I grew up in a very fruity family.

One set of maternal great-grandparents (Morris and Ann) met through their fathers (Solomon, a.k.a. Max or Meyer, and Sam), both Polish Jews who had emigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Meyer and Sam were both produce salesmen in California; later, Morris and his brother Pete ran Smith Brothers Produce, a small stand in California. I’m not positive what happened to Smith Brothers, but I think it was one of the small produce operations bought out by eventually giant produce wholesaler Levy-Zentner & Company.

Later still, my maternal grandpa, Ted — son-in-law to Morris and Ann — worked for Levy-Zentner. My mom and my aunt remember their father’s relationships with central Californian farmers and their families, including an Italian immigrant family whose daughter’s wedding they attended as young adults. I mostly remember my grandpa being retired, but I always knew he worked in produce; as a kid, I remember my large family receiving large cardboard crates of fruit from my him: grapefruits and mangos and California pears.  As a young adult, reading William Saroyan and John Steinbeck’s California fictions made me imagine what things might’ve been like in my grandfather’s life as a young husband and father, whom he may have encountered. I wish I had known enough to ask him when he was alive, but I lacked that foresight. For years, I schlepped stacks of yellowish ledger paper marked with their red rooster logo from one home to another around the country. I still have a few sheets, but most of it left my current premises at the urging of my office organizer.

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On my dad’s side, my uncle Tony was the son of one of Delaware, Ohio’s Dinovo Brothers produce wholesalers. An uncle by marriage, he was the third generation of Dinovo Brothers, the produce business having been started by his grandfather, Sam, in 1913. My Uncle Tony sold the business in the 1980s, and then ran a place called Cranberry Resort.

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See? Fruity.

Fruit is the thing I pretty much always feel like eating, and there really aren’t any fruits that I don’t like.

But my favorite? Pomegranates, hands down. They’re really only good for a couple months in the late fall / early winter. They taste better out west because they don’t have to travel quite so far. I remember visiting some of the old Spanish Missions in southern California whose gardens boast pomegranate trees full of unharvested fruit. I really wanted to take some of them home, but I didn’t. Some say that the pomegranate was the fruit of the Tree of Life in the mythical Garden of Eden, rather than the proverbial apple.

For those couple of months, I peel and eat the seeds of one or two pomegranates pretty much every day.

Both the Latinate pome (French pomme) and the Germanic apple have more general historical denotation of ‘fruit’ than their present-day specifics as Granny Smith or Fuji or Red Delicious apples. To wit: pomme de terre (that’s French for ‘potato,’ literally ‘apple of the earth’) and pineapple. A pomegranate is etymologically a grainy (or seedy) apple/fruit, because of its tight matrix of juicy seeds (or grains).

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A grenade is so named because of its resemblance to a pomegranate; indeed, in Modern French, the same word is used for both the explosive and the fruit. Classic grenadine is made from pomegranate juice, and the Spanish city of Granada (and its namesake Grenada) is likely named for the red fruit. The icy Italian dessert granita is named for its snowcone-like grains of flavored ice. And the granite countertops in my kitchen have a slightly grainy appearance, as any granite.

I guess you could say that my love of fruit, like my love of words, is set in stone.

My shippers are having a baby! Since they are already wonderful parents of a wonderful family, this is the best kind of news.

Their Christmas package arrives December 14th, and I plan to give them some time and space to family without worrying about shipments.

The last set of shipments for 2018 will go out on Friday, December 7th. Any subsequent orders received in 2018 will not ship until shipments resume on January 4th.

While LEXinar costs are holding steady, prices on study materials are subject to change after January 1st, so make your plans and place your year-end orders now.

I’m pleased to announce a long-overdue new LEXinar: The Content~Function Continuum.

Here’s the flyer:

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If you’ve received your new LEX Grapheme Deck, or an InSight Deck, and you’d like to understand more about “lexical spellings” or “functional spellings,” this is the class for you.

I’m offering this class twice over the northern hemisphere’s winter break: Friday, December 28th at 5pm CENTRAL Standard Time, or Thursday, January 3rd at 9am CENTRAL. When you register, please indicate which one you’d like to take.

The class includes a printable activity handout.

Please join me! Go here to register.


2019 calendars are now available!

The cover has been updated (get it? up+DATE+ed!), and the inside features the same beautiful word studies and matrices for the months of the year as before.

LEX 2019 calendar cover

These make great holiday gifts for teachers, kiddos, college students, and word nerds.
Save $5 when you order before December 1st. Contact me for overseas orders.

A longtime client just ordered a couple decks of cards, with this thoughtful and provocative note:

Hi Gina, I appreciate all that you do to help educate those of us who need to further our understanding of how the English writing system works. If you find a spare minute, I’d like to know why /g/ in anger is different than the /g/ in danger.

It’s a fine question, and I have financial paperwork to avoid, so I thought I’d write up a response and share it.

First, there is no */g/ in danger, and that’s the point. What my client actually wants to know is why the <g> in anger is different than the <g> in danger.

Second, we need to consider the Four Questions: what each of the words Mean, how each word is Built, and what each word’s Relatives are, before we can consider the fourth question, which is about Letters and Pronunciation, which is what my client’s question is about. I understand that it’s tempting to ask Question #4 without addressing any of the first three questions, but it’s also lazy.

I’m going to assume that my readers know what both of those words Mean and can use them in a sentence, maybe even the same sentence. Both words can be nouns, but only anger can be a verb; if you want to verb danger, you have to add a prefix: endanger. Huh. Whaddya know? An <en-> prefix is French! Even though Louisa Moats claims that it’s *Anglo-Saxon, it’s not. She’s wrong. That kind of guesswork malpractice crap from well-paid “experts” really angers me, and it’s dangerous to our public dialogue.

Oh, hey, look. An <-ous> adjectival suffix. Also French; compare to Modern French <-eux>, as in heureux. If I want to make anger into an adjective, though, there’s no *angerous. Just angry. Huh. Looks like hunger~hungry and winter~wintry. English has a handful of different <-y> suffixes, but this is the only adjectival one. It’s also the only Germanic one. It derives from an Old English <-ig> suffix, which itself is related to the <-ic> we see in Classical words and the French <-ique> that derives from it.

Once we start talking about prefixes and suffixes, of course, we’re moving into how a word is Built and what its Relatives are. So far we have anger, angers, angry and danger, endanger, dangerous, but we haven’t established the structure of anger and danger themselves. Both have <er> at the end, but is it a suffix? English also has a handful of different <-er> suffixes; some are Germanic, and some are French. The two most common suffixes —  the comparative <-er> inflection as in smarter, truer, bolder; and the agentive <-er> derivation as in thinker, writer, truth-teller — are both Germanic, but neither of those are in place in either of these words. Neither word is an adjective, so they can’t be comparative forms, and their nominal uses are not agentive. Anger is not something that *angs, and danger never *danges. It is also not the case that either word is a frequentative verb, like flitter or stammer.

In the entry for one of its six <-er> suffixes, my Mactionary lists danger as an example of a noun with an <-er> “ending corresponding to Latin -arius, -arium.

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Really, both of those words — butler and danger — are bad examples, because neither of them has an attested Latin root with an -arius or an -arium at all (though *dominarium is reconstructed in the Vulgate). Both of these words were molded in French from Latin pieces, but neither of them are Latin words with an -arius or an -arium in the same sense as stationer (L. stationarius) or vintner (L. vinetarius).

Even if we did analyze the <er> in danger as a suffix, however, it would not be generative, because there are no relatives with a *<dang(e)> base element. The word dang is a minced oath or euphemism for damn, and dangle is a Scandinavian word with unclear origins. Danger is befittingly an adventurer, a rogue member of its etymological family, and its vowel took a leap from the <o> that marks the rest of the family, as we can see in this helpful graphic from LIVE author Scott Mills (which I’ve doctored every so slightly by adding a yellow danger to the circle):


Anger, on the other hand, has a final <er> that is not listed among the Mactionary’s <-er> suffixes, but which derives from an Old Norse verbal <ra> suffix whose descendent we also see in the present day words glitter, blunder, and teeter. If I analyze the <er> in anger as a suffix, then, can I find that same <ang> base element elsewhere? In other words, does it have any generative Relatives?

Well, yes. It does. And I posted about my understanding of them here, on my Facebook page in 2013 (go look). Since anguish and angina are Latinate, while anger and angry and angst are Germanic, one might decide not to include them in the same matrix. I now understand that the <u> in anguish is not a connecting vowel, because there’s no history of a connecting vowel letter in that word; rather, the <gu> digraph toggles here with the <g> to preserve the phonological governance in this Latinate word, just like a <ck> toggles with a <c> in words like panicky or trafficked.

That kind of thing — that toggling — happens in words with Latinate phonological histories, in which a <c> is palatized (or ‘soft’) before an <e, i, or y>. Because <c> and <g> are closely related, of course, the <g> can have the kind of palatalized variance in its phonology. Can have. A <c> does have that kind of variance; a <g> can, but it doesn’t have to.

The palatization of <c> and <g> in English is Latinate. Germanic words do not have an initial ‘soft’ <c> or <g>: words like cent, city, cycle, cell, ceiling, and gem, germ, giant, gym, and ginger all have Latinate and/or Hellenic histories. Latin itself didn’t have ‘soft’ <c> or <g>; the palatization occurred as Vulgar Latin evolved into French, Catalan, Italian, Galician, etc.  Most words that end with <ge> or <ce> are Latinate; those few that are Germanic were respelled after the arrival of the Norman French: once, twice, bodice, ice, mice all had a final <s> at some earlier point.

Every word that has an <ci, ce, or cy> in present-day English has a ‘soft’ <c>, but that does not hold true for <g>. Words like girl, get, giddy, gift~give, gimlet, giggle, gill, gillie, gear, gecko, and geegaw are not Latinate. Words that maintain a [g] before an <e, i, or y> are not Latinate. In native English words like clingy and tangy (related to tongue and tongs), the <g> does not have to ‘soften,’ but it might, as it does in dingy and stingy.

Let’s go back to anger and its relatives. The Germanic members of the family, like anger, angry, angsthangnail~agnail, all have a [g], while the Latinate angina has a [ʤ], and the Latinate anguish toggles out a <gu> for the <g> to maintain the [g]. The Latinate family also includes cousins with an <x>, like anxious and anxiety; the <g>~<x> relationship is common in Latinate families, like Rex~regal or lex~legislate.

Wow. What a cool writing system.

*           *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Several years ago, in one of my university classes, one of my students investigated the words laughter and slaughter, both nouns that look almost identical, but clearly do not have the same phonology. While they are both native English words, their histories and structures are totally different. She learned, and shared wit the class, that words are not necessarily related just because their surfaces look alike; what matters is their structure and history.

One of my teacher’s common admonitions is to “beware of WYSIWYGgery” — there is no dent in dental, and there is no play in display. There’s no <-ing> in bring, and no <-ed> in bobsled. There’s no <sh> in mishap, and no <ie> in cried. It is not scientific to assume that two words that look alike are alike, in any other way than visual. That is a specious expectation: it is deceivingly attractive. It’s not science if you skip the history and the relatives.

No phonological question can be answered with respect for the writing system if that’s where we start, and English orthography is no stranger than any other writing system: phonology is always part of meaning-making. Always. Phonology is tied to meaning, and phonemes cannot be disembodied from words and morphemes and still properly understood. Even a /g/.

Recently, at the end of a professional development seminar, I called for any questions that participants might have.

“What do you think of Words Their Way?” asked one.

“How about [Some Other Spelling Curriculum]?” asked another.

I nipped that in the bud. I’m a linguist, not a curriculum clearinghouse. It is not the case that I sit in my home office reading and analyzing spelling workbooks; it is the case that I sit in my home office researching and analyzing the English writing systemSee the difference?

I do teach, but I’m not a teacher. I did not build a career trying out (or being forced to try out) different spelling books, so I am not now in a position to pick one that I can like and approve for all the teachers who apparently crave approval and convenience more than actual knowledge. More than a decade ago, I spent a couple of newsletter cycles writing up reviews of books and materials for the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (now Everyone Reading Illinois), but really, it’s not what I do. I’m not a curriculum reviewer. I’m not a pedagogical researcher. I am not your proofreader. I am not your therapist. I am a linguist. I study language, especially written language, especially especially written English. I do that study alone and in company. Like most researchers, I write up and publish my research; I just don’t do it uncompensated for someone else (like a university, a journal, an outside publisher). I do it myself.

That said, I thought it would be good for me to have a place where I can point people when they ask me about spelling curricula. So here it is.

My well-informed professional opinion on spelling curricula is that they are all garbage. They are all based on lists and quizzes, and they all operate from a Phonology Phirst phalse belieph system.

None of them involves investigating or understanding how written words make meaning, or how the system as a whole works. They involve busywork and “activities” like writing stories or sentences, sorting words into various piles, and playing “games” like word searching or scrambles that are generally not terribly helpful for anyone, and absolutely hell on wheels if you’re even slightly dyslexic. They involve pretests and test-tests, every damn week, that have no actual bearing on whether kids are actually thinking critically, problem-solving, or interrogating anything worthwhile.

I get asked about Words Their Way almost every time this question comes up. Because WTW mentions morphology, it creates a false impression among its consumers of “Oh, yeah, I do that.” No, actually, you don’t. While I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of any packaged classroom spelling curriculum (have I mentioned that’s not what I do?), I can absolutely pinpoint why I think they’re all garbage: because they misrepresent the writing system. Because they include words they can’t explain and then blame the system. They all do that. Every last one.

Words Their Way, for example, pats itself on the back for “doing” morphology, but Every. Single. Week. kids have to work with words that WTW calls “oddball words” [sic]. Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but “oddball words” is not a linguistic term. I frequently hear teachers fretting over terminology like grapheme or participle or allophone because it’s new to them, yet there’s no hesitation to use — and require kids to use — totally fabricated nonsense like “oddball word” as though that’s a thing.

It’s not a thing.

All spoken words are phonetic; no written words are phonetic. It’s really simple. Writing systems, including English, do not write words phonetically, but phonologically. It’s galling that people considered experts in the field don’t understand this. The words onetwodoes, and of, for example, are regularly pegged as “non-phonetic,” but that’s a misnomer. What people mean when they say that is “I can’t explain the spellingbecause I expect it to be driven primarily by pronunciation, and it’s not.” All of those words have an empirical orthographic phonology whose features belong in the system and are shared with other words.

The <o> in <does>, for example, is the only letter that could spell not only the [ʌ] in does and done, but also the [uː] in do and doing. An <o> also spells [ʌ] in son, mother, love, some, come, one, won, wonder, and a lot of other words. There’s nothing “non-phonetic” about that. And an <o> also spells [uː] in to, who, lose, move, through, and a lot of other words. Also, not “non-phonetic.” The <-es> suffix spells [∅z] just like it always does after a vowel: cries, tomatoes, pennies… No other grapheme would work across the <do> family.

Phonics Pholks always phail to consider this phundamental question: What would a ‘phonetic’ or ‘regular’ spelling look like for that word, since you don’t like this one?

Really — think about it. How do you think those words should be spelled, Phonics Phellow? What better way can you propose to spell does, what, one, two, or of?

Let’s take of. You can’t spell it *<uv>, because English proscribes those two letters consecutively, and because English proscribes a word-final <v>. You cannot spell it *<ove>, as in love, shove, glove, because that is a lexical spelling, and of is a function word. In fact, a <v> is a lexical spelling, always. And of is a function word, always. And nary the twain shall meet. Oh, look, twain. That <w> probably explains the <w> in two.

The facts about of, what, does, one, two are all available in the understanding I offer, for people who’d like to stop lying to kids.

Just like a “non-phonetic” word, an “oddball word” — like a red word, a learned word, a sight word, an irregular word, an outlaw word, heart word, demon word, whatever word [sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic] — is not a thing. Real science doesn’t offer a dozen different names for the same entity, depending on which curriculum you’re using. Words aren’t irregular, because all language is rule-based. Words that people call “irregular” are often being crammed into false rules, or at least rules they don’t actually belong in. This is garbage that publishers pass off as “science-based.” I’ve written and spoken about this before, herehere, here, here, here, and here. What these are are words that the author(s) don’t know how to explain.

In WTW, “oddball words” are words that have the same so-called ‘sound’ as the main list, but a different spelling pattern. But that’s only “odd” if you grossly misrepresent the English writing system as a messy, pronunciation-based transcription system. It’s not. It’s not a code. And just because the authors or Words Their Way don’t actually know how to explain, you know, actual freaking WORDS doesn’t mean that we all just have to line up and do things Their Way, which is false.

Here are some of the words that WTW can’t explain, but I can, and have: could, would, should; laugh, though, rough, tough, through,; have, give; some, come, done, love, one; what, said, want. Sigh. Seriously, though, what good is a spelling curriculum if it can’t even explain these enormously common, totally normal words, let alone the actual writing system in which they have a permanent context? Several of these words are in my LEX InSight Words decks; others are routinely investigated and explained in LEXinars. Hey, Shane Templeton, if you’re listening, please take a LEXinar. You too, Donald Baer. Louisa Moats, Rebecca Treiman, Marcia Invernizzi, Francine Johnston. Take a LEXinar — they’re really affordable — but if you’re a spelling expert and can’t afford $150, email me and you can come as my guest. But please, stop putting this nonsense in front of children’s faces. It’s hurting them, and their teachers.

Last night, I met with a high schooler and her tutor to study the words syllable and syllabic, which have a bit of a convoluted history: the former has an excrescent (or unetymological) <l> that was giving them trouble in their study. Throughout our session, this brilliant kiddo understood the evidence that I was showing her, but she didn’t like it, and that showed in her face.

I showed her some other words with excrescent letters, like island and ancient and midst. I entered “unetymological” in the search bar of the Online Etymology Dictionary and showed her how many English words had an unetymological feature in their makeup — and how that fact is part of the word’s etymology. “You don’t have to like the fact that that <l> is unetymological,” I explained. “But it is.” There are, after all, a lot of facts that any one of us doesn’t like. “At the risk of sounding callous,” I told her, “I don’t really care how you feel about a spelling; what I care about is that you understand the facts.”

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The tutor messaged me later: “When we ended session I could really tell that [my student] was still bothered. I asked her what was up and she said, ‘it just feels like how all of my old teachers taught me how to read.’ We talked about how there is a distinction between using history and evidence to explain a mutation [in how a spelling evolves, my emphasis] and just blatantly fabricating a cute story founded on no evidence to explain ‘odd’ spellings that you ‘just have to memorize.’ She understood but still felt triggered. It was such strong evidence of what damage a ‘phonics first’ approach can do to a person. Those scars run deep. I can relate girl, oh how I can relate. 💔

You see that? How all of her old teachers taught her — including with phonics — felt terrible to that kid. And that adult? The tutor? Also dyslexic, so she knows, “Those scars run deep.”  Adult dyslexics — including those who are teachers and tutors — tell me all the time that when they study with me, they feel like they are seeing and hearing their own language for the first time. They tell me that they are taking off coats of years of shame. They tell me that their kids’ anxiety is diminished or gone since they’ve started bringing orthographic fact and critical inquiry to the table.

The answer to the question, “What materials should I use?” is “Any of them, as long as you bring an accurate understanding to the task.”

I’ve picked on WTW in this post because it’s the one I know best. And it is widely heralded among the “reading science” types as the best spelling curriculum out there. And maybe it is. But they’re all misrepresenting the language, so in my opinion, they’re all garbage. And no one aspires to being the best bag of garbage at the dump.

Hey, hey, hey! Come to this conference.

Peter Bowers will be talking about morphology.

I’ll be talking about phonology. Not that phake phonnicky stuph passed off by the Dyslexia Industry and others. Real phonology.

Douglas Harper will be talking about etymology, and undoubtedly wowing us all with pearlescent metaphor and hilarity.

It’s a trifecta: Win, win, win.

Each of the three of us will have have a keynote and a breakout session, and I’ll be there the whole time with a table full of the most linguistically accurate materials money can buy, including the THIRD Edition of the LEX Grapheme Decks, and — I hope — a THIRD Volume of LEX InSight Decks.

Sure, Chicago will be cold in March. And all the cool kids will be there. Hot, hot, hot.

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