Morphology and Etymology in the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum

Both morphology and etymology refer to the meaning inherent in language; however, only one is an important aspect of language arts in the Steiner Waldorf grades curriculum.

Morphology is an aspect of grammar—it shows how words are build out of out of units of meaning (I.e., morphemes). Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words changes over time.

Morphology is an important aspect of language arts instruction for all English-speaking students grades 4-8, whereas etymology is not. The proper study of etymology is in university, and only for students majoring in English or linguistics. That said, there are a few instances where etymology should be brought into the Steiner Waldorf curriculum grades 4-8.


A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in language—such as the morpheme un in the word unhappy. Morphology considers these units of meaning—specifically how to build words or take words apart. For example:

PrefixesSuffixesRoot Word
anti- (against)-ly (adverb marker)govern
circum- (around)-ment (noun marker)navigate
 -er (one who) 


  • the word baker means one who bakes (bake + -er)
  • the word circumnavigate means navigate around (circum- + navigate)
  • the word government means the noun form of govern*

*The last example shows how the study of morphology can aid spelling. Students can more easily remember the silent N in the word government when they realize the morphemes that make up the word: govern + ment.

In addition, there are Latin and Greek roots that can combine with prefixes and suffixes.

Greek Roots/MeaningLatin Stems/Meaning

These roots and stems are combined with prefixes and suffixes to create new words such as

dentist, chronology, audience, etc.


In contrast, etymology is the study of the origin or words and how the meanings of words change over time. Here are some examples of etymology:

The Study of the Origin of Words

The following is the etymology of the word audience:

late 14c., “the act or state of hearing, action or condition of listening,” from Old French audience, from Latin audentia “a hearing, listening,”

from audientum (nominative audiens), present participle of audire “to hear,” from PIE compound *au-dh- “to perceive physically, grasp,” from root *au- “to perceive.”

Meaning “formal hearing or reception, opportunity of being heard” also is from late 14c.; that of “persons within hearing range, assembly of listeners” is from early 15c. (a member of one might be an audient, 1610s). French audience retains only the older senses. Sense transferred by 1855 to “readers of a book,” by 1946 to “viewers of television programs.” Audience-participation (adj.) is recorded by 1938 in reference to radio.


The etymology of the word audience is the full explanation of how the Latin root aud found its way into one specific word, and how the subsequent usage of that word changed over time.

This type of etymology is too much information for students in the grades.

Origin of Words

For a non-technical example of the origin of words, consider the word salary:

The word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium, meaning “salt money.”

In ancient times, salt was used for many important things and was often referred to as “white gold.” It could be used as an antiseptic to treat wounds — In Romance languages one can recognize a connection between sal/sale, meaning “salt,” and salud/saude/salute, meaning “health”) — and to preserve food, and also as a method of payment in Greece and Rome.

As far back as the Egyptian Empire, laborers were paid with salt that they could use to preserve their food. The Roman Empire continued using this form of payment and it took on the name “salary” for “that which was given to workers at the end of the working month,” which adds a new dimension to the notion of a company’s solvency. ( word-origins)

This type of etymology would be appropriate for the grades, but as part of a history block rather than an aspect of language arts.

How the Meaning of a Word Changes over Time

Consider the word awful. It used to mean full of awe, as in an awful (awe-full) God. Now it means terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. Today, if you were to tell someone their god is awful, it would be taken as an insult, not a compliment.

This type of etymology could be appropriate for the grades, but as an aside, not as a major topic of study.

Morphology & Etymology in the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum

In grades 4-8, it is imperative that children study morphology but not etymology.

Morphology is a critical aspect of language arts: it is one of the 17 aspects of language arts that should be taught in English blocks in grades 4-8. Morphology is important for the study of vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. It becomes even more important in the Latin/Greek phase, which is usually taught in grades 7-8, after the students have mastered the syllable phase.

Students then consider the Latin and Greek roots/stems inherent in advanced English vocabulary to determine a word’s meaning and its spelling.

In contrast, etymology is not an important aspect of language arts during the grades. It is not something a teacher would teach in English blocks per se—the study of etymology in English belongs in university. However, aspects of etymology can find their way into English blocks. For example, it is good to discuss the origin of words briefly when teaching students to use a dictionary. Furthermore, aspects of etymology can enliven the study of history.

Steiner’s Advice for Working with Morphology and Etymology

Steiner does not give indications for morphology because his advice is for German, not English. This aspect of language arts is specific to English. For a full discussion of how to work with morphology in the grades, consult the book Continuing the Journey to Literacy Chapter 3.17: Morphology (Militzer-Kopperl 2020, 502-514).

Steiner does not discuss etymology per se, but he does give an example of how to work with etymology in history in Practical Advice to Teachers. He says:

We must not allow ourselves to think pedantically: “Now I am teaching geography, and now I am teaching history. I need not bother about anything else.” When we explain to the children that the word sofa came from the Orient during the Crusades, we shall see to it that we then include in the history lesson a description of the way sofas are manufactured. . . .

. . . If a teacher suddenly tells children, to their delight, about the manufacture of sofas in the middle of a history lesson, leading perhaps to a discussion of Oriental carpet patterns and presented in a way that gives then a real view of the subject, such children will have better digestion than children who are taught French lessons followed by geometry. The child will actually be physically more healthy. Thus we can well structure our lessons in this inwardly healthy way. (2000, 162)

Steiner is showing how teachers can use the etymology of the word sofa to enliven a history lesson by connecting one subject to another. For more about connecting subjects to each other, consult Continuing the Journey to Literacy chapter 2.3 #10 (Militzer-Kopperl 2020, 87-88).


Morphology and etymology are similar in that they both consider the meaning of words; however, only morphology is an important aspect of language arts instruction for grades 4-8. That does not mean that the Steiner Waldorf curriculum does not contain examples of etymology. The origin of words can be used to enliven history blocks and connect one subject to another.

About the Author Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl

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