Archive for April, 2010

Most people would agree that a teacher cannot be effective if she is ignorant about her subject. A skilled math teacher, for example, can’t just ignore the long-proven axioms of mathematics. An effective science teacher cannot remain agnostic about scientific principles, and a music teacher who cannot read music probably won’t have a good professional prognosis. No one can teach a subject before first studying it closely.

It is likewise with language education. In order to teach people accurately and effectively how the English writing system works, one must first study it closely. Yet, in spite of a growing emphasis on ‘evidence-based’ instruction, language education remains a discipline where surface observations go unexamined and guesswork often supplants analysis.

Besides investigating the English language itself, I also investigate the origins of the linguistic information presented in materials for language teaching, especially when those materials diverge from what the language structure reveals about itself. Recently, while reading the blog of a fellow language educator, I came across the following proclamation:

“When words share a similar meaning and spelling across languages they are called cognates (from -cog-, meaning ‘to think’, to recognize).”

This language educator’s assertion about thinking got me thinking. Is there really a meaningful element <cog> in the word <cognate>? If so, then what does the <nate> mean? This piece of “language education” bears further investigation.

Now, I’m already familiar with cognates. Most anyone who’s studied another language has learned about linguistic cognates: the French word rendez in rendez-vous is cognate with the English word render, for example. But the idea of cognates is broader than just linguistics, and understanding how it’s used outside of language helps us understand it within language. Here’s what my trusty Oxford English-based Mac dictionary (my Mactionary?) has to say on the issue:

cognate |’kɑgˈneɪt|
1 LINGUISTICS (of a word) having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root (e.g., English is, German ist, Latin est from Indo-European esti).
2 FORMAL related; connected : cognate subjects such as physics and chemistry.
• related to or descended from a common ancestor. Compare with agnate.
1 LINGUISTICS a cognate word.
2 LAW a blood relative.

Interesting. Okay, so to be “cognate” means to be related or connected. In fact, in a court of law, the word cognate would mean “a blood relative.”

So what’s this all got to do with thinking? Um . . . nothing.

Does it have anything to do with recognizing? The blogger’s parenthesis suggests a relationship between cognate and recognize. They do both have the letters <cog> in them. They sound similar. Could they be related? Do they share a meaning or a history, or just a surface appearance? Let’s investigate.

I can’t think of a meaning for recognize that has anything to do with being related, but I check the Mactionary just to be sure. That resource suggests that recognize means “to identify, acknowledge, approve of or pay tribute to.” While we might decide whether we want to identify or acknowledge our relatives, the words recognize and cognate don’t appear to have related meanings. But maybe I’m missing something, so I decide to look further into the words’ morphology (structure) and etymology (history) in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

cognate: from L. cognatus “of common descent,” from com- “together” + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci “to be born” (see genus). Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings.

Oh! So there’s no <cog> in <cognate>, not morphologically or etymologically, anyhow. The letter <g> in <cognate> belongs with the <nate>, not with the <co>. The structure of the word is <co> + <gnate>. While the /g/ and the /n/ may be in different syllables, syllables have nothing to do with meaning, and it’s important for teachers not to confuse syllables with morphemes. The <g> and the <n> are within a single English morpheme, <gnate>, ‘to be born.’  With a little further investigation at etymonline, I learn that <gnate> has a variant form which appears more commonly in Modern English, as in <innate>, <nation>, <native> and <prenatal>.  Hence, words that are cognates are ‘born together;’ they are always etymologically related.

Now that I know that <gnate> is the base of cognate, then I can see that the word is not morphologically related to recognize. The two words do share a string of letters, <cog>, but that’s just a clip in <cognate> where the <g>belongs to the morpheme <gnate>. There’s no <gnate> in <recognize>. So they don’t share a base element.

What about their history, though? Could these words be related etymologically? Here’s the Online Etymology for recognize:

recognize: from O.Fr., from L. recognoscere “acknowledge, recall to mind, know again, examine, certify,” from re- “again” + cognoscere “know” (from co- “with” + gnoscere “become acquainted;” see notice). Meaning “perceive something or someone as already known” first recorded 1530s. Related: Recognized; recognizing.

Just to be sure, I check both Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and the Oxford English Dictionary. I confirm that recognize entered English <g>-less from French, but regained its <g> later on in association with its original Latin form, recognoscere, from cognoscere, ‘to become thoroughly acquainted with, investigate, get to know.’ When we peel off the prefix co, meaning ‘altogether,’ we are left with the root (g)noscere, which means simply ‘to know.’

What we have in recognize is the root gnoscere, entirely distinct from the root gnatus that gives us cognate. One means ‘to know,’ and the other means ‘to be born.’ Neither one means ‘to think.’

So where did the edublogger get her information? Well, since she doesn’t explain her methodology or even cite a source, that’s hard to say. The blog claims to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” so I decide to investigate a little further. Where might her linguistic explorations have led her? What word knowledge is being explored, and how?

First, I look for words in English where perhaps the letters <cog> do indicate a morpheme meaning ‘to think.’  I find a couple of English word families that have the letters <cog> — without the <n> — that could connote ‘thinking.’ The word cogent means “Having power to compel assent or belief; argumentatively forcible, convincing” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the word cogitate means “To think, reflect, ponder, meditate; to exercise the thinking faculties.” This investigation calls to mind the famous Cartesian maxim, Cogito ergo sum, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’

However, while both cogent and cogitate have the letters ,<cog>, they do not spell the base element of these words. According to my standard sources, the <co> is again a prefix (I’m starting to notice a pattern again!), and words are related to agent and agitate. All of these words are cognate with act and come from a Latin root meaning ‘to drive, to move.’  As we can see, there’s no <cog> and no thinking here either.

Phew! What we have now is several word families that are similar on the surface, but which have completely distinct histories. Let’s sort out what we’ve got so far, with a little help from the standard resources:

1. Latin (g)nasci/(g)natus ‘to be born’ gives us Modern English cognate, ‘related.’ Words that share the this same etymological root (but not necessarily the same morphological base) include native, nature, and nativity, but also noble (‘high-born’), ignoble (there’s that <n> /<gn> alternation again), nascent, nee, pregnant (‘pre-born’), gentle (see noble), renaissance (a ‘rebirth’), genus, generation, all Latinate. From the same Indo-European etymology, we have the Greek gene and the Germanic kin. The <gn> is etymologically cognate with <g>-vowel-<n> in some words, with just <n> in others, and with <k>-vowel-<n> as in <kin>. All of these words were checked in the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. Latin agere ‘to act, move, to drive’ give us Modern English cogent, and agent, and their cousin (or cognate) act and its many derivatives (activity, actual, reactionary . . .).  The related Latin frequentive agitare gave us agitate and possible cogitate as well.

3. Latin (g)noscere/(g)notum/(g)nitum ‘to know’ gives us Modern English cognizant, recognize, cognition, cognitive, and the etymologically related Latinate words narrate, ignore, note, notion and notice. But like #1, this root is old, old, old, and has lots of historical relatives. Cognates from Germanic include know, acknowledge, cunning, can (‘to know how’), could, uncouth, uncanny, and ken (‘range of knowledge‘). Greek relatives include agnostic, prognosis, diagnose and gnomic, ‘dealing in maxims.’ Again, we have surface forms with <gn> and <n> and , but also with /k/-vowel-/n/ and the digraph <kn>, all from the same Proto-Indo-European etymological roots. These historical relationships were verified by the Oxford English Dictionary, etymonline.com, and a linguist friend who knows both Greek and Latin.

This etymological family gives us the tiny-but-powerful Modern English bound base <gn>, which yields a significant body of words of both Greek and Latinate origins.

Now, I acknowledge that no one can know everything about a subject, and everyone makes mistakes. Even popular and highly-regarded structured language curricula make errors in regard to this rich etymological family (#3). The SLANT System gives *<cogn> as a Greek base (it’s not: it’s two Latinate morphemes) and Patterns for Success offers both *<cogn> and *<gnosi> as Greek bases. Of course, offering the letters <gnosi> as a morpheme (1) excludes words like diagnose, agnostic and prognosticate, and (2) actually present a clip that appears only in diagnosis, prognosis and the less common agnosia and gnosis.

Such errors could be quite confusing to learners, especially those who struggle inordinately with reading and spelling. I would suggest the following analysis instead, as it’s more parsimonious and accounts for the greatest number of cases (see Pete Bowers and Melvyn Ramsden on ‘elegance‘ in the writing system):

<dia> + <gn> + <ose> + <is>           and

<pro> + <gn> + <ost> + <ic> + <ate>

Certainly educators and authors do not intend to be in error; they are just ignorant (‘unknowing’) of the structure that underlies the surface appearance of these words, and they are agnostic about the tools to investigate it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an agnostic as “One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable.”  Surface patterns are the ‘material phenomena’ of the written language, but relying on them without investigation leaves the deeper, meaningful structure of words in the realm of the unknown and perceived wrongly to be unknowable.

Somehow, in her intent to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” our edublogger managed to conflate three large but distinct word families into one gnarled, misleading and unchecked assertion. Perhaps her educational lens is out of focus.

Or perhaps she just confused thinking with knowing.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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Some linguist friends and I were recently chatting about spellchecker-generated spelling errors (I know, I know–we need to get out more).  Most computer spellcheckers make errors of omission, such as when you type in their instead of there and it doesn’t notice.  But they can make errors of commission too.  For example, if I want to type in obvious, but I accidentally insert an extra <i>, my computer will read *obivious as oblivious, and before I know it I’ve unwittingly written something that sounds, well, more oblivious than obvious.

Another good example of a spellchecker error of commission is the replacement of *definatly with defiantly, when what the writer means is definitely.  I have long noticed many people who are otherwise good spellers misspell the word definitely as *definately or even *definatly.  It is a very common spelling error even among quite literate sorts.  This common orthographic foible is a perfect example of why the sense and reason behind a spelling matters more than how a word looks, how it sounds, or what a good memory the speller has.

In the conversation, I submitted that these common misapprehensions of definitely could be easily corrected with some instruction in orthographic morphology:

<de> + <fine> + <ite> + <ly>

The problem with *definately is that the suffixes <-ate> and <-ite> can sound identical when they are unstressed, as in syndicate, requisite, and adequate.  When learners are taught to “sound out” words, or taught that the job of spelling is to represent sound, then they are trained to rely on how a word sounds in order to spell it.  That strategy too often doesn’t work.

If we teach that spelling is about representing meaning rather than sound, however then accurate patterns become evident.  A word’s orthographic phonology often becomes more evident when we look at other members in a morphological family, like syndication, requisition, and equate. Likewise, the suffix /ət/ in definite is spelled <ite>, the same as in the related words finite and definition, where the suffix is stressed and its spelling thus more phonologically transparent.  It all seems perfectly clear when we consider the following matrix, which I developed using principles I learned from Real Spelling.

Matrix for <fine> by Gina Cooke

What words can you derive?  Are there words you never considered to be morphological relatives before?  It makes sense that words like finish and final are related, but it also makes sense that finances are finite and that someone who is refined also has finesse.

One interlocutor in the spelling discussion defiantly countered my presentation of evidence from orthographic morphology by claiming that the polymorphemic word definite is the “root” [sic] of definitely, or maybe, he conceded, the “root” was define.  He argued that it’s easier to “just memorize” the spelling.  While that may be true for many, it’s certainly not true for all.  When people suggest that it’s “easier” to “memorize” words for spelling, it usually means that (1) it was easy for them, so it should be easy for others, and (2) it’s easier as a teacher to give students a list of words to memorize than it is to teach them how spelling works.  But I’m not in search of “easy.”  I’m in search of accurate, meaningful, well-defined information about how written English works.

But! This worthy opponent persisted in arguing his case.  Among his chief arguments were the following:

  1. Like the word define, the words abstain, retain, contain, and obtain are all “their own roots;” 
  2. The <de> in define can’t be a prefix because “‘fine’ isn’t a verb in English;” and
  3. “The only morphemes that matter are the ones present in the minds of current native speakers;”

He also threw in some stuff about Chaucer, Shakespeare and Webster.

Let’s consider these points one by one.

1. Like the word define, the words abstain, retain, contain, and obtain are all “their own roots.”  Or not. The word root is often used with terminological imprecision.  It is used both morphologically and etymologically. For example, if we say that Latin struere, ‘to build’, is the “root” of <structure>, we mean that in terms of its etymology or historical origin.  This is a precise use of the term.  Some people would use it differently, saying that <struct> is the “root” of <structure>.  That is a morphological use of the word, and it means the base element.  It refers to a single morpheme.  In the examples abstain, retain, etc., the words are polymorphemic, or complex.  They all feature a prefix and a bound base, <tain>.  Plenty of native speakers may not be aware of that base, but it’s real.  After all, plenty of native speakers of English are also unaware of me and of the square root of pi, but we’re both real too.  I think that perhaps my debater intended the word stem, which Real Spelling defines as “a complex word (i.e. a base which has already acquired another element) to which a further affix or element is to be added.”

2. The <de> in define can’t be a prefix because “‘fine’ isn’t a verb in English.” This is demonstrably untrue. Here, his argument is that, because words that have <de> + {base} are often verbs, like defog and de-ice, formed from adding <de> to an existing verb.  However, that’s not always the case, as in denude and defame.  In this statement, it is clear that he is relying on his own self-perceptions about the language rather than relying on evidence gathered from an investigation.  Any dictionary will tell him that fine is absolutely a verb in English, as evidenced by the following entry for fine in my Mac dictionary:


  1. [ trans. ] clarify (beer or wine) by causing the precipitation of sediment during production.
  2. [ intrans. ] (of liquid) become clear : the ale hadn’t had quite time to fine down.
  3. make or become thinner : [ trans. ] it can be fined right down to the finished shape | [ intrans. ] she’d certainly fined down —her face was thinner.

If someone’s facial features have fined down, then she has fine features, a refined look, or well-defined features.  Clearly these words are related morphologically.

The OED gives three separate entries for fine as a verb, each with a few definitions.  Here are some of my favorites, along with some compelling examples:

  1. (From entry 1) trans. To bring to an end, complete, conclude, finish. c1374 CHAUCER Troylus IV. Proeme 26 Father of Qwyrine! This ferthe book me helpith for to fyne.
  2. (From entry 2) 1. trans. To pay as a fine or composition. 1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, IV. vii. 72 Know’st thou not That I have fined these bones of mine for ransom?
  3. (From entry 3) b. intr. To grow or become fine or clear; to clarify. lit. and fig. Also, to fine down. 1719 Free-thinker No. 134 6 The perpetual violent Motions…hinder his Mind from fining.

This evidence demonstrates that not only can fine be a verb in English, but that it is also a verb with some meanings that are very close to define.  Whereas fine means “to clarify,” then define means “to clarify completely.”

3.”The only morphemes that matter are the ones present in the minds of current native speakers.” The only morphemes that matter to whom?  Matter for what?  How do morphemes become present in the minds of native speakers?  My conversant indicated that he’s interested in “how language develops regardless of formal education” (emphasis added).

Of course formal education has an impact on what is present in the minds of native speakers about their language.  For people whose formal education taught them to “sound out” words, that’s the first strategy they try.  In people whose formal education teaches Greek and Latin etymology in English, an awareness of those patterns can develop.  If people are taught that the base element in <definitely> is <fine>, then that morpheme will become “present in their mind,” whatever that means.

But formal education, like spellcheckers, can have an impact from omissions as well as from commissions.  If a teacher commits the error of assuming that <define> is a single morpheme, then that’s likely how her students will come to think of it, and they will not likely link it to words like fine or definite.  If she commits the error of calling a stem a “root” then her students may remain confused about both morphology and etymology.

In teaching language, errors of commission like those above are pretty common.  Even more common, however, are errors of omission.  If teachers simply omit any information about the morphological structure of words (often because they are unaware themselves), then students persist in approaching words as whole pieces, or as units analyzable by sound only.  If teachers commit the error of omitting instruction in favor of memorization, then students will come to think of words and spelling as things to be memorized, rather than as things to be studied, investigated and understood.

If my interlocutor wishes to study how language develops regardless of formal education, then he will need to consider both what is committed in the language classroom, and what is omitted in the language classroom.  Or, he will need to restrict his work to 2-year-old children.

Once again, let’s consider where what we think about language comes from, especially before we speak it in a classroom, teach it to another person, or assert it as fact.  Hunches, self-perceptions, inexactitudes and uninvestigated statements about language too often defy reason.  But evidence from the language itself definitely clears things up.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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Frequently, when I show fellow educators what I’ve learned about the written word, they balk.  The linguistic evidence I provide sometimes goes against tradition and conventional wisdom in language education.  Instead of offering counter-evidence, however, I find that more often, they offer citations.  They cite other people, like authors, researchers, or even linguists, or published materials, like references, dictionaries, curricula, and websites.  To be sure, that’s often how academic writing works, and much angst and effort goes in to teaching and learning how to cite “correctly.”

But is a citation really the same as evidence? What do those words really mean? Let’s investigate.

My starting place, for convenience, is always my Mac references application.  This time, I’m starting in the thesaurus.  Here’s what I find:



1 a citation from an eighteenth-century text quotation, quote, extract, excerpt, passage, line; reference, allusion.

2 a citation for gallantry commendation, mention, honorable mention.

3 Law: a traffic citation summons, ticket, subpoena, writ, court order.

Okay, all of these are pretty familiar connotations for the word, and they’re in keeping with the common use of citation in academic writing.  From the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learn that citation, and of course cite, derive from a Latin root meaning ‘to cause to move, arouse, summon, urge, call.’  That makes sense: when we cite we call on another author, summon another’s research, and cause the reader to move to another work if they want to understand the original methodology.

If we consider words that share the morpheme <cite> with citation, a stronger sense of the word begins to emerge: excite, incite, recite, resuscitate . . . all involve stirring something up, summoning, calling, even reviving something nearly dead.

If we go back further historically from Latin, we find that citation shares an Indo-European etymology with the Germanic words hest and behest, both of which denote urging or commanding, and with the Greek terms cinema and kinesthetic, both denoting movement.

A citation, then, summons up someone else’s text, moves the reader to someone else’s woven ideas, someone else’s evidence.  But a citation itself offers no real proof, no independent confirmation of the validity of the cited source.

On the other hand, evidence boasts some pretty impressive semantic partners.  Let’s check back with the Mac thesaurus:



1 they found evidence of his plotting proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, attestation.

2 the court accepted her evidence testimony, statement, attestation, declaration, avowal, submission, claim, contention, allegation; Law deposition, representation, affidavit.

3 evidence of a struggle signs, indications, pointers, marks, traces, suggestions, hints; manifestation.

Wow!  Proof.  Verification. Confirmation.   Okay, so evidence can mean just a hint or a suggestion, but if it does, it implies that there’s a trace, a vestige, a trail to follow.   Do these connotations hold up under closer morphological and etymological investigation?

Yep.  Using the Word Searcher, I determine that the base element in the word evidence is <vide>, which also surfaces, along with its twin, <vise>, in the words, provide, provision, vision, advise, and supervision.  This twin base hails from the Latin videre, ‘to see.’ The word evidence is built from the prefix <e->, meaning ‘out’ or ‘out of’ and <vide>, ‘to see.’  So evidence is something we can see out completely.

Beyond the morphological family of evidence, we can link the word etymologically to the following list: witness, guide, wit, wisdom, survey, view, clairvoyant, idea and even envy. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn that these words come from an Indo-European root meaning  ‘to know, to see.’  When something is visible, obvious, or apparent, we say that it’s evident, not that it’s cited.

Let’s consider, as an example, the base of words such as credit, incredible, credulous, credential, and credence.  Several published sources, including the NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins, list <cred> as the base of these words, from the Latin credere, ‘to believe.’  But let’s consider the following linguistic evidence:

In English, when a base has 1 vowel and ends with 1 consonant, we double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix, as in the following example:

<rob> + <er> → <robber>

When we add a vowel suffix to a base ending with a final, non-syllabic (‘silent’) <e>, we drop the <e>, as we see in

<love> + <ing> → <loving>

Understanding these basic rules, then, let’s consider the base of credit, incredible, credence, etc.  If we credit NTC and other resources as credible sources, we would be stuck with such ungainly derivations as

<cred> + <ence> → *<creddence>


<in> + <cred> + <ible> → *<increddible>

If we consider the linguistic evidence, we would have to recognize that the actual structure of such words is, in fact, as follows:

<crede> + <ence> → <credence>

<in> + <crede> + <ible> → <incredible>

<crede> + <ent> + <i> + <al> → <credential>

It may be hard to believe, since the base <crede> does not surface in English anymore.  Its Old English form has long been respelled as <creed>, and all of its modern derivations have vowel suffixes, replacing that final <e> and giving the surface appearance of <cred> as a base.

But wait, what difference does it really make?  You say tomayto, I say tomahto, right?  Can’t we just cite the sources that claim that <cred> is correct?  Not if we’re concerned with ensuring that our writing system that is at work in robber and loving holds up through the whole of English.

In the professional development I’ve offered teachers for the past 15 years, I’ve cited experts plenty.  When something didn’t make sense to a student or a teacher, or to me, the only response I had was to cite the person or the resource that had said it was thus and so.  Now, however, if something about written language isn’t immediately clear to me, I’ve learned to investigate it: the evidence is right there, waiting to be discovered!  I’ve stopped taking resources at face value, and started interrogating them instead.

A good bit of my doctoral research now involves tracking down the original source of ‘linguistic’ information as cited in reading and spelling curricula and teaching materials.  Where was it cited from? What was the methodology of the original source? How did the original source gather its evidence?  Too often, it seems, folks are willing to parade published information as fact, just because it’s published. But the NTC dictionary‘s only methodology for ascertaining a base in a word is to boldface the letters that the words have in common.  But that’s not a real methodology; it’s just a surface observation.

So what’ll it be?  Moving the reader to another text, or proving how language works? Do we insist on seeing for ourselves or are we content with believing what others have written?  Are we too comfortable merely citing resources rather than interrogating them?  How do we know if what a source says about language is credible?

In math and science, we don’t cite sources as proof that 2+2=4, or that baking soda and vinegar react.  We demonstrate, we show, we provide visible evidence. Likewise, teaching language from an examination of linguistic evidence trumps whatever street ‘cred’ a famous person or published source — even the OED itself — might have.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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LEX has moved here from another hosting domain; the first entry (below) was originally posted on March 28, 2010.

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LEX strives to offer linguistic information for language teachers and learners. Linguistic information means scientific information about language, information that can be shown with evidence and deductive reasoning. No hunches, guesses, or tricks here, just linguistically-informed explanations about how the English language works.

