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.) 1716, “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.