Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mindful Zen of Morphology

Years ago, as a particularly bitter winter retreated from Wisconsin, my mother pointed to a tree near the window. “See the buds on the branch, Susie.” I searched, the two of us peering together through the glass, until finally I saw something that resembled unpopped popcorn. Small, knobby, not much of a muchness. Mom then explained that the tree had been sleeping all winter and now it was awake, putting out buds, making new leaves. I knew she was pleased at these small signs of spring so I decided to be pleased too, even though I was distracted by the notion of a sleeping tree. Years later, in grade school, we learned the scientific term that describes trees at rest, dormant. It was easy to grasp the new term because I already understood the concept.

I am learning to look as closely at words as I once did at that branch. When I peer into the word dormant I think to myself, “Look more closely. Make a connection.” Eureka! Awareness makes all the difference. Immediately dormitory springs to mind. I slept in a dorm room and dormant means 'sleeping, inactive.' Then I think of those charming little dormer windows often found in a sleeping loft. Suddenly the French nursery song Frère Jacques plays through my memory. Dormez-vouz? (Are you sleeping, Brother John?) Dormez-vouz!! It’s a discovery! And a discovery is always interesting. Awaken young minds to the delight of discovering word relationships. All teachers can prompt the mindful Zen of morphology. No need to be a linguist. Just be curious.

Awaken older minds, too. Somehow I became fairly comfortable with French in high school yet never made the connection between dormez-vous, dormant, and dormitory until years later when I began to actively seek associations in English and beyond. Then, voila! Like blossoms in springtime, they’re everywhere.

Robertson's compendium provides many more derivatives of the root dorm.
By checking Woxicon I learn that the words for 'sleep' in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese contain the root dorm. This fact makes cross-linguistic transfer possible (see list of websites for teaching ELL, in the page footer).

Bring out the books! Help students become mindful of morphology when they read. Teach them to apply morphemic analysis in context. Consider this excerpt from Chapter 7, Alice in Wonderland, a book rich with word play (full text here). Prompt awareness with a question like this, "Why do you think the rodent is called a dormouse?"

`They were learning to draw,' the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy....The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on...." (Lewis Carroll, 1865).
A dormouse hibernates. This may be a blended compound word. OED Online suggests dormouse flows from French dormir, 'to sleep'  and the Middle English word for 'mouse' but the origins are obscure (see comments). Children are unlikely to readily assume that dormouse contains dorm, because it looks like dor + mouse and sounds like door + mouse.  But most students have more knowledge than they realize. The teacher's job is to draw such knowledge to the surface, from dormancy into metacognition. 

And we can always count on Rowling for wordplay with Greek and Latin. I especially liked the Hogwarts coat of arms (Wikipedia/Creative Commons/Jakovche). The school motto states Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus: Never tickle a sleeping dragon. A joyous discovery!

PS. The Vernal Equinox is Saturday, March 20, heralding the first day of spring. During an equinox the night is nearly as long as the day, almost 12 hours each. The meaning is in the morphemes. The Latin root equi refers to 'same or equal' as in equality, equity, equate, equator, etc. The root nox means 'night.'

To study words like equinox we need context but context comes in many forms. Pictures provide a platform for discussion and are especially helpful for English Language Learners. I saw a creative portrayal of an equinox in student-created calendar art, published by Buffalo Public Schools. How would you depict the concept?

That's all, folks. My thanks to Jessica Fresco for capturing her spring blooms on film and sharing them with us.


  1. Susan, Thanks for the great blog today! And, vernal means "Spring," stemming from Latin vernalis < vernus < ver, spring.

    Living on the shore of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin, I'm ready for Spring!

  2. Susan, You do such a wonderful job awakening our interest and reminding us to be curious!
    Thank you for this great discussion -

  3. Thank you, Deb. I'm happy to talk about this topic. Thnx for lending an ear!
    Curiosity is akin to interest...motivational.

  4. Hi, Marcia. I think you get enough snow for dog sledding! No wonder you have your eyes on spring. Thanks for the vernal connection. Also verdant?
    (PS..I am in Madison now and the weather is lovely)

  5. Real Spelling3/18/2010

    Spelling, Spanish and sleeping in French

    Reading the account of the Latin root and its derivations reminded us of a mail from an elementary class that would have warmed the cockles of Susan’s heart.

    Melissa's classroom in Kuala Lumpur was a living hive of orthography - even when she was teaching Spanish. Here's an extract from her mail to us.


    We are interested to see if making the link between English and Spanish helps to deepen the students' vocabularies in both languages. Now we want to work on ("sleeps") which comes from the infinitive "to sleep". We see in English which has come from the Latin .

    We were really interested in because we had always thought it was (folk etymologized!).

    So is the base element with the related base to account for the only one in ?


    The question was new to us at the time, so we learned something new as a result - always a great pleasure.

    As Susan commented, OED suggests the possibility of some sort of Middle English compound but that the origins are obscure. The New Oxford American Dictionary similarly, and rather baldly, states: ORIGIN: late Middle English : of unknown origin, but associated with French dormir or Latin dormire ‘to sleep’ and mouse.

