Monday, May 13, 2019

The Many Surprises in Our Exploration of < Rodent >

I have been working hard lately at making sure my students feel confident in the four steps of SWI (thank you to Pete Bowers of WordWorks Literacy Centre for first putting forth the Four Questions of SWI) and ready to work on them independently over the summer if they find an interesting word.

When we are investigating an interesting word, we tackle it in this order:


    Structure (this is the word sums step)

    History (this is the etymonline step)


I have also been making sure that they know that SWI is all about applying the Scientific Method to our English orthography system. And in Science, you don't just make a guess because something looks right and call it 'good enough.' There is plenty of pseudo-etymology in the world and we don't want to fall into the habit of doing it. I have been guilty of jumping to conclusions myself twice lately and I've made sure to call attention to my mistake, pointing it out very specifically to my class and then correcting it.

A few weeks ago, Becca was reading Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy and she asked me...

... "Mom, it says here the Ancient Greeks chewed the sap of the mastic tree. Is that where we get the word 'mastication'?"

And I said -- very unscientifically -- "Yes."

(Sure, Renee, go ahead and feel free to skip
not just steps 1 and 2 but step 3 as well.)

When I took the time to look < mastication > up later (step 3 - History - morphological relatives share a base; etymological relatives share a root), I discovered that this word goes back all the way to Proto-Indo-European. PIE came before Ancient Greek. The word < mastication > comes from Old French, Latin, Greek, PIE. In etymonline the farther you read in the entry the farther back you are going in time. The PIE word was *mendh and meant "to chew." Our word < mandible > also comes from this root by the way.


If this word more ancient than Greek already meant "to chew," it is not that the Greeks chewed sap and then created a word for chewing that was inspired by their mastic tree. The word came first. So it's much more likely that the Greeks named the tree mastikhan because the tree was chewy!

My second example of linquistic sloppiness showed up in our discussion of Rodents in Zoology II.

The first great thing about this story is that it shows my mind has now switched over to SWI mode completely. I no longer think that the primary task of our spelling system is to represent sounds; I know that the primary task of our spelling system is to represent meaning. I am confident in my understanding of phonemes and graphemes and morphemes and because of plenty of practice with step 2 (Structure - how is the word built?) I am constantly wondering what the base of a word is. I do it totally unconciously.

The second great thing about this story is that we explored the word together and I was truly learning along with the class. How can we create life-long learners if we don't model being life-long learners ourselves?

So, the story goes like this. I'm reading chapter 1 of The Chisel-Tooth Tribe by Wilfrid Swancourt Bronson when suddenly I interrupt myself reading aloud to jump up and run across to the chalkboard and say very excitedly...

... "Rodent! I wonder if that's dent as in < dentist > and < denture >? ...
If < dent > means tooth that would make sense. What about < indent >? ... How could that be related? Does the text hang out and look like a tooth? ...
Oh, we have to do this word in SWI on Friday!"

So Friday rolls around and it is time to investigate < rodent >. We do step 1 quickly and review what the word means. Step 2 throws us for a bit of a loop: How is the word constructed. What possible word sums could there be for < rodent >?

    ro + dent

The advantage of this word sum is that it has < dent > as the base which allows me to maintain a connection to these other words that I was pushing like < dentist >, < denture >, < dental >, and < denticle >. The disadvantage is that I can't think of a single other word with < ro > as a prefix and having no evidence of a word with a < ro > prefix is a huge problem. We talk about supporting your hypothesis and falsifying your hypothesis, and this lack of support didn't look good.

Another possible word sum was suggested

    rod + ent

The advantage of this word sum is that we do have loads of evidence for an < ent > suffix. The disadvantage is that there doesn't seem to be a meaning connection between this new base, < rod >, and small mammals that use their big teeth to chew constantly.

The final suggestion, based on our recent experiences with words which turned out to be bases (thank you, < colony >) was


And here is where I made my mistake. I didn't write it down. I didn't include it with the other theories. I rejected it outright. I said, "Oh, no, I don't think it's a base. I know that I told you last week that lots of words, those from Old English in particular, are not going to be analyzable and you can't make a word sun for everything, but look here. Dent + ist. Dent + ure. Dent + al. Dent + icle. All of these words are analyzable and so I think < rodent > must be analyzable."

Of course, that still left us searching for a < ro > prefix. Finally Ms. Flossie suggested < robot > and so I wrote that word down as possible evidence for a < ro > prefix.

That took care of step 2.

On to step 3, which is where we get to turn to Doug Harper's amazing resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Here we found out that < rodent > goes back to Latin rodentem. This verb meant "to gnaw, eat away." The em ending is a suffix, which leaves us with a base of rodent. Yes, < rodent > was a base the whole time. Its similarity in both spelling and meaning to < dentist > et al. is a complete coincidence. We looked deeper into PIE and its likely PIE root is *red meaning "to scrape, scratch, gnaw."

Ok, so on to < dentist >. We looked this word up and its Latin root is a completely different word, dens. Its PIE root is completely different as well, *dent meaning "tooth."

So I confirmed that the class understood: different Latin roots and different PIE roots means that these two words even though they share a seeming meaning connection and spelling connection ARE NOT RELATED AT ALL.

Then we had a bit of fun, clicking on the PIE roots and finding other modern words which are etymologically related to these deeply ancient words.

The *dent list included al dente, dandelion, dental, dentist, denture, gyptodon and mastodon, indent ("to make notches"), orthodontia, tooth, toothsome, tusk, and trident.

The *red list was significantly more surprising. Remember that *dent in PIE meant "tooth" but *red meant "to scrape, scratch, gnaw." Modern day words which come from this latter root included abrade, abrasion, corrode, corrosion, erase, erode, erosion, radula (here we had to recall our Snail lessons from Zoology I), rash, rat, raze, razor, rodent, and rostrum.

< Rostrum >?

Ok, so we had to stop everything and look that one up. And it turns out that < rostrum > has an incredible story. Recall that step 1 is what does the word mean? I explained to the children that when they went someplace like a church service or graduation ceremony and people stand up at a podium, they often have to step up onto a platform first in order to get to where the podium is. That platform is the rostrum. Well, it turns out that this word is from the Latin rostrum which was a platform for public speakers in the Forum in Rome. It was decorated with the prows of ships conquered in the very first naval battle which Rome won way back when she was a baby republic (vs. Antium in 338 B.C.E.). They whacked the beaks off the ships and brought them back home like trophies of war and attached them to the platform where people got up to make their speeches. When people got up in the Forum to address all of their fellow Romans publically they were standing on a collection of war trophies reminding them all of how great their republic was. How powerful! The word < rostrum > in its original meaning used to mean "end of a ship's prow." Doug says that it literally meant "beak, muzzle, snout" ie. "means of gnawing." Its plural in Latin was rostra. The boat pushes its way through the way through the water, gnawing at it like a snout of an animal. Because of these war trophies being attached to that speaking platform, the word gradually came to mean the platform itself.

So, here we are with a modern word that in sense and form is directly tied to the results of a Roman naval battle of 2,357 years ago. If that battle had never happened -- and it probably seemed like a minor world event at the time -- that word would not be in our language today. It literally wouldn't exist. How cool is that!?! Doug says that the story of the English language is completely intertwined with History. You can't learn one without learning something about the other. And it is absolutely true.

So from the excitement of that discovery, we turned to look back at the word < robot >, which had been suggested as possible evidence for a < ro > prefix. When I looked up the story of < robot >, I was competely blown away again. The five languages we run into over and over on etymonline as roots of our modern words are Old English, Old French (we will get into the Norman Conquest next year), Latin, Greek, and PIE. Five. You can count them on one hand. Well, when we looked up < robot > we ended up on a completely different linguistic path (although it goes back to PIE in the end, of course... however, we were very startled to find its connection with the word < orphan >). I had to pull out a globe and show all of the students where Eastern Europe is. Where does it come from? Click the link and see!

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