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Knowing our roots helps us understand

Our beginnings help to shape us; our roots are the basis and building blocks of our beings.

Words are so much like people, and looking at prefixes and roots helps us to understand those expressions.

We may be familiar with the prefix "poly-," which means "many" or "in multiples." It becomes more interesting when matched up with several roots. "Polygenetic" describes a living organism that has more than one source or origin. A "polyglot" is a person who speaks multiple languages or a work written in more than one language ("glot" is a root having to do with tongue).

If you use the root "acoustic," meaning "heard" or "audible," then "polyacoustic" is an instrument meant to increase or multiply sound.

The prefix "bi-" helps us double whatever root it is linked with. While the roots "ped," "cycle" and "valve" mean "foot," "circle" and "a device that opens and closes," respectively, we see words such as biped, bicycle and bivalve (like clam or oyster).

If you look just a bit further and add an "o" to "bi-", you get the prefix "bio-" (life). We easily see such words as "biology," study of life, ("-logy" means science of) and "biocide" ("-cide" means kill), so this is a substance capable of killing living organisms.

A commonly used prefix is "auto-," meaning "self." With such roots as "graph" (write), "nomy" (law) and "phobia" (fear), we get autograph (your own signature), autonomy (self-government) and autophobia (fear of isolation or being ignored).

Our language becomes more interesting when we link the prefix "ad-" (to or toward) with roots such as "vent" (come), "voc" (call) and "her" (stick). We get such words as advent (days to come), advocate (to speak for), and adhere (to stick to).

Because "con-" means "with," we get convene (come together), contain (hold within) and conspire (breathe with). And because "spire" means "breathe," we can see where we get other English words such as inspire, respiration and expire.

It is an unending process to combine prefixes and roots. A simple prefix like "sym-" (with or together) can give us numerous words: sympathy (sharing feeling), symphony (harmonious together) and symbiosis (living together).

One of the smallest yet important differences is in the prefixes "intra-" (within, inside) and "inter-" (between or among). An intrastate highway system would be one that services only one state, while an interstate highway system would take you throughout all states.

The same is true of intramural sports, those played by teams within one school, and intermural sports, those played between different institutions.

Does that mean that we are playing extramurals as we study these words, that it is extra or supplemental to our usual daily grind? I hope it is a pleasant addition!

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at ifixgrammar@charter.net