At a Standstill

Earlier this month, I gave two weekend seminars called Seeing the Sense in Spelling. Each one was a thorough joy, though they were very different.

The first was a one-day seminar in a small market, where most of the 16 attendees were new to the scientific study of orthography.  Four of them made an eight-hour round trip in order to be there; toward the end of the day, they said that they were looking forward to the drive back, so they could continue the dialogue. I could actually see the participants seeing and internalizing how spelling makes sense. I could tell by when they bent over their papers to jot something down, by the things they chose to record, that spelling was indeed making sense to them.

The second was a two-day seminar, longer in the planning, and in a much larger market. The 92 attendees were a mix of seasoned word detectives and the newly curious, along with a stray mathematician, a psycholinguist, and a Freemason with some knowledge of sailing who made some interesting observations about the spelling and pronunciation of words like leeward and coxswain. Folks traveled far for this one too — to Cincinnati from all over the state of Ohio, from Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and even one lone, dedicated orthographer from San Francisco, California.

For spelling.

I know this isn’t a math blog, so let me spell it out for everyone. That’s 108 people who showed up to roll up their sleeves and learn more about how words work.  Actually, 109. Because I was there too. And, boy, did I learn more.

Two lessons in particular stood out to me, both courtesy of that dear, diminutive scholar who flew in from San Fran. The first was conceptual. As questions arose about scopes and sequences, how to teach and how not to teach, how to build a solid orthographic understanding into classrooms or clinics,  where to begin, what tools to use, and how to integrate new information into traditional methodologies, I demurred. I kind of hate answering those kinds of questions; I’d rather talk about words than about lesson plans. My Bay Area buddy came to the rescue, offering this perspective:

When we have a curriculum or a scope and sequence, we have the false impression that, as teachers, we have complete information, that we know and can teach all of the things about our subject. But that’s an illusion, and one that’s contrary to real scholarship. It’s a common perspective in literacy education; one well-known reading scientist frequently laments that teachers don’t know enough about language, and that the materials they use are rife with linguistic error. Of course, I’m down with that. But here’s where she loses me: “Such [linguistic] details,” she writes, “do matter because we can help students make sense of the relationship between spoken and written language only if the information they receive is complete and accurate” (emphasis added). Again, accurate I’m down with, but complete is problematic.

At what point is a teacher’s information or knowledge complete? Most of us have experienced a teacher who thinks their knowledge is complete, and it ain’t pretty. When, in literacy education, do we know or have access to everything? All the answers? The whole kit and linguistic caboodle? Never, of course. In fact, the concepts of accurate and complete are at odds with each other when it comes to real scholarship: the only accurate understanding knows there’s always more to learn.

So there was that.

The other revelation, for me, was in the discovery of a new bound base element, one that has since been hitting me over the head in my daily encounters with words. It was one that had been glimmering at me for a long time, hoping to catch my attention, but I needed a shove in the right direction. Fortunately for me, and for everyone else in Cincinnati, my West Coast collaborator was right there to help me along.

As the group was investigating words, we decided to look at that perennial favorite (especially for kids), antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s so affixalicious. But it’s getting to the base element that’s really orthographically nourishing. I had worked, in the past, with <establish>, the form that many lay people would peg as the base of antidisestablishmentarianism, so I knew that the initial <e> could be peeled off — it’s a variant of <ex>, a Latinate prefix meaning ‘out’, which we also see in <erupt>, <egress>, <emit>, <elect>, and many others. I also knew that the <ish> was a verbal Latinate suffix, just like in <punish>, <embellish>, <languish>, <replenish>, and so on. That left me with <stable>, which I assumed was a free base element:

<anti> + <dis> + <e> + <stable> + <ish> + <ment> + <ary> + <an> + <ism>

That’s what I was thinking as I sent my groups into the study of antidisestabilshmentarianism. I hinted that they’d find a free base element, thinking of <stable>. Soon, the Golden Gate Girl was standing right behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder. “It doesn’t have a free base,” she told me. I frowned, still thinking of <stable>, but I listened. “The <able> is a suffix,” she said.

Oh. Dang. Of course it is. Right away I could see the Latin root in my head, stabilis, in which the <abilis> is the familiar origin of the present-day English <able> suffix.

“Didn’t you see those emails?” she asked. Apparently, a 5th grader in Dan Allen‘s class in Switzerland had discovered the bound base element <st>, and the news had gone round our orthographic community. I must’ve been mired in the middle of my semester, translating Old English or grading grammar exams or something, because it didn’t even make my instrument panel, let alone my radar screen.

