Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

I conducted an introductory on-line workshop for intermediate teachers in Alberta last night. I was delighted by the response of these teachers getting their first taste of this kind of scientific investigation of spelling. A good sign of that response was an email from one of the participants. She told me that in the 2.5 hour drive from Edmonton to Slave Lake, she discussed the session with a friend int the car. She recounted my presentation of lack of evidence of a <-tion> suffix despite the claims of a teacher resource book and the assertion of the Oxford English dictionary.

In the discussion, the oher teacher asked about the words friction and caption.

Excellent! So we now have hypotheses to test, and by doing so, we are likely to deepen our understanding of spelling, and how to investigate it.

I'm going to (once again!) insert that chart I keep pointing to to help guide the testing of these hypotheses:


I'm going to take on the word friction and only touch briefly on caption

What does friction mean?

If I were in a classroom, I'm sure we could get to the idea that friction has to do with the rubbing of two surfaces and that it creates heat energy. We can go deeper, but lets move on to the next queston first...

How is the word <friction> built?

We have three working hypotheses to consider. Does this word have a <-tion> suffix, an <-ion> suffix, or alternatively, is it jut a base word with no suffix? The key test for these hypotheses is to actually construct the word sums. As soon as we have a question about word structure, a word scientist should construct the word sum so that they can consider the implications of each hypothesis

(Note I like to use an initial question mark sign when I am construction putative word sums. I never knew that word before working with Real Spelling. I use the phrase putative word sum as a "working hypothesis" of a word sum, not an assertion of what I think is right, but instead to have something on the paper that I can think about. When I look up the origin of putative, I see that my phrase 'think about' is on the money!

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French putatif, -ive or late Latin putativus, from Latin putat- ‘thought,’ from the verb putare)

? fric + tion --> friction

? frict + ion --> friction

? friction --> friction (a base)

Before I do anything else, I would note for the questioners that as far as I know, neither fric nor frict are Engish words. If I did not have any more knowledge about spelling to go deeper, I would have no evidence that <-tion> is a better analysis than <-ion>. Unless I can prove that <fric> or <frict> are something, the only safe working hypothesis would be that <friction> itself is a base. If I was a teacher just getting started and that was all that I could prove, I would be quite happy to stop there until someone gave me evidence to go farther.

Fortunately, in our introductory session analyzed words like structure which have a special base that never occurs as a word on its own in current English unless it is bound to at least one other morpheme. Such a base is called a 'bound base' while bases that are free to occur as words on thier own are called 'free bases'. I used word sums and a matrix to prove that the words instruction and structure are built on the the bound base <struct>.

in + struct + ion --> instruction

struct + ure --> structure


So now we can investigate whether we can find word with either a <fric> or a <frict> base that makes coherent word sums (word sums in which each morpheme is demonstrably used in other words).

And here we hit an example of enountering a pretty straight forward word that requires advanced spelling knowledge to work out. I have encountered this one before and have worked it out, but I will seek the help of people who know more about etymology and something called twin bases that will help with this word. This concept just came up in another post here with respect to understanding the connection between the words persuade and persuasion. At that post I recommended part 1 and part 2 videos of a class being taught about bound and free bases.

The inital search I would do to investigate these two possible bound bases actually provides some evidence that is tempting for the bound base <frac>, and thus the <-tion> suffix! However, I caution any scientist from drawing that conclusion unless we have solid evidence of this suffix in other words. But I present the evidence from the Word Searcher that we need to be able to explain. A search of <frict> brings a surprisingly small number of words friction and frictions. Searching <frict> brings those words and some others:

Search Results for "fric"
(6 matches)

The words to do with fricassee have now meaning connection to friction, but fricative is intersting.  While we've started to look at "relatives" it is time to make sure that we look at word origin relatives. So I go to etymonline and look up the word friction and am given this information to consider:

friction (n.)
1560s, "a chafing, rubbing," from Middle French friction (16c.) and directly from Latin frictionem (nom. frictio) "a rubbing, rubbing down," noun of action from pp. stem of fricare "to rub," of uncertain origin. Sense of "resistance to motion" is from 1722; figurative sense of "disagreement, clash" first recorded 1761. Related: Frictional.

Now I see two Latin roots, the nominative frictio and the past participle fricare. This parallels what was found in the investigation at this link I pointed to earlier about the words persuade and persuasion that was taken as evidence of bound bases.

When I look up in one of my favourite etymological references, "Word Stems A Dictionary" by John Kennedy I find this infomation for what it presents as <frict>: 'rub' -- friction L. ficare, frictus.

While I know that twin bases are new to many of you who will read this post, this investigation is pointing more and more to that bing the case here. You may wonder why I am posting this complex analysis in the "beginners" forum. Let me explain my purpose.

First we already pointed to a place where we could safely stop our investigation with students if we did not have this more advanced knowledge about bound bases and twin bases. I say advanced, but that is not really fair. This is content that young students deal with all the time. It is only advanced in the sense that I am answering this question for an audience that has had one 1.5 hour on-line introduction to this work -- and whoever else happens along this post. So until we get more help understanding how to make sense of twin bases, we can stop this investigation at the point of treating <friction> as a base. That is a totally reasonable place to stop. In fact it is where we must stop as a teacher if we do not understand more. We can tell students that we think this word is actually complex, but that we need more evidence to do that analysis, so we will treat it as a base until we can prove a deeper analysis.

That is a hugely important lesson for beginners. You will encounter words which require more advanced spelling knowledge than you have. Thus you need to have a means of stopping an investigation before you tell students more than you understand. There is nothing wrong, however, with stopping at what you can show, and signalling that you think there is a deeper analysis. There is no reason we should feel we need to get to the end of every investigation we start. Certainly that is not who science works. It is in fact the unresolved questions that interest scientists the most.

The other point I want to emphasize here is that this investigation was to see if there is a word with a <-tion> suffix. While I have not given enough proof in this analysis to disprove this suffix, we can hardly say that we yet have definitive evidence of a <-tion> suffix. And this is where the burden of proof lays. Before I can teach a student that there is a <-tion> suffix, I should have solid evidence of this letter string operating for the same purpose in two coherent word sums.

We are presented with a parallel case with caption. What is the best analysis there?

? cap + tion --> caption

? capt + in --> caption

? caption --> caption

What I'm trying to do here is to model how I investigate questions to which I don't have a full answer. That is what I ask teachers to do with students all the time. Now I have encountered both of these questions before, and I am confident that we have twin bases here, but I need to do a better job of explaining those concepts to you, and you need to decide that you are ready to take those questions on.

Like a good scientist, I have presented as much of this investigation as I can productively do now, so I am going to post my findings and seek help from the wider community of Real Spellers who can help me deepen my understanding. This too is exactly the process I hope teachers new to this are willing to take. Explain your thinking with word sums, present what you have found in references -- take your thinking as far as you can, and then present it to an audience who might be able to help your understanding.

I hope this helps, and thanks to my new student for asking such a rich question!







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