Sometimes (not <*sumtimes>!) I get such juicy email correspondences, I can't help but share them here in Real Spellers.

The following line of inquiry begain when a student in Craig Irvine's Grade 3/4 class made a brilliant observation. Craig's start with Real Spelling began a year ago with a 1-day workshop and he, his students and his public school in Melbourne has been flying ever since.
 
I'll paste in Craig's question on email that went to a crew of us, a response from another colleague, and then some thoughts I have developed since then.
 
From Craig:
 
Hi community,
 
Today a group of students and I investigated an interesting question…
 
Student K – Asked:

 

 

From Craig:

 

Hi community,

 

Today a group of students and I investigated an interesting question…

 

Student K – Asked:

 

If you can’t have three letters in a row can you have <w> and a <u> next to each other in a complete English word.

 

 

We went to the word searcher and entered <wu> into the search field. We found 9 words that had a <w> with a <u> next to it in the word searcher.

 

swum:  Meaning already been swimming – Past tense swim, Matching pair with swam.

wuss:  Made up slang word, created spelling, same rules as for names.

swung:  Already been swinging – Past tense Can’t find swang… Any reasons for this???

blowup:  blow + up  (Compound word)

wusses: American slang

blowups: blow + up + s à Compound word and plural

liverwurst:  German origin

wunderkind:  German origin

wunderkinds:  German origin

 

Our question is to do with <swung> related to <swing> and <swum> related to <swim> and <swam>. Are these an exception to the rules or is there an explanation for the spelling of these words spelling that we haven’t located yet?

 

Swung is of particular interest as <swam> does the same job in English as <swum> but there is no option recognised spelling of the past tense of <swing> that we can find as <swang>?

 

Thanks for your help

 

Craig Irvine

 

A response from Gail in San Francisco...

Hi Craig,

I love what you turned up in Word Searcher and that you all realized that the slang, German loan words, and compound blow-up didn't provide evidence of <wu> in English. 

But I'd like to know more about the questions.  First:

 "If you can't have three letters in a row" - Is K referring to not having a letter repeated three times in sequence in an English word?  And if so, how does that lead to the second part of the question about the sequence <wu>?  Is K thinking that <w> could be thought of as  <uu> and therefore <wu> could be <uuu>? If so, very interesting thinking. (if not, undoubtedly interesting thinking, too!)

Your observation about the verb <swim> having two forms whereas <swing> has only two is interesting. But when you write this: 

Our question is to do with <swung> related to <swing> and <swum> related to <swim> and <swam>. Are these an exception to the rules or is there an explanation for the spelling of these words spelling that we haven’t located yet? 

Swung is of particular interest as <swam> does the same job in English as <swum> but there is no option recognised spelling of the past tense of <swing> that we can find as <swang>?

which rules are you referring to?  Is it the difference between <swim> <swam> and <swum> on the one hand and <swing> <swung> on the other that you are questioning?

I'm very curious about your questions! (and about how others will respond to  them!)

Gail

Craig builds on Gail's response with a follow-up email...

Hi Gail,

 

Thanks for your feedback.

 

We went to the toolkit to look at the function of the letter <w> and understand that it was often used to replace <u+u> today.

 

My clever student K actually asked this question before we did this. She correctly worked out by the letter name that <w> could be related to, two <u>s. We had done word sums on <agree + ed> and had learnt that a spelling law is that no word in the English language has three of the same letter in sequence and that is why when we rewrite agree + ed -->  agreed.  It drops an <e>.

 

So to more carefully articulate the questions of the group now that the students have gone home…

 

Is the word <swung> the only unexplainable example of a word with a <-wu> letter string in English.

 

I know that in spite of pronunciation <won> is spelt with an <o> apparently to avoid this convention.

 

The word <swum> has another spelling that represents the same meaning <swam> these words both represent the past tense of <swim>. The word <swung> doesn’t have an alternative spelling <swang> that we can locate.

 

Interestingly I am aware of the words,

 

<rung> and <rang> and <ring>

<flung> No <flang> and <fling>  

<sung> and <sang> and <sing>

<hung> and <hang> no <hing>

 

Is this a clue to another convention that I have not learnt yet?

 

There seems to be a relationship between words with an <ing> grapheme taking a <u> as the vowel when it becomes past tense.

 

I am starting to suspect something here to do with the relationship between <o> and <u> being used in place of each other like <a> and <e> can be. I am wondering if it is to avoid <ong> which is difficult to pronounce in English. If this is the case it is a particularly peculiar word. It would seem that the pronunciation is trumping other conventions.

 

Any feedback would be great. Trying to let the kids lead the investigations more and we are going on interesting journeys.

 

Cheers Craig

And finally, for this post, I'll share my initial response, and some thinking I've done since then...

