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Archive for December, 2011

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  ~Harry S. Truman

This post is long overdue. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking and writing about spelling — quite the contrary, of course. The main reason I haven’t posted is because I spent the past six months researching, preparing, and teaching a university course on English orthography. Now that the course is over, I am freed up to share some of my undergraduates’ inspiring discoveries and commentaries about spelling. Through the course of the semester, my students and I repeatedly encountered statements and claims about spelling — from experts and from the broader culture alike — that are demonstrably contrary to fact. We kept bringing ourselves back to two guiding principles when considering these statements and when speaking of orthography ourselves: (1) Is it accurate? and (2) How do you know? My students took readily to my repeated suggestion that they interrogate experts and resources rather than just consulting them. As they became aware of the myths, ideologies, and errors “out there” about English spelling, they quickly became sticklers for pursuing and providing orthographic evidence.

This post narrates the tale of what my students and I learned as we investigated claims made by well-known spelling educator, Dr. Shane Templeton. In a wonderful guest entry on Susan Ebbers’s blog, Vocabulogic, Templeton argues that words are “more than the sum of their parts,” referring to the moments when students encounter words whose morphology does not make their connotations explicit. The words terrible and terrific, for example, share the base <terr>, but have almost opposite connotations. The word leviathan, for another example, is a base all by itself and has no morphological structure to help us understand its meaning. While morphology is the seminal organizing principle of English orthography, sometimes the sense and meaning of a word is not readily available from its morphology, and we need to look elsewhere.

Templeton suggests that when morphological illumination is limited, students need to engage with the word’s history, its etymology. That movement from morphological to etymological investigation is one my students got a lot of practice with, as we worked with the Real Spelling concept model for English orthography (right). Concept model of English OrthographyI had originally referred my class to Templeton’s post during our unit on etymology because he emphasized etymological study within it. But reading — and questioning it — provided us with a much deeper and more meaningful learning experience than I had anticipated.

My students had been trained over the course of the semester not to trust any single source implicitly — not even me. I encouraged them to question what I taught, and to question multiple sources rather than just consulting one and taking it at its word. True to their training, my students did not just read and absorb Templeton’s post; rather, they interrogated it. They questioned his assertions, asking themselves first if they were accurate, and asking second how they could know whether it was accurate. While they appreciated the blog post, they found a few etymological (and morphological) bones to pick; we’ll target just one of them here.

In order to pick said bones, it’s best to start with a consideration of Templeton’s introductory perspectives on etymology. He writes, “[Students’] dawning realization that words not appearing to mean the sum of their parts provides students a portal to the next level of word consciousness – a more systematic exploration of where words come from – their etymologies. ” My students and I concurred that when morphology doesn’t explain a meaning (or a spelling), etymology is the next place to look for an understanding. This is, however, an observation about the facts of the writing system rather than a pedagogical imperative about scope or sequence: we don’t need to wait until learners have mastered morphology, or wait until third or fourth grade, as Templeton suggests, or wait until students have learned some given set of morphemes, to begin to teach how words work. In fact, a growing research body shows that skilled morphological instruction benefits younger and at-risk students the most!

Templeton refers to etymology as “systematic,” and indeed, it is. A system, according to my Mactionary, is “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method,” and systematic is defined as “done or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical.” Without question, etymological study involves principles and methodical procedures that involve investigating, consulting historical sources, and developing an understanding of the history not only of words, but of language. The internet abounds with folk etymologies — erroneous if intriguing explanations for words that have no basis in historical fact, that are not attested in any documented uses or derivations of a word. Real etymological study may involve hypothesizing, but it does not involve unmitigated, unverified guesswork. Etymological investigations must, as Templeton indicates in his choice of the word systematic, be “done according to a fixed plan or system; methodical.”

Templeton’s post goes on to extol the fascination of word histories and the interrelations between words and to suggest ways in which teachers and students can consult sources to learn more about word histories. He encourages educators to teach and model etymological study early and often:

“[A]s we know from research in the development of morphological knowledge, we can lay the groundwork for this type of sensitivity to words in the elementary grades. We should, of course, begin systematically teaching about word formation processes that include Greek and Latin word roots in third and fourth grade, and we can also begin to tell our etymological narratives at those levels. And when we don’t know, we model what to do – pulling one of our favorite word history resources off of the shelf or going to one of our favorite websites. Of course, even when we do know, we often encourage the students to go check it out.” (emphasis mine)

We resonated with what Templeton wrote here about etymological investigation: it is methodical; it deepens and broadens our understanding of words, their spellings, and their meanings; it is systematic; and it involves checking resources and looking for evidence.