So I grabbed the mic, and corrected my misstatement to the groups. “Actually, it’s not a free base,” I said. “And it’s going to blow your mind.” They worked for a few more minutes, and then we did it together. We looked at the etymology, and linked the <st> to the Latin root stare (pronounced disyllabically as /’starə/), which means ‘to stand.’ Something that is stable is ‘stand-able.’ Whoa. We offered as evidence the following word sums in which the <st> base is again traceable to that Latin root:

<in> + <st> + <ant> (that which does not stand)

<con> + <st> + <ant> (that which stands intensively)

<st> + <ate> (the present act of standing)

<contra> + <st> (to stand against)

<circum> + <st> + <ance> (that which stands around you)

Holy cow. They kept coming. Status and institution and substance. We verified their <st> base with word sums, and their common Latin root stare on Etymonline and in dictionaries. My understanding deepened. A number of people were astonished by the information. Not everyone was thrilled with this revelation, however. People got stuck in their prior thinking, unable to grasp how something that’s not syllabic can be a base element. I explained that it’s because base elements, like all written morphemes, have no pronunciation until they surface in an actual word. So, /st/ isn’t a base element; <st> is. Other people mistook the letters <st> for the base element <st>, thinking that I was suggesting that anytime <st> is in a word, it’s a base element. But that isn’t true for <st> any more than it is for <ed> or <ing> or <ill>: in planted, eating, and illness, these sets of letters are morphemes, but in sled, bring, and fill, they’re just spelling sounds, and they carry no meaning on their own. Likewise, just because burst and step and paste all have the letters <st> does not mean that they have the base element <st>.

I’m sure that some minds were as blown by an <st> base as mine was, some even more. But like any good teacher, I really want the people I’m teaching to get excited about what they’re learning, so mostly I noticed the people who were confused or frustrated. That’s how learning and teaching go, though: there’s some discomfort in it, if it’s authentic. And sometimes the student just isn’t ready to learn a lesson yet. Just as I did not notice or register or understand an <st> base when the emails about it had gone around but did later, some of the seminar participants who were stymied or overwhelmed will go on, and later they will see new evidence that will seal their orthographic deal, and they’ll understand too. Some won’t, of course. But some will.

A little later in the seminar, after moving on from <st>, I happened to mention the word solstice. I gasped. The parts fell into place in my head:

<sol> + <st> + <ice>

The sun, standing.

I had written here about the solstice, and had assumed then that the <stice> in the word was a base element, also found in <armistice>. But in that Cincinnati seminar, I recognized that since the <st> was the base, the <ice> was the familiar nominal French suffix (also seen in service, justice, and cowardice, to name a few).

How enlightening.

The solstice is something that humans have marked and named and celebrated for a long, long time. There are ancient monuments and rituals dedicated to the solstices, both summer and winter. The June solstice, the longest, lightest day of the Northern year, is always bittersweet for me. It’s sweet because I love summer, and I really love the extended light. I love the brilliant sunsets from my rural home, and I’m always a little breathless when I look for just how late I can go before I say to myself that it’s dark out. I begin thinking about it in February, when I first notice the lengthening of days, and I begin counting down the days in late May. The solstice is a kind of apex, a climax, and it is satisfying for me like a good, deep breath. It is a moment, the moment when the sun stands still. But that same character — the momentness of the solstice — is also bitter, a little sad because I know that the solstice is a kind of end: an end of days growing longer,  and the point from which we begin the long slide toward the dark early afternoons of winter. (I wonder if people who like winter feel this way on their solstice.)

Fortunately, the solstice will return again. Few things are more certain. Just as the sun will rise in the morning, the days will lengthen in the spring. Like the lengthy daylight, the enlightenment of learning is something we can trust to return, if we are not ready or able to welcome and celebrate it at one moment, there will surely be another. “Revisiting is the essence of scholarship,” my favorite scholar said to me recently. Surely, like the sun, intellectual illumination will make another round.

Here’s what I realized in my reflections since that wonderful seminar: at any given time, in our learning, we are only at a moment. A single moment. It may echo some moments, or augur others, but it is its own moment. When I learned about <st>, when I saw it, grasped it, felt its embodiment in my understanding, I felt that moment. It was as if time was at a standstill, just then, just to add in that piece, to make that change to my appreciation of how words make sense.

Since that epiphanic seminar, the <st> base has made itself known again and again in surprising ways, standing right in front of me. In studying it further, I’ve found evidence that <st> is both a Latin and a Greek base element, from the same Proto-Indo-European origin, like <gn>, which I wrote about here. Besides the Latin examples above, <st> surfaces in the Greek-patterned static, ecstasy, metastasis, and even the proper name Anastasia, whose structure is <ana> + <st> + <ase> + <ia>, denoting ‘to stand up.’ That <ana> prefix is the same as in anabaptist or anachronism. There are historical relatives too, like the Old English stem and stand and stay, where the <st> is etymological, but not analyzable as a base element.

