I have a good friend who always reminds me that there are no coincidences.

A couple of months ago, I put together the following graphic, a matrix inside of a circle showing etymological relatives:

ope circle

A few days later, I got an inquiry from a friend inviting me to come to Nashville, Music City, home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Nearly four years ago, I was hired to give a presentation on morphology, which was recorded and posted online. About a month later, I was at a conference in Chicago, and a woman came up to my booth and introduced herself. She had chanced upon the recorded presentation, watched it, and wanted to learn more, so when she found out that I was presenting live in Chicago (with Pete Bowers and Marcia Henry), she drove up from Nashville to Chicago to be a part of it.

Since then, she’s followed English spelling to Philadelphia, France, and Canada, to Chicago, to Ohio at least once. She’s not only hardcore dedicated; she’s hardcore brilliant. Often she’ll capture an understanding in words that just take my breath away. She is quick but patient, rigorous but flexible, and impressive in cultivating an understanding with both children and adults.

This is the remarkable teacher who contacted me recently and asked me to join her and her colleagues in the Music City later this month for a day and a half of private training. After several years of Mohammed coming to the mountain, the mountain is so pleased to now go to Mohammed.

I think that makes me a mountain.

Moreover, thanks to this Mohammad, I also have the pleasure of announcing a workshop open to the public on Saturday, May 30th, at Vanderbilt University. This came about because this same dedicated, patient, brilliant woman reached out among her local contacts to see who might be interested in offering a venue for teachers to encounter real English spelling. Vanderbilt responded; the registration flyer is available here, or register at this link.

It’s a brave thing to step toward the forward edge of a field, especially when it requires us to rethink familiar and comfortable practices. Sometimes, in education, people forget that that edge is not a front, but a frontier. Language study shouldn’t make us soldiers, battling about others’ ideologies, but explorers, mapping out the terrain of the orthography and cataloging its natural resources.

Let’s see, music, work, and new frontiers. Sounds like Nashville to me. Hope you can join us!


Some days, I don’t do much other than teach. On days when I have 3 or 4 online classes scheduled, the in-between times often feel unproductive. These times include necessities like eating or homeschooling or hanging up the wash, but they also include things like doodling, posting on Facebook, or getting aimlessly lost in the Online Etymology Dictionary for a bit. Most days, I just don’t have it in me to squeeze two hours of tax prep or grading exams in between online lectures about strong verbs and syllable structure.

Anyone who’s taken a LEXinar can probably imagine that my brain needs a break before I start another one.

One Tuesday in March was exactly this kind of day. I began my day at 8am with an online course, followed by another at 3:30, and another at 6pm. The hours between 9 and 3 should have been really productive. I should’ve been able to do at least two hours of writing, or putting together a crockpot meal, or processing and uploading videos. But I didn’t. I exercised, and then I sat. A lot. I read fluff, quite a bit. I felt guilty, too. That takes energy.

What I didn’t realize until later that day was that my brain was hard at work on something, but not in the foreground. I didn’t know I was working until I was basically done. Right around 3pm, as I was prepping for my Spelling & Glamour LEXinar at 3:30, I had an epiphany about something our orthographic community has been puzzling about for quite some time. I quickly opened my Zoom room, and sent out an invitation for friends in France, Canada, and San Francisco to join me for a few minutes if they could. Much to my delight, France joined me right away from his dinner table. Much to my surprise, Canada was actually in San Francisco that day, so the two of them joined me from the same screen. Also in the room with San Fran and Can was a gaggle of teachers with whom they had been working.

So I set about explaining, quickly, what I had been thinking about. It had been a long time in the making, but it really began to crystallize the day before, in the final installment of a Syllables LEXinar with a really great group of orthographic thinkers. Here’s a screen-shot of what I sketched out as I explained my thinking to this crew: Zoom pete Michel Gail

This screenshot captures our conversation about etymological markers, the nature of the English phoneme, allophones, zero allophones, digraphs, and graphemes that are etymologically driven. That’s a lot for one short talk!

What I realized after six hours of feeling guilty and unproductive is that my brain needs that time off. It needs — I need — time to think unhurriedly, not on a deadline, to relax. That’s when I do my best problem-solving. Sometimes, time isn’t supposed to be productive; it’s supposed to be generative instead.

After my lazy afternoon, my conversation with France, Canada, and San Francisco exploded into clarity and rigor. A new line of investigation into etymological markers was laid out. Since then, additional conversations have brought depth and understanding to our study of syllables, phonemes, our orthographic concept model, and so much more. Recently, I realized that an understanding of etymological markers (a future LEXinar, to be sure) and an understanding of syllables in English both hinge on an understanding of the zero allophone.

So, in studying one lazy day, I saw the sign. I saw the significant value of time off for my brain. Because of this, I made a decision to take the month of April off from LEXinars, to regroup and think and write and figure out what was emerging as really meaningful in my study.  Now that it’s May 1st, I’m announcing a new set of LEXinars that have grown organically out of this month off:

✦ The International Phonetic Alphabet

✦ The Nature of the Phoneme

✦ The Zero Allophone

✦ An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry

These LEXinars address the “What About Phonology?” question I wrote about here. They reexamine phonology and how it’s written down, and they question the value of an accurate understanding. Quite a few people have inquired about LEXinars — these new ones, and the favorites like Old English for Orthographers or Syllables: Fact and Fiction. In order to know whose schedules I need to accommodate, I’m asking folks to register (preferably online) first, and then we’ll schedule courses in May, June and July. More information is available here.

Just what is that <g> doing in <sign>? Yeah, yeah, I thought I knew too. Come join the conversation!

I am currently engaged — with great joy — in an etymological Renaissance, in the company of Doug Harper and those who study with us around the world. But phonology — phonology is also on my mind.

Last Friday, I spoke at the Peoria County Teacher Institute Day at the Civic Center. Folks came to hear about dyslexia, and they did, but of course they also got an earful about spelling, about morphology and relationships between words. They studied the concept model of English orthography developed by Real Spelling, and they saw evidence that countered their previous conceptions of what a phoneme is.

The phonology question came up, as it always does, this time from an ESL teacher. “Do you still think that phonology is important to teach with the younger kids?”

I used to dread this question and not want to answer it, but now it’s a dialogue I appreciate being able to engage in. My answer hits three main components:

1. Of course I think phonology is important to study! And this is not just an opinion; it’s an understanding based on the fact that phonology is one aspect of language structure that is represented by the English writing system. In fact, I think that studying phonology is SO critical that we had better get it right. At this point in history, pedagogically speaking, we really don’t get phonology right, because we start with it instead of understanding it inside of its morphological framework, because that’s how English works. So yes, by all means, study phonology with your students, but make sure you are studying it with an understanding properly rooted in the defining and delimiting structures of morphology.

2. I encourage educators to stop thinking of phonology as something that you “teach.” Rather, make it something that you *study.* You cannot possibly be better at teaching something that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and study it yourself. Study it with your students. Be willing to admit that your own understanding of phonology is always evolving. It’s not something you can open a teacher’s manual and impart; it’s an important part of the structure of language that is represented in the writing system. Phonemes are not “the smallest unit of speech!” Rather, they’re mental representations of minimally distinctive units of pronunciation. Phonology includes phonemes, but also (allo)phones, and understanding this is critical to studying the writing system. Phonology also includes stress, which plays an interesting role in English spelling. Syllables, however, have far less significance in English orthography than the purveyors of phonics would have us believe. Moreover, where syllables do matter in English, stress is often an important factor. For example, an unstressed syllable can be reduced to a zero vowel, but the syllable is still written: Family is typically pronounced /’fæmli/ — two syllables — but it retains three written syllables. We can see why when we consider its sister words familiar or familial. Ultimately, phonics, in all its permutations, is pedagogical, not linguistic, and it has little to do with an accurate understanding of phonology and phonemes.

3. It doesn’t matter how old someone is (or what their native language is or whether they have dyslexia): the writing system works the way it works. Like any other physical phenomenon — like rocks, or sound waves, or orbits — writing systems are physical things that can be studied. It is not the case that the writing system is more phonologically-driven when you’re 6 than it is when you’re 40. And it’s a conceptual question, not a developmental question. Trying to teach or study phonology without consideration of morphology is like trying to teach addition without working in decimal concepts: ones, tens, hundreds. Would it be okay to tell little kids that the sun revolves around the earth just to reinforce their natural developmental egocentrism? Of course not. But teaching children — or adults — of any age that phonology is the most important aspect of the writing system is an equally pre-Copernican understanding of orthography. In her 1990 book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Marilyn J. Adams makes the claim that morphology is best studied with older students. In spite of the fact that this is a scientific book, Adams provides no scientific evidence for this suggestion. Let’s not spend another 25 years laboring under this misapprehension. (Hat tip to Pete Bowers for this understanding of Adams’s mistake and its footprint).