Templeton continues, offering a few provocative word histories from Greek and Latin and even Proto-Indo-European, calling upon mythology and antiquity and the human heart, and urging the consultation of reliable etymological sources. Among his examples is the word science, which “literally means ‘to know’,” he writes. “[R]elated words are discipline and conscience, ‘knowing with’ oneself.” One of the reasons I had shared Templeton’s post with my students is because we had just been studying the base element <sci>, which comes from the Latin scire and denotes ‘to know,’ in a lexical word matrix. (I have written about this base before, and you can read about it and see its matrix here.) They remarked, as I had, that we had not included the word discipline in our matrix or encountered it in our study of <sci>. We decided to investigate the connection. Is the claim that discipline and science are related accurate? And if so, how do we know?

We started to approach our investigation through structured word inquiry, as I learned from my colleague Pete Bowers. We ask four questions to guide us through our investigation:

1. What does the word mean?

2. How is it built?

3. What are its relatives?

4. How is it pronounced?

Beginning with the meaning, we agreed that there is a possible connection in sense and meaning between science and discipline: both connote fields of study, principles, methods, and systematic procedures, and gathering knowledge. We then consulted a dictionary and discussed the various connotations of discipline. Here’s what my Mactionary offers:

discipline |’disəplin|
noun

1. the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience : a lack of proper parental and school discipline.

• the controlled behavior resulting from such training : he was able to maintain discipline among his men.
• activity or experience that provides mental or physical training : the tariqa offered spiritual discipline | Kung fu is a discipline open to old and young.
• a system of rules of conduct : he doesn’t have to submit to normal disciplines.

2. a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education : sociology is a fairly new discipline.

verb [ trans. ]
train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience : many parents have been afraid to discipline their children.

• (often be disciplined) punish or rebuke (someone) formally for an offense : a member of the staff was to be disciplined by management.
• (discipline oneself to do something) train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way : every month discipline yourself to go through the file.

Okay, so we decided that discipline has a few semantic possibilities: rigorous training or conduct; corrective punishment; and an area of knowledge; the last definition being the most closely connected denotationally to ‘knowing,’ the one most like science.

But we don’t stop there. We can’t just trust semantic similarities; we need to have structural and historical evidence of a relationship to call them “related” as Templeton does. Our next question, How is it built?, invites us to take a look at the morphological structure of the word. Following Templeton’s statement, we hypothesized that if the base of discipline is <sci>, the word sum would provisionally be

<di> + <sci> + <pline> (?)

Does this work? My students recognized that <di> is indeed a prefix, and we considered the words diverge (‘to turn apart’) and digest (‘to carry away’). In these words, the <di> prefix is a variant of <dis>, meaning ‘apart, away’ — it is Latinate, as opposed to the homonymic Greek element <di> meaning ‘two’, as in dioxide.

<di> + <sci> . . . so far, our provisional word sum is working.

Then we got to <pline>. Using the word searcher, we found no evidence of a <pline> element. One student reminded us that the <ine> might be a suffix, as in <imagine>, and questioned <pl> as a possible morpheme. While the students quickly rejected <pl> as a possible morpheme, the recognition of <ine> as a suffix prompted several other students to posit <disciple> as the stem of discipline. We consequently revised our word sum as follows:

<disciple> + <ine>

So what, then, was the structure of disciple? And is it, in fact, related to <sci>? We continued to posit some word sums to see if <sci> could be the base:

<di> + <sci> + <ple> (?)

We really weren’t sure whether this posited structure was accurate — the only way we could know would be to gather etymological evidence for each of the proposed parts. We knew from our previous investigation that in order for Templeton’s assertion to be accurate, the <sci> would have to derive from the same root as <science> and <conscience>. So we decided to move to our next question — “What are its relatives?” — and to check the etymology, as Templeton suggested, to gather more evidence for (or against) a connection between <discipline> and <science>.

Now, when we search for relatives, we search for both morphological relatives — that smaller circle of words that share a single base element — and etymological relatives — the larger circle of words that are traceable to a shared root. I like to think of morphological relatives as a word’s siblings, whereas etymological relatives are its cousins. Like human cousins, etymological cousins can be close cousins or more distant, depending on how far back one must go to find the shared ancestor (French? Latin? Proto-Indo-European?).

Anyhow, to search for relatives, we first consulted Etymonline — which we used frequently in class — to see the history of discipline. We knew from previous investigations that the etymology of science is the Latin scire, ‘to know’, and so we looked for a connection to scire in the etymology of discipline.