Craig,

 

This is a truly great question! And very well posed. 

 

Thanks for you guiding response Gail.

 

 

I'm frankly amazed I've never come across this question before as I am sure I have encountered spelling investigations in which I concluded that <u> grapheme was discarded as an option before a <w>  because it would violate the "three letter rule". 

 

I guess my expected spelling would be <*swom>, given that we usually use the <o> grapheme when we can't use a <u> for some reason as I learned from the every popular "Learning from Love" theme.

 

I love those rare occasions in which I encounter a spelling question that really mystifies me because it seems that another more coherent option was sitting right there but for some reason didn't evolve. 

 

Please pass on my personal tip of my hat to the sharp eyed spelling scientist in your Grade 3/4 class for identifying such a great question, and to you for following it up so expertly!

 

I'm hoping to meet you over in Real Spellers soon!

 

Pete

OK, now some futher thoughts since writing that response. 

As I ruminated on this question I came to think about what might be behind the fact that the spelling <swum> evolved to have the spelling it does, but a word like <love> or <oven> evolved to avoid the <uv> combination by drawing on the option for the <o> rather than the <u>. 

This made me think about the fact that these spellings evolve in the wider context of language that readers and writers have but probably usually apply without explicit knowledge of conventions.

Apparently that the <wu> combination in <swung> did not rise to the surface as a problem for writers of English as a violation to the unconsicouly applied "no-same-three-letters-in-a-row-rule"  (with the <w> being perceived as two <u>s). However, the <uv> combination was avoided for words like  <love> or <oven> as a way to due to the unconsiciously applied convention of avoiding <uu>, <vv> or <uv> combinations as they collide visually with the <w> grapheme.

With conscious attention to these conventions, I originally thought that the spelling <swong> might have been a more logical solution. We after all have the spelling <some> in which the <o> functions to represent the "short u" phoneme /ʌ/ to distinguish it from the homophone <sum>. 

But since the spelling <*swong> is not a spelling that survived (if in fact it ever exisisted), what other features in the oral and written language environment could have led to the spelling <swung>? And it is when I asked myself about this wider context that I was at least able to come up with a hypothesis. 

As Craig's investigation shows, we do have words with the stem-vowel shift <ring> <rung> or <sing>. <sung>. So users of the language have a pattern to build on which encouraged the use of the <u> for this common stem-vowel shift in Old English words. 

In words like <love> or <oven>, however, there was nothing else in the environment of oral and written language signalling the choice of the <u> grapheme other than the simple fact that <u> is a common grapheme choice for phoneme  /ʌ/ (the "short u"). 

In one case (<love> <oven> etc.)  there are a number of possible grapheme choices available for a phoneme, and one of those choices results in a letter combination that is visually confusing for a <w>, the other grapheme option <o> survives instead. 

In the other case ( <swum>) it is not just that the <u> is a common grapheme choice for the /ʌ/ phoneme. It is also the case that this grapheme choice is assoiciated with a grammatical convention. In this case, the possible visual confusion of a <wu> combination for appearing like the same letter three times in a row, was apparently less confusing than all of a sudden using the <o> as a way to mark the "stem-vowel change" that is evident in words like <swim> / <swum>, <ring> / <rung>, <sing> / <sung> and many others. 

After considering this wider contex of how the grapheme choices in <swum> have evolved, I have to retract my earlier hypothesis that <*swom> would have been a more coherent spelling. 

As seems to almost always be the case (always?), the spelling we have is the one that made the most sense in terms of representing the meaning of words  to those who already speak the language. Of course this includes using spellings to signal  gramagical cues. 

One thing this investigation has emphasized for me is that unconscious application of spelling conventions by useres of the language is necessarily influenced by the breadth of knowledge that language users have. When we act as word scientists trying to understand an individual spelling, it is very easy to forget to draw our attention to relevant cues that occure in the wider context in which that spelling occurs and therefore falsely describe a word as "irregular". 

I was pleased to see when I went back to my email that I avoided treating my inability to explain ths spelling as though that were actual evidence ethat is was "irregular". I wrote:

 

I love those rare occasions in which I encounter a spelling question that really mystifies me because it seems that another more coherent option was sitting right there but for some reason didn't evolve. 

As with any domain of science, it's the questions that we don't yet understand that are the most exciting.

And finally, I have to again commend you and your studnet for sparking all of this. It's hard to think of better evidence of effective teaching than to consider the quality of the questions that students ask. 

How many Grade 3/4 students out there have been offered enough understanding of the writing system that they could even know to ask such a rich question. 

 

I've not really come to any concrete conclusions here, but I have certainly deepened my thinking about the ways spelling evolves due to your student's question, and the way you posed it. 

Many thanks!

Pete

 

 

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