    It is a fundamental discipline of scholarship never to rely on just one or two sources, and the comment “of unknown origin” should always spark a wider investigation. The Etymonline entry is rather more productive in possibilities.

    1425, possibly from Anglo-Fr. *dormouse "tending to be dormant" (from stem of dormir "to sleep"), with the second element mistaken for mouse, or from a M.E. dial. compound of mouse and M.Fr. dormir. ... Fr. dormeuse, fem. of dormeur "sleeper".

    It seems that Melissa may well have been right to suspect a "folk etymology" (though it would not be the one she suggested), and that the immediate source of the English could just be a French word (still, though, from the Latin root).

    This is how the journey of the word into English would have gone if this hypothesis holds.

    1. The Latin-origin French base is "sleep".

    2. The French 'agent suffix' (equivalent of English <-er>/<-or>) is <-eur>: "sleeper".

    3. The feminine form of <-eur> is <-euse>: "(grammatically feminine) sleeper".

    4. The French "mouse" is grammatically feminine, so .

    5. Only the may have been borrowed into English to represent the little rodent.

    6. "Dormeuse" meant nothing to English ears, but the string was heard by those same English ears as a French-accented pronunciation of "mouse"

    7. "Folk etymology" (what native speakers perceive, even though it is not necessarily the case) substituted for to produce which made more sense to ordinary native English-speakers who, it must be said, were probably also unaware of the element.

    We made further suggestions if Melissa’s elementary class wanted to follow up the "sleep" theme.

    1. They could work with the matrix of the base element . (In the event, several Roman Catholic students recognized the term ‘Dormition’.)

    2. Investigate other Latin-origin bound bases "sleep, dream", "deep sleep".

    3. Investigate the Greek-origin bases, "sleep", "numbness, sleep", "lethargy, deep sleep". During their follow-up, students lighted upon (1619) that Oxford defined as “a soporific; a narcotic”!

    Susan’s article, of course, gave double pleasure to us with its inclusion of the allusions to French!

    Just think what ‘vocabulary’ possibilities could spring from the song’s final instruction to Friar John: “Sonnez les matines”. Resonating matinees, here we come!

    Yours orthographically,

    Real Spelling,
    from a small town in deepest central France

  6. The matrix for the base element dorm can be freely downloaded from this link:

    The file is in .pdf format.

  7. Thank you, Real Spelling, for your insightful addition to this blog.

    Readers, Etymonline is a favored resource. As explained previously, it is listed first under Useful Links (see sidebar). Another good resource is the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition (expensive). Recently, I came across John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins (not a typical dictionary, offering only etymological info). Like OED Online, all these sources make reference to dormir and mouse and they all suggest a lack of clarity and the possibility of a mangled French loan word.

    John Ayto states: "It is not clear whether dormouse is related [to dormant], but if it is it would mean literally 'sleeping mouse' or conceivably even 'sleeper' from French dormeuse, the feminine of dormeur 'sleeper.'" (This last bit is the hypothesis offered by Real Spelling.)

    If indeed dormouse is from the French dormeuse then this word has morphed over time, as words will do. Consider mushroom: Most likely, a mushroom has nothing to do with a room and was not originally a compound word. Instead, mushroom appears to be a mangled French word for 'moss' (sources suggest from Anglo-French musherun, moscheron, and/or musherum, from Old French mousseron, perhaps from Latin).

    Teachers and librarians, the story of mushroom is included in Abracadabera to Zombie: More Than 300 Wacky Word Origins by Don and Pam Wulffson. A fun read!

    The morning bells have rung. The mourning doves have sung. It is lunchtime. Bon jour!

  8. I really like this story- it reminds me of Alice and Wonderland! Thanks for all the great info...

  9. Aloha! Thanks, Jessica. Glad you enjoyed it.

    (PS...Oh to be in Hawaii...)

  10. I just discovered your blog via a search for "vocabulary using roots". When I saw your work on vocabulary through morphemes I instantly was very excited. I've done reading intervention for the past seven years and have found breaking words down to be a highly effective means of strengthening vocabulary and improving reading comprehension. I often use the text that the student is reading to pull out words that are stumbled over or not fully understood. From there we do discovery of the word and generate any related words (separate from the reading, but the newly acquired knowledge is put to use the next day when we pick the story back up). We do all the things you mention.
    I'm so excited to have found a kindred thinker. You have done the work for me--and I can't wait to fully digest it.

    I have recently began the special ed program at our local university. An assignment for this week was to put together a lesson on vocabulary to present to our cohort. That's why I was researching.

    1. I only now noticed your comment, Wendy. Thank you for the kind words. So glad to hear you find the site useful and affirming. Vocabulogic is definitely a joint effort, with a variety of guest authors.

      It sounds like you are having success with your students, exploring the promises of morphological insight. Kudos to you and yours, and best wishes in your Sp Ed program!


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