We didn’t find any.

Etymonline confirmed for us that <disciple> is indeed the stem of <discipline>, but gave an etymology for both that showed no sign of scire. While the words are indeed Latinate, Etymonline suggested a prefix <dis>, meaning ‘away’, and a base derived from the Latin root capere, ‘to take, take hold of.’  Given this etymology — which has nothing to do with scire ‘to know’ — our base would have to be <ciple>, and our provisional word sum was revised to

<dis> + <ciple> + <ine> (?)

With a little guidance, my students set about to look for other evidence of a <ciple> base from the Latin root capere. Using Etymonline and http://www.morewords.com, they came up with principle (‘first thing taken,’ from Latin primus + capere); manciple (‘taken in hand,’ from Latin manus + capere),and participle (‘taking part,’ from Latin partis + capere). With the structure <dis> + <ciple> + <ine>, we could understand discipline as denoting what we ‘take away’ from our learning.

We were satisfied with this analysis and we had answered the question we had set out to answer: discipline and science were not, contrary to Templeton’s claim, related. Period. As in previous LEX posts, I expected that this discovery of an error in a spelling expert’s claims would make for a good write-up. So a few days later, I brought out my course notes to capture this investigation, proud of my students for delving deeper, more skillfully, and more accurately into the language than a vaunted, published professional. As I sat down to draft a possible future LEX post (this one!) from my class notes, I revisited my Mactionary to pluck the definitions of discipline (above), and I was surprised by this etymological information:

ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense [mortification by scourging oneself] ): via Old French from Latin disciplina ‘instruction, knowledge,’ from discipulus (see disciple ).

So I went, of course, to see disciple, and this is what I found:

ORIGIN Old English , from Latin discipulus ‘learner,’ from discere ‘learn’ ; reinforced by Old French deciple.

My Mactionary’s etymological explanation not only makes no connection to science or Latin scire, but it also makes no connection to Latin capere, thus calling our posited base of <ciple> into question! What we had, I discovered, was conflicting etymologies for discipline. My husband, an erstwhile classicist with an undergraduate degree in Latin, reminded me that he had already questioned the capere connection, because, he recalled, the Latin word disco meant ‘I learn’.

Great.

I took this discovery back to my class. We were back to <disciple> + <ine> as our provisional word sum. Besides interrogating Templeton’s original post, it was now time to question both Etymonline’s and the Mactionary’s etymologies for discipline and disciple. Both resources draw upon the Oxford English Dictionary, which was our next stop on the etymology train. Here’s what we found there:

Etymology:  < French discipline (Old French also dece- , dese- , desce- , 11th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter), < Latin disciplīna instruction of disciples, tuition, for discipulīna , < discipulus pupil, disciple n.

Etymologically, discipline , as pertaining to the disciple or scholar, is antithetical to doctrine , the property of the doctor or teacher; hence, in the history of the words, doctrine is more concerned with abstract theory, and discipline with practice or exercise.

Once again, the etymology of discipline refers us to disciple, but this one also pointed out the antithesis of discipline (the learner’s responsibility) and doctrine (the teacher’s responsibility), the latter denoting ‘to show, to teach, to cause to know.‘ It also gave us historical variant spellings with <dece>, <dese>, and <desce>, further calling into question a <dis> prefix. The OED’s entry for disciple offers this:

In Old English discipul , < Latin discipul-us learner, pupil, < discĕre to learn. In early Middle English di- , deciple , < Old French deciple , semi-popular < Latin discipul-us . Both in Old French and Middle English, deciple was gradually conformed to the Latin spelling as disciple.

Once again, the presence of a <dis> prefix is less clear, and the Latin etymology makes no mention of capere ‘to take hold’, but instead refers to the verb discĕre, ‘to learn.’

At this point, we’ve got a bit of an etymological boxing match going on. In this corner (A), we have a posited morphology of <dis> + <ciple> + <ine>, with an etymology tracing back to the Latin root capere, ‘to take hold.’ And in THIS corner (B), we have a posited morphology of  an unanalyzable <disciple> + <ine>, from the Latin root discĕre, ‘to learn.’ Hypothesis A would give answer “What are its relatives?” with participle, principle, and manciple morphologically, and a whole host of etymological cousins traceable to capere: capture, receipt, concept, capiche, forceps, cop, capable, occupy, and many more. Hypothesis B‘s morphological relatives would include only disciple, discipline, discipleship, disciplinary, disciplinarian, and their derivations; etmologically, it could claim decent, doctor, dextrous, and synecdoche among its relatives. Etymonline stands alone in its support of Hypothesis A, while Hypothesis B has the Mactionary, the OED, and my husband behind it, a pretty powerful triumverate. There is no evidence, however, for any Hypothesis C, Templeton’s asserted connection to science.

