Monthly Archives: April 2015

Syllables vs. Morphemes

5th graders can never remember what perpendicular means…or the difference between mean, median, and mode…or where they left their pencil case. Normal. It happens. I’m not overly concerned with a student’s ability to memorize math terms…which, all too often, seems to be the focus, particularly when learning about shapes, which is a shame.

But what if we really knew what those math terms meant? What if we analyzed the spelling and the structure? Might it help our overall understanding, and possibly our ability to remember the endless stream of terminology we encounter in math and other subject areas?

Most English speakers are exposed to the concept of syllables at some point in their schooling. Either when pronouncing words peh – cue – lee – arr – lee (peculiarly) in attempts to spell them correctly, or when considering how to divide a word at the end of a given line while trying to remain in the margins. Oh, the damage done! This is, of course, why most people incorrectly identify <-tion> as a suffix, and why those same people think “sound” is the primary determining factor in a word’s spelling. Take most dictionaries and you’re sure to find a word’s syllabification.



But let’s analyze the word for meaning and structure, not simply its phonology.


Ok…evidence of a <per-> suffix. Then remove the Latin suffix <-ere> from the root pendere “to weigh, to hang.” Or simply look at the related word pendant. All evidence that the base element is <pend>.

We’ve surely talked about that base before, present in words like depend and suspend. But I’m fairly certain that no one made the connection with perpendicular, including me. We shared hypotheses for word sums, and then I asked the kids to figure out what a “plumb line” is.

plumb line

A tool that “hangs” to help determine if a wall is straight. Meaning connection confirmed! Will that help students remember what perpendicular means? Maybe. But more importantly, one word led to new discoveries and connections, as well as further affirmation that our English language makes perfect sense.

And what about the twin base? Do you know what it is? Let me know…quickly…the suspense is killing me.

ALL Letters Are Silent!

That’s right. Most of you have been misled. There’s no such thing as a “silent <e>” in cake or a “silent <l>” in talk. Phonological necessities or etymological markers (the <l> in talk is there because of its connection with tell), yes, but “silent letters?” No. Go ahead…test it out for yourself…place your ear next to any letter on this blog post. Hear anything? Nope…because, as I said, all letters are silent.

But fear not. The final nonsyllabic <e> does hold a special place in the orthographer’s mind. For example, Karl arrived first to the class yesterday after a two week break and said, “I came across a cool word that I’m wondering about.” Music to my ears! It was <pedestrian>. We all set about investigating, either that word or others the kids were interested in, and here’s what we found.

pedestrian (adj.) Look up pedestrian at Dictionary.com1716, “prosaic, dull” (of writing), from Latin pedester (genitive pedestris) “plain, not versified, prosaic,” literally “on foot” (sense contrasted with equester “on horseback”), from pedes “one who goes on foot,” from pes (genitive pedis) “foot,” from PIE root*ped- (1) “a foot” (see foot (n.)).

Our word sleuths found meaning connections to pedicure, pedal, and pedigree, but, surprisingly, not centipede or impede (they discovered those later), both of which would have proven the need for <pede> rather than <ped>. The kids were happy with a <ped> hypothesis based on their evidence, but I challenged them with, “Could the bound base be <pede>?” Time for some word sums and the suffix checker.

Most kids tested this one first:

<ped> + <-al>

Hmm…that would result in *peddal. OK…well…let’s try <pede> + <-al>.

Bingo! Evidence of why we need that single final <e>. And eventually the kids figured out impede and centipede and millipede, and even tripod – not a structural connection but it does derive from the same Proto Indo European root, *ped “foot”, as the others.

The structure of <pedestrian>, however, left us wondering. Several hypotheses:

<pede> + <estrian>    <pede> + <-est> + <-rian>     <pede> + <estr> + <-ian>

Word Searcher revealed only two English words with the final string <strian>…pedestrian and equestrian. LatDict was helpful, and led us to the following hypothesis. Still not convinced, however…

<pede> + <est> + <(e)r> + <-ian>

…but we love it when discoveries lead to more questions.

Matrix based on our current understanding:


What did we do next?

<carn> or <carne> in <carnivore>?

In a similar investigation, inspired by this video of two kindergarten orthographers in Lyn Anderson’s class (not a misprint…two six-year-old children capably talking about Latin roots and etymology and loving it), we wondered about the potential presence of a single, final <e> in the base element for the word carnivore. We also discovered that the following words are related, each from the Latin root caro “flesh” – carnation, reincarnated (the KG students were way ahead of us), carnage, and carnival. That last one prompted Alice to say, “In Italy, carnival is a day we don’t eat meat.”


Ritvik, Sean, Ben, Justin, Alice and I couldn’t find a reason for a single, final <e> in the base element (word sums worked with or without it on the Suffix Checker), so we think the word sum for carnival is <carn> + <-ive> + <-al>. Or, I should say, that’s what we thought. Then we saw: Latin caro “flesh” (seecarnage) + levare “lighten, raise, remove” (see lever (n.)).

Wait a minute…is carnival a compound word?

<carn> + <i> + <val>

Uhhh…the Latin is levare…so the letter ordering “v-a-l” seems suspect. But that link to “lever” set Justin and Ritvik on another enthusiastic tangent…lever, levitate, elevator!

Another matrix, again, based on our current understanding.


And one more just because…



As usual…we’d love to hear about any challenges you may have and/or additional understanding you may provide.