Is A Photograph Worth A Thousand Words?

An investigation of the word photograph can lead to a plethora of new words and deeper understandings of English orthography if using the four questions from Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers and Kirby 2010):

What does it mean?

A photograph is a pictorial representation made physical. Ansel Adams once said that you take a picture, but you make a photograph. I have always loved photography. When I was 9 years old, the age of my current students, my dad taught me how to use his old Pentax K1000. Later this summer, we will hit a new National Park so he can hike and I can attempt to make beautiful visual art. Language can be art as well though. Not just compositionally, but through the way we study it and make connections between our thoughts and the physical realizations of those thoughts. Hopefully this post can help clarify future posts of the scientific investigations of orthography, always using the same four questions: 1) What does it (the word, grapheme, structure) mean? 2) How is it built? 3) What connections can be made? 4) What other important information (if a word investigation, pronunciation) plays a role in determining meaning?

How is it built?

phote/ + o + graph -> photograph

For more on the lexical algorithm, click here.

A lot of people think that photo- is a combining form in English that came from Greek, but it actually isn’t. It does derive from Greek ϕωτ and ϕῶς meaning ‘light,’ but the <o> is a connecting vowel letter.

In <phote>, there is a single, final, non-syllabic <e>. The single, final, non-syllabic <e> in any base exists whether or not it surfaces in a word. In this case, antiphote is the word it surfaces in. We have evidence in a word of that <e> being present.

For more on element, base, connecting vowel, affix, prefix and suffix, click here.

What connections are there?

There are immediately three inflectional suffixes <-s>, <-ed> and <-ing> that can give us three words all sharing meaning and structure. We can again use the lexical algorithm to see these:

phote/ + o + graph + s -> photographs

phote/ + o + graph + ed -> photographed

phote/ + o + graph + ing -> photographing

We can now put the simple elements in a matrix:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 8.43.46 PM.png

So far, so good. Notice that the denotation for the bold base element <phote> is ‘light’. I never assign grammar to an element in a matrix because you cannot know the part of speech of a word until it surfaces in the context of a sentence. I would not want to include the dummy preposition ‘to’ in front of it because even though in the sentence He photographs the scene, photographs is a verb, <phote> is not anything without it’s constituent parts.

Also, there is another base element, <graph>, to which I have not assigned a denotation to, since my principal base that I am constructing words from is <phote>.

If I was presenting this to my students, there is nothing inaccurate about leaving photograph as a basal construction (a base with more than one element). That matrix would look something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 8.46.37 PM.png

Students may see <photograph> as multiple morphemes, or they may just leave it as a basal construction. This is part of the discovery process.

One of the advantages to simple (as opposed to complex) elements is that it allows you to include more members of a word family in one matrix. It is more elegant.

For example, the word photic would not be included in a matrix that had the complex construction photograph because it does not have a connecting vowel <o> or another base <graph> in it. Instead the sum is this: phote + ic -> photic.

Further, the suffix <-on> could be added proving the presence of the final non-syllabic <e>:

phote/ + on -> photon, NOT photo + n* or phot + on -> photton*

We could include these suffixes in the first matrix to look something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 3.26.17 PM.png

Another matrix could include the prefix <anti-> and other derivational suffixes or base elements:

phote matrix.jpeg

Elements in this matrix can be combined through the lexical algorithm to synthesize a present day English word. This is a synchronic understanding as we are stuck in the present moment, creating the words we will use today.

The most important parts of matrices from a teacher perspective is that there is always a deeper understanding that exists. Some students will work for weeks on those three inflectional suffixes, whereas others are ready for derivational suffixes and the functions they play. It is up to the teacher to decide how best to present the facts of the system to their students.

What connections can be made?

 This question forces us to go back into history, to study the etymology of the word photograph, and to look diachronically (through time) at the connections it has.

We already know that <phote> comes from Greek. But, scholars can trace the element <phote> all the way back to the Proto-Indo European reconstructed root bhā- which has a denotation (sense and meaning) of ‘shine.’ This root is responsible for all sorts of derivations in several different languages. The linguistic term cognate, literally ‘born with,’ helps clarify that the words coming from this family all derive from the same root. They were born together.

A visual way to represent this huge word family is through a circle:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 7.50.15 PM.png

Inside the circle, we see the present day English words that all share the same etymological root, or history. They are cognate to photograph. They share a root, but they do NOT share a base element in present day English. We see this through the spellings: <phote> is not the same as <phase> or <banner>.

What are the important pronunciations in accordance to meaning?

I like to think of this as:

What other information can we glean, phonologically or otherwise, from the relationships between the words?

In this circle, if we look at the words fantasy, phosphate, and photograph, we can see that the <ph> and the <f> are both spelling the labio-dental fricative /f/. The <ph> comes from Greek and the <f> was an Old French transcription of the <ph> in phantasie. Check out the entries in etymonline to trace the histories of any of the words in the circle.

Finally, the word photograph is a compound. It has more than one base element. We could construct another matrix using the element <graph> with all of it’s synchronic relationships. Further, we could construct a circle with its etymological cognates. There are other compounds that exist within that family which could lead to more circles:

PIE deep investigation screen shot.png

So maybe a photograph really is worth a thousand words…