Here are some of the other words with an <st> base that I have found as astonishing and illuminating as the solstice itself: <ob> + <st> + <acle>, in which the <ob> means ‘against’ and the <acle> has a frequentive denotation (think spectacle, miracle, or receptacle); <co> + <st> (the price at which a desired item stands); <re> + <st> (the remainder, that which stands back); and <st> + <age> (a standing thing, like a blockage is a blocking thing). Also etymologically related, but no longer analyzable into an affixed <st> base, are oust (to stand in opposition to); and post, like a fence post (something that stands forth).

Even though each new <st> discovery is bright and remarkable, each of them is a little less surprising, a little less mind-blowing, than that first climactic vision of <st> in Cincinnati. Seeing the light in Cincinnati was a kind of apex, something I had been building to without even realizing it. Like the long days of summer, these continuing sightings of <st> still make me catch my breath, but they eventually move away from the apex of the the first time I saw it, when everything seemed to stand still for a moment, when the light was almost too bright to bear.

In our learning, we are always only at a moment in time. Whereas a curriculum or an answer sheet or a scope and sequence can give us the false impression of having arrived, in real scholarship there is no point of arrival, though there are many, many departures. In this way, orthographic study is not unlike the solar cycles. There are seasons, and moments when the sun seems to stand still, both in light and in shadow. There are long periods of illumination and intellectual heat, and long periods of darkness and chill too. The cycles of my orthographic learning are not as predictable or regular as the rotation and revolution of the earth, but the light at the center of them is just as strong as the sun, and just as stable.

© 2012 Gina Cooke and LEX


  1. Gail Venable says:

    Look at these wonderful words you’ve used to describe the process of your own learning about orthography, Gina: “revelation, deepened, astonished, glimmering, gasped, celebrate, illumination, reflection, astonishing, climactic vision . . .” Maybe our students will learn more about spelling if we focus less on the scope and sequence and more on the discovery process that leads to revelation, illumination, glimmering, gasping and celebration, reflection, astonishment, deepening, and climactic vision.

  2. Mary says:

    Gina: your best piece yet… timely for me as I work on district curriculum this summer. Our “scope and sequence” in school is set in stone for some. Hopefully, I can help change that thinking, a giant step. Thanks, Mary

    • A scope and sequence is a comfort zone, something that people can hold onto when they don’t have an understanding as a foundation. It’s an illusion that somehow, every child will have the same experience, even with different teachers. I don’t want to vilify teachers for relying on a “curriculum” but I do encourage people to think of it as a guideline rather than a comprehensive resource or a script. Like any resource or materials, a curriculum should be interrogated rather than just consulted. I’m confident that if someone can nudge the thinking along, it will be you, Mary.

      • Amanda Brown says:

        …”a curriculum should be interrogated rather than just consulted.”

        I really like that! It’s a concept that’s hard for many to grasp, as the prevailing view seems to be that of the “set in stone” mentality. Our knowledge as humans is so finite… it only makes sense to be open to change and deeper understanding as our search for truth progresses. I’m thankful to be embarking on that journey in community with so many others.

  3. Beth says:

    So true Gail!!! When we stop learning, we stop living.

  4. Rebecca Marsh says:

    Gina, I agree with Mary, above: Your best piece yet. Both enlightening and lovely. I was in Cincinnati for the discovery and experienced the blowing of the mind and the pure delight at that revelation!

  5. Kathy Penn says:

    Fabulous post! And…thanks for all of the other wonderful moments I experienced at the Cincinnati seminar.

  6. Old Grouch says:

    Not least in the joyous quality of your posts, Gina, is the honour you do to the English language in the way you write.

    Your papers are in such ‘contra + st’ to the schooling industry’s general output in which earnest approximation, lexical vapidity, and addiction to bright ideas are surpassed only by the turgid banality of its prose. So thanks for showing that rigour, joy and style are not mutually incompatible when we write about language itself.

    Samuel Johnson said that, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” The pleasure with which I read your article certainly signals the magisterial effort – and insight – with which you wrote it.


    The student In Dan Allen’s class who discovered the identity of the base element ‘st’ first contacted me to share his doubt about a proposed analysis of ‘contrast’ as ‘*con + trast’. He was rather matter-of fact-about it, just commenting that he was pretty sure of the integrity of ‘contra’ and wanted to know what I thought of a consequently proposed element ‘st’.

    He had already checked the sources and brought me the extract from Etymonline : from L. contra “against” (see contra) + stare “to stand”. No big deal. He’s a real speller and, in any case, was already familiar with the two-letter bound bases ‘re’ and ‘gn’.