(My husband, by the way, was finding etymological error in the writings of experts long before my scholarship targeted it — he prompted me to send a corrective email to Louisa Moats about a decade ago when she wrote that <ventilator> and <adventure> shared a Latin root. They do not, and Moats was grateful for the correction.)

Because Etymonline stood alone in its support of <dis> + <ciple>, I decided to take a closer look at just where the website got its information. I trust it as a source, but no source is above questioning. Doug Harper, Etymonline’s author, lists 18 principal sources and a bevy of additional sources. Among the principal sources are several — including the OED, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Languagethat list discere, ‘to learn,’ as the root of <disciple>, not capere. Several of Harper’s additional sources, including John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and T.G. Tucker’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin, also list the discodiscerediscipulus connection (Hypothesis B), and no connection whatsoever to capere (Hypothesis A). While I can’t be sure where Harper got this etymology for discipline, it is clear that there are competing hypotheses about its provenance.

Much as I like the idea of discipline as ‘a taking away’ (dis + capere), there’s simply a dearth of evidence to support that contention. What I might like is irrelevant: etymology isn’t a popularity contest. Rather, it’s a systematic, scientific, evidence-based discipline. While sources as venerable as Templeton and Etymonline both fall prey to folk etymologies, that doesn’t make them any more factual. If Templeton had been methodical, if he had checked even a single source before publishing his post, he would’ve learned that his proposed connection between discipline and science lacked systematic evidence.

Ayto’s Word Origins suggests a relationship between Latin discĕre, ‘to learn,’ and docēre, ‘to teach,’ listing doctor and document among the latter’s modern-day descendants. Indeed, this remarkable etymological connection between learning and teaching is confirmed by their shared Proto-Indo-European root, *dek-, meaning ‘to take, accept, to receive, greet, be suitable.’ Additional descendants of PIE *dek- include dextrous, decent, dignity, dainty, docile, decorate, indignation, and paradox, and the semantically closer dogma, orthodoxy, docent, and doctrine. But wait — didn’t the OED tell us that discipline and doctrine were “antithetical”? Yep:

Etymologically, discipline , as pertaining to the disciple or scholar, is antithetical to doctrine , the property of the doctor or teacher; hence, in the history of the words, doctrine is more concerned with abstract theory, and discipline with practice or exercise.

Maybe “antithetical” is too strong a word, too rhetorically narrow. Complementary, perhaps. Discipline and doctrine are complementary, parallel. They don’t work against each other, teaching and learning, but together.

Neither teaching nor learning — neither doctrine nor discipline — is at its best when it relies upon uninvestigated, presumed knowing. Rather, they work best when they are based upon investigation, upon the search for and weighing of evidence, the questioning and reasoning that goes into research. In his blog post, Templeton assumes that he knows the etymology of discipline, and proposes that it’s related to Latin scire, ‘to know.’ How ironic. What Templeton doesn’t do is to investigate, to seek evidence of the word’s actual etymology, which points to learning, and more broadly, to teaching, to receiving real knowledge as a result of tracking down evidence together, rather than assuming it. While Templeton refers to etymology as “systematic,” he doesn’t himself take a systematic approach — a methodical, planned undertaking — in exploring etymology. He fails to take his own advice:

And when we don’t know, we model what to do – pulling one of our favorite word history resources off of the shelf or going to one of our favorite websites. Of course, even when we do know, we often encourage the students to go check it out.

And, I would add, even when we think we know, we verify it anyhow through the interrogation of more than one source, before we put it in print.

If there is one thing I hope my orthography students will carry forward from our semester together — even more important than understanding that English spelling makes sense — it is that discipline at its heart is about learning, not about knowing. Knowing is overrated. Finding evidence, seeking, searching, is where the value is. The most interesting words — learn, investigate, question, interrogate — are all about seeking, asking, tracking, not about having answers fed to us, not about knowing outright. Regardless of the original question or what precipitated it, we always learned more, my students and I, when we undertake a disciplined investigation together than when we rely on the pronouncement of a single expert or a single resource.

And if there is one thing I hope Shane Templeton and others might carry forward from this blog post, it’s that any science’s ability to know is only as good as its willingness to learn.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2011

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