I've been introducing my second grade class to word sums and matrice. Two weeks ago, I had a question come up that hasn't before. This has given us the pleasure of christening our blank Wonder Wall. Students were building words with the base <act>. They came up with actor and actress to add to the matrix. Many were surprised to discover the <-ess> suffix, but quickly proved its existence with several words: waitress, lioness, princess, enchantress, seamstress, ... And thus our first collection was initiated.
We've noticed that in some of these words the suffix seems to be <-ress> not <-ess>. Later we noticed that many of the words that seem to have an <-ress> suffix have a similar word with a masculine connotation: waiter/waitress and actor/actress. So then we hypothesized some word sums:
act + o/r + ess → actress
wait + e/r + ess → waitress
That left us wondering what happened to the vowels?
As I'm writing this I'm thinking about how if we kept the vowel in the word it would create another syllable and then the spelling would not represent the pronunciation of the native speakers of English.
Then we thought maybe there could be two different suffixes, but that does not seem very elegant (Thank you, Mr. Occam!).
Then I visited Etymonline and found:
1580s, "female who does something;" see actor + -ess; stage sense is from 1700. Sometimes French actrice was used.
"woman who waits tables at a restaurant," 1834, from waiter + -ess.
I looked at the Real Spellers post about wondrous (Thanks, Aviva! I knew I had thought about this before...). I'm currently enjoying the Old English Lexinar and am thinking that I might, as Old Grouch put it in his reply, "learn from Gina's insights and explanations of diachrony in spelling choices," but thought I'd post on here to see if anything can be illuminated in the meantime.
Thanks for reading.