Phonology is in our heads, and linguists are hard pressed to prove things about phonology articulatorily speaking. Phonemes are understood to exist (psychologically) in spite of their quite different phonetic (physical) realizations as well as because of their similarities. The writing system is where we can actually see phonemes represented physically. But we can’t do that without attending to the morphological structures: there’s no <th> digraph in fathead, no <ea> digraph in react, no <ie> in cried.

Phonology is in our heads, and on my mind. Of course I think it’s important.



Pete Bowers, my good friend, spelling colleague, teacher par excellence, and all-around capital guy, has written a capital response to my last post about the search for proof of the value of etymological study. Like me, Pete is a spelling expert. Unlike me, Pete not only is a kind person; he actually comes off that way. Also unlike me, Pete is a very thoughtful and self-reflective teacher, one who studies the art and science and practice of teaching in ways I’m not capable of even thinking about. Moreover, and again, unlike me, Pete is personally engaged with the pedagogical research into classroom practices for literacy instruction. While I am off studying and writing word stories, Old English, syllable structure, graphemic histories, alphabetics, strong verbs, and other languagey stuff, Pete is actually doing, reading, and writing about pedagogical research, among his many other talents and practices.

What this all means is that if I were the kind of person to ask other people to do my research for me, Pete’s the guy I’d go to. He’s the person I would’ve asked to answer the question Jan Wasowicz posed about proving the value of etymological study, especially for students who struggle. Well, I didn’t ask him, but he did it in this spectacular comment anyhow. Rather than leave this essay to languish in the comments on my post, I want to highlight it here as a guest post. I’m leaving it in the comments, but I’m reprinting it here (with very minor edits) because it so deserves my teeny tiny spotlight.

I call this an ‘essay’ because of what ‘essay’ means. It’s not just a composition, not just a short piece of writing. Rather, it’s an effort, an attempt, a trial: originally a verb that meant, as Doug Harper writes, “to put to proof, test the mettle of.” This essay puts to proof the value of etymological study, and tests the mettle of pedagogical claims based not on what actually exists, but on what has been researched.

Over to you, Pete.

Let me start with this…

Instruction of the written word should accurately reflect how that writing system works.

It seems to me that the above is a key default assumption that we should draw on in the process of refining literacy instruction. Like any assumption, it should be challenged with empirical evidence. The field of linguistics has long established that English orthography is a system is one that evolved to represent the meaning of words for native speakers, and that it is influenced by an interrelation of morphological, etymological and phonological consideration. As oft cited linguist, Richard Venezky stated “English orthography is not a failed phonetic transcription system, invented out of madness or perversity. Instead, it is a more complex system that preserves bits of history (i.e., etymology), facilitates understanding, and also translates into sound.” (Venezky, 1999, P.4).

What logical conclusions should we draw if we accept the following assertions?

Barring compelling evidence to the contrary, literacy instruction is that should represent how the writing system works.

The description of English orthography as articulated by linguists such as Venezky (1967, 1970; 1999), C. Chomsky (1970) or N. Chomsky & Halle (1968) as an system for representing the meaning of words that involves the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology is the most coherent account we have regarding how English spelling works.

Since I accept these two premises, one conclusion I draw is that the the burden of providing evidence is on those that hypothesize that etymology should be avoided in literacy instruction, not on those that draw on etymological understandings to inform their instruction.

We saw a similar trajectory of research with regard to morphological instruction. In her seminal 1990 book “Beginning to Read” Adams analyzed an enormous amount of evidence supporting the finding that instruction that explicitly targeted phonological awareness and letter-sound correspondence was more effective than ‘whole word’ type instruction which avoided or demphasized the phonological influences on spelling. But Adams also presented a hypothesis for instruction about morphology. “Although teaching older readers about the roots [base morphemes] and suffixes of morphologically complex words may be a worthwhile challenge, teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them may be a mistake” (Adams, 1990, p. 152).

It is totally reasonable to propose a hypothesis to test. I don’t even argue that those who  put forward a hypothesis have the responsibility of testing it. They should offer evidence for their reasoning, but the scientific community has the responsibility of not drawing strong conclusions about practice without testing hypotheses. A decade later, major reviews like the National Reading Panel and others reconfirmed Adam’s findings about whole language vs. phonics type instruction, but failed to address the lack of research on questions about morphological instruction. As far as I know, the first time that a serious test of the hypothesis posited by Adams was two decades later. We know have three meta-analyses on morphological intervention studies (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010; Goodwin &amp; Ahn, 2010; 2013) and two systematic reviews (Reed, 2008; Carlisle, 2010). When the 1990 hypothesis recommending avoiding morphological instruction with less able and younger students was finally tested, not only was their not support for that hypothesis, the opposite turned out to be the case.

The evidence we have from those studies is that morphology instruction that has been tested benefits children in general, but in particular, the less able and younger gained the most.

We can now see that it would have been far more productive if we took on the assumption that instruction should accurately reflect how the writing system works from the beginning. If we had, we would have had two decades of research testing and refining how best to integrate instruction of morphology, phonology and etymology.

With this kind of history, I am very wary of the point of view that we need research evidence before it is appropriate to recommend teaching about etymology. Instead, I would argue, it is a much safer position to say we need research evidence before we have a basis to recommend avoiding etymology.

Fortunately, the research has moved on since these meta-analysis. Gina pointed to an article by Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck, 2013). As few teachers and tutors have access to such articles, let me paste in the abstract of that study:

“A novel intervention was developed to teach reading and spelling literacy to 5 to 7 year-old students using explicit instruction of morphology, etymology, phonology, and form rules. We examined the effects of the intervention compared to a phonics-based condition using a cross-over design with a baseline measure. One hundred and twenty children attending an English state funded primary school were randomly allocated either to a traditional phonics condition followed by the novel intervention, or to the novel intervention followed by the phonics condition. The novel intervention significantly improved the literacy skills of the children including both word reading and spelling compared with the phonics condition. We conclude that early teaching of English literacy should include instruction in morphology, etymology and rules about form in addition to traditional phonics. We suggest that the results of the study could inform future policy on the teaching of English literacy skills.”

See the full paper here:


Apologies if the above theoretical arguments are a bit esoteric. The research question is important, but for teachers and tutors who sense that it might be important to teach about etymology, they might wonder how on earth such a thing could be done!

I’ll end my overly-long comment with some very brief illustrations and links for more resources and ideas.

Etymology (diachronic and synchronic) is essential for being able to understand countless spellings that cannot be understood if we restrict instruction to phonologically based conventions in isolation of morphological and etymological considerations.

When we teach phonological cues to spelling in isolation of other linguistic factors, homophones become a problem. We can only assume that words that sound the same should be spelled the same. But of course any assembling of evidence of homophones shows the opposite to be the case. Thus Venezky refers to a “homophone principle” in his 1999 book. Where two words can have the same pronunciations, where possible they will be spelled differently to mark that difference in meaning. Thus with one etymological concept — the homophone principle, we can drop the false assumption that  homophones are confusing because they are spelled the same.

Then we can go farther and look at particular homophones such as to, too, and two. First we see that they should be spelled differently. But why that surprising <w> in <two> for the number? Well, once we focus on relationships between meaning and spelling we can generate a set of words such as: twice, twenty, between, twin etc., and learn about a spelling structure called an “etymological marker letter”. The <w> in <two> is not there as a grapheme representing a phoneme. It is there simply because it has been successful in informing readers that this is the spelling for the number. With that concept, we might be able to make sense of the <o> in <people>, when a question about that letter now sparks us to think about words like popular, population and other words from this etymological family.

Etymology in Grade 1
If you would like to see an example of this type of instruction in a classroom, here is a video a teacher friend took when I taught about homophones and function and content (lexical) words in a Grade 1 class.

For an example of the more familiar diachronic etymology — the kind about the root origin of words — here are a couple of other classroom videos for you to consider:

Etymology in Grade 5
a) I love this introductory lesson by Dan Allen in a Grade 5 where he just presents text and asks his students to present hypotheses about which word might be related by roots based on cues of spelling and meaning.


With those questions, his students begin a journey of diving into references like http://www.etymonline.com  as an everyday sort of activity to develop and test hypotheses about the spellings and meanings of words.

I had the pleasure of working in Dan Allen’s class in the fall. I use that opportunity to introduce the concept of what I think of as the “structure and meaning test”. In order to understand the nature of the spelling-meaning relationships in words, we can use this process to determine which words share just an etymological relationship, or if they also share a morphological relationship by sharing the same base element. See the video of that lesson here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VC7brXsfa2I See more on this “structure and meaning test” here:


The first thing for teachers to do before they can actually draw any conclusions of their own about etymological instruction is to dive into understanding the topic themselves first. Certainly one of the best ways I can think of to do that is to take part in Gina and Doug’s Etymology lll conference. Also take their LEXinars. Working with Gina and Doug continually moves my own understanding — and therefore my practice — forward.

