always come up with teachers seriously investigating structured word inquiry. In fact, it amazes me how often it is specifically the words <wisdom> or <please> that spark this journey into understanding the interrelation of morphology and etymology.

At this link you can download a pdf of with a correspondence I had with a teacher (my sister-in-law Sally!).

You will see from my response that I was still developing my understanding about these concepts at this point. I am pleased to see that even though I did not know the full answers to these questions -- I did know how to share my thinking without drawing conclusions deeper than I could demonstrate.


                         



 

Orthographic Morphology & Etymology

Copyright Susan and Peter Bowers 2008

Orthographic Morphology & Etymology:

Foundational Concepts for Structured Word Inquiry

Introduction

Making a matrix from word sums is one of the most basic activities in structured word inquiry classrooms and tutoring situations. It has always fascinated me that this practice results in certain spelling questions always rising to the surface. The fact that countless investigators independently ask the same spelling questions is like a giant signpost tempting us. “Rich orthographic understanding lies ahead if you take this path!” The following questions are perfect examples of such a path.

  1. Do <wise> and <wisdom> belong on the same matrix?

  2. Do <plea> and <please> belong on the same matrix?

  3. How do we decide?

This introduction walks the reader through the process of why and how this question typically arises, and how we can use scientific inquiry principles to guide our investigation. That introduction brings us to the point at which addressing these questions any further requires understanding of the interrelation of orthographic morphology. At that point I share a wide variety of resources from WordWorks and Real Spelling that specifically address these concepts.

Note! It is not expected that the reader studies all these resources at one sitting! My goal was to create a “hub” of resources targeting this absolutely essential understanding so that teachers and tutors working with structured word inquiry can return over time to deepen their understanding.

Structured word inquiry is scientific inquiry of how the English written word works

The first step in a scientific investigation of such questions is to construct potential word sums and consider the evidence.

Note that, for these word pairs, constructing potential word sums should raise the identified questions.


    Hypothesized word sum          Hypothesis must be rejected until these questions are resolved

    *wise + dom wisdom                Why isn’t there an <e> in <wisdom>?

    *plea + se please                     Is there evidence for an <-se> suffix?


Conclusions are not scientific if they extend beyond what is demonstrated.

Until and unless the questions raised by these hypothesized word sums are resolved, there is no scientific basis to conclude that <wise> is the base of <wisdom> or that <plea> is the base of <please>. Lack of evidence supporting an initial hypothesis signals the investigator to seek alternate hypotheses to describing the perceived spelling-meaning links in these word pairs.

How teachers respond to unsupported hypotheses determines whether or not we are committed to the use of scientific inquiry principles to deepen our understanding and that of our students. 

Especially when we are new to the scientific study of spelling, it is very tempting to conclude that these are so close to working that they must have found the base -- its just “crazy English spelling” that is letting us down. I remember that temptation so well! But...

  1. BulletThe moment we blame spelling for not following our hypothesis is the moment we stop doing science.

A reliable means of rejecting false hypotheses is a necessary condition of any scientific inquiry.

The word sum marks the conventions of written morphological structure in such a way that if offers investigators a means of rejecting false morphological analysis. Scientific inquiry moves understanding forward by helping us recognize flawed thinking so that we know to look for analysis that better represents the data.

The initial investigations of the words <wisdom> and <please> can be outlined like this:


False analysis: *wise + dom wisdom

Evidence: Vowel suffixes replace final, single, silent <e>s not consonant suffixes.

Action: Look for alternative hypotheses to describe the spelling-meaning link between <wise> and <wisdom>.


False analysis:   *plea + se please

Evidence: Without evidence of an <-se> suffix, this is an incoherent word sum.

Action: Look for alternative hypotheses to describe the spelling-meaning link between <plea> and <please>.


Without the word sum, we lack a means of rejecting false hypotheses. Ignoring the questions raised by the above word sums is a choice to invite misunderstanding instead of inviting potentially generative new questions.

Scientists should delight at discovering data that does not match their expectation. Results that counter expectations are signals of potentially rich learning opportunities -- not evidence to sweep under the rug so we don’t have to learn something new.

Before reading the text below, people may find this video a useful overview of the key ideas discussed on this page that are really central to understanding English orthography and how to investigate it scientifically (SWI).