Developing Vocabulary Skills - Structured Word Inquiries

While reading a transcript of a Meet the Press segment last night, I noticed that Moderator Chuck Todd used the word litigate in a new (to me) way. Todd said:
Let me begin with this question, the presidency is about choices. So I'm curious why President Trump chose yesterday to send out his press secretary to essentially litigate a provable falsehood when it comes to a small and petty thing like inaugural crowd size. I guess my question to [Kellyanne Conway], why do that?
Todd's use of the word litigate immediately caught my attention. It piqued my curiosity. It stumped me!
While I had previously believed that I knew what this word meant, I was suddenly lost. Chuck Todd was using litigate in a context that made me question what I “knew” about it! Doesn’t litigate refer to something lawyers do in court? If so, why is Todd using it to refer to something that is being done in a press briefing? I wondered. I needed to know.
Could this be an opportunity to apply what I have been learning about morphemes (the meaningful parts of words)? Could I conduct a “structured word inquiry” (SWI), or scientific word investigation, into the meaning of this word? Could that kind of research technique work for me--and would it be helpful?
I knew of an Orton-Gillingham teacher who was using SWI to increase her students’ understanding of orthographic principles; I wondered if this kind of vocabulary-deepening exercise could help Riggs students, too. I decided to investigate the word litigate in a structured way, to find out more about this technique (and this word). To do that, I would simply have to ask and answer the same four questions that an SWI word detective would ask.
  • What does the word mean?
  • How is it built?
  • What are its relatives?
  • Do any of its grapheme-phoneme correspondences matter to its meaning or pronunciation?
Would you like to see how this turns out? I am going to do this investigation right now, in real time, writing about what happens as I go along. Do you want to join me? If so, let’s grab a cup of coffee and put on our science hats. Let’s form hypotheses, gather evidence, test out our assumptions, and see what we see. Let’s inquire into the meaning of the word litigate.

Question #1: What does the word mean?

Okay. I’m not sure. Right now I only know that I think it means something related to law. But how can that be right? Chuck Todd was not using it in that sort of context? Hmm. I’m going to look up the word in my dictionary.
According to Webster, litigate is an intransitive verb that means “to carry on a legal contest by judicial process.”
Okay. That’s not super helpful. Let’s try the third question.

Question #3: What are its relatives?

I know I skipped the second question, but Peter Bowers, from whom I have been learning about this sort of word study, says that questions two and three can be asked in either order--and intermingled--because they work together. I’m choosing to start with the third question because I want to use Douglas Harper’s free Online Etymology Dictionary to see what I can find out about the history of this word.
Where did this word come from? (Every word has a story.) What is its root, its essential meaning? I know that the etymology of this word will help me answer these questions, and I know that the answers will help me find out if the word litigate has any etymological relatives (words that come from the same root).
I pull up the etymology dictionary, type litigate in the search box, and hit the enter button.
1610s (intransitive), from Latin litigatus, past participle of litigare "to dispute, carry on a suit" (see litigation). Transitive sense is from 1741. Related: Litigated; litigating.
Okay, this tells me that the word has been found in English writings dating back to about 1610. It also tells me that it comes to us from the Latin verb litigare, “to dispute, carry on a suit.” The entry also tells me that this word is related to the English words litigatedlitigating, and litigation. Since Doug Harper suggests that I see litigation for more information, I do that.
When I click on the litigation hot link, I learn that the Latin verb litigare comes from the phrase litem agere "to drive a suit," from litem "lawsuit, dispute, quarrel, strife" + agere "to set in motion, drive forward."
Okay, great. So now I know three things:
1) litigate might have the connotation of driving an argument forward, of keeping it going, 2) the root of litigate is litigare
3) litigate has at least three relatives:
What else can I find out?

Question #2: How is it built? (What is the structure of this word?)

To answer this question, I need to ask more questions. First, is the word litigate simple or complex? I’ve learned that every English word is either one or the other. A simple word is one that has no affixes. Does litigate have any prefixes or suffixes? If so, what is the base word? Hmmm.
I think I can see some suffixes in litigate and its relatives, so my hypothesis right now is that litigate is a complex word. But how can that be? Since litig is not a word, can it be the base of litigate? It’s definitely possible. Some bases are called “bound bases” because their meaning can only surface when they are attached (i.e., bound) to other morphemes. I know that many of the English words that have been derived from Latin contain bound bases, and I know that this word is derived from a Latin word. Is litig a bound base? Is it the base of these words? I need more evidence.
Thankfully, one of the tools Peter Bowers and his students use for gathering this kind of evidence is right at my fingertips: Neil Ramsden’s online Word Searcher, which has a database of 60,000 English words. Can I use this tool to help me gather more information? Let’s find out. Let’s pull it up and see if there are any other words that contain the same base.
I pull up the tool and type litig in the search box. Here are the results:
Hmm. It sure looks like my hypothesis is correct. I’m thinking that all of these words share the same base, the same meaning carrying morpheme (litig). I’m thinking they are all built by adding commonly used suffixes (suffixes are morphemes that are added to the end of bases) to the base litig. I’m also thinking that all of these words can be built without breaking any of the spelling conventions that I teach my Riggs students. But how can I be know that these hypotheses are correct?
To find out, I need to apply Peter Bowers’ unbreakable requirement for proving a hypothesis about a word’s structure. I need to account for every meaningful element in all of these words. I need to create word sums to test out my hypotheses. I need to illustrate it.
Can I turn all of these words into accurate word sums? Let’s see:
litig+ant --> litigant
litig+ate --> litigate
litig+ant+s --> litigants
litig+at(e)+ed --> litigated (final e is dropped when adding a vowel suffix)
litig+ate+s --> litigates
litig+at(e)+or --> litigator
litig+i+ous --> litigious  (i is a “connector vowel” and a phonological marker)
litig+at(e)+ing --> litigating
litig+at(e)+ion --> litigation
litig+at(e)+or+s --> litigators
litig+i+ous+ness --> litigiousness
Wow! I am able to analyze these words into coherent word sums, using my knowledge of Riggs suffixes and spelling rules to help me do that. I have proved that these words are not only etymologically related but also morphologically related; they are all derivatives of the same bound base element, litig.
Now that I’ve investigated this word and proven my hypotheses with word sums, I can answer the final question:

Question #4 Do any the grapheme-phoneme correspondences matter to its meaning or pronunciation?

Hmm. Well, yes. As a Riggs teacher, I can see many. For example, I can see that the letter i is not a grapheme in this word (it is not representing a phoneme), it's just a connecting vowel that is acting as a phonological marker to indicate the pronunciation of the preceding letter. If the last letter in the base litig were followed by the suffix -ous, which begins with the letter o, the pronunciation of the grapheme g would not shift to the phoneme /j/. I can also understand why litigious is spelled with a g instead of with a j: to connect it to the meaning of the base, litig. It all makes sense!
Okay. I’m almost finished. As soon as I create a matrix to illustrate the interrelation of the written morphemes in this morphological family, my inquiry will be complete. I’m going to use Neil Ramsden’s Mini Matrix-Maker to create this matrix, and I’ll plug in the word sums I’ve already created. Check it out:
What do you think? Pretty elegant, yes? I've found the deepest structure that explains the greatest number of facts.
So I’ve investigated the word litigate, and my investigation has deepened my understanding of orthography, broadened my vocabulary knowledge, and expanded my ability to understand Chuck Todd’s question. It’s now clear to me that Todd was asking Conway why members of the press had been called in for a briefing when the sole purpose of the briefing seemed to be to continue a quarrel. He wanted to know why the press secretary was keeping the argument going, why he was being litigious. Why was he acting like a litigator instead of as a communicator? And so on. But that is politics, and this is English.
I’m becoming convinced that structured word investigations can deepen my understanding of English orthography. I can also see how this kind of vocabulary-building exercise might be a powerful practice in a Riggs classroom. Researching word origins, writing out word sums, and building matrices from these sums: how scientific! And fun! Can you also see how such exercises might help your students deepen their understandings of math, history, humanities, and more?
Do you think this type of word study and these research techniques might benefit your Level II or III Riggs students? For example, the first spelling word in the Riggs Institute’s Level II text is the word enjoy. You can see a matrix for the morphological family that is made from its base (joy) here.
Can you see how investigating this word, building word sums from this word, and building a matrix from these word sums might be a useful vocabulary-building exercise for your students? Couldn’t you use Socratic questioning to lead your students to investigate the word enjoy? Couldn’t they create a matrix to use as a reference tool when writing sentences that illustrate the meaning of joy and and some of its derivatives? Wouldn’t they enjoy that?
In Level II, your students will study Greek and Latin roots and begin analyzing words that are in the same etymological family. Would this be a good place for you to introduce SWI activities so that your students could study morphological families as well? Could this kind of SWI exercise take your vocabulary development exercises to a deeper and more enjoyable level?
Here (below) is a graphic organizer that I created to help me do SWI's. If you’d like to deepen your own understanding of English morphemes, why not use it to conduct some SWI’s of your own. For example, how are the words do, does, done, and doing related? How about go, goes, gone, and going? Are any of these words in the same morphological family? Can you use research tools and create word sums and a matrix to find out? Can you come up with an elegant solution to explain these spellings? Can you find the deepest structure that explains the greatest number of cases?
When you feel comfortable with this research technique, you may wish to differentiate your Riggs instruction by teaching the technique to some of your more advanced students. Couldn’t they use SWI tools and techniques to conduct independent--or small group--investigations into some of their spelling words while you work with any new or struggling students? Couldn’t they share what they have learned with the rest of the class?
Scientific Word Investigations
What does the word mean? Come up with a general idea or use a dictionary.
How is this word structured? (What are its morphemes?)
Questions to ask: Is the word simple or complex? (Do you see any possible prefixes and suffixes? Are there any connecting vowels?) What is this word’s base? Use Word Searcher to help you form hypotheses about questions related to word structure.
What is the etymology of this word? Can you think of any words that might share a common root? Use to look into the history of this word.
Can you find any grapheme-phoneme correspondences that fit within your hypothesized morphemes? Do any spelling conventions help explain the construction, meaning, or pronunciation of this word (or of any of its morphemes)?
Use word sums to help you analyze a word and verify your hypotheses about its structure. Create a matrix to help you organize and illustrate your findings about morphological families (You can use Ramsden’s Mini-Matrix Maker or make your own matrix from scratch.)
You must reject a hypothesis about a word’s structure if your hypothesis can not be proved with a word sum.
  • Words that share a meaning and origin are etymologically related. Use etymonline to find out more about the history of your word, to discover its root, and to discover additional words that might share this root.
  • Words that share a meaning and structure are morphologically related. Use Word Searcher to find words that may share the same base (morphological relatives).
  • There’s a reason for every graphemic choice. Whenever possible, English spellings link words connected in meaning.
Here are some resources for learning more about these topics. Enjoy your research!
Morphology Works (a research study)


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