A bit of a pompous title, I know. But I went with <inception> because, at the end of this post, dear reader, I want you to analyze that word, to determine its structure and identify its parts, its morphemes, its origin, and of course, other members of its family (words that share the same root).
Still with me? Intrigued rather than terrified by that opening challenge? Read on.
Last week, while talking about fuzzy bunnies, rainbows, and unicorns – among other less interesting topics – we encountered some wonderful and quite common spelling errors.
Excellent! After a quick chat about when and why we use an apostrophe (never for plurals!), we focused on suffixes. A few students provided the correct spelling – <bunnies> – and, while boring (mistakes are much more fun!), many seemed to understand something about “changing a <y> to <i>.” But what about that <-e>? Is it part of an <-es> suffix? Why not just <-s>? An orthographic word sum – (a tool we use to hypothesize word structures) – of <bunny + s> would seem to make sense, but then the odd-looking *<bunnis> is obviously hinting at a convention, a rule that has developed over time, that would prevent such a spelling, even if we don’t know it yet.
We then did what all scientists do when pondering a question – we gathered evidence, in this case, a bank of words. Students happily offered examples that seemed to follow the same pattern – buddies, fuzzies, responsibilities, tries, cries. We noticed that some of those are plurals, like <bunnies>, but some are verbs, like <tries>. Cool. And it this point…we stopped. That’s right. We moved on to something else. The kids were, collectively, done…over it…ready to do something else..and besides, I think we had to go to lunch. And those types of interruptions are OK. They’re actually more than OK. They’re necessary. I want the kids to observe, analyze, compare, and debate, all in an attempt to make their own conclusions, but sometimes they just need to go outside and run around, or read a book, or play with friends…or eat lunch! We will revisit that evidence bank in pursuit of patterns later.
Yesterday the students were provoked by a single statement in math. “It is possible to draw five line segments in such a way that five triangles are formed. Prove it.” Everyone was engaged and busily working and chatting, and eventually a few kids said, “Got it.” And yes, they had. In fact, there were several possible constructions and the kids enjoyed sharing these with me. But then that was it. “I’m done, now what.” No one actually said that, but the sentiment was there. Teacher gives me a question, I answer it, or I don’t, he helps me, or says “Good job”, and that’s the end of math time. Perfect opportunity for the big “Math is not about answering questions; it’s about ASKING questions” speech. Shortly after said speech Edward chimed in with, “I think using five lines I can actually make ten triangles,” followed by a similar claim from Thea, both starting with the beautiful words, “I think…”
“WHOA!” I screamed. Children literally jumped in the air, frightened by their loud teacher being louder than normal. “Everyone,” I continued, “Edward and Thea are being mathematicians. They aren’t simply answering my question and doing what I told them to do…they’re asking their own questions. In fact, they each just made a conjecture.” We then talked about what that means and how everyone is capable of “throwing out” such claims, and then other students, realizing that asking questions makes Mr. Allen exceedingly happy, joined in, offering conjectures and attempting to prove them. What if I only draw three lines? What about four? Is there a pattern? How will we know if we have “seen” all the possible triangles? Woo hoo! That’s math!
At some point later that day I asked the kids to spell <conjecture>. “Uh…Mr. Allen…it’s on the board.” Right, they don’t know what I mean by “spelling out” words yet. I explained that the word was complex, that it consisted of different parts called morphemes, and that by spelling it out, pausing between “parts” (the morphemes), I could see what we needed to talk about next. Several hypotheses were offered.
con + jec + ture (Ritvik explained that he thought this because of “breaking it into syllables.”)
con + ject + ure (Alice)
con + jec + t + ure (Emma)
I explained that when hypothesizing a word sum, the orthographer must offer examples of the various morphemes in other words. So, in this case, can we find <-ure> as a suffix in another word? Yes…<failure> and <departure>. And what is the common string of letters in the suffix for both of those words? Yes, <-ure>, not <-ture>. Similarly, <con-> is a common prefix found in words like <conclude> and <construct>. So that leaves <ject>, and since the other elements are affixes, and since every word cannot consist of only affixes, the remaining morpheme must be the base. In this case, it’s what linguists call a “bound base element”, a base that does not function as a word on its own…it must “bind” with other elements to do that.
What does <ject> mean? What other words share that base? Good time to introduce some of our online scientific tools. The first, Neil Ramsden’s brilliant Word Searcher. By entering <ject> into the search field, we can see lots of words that share that letter string j-e-c-t, 74 to be exact. But that doesn’t mean all 74 share a common root. Further investigation required! We can take any of those words, <adjective> for example (that jumped out at us!), and determine if they are part of the word family by searching on Etymonline.
So let’s start with <conjecture>.
I gave a brief introduction of Etymonline to the students, and we then focused on the Latin root iacere – “to throw.” If the other words, like adjective, share that root, then they are in the same etymological family. Let’s see…
Yep…there it is. The connotation of an adjective is a word that is “thrown to” or “placed near” a noun to help describe it. Cool. That means we can include the word <adjective> as we use another of our tools, the Mini Matrix Maker, to help organise the various related words we’ve discovered, and to demonstrate their meaning connection. The students and I have made a couple of these on the white board in recent days, but this was their first exposure to the handy electronic version. This is what we came up with.
There are other <ject> words, but matrices do not need to be exhaustive. They simply help us visualise the morphological structure of words, and they also reinforce what an actual “word family” is…nothing to do with rhyming!
OK, so how about <inception>? I bet you already have a hypothesis, and if it conflicts with your belief that <-tion> is a suffix, I urge you to follow your instincts. (Because it isn’t!)
New parents, consider this your first lesson in orthography. Congratulations if you made it this far! If you’re intrigued, which I hope you are, click on the Language/Spelling/Word Study category over to the right. LOTS of posts from past investigations.