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Archive for January, 2012

A Sound Understanding

Recently, on a listserv for professionals interested in spelling, some participants were bothered by my suggestion that Reading “Science” gets some things deeply wrong about language. Some participants argued for the “value” of telling children “little white lies” about language, and for the common phonocentric understanding of English orthography that reduces it to little more than a flawed representation of sound.

While the listserv participants don’t hesitate to call on “linguistic information” and “facts” in their own posts, some of them objected to my efforts to do the same. And since my understanding of the linguistic facts of English orthography posed a bit of a threat to the commercial interests of the listserv moderator, she removed me from the list with no personal comment, but the following public one:

“Students learn best when taught in a manner consistent with the way the brain processes and organizes linguistic information information. Consider this…the system which is biologically hard-wired is perfect (the phonemes of language are a constant); the artificial system of written language which was created by humans…not so much.”

Another participant concurred: “The fact that different dialects of English vary in their surface representations of those constant phonemes does not diminish the perfection!”

My broader conversations about these claims about the perfection of phonemes sparked the interest of my fellow University of Chicago alum, Dr. Alexander Francis, who is associate professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Purdue University, a Program Faculty member in Linguistics, and holds a courtesy appointment in Psychological Sciences. In other words, Dr. Francis is a bona fide expert in “the way the brain processes and organizes linguistic information” — particularly sound.

Lucky me!

So, in the interest of LEX’s stated purpose of providing a meaningful exchange between linguistics and education, I am delighted to depart briefly from my orthographic investigations to offer this first guest post, in which Dr. Francis addresses the above perspectives about phonology and the brain that pervade the field of Reading (and Spelling) “Science”.

Gina, the claim that “the system which is biologically hard-wired is perfect (the phonemes of language are a constant)” makes sense from the perspective of early theories of speech perception. However, these older theories have been almost completely replaced on the basis of a wide variety of new evidence about how infants learn their first language, and how adults learn and/or recognize the sounds of languages beyond their first one. In fact, our understanding of the human capability for speech has changed so radically in the past 30 or 40 years that, by now, most speech researchers would probably consider every part of the statement to be completely false.

Here, I’ll go through each part of the statement, and discuss (in very broad terms) evidence that suggests that it is false. I’ll also try to name some of the key researchers who have contributed to the literature in each area. And, in keeping with the idea that this is an Exchange, I’d be happy to respond to questions and/or requests for more information from you or anyone reading this.

First, the perception and production of speech sounds are not biologically hard-wired. Human infants develop language-specific perceptual abilities in the first few months of life but, at birth, infants seem to be “pluripotent” – capable of learning the sounds of any, or every, language they might be exposed to (see, especially, work by Pat Kuhl, Janet Werker, Linda Polka, Amanda Seidl, Peter Jusczyk, and many, many others). It is quite likely (though not universally accepted and not yet scientifically proven) that human infants are biologically predisposed to learn human speech, but there is no biological predisposition to learn e.g. English as opposed to, for example, !Kung (with its 5 different places of click articulation!). A child born of English-speaking parents but raised in an !Kung environment would grow up to become a perfectly fluent !Kung speaker, and vice versa. So, there’s no hardwiring of speech sounds – they‘re acquired through exposure to the ambient language(s) during infancy.

There is some evidence that long-term exposure to the use of specific acoustic properties in a linguistically relevant manner may have measurable effects on brain organization – my colleagues Ravi Krishnan and Jack Gandour have (with their students) shown that native speakers of Chinese, which is a tonal language, process the acoustic property of fundamental frequency, related to the perception of pitch, in a more accurate manner than do monolingual native speakers of English. But this is a very subtle effect, and it’s not clear whether we might not see the same kind of thing in other kinds of experienced listeners, for example musicians (see work by Patrick Wong, Nina Kraus, Aniruddh Patel, Robert Zatorre, and many others). In other words, there may be some development of “firmware” through auditory experience, but it’s not clear yet to what degree this is a purely linguistic phenomenon.

More importantly, even though there may be some possibly permanent changes in neurophysiology as a consequence of early language experience, the adult brain remains remarkably plastic – able to adapt in response to linguistic input. This plasticity plays out in a variety of ways. Multilinguality is by far the dominant pattern of language use among humans, and the ability to switch between one language, with one system of sounds and sound-meaning correspondences, and another (often within a single sentence, in the case of “code mixing”) is probably fundamental to human speech . Indeed, recent research (by Lori Holt and colleagues, among others) is starting to show that even monolingual listeners can adapt the way they use the speech signal over the course of just a few seconds. Work by Howard Nusbaum and colleagues (including some work in my lab) has shown that longer-term changes (i.e. lasting over 6 months) in the way listeners understand speech sounds can be introduced with just a few hours of exposure to a new talker. Thus, many modern speech scientists conceptualize phonemes as the output of a highly flexible, cognitive system involving both bottom-up (signal-dependent) and top-down (knowledge-based) processing. There are certainly researchers who emphasize the bottom-up aspect of the process more than do others, but nearly everyone agrees that adult phoneme recognition is flexible and manifestly *not* hardwired. (Reference: Kluender, K. R., and Alexander, J. M. (2007). “Perception of speech sounds,” in P. Dallos and D. Oertel (Eds.) Handbook of the Senses: Audition (Elsevier: London).

