Etymology: tracing the journeys of words

One way to “study spelling” is to look at lists of words.  For instance, in any given week, one might get a list of ten or fifteen words that start with <kn> that one was supposed to memorize and then write out in a Friday dictation.  As to whether this would improve all students’ ability to spell these correctly later, well…it might for some, but I know it wouldn’t for others.

We do inquiry.  We ask why words are spelled the way they are, and along the way we analyze and explore these words.  A question had been on our “Wonder Wall” for a while about the <kn> that appears initially in a bunch of words that begin with a /n/ sound.  What’s it doing there?  Then recently someone else asked about the <wr> at the beginning of other words, so I thought we might take some time to investigate these and a couple of other patterns.  In doing so, I trust that we (really) “studied” the words, but also began to grasp some important concepts.

We’d been looking at homophones, a very rich and useful feature of English–uniquely common to English as a result of the unique history of our language.  English is sometimes described as a “stew”–it is made up of a variety of other languages.   Our ability to represent the same phoneme (sounds) with more than one grapheme (letter or group of letters) allows us to represent words like <hear> and <here> differently because they have different meanings.  Far from being troubled by this, students find this utterly logical.  What can be more difficult is knowing which of the pair (or trio) to use in which context.  So last week we discussed how spellings are often grouped by meaning associations.  So, <here> is related to <there> and <where> just as <hear> is related to <ear>.  No kidding.  These are etymological connections–word relatives.

Our spellings often contain etymological markers, traces of their origin and their journey.  These are not there by accident; they help to distinguish words like <know> and <no> but also echo where the words came from.  By looking at the etymology of words with <kn>, <wr>, <igh> and <wh> we were able to discover why these graphemes exist and to see historical connections between groups of words.  (There are no “silent” letters here; these are graphemes just as <sh> and <ow> are).   We could see how these old words, predating modern English, would have been pronounced and led to modern spellings.

Why did the pronunciation change?  Well, it just did.  Doug Harper, the creator of the Online Etymology Dictionary, talks about the “sharp edges” of English words kind of getting rubbed smooth over time, and I like this metaphor.  When I think of saying <hwistilian> or <cnawan> as opposed to <whistle> or <know>, it just seems like our mouths have to work less hard.   I expect it would have been the later introduction of languages like French and Latin that helped to soften that rather satisfying Norse/German throatiness.  But in those root words we hear the distant echoes of Vikings arriving in England in their longboats.  And staying.

The point is that our system of spelling evolved to contain these markers of the word’s origin.  (That <w> in <two> is another example–look it up, then check out related words where the <w> is still pronounced!)  Here is some of the evidence students gathered in this investigation, using various resources including their own knowledge and intuition.  I was very impressed, again, with their level of engagement.

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After this, I thought it a good idea to actually hear some Old English (up to roughly a thousand years ago) as well as Middle English (up to about 600 years ago, following the introduction of Norman French).  Check out a minute or so of each of these–we felt we could hear and see English developing!  (And hey–both in poetic form).

Finally, you’re going to love this, a video produced by my friend and mentor Gina Cooke that the students thought was great learning fun.  Prepare to think differently about onions:

And if I haven’t said it recently:  Parents!  We know you probably never learned this stuff in school–me neither!  (At least not as a student).   For those of you new to English, don’t worry–English is complicated but understandable!  Send us your questions, ask them of your own children, let them guide you through an investigation, share your results.  Learning together is fun!




2 thoughts on “Etymology: tracing the journeys of words

  1. Great post Skot that so succinctly and elegantly explains the process of inquiry about words. And while it might focus on words- it’s the doorway to Everywhere , to knowledge of both the word and the world. Here in Kuala Lumpur we wait to hear more of your exploits and adventures with Old English and ‘kn’.

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