Check out the new LEXinars announced here! Syllables and strong verbs . . . plus more with Doug Harper from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Doug and I had a great time in our inaugural Etymonline Online LEXinar and we’re looking forward to more.

Also, save the date: our third annual Etymology! live workshop, also known as WordStock III, will take place March 28-29, 2015 in greater Chicago. All are welcome — beginners and experienced word historians alike. Registration information will be available later this month, so stay tuned!

Hope you can join us.

My friend and colleague Pete Bowers will be delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of Everyone Reading Illinois, formerly the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, in Schaumburg this October. I’ll be there too at the LEX table.

As a special treat, Pete will be returning to Central Illinois with me for a joint workshop, Word Scientists. Join us both on Saturday, October 25th, and stay for a half day Q&A session with me.

Register online, or email/mail/fax in the form below. Register early, space is limited.

141025 Word Scientists



141025 Word Scientists 2

LEX is pleased to announce a new LEXinar this fall featuring Douglas Harper of The Online Etymology Dictionary. Doug and I have enjoyed joint live seminars for the past two years (affectionately known as WordStock I and WordStock II), and now we’re taking our act online.

This Etymology LEXinar will be scheduled for five, 90-minute evening sessions this fall. Our plans look something like this:

Installment I: Etymology~a brief history
Installment 2: Cognates
Installment 3: Historical roots 1
Installment 4: Historical roots 2
Installment 5: A Holler Up The Well

Dates for the inaugural sessions will be finalized and posted shortly, and a registration link will be included on the LEXinar page and on the LEX Facebook page.

Join us and learn more about how to seek and use information in The Online Etymology Dictionary. Practice tracing the pathways of English words back in time, and learn how words are related within English and across languages. And a couple of times along the way, we might even make you laugh.

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my work and about words on a radio show with the Dyslexia Training Institute. Have a listen!

Sometimes the light of language shines so bright as to blind a person.

This week I’ve had cause to encounter the sentence I am a sinner a few times, and it’s been twirling in my head for much of the day today. There are a handful of I am statements that have some meaningful resonance for me and for a lot of other people: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the heart of Cartesian rationalism; Ich bin ein berliner, John F. Kennedy’s much-maligned effort to form a Teutonic bond; I am woman, hear me roar, that estrogenic anthem of 2nd wave feminism.

But it wasn’t the I am part of this sentence that got caught in my thinker; it was the sinner part. That word — sin — causes all kinds of upset among all kinds of people no matter what they believe or don’t believe about it. So I decided to have a look.

It turns out that saying I am a sinner is, etymologically speaking, a bit pleonastic. The word sin derives ultimately from the same historical root as the words am, is, and are. German sein, sind, and ist, Spanish ser, soy, somos, eres, and es, and French être, suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, and sont are all cognate — all forms of the verb ‘to be.’ Other English relatives include essence, entity, interest, represent, and yes. The derivation of sin from its proto-forms involved the acknowledgment of guilt: I am (guilty) or It is (a true sin).

Look, my perspectives are not impeccable, and perhaps my suggestions herein are more than peccadillos. Certainly it’s not the case that every language’s word for ‘sin‘ is related to ‘being.’ Latinate languages, for example, have words for ‘sin‘ that are historically related to foot, pedal, podiatrist, fetter, impede, and impeach: etymologically, speaking, our feet are as likely to stumble as they are to walk; from the time we first stood upright, we began to fall.

Transgression is the human condition, or at least a big part of it. We make mistakes. We hurt each other. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes negligently. Mostly we apologize and try to make it right. We may not agree about what sin is, but we can all be confident that if any one of us does it, we all do it. I’m no theologian, but the etymology is pretty provocative: to be is to sin; to sin is to be. With all due respect to René Descartes, pecco, ergo sum.


“Worth the wait!”

“Endlessly fascinating.”

“Another excellent lesson!”

“What you are doing is great!”

“My brain is buzzing with ideas . . .”

“This evening’s seminar was spectacular!”

“I so appreciate learning more depth about our words.”

“So many years I have struggled with language and this is really helping!”

“The whole lesson was wonderfully designed it seemed to me from start to finish.”

Since their introduction in June 2014, the LEXinars have been a source of revelation and joy for participants, and LEX is pleased to announce a new page just for LEXinars. We’ve reorganized our site a bit with new tabs at the top in order to give the online language study a room of its own.

LEXinar dates will be listed and updated regularly. Click on the page’s links to learn more about existing LEXinars, to register online, or to suggest a topic of your own! In addition to the LEXinars on Old English for Orthographers, and The Spell of Spelling and the Glamour of Grammar, we’re ready to try our hand at a couple of new subjects.

Continuing Education Units are available from the Academic Language Therapy Association.

Now, back to our regular programming.

One of the reasons I don’t post here as often as I’d like — certainly not as often as I think about it — is because I spend a lot of time answering questions for people. This morning, I received and answered an email from a wonderful tutor I trained last year in Pennsylvania, a deep thinker whose approaches her language scholarship with integrity. I liked her questions — and my answers — enough to massage it into a post. One of the biggest problems in phonics and in literacy research is a flawed understanding of phonemes. This tutor’s email betrays a sophisticated understanding not only of what phonemes are, but also of the difference between phonology and phonetics, something that phonics is hard-pressed to explain.

She began her email with a question about diphthongs:

“Vowel phonemes that are comprised of 2 phones are called diphthongs, like the /aɪ/ in wide or the /ɔɪ/ in boy.”


She continued: “Do most long vowels slide?”

Indeed, I responded. English has 6 ‘long vowels':
/eɪ/ /iː/ /aɪ/ /oʊ/ /ju/ and /uː/, as in bait, beet, bite, boat, beaut, boot .

Only /iː/ and /uː/ do not glide. The rest of them do. You may note that there are kind of two “spots” in a long vowel phoneme. When we write /iː/ it’s like we were writing /ii/ — where the phone [i] is taking both the “spots” in the long vowel phoneme. The gliding vowels have different phones in each of their “spots.”

But “I don’t hear it [the glide] in long <o> or <oo> or <e>, ” she confessed.

She’s aboslutely correct that there’s no glide in ‘long oo’ or ‘long e’ — that’s /uː/ and /iː/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I explained that the glide in /oʊ/ [‘long o’] is slight, but it is there. It’s not that we don’t hear it; it’s that we don’t perceive it. British English glides even more noticeably in this phoneme — I’d represent British ‘long o’ as /əʊ/, American as /oʊ/. If you try to pronounce “go” the way you normally would, and compare it to someone saying “go” with a French accent, you may be able to then perceive the glide in the English version.

She went on. “Would you teach students for spelling the concept of sliding vowels?”

So, I did not say this in my email but I want to highlight here that this is a question I frequently get: “Would you teach students X?” All I can really say is that I would share with students any understanding I have about language, bar none. At no point does it make sense to me to deliberately withhold facts about the writing system from anyone. Now, the question is a charitable one, and I understand the time constraints and lesson planning decisions that drive it. But no one will ever hear me say, “No. That is a piece of understanding language I don’t recommend sharing with children.”

Okay, back to the question.  I would absolutely teach children about diphthongs. Goodness knows they’re already mistaught plenty about diphthongs. Children frequently misspell words precisely because they’re perceiving a diphthong, such as when they write cycle as <saycl> or white as <wait>.

The tutor switched gears. “Consonant phonemes that are comprised of 2 phones are called clusters, like the /ʧ/ in chip or the /ks/ in box.”

Right again. And, while I didn’t say it in the email, I’d like to add that this is something that phonics gets dead wrong, pretty much every time. They’ll tell you that <x> spells two phonemes — /k/ and /s/. It’s because they don’t understand the crucial difference between phones and phonemes: <x> spells a single phoneme that is comprised of two phones, a consonant cluster phoneme. Many languages have consonant cluster phonemes, like /ʦ/ or /ps/: the /ps/ phoneme in Greek is spelled with a single character, <ψ> (psi), just like our <x>. If something is spelled with a single grapheme in an alphabetic writing system, it’s a single phoneme.

But “how does /ʧ/ have 2 phones?” she asked. This is why I love her question: because she’s not just trusting the definition I give her, or accepting that the /ʧ/ is two phones because I said so. She’s looking for an understanding she can call her own, so she can do just what she asked if she should do: share this understanding with her students.

Here’s what I told her: [ʧ] starts like a [t] and ends like a [ʃ]. Think of it this way — say the word “hatchet” and feel the /ʧ/ in the middle. Then, say the word “batshit” — as in “she’s batshit crazy” — and feel the /tʃ/ in there. You don’t have a hard time perceiving both the [t] and the [ʃ] in “batshit” because it’s a compound and you’re aware of the morphemic boundary between the two phones. But because you perceive (as a native speaker) the /ʧ/ in “hatchet” as a phoneme — as a unit — it’s harder for you to be aware of the two phones. The [t] is unreleased — if you pronounce “bat” without the “shit” — you probably release the /t/ at the end, so it is aspirated as [tʰ]. But when you pronounce the /ʃ/ right next to it, it’s not released, so it sounds like a /ʧ/. This should help you be able to better perceive the two phones in /ʧ/.

Now, I’m not suggesting that hatchet and batshit are phonetically identical. It’s a difference between /ʧ/ and /tʃ/. It may be tacky, but this batshit/hatchet pair provides an excellent example of how /ʧ/ has two phones, because they rhyme. A kid-friendly example might be ouch and outshine, or studying the /tʃ/ in hotshot, courtship, or nightshirt. Understanding the structure of the /ʧ/ also helps us understand why some kids write words like tree and trap as *<chree> and *<chrap>: the /t/ in trap is phonetically closer to the [ʧ] in chap than it is to the [tʰ] in tap. It’s the same phenomenon when they write *<jress> instead of <dress>.

More importantly, studying this pair also peels back the ways that orthographic understanding runs hand in hand with true phonemic understanding. Being aware of phonemes is all well and good, but awareness without understanding is a little crazy.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers

%d bloggers like this: