Simply Put: Part I

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.


  1. Thank you, Gina, for this article! You make so many great points! Often times within my classes, I see professors project inaccurate details and assume that it’s fine to do so because their students are undergrads and will not know any better. While that may be true, I find this very disrespectful to those who can tell the difference or work hard to understand that difference in good and bad information. I often tell my undergrad colleagues not to associate the “Dr.” or “J.D.” with correct knowledge. This is not to say that people with these degrees are always wrong, I just understand better than them that people are humans and they make mistakes — even if it’s sometimes purposefully. So, thanks again, Gina, for writing this! You got it!

    • Hi Kyle,

      Some questions don’t have right answers — I mean, there’s a lot that gets discussed and written about in academia that no one can actually prove, like What Is the Role of an English Department? Or What Does the Caterpillar Represent in the Work of Lewis Carroll? I mean, you can still make a cogent, well-supported argument, but this is dialectic and rhetoric, not necessarily science and fact.

      Word structures and origins are most often provable, however. It’s not something you can guess at and then make it so because it fits into some model you like.

      I think it’s hard for teachers not to *have* all the answers and not to *know* all the answers, but I’ve always appreciated teachers who don’t pretend to know it all, who are curious rather than defensive when they don’t know something, and who can graciously admit when they’re wrong.

  2. Susan Carlile says:

    Gina, this is fantastic. I love reading how you are getting your students engaged with researchers in the most concrete of ways. I might just be stealing this idea. I am glad to witness this very exciting work you are doing.

    • Thank you, Susan! I love seeing students — not just at the university, but also younger students we tutor — being equipped to engage in scholarship, and to see why it’s important to work with multiple sources, and to interrogate them. There’s nothing better for all that critical thinking everyone’s after.

  3. Deb Sensel-Davis says:

    Gina, I loved this. But Jeez, now, as usual, I have to go back and revise those old -able/-ible O-G lessons I’ve been recycling. Being a GOOD teacher of younger students is never simple, easy or elementary. THEY are not “simple”. Try indoctrinating my first-grade student, Zach, with ch says /ch/, or that c, k, and ck are the only possibilities for /k/. He inscribes “anti-proof” every time he writes his name and he’s not even an HBGS yet. Let alone a GBSE. Thanks!

    • Hi Deb!

      Yes, we do have to change our practice when new evidence comes along! As the old adage goes, when you know better, you do better. Your reminders that neither children nor teaching them is simple are well-taken.

      I think folks confuse simple with elegant. Science seeks elegant answers to its questions, but that doesn’t mean they’re simple. It simply means that it’s concise while explaining the widest number of examples.

      As a good friend of mine, William of Occam, put it (more or less), plurality must not be postulated where there is no need for it.

      Don’t despair, however, as there are some wonderful Real Spelling flowcharts for -able and -ible. It is possible to make this determination critically, with the right support.

  4. It is so refreshing, inspiring – and until recently unhoped-for – to find such exemplary scholarship emerging from the generally tenebrous output of the schooling industry that Frank Smith so aptly termed ‘pseudoscience’, and its ouput that is too often a dreary procession of half-truths, ill-understood short cuts in linguistics, and plainly verifiable contraverities.

    Your students are a shining hope for a radiant and ideology-free orthographic future to contrast with what Samuel Johnson would certainly have referred to as the ‘inspissated gloom’ of the régime of the past few decades.

    It so happens that a couple of years ago I came across the very passage that you allude to in which are found the false etymologies and overgeneralized, partial and erroneous statements about the suffixes ‘-ible / -able’ and ‘-er / -or’. I gave just one paragraph to the members of the Residential Study Week of the time to investigate and verify. The results were presented as a tutorial film that can be viewed in the Real Spelling Gallery at this link.

    I must now go back to your article, as I always do, to savour and learn from its detail and insight, and simply to enjoy the clarity and economy of its style.


    PS There is a full study of the orthography of ‘ache’ in the Real Spelling Gallery at this link.

    • Thank you for leaving the links to those valuable films for LEX readers!

      I also appreciate the flowcharts for -able and -ible in Kit 6, Theme A of the Teacher’s Tool Box. I appreciate being able to teach that just because it’s not “simple” doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable.

      I showed my students the tutorial film you made in response to the -er/-or and -able/-ible assertions, but not until *after* they had read and critiqued the article first.

  5. Ann Malone says:

    Hi Gina,
    I loved reading your enlightened essay. “C’est dommage” was favorite phrase for many years after French 101-but I never knew exactly what I was saying with that exquisite phrase. Where can I access your tutorial films??

  6. Pete Bowers says:

    As ever, Gina, fascinating stuff.

    I’d like to highlight the centrality of your comments on “elegance” in your response to Deb. The recognition that authorities and references are far more fallible than is usually assumed makes it all that much more important that we have reliable tools with which to judge the assertions of those or any source of information.

    It was for this reason that I was so excited when I was introduced through Real Spelling to basic principles that scientists seek the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases, and the related idea that the most elegant solution invokes the fewest entities.

    It took time to get my head around what these statements mean and their implications for making sense of the world. But the effort is worth it as they offer a neutral officiator of debates between people.

    I have a post about these ideas as they relate to spelling at this link for those who are interested.

    I can also recommend a book titled “Elegance in Science” by Ian Glynn that shows the importance of this concept through the history of science.
    (Here’s Amazon’s link:

    Also, I found so many surprising and fascinating etymological assertions in the work of you and your students. For example:

    – Words with ct are either from Latin or Greek
    – [B]ases that start with a v are almost always Latinate, or at least passed through French on their way into English.

    I’m going to enjoy keeping an eye out for evidence or any counter evidence for those assertions!

  7. Also included in the “Anglo-Saxon” and before the “Latin” section of the article:

    occurred (Latin)
    saved (French)
    joked (Latin — related to ‘jocular’)
    sofa (Arabic via French)
    public (Latin via French)
    lilac (Persian via Arabic via Spanish via French, 17th c)
    fantastic (Greek-with-a-Latin-spelling, via French)
    grocery (French, related to the concept of gross weight)
    recess (Latin)
    recite (Latin via French)
    happiness (Middle English, from Old Norse)
    babies (late Middle English, imitative)
    plentiful (Latin via French)

    Words with ‘soft c’ are rarely, if ever, from Old English (I haven’t found one yet). Same with ‘j’. That’s pretty simple.

  8. Gina,

    Webster wrote the quote in 1783 not 1773. That was a typo that has gotten a lot of mileage! Check his 1783 A GRAMMATICAL INSTITUTE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE , page 26.

    I also thought Webster would have been too young to make the comment, but hadn’t done the math.

    Thanks for the blog. I will put a link to it on my Spelling Book Page

    I suspect that I am one of the few people in America who daily teach kids from Webster’s 1824 and 1908 spelling books. I don’t do it to be different, I do it to be better.

    • Better than Dilworth, to be sure, Don!

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I encourage folks to check out your page, and thanks too for the link!

      I appreciate the verification of the original Webster quotation — I’m working now on a post addressing the original text and where the error has gone.

      You say you’re pretty unique in using his texts in America — and I’m sure you are! But it makes me wonder how many people outside of the U.S. are using Webster for instruction.

  9. […] Comments « Simply Put: Part I […]

  10. Felicia Agyepong says:

    Hi Gina,

    What an intriguing discussion!

    I would like to weigh in with my own observations since I have a copy of the paper under discussion. At first I thought the <er / or> and <able / ible> distinctions were awesome until I started realizing that I couldn’t count on them. I think the need to simplify things and the quick tendency for generalization are what sometimes get the experts and a lot of us in trouble. We love to think that we have been able to take a complex issue and made it simple.

    One problem with that article and a host of others like it is the failure of the authors to distinguish between Anglo-Saxon and Old English. (I picked that habit up until I was corrected.) They tend to use the terms as if they are one and the same thing. Even though all Anglo-Saxon words are Old English, not all Old English words are Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon words are just a small sub-set of Old English words.

    It makes sense that several of the words are of French origin; both the grapheme <ch> and the representative phoneme /t∫/ were introduced into English by the French. With the introduction of <ch> → /t∫/ correspondence from French, several English words which were formally written with <c> were respelled with <ch> to differentiate them from words with <c> for /k/.

    In addition, I have learned that as much as it is important to know about the etymology of a word, it is equally important to know when that particular word came into English and the route it took. Taken together, these paint a better picture of a word as it is spelled and pronounced than etymology alone. Let’s take for example the words <chief & chef> and <chair & chaise>, each pair is from French and mean practically the same thing, but <chief & chair> entered English earlier and have <ch> → /t∫/ whilst <chef & chaise> are late comers and have retained their modern ‘Frenchness’.

    Even though the French used to have the phoneme /t∫/ and introduced it into English, the phoneme has leveled to /∫/ in French. Consequently, all the words which have entered English after the sound change in French have <ch> → /∫/. So a word of French origin or Latin through French may have either <ch> → /t∫/ or /∫/ depending on when it entered English.

    Along with rewriting <c> → <ch> → /t∫/ the French also introduced <c> → /s/ (known as ‘soft c’) into English. As a result of these changes, <k> was reintroduced as surrogate for <c> when <c> would otherwise correspond to /s/. Some of the native words (I guess Anglo-Saxon) which have previously been spelled with <s> were also respelled with <c>. So <mys> → <mice>, <lys> → <lice>, <is> → <ice> and <sinder> → <cinder>. While it is true that the ‘soft c’ is a French innovation in English, it is not completely accurate that all ‘soft c’ words are of French origin. I stand corrected since this is what this forum is for: a platform to share learning and gain in-depth insights.

    Finally, I think (and I am no expert) that of all the languages which have contributed to English, French has had the most profound influence on the English grapheme representation. As a matter of fact, I have been trying to gather evidence to buttress my assumption, and so far, this is what I have:
    The graphemes <ch>, <qu>, <ie> → /i:/, <c> → /s/, <g> → /j/, <gu> → /g/, <oi>, <ou> & <eau>.

    The beauty of all this is the realization that nobody is an absolute authority of anything. I don’t have to take any statement as true just because of who says it or where it is said. That is liberating!!


    • Fantastic comment, Felicia! Thank you!

      Your understanding of the French influence on English spelling is superb, and clear as a bell. The history of graphemes can really illuminate our selling investigations, can’t it?

      It’s important to differentiate between the history of a grapheme and the history of a word that is spelled with that grapheme. You’ve done that beautifully here. In the following statement, you offer a list of graphemes for which you have some evidence of a French provenance:

      The graphemes <ch>, <qu>, <ie> → /i:/, <c> → /s/, <g> → /j/, <gu> → /g/,
      <oi>, <ou> & <eau>.

      You laid out the history for <ch> above so clearly; of course, the others have histories of their own. [I think you meant /ʤ/ rather than /j/ for ‘soft g’ — the /j/ is the first sound in ‘yes.’] But some of these graphemes are more reliable than others for marking a word itself as having a French origin, as we saw with <ch> above. While the grapheme <qu> has a French origin, not all words with a <qu> are from French (queen, quack, quaff, quake, qualm, bequeath, bequest, and many others are not French; most of them are Germanic). Likewise, the grapheme <oi> is French, but not all words that have it have a French origin (<oid>, for example, is a Greek-origin suffix). I think <eau> is pretty reliably French, but the point is that we need to check or qualify our assertions.

      You’ve provided excellent evidence that “it is not completely accurate that all ‘soft c’ words are of French origin.” I am relieved that I didn’t claim they were! What I wrote was, “Words with ‘soft c’ are rarely, if ever, from Old English (I haven’t found one yet).” Now, thanks to you, I’ve found four! Still rare, but I can drop the “if ever” and the parentheses.

      You’re so right about the journey that words take — and about understanding the point of entry. Just because the word quaff, for example, isn’t French, doesn’t make it Old English. It entered in the early 16th century — very Late Middle or very early Modern English. Tracing these historical vestiges — well, that’s what investigations are made of. It’s where mysteries are solved, and the facts are uncovered.

      Your last paragraph is perfect. I find it deeply satisfying to be part of this e-connected band of real orthographic scholars, constructing a deeper, more meaningful understanding together. Thank you for contributing!

      • Felicia Agyepong says:

        Thanks Gina!

        “Finally, I think … that of all the languages which have contributed to English, French has had the most profound influence on the English grapheme representation.” – emphasis on GRAPHEME representation.

        I didn’t intend to convey the idea that all the words which are written with the cited graphemes are of French origin. I meant simply that the French introduced those graphemes into English and in some case certain words which previously had been written with different graphemes were rewritten using the ‘new’ graphemes. It is also possible that there are some later additions to the language which use the said graphemes even though they are not of French origin. For instance, have you ever had a child write <cween> for <queen> for you before? You simply smile and say that you’re glad he/ she has figured out that that is how the word used to be written, but now it is not written like that anymore, and you proceed to show them the correct phoneme – grapheme representations.

        In a sense, we are all like children, aren’t we, on the adventure of new discoveries!

        I really appreciate what you do.

        • Exactly, Felicia! You did NOT imply that words with these French-influenced graphemes are all French; I think you set up the discussion for me to emphasize that. I do think that a lot of “spelling experts” DO make that error, however, and I used to myself until I learned not to.

          We know that <ch> → /k/ is a Latinized spelling for words of Greek origin (Greek χ, or ‘chi’), but the word <ache> has an Anglo-Saxon root, and <pulchritude> is from Latin; <dachshund> is German. The <ph> → /f/ is also typically Greek, but <gopher> and <glaumph> are not Greek-origin words.

          Your understanding is crystal clear, as opposed to the “experts” who claim that <tube> is “Anglo-Saxon” just because it’s short, common, and concrete. Etymology is so much more than a demarcated triangle with discrete “layers”.

          Recently, a college teacher who used to work for me in another job, long ago, complained about my work by lamenting, “Well I don’t know the etymology for every word.” Of course not. No one does. I don’t know the answer to every math problem either, but that doesn’t mean that math isn’t worth studying.

          I’ve gone on too long, but I am so pleased that we can put our heads together in writing and thus clarify our own (and hopefully some other folks’) understanding.

  11. Pete Bowers says:


    This final paragraph of yours summarizes for me what “Simply Put: Part 1 & 2” are all about…

    “The beauty of all this is the realization that nobody is an absolute authority of anything. I don’t have to take any statement as true just because of who says it or where it is said. That is liberating!!” Felicia

    This realization is liberating — and essential.

    When I first started studying and teaching with the Real Spelling resources I used to complain that they used “spelling” in the title. “How is any teacher supposed to know there is anything interesting about spelling to teach until they understand spelling? Why not highlight reading or vocabulary?” I used to argue.

    Over time I came to the conclusion that for me working with Real Spelling in classrooms is not only not fundamentally about spelling — it is not even fundamentally about literacy. I certainly see investigating the spelling system scientifically as something that should be seen as a necessary component of any appropriate literacy program — but it is also much bigger than that. Using logic and scientific inquiry to come to conclusions about the spellings, meaning and histories of words is fundamentally about developing an awareness and a capacity to draw supportable conclusions about the world for ourselves.

    The fact that English orthography has been so misunderstood and mistaught in schools for so long, and because our most revered sources (e.g. Oxford) are so frequently demonstrably in error, studying spelling is a particularly rich context in which to to plant the seeds of this lesson. As I have heard stated in political debates, “You have your right to your own opinions, but you don’t have your write to your own facts.” (A favourite version of this idea from the satire of The Colbert Report, “We all know the facts have a liberal bias!”)

    When teachers investigate spelling through scientifically valid inquiry, the only possible conclusion they can draw is that the training they received and the assumptions that they took on through that training are foundationally flawed. Teachers can take this experience to be come empowered critical thinkers about not only spelling instruction but any advice they receive. Can any one really argue that teachers should not be critical thinkers about the educational recommendations they receive?

    And how wonderful for students to be engage with teachers as they go through the process of understanding how to assess what is accurate and what is not through scientific inquiry. Students in Grade 1 can enter a world of schooling in which they know that the Oxford English Dictionary is a useful resource, but that it was written by people, and therefore can have errors like the <able / ible> suffix citation emphasized so much lately in LEX.

    When I was first presented with the fact that the OED called ‘relation’ and ‘completion’ examples of words using a <tion> suffix and that this was demonstrably wrong, I was nervous. I hesitated saying this to parents. What If I’m missing something? Who am I to challenge Oxford? This is the experience I see most teachers have when introduced to this citation of Oxford.

    That feeling of sheepishness of challenging an authoritative reference was something that I was taught to have by schools. This subservience to authorities facilitates clearly dangerous behaviours to continue unchallenged in our world. (Climate change? Unnecessary wars?).

    It might sound grandiose, but what if it was common for children to receive the kind of instruction they receive in Dan Allen’s Grade 5 class, or Skot Caldwell’s Grade 1 class? For these children it is a common joyful experience to develop and test hypotheses about how the world works. Such children would not have to go through the process of nervousness that I did as a teacher of 9 years to be so bold as to suggest that the OED might have made a mistake. The clear silliness of treating a reference as if it wouldn’t have an error — and that ‘little old me’ should not presume to challenge it — would never be planted by schools in the first place.

    So let me repeat your statement Felicia:

    “The beauty of all this is the realization that nobody is an absolute authority of anything. I don’t have to take any statement as true just because of who says it or where it is said. That is liberating!!”

    Liberating indeed. What is even more liberating is the fact that there is now a community here that is lifting that fog from our eyes. We are not challenging authorities willy-nilly because they are authorities. We are learning how to challenge ideas with evidence, and avoid making claims that we cannot support.

    Scientists seek the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases.
    The most elegant solution is the best solution.

    These are guidelines that I am happy to use as a guide to my thinking, to investigate hypotheses and to question the assertions of anyone.

    May we use our recent discovery of the elegance of English spelling as a launching pad for bringing these principles of critical thought to our next generation.

  12. […] I might add, in a final paper for a doctoral rhetoric seminar, which also contributed to a couple other posts). But as I wrote and wrote that weekend about over and under, nothing gelled. I got some […]

  13. […] makes me mad. False claims of expertise make me mad. And, as faithful LEX readers will recall, experts meeting corrected information with denial and deflection makes me really, really […]

  14. […] a thing, and (b) it’s OK to lie to children about etymology if they’re young enough. Malt Joshi said the same things to me nearly a decade ago; his versions were “Well, life is full of exceptions,” after I told him […]

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