    Real spellers do not ask me for pre-potted answers (I never give them, anyway). Like this young colleague, they bring me evidence and reasoned hypotheses.

    I then offered him the spelling ‘transient’ – a straightforward prefix-base-suffix construction – to analyse. With no bat of the eyelid he announced its structure, “T-R-A-N-S • I • E-N-T.” After hardly a pause, he just said, “Hmm; a single-letter base”.

    Just like that.


    In a day or two I’ll be sharing with you alternative suggestions for the analyses of ‘establish’ and ‘instant’.

    Now that you’ve found the pearl embedded in ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, how about tackling the rumbustious components of the compound ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’?

  7. I look forward to the alternative suggestions for analysis, Old Grouch. And, now that the secret is out that Latin actually can and does compound, perhaps I will indeed tackle floccinaucinihilipilification!

    • realspelling says:

      Establishing Especially Prosthetic Ponderings

      Over time, the pronunciation of Latin shifted from its classical form through Vulgar Latin and to that of Romance languages which descended from it.

      One of the phonetic developments of this process concerned words with initial ‘s’ immediately followed by a ‘stop’ consonant. We’ll take initial ‘st’, ‘sp’ and ‘sc’ as examples and look specifically at Old / Middle French.

      First, though, we need to know the linguistic term ‘phonotactics’. Here is the definition from the eminent linguistician David Crystal

      A term used in phonology to refer to the specific arrangements (or ‘tactic behaviour’) of … phonemes which occur in a language. In English, for example, consonant sequences such as /fs/ and /spm/ do not occur initially in a word …

      Every language, then, has its own set of allowable sequences of phone(me)s. Furthermore, allowable phonotactic sequences may change diachronically in the same language. For instance, while /hr/ and /fn/ were phonotactically allowable initially in Old English words, they are no longer so.

      In Old French the initial ‘st’, ‘sp’ and ‘sc’ of Latin roots were not phonotactically allowable in their OF derivations. Consequently, since they were ‘unpronounceable’ to native speakers of Old French, they added a ‘prosthetic e’ before words whose Latin etymon had initial ‘st’ sp’ and ‘sc’. Here are three examples.

      Latin ‘stat(um)’ → OF ‘estat’
      Latin ‘spin(am)’ → OF ‘espine’
      Latin ‘schol(am)’ → OF ‘escole’

      In Modern French these words have, of course, become ‘état’, épine’ and ‘école’ – as, indeed, OF ‘estable’ has become ‘étable’.

      The first and most significant wave of French loan words into English was during the Middle English period, coinciding with a time when the ‘prosthetic e’ was still very present in French. So it is hardly suprising that many such French loans arrived with their prosthetic ‘e’. Two of these were the verbs ‘estable’ and ‘establish’.

      At the same time, however, the phonotactic non-allowability of initial ’s+plosive’ clusters was weakening in Middle French, and the variant form ‘stablish’ also appeared in English. Indeed, the form ‘stablish’ seems to have been Shakespeare’s preferred form, as well as that of the King James Bible of 1611.

      Nevertheless, it is the form ‘establish’ with the ‘prosthetic e’ that has become standard.

      All this, then, brings us to the analysis of ‘establish’.

      Of one thing we can sure; the initial ‘e’ of ‘establish’ is not – diachronically – the shorter form of the Latin prefix ‘ex-‘, (any more than it is in the word ‘estate’) though it is not impossible that it might have been reconceptualized by English speakers as being that Latin prefix.

      We note, certainly, that there are constructions in which an only apparent prosthetic ‘e’ is actually a diachronic development of ‘e(x)-’. Here are a couple of such with their Latin etymons.

      estrange > extrane(are)
      escape > excapp(are)

      — and, of course, that most deliciously aromatic and invigorating of Italian loan words : espresso.

      So that leaves us with the fascinating question of how we might orthographically analyse that prosthetic ‘e’ in ‘establish’ and words like it.

      Hurrah! This promises a rich discussion among real spellers. I am looking forward to being enlightened by the Esprit de corps in which we who Espouse real scholarship Especially delight. Let us hie to our Escritoires and Escalate our efforts that none may Estop.

      • Right you are, Real Spelling. And I ought to know better, being a Francophone myself. I frequently talk about the elided -s- in present-day French words like école, épinards, étonner, etc. Spanish, whose phonotactics (like Old French) preclude initial sc-, sp-, and st-, has kept its prosthetic e- in words like escuela (school), escala (scale), and espinacas (spinach) — these phonotactics are clearly *heard* in many a Spanish accent when speaking English; for years my brother-in-law, Steve, had a Mexican neighbor who called him ‘Esteve’ (cf. Spanish Esteban).

        The question of analysis of the prosthetic is indeed a fascinating one. Since questions of morphological analysis are synchronic, I am satisfied that we can still peel it off — it was my etymological (diachronic) association of the with that was problematic.

        This question reminds me of an analysis that surfaced last fall in my Orthography course. The question was whether the -y in ‘every’ can be analyzed as a suffix, showing the structure ever + y. Synchronically, this works well: the -y being adjectival as it is in sand + y or dirt + y. Diachronically, however, the -y is not traceable to the Old English -ig suffix, but to the root of ‘each’. As you say, it might have been reconceptualized by speakers of English as that same morpheme . . . it certainly was by this speaker!

  8. Pete Bowers says:

    There is so much to celebrate in this post, but I want to highlight one point in particular that I think is particularly important — the joy you take at sharing a participant’s discovery of your mistaken morphological analysis about a base in the middle of your workshop. The fact that this joy is then extended by being able to link to what you now know to be an error about the same base in the word SOLSTICE in a previous LEX post just hammers home what this work is about. This celebration of being corrected by your “students” (by which I mean co-learners) embodies the goal of scientific inquiry — to deepen the accuracy of our understanding so that we can explain more of how the world works. Stated more formally — seeking the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases. (

    It should surprise no-one that the goal of deepening our understanding in any domain is frequently is achieved by recognizing flaws in our previous understanding. Thus, it makes complete sense that an expert would be excited to be corrected on a point of fact during a workshop. By definition, being corrected with good evidence must mean deepening one’s understanding. But this is simply not the culture of learning that is supported by most educational institutions I have seen. And this is why your celebration of being shown to have been wrong is so important.

    Sure it’s very cool to be introduced evidence of a base consisting of just two consonant letters. And that discovery opens our minds to a wider understanding of what a base can be, including the presentation of a base that is comprised of just one single vowel letter as we find from Real Spelling’s comment. These linguistic details are important opportunities for developing greater understanding. But in terms of lessons for readers of your blog, I suspect that modelling the joy of being the expert who is proven wrong is by far the most important.

    There is a related but perhaps more subtle lesson in this post for teachers. That is that you offer teachers permission to embrace making mistakes in our teaching – as long as we are on a path guided by an accurate foundational knowledge about the basics, and reliable references and tools (e.g. matrix and word sums).

    Especially if teachers recognize how much they have mistaught English spelling based on what they were told, it is understandable to be fearful of misunderstanding this new content and thus teaching more mistakes. Often that fear is paralyzing`and can’t convince themselves to start until they “understand it all.” Since such a level of understanding is unattainable, that position turns into never getting started. It can be hard to see that continuing to teach the assumptions they were taught results in more false information about the writing system than does having a go and making mistakes along the way with matrices and word sums. At introductory workshops I emphasize that I’m not asking anyone to to drop any of their practice, but simply to start trying to work with some of these tools. If they do so, they can decide which of their previous practices they decide they do and do not need to continue with. But even then, people can just fear making mistakes with these tools.

    Your post, however, shows that using word sums is a means to refining our understanding over time. Your error was not about the basics of how spelling works, it was simply a misanalysis of those facts in a particular word. If you had mistaught the structure of SOLSTICE for years, you have not harmed anyone’s learning. In fact your mistake provided the opportunity for a richer learning experience than you would have been able to offer had you never made that mistake. In your workshop and in this post, you showed how these tools can be embraced to correct our own thinking. Your error was not about the basics of word structure; it was simply a misapplication of the same conventions and concepts that you teach. When a participant at your workshop applies what you are teaching to show a deeper analysis is possible, that is in fact a brilliant illustration of the richness of the concepts and tools you are teaching. You are teaching the tools for understanding, not the answers.

    For these reasons and others, you have just provided the first reading I am going to point participants in my next workshop. Thanks for getting us off on the right scientific foot!


    • Thanks for weighing in, Pete.

      Learning to celebrate my errors, and to enjoy being proven wrong, has lent a whole new depth and joy to my scholarship. The reason for this is that not only do I get to avoid repeating the same error over and over again, but I also get to discover the facts (which often make me gasp audibly), and I also get, as you’ve articulated, to model what this kind of scientific inquiry and elegant learning looks like for those who are accompanying me on the journey.

      • Amanda Brown says:

        I think you model this very well, Gina! It’s a hard lesson for many of us to learn as a teacher, but one I agree we must learn if we are ever to be the type of scholar we are trying to cultivate in our students.

  9. Skot Caldwell says:

    I ran into Pete today on the Wolfe Island Ferry (I was on a field trip with my class) and he was buzzing about this post. There we were, the breeze blowing lustily, the Great Lake spread out around us, the sun shining, and he was challenging me to identify the base of <stable>. I would bet we were the only people on the planet discussing this particular question on a boat.

    And now I am buzzing about this post! What a pleasure to have my certainty shaken by this hidden gem of a bound base! And I cannot help but echo the joy of any educator who is so joyful about being proven wrong!

    The first year I worked with Real Spelling in my class, leaping in after a two-hour chat with Pete at my house, I was delighted by the constant flow of discoveries my students and I were making together. I was rarely more than two learning steps ahead of them–and even better, they often leapt ahead to new discoveries or questions for which I had no answer. It was thrilling!

    It was a test (which I did not always pass) of my own character and teaching principles to avoid becoming the insufferable know-it-all, imagining that after a year or two I could “solve” almost any of the orthographic questions that came up. Old Grouch, along with my own students, have repeatedly disavowed me of any such pretensions. Now, as much as I possibly can, I allow my students to discover concepts on their own–even if they are familiar to me–or to work alongside them with as much humility as I can muster through new investigations (as so beautifully demonstrated by Dan Allen). Regularly, even where I think I know where we will end up we end up someplace new. It remains thrilling!


    • Hey, Skot, thanks for weighing in! The fact that teachers like you are investigating orthography and learning from your students gives legs to this learning. It’s because of your work, and Dan’s, and so many others’, that instead of saying “teachers and kids should do this,” I can say with confidence and authority, “teachers and kids *are* doing this!”

  10. Amanda Brown says:

    is the perfect description! I agree with those above… best post yet! This invigorates me to delve deeper into the study of spelling… words I never thought I’d say! I’m thankful for its timeliness as I tackle our own scope and sequence.

  11. Felicia says:

    A friend had called me recently and after she hung up the phone, I absent-mindedly scribbled down her name: Constance. Once I did that, I wrote beside it constant<. I proceeded to scribble down distance – distant; instance – instant; substance – substantial; circumstance – circumstantial. I immediately recognised the prefixes in-, dis-, con-, sub-, circum-, but it never occurred to me to look at the -ance / -ant alternating pair as suffixes. Instead, I wrote stant / stance as twin bases. I guess I did that because I didn’t think that st would mean anything.

    I was so thrilled when I read your eye-opening post recently and all the exciting discussions that had followed. I couldn’t believe that the evidence of -ant / -ance as suffixes had been right before me and I had ignored them; but then, who would have thought that st could be a base? I began to think about the Latin infinitive stare that is the source of the base ?st and I remembered having encountered a similar verb infinitive in Italian. I know that Italian is no Latin, but sometimes some of the similarities can be pretty close. I knew stare as meaning “to be” even though there is another verb essere that is more commonly translated as “to be”. For instance, “I am well” would be translated as “(Io) sto bene”. The present indicative of stare is conjugated as – io sto, tu stai, egli sta, noi stiamo, voi state, essi stanno.

    After reading your post, I checked it up and though stare is regularly given as ‘to stand’, some resources give it as “to stand, to be”. So far, so good! But then, like some of the participants at your workshop, I have a hard time accepting st as a base. I know you explained the fact that we cannot consider every st as a base, and for that matter every consonant clusters as possible bases. This touches on a problem that I have with citing bases. Anytime Old Grouch cites a verb in its infinitive, he brackets out the infinitive ending, thus isolating the base to which sometime e is added and other times not: st(are). I still have problem with knowing when to add and when not to. (This is an issue for another occasion.)

    Let me see whether I can successfully put across my reservation for accepting st as a viable base. I remember Old Grouch once telling me that a word is a microcosm of language. A written word is a small version of a sentence, which in turn is a smaller version of paragraph, and so on. In short, a word is a carrier of meaning, the same way that other larger segments of written language do convey meaning.

    I remember learning (or rather chanting) as a child, “No verb, no sentence”. I have since learned that every sentence needs a verb, and if a sentence is only one word, that word has to be a verb. In bringing this analogy to the word level, we find that every word needs a base; and if a word is made up of only one element, that element has to be a base. Now, as well all know, each spoken word is made up of consonant and vowel sounds and a written word is composed of consonant and vowel letters. The vowel is the nucleus of a word, and if a word is made up of only one letter, that letter would be a vowel. So now I can chant “No base, no word; no vowel, no base”. (I am aware that the exact definition is: the vowel is the nucleus of a syllable. Every uttered syllable needs a vowel sound and every written syllable needs a vowel letter. I am not confusion a syllable with a base, or, for that matter, a word.)

    Therefore, I do not believe that there can be a base element in English that is composed of only consonant letters, even if it is a bound base. In transient that was cited by Old Grouch, the base element i that is derived from ire happens to be a vowel letter, not a consonant. I could postulate, from this line of reasoning, a base ste instead of st. I haven’t found any single word in English made up of only consonant letters, and st is not going to be an exception. (I now cringe anytime I see the word ‘exception’.) Remember that st conveys meaning – “stand, be”. I supposed that in almost all the words derived from stare, a possible last e could have been displaced by an ensuing vowel suffix: such as ste + ance → stance; ste + ate → state; ste + able → stable. This left me with contrast. I thought that it could have been written earlier as contraste, and the last st could have been lost as a result of the shedding of ‘unnecessary’ final e’s in English. I needed proof of that.
    I found the following citation from an online source:

    1480–90; (v.) < Middle French contraster < Italian contrastare to contest < Latin contrā- CONTRA- 1 + stāre to stand; (noun) earlier contraste < French < Italian contrasto conflict, derivative of contrastare

    “Contrast – earlier contraste”; Voila!! Why am I going through all this trouble to be sure that a base element has a vowel letter in it? Who cares? We do. The answer is simple. If there is anything I have learned from the Realspellers Community, it is the understanding that the English writing system is not whimsical; it makes structural sense and does not easily violate its conventions. This understanding gives me a solid footing as I investigate words and test hypotheses.

  12. Hello, Felicia,

    Thanks for getting in touch. Just the other day, I was talking to a little girl named Anastasia and her mother, and I mentioned the name Constance. You see, Constance means ‘standing resolutely,’ and Anastasia means ‘standing up.’

    You are absolutely correct about the denotation of stare in Latin: it is one of two verbs frequently translated as ‘to be.’ Some present-day Romance languages still have the same verbal inventory: when I was living in Portugal many years ago, and learning the language, I sometimes had a hard time differentiating between the two, because English and French, the only other languages I spoke, only have a single verb — ‘to be’, and ‘être,’ respectively.

    One day, when I was at work at Casa Mariana, the lovely little restaurant where I worked in Afife, Portugal, someone brought me my mail. It had a birthday card and money order from my grandmother in it. So I jumped around, calling out, “Sou rica!” One of my teenage co-workers couldn’t understand what I was saying, though it seemed perfectly clear to me: “I’m rich!” Another co-worker understood the problem, and corrected me. It turns out, I should’ve said “Estou rica.” You see, ‘sou’ is from the infinitive ‘ser’, which derives from the Latin ‘essere’, also the root of present-day English ‘essence’, denoting a continual state of being. But ‘estou’ is from the infinitive ‘estar,’ which derives from — you guessed it — Latin ‘stare’, which denotes a current standing, a transient state, hence its dual translation as ‘to be (temporarily) or to stand’.

    So, now we have the question on the table about whether a non-vocalic base element in present-day English can be. And the answer is a resounding “Yes!” You are absolutely correct when you say that “The vowel is the nucleus of a word, and if a word is made up of only one letter, that letter would be a vowel.” But a word and a base element are not at all the same thing, so the property is not transitive from the word (which requires a vowel) to the base (which does not). On this site, I have written posts wherein I prove the structures of words with the base elements -st- and –gn-, so, if you are chanting “No base, no word; no vowel, no base,” you are only half right. Teachers all over the world chant many, many things in their classrooms that are falsehoods; this chant would add to that inventory. If we were to add a vowel letter -e to -st-, as you suggest, then we would have *contraste, *coste, and *reste, which, of course, we don’t. Also, if you’re requiring a vowel letter in a base element to provide the nucleus of a syllable, then adding a final, silent, non-syllabic -e won’t help you at all, I’m afraid.

    A base element , like any morphological element, is a spelling. It has no pronunciation until it surfaces in a word. So we have base elements like the -fer- which is syllabic in ‘differ’, but non-syllabic in ‘difference’, for most speakers. Likewise, we have the -sci- that is syllabic in ‘science’, but not in ‘prescient’.

    You offer a hypothesis that the -e in the ‘contraste’ that we borrowed from French “could have been lost as a result of the shedding of ‘unnecessary’ final e’s in English” — and while that may well be so, we must analyze what we have in present-day English synchronically. We have to account for its current structure. We cannot point to an earlier orthographic form and then say, well, that one letter fell off because it was unnecessary. That’s not at all scientific.

    What is scientific is the proof that I’ve laid out in this post, using the tool of word sums and the etymological evidence for a bound base element -st-. Your desire for a base element to have a vowel is not counter-evidence, but simply a misapprehension. You are correct that “the English writing system is not whimsical.” Nor should our understanding of it be whimsical. It should not be based on what we desire, but on what we see.

    I do hope you’ll find a new chant!

    • Felicia says:

      Thanks for your reply. I understand your point, but for me the jury is still out on ‘st’. As I learn more, I will not hesitate to redefine my thinking when I am absolutely convinced. I get excited about new discoveries and God knows I have unlearned and relearned a whole lot of stuff that I thought I knew previously. The beauty of learning is the ability to question hypotheses, redefine previous assumptions and formulate new hypotheses. I understant that not every base element is syllabic and obviously adding a silent ‘e’ won’t make it syllabic. That is not a difficult issue for me. I want to avoid making ‘surface analysis’. Of course, I see only ‘st’ in all those words that were cited but is the base really ‘st’. That is the question am I asking? When others give ‘vac’ as the base in ‘vacate’ we call that surface analysis, and give ‘vace’ instead. We reason that having a base ‘vac’ would produce *’vaccate’. In the case of ‘stable’ and the rest, ‘st’ being a consonant cluster will not produce any doubling, so does that mean no vowel letter is necessary?

      My child’s teacher wouldn’t accept ‘ed’ as the suffix in baked, based, etc. because he sees only ‘d’. Before I could convince him of ‘-ed’ being the suffix, and not ‘d’, I had to understand for myself how suffixing works in English so I could explain to him how vowel suffixes and consonant suffixes (terms not used in textbooks) act on bases.

      What I am trying to say is that sometimes there is more to what we see. Nobody will readily accept ‘st’ as a base just because I say so, so before I can convince someone of that I have to convince myself first that it is absolutely ‘st’ and not possibly ‘ste’. We don’t write *coste, *reste now but there is evidence that they have been written like that before. I have seen them in old documents.

  13. “Is the base really -st-?”

    I can understand your reluctance — shared by some in my workshop — to see the base element -st-, but that doesn’t mean the proof isn’t there. These words all share an -st-, they are all historically traceable to Latin ‘stare’, and the rest of the word is analyzable as separate elements. You’re not questioning the evidence I’ve laid out, and you’re not providing any counter-evidence; you’re simply indicating that you don’t feel comfortable with my conclusions. Well, science isn’t informed by feelings; it’s informed by evidence.

    We cannot use a word’s historical spelling(s) as evidence for their present-day structure. What good would the -e do in an *-ste- base? It cannot provide the nucleus of a syllable, which was your original point of contention. We don’t need a final -e to prevent doubling, as you indicate. So there’s no good reason to add an -e, and there’s every reason not to: it doesn’t surface in any present-day spellings.

    You want to avoid making a “surface analysis” — so do I! That’s why I provide all the evidence, in the form of word sums, for the deeper structures involved. You say “sometimes there is more to what we see.” I agree! Again, that’s why I laid out the proof and the arguments.

    There’s nothing but your own misapprehension that says that a base element requires a vowel letter. If you can let go of that — and read the post on the base element -gn- — you’ll see these structures for yourself. By all means, get a comfortable grip on it for yourself. And should you encounter any actual evidence that contradicts what I’ve laid out here, by all means, bring it and change my mind.

  14. Gail Venable says:

    Hello Felicia,

    I thought perhaps I’d chime in here because I have spent a great deal of time agonizing over whether this base element or that really needed the addition of an -e-. But for me, it’s never been an issue unless the base element ends in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel and might therefore cause doubling. You write, “In the case of ‘stable’ and the rest, ‘st’ being a consonant cluster will not produce any doubling, so does that mean no vowel letter is necessary?” My response to that would be a resounding yes! It means exactly that.

    There are plenty of opportunities to wonder about the necessity of adding an -e- to a base element without worrying about base elements that end in two consonants. For example, what about -anthrop- vs. -anthrope-? Well, it seems that you’d need the -e- to prevent -philanthroppic- and -misanthroppic- because the stress is on the final syllable before the suffix -ic-. But you don’t need an -e- on an -st- base element to prevent -insttant-, or -antidisesttablishmentarianism-. The doubling wouldn’t happen.

    I was extremely surprised to see evidence of bases like -gn- and -st-, but I was surprised only because of my preconceptions. I was convinced by the evidence that proved my preconceptions wrong. No other analysis explains -contra+st- or -pre+gn+ant-. I also had to be jolted into accepting that a bound base could have more than one syllable like -sequ-. I think it’s instructive that it was a fifth grader who discovered -st-. His head was not clouded with preconceptions like ours are.

    In any case, given that base elements are not the same as spoken words or syllables, what purpose would it serve to postulate that a base must have a vowel?

    I have had to reexamine all of my childhood chants. After all, many of us grew up with “-i- before -e- except after -c-” and “if two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”. I don’t trust much of what I recited as a child, not if it involves spelling, reading, or grammar.

    • Felicia says:

      Thanks, Gail.

      I really appreciate your input. I will work to anchor my understanding on a few concