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I don’t usually reblog articles, and LEX wasn’t built as a sociolinguistic platform. Well, not in the realm of gender politics and language, anyhow.

But I’m reblogging this because it’s *language about language.* Debbie Cameron is a language scientist who does the nitty gritty work of peeling apart *what gets said* about language, and then looks at whether it reflects the evidence.

So often, it does not.

Originally posted on language: a feminist guide:

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

OK, people haven’t been talking about that article—mainly because I made it up. No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words. With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence. This post was inspired by a case in point: a piece published last month in Business Insider, in which a former Google executive named Ellen Petry Leanse…

View original 2,244 more words

Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek (not quite — the diversity piece of the compound is Latin). Moats also indulges in a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon origins for amuse, engender, enable, and endure, all of which are of French origin in real life. Other words that Moats falsely associates with Anglo-Saxon across her work include crash, age, lilac, recess, cable, bugle, title, dabble, problem, commit, and adept, most of which were adopted from French. She also attributes gravity to Greek. Poor old French! It doesn’t even get a layer in the triangle.

Moats is unfortunately in good company. In a 2009 article in American Educator written with her reading science colleagues (Joshi, Treiman, and Carreker), more than half of the examples of Anglo-Saxon words and patterns they give are flat-out wrong, not including ambiguous examples like Calfee’s grave or the homographic found (past tense of find, to establish, and to pour molten metal — two of which are French). They mistake a Greek origin for ache (it’s actually Old English) and Anglo-Saxon origins for the following words: carpenter, farmer, grocer, butcher, passable, agreeable, punishable, catch, pouch, rich, age, saved, and plentiful, but they’re mostly adopted from French.

Le sigh.

All in all, this article alone boasts more than 40 etymological lies in 12 pages, and that’s just one piece of writing from these prolific authors. This is not an occasional error or a minor problem. It’s epidemic. It’s malpractice, and I’m not mean or nasty for calling it out. I’m right.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything. I make mistakes in my work, and when others point them out, I am grateful for the opportunity to deepen my own understanding. I’m not unreasonable. I don’t, for example, fault Moats and company for being unable to explain the spelling of words like us, thus, yes, if, his, much, which, such, or, all of which she refers to as “exceptions” to the final patterns <ss>, <ff>, and <tch>. These words aren’t really exceptions — there’s no such thing; rather, they’re function words, which take the smallest possible spelling (see in/inn, of/off, or/err). I don’t expect educators to have a good command of this yet, as it’s not necessarily terribly common knowledge, and not something a plain old dictionary will flag.

However, etymology — a word’s origin — is not a matter of guesswork or opinion. Any proper dictionary can tell us where words come from. We can look them up in the Online Etymology Dictionary on our phones for free, for crying out loud. People with Ph.D.s and secure jobs should be able to ask an intern or proofreader to look up all the examples in a dictionary if they don’t care to reap the incredibly rich, captivating understanding that word study brings for themselves. Either way, it is a professional and ethical imperative that these authors begin to ensure that the teachers and scholars reading the words they write will not continue to be systemically misinformed.

In addition to the rampant etymological underhandedness in print, teacher trainers and workshop speakers perpetuate the same careless claims in classrooms and conference rooms. I’ve heard countless examples myself, and colleagues who know better report them to me.

It kind of makes me mad. Like, mad angry and mad crazy.

Mistakes don’t make me mad. But willful, continual misinformation makes me mad. Irresponsible scholarship makes me mad. False claims of expertise make me mad. And, as faithful LEX readers will recall, experts meeting corrected information with denial and deflection make me really, really mad.

Well. Today I received the following email from a colleague:

“I was attending an Indiana IDA meeting yesterday in Indianapolis. In an adjacent room, [famous teacher trainer guy] was conducting his 1-day morphology training. I stuck my head in for about 10 minutes to hear him talking about how morphology builds vocabulary—OK so far.

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

Now, this man is a well-known, well-traveled, well-respected trainer whose work I have found troubling before. He has a habit of telling teachers not to teach the schwa because it’s “too complicated.” Of course, this advice is problematic because the schwa is the most common phone in an English utterance, but what really fries me is the all-too-familiar “don’t worry your pretty little heads” tone of a man telling a roomful of female educators what’s too hard for them to understand. Yuck.

Now, as far as crazy/insane/lunatic go, of course, I find the choice of subject matter to be a little ironic, ’cause I do indeed think it’s a little crazy to make unsubstantiated claims about word origins while stressing how important word origins are to word study. As you might expect, our morphology “expert” only got one of his examples right: insane does actually have a Latin root. But crazy is built on a French loanword, and lunatic is derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.

Instead, if you really want to have a look at cross-linguistic synonyms pertaining to insanity, I’d submit the following:

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.


Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

I’d love to be able to include crazy, but its origin is a hard tail to pin on that tired, old layers-of-language donkey. It’s originally Germanic, but was adopted from French. And the French in question is Norman French, not Parisian French. This is true of so, so many words educators erroneously attribute to Anglo-Saxon: they’re short, common, everyday words, but they were Norman French contributions, not Anglo-Saxon. Some of them are Latinate; others are Germanic. After all, it was a really Germanic French that English was adopting words from in the late Middle ages.

Now, as I said, I’m not unreasonable. I get that understanding the nuances of language history and word histories requires study. After all, that’s what I do. I am sympathetic to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of etymological knowledge that I have. I get it. But that’s just the thing: you don’t have to have extensive knowledge of etymology in order to get it right, at least most of the time. You just have to look in a dictionary. Someone else has already done the study for you. It takes less than a minute or two to look up and read the entries for crazy, insane, and lunatic online.

Moreover, I’m not talking about generally held folk etymologies that get a foothold in the cultural rock wall; I’m talking about people who are widely regarded as “reading scientists,” people others rely upon for linguistic expertise and accurate information about language. Etymology as a field of study involves using established practices of comparative linguistics, based on the broader principle of the scientific method. The etymological guesswork across “reading science,” where every other example of an Anglo-Saxon word isn’t Anglo-Saxon, is pseudoscience, neither scientific nor a method.

Look, writing books and articles and speaking at conferences are activities that require research and preparation. I’m not a lunatic for pointing out that conference speakers, certified trainers, and respected, peer-reviewed authors be held to a higher standard when it comes to the empirical claims they make about words. Factual rigor is not an insane expectation for scholarly speaking and writing.

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.

This past week, I had the pleasure of working with the staff of the Lower School at the University School of Nashville. Every workshop, seminar, and discussion about orthography leads to new learning for me; nothing motivates like understanding, and I am always moved when I find my orthographic foothold more secure than it was before.

I’ve been giving public and private workshops on English spelling for the better part of a decade. Not only do I learn more about language, but I also learn more patience, empathy, flexibility, and diplomacy. I’ve grown in my capacity to respond to questions that destabilize me or make me uncomfortable. There are still a million things I’m not good at as a scholar and a teacher, but the organic and unplanned trajectory of my work continues to bear fruit.

One of the things I’ve gotten better at understanding over the years is the etymological governance of grapheme choice. It’s captivating and revelatory in a way that morphology alone cannot be. Etymology is, of course, an unignorable factor in the writing system. As I told teachers, you don’t have to like it, but hey, I don’t like the San Andreas fault and so far it’s still there.

Now, etymology is not the only factor that governs grapheme choice. Phonology can and does play a role: the <k> in <provoke> does not hearken back to an ancient root (compare <provocation> and the Latin vocare), but maintains the phonology of the /k/ before the <e> necessary to mark the phonology of the <o>. Place value — the position of a grapheme within a morpheme — also can optimize one grapheme over another. The famously “final” <ck>, <tch>, and <dg(e)> graphemes are, of course, base-final, not just word-final.

Many of my posts on this site deal with grapheme choice, and my LEX Grapheme Deck is a tool designed to help clarify the processes involved in orthographic phonology. One grapheme choice, however, that has always troubled me is the <j> in words like major and majesty. The base element is demonstrably <maj>, but the grapheme <j> is typically not final. The default final spelling for /ʤ/ is <ge> (see large, cage, magic, and the like). The <dg(e)> spelling follows a single vowel letter (see bridge and edge etc.).

Historically, <j> and <i> were the same letter. The non-finalness of <j> is part and parcel of the non-finalness of <i>. Likewise, the letters <v> and >u> have a common ancestor, and neither is final in English either.  We can explain the <j> etymologically, because the root of this word family, the Latin maior (adj. “great”), has an <i> in it. However, it’s not unheard of for <g> and <i> to mark a relationship, as evidenced by such etymological cousins as tail~tag, paint~pigment, frail~fragile, chain~chignon, complain~plangent~plague, strain~stringent, rail~regulate, maybe rain~irrigate, and many, many more.

So why not spell this word family with a <g> instead of a <j>?

In Nashville, I mentioned major and majesty as examples of a base element that ends in a <j>. I said I hadn’t figured out why yet, but I wasn’t about to call it an exception. As soon as I said that, I realized that only a <j> would work in the words <major> and <majuscule>; because the <j> is followed by an <o> in one case and a <u> in the other, a <g> would not work as we’d be left with spellings unsuited to the /ʤ/ phoneme: *<magor> and *<maguscule>. While this would work phonologically for *<magesty> (a frequently unnoticed misspelling, by the way), it wouldn’t work for the whole word family. Etymological relatives like <mega> and <magnate> use a <g> as a <j> would not work. These words all point back to a PIE root *meg(h), denoting “great.”

Moreover, words that do have an <mage> base in English, like <magic>, <mage>, <magi>, and <magus>, have a totally distinct etymological origin. Their PIE root is *magh (1), denoting “to be able, to have power.” Relatives include may, might, machine, and main. The <maj> offers us a differentiation from this <mage>. Since the meanings “great” and “having power” could easily be conflated, careful study is needed to peel apart these two historical families.

I’ve wondered about that for years. Now I get it.

How great is that?

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.




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