For this inaugural post, this beginning, I’ll try to give you an idea of the linguistic and logical tools I use to understand how language works.  What can you really expect from this blog?  To demonstrate, let’s consider what the word inaugural really means.

Most of us would go to a dictionary to answer that question.  My Mac dictionary gives me the following information:

in・augural |inˈôg(y)ərəl|

adjective [ attrib. ]
marking the beginning of an institution, activity, or period of office: his inaugural concert as music director.

an inaugural speech, esp. one made by an incoming U.S. president.
• an inaugural ceremony: the ball before the inaugural.

ORIGIN late 17th cent.: from French (from inaugurer ‘inaugurate,’ from Latin inaugurare) + -AL .

Okay, so inaugural means ‘beginning.’  If I read all the way through the etymological information, I learn that it’s probably related to the word inaugurate.  That makes sense — a president is inaugurated at the beginning of his or her tenure, and holds an inaugural ball.

But is that all?  Why does inaugural mean ‘beginning’?  Are inaugural and inaugurate the only words in that morphological family?  To answer this question, it’s time to use some logic.  First, I look to see if there are any prefixes or suffixes I can peel off, so that I can try to figure out the base element of the word. I recognize <in-> and <-al> and <-ate> as likely contenders.  That would leave me with a possible base of <augur>.

Now it’s time consult some other resources to test my hypothesis.  I frequently use UK mathematician Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher and sometimes More Words to look for more words that might share the same base element.  On Ramsden’s site I enter <augur> and I find the following list:

augur, augured, auguries, auguring, augurs, augury, inaugural, inaugurate, inaugurated, inaugurates, inaugurating, inauguration, inaugurations

Hmm … not sure what <augur> means.  Isn’t that some kind of a tool?  Back to some resources I go.  My dictionary tells me that an <auger> is a tool, and the unrelated <augur> means ‘to portend a good or bad outcome.’  Sounds kind of like an omen.  I head to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and find this:

“In Roman times, an augur was someone who foretold the future by observing the flight of birds (or by examining their entrails). His method of divination was reflected in his title, for the Latin word augur, earlier auger, seems to have meant literally ‘one who performs with birds,’ from avis ‘bird’ (as in English aviary and aviation) and gerere ‘do, perform’ (as in English gestation, gesture, gerund, digest, and suggest).”

The Online Etymology Dictionary confirms that the English word <augur> derives from a Latin root, augur, “a religious official in ancient Rome who foretold events by interpreting omens.”  But reading further, I learn that the etymology of the Latin word  is debated. The Online Etymology dictionary offers a different second element for a Latin compound augur, suggesting that it is a compounding of avis, ‘bird’ and garrire, ‘to talk’ (as in <garrulous> and related to <jargon>).  

The online resource also suggests a different etymology, however, one that is etymologically linked to the <aug> in <augment>, meaning ‘to increase’; others suggest a link to <august>, meaning ‘venerable.’  Such a religious official might have interpreted omens in order to increase crop yields. This view is supported by linguist Ernest Klein in his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.

That’s a lot of information.  Since <ur> isn’t a suffix in English (I checked several reasources and compared lists of words to arrive at this conclusion), I cannot link <augur> and <augment> morphologically, even if they are linked etymologically.  But what the word scientists agree upon is this:

The word <augur> comes from the name of a Roman official whose role was, according to an excellent Wikipedia article, “not [to] predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed.”

So, in this inaugural entry for this blog, I’m presenting signs of the course I’ve already decided upon — the application of deductive reasoning and Socratic questioning for seeking evidence about language — and trusting that this logical approach to language learning will augur well for the teachers and others who visit it; that it will augment the reader’s understanding of how English works by applying rigorous methodologies from the august science of linguistics.

I won’t claim divine sanction, but I will submit that guessing about language — using language myths and hunches to teach — is simply for the birds.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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