Second, under normal circumstances, phoneme recognition is not perfect. Speech is often produced in contexts of background noise including the presence of competing speech (the so-called “cocktail party problem”) and our perceptual/cognitive system learns, over many years, to cope with the kind of variability, ambiguity, distortion, and simple lack of sufficient acoustic information, introduced by these problems. Listeners *constantly* make “slips of the ear” which are then typically corrected by higher-level understanding (though, again, this correction is not always perfect). This is especially true under poor listening conditions, such as in the presence of background noise, but it happens even under perfect listening conditions as well. For example, consider the famous phrase “How to wreck a nice beach.” (say it out loud – in a casual way). If you heard this while looking a picture of a huge bulldozer pushing piles of sand around, or perhaps a picture of a row of tacky beach houses, you might assume that you heard it correctly (as written). But if you heard the exact same sequence of sounds in a lecture on speech technology, you would almost certainly interpret it as the phrase “how to recognize speech.” Ambiguous sound sequences abound, in every language, and are the source of some of our greatest anecdotes and humor: “Why did the three brothers name the cattle ranch they inherited from their father ‘Focus’? Because that’s where the sons raise meat.” (Think about it). [Editor’s note: These phrasal phenomena are called holorimes.]

Sound ambiguities are, of course, also the source of frequent, frustrating confusion that should be familiar to everyone. But, again, our brains are very good (but not perfect) at compensating. The next time you speak with someone on a cell phone, try replacing all the “th” sounds (as in “think“ and “thank you“ etc.) with [f] (i.e. say “fank you very much.”) They won‘t be able to hear the difference, because the cell phone simply doesn‘t transmit the frequencies that distinguish a [θ] from a [f]. But they will *think* that they hear a [θ] – it’s not that they think “I don’t know what that sound is, so I’ll guess.“ They actually *hear* the correct sound. Some researchers have even proposed that this is a kind of hallucination, though I don’t know of any evidence that would prove that. The fact is, our auditory system simply cannot depend on the speech signal to be unambiguous – In fluent speech, words are almost invariably distorted by their context such that, when heard in isolation, they are significantly less recognizable than when heard in context (this was first shown in the 1950s by George Miller and colleagues). But this is not a result of errors, or sloppiness – this is an unavoidable consequence of the biology and physics of speech production, in a phenomenon called “coarticulation.“ It is nearly impossible, and demonstrably detrimental to communication, to try to pronounce every sound of every word in a sentence as it would be produced in isolation. So adult listeners have very sophisticated mechanisms for deciphering ambiguous sounds, but it‘s definitely not perfect – in fact, it can be tricked quite easily.

In a well-known phenomenon called the “Ganong Effect” (named for W.F. Ganong who first wrote about it), a speech sounds that is intentionally ambiguous between [t] and [d] can be shown to be heard more often as a [t] when followed by “-ask” (where hearing it as a [t] creates the English word “task”), while the exact same sound is heard more often as a [d] when followed by “-ash” (when hearing it as a [d] creates the English word “dash.”) In other words, listeners’ brains make up for the ambiguity by making the relatively reasonable assumption that they are hearing a real word from their language (i.e. “task” or “dash”) rather than some made up word (i.e. “dask” or “tash.) There is nothing perfect about hearing (or producing) phonemes – it is accomplished by a very sophisticated mechanism that is no less complex, and no less dependent upon experience and cognitive processing, than that involved in reading.

Finally, the phonemes of a language are by no means constant. Obviously there are historical changes (such as the one that turned some, but not all “oo“ words from having the vowel [u] (as in “food“) to having the vowel [ʊ] (as in “hood“ or “good“)), but even if we simply consider the language as it’s spoken at this precise moment in time, there is considerable variability across dialects (consider the different phonemes in a southern American English production of the word “fire” (more like “fahr”) vs. a Midwestern pronunciation. But, even within speakers of a single dialect, it’s not even clear whether the mental representations of speech sounds (i.e. the phonemes) that are used by one listener are the same as those used by another listener. Research in the past 20-30 years has shown that speech perception is highly influenced by experience, not just experience in infancy, but also subsequently. One of the currently dominant theories of speech perception, Exemplar Theory, proposes that every individual exemplar of a speech sound that is ever heard contributes to the unique representation of that sound in the brain of that specific listener (see work by David Pisoni, Keith Johnson, and colleagues). There is a nice analogy to word meanings: When I hear the word “dog” it evokes, among many other things, the image of my own dog. Presumably, as you have never met my dog, it does not evoke that same image for you. Your concept of the meaning of “dog” is subtly, but fundamentally, different from mine, by virtue of the differences in our respective experiences with dogs. In the same way, according to this theory, my best friend growing up, a guy who watched a lot of Monty Python, probably has a very different conceptualization of the sound [r], because he‘s heard British (r-less) pronunciations much more often than I have. Again, the distinction is probably quite subtle, but studies by David Pisoni, Lynne Nygaard and colleagues have shown that listeners are better at recognizing a word that they‘ve heard before if it‘s spoken by the same person as they heard it from previously – the sounds of that word are subtly different for that listener simply by virtue of having heard that person say it before. Thus, the phonemes of a language are not only not constant over time, they are not really constant across different speakers of the same language.

I don’t know if this really gets at what you’re working on with respect to spelling, but, in general, I guess I’d say it doesn’t really help to think of speech perception (or production) as a model of a flawless system. Because it’s not. It’s pretty amazing, but it’s not by any means perfect.

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As my last post went up and was seen by the world of LEX readers, I was excited to see 120 hits in a day. That seemed like a lot of people. But compared to the American Educator‘s maelstrom of 900,000 readers, my little blog isn’t even a bathtub eddy. The journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which published the article I critiqued last time, regularly has nearly two million eyes fixed upon it. And the article in question is loaded, linked, and recommended on hundreds more Web pages.

The article has likely been read by millions of people.

Now, I’m thrilled that there’s a growing interest in spelling and spelling instruction that’s more than just memorize-and-test. I’m pleased that the article gets a lot right: English orthography concerns word structure and word histories, not just sounds. But the article is saturated with so much linguistic error that, as it’s gone fractal out there, it’s formed its own whole galaxy of teachers, tutors, speech pathologists, language therapists, curriculum developers, administrators, and others, who have a muddled understanding of how both English spelling and etymology actually work. In a world of instant access and free PDFs online, these experts’ errors have become viral juggernauts in both academia and the blogosphere. They’re scattered like feathers on the wind.

Let’s trace just one of the article’s errors — a mere typo, the one that’s easiest to trace — and see where it goes. As you know if you read Simply Put: Part I, the article in question begins with the following sentence:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

But, as my students and I learned, Webster was born in 1758, and would only have been 14 or 15 in 1773. In fact, in 1773, the young Noah was studying Greek and Latin with a Hartford pastor, in preparation for his entry into Yale the following year. So where did the article’s authors get their bad information? They give the citation in the following endnote:

Cited in Richard L. Venezky, “From Webster to Rice to Roosevelt,” in Cognitive Processes in Spelling, ed. Uta Firth (London: Academic Press, 1980), 9-30.

Okay, so the Great Big Spelling Expert authors cite Venezky, who cited Webster. When I check the Venezky source cited, however, I find this:

So Venezky got it right. Since the late linguist counted a copy of the 1783 text in his personal collection (donated to Stanford), it looks like he actually consulted the original. Venezky also cites, in the same article, another pearl of wisdom from the pen of Mr. Webster, but references it as “Webster, 1783/1968, p. 11.”  This refers, of course, to a 1968 reprint of the original 1783 work. But it’s clear from his bibliography that the two sources are one and the same.

So, an eighteenth-century lexicographer / grammarian writes something down, an opinion, really, a characterization. Not a stone-cold fact or a first-time discovery, but an argument. He gets cited by some linguist just under 200 years later, in the late twentieth century. Then the twentieth-century linguist gets cited 20-some years later, in the twenty-first century, but incorrectly. (It’s all so exciting! Literally!)

Then what happens?

Then the error is reproduced and gets a foothold in print and digital media, in scholarly works and casual websites alike. Now, clearly the twenty-first century Spelling Experts simply executed a typo, and no one — not them, not their preliminary readers, not the journal’s editors — no one thought to double-check the date, or the original source, a citation re-cited, before sending it to press. No big deal, right? Typos happen all the time. They’re not actually real errors, just a simple mistake.

Mmm, maybe not.

The spelling article was originally published in American Educator in late 2008. Since then, in just three years, it’s been made freely available not only on American Educator‘s website, but also on literally hundreds of others, including several outside the U.S. In addition to the 900,000-strong readership of the journal, the freestanding article itself has easily seen hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more readers. And those readers have shared the article’s content uncritically with others: colleagues, college students, parents, and children.

This one single 1773 error alone is far more easily locatable than all the linguistic misapprehensions, and I found it in several diverse places:

*on this blog, which was reposted here

*in this professional association newsletter (Spring 2009)

*in this dissertation (A)

*in this dissertation (B) too

*in this book on cognitive abilities in older adults, and even

*in Estonian, on this website, whence Google will re-translate the quotation back into a garbled “spelling is based on reading and writing, the largest piece of jewelry.” Ha!

So the error’s got traction.

Interestingly enough, the “ornament of writing” quotation doesn’t appear in every edition of Webster’s speller — over more than a century, this enormously popular book has come out in multiple editions — over a hundred in Webster’s lifetime alone. But not all of them have that line. Take, for example, the 1793 edition, which is digitized here. Within just 10 years, that line had disappeared from the speller. Known over time by different names, Webster’s text was hugely popular, at one point the best-selling book in all of North America. It was originally published in 1783 (not 1773) as the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (the other two volumes were a grammar and a reader, respectively), and changed names over time, including The American Spelling Book and The Elementary Spelling Book, but best known as the Blue-Backed Speller (I’ve also seen Blue Back Speller in several searches). In its multiple editions and reprints over more than a century, the speller included a variety of prefaces, introductions, commentaries, advertisements, and testimonials.

The “foundation of reading” quotation does not appear in the 1807 edition of the book, then called The American Spelling Book. But that doesn’t stop one of the Spelling Expert authors from citing it indirectly in a 2005 article, where he attributes the quotation to Webster “as early as 1807.” While it’s not a lie — I mean, clearly Webster did say it as early as that — why not just get the citation right and check an original source? Didn’t we all learn in college to check original sources whenever possible? The Interwebs were around by 2005 — it wouldn’t have taken long to figure out when and where Webster wrote this oh-so-beloved quotation. Since the author offers no citation reference for this “as early as” information, however, it’s impossible to tell why he picked that particular year. It betrays a scholarship that thinks Webster is important enough to quote, but not to actually study.

Webster was, in fact, one interesting guy, as we might expect. As a child, he received his education largely from his mother; he found his one-room schoolhouse teachers to be pious and illiterate dullards, and his adult desire was to see well-trained teachers in every American classroom. In fact, he himself wrote of his speller that its rules and guidelines “are rather designed for the master [teacher] than for the scholar [student]; for if all instructors pronounced words with correctness and uniformity, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of pronunciation” (found in an early nineteenth-century edition, digitized here). While I don’t get too moved by Webster’s orthoepy or syllable division or his fairly narrow focus on a single American English, I can get down with the idea of well-trained teachers, hence my complaints about shoddy scholarship in education journals and elsewhere. Indeed, if all instructors — or all Spelling Experts — approached word structures and histories with correctness and discipline, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of scholarship.

Now wait just a minute. Aren’t those awfully strong words, for just a typo? Shoddy? Vicious habits? Shouldn’t I just gear down?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the sources that pass along the 1773 error. Doing so myself convinced me even further of the need for improved rigor in spelling scholarship. When scholars simply cite, cite, cite, rather than to seek evidence themselves (I already wrote about that here), they’re also likely to blindly trust that what they cite must be correct, without questioning, interrogating, or verifying their sources’ claims. Folks just really trust these Spelling Experts, and they’ll take what they say without checking it further. This blog didn’t give any source for the faulty citation until I asked for one; while it claims to be a “linguistic” site, and refers to linguistics as the “scientific study” of language, the blog itself is decidedly casual. That’s to be expected in the world of weblogs, I suppose.

So let’s go to the other end of things. In a book chock-full of facts, figures, and statistics, a book claiming to “focus on research foundations,” a book published by Springer Science and Business Media, the authors of Chapter 10 trot out the erroneous 1773 claim, and don’t offer any citation for it. When we read their text, we’re just supposed to take their word that Webster said what he said, but in 1773. Written, then cited, then cited again, then cited again, and with each citation, it moves further away from its source, further away from real scholarship. These authors do cite the Spelling Experts’ article a couple of sentences later, so I can be certain that’s where they got the error.

Let’s also consider how the two doctoral dissertations cite Webster, just for kicks. As a doctoral student myself, I know how hard doctoral students work. I know how much detail goes into preparing a dissertation, including gathering appropriate copyright information, cross-referencing works cited, and dotting <i>s and crossing <t>s, so I was (am) troubled to see these two dissertations show evidence of some scholarly sloppiness.

In the first dissertation, the author (A) attributes the Webster quotation thusly:

In 1773, Noah Webster suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 1989, p. 12).

She also mentions Venezky 1989 in the very first sentence of her abstract. When I check her bibliography, however, the only Venezky publication listed is Venezky, R.L. (1999), The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford. Sigh. I check my copy of Venezky 1999 for the Webster quotation, and it’s not in there, on page 12 or anywhere else. What is in there, however, is a four-page biography of Noah Webster, including his 1758 birthdate and his 1783 publication of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I. In fact, reading Venezky was the reason my students had an inkling that 1773 was off.

I also checked to see what Venezky had published in 1989. He doesn’t refer to any 1989 work in his own bibliography, and the only thing I could find that Venezky authored solo and published in 1989 was a book review that was published on pages 89-92 of the American Journal of Education. While I don’t have a copy of that source to see if the quotation is in it or not, I can tell that it has no page 12. Ultimately, I’ll never know where the dissertation’s author got that citation. Fortunately, dissertations are not known for being widely read. Perhaps the erroneous buck will stop here.

But there are a few other bucks out there. The second dissertation (B) has its own citation problems. In a totally undergrad-level move, the author closely paraphrases the Spelling Experts’ article. Here’s what the article’s first paragraph says:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.” He was right. Good spelling is critical for literacy, and it makes writing much easier. . . [S]pelling instruction underpins reading success . . . As children learn to spell, their knowledge of words improves and reading becomes easier.

And the dissertation’s first paragraph says this (with most of the sources removed to make the reading easier):

In 1773, Noah Webster correctly suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 2000). Good spelling ability is critical to the reading process, as is reading to spelling. . . As children’s knowledge of spelling increases, their knowledge of words improves; thus, reading and writing become not only easier but interconnected (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2009).

Now, while this dissertation does cite the Spelling Experts, she doesn’t credit them with the Webster quotation; rather, she credits that to Venezky 2000.  So I check her bibliography, and I find Venezky 1993, which she also cites in the text, and Venezky, R. L. (2000). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press. But the book has just one publication date, and it’s 1999, not 2000. Double sigh. Venezky did publish an article in 2000 (“The Origins of the Present-Day Chasm Between Adult Literacy Needs and School Literacy Instruction” in Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 4, Issue 1), but the Webster quotation doesn’t make an appearance. Webster is mentioned in it, however: “Noah Webster published his first speller in 1783” (24); once again, Venezky gets it right.

One of my students noted that the Spelling Experts claimed a collective “eight decades of experience helping preservice and inservice teachers improve their instruction in spelling, reading, and writing” (page 6). “You’d think,” said my student, “that in 80 years they would’ve had plenty of time to check their facts.” We all had a good chuckle, and I had to admit that my student had come by his spelling snark honestly.

As I detailed in my last post, I tried to guide my students toward epistemological rigor and accuracy. This experience made the reasons behind my nagging crystal clear. The point is never the snark: it’s the call to a higher standard for scholarship in the field. These authors are prolific, and have their hand in published spelling curricula, as well as the “research” base it relies on. I’ve written about other linguistic errors in some of their other writings, too. One of them says in that same 2005 article that <hear> is the base element of <rehearsal>; it isn’t — it’s <hearse>, like the funeral car, and here’s the proof. Another says in this book that <tube> is Anglo-Saxon. Nope and nope. I could go on. And I probably will.

As I’ve done a little research for my dissertation into Noah Webster’s work, I realize how much it has permeated literacy instruction in the U.S., for better and for worse. The fixation on syllable division, the focus on word lists, the assumption that pronunciation is the goal of orthography, the notion that there is a single American Standard English, and even that persistent and careless assertion that <tion> is a suffix, which it’s not (if you’re not convinced, here’s a proof, in the comments) — all these are traceable to the perseverance of Webster’s works in American classrooms. Popular publications — publications that get widely circulated and used over and over again — become part of the common knowledge out there.

This is why I care about the errors in the Spelling Experts’ article. It’s so widely read. It’s been posted and reposted, passed along, and it is still frequently and proudly cited, including by the authors themselves. Now, arguably, no one’s going to suffer too much from seeing the wrong date on a Noah Webster quotation; it’s unlikely to destroy someone’s conceptual foundations about language, history, spelling, and writing. It’s not evidence of anything except one famous man’s opinion. But if an innocuous error like getting a date wrong can have such far-reaching consequences in both scholarship and popular culture, what about the conceptual errors, like assuming that all short, common words are from Old English (gym class, anyone?), or assuming that all words from Latin are “sophisticated” (cup or pen, anyone?), or modeling etymology as something that can be guessed at? What are the effects of the wide dissemination of historical and linguistic error? I can’t help but wonder how far that article — and its errors — will reach a hundred years hence.

Time to get my readership numbers up!

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This past fall, I attended the annual conference of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), as I have nearly every fall for the past dozen years. I was astounded and delighted by the number of sessions — including two of my own — dedicated to spelling and/or morphology.

Along with some colleagues, I attended a day-long symposium on spelling on the first day of the conference, entitled “Spelling: Development, Assessment, and Instruction.” In order to attend the conference, I had canceled one day of the college course I was teaching in English orthography, but I had assigned my students an article co-authored in 2008 by three of the symposium’s five panelists and a fourth author. I had asked my college students to prepare notes on the article for our class that would reconvene the Monday after the conference. That article was referred to several times during the symposium, and I was eager to see what my students would learn and discover in their own readings.

This post details what my class and I learned that week.

My colleagues and I greatly enjoyed the symposium overall, and I was eager to go back and tell my students what I had heard. The panelists, widely known as the best spelling researchers Science-Based Reading has to offer, urged the inclusion of morphology and etymology in any consideration of English orthography as critical. I was pleased to see the discussion move beyond the phonology that is typically the primary consideration in literacy instruction circles. But perhaps my favorite part was when one panelist told a story from her own past, referring to herself as a then “hot-blooded grad student.” She then encouraged the “hot-blooded grad students” in the audience to speak up, because they (we) often have perspectives that the field needs to hear.

This post details a few things that this “hot-blooded grad student” thinks the broader field needs to hear.

First, I was dismayed that the day’s last panelist, a writing instruction researcher, repeatedly referred to spelling as a “lower-level skill,” as though it were the linguistic equivalent of learning to eat with a fork. This panelist was especially disappointing after her colleagues and an audience of several hundred had spent the previous five hours exploring the ways in which English spelling is rich, structured, and captivating — the antithesis of both “lower-level” and a mere single “skill.” Moreover, for a researcher that spent 90 minutes presenting quantitative data, research statistics, effect sizes, and other very important sciencey things, she sure felt comfortable presenting spelling as a “lower-level skill” without offering one ounce of evidence in support of such a characterization. I appreciated having the opportunity to address this gross misrepresentation during the Q&A session, and I encourage IDA, its panelists, and its audience to pay careful attention to the kinds of false messages that even reading scientists promote about spelling.

This post details some of those controvertible messages about spelling.

Second, after the session, I approached one panelist to address a statement he made regarding the suffixes <able> and <ible>. During the Q&A, he had claimed that “we add <ible> to Latin roots, and <able> to Anglo‐Saxon [Old English] base words like readable and passable.” This is not an uncommon assertion, and one that I heard more than once at the IDA conference; it is one of those messages that gets repeatedly repeated over and over again and again in spite of running counter to the evidence. In fact, I had also previously encountered it in the article authored by some of these panelists that I had assigned to my class. Here’s how I wrote about this encounter with this panelist for a seminar paper on orthographic fact and affect:

While I had previously encountered and critiqued this line of thinking in their article, I had by no means intended to raise it in their conference session. However, because the Spelling Expert himself reiterated the faulty claim — and because his co-panelist had thrown down the gauntlet to the hot‐blooded grad students (HBGSs) in the audience — I girded myself for orthographic battle. My heart raced as I approached the podium where the Expert still stood, gathering his papers. My face felt hot. I approached him and introduced myself, including my HBGS status. I showed him where I had jotted down his claim about readable and passable, and informed him straightforwardly that passable is neither Anglo nor Saxon, but French.

“Well, life is full of exceptions,” he quipped, spelling expertise intact.

“Be that as it may,” I answered, “the writing system is not. Let me show you.” I proceeded to explain that the <navig> in navigable is Latin, as is the <punish> in punishable that he cites in his article. In fact, I explained, the suffixes <able> and <ible> are themselves Latin, and didn’t exist in Old English. They are variant spellings of the same suffix, and as such, could not possibly have different languages of origin.

“Well,” he intoned as though to a novice, “we work with very young children, and it’s a very simple thing to teach them that when you take off the /әbl/ and you have a whole word, it will be spelled <able>.” He held firm to his ideologic, solidly confident in his Spelling Expertise. Apparently, according to this ideologic, very young children need what’s simple, regardless of whether it’s accurate. Here, the rhetoric of spelling as “simple,” basic, and elementary surfaces again.

“So if <able> is always added to a whole word, how do you explain sensible and responsible?” I asked. “Those both have <ible>, but their stems are whole, freestanding words.”

“I’d have to check,” he said, “but I think those are Latin.” While my heart was no longer pounding, my skin seemed to prickle with the eagerness of fact.

“They are Latin,” I reassured him. “But so are navigable and punishable. You can look them up.” It was at this point that I saw this Spelling Expert become destabilized. He was speechless. He didn’t move toward or away from me; he made no move to end the conversation. But he didn’t know what to say. He no longer had a response. I had finally succeeded in interjecting factual evidence in between him and his belief system.

I then suggested to the panelist that it’s really not acceptable to teach children things that are demonstrably false, regardless of how simple the things and how young the children. I also told him that I was teaching a university class on English orthography, in which my students has been assigned the article he had co-authored for our class on the Monday following the conference. Since these panelist-authors collectively make the same claim about <able> and <ible> in the article, I told this panelist that I had asked my students to read the article critically, and that I would share their discoveries and comments after our course ended. He indicated that he would be amenable to receiving their feedback.

This post details my students’ feedback on the article.

1. The article claims: “In 1773, Noah Webster stated that ‘spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

Student response: “Noah Webster was born in 1758. Was he really only 15 when he said that?”

What we learned: Noah Webster was indeed born in 1758, and he published the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, whence this quotation, in 1783, at the age of 25. This first volume later became widely known — and used — as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” and it was the most common literacy textbook in American elementary schools for about 100 years.

This error has gained weird traction in both academia and the blogosphere, but I’ll deal with that in a separate post.

2. The article claims: “For example, ch pronounced as /ch/, as in chair or chief, appears in Anglo-Saxon or Old English words; the same letter combination ch pronounced as /sh/, as in chef and chauffeur, appears in French words of Latin origin; and ch pronounced as /k/, as in ache and orchid, appears in words borrowed from Greek.

My students’ response: “The words chair and chief are both Latinate, and entered English from Old French during the Middle English period.”

Also: “The word ache is from Old English, not Greek.”

What we learned: Present-day English words with <ch> pronounced as /ʧ/ (or, as the panelists say, /ch/) are more often French than they are Old English. Not only are chair and chief French; they derive from the same roots as chaise and chef respectively. Other French-origin words include chain, chance, change, channel, chant, chapel, chapter, charge, cheat, cheer, cherish, cherry, chess, chimney, chive, chock, choice, chowder, and chuck. Also Latinate-and-not-Old-English: ranch, blanch, cinch, launch, staunch, flinch, poncho, munch, peach, preach, and roach. Many other words with <ch> as /ʧ/ that are not Latinate also did not exist in Old English, and cannot be correctly called “Anglo-Saxon,” such as chub, chuckle, chat, chomp, chop, chap, and many others. There is so very much counter-evidence to this unfounded claim!

Also: Yes, ache is Old English (from acan), not Greek. It was respelled in the eighteenth century, because of folk etymology relating it to Greek akhos, ‘pain’. Just because an error is old doesn’t mean it’s not an error.

3. The article claims that homophonic suffixes (<er>, <or> and <able> <ible>) can be spelled according to the origin of their base or stem, as I saw at the IDA conference. The authors’ published commentary on <able> and <ible> appears at the end of this paragraph about halfway through the article:

Teaching morphemes often requires more information on word origin. For example, when teaching the spellings of words with the suffixes er and or, which mean one who, as in worker or actor, teachers can tell their students that words from Old English are basic survival words. Words such as worker, carpenter, farmer, grocer, baker, brewer, and butcher are Old English and use er, whereas words of Latin origin are more sophisticated and use or, as in actor, professor, educator, aviator, director, and counselor. The same principle applies to the suffxes able and ible, both meaning able to. We use able for Old English base words and ible for Latin roots. Thus, we have passable, laughable, breakable, agreeable, and punishable, as compared to edible, audible, credible, visible, and indelible.

Student responses:

“How does a young student differentiate between “common, every day, survival” words and “sophisticated” words?”

“The suffix <able> is found not only on Anglo-Saxon words, but also Old French and Latin.”

“If –able and –ible are variants of the same suffix, why would we assume that they have different origins?”

“Several of the words listed as Old English in fact have French roots that trace back to Latin: farmer, grocer, passable, punishable, and butcher.”

“Three wrong out of five would be an F.”

And a whole lot more.

What we learned: While it is evident that the <ible> spelling surfaces exclusively in Latinate words, it is categorically untrue that it surfaces in all Latinate words, and thus equally false that <able> occurs only in words of Old English origin. In fact, of the five <able> examples given in the article, three of them — passable, agreeable, and punishable are from Latin. Likewise, of the seven words with <er> listed as Anglo-Saxon, four are from Latin: carpenter, farmer, grocer, and butcher.

Moreover, the suffixes <able> and <ible> don’t mean ‘able to’ at all. Something that is laughable is not ‘able to laugh.’ Something that is sensible is not ‘able to sense.’ Rather, these words mean ‘worthy of laughter’ or ‘having the quality of sense.’ A taxable item is ‘subject to tax’, not ‘able to tax.’ A fashionable outfit is ‘in accordance with fashion,’ not ‘able to fashion.’ In fact, not only do the suffixes <able> and <ible> have a different orthographic denotation than the adjective able, but they also have a totally different origin. Here’s what my Mactionary says:

able |ˈābəl|

adjective ( abler , ablest )

1 [with infinitive ] having the power, skill, means, or opportunity to do something : he was able to read Greek at the age of eight | he would never be able to afford such a big house.

2 having considerable skill, proficiency, or intelligence : the dancers were technically very able.

ORIGIN late Middle English (also in the sense [easy to use, suitable] ): from Old French hable, from Latin habilis ‘handy,’ from habere ‘to hold.’

-able |əbəl| |əb(ə)l|

suffix forming adjectives meaning:

1 able to be : calculable.

2 due to be : payable.

3 subject to : taxable.

4 relevant to or in accordance with : fashionable.

5 having the quality to : suitable | comfortable.

ORIGIN from French -able or Latin -abilis, adjectival endings; originally found in words only from these forms but later used to form adjectives directly from English verbs ending in -ate, e.g., educable from educate. The unrelated able has probably influenced terms such as bearable, salable.

The Mactionary has no entry for the suffix <ible>. Tsk tsk.

And from Etymonline:

able: early 14c., from O.Fr. (h)able (14c.), from L. habilem, habilis “easily handled, apt,” verbal adj. from habere “to hold” (see habit). “Easy to be held,” hence “fit for a purpose.” The silent h- was dropped in English and resisted academic attempts to restore it 16c.-17c., but some derivatives acquired it (e.g. habiliment, habilitate), via French.

-able: suffix expressing ability, capacity, fitness, from French, from L. -ibilis, -abilis, forming adjectives from verbs, from PIE *-tro-, a suffix used to form nouns of instrument. In Latin, infinitives in -are took -abilis, others -ibilis; in English, -able is used for native words, -ible for words of obvious Latin origin. The Latin suffix is not etymologically connected with able, but it long has been popularly associated with it, and this has contributed to its survival as a living suffix.

-ible: suffix forming adjectives from verbs, borrowed in M.E. from O.Fr. -ible and directly from L. -ibilis; see -able.

Okay, so the symposium panelists / authors are not the first to associate the suffix <able> with the adjectival free base <able>, but precedent is not the same thing as rectitude.

4. The article uses several words throughout its 13 pages that bear the suffix <able> or the related <ably>. We decided to check them against the authors’ own assertions. These words’ word origins checked in multiple etymology sources via Memidex, and verified by my own knowledge of French:

variable: First clue: bases that start with a <v> are almost always Latinate, or at least passed through French on their way into English. This one is from Latin variabilis, from variare, ‘to change, to vary’, via French variable.

predictable: I can tell this is isn’t Anglo-Saxon from looking at it: the <ct> is a dead give-away. Words with <ct> are either from Latin or Greek. This one is a Thoroughly Modern Millie, first attested in the 19th century, but has Latin roots, though, from prae ‘before’ and dicere ‘to say.’

undesirable: A modern etymological hybrid (17th century) from Old English <un> plus desirable from Old French desirable, ultimately from Latin desiderare — a gorgeous word related to consider and sidereal that refers to reaching for the stars.

manageable: Again, if you know what to look for, you know this is Latinate. The <age> suffix is from French, and the bound base <mane> I recognize from the Latin manus, ‘hand,’ also seen in manipulate, manifest, manufacture, and manure. But I check my hunches before I publish them, and I was surprised to find that this didn’t enter English via French, but probably via the Italian maneggiare ‘to handle.’ The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that it meant “especially ‘to control a horse,'” and was likely “influenced by French manège ‘horsemanship’.” This and other sources confirm that it’s traceable to Latin manus. See that? Latin. Neither Anglo nor Saxon.

available: The word avail was formed in Middle English from Old French parts, and the <able> was added a couple centuries later. The <a> is a prefix meaning ‘to, toward,’ and the <vail> is a free base (probably aphetic — look it up) meaning ‘benefit, bring worth.’ It’s also found in prevail and in one of my favorite words: countervailing, and is related to the bound base <vale> as seen in value, evaluate, valiant, valor, valence, valid, and convalesce, all Latinate, of course.

damageable: There’s that <age> again. Anyone who ever took French 100 learned C’est dommage, a cognate. It’s from Old French, and is cousin to the Latinate damn, condemn, and indemnity.

knowledgeable: The <kn> digraph betrays this one as having the only truly Old English base. The stem <knowledge> derives from the Middle English knowleche, whose base <know> is traceable to the Old English cnāwan. Our modern <know> counts ken, uncanny, and can among its first cousins, and agnostic and recognize and many others words among its more distant cousins. I already wrote about them here.

reasonably: Middle English from French raisonable, from Latin ratio ‘reckoning, calculation, reason.’ I’m telling you, this word study stuff is my raison d’être.

reliably: The stem <rely> comes from Old French relier, which is traceable to Latin religare ‘bind, tie together.’ Interestingly, reliable took a detour through Scottish to get here. But Anglo-Saxon it’s not.

That’s right. Of these nine words, only one has an Old English stem: knowledgeable. Funny how often we come back to knowledge in these LEX posts.

5. Finally, the article claims that the following words also belong to the  “Anglo-Saxon layer” of English. They do not:

catch (from French)

peck (late Middle English)

pouch (from French)

badge (late Middle English)

fudge (early Modern English)

age (from French)

hinge (from Middle English)

scrooge (an eponym courtesy of Charles Dickens, 1843)

desk (from Latin)

peek (late Middle English)

bagged (Middle English)

cub (Modern English — 16th c)

club (Middle English meaning ‘large stick’ and Modern English meaning ‘organization’)

class (from Latin via French)

cube (from Greek, as are most words you can add an <ic> to)

found (the past tense of find derives from an Old English word, but the present-tense verb meaning ‘to establish’ is Middle English from French from Latin).

That’s a lot of mistakes.

Here’s what one of my students said about reading this article, and he nailed it:

“I love tracing a word back to its roots and checking that against claims made by experts in language. It’s not that I’m looking to show someone that they are wrong, it’s simply my feeling that if you’re not checking on your own work then somebody should. My thought [is] that experts should be working to sharpen each other by checking their claims and what someone presents as fact.” (DK)

My students also expressed more faith in very young children than the panelist. One student captured this eloquently:

“I think it is crazy that we are just now learning these things as juniors and seniors in college. Had we started learning to spell and write like this in elementary school we all could have much better understanding of the language. A lot like [my classmate], a lot of these concepts are new to me with this class. I think that this is why I am so shocked that we have never learned any of this before. It all makes so much sense and would really help learn the language if we would be taught these topics starting at a younger age than college.” (QG)

Experts are supposed to be reliable. We’re supposed to be able to trust them to tell the truth, to verify their information, and to admit when they’ve been proven wrong. Children, no matter how young, deserve to learn what’s factual, not what’s easy. Teachers deserve to read educational articles that are fact-checked. Experts, no matter how widely published or how famous in their field, need to maintain integrity and rigor in their scholarship.

It’s that simple.

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