Archive for October, 2010

You know how sometimes a certain word will keep popping up over and over?  By the time the same word has appeared three or four times, you start to wonder what it might be trying to tell you.

So, of course this happened to me recently.  Across a few different books I was reading, the words conscious, conscience, unselfconsciousness, and unconscionable were cited of examples of certain linguistic phenomena — different phenomena in each case.  In each case, the word was a poorly chosen example, and with plenty of other examples available, I wondered why it was chosen at all.

The first encounter was in an advanced English syntax seminar I’m taking, for which I’m reading Rodney Huddleston’s Introduction to the Grammar of English. Here are the two passages of interest to me here:

(i) “Words may be formed by the application of more than one morphological process.  In unselfconsciousness, for example, the first step is one of compounding, joining the simple stems self and conscious to form the compound stem selfconscious.  To this is then added the prefix un-, yielding the complex stem unselfconscious; and finally -ness is suffixed, to give the final complex stem unselfconsciousness.” (22)

(ii) “The minimal units of morphology are simple stems and affixes . . . In English, almost all simple stems, like stems in general, are free, that is, they can stand alone as words.  Those that cannot are called bound: they include the amic, dur, prob, conscion, vulner of amicable, durable (or duration, etc.), probable, unconscionable, vulnerable . . . ; the beknown and (for most speakers) kempt of unbeknown and unkempt; scissor and trouser of scissors and trousers.” (31)

In order to unpack all of this a little, let’s narrow our focus: we’ll only be worried about Huddleston’s treatment of conscious and conscion as “simple stems” in English.  In order to do so, we’ll need to figure out what Huddleston’s definition of a “simple stem” is.  He is clear that a “simple stem” may be free or bound, as illustrated in (ii) above.  We can also assume that by “minimal”, he means not further divisible.  This is certainly what he means by “simple stems in the sense that they are not analysable into smaller morphological units” (22).

Huddleston explains that simple stems may compound by two joining together, as in blackbird or goldsmith, or, “in affixation, an affix is added to a stem to yield a complex stem” (22).  He then goes on to differentiate between prefixes and suffixes.  Some words, of course, involve more than one morphological process, as he outlines in unselfconsciousness.

Now, let’s get back to those assertions: okay, so if conscious and conscion are “simple stems”, according to Huddleston, that would mean that they are “not analysable into smaller morphological units,” in his own words.  Hmm . . . but if we’re peeling off the -able and -ness suffixes, then why aren’t we also peeling off the -ous and the -on suffixes?  And if affixation includes both prefixes and suffixes, then shouldn’t we also peel off the easily recognizable prefix con-?  If we approach this problem orthographically, we can use word sums to figure out the real structure of these words and their respective “simple stems,” for which I prefer the term base element:

<un> + <self> + <con> + <sci> + <ous> + <ness>

<un> + <con> + <sci> + <on> + <able>

Once we get down to a real simple stem, <sci>, it appears that these two words, in fact, share that stem.  But is it the same stem in both words?  Does it mean the same thing, and come from the same place? Let’s consider the meaning and history of each of these words to look for clues to the meaning of <sci>.

When I consult my standard sources (my Mactionary, the OED, and the online etymology dictionary), I learn the following:

The words conscious, conscience, conscientious, and the now archaic conscionable (“fossilized in its negative,” says etymonline.com) are all related, as are some less familiar words, like conscient, consciental, conscioned, and consciencely. Of all these words, conscience has the earliest attestation, in The Ancren Riwle, a 1225 “treatise on the rules and duties of a monastic life” (Morton 1853).  While I’m not suggesting that these words all developed from one another, I am suggesting that they are morphological siblings, and it’s interesting to look at how they play out chronologically:

1225: conscience

1541: conscionable

1565: unconscionable

1611: conscientious

1651: conscious

1688: self-conscious

1838: unselfconsciousness

When I look up the earliest of these, conscience, I confirm that conscience is related to science, and thus this family of words is related to scientific, scientist, unscientific, and a host of other derivatives, all from the Latin verb scire, ‘to know.’  Interestingly, science is attested in 1300, a little later than conscience, representative, perhaps, of ways in which intellectual pursuits often shadow moral instruction in the Middle Ages.  At any rate, in uncovering the etymological root, we can now get a sense of the meaning that ties these words together in the Modern English base element, <sci>:

conscience: ‘inward knowledge’, vying with and finally replacing the Old English inwit.

conscionable: ‘having a conscience, being reasonable or aware’, derived from a misanalysis of conscience as a plural *conscions.

conscientious : ‘according to inward knowledge or awareness’

conscious: ‘knowing, aware’

science: ‘knowledge acquired by study’ or ‘a particular branch of knowledge’

But wait! That’s not all!  I can add the prefixes <un> and <sub> and several suffixes to some of these words too, and come up with new layers of meaning.  What if we consider prefixes other than <con>?  I decide to visit Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher and http://www.morewords.com to look for other words with <sci>, and I come up with prescient, nescient, omniscient and their respective -ence forms, all of the <scient> words, the <consci> words mentioned in his post already, and the etymologically delicious adverbial compound scilicet.  I check with Melvyn Ramsden to see if he’s got a matrix, and he sends me one.  A few days later, he sends me a revised copy, along with a great story.  Here’s the corrected matrix:

Matrix for <sci>

Matrix by Melvyn Ramsden

All of this evidence, then, rather shows Huddleston up.  He himself defines “simple” as “not analysable into smaller morphological units,” a characterization that simply cannot and does not apply to *conscion or to conscious, both of which he calls “simple stems.”  Huddleston is not alone in this misapprehension of morphological analysis: Joan Bybee also refers to realize as a “monomorphemic lexical item” (1985:11). While it is indeed a lexeme, it is not monomorphemic; we can analyze <realize> at least into <real> and <ize>, if not even further into <re> + <al> + <ize>.  At any rate, monomorphemic it is not.  It’s uninflected, which may be what Bybee meant, but that’s not what Bybee wrote.

Perhaps I’m in the wrong here and I’m the one who’s misapprehending the meaning of concepts like morpheme, simple, complex, and analyze, and I’d welcome any linguistic challenges to my assertions.  I suppose some would argue that native speakers aren’t “aware” of the base element <sci>, or of the <real> in <realize>, but I would argue (as I have in these writings several times before) that just because a native speaker isn’t aware of something in language doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and a linguist should be the last person to suggest such an idea.

*               *               *

So, now that we have an understanding of the morphology and the etymology of these words, what about their phonology?  As it turns out, another encounter with the word conscience, in a different text, brought up some very interesting questions, and clarified just how the orthographic phonology works in words with the base <sci>.

In her brand new edition of Speech to Print, Louisa Moats uses the word conscience to illustrate two principles of graphophonemic correspondence, but makes such unscientific errors in her analysis that she unconsciously muddies up the very graohophonemic correspondences she lobbies for.  Moats writes that in the word conscience, “the letter c stands for three different speech sounds: /k/, /š/ and /s/” and also that “a vowel team (two vowel letters) . . . is needed to spell the second vowel /ə/.” (2010:25)

There are two assertions in this statement: one is about the multiple roles of the letter <c> in this word, and the other is about how the schwa sound in the last syllable is spelled.  In her analysis, Moats reveals her unwavering determination to be able to “map” every phoneme onto a grapheme, in a way that leaves no letter unaccounted for.  While I admire her desire to account for every letter in a spelling — something every real speller knows how to do — I cringe at the saturation of error in her proposal.  Let’s take it apart.

In the first assertion, Moats claims that the letter <c> “stands for” three different “speech sounds,” /k/, /ʃ/ and /s/.  While the first <c> does indeed spell /k/, and the final <c> does indeed spell /s/, with some help from the final non-syllabic <e> that follows it, her analysis fails thereafter.  However, if we attempt to map out all of the phonemes and graphemes as Moats suggests, that leaves us with some letters unaccounted for:

<   c   o   n   s   c   ie   n   c   e   >

/   k    ɑ  n        ʃ   ə    n   s       /

If, as Moats says, the medial <c> is spelling /ʃ/, then what is the <s> doing?  Why is there an <s> there at all?  Well, we know from the analysis above that the <s> is part of the base <sci>.  Examined morphophonemically, it’s clear that the <sci> base spells /ʃ/ here.  And that shouldn’t be surprising when we consider the pronunciation of related words like prescient, nescient, omniscient, conscious, or unconscionable.  A <c> can and frequently does spell /ʃ/ before an <i>, but that <i> is often a connector vowel, as in special, musician, or gracious.  Here, the <i> is in the base itself, <sci>.  Even though that <i> isn’t spelling a vowel phoneme, we can’t just drop it from the base.  Clearly, the <c> is not spelling /ʃ/ alone.  It would seem kind of important that we account for that <s> and that <i> as well.

Moats makes no attempt in her “mapping” to account for the <s> in the word here, although she does offer <sc> instead as the spelling for /ʃ/ in this same word on page 93 in this same book.  She does attempt to account for the <i> by grouping it with the <e> as part of a “vowel team.”  Of course, <ie> can be a vowel digraph, two vowel letters acting as a single grapheme in spelling a phoneme, as in the words chief, believe, cookie, or pie.  But is the <ie> a single grapheme in conscience? We can see our answer very easily in the morphological analysis of the word:

<con> + <sci> + <ence>

We can see that the <i> and the <e> are in two different morphemes.  Since a single grapheme cannot bridge two morphemes, the <i> and the <e> must be separate graphemes.  When we assume that two letters next to each other are a single grapheme, we fail to understand how the word is structured, and why it is spelled and pronounced the way it is.  We can confirm this hypothesis when we look at the related words science or conscientious, where the <i> and the <e> each spell different vowel phonemes in different syllables.  Because of the variety of pronunciations of the base <sci>, it’s easiest and most accurate to refer to it by its spelling, <sci>, rather than as any of its allomorphic surface representations, /saɪ/, /ʃi/, /ʃ/, /sɪ/ or any others that may surface in dialects other than mine.

Understanding this principle, that graphemes spell phonemes inside of a single morpheme, allows us to understand the following broader examples from English spelling:

*The word <cried> has no <ie> digraph, despite contentions to that effect in many reading and spelling curricula.  It has an underlying <y> that changed to an <i>, followed by <ed>.  The <i> and the <e> are in different morphemes.

*In the word <father>, the <th> is a single grapheme that spells the phoneme /ð/.  In the word <fathead>, the <t> and the <h> are separate graphemes, spelling different phonemes in different morphemes.

*In the word <cook> the <oo> grapheme spells a single phoneme, /ʊ/, but in the word <cooperate>, each <o> belongs to a different morpheme and spells a different phoneme in different syllables.

Now that we’ve seen (1) the real structure of these words, (2) the errors of these language experts, and (3) a little more of how the English writing system works, let’s consider just why it is that this family of words, words about knowing and awareness, is so structurally obscure to language experts. Although <sci> is the base of about 100 English words, it is noticeably absent from Marcia Henry’s Unlocking Literacy (2010) or Patterns for Success (1996), as well as from Marsha Geller’s SLANT System morpheme deck and from the Advanced Language Tool Kit by Paula Rome and Jean Osman, an old standard in dyslexia remediation.  In fact, I’ve never seen it surface in any list of Latin morphemes in English that I’ve encountered, other than in the work of Melvyn Ramsden and Pete Bowers.  I did recently see Nancy Cushen White present the base <sci> at a conference, but she too has studied with Melvyn Ramsden.

Does this mean that everyone is wrong, and only Melvyn and Pete are right?  Well, yes and no.  Huddleston and Moats are demonstrably incorrect in their morphological and graphophonemic analyses of words with the <sci> base, respectively.  But more to the point, they are unconscious, unknowing, unaware of how the writing system, and its morphology and its phonology, actually work.  They are equally unconscious of their own unconsciousness, assuming their analyses are correct without investigating  them.  Because their understanding of English orthography is based on surface observations, phonological half-truths, and exceptions, it’s unscientific and misses the scientific principles at work in the spelling system.

While it’s understandable that even the most comprehensive list or curriculum would have errors or omissions, what’s unconscionable is when lauded experts perpetuate ideologies, inconsistencies and guesswork about language instead of structural, analytic linguistic science.

*               *               *

Here’s the great story Melvyn Ramsden sent me along with his corrected <sci> matrix: a seven-year-old discovered an error in the original matrix because he understood the system.  He caught an <ion> suffix in the original version, which would have rendered an impossible *<unconsciionable>.  What I love about this anecdote is that (1) it illustrates how to handle getting caught in an error (fix it, as Ramsden did, and give credit to the person who found it), and (2) it proves that a child can be made conscious of the tidy patterns that govern our orthography in ways that, apparently, the most vaunted authorities cannot.


Geller, M. Prefix, Root and Suffix Cards. Buffalo Grove, IL: Geller Educational Resources.

Henry, M. (2010) Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding & Spelling Instruction. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Company.

Huddleston, R. (1984). Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press.

Moats, L. (2010). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Company.

Rome, P. and J. Osman. (2006). The Advanced Language Tool Kit: Teaching the Structure of the English Language. Educators Publishing Service.

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

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