Recently, I’ve been under some pressure to engage in a dialogue about the value of etymological study. The question was posed by Jan Wasowicz, the owner of a commercial list-serve from which I was booted a few years ago. Several people who are on the listserv contacted me to ask me to weigh in. Over the past 10 days or so, I’ve decided that I prefer to study etymology than to defend the study of etymology, but out of respect for those who asked me to respond, I will.

Jan Wasowicz asks, “What recent research do we have to support etymology instruction, the teaching of declarative knowledge about the history and origins of words to students, as an effective method for improving reading and spelling performance? Has there been a direct comparison of that approach with approaches that use multi-linguistic, connectionist word study methods, phonology + orthography + meaning and morphology without etymology? Has the effectiveness of teaching etymology been studied with students who have language-based reading and writing problems?”

So, I’m going to let Jan do her own literature review; real scholars who have questions like this do the research themselves, pretty easily, rather than posing it as a challenge to a bunch of other people who mostly do not study etymology themselves. A quick Google Scholar search reveals several articles addressing the role of etymology in literacy instruction — I’d encourage Jan to have a look at the work of Victoria Devonshire and Michael Fluck especially.

Of course, many, many scholars encourage the study of etymology in literacy classrooms, even with learning-disabled students: Barbara Foorman, Louisa Moats, Jack Fletcher, Malt Joshi, Rebecca Treiman, Suzanne Carreker, and Marcia Henry, who’s on the listserv herself and who, when asked to weigh in, deflected and asked me to weigh in. But what Jan wants is not the opinion of experts who have taught thousands of teachers and thousands of children; she wants “a direct comparison of that approach with approaches that use multi-linguistic, connectionist word study methods, phonology + orthography + meaning and morphology without etymology” — as though it is possible to study phonology, orthography, meaning and morphology in an etymologyless vacuum. It’s not. That’s like trying to study lava without involving volcanoes.

Jan goes on, “I have to evaluate this method [sic] based on everything I know – from the published research and my clinical training – about how students with language-learning deficits process information and learn most effectively.” It’s really interesting to me that she starts the dialogue by asking for “recent research … to support etymology instruction, and ends it with her own opinion, uninformed by the actual emergent research that is, in fact, out there on etymological study.

I’m a researcher, but not the kind of researcher, apparently, whose researched opinion might be valued in this exchange. My research does not seek funding to pit groups of schoolchildren in unwitting competition against each other, some in the intervention group with etymology, and some in the control group without etymology, to prove the exact alchemical mix of “multilinguistic, connectionist word study methods” [sic] that might render them literate. Rather, I prefer to do the necessary research to address the very real, non-hypothetical questions that very real, non-hypothetical children and teachers actually have about language. This kind of research — studying words themselves rather than which specific ways of studying words win — is unconstrained by the standard reading-science shackles. Rather than reading science, it’s just science. You know, where you have a hypothesis, investigate it, and deepen your understanding of the system you are studying. And anyone can do it, including dyslexic children and non-native speakers. No one needs a PhD, a lab, government funding, or a control group to study the rich relationships between words.

While there’s no control group to hear from, here’s what people say to Doug Harper and me in response to etymological study:

  • “I hope to be able to attend next year with reports of etymology alive in my teaching. Thank you!”
  • “So engaging — both Doug, with humor and intellect, and Gina — WOW!!”
  • “It was another revelatory weekend of learning!”
  • “Excellent, wildly informative seminar.”
  • “The workshop was outstanding!”
  • “This was fabulous.”
  • “Five stars!”

When was the last time most teachers felt that way about their professional development opportunities? Here’s my personal favorite:

  • “Can’t wait for Etymology III!”

Well, the wait is over. Etymology III is almost here.

So, I’d like to invite Jan Wasowicz, the owner of the SpelTalk listserv, to attend the Etymology weekend in March as my guest, free of charge, so that she can conduct her own research. I invite her to learn what etymology actually is, how it informs the writing system, and how teachers, tutors, and clinicians all over the world are using etymology to bring words alive and to make sense of written language for thousands of scholars of all ages, including many who have “language-based reading and writing problems” (as opposed to literacy problems that are somehow not language-based?). Jan is very concerned because, in her estimation, people who are teaching etymology are doing so “without any research to support this as an effective instructional method for struggling readers and writers” [sic]. But etymology is not an “instructional method.”

Here’s the thing that’s critical for Jan and anyone else who claims to rely on science to understand: while there may be a limited number of double-blind studies on the benefits of studying etymology specifically for children with learning disabilities, there’s exactly no research proving that it is not beneficial. So at this point, if I had a dog in this race, he’d be winning.

Jan, we’ll save you a seat.

For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of meeting with Doug Harper and a handful of eager scholars to talk etymology, online, in our LEXinars. Doug and I plan and deliver a series of cozy online seminars in which we discuss etymology, cognates, historical roots, historical languages, Proto-Indo-European, reconstruction, attestation, and spelling (okay, that last one is more me than Doug). It’s mindblowing. And it’s hilarious, as real language study should be. Doug is one smart cookie, and, while this shouldn’t surprise me, he has a way with words. So along the way, he says stuff like this:

“The language has mud on it.”

“Latin is in its pupa in the Middle Ages.”

“Old English is like clay.”

“It’s like jumping from house to house through the neighborhood looking for a fugitive.”

“I’ve seen seven-year-olds take to it like it’s birthday cake.”

I can’t even write it all down. It’s epiphanic. This stuff makes me understand language better, know words more intimately. Doug has spent a lot of time with language, and has the mind to prove it. Not once have I come out of a 90-minute session stupider.

We talk about words and their relationships. We talk about the Online Etymology Dictionary, Doug’s website (which could just as easily have been a model railroad or a million-piece puzzle, but we’re glad it’s not). We read through entries together, clarifying their structure. I’ve learned that since Doug and I began orbiting each other a few years ago, he has included more Middle English examples in the dictionary’s entries, and has given more attention to spelling along the way.

I’m not gonna lie: it feels amazing to be part of this dictionary in this way, to have my thinking affect what ends up on this website that gets millions of hits every month, from all over the world. Not because it means I’m cool, but because “my thinking” is part of a global network of scholars thinking on these questions of word histories and word structures. Not because I have influence, but because the dictionary is an influenceable thing, responsive to evidence, informed by this living scholarship community as well as by the deep, well-researched historical sources Doug mines for the building blocks of his website.

It’s so cool.

Longtime readers of this space will recall that I have had several encounters wherein I have challenged something someone — an expert — said about language, and have been met with less-than-enthusiastic responses. The experts responded generally by reasserting their expertise and persisting in their misapprehensions. When I first contacted Doug a few years ago, however, he responded by asserting his non-expertise (“I’m a compiler, not a linguist”) and by being responsive to linguistic evidence laid out before him, even when it contradicted the lexicographical status quo. So, you know, that’s a genuinely scholarly response, right?

This spring, Doug and I are taking our show on the road. After two years of Etymology! weekend workshops in greater Philadelphia, we’ll be offering this third annual event — affectionately dubbed WordStock III — in greater Chicago (Bensenville, to be exact; see the registration information below), March 28-29, 2015. We hope to have — we are planning for — an audience with many new faces as well as seasoned participants.

This year, we’ll consider the question of time in etymology and in language itself. We’ll look at the past of the field, and at its present realities. We’ll consider why Latin cannot be confined to a single layer of English, and how French is unruly enough to have changed over the millennium over which English has borrowed from it. We’ll view the present day language as a snapshot, and we’ll posit a future both for English and for etymology as a field of study, one in which a global audience and digital connectivity will continue to play a role, and one in which rigor and precision cannot be compromised.

If you look up the name Douglas in the Online Etymology Dictionary, you will learn that it derives from a Gaelic compound meaning ‘dark water.’ Somehow, this fits my experience, given that it was from a conversation with Doug that I gleaned the phrase “a holler up the well” when referring to the study of word stories. The study of etymology, and Doug himself, are a lot like dark water. Not in a scary way, but in a deep and reflective way.

Okay, maybe a teeny tiny bit scary.

Come and join us.

Register online.

Registration Flyer PDF.

