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5.2: Spelling System: Logical or Crazy and Chaotic?

  • Page ID
    152029
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    As you already know, upon our first introduction to SWI, we, the authors, started to realize just how little we really knew about the language and the way the spelling system works. We were presented with questions such as the following:

    Why does the plural word papers end with an <s> but boxes end with an <es>?

    Why is there an <o> in the word people?

    Why does betting have a double <t>, but jumping doesn’t contain a double <p>?

    These are just a few of the many questions that caught us by surprise. Not only were we unable to answer these questions, but we hadn’t even thought about them before.

    Do you, our readers, have thoughts or explanations for features such as these, many of which we see and apply daily? If you answered “no”, then you’re not alone. Many of us – both educators and students alike – have been taught that English is “confusing” and “irregular”, with many words that are exceptions and don’t follow the rules. This ideological view of the English language can leave us feeling frustrated, confused, and overwhelmed, ultimately making us feel disempowered in our literacy and language learning.

    However, what if we told you that the English language and words are not confusing, rather it’s people who are confused and lack understanding about them? Read the text below to discover how this might be.

    Before Reading

    When you hear the word “morphology,” what comes to your mind? Note your ideas below.

    Even if you’ve never heard this term before, you probably already have the resources and background knowledge to figure out what it means. Maybe “morphology” reminds you of a “metamorphosis.” When animals, such as insects and amphibians, undergo metamorphosis, they change their shape or structure in stages. These changes in structure are visible—tadpoles do not look like frogs, nor do caterpillars look the same as butterflies.

    The pictures below demonstrate that process:

    The word “metamorphosis” is built on the word-forming element <morph.> This element is derived from the Greek morphē and has a denotation of “form or shape.”

    This same process of metamorphosis that occurs in animals also happens in some of the most well-known superheroes and villains in pop culture. For example, think about the way that Clark Kent “morphs” into Superman or Dr. Banner “morphs” into the Hulk. Both of these individuals undergo changes to their outward shape/structure. Once the metamorphosis is complete, their shape no longer reflects the qualities and features that it used to have.

    As stated in the above excerpt from Etymonline, “metamorphosis” focuses on a transformation in shape or form. The morpheme element <meta-> means “change” and the morpheme element <morph> means shape or form--together, they convey a change in form or structure.

    It might be evident that insects, amphibians, superheroes, and villains all morph themselves into different forms, but are ordinary people also capable of morphing themselves? Have you ever undergone transformation in any aspect of life? This excerpt from a college psychology textbook suggests that we might be even more familiar with this concept than we thought.

    Personal Identity between Philosophy and Psychology: A Perpetual Metamorphosis?

    What is personal identity? What forms its nature? Is there a difference between identity and personality? What makes a “person” an individual, and what exactly is the person? What role is played by character, nature, environment, society, values and destiny in defining and substantiating a personal identity? How do persistence and change in identity coexist within a person? What is the nature of such a “change”? Is it just a natural process? And, are we sure it is a “process”? Which mechanism or force or dynamism determines it? And what is the function of culture, tradition and knowledge in representatively defining who we are and the way in which we understand ourselves, our relationship with others and, in general, the human being?

    This excerpt provides some intriguing questions to think about. Based on this title and excerpt, it can be inferred that the authors believe that personal metamorphosis is inevitable. Whether we enjoy change or not, our identities are transforming throughout our lives.

    So, while “morphology” might represent a new concept for us, we likely have background knowledge to bring to this term. In the context of the English language, morphology is the study of the structure and form of words. It involves analyzing word structure through morpheme elements, which are the smallest units of meaning (Minkova & Stockwell, 2009).

    metamorphosis

    morphology

    amorphous

    morphed

    morphing

    morpheme

    polymorphous

    polymorphic

    morphological

    morphology

    metamorphosed

    anthropomorphic

    Studying the structure of English is essential to understanding the language because the structure holds the key to the meaning. For example, the morpheme <morph> has a denotation of “shape, form.” The word “amorphous” is built on that base element and, not surprisingly, it has something to do with “shape.”. Similarly, the prefix <a-> also has meaning. This prefix means “without.” Finally, the suffix <-ous> makes an adjective from a noun, and means “having, full of, having to do with.” Therefore, by analyzing the three morphemes that comprise the structure of the word “amorphous,” we can figure out that amorphous is an adjective that refers to something without a shape. Similarly, the picture below is titled “Blued and Amorphous”--an aptly named image because it lacks clear definition to its shape.

    Not only can we learn individual words by studying their structure, but we can also learn entire word families. For example, when we learn the base <morph> means “shape, form” then we can trace that meaning across many other related words, such as the following relatives: isomorphic, dimorphism, pseudomorph, metamorphize, and Morpheus.

    We may not know the meanings of each of these words, but we know they are all built off of the same base element and have a sense of meaning related to “form or shape.” Regardless of different sounds and pronunciations of these words, the meaning lies in the structure - the spelling. This makes sense when we consider what we’ve already learned—that the purpose of the written language is not to merely represent sound; rather the purpose is to represent meaning, as well as sound and history, to those who already speak the language. By looking at the form or structure of the language, we can gain a better understanding of what words mean and how words function. Morphology is not the only dimension of the English language though. As we have already read, it is one dimension that must be examined in relation to two others: etymology and phonology. Within this section, we will begin looking at words within their word families through morphology, etymology, and phonology. In addition, we will consider English conventions that influence the system of English spellings.

     

     

     

    After Reading

    After reading this passage, take some time to reflect on the questions and quotes below. We also encourage you to discuss your thoughts with classmates or others.

    1. How can you express your understanding of morphology in your own words?
    2. Based on what you read, do you think the spelling system is crazy/chaotic or logical?
    3. In which ways did this passage challenge your views on the language?

     

    The next several passages within this section will expand and deepen your knowledge of morphology, the inquiry process, and the English spelling system. This level of awareness or consciousness of the language is important for the goal of challenging dominant ideology, and more broadly, moving beyond curiosity to enact sustained inquiry–inquiry that doesn’t necessarily lead to quick, definitive answers, but rather takes time to unfold over longer periods of time.

    Morpheme Elements: How Words are Formed

    The beginning of this section introduced you to the concept of morphology which is the study of meaningful units or forms in words. We will now begin to examine the different morpheme elements; these are the smallest units of meaningful forms within words. In English, words are stand-alone forms that represent meaning, and they can be used with other words to form sentences and or phrases. Sentences and phrases are one way to describe our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Even though words are the smallest unit, many English words can be broken down into their morpheme elements. Each meaningful morpheme is sequenced to form words; thus, morphemes are the building blocks for constructing English words.

    The morpheme element chart shows the two main categories of morphemes - base elements and affixes. Within base elements - there are two types of bases - free bases and bound bases. Free base elements can stand alone and bound bases need another morpheme element attached or affixed in order to form a word. There are three types of affixes - prefixes, suffixes, and connecting vowel letters. Affixes like bound bases must have another morpheme element attached or affixed in order to form a stand-alone word. Gaining an understanding of morpheme elements and how they are sequenced provides you with the tools and vocabulary for talking about English words and will deepen your understanding about word meanings and how they are structured or constructed. We will spend a lot of time identifying and defining morpheme elements. As stated in the last section, studying the structure of English and how words are formed with morphemes is essential to understanding written and spoken English; it is the formation or structure that holds the key to the meaning of words.

    Base Elements

    Every English word is or contains a base element. The base element is the morpheme unit that holds the main meaning to a word. One thing a base can do is hold up or support a building or a piece of art. In the photo, notice how the base is the foundation holding the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. Thus, the base morpheme element forms the foundation of a word.

    The word <have> is a free base element. It can stand alone as a meaningful element as it does in the following sentence.

    We have been enjoying wonderful weather on vacation.

    Or the free base element <have> can have affixes - bound morpheme elements - prefixes, suffixes, and connecting vowel letters fastened to it, like the bold words below.

    We have been enjoying wonderful weather on vacation. We are having such fun. The children have been well behaved the entire time. Their behavior has been impeccable!

    prefix

    base element

    suffix

     

    have

     
     

    have

    ing

    be

    have

    ed

    Some words also have connecting vowel letters. Connecting vowel letters connect morpheme elements such as in the word behavior. The connecting vowel <i> in behavior is joining the base element <have> to the suffix <or>.

    prefix

    base element

    connecting vowel letter

    suffix

    be

    have

                     i

    or

    Looking at a family of related words in relation to morphology, etymology, and phonology provides insight into the English language system. To begin understanding words and their relatives, we need to investigate the etymology.

    Etymonline explains that the word <have> is a verb that came from the Old English word habban with a sense and meaning of owning, possessing, experiencing, or being subject to (Harper, 2022). Have derived from the Proto Indo European (PIE) root *kap- with a denotation of “grasp." Looking at other words that derived from PIE *kap- we can see that this is a large etymological word family.

    The denotation or the primary meaning of these etymologically related words originates from the PIE “grasp.” So we can look at this family of words and think about each word and its meaning. We can note a trace or hint of “grasping.” For instance, if you accept something, you have the ability to take it in or grasp it as it is. If you anticipate your vacation, you are able to think about or grasp what the vacation will be like before you actually experience it.

    When we look closely at an etymological word family, we can begin to notice words that contain similar spelling patterns. The words with similar patterns are written in similar colored font.

    Once we notice similar spelling patterns, we can then sort the words into morphological families. It is by looking at words in their morphological families that we can begin to determine what the base element is and whether there are prefixes, suffixes, or connecting vowel letters present. Below are 5 different morphological families that are etymologically related.

    Within these 5 families of words we can examine the spellings to identify base elements and determine if the base element is free and can stand alone or whether the base is bound and has an affix - a prefix or suffix fixed or fastened to the base. (See “Base Element Sort” Activity).

    Words formed from a free base

    Words formed from a bound base

    <have>

    <ceive> receive, deceive, conceive

    <capt> caption, captive, captivate

    <cipe> recipe, anticipate, participate

    <cept> accept, except, intercept

    Affixes

    Affixes are bound morphemes combined to the beginning (prefixes) or the end (suffixes) of morpheme elements. Although affixes do not carry the main meaning, they do alter the meaning or change the grammar of a word. For instance, when the <ac-> prefix is joined to the bound base <cept> it forms the word accept. The prefix ac- has a sense of “to” and <cept> means grasp or take - thus accept means “to take or to grasp.” Adding the suffix <-ance> to the word accept creates the word acceptance. The word accept is a verb and acceptance is a noun. Hence the addition of the -ance suffix changes the grammar of the word from a verb to a noun.

    As you read earlier, <have> came from Old English with a sense or meaning of owning, possessing, experiencing, or being subject to. Those senses and meanings are still present in the word have. When the prefix <be-> with a connotation of “completely” or “thoroughly” is added to <have> it constructs the word behave. When people behave, they have complete control over their conduct. Perhaps you are like us and never noticed that these two common words have and behave contain similar spellings and are related. Since the <have> in each of those words sound very different, we did not recognize the similar spellings or the similar meanings. When we add another prefix <mis-> with a sense of “bad” or “wrong” to the word behave, we create the word misbehave. When you misbehave, you do not have control over your conduct or perhaps you are choosing to behave in a wrong manner. It is through adding prefixes and suffixes that this morphological family grows.

    Examining the morphological relatives of have in the table below allows us to see the different morpheme elements as well as a key spelling convention. Spelling conventions are agreed upon procedures for forming and spelling words. In English spelling, there are various spelling conventions that we will address throughout the guidebook. However, there are three specific conventions that may occur when adding suffixes. One of the suffixing conventions occurs with the word have. Looking at the words below, can you see what occurs in some of the words when a suffix is added?

    prefix

    prefix

    base element

    suffix

    constructed

    word

       

    have

     

    have

       

    have/

    ing

    having

     

    be

    have

     

    behave

     

    be

    have

    s

    behaves

     

    be

    have/

    ed

    behaved

    mis

    be

    have

     

    misbehave

    mis

    be

    have

    s

    misbehaves

    mis

    be

    have/

    ing

    misbehaving

    Did you notice that the words having, behaving, misbehaving seem to have lost the final <e>. What happened to the <e> in those words? To answer that question, you must first understand why there is a single, final <e> in the word have. When you say the word - have - what sound do you feel in your mouth at the end of the word? You probably feel the /v/. The /v/ is shown by the grapheme <v> in the word have. Thus, the single, final <e> is showing a sound - it is unpronounced. Rather the single, final, unpronounced <e> is marking a convention.

    Just like some people in academia made the decision that written papers should be typed using Times New Roman Font with a one inch margin, during the middle ages, scribes (monks who hand wrote books and pamphlets before the printing press was invented) came up with the notion that English words should not end with the letter <v>. As a result, any word that could possibly end with a <v> has a single, final letter <e>, such as in the words drive, give, brave, etc. This <e> in these words will also get replaced when joined with a vowel suffix. Vowel suffixes are any suffix that begins with a vowel letter. The vowel letters are a, e, i,o, u, and usually y.

    drive/+er→ driver                          give/+er→ giver                                brave/+ er→ braver

    drive/+ing→ driving                       give/+ing→ giving                             brave/+est→ bravest

    The <e> does not get replaced when joined with a consonant suffix such as the <s> in the word haves. The single, final, unpronounced <e> suffixing convention also occurs when adding a connecting vowel letter.

    prefix

    base element

    connecting vowel letter

    suffix

    completed word

    be

    have/

    i

    or

    behavior

    Morphological Analysis

    When we examine words in their morphological families, we can break them into their meaningful parts through a process called morphological analysis. Generally, analysis refers to the process of breaking something down into smaller pieces to examine how each part works on its own and how each part works within the whole. For example, a book could be analyzed through chapters or a show could be analyzed through episodes. More specifically, morphological analysis refers to analyzing words through their structural elements--morphemes - bases, prefixes, suffixes, and connecting vowels.

    To illustrate the morphological analysis process and make our thinking visible, we can create word sums. A word sum shows each morpheme that constructs a word, written out from left to right. The separation between morphemes is illustrated within the word sum through plus signs.

    For example, the word would be analyzed through a word sum that looks like this:

    ac + cept → accept

    Notice how the prefix <ac-> is identified within the word sum as a separate morpheme from the bound base <cept.> You might have also noticed that this word sum contains an arrow →. That arrow represents the phrase “gets rewritten as.” After the arrow, the word sum shows the complete word with all of its morphemes combined. Often, the arrow is confused with an equal sign, but equal signs and arrows have different meanings. In a word sum, we want to indicate how the morphemes are “rewritten” within the complete word.

    For example, the word sum for "having” would look like this:

    have/ + ing→ having

    Another reason an equal sign is not used in a word sum is because of suffixing conventions is because as you can see in the above word sum, each side is not equal. We will learn more about these in detail. But you can see that the <e> in <have> is replaced by the <-ing> suffix. When a word ends with a single, final, non-syllabic <e> and is joined by a vowel suffix - such as -ing or - ed, the <e> is replaced by the vowel from the vowel suffix.

    When writing a word sum, you should always spell the morphemes aloud, one letter at a time--don't try to pronounce morphemes. This is important because morphemes do not have a pronunciation until they create a word. For instance, pronounce the following pairs of words:

    "have" AND "behave”

    “sign” AND “signature”

    The words in each pair have different pronunciations, don't they? However, both sets of words share the same base elements: <have> and <sign.> When we focus on pronunciation, we may not notice the similar spellings; therefore, we might not think the words are related. However, both of these sets of words are morphological relatives--that is, they share a similar meaning and base element. As prefixes and suffixes are added to base elements, there is a possibility that there will be a shift in the sound as well. Because of the possibility of pronunciation shifts, it is vital to spell the elements in word sums instead of trying to read them.

    As word sums are constructed, each letter must be accounted for. For instance, if you were creating a word sum for the word “instruction,” you might hypothesize the following:

    *in + struc + tion → instruction

    While this might seem like a reasonable word sum, it is important to think about what this word sum suggests, namely that <in> is a prefix, <struc> is a base, and <tion> is a suffix. If we attempt to find evidence for each morpheme, we’ll notice that we can find examples of <in-> as a prefix (inside, indoors, etc.), but we cannot find any evidence of <struc> as a base or <-tion> as a suffix. In fact, when you examine the word “instruct,” you’ll find that <struct> must be the bound base:

    in + struct → instruct

    This evidence falsifies our original word sum for “instruction.” At this point in our morphological analysis, we would need to hypothesize different word sums that we can find evidence for, such as the following:

    in + struct + ion → instruction

    Which evidence can you find for each of the morphemes that is suggested by this word sum?

    Evidence for <in-> as a prefix:

    Evidence for <struct> as a base:

    Evidence for <-ion> as a suffix:

    When creating word sums, it’s likely that you will generate several possibilities since each one represents a hypothesis about the structure and meaning of the word. Throughout your word inquiry and investigation, you might find evidence that proves one of your initial hypotheses. (See “Word Sum” Activity).

    After Reading
    1. As you review the last several passages on the English language, what were the most important ideas that you learned?
    2. How might the insights in these texts challenge dominant ideologies about the English language?
    3. How does challenging the dominant ideology towards the English language impact your learning?
    4. Now that you have some background on the word “ideology,” can you initiate your own inquiry into the word? Note what you learn below.

    In the previous texts on spelling and morphology, prevalent beliefs about the English language were the focus of our ideological challenge. However, just as beliefs about language and even language itself can be challenged, it can also be the mechanism through which we challenge other dominant ideologies. In the next several texts, writers will demonstrate various ways of using language towards these ends.

     


    5.2: Spelling System: Logical or Crazy and Chaotic? is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.