Hello Real Spellers...

A recent email correspondence with a wonderful administrator friend, combined with reading Erin's wonderful post "Specific feedback desired" on her inspection of the <spece> word family inspired me to share prepare this post. If you read through this post, I recommend that you pop over to Erin's to see how these topics relate across different investiations.

Both investigations provide a context to make explicit a principle that I have used to guide my own morphological analysis that I want to highlight for teachers. The value of this principle is that it gives teachers a way to go as far as they can with investigations of words without going too far -- without requiring the confirmation of an expert. 

My administrator friend has been learning with Real Spelling and supporting her teachers to use this resource to inform the "structured word inquiry" approach they have taken on at their school. Here is an extract from her email...

My art teacher is really keen on word work – it’s so cool. She is starting some work making mandalas with her Gr 2 kids and will talk about radial balance. She asked me to pop in and show the origins of the word radial to help them gain a deeper understanding of the term. Just 5 mins so then they can get onto starting their mandalas. She wants to learn how to build a little of it into her art lessons.

So my  investigations so far tell me this:

radial (adj.)  

1560s, from M.L. radialis, from L. radius "beam of light" (see radius).

So I think that we can have:






Ok there are other words but it’s grade 2 and I just want a couple of examples.

Here’s where I am a bit stuck. What is the base?  ???? Is a connecting vowel or is it or what? 

I don’t have to show them how to build the words but I would like to.

Notice how at her school -- vice principles independently do morphological problem solving to help their teachers, and art teachers seek out opportunities for structured word inquiry!
Before I responded, Melvyn offered this...

The moment you use the term 'base' you are restricting yourself to ModE orthography and what it can be analysed as, whatever diachronic structures and developments may have occurred. 

The question is, then, are there any members of this Modern English lexical family in which the is NOT present? I can find no evidence of any, and until I do, I will take "spoke (of a wheel), ray (of light)".

And here is the relevant extract from my email that articulates the principle I've been discussing that I use when I run into questions like this: 

"Only analyze as deep as you can demonstrate."

This principle is based on another principle -- that it is a better error to incorrectly treat a complex structure as if it is simple, than to violate the structure of a morpheme by treating a simple structure as complex.

The comparison I make there is comparing two possible false analyses of a word like <designation>.

Someone might wrongly suggest this word has an <*-ation> suffix, and someone else might suggest it has a <*-tion> suffix. It is clear which of these errors creates more difficulty for understanding and which causes less.

Suggesting an <*-ation> suffix is, of course, incorrect. It inhibits the liklihood of seeing <designate>, but it does allow us to analyze the correct base stem and the base <sign>. We can go a long time productively making connections of meaning and structure until one day we perceive that we can actually go deeper than we thought if we recognize <-ation> not as a suffix but a combination of two suffixes.

Suggesting <*-tion> violates the meaning structure of  word and any word for which this suffix is proposed. This error is not a stepping stone to later refinement like the <*-ation> suffix, it is taking the learner down the wrong path.

When I read your question, I too was tempted by <rade> with an <-i-> connecting vowel letter. But if I follow my guiding principle, I can't go ahead and teach children this until I find a word that connects in structure and meaning to <radius> but does not have an <-i->. I might suspect that it's out there to be discovered, but I can't claim I've identified a base <rade> until I've demonstrated evidence for it.

Your list is excellent:

And while we both know about the connecting vowel <-i-> and were both tempted to see if it was there, until we find a word that needs it, we can only present to other teachers and students a base spelled <radi> because that is the only analysis for which we have evidence.

I hope you don't mind me going on, but this question struck me as the perfect time to reinforce this principle that I think you can really help  communicate to teachers who feel they are nervous about making mistakes with kids. This principle allows teachers to present one analysis, acknowledge that there may be a deeper answer, but until they find it, they should feel comfortable presenting a correct, but not necessarily fully analyzed word sum.

With this principle in mind, I now suggest you go to Erin's post investigating the connection between words like <special>, <specific> and <speculate> among others. She does a masterful job of her investigation. While she may not have had this principle explicitly in mind, she does a great job of implementing it. Her initial analysis results in three matrices she judges to be of the same origin. 

Her morphological analysis is not false, but it is incomplete. She went as deep as she could go with evidence and that was pretty far! Erin shows the level of her scholarship because, as you will see, she is dubious about some of her hypothesized bases, but because she needs more knowledge before she can analyze further, she sticks with what she can demonstrate. The fact that Erin invokes the principle of "elegance" to show why she agrees that Melvyn's solution is superior to her incomplete analysis is just spectacular. She is not agreeing with Melvyn because he is an "expert" but because his solution has more scientific evidence that she understands and agrees with. 

Finally, I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with seeking advice from other knowledgable peers. This website is so exciting because it facilitates exactly that sort of community of scholars. My hope is that this post helps teachers feel they can have confidence to conduct morphological analysis with students with the recognition that they can test new ideas with students knowing that hey have a guiding principle they can use as a "net" to help make sure they don't go too far.

This principal also helps illustrate why it is my opinion that the deepest goal of investigating English spelling for connections of meaning and structure is the development of independent critical thinking skills. English spelling is so ordered that we can apply these kinds of scientific principles of relying on evidence to support claims, not the statements of experts!