140328 Etymology Thris with Doug Harper 1


140328 Etymology Thris with Doug Harper 2

Phone Home

I get a ton of emails. I mean, a ton. I have several email accounts, and it’s a part-time job to keep up with them all. Of course, nowadays, I also access email on my phone. I know I am not alone in this. Needless to say, a lot of the emails I get are language questions. Here’s one I got this morning, and I decided to turn it into a LEX Q&A, so more people can benefit from the dialogue than just us two. (The email has been edited for formatting and asides).

[W]hat is the final phoneme in the word cat when it is at the end of a sentence?  “I saw a little cat.”  It’s not the same as at the beginning of tip, but is it just an allophone of /t/?   I was reading about the “flap” and it doesn’t seem like it would be a flap, because my tongue stops on the roof of the mouth rather than tapping there. But I’m not sure how the flap works either. I feel as though when I say little I go straight from /ɪ/ to /l/. But there’s a difference between the way I say little and Lil. If I try to say Lil as a two syllable word with just the /l/ in the second syllable that’s still not the same as little so something is happening with my tongue, but I can’t figure it out. It almost feels like I’m squishing air out of the sides of my mouth in between the /i/ and /l/ and pushing my tongue more forcefully up with the final /l/ in little.

Aaaaaaand, my response: What a great question! And an important one, too. One of the biggest problems with the decades-old emphasis on “phonemic awareness” is that most teachers don’t really understand what a phoneme is. They think it’s a “minimal unit of sound” or some such; it’s not. It is minimal, and it is a unit, and it does have to do with language as it is pronounced, but it’s not actually a sound. Moreover — and this is critical — it’s distinctive. What this means is that, while it carries no meaning itself (the /b/ in /bɪt/ doesn’t mean anything), it is distinctive for meaning — it differentiates meaning — from other phonemes (the /b/ in /bɪt/ and the /p/ in /pɪt/ distinguish the meanings of those two words. That all happens in your head.

Elsewhere, however, there are different physical realizations of pronounced words and utterances. Those physical realizations have structures that can be studied, like all physical things. The phoneme /t/ is conceptual, a psychological category, container, or class — choose your metaphor — with several different possible members. Those members — all the members of the phoneme /t/ — are its allophones. Some physical realizations of /t/are aspirated. That is, they have a little release of air when the tongue is released from the roof of the mouth. That’s like in the word top. Phonemically, we would represent this as /tɑp/, but phonetically, it’s [tʰɑp]. If we put a /s/ in front of the word, however, the aspiration isn’t there: [stɑp]. You can see and feel the difference if you pronounce those two words aloud while holding a kleenex in front of your face. But phones aren’t necessarily distinctive for meaning: if you were in my car and yelled [stʰɑp], I would totally slam on the brakes. The [] and the [t] are allophones of the same phoneme, /t/. Other allophones of /t/ in English include [t ̚ ], [ʔ], and [ɾ], also known as the “flap.”

So, to answer your question directly, the phoneme at the end of cat is the same as the phoneme at the beginning of tip, but they are different phones. They are phonologically the same, but phonetically different. Yes, that makes them allophones of the same phoneme, different members of the same class.
Another allophone is the flap [ɾ] in your pronunciation of little. A Brit would be likely to say [lɪtʰəl], while an American more likely to say [lɪɾḷ]. The difference between Lil and little is that flap — your tongue briefly taps the alveolar ridge, before releasing the [l] laterally. There’s a co-articulation from the [ɾ] to the [l]: both of them have an alveolar place of articulation. You don’t have to move your tongue to get from one to the other. They are also both voiced. The difference between them is in their manner of articulation: [ɾ] is a flap, and [l] is a lateral approximant. That lateral refers to the release of the air out the sides of your tongue, just as you articulated in your question. The “more forceful” push of your tongue to the alveolar ridge in little? That’s the flap.

Phones and phonemes are not for sissies, but a clear understanding of the difference is absolutely critical for scholars and teachers of the written word. Writing systems’ representations of pronunciation may target syllables, or it may target phonemes, or both. But spelling never, ever targets phones; there’s no such thing as a non-phonetic word, or rather, all written words are non-phonetic. When a child writes <chree> instead of <tree>, she’s not mishearing the word; she’s ascribing the physical phone she is saying or hearing to the wrong phoneme in her head. *That’s* phonemic awareness, but teachers may be at a loss to remedy it unless they have clarity about what’s going on phonetically in that word.

No pithy ending in this post, no clever turn of phrase. No LEXlover’s delight. What do you want from me? It was an email. If you’re still reading this far, good for you, and you’re welcome.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 458 other followers

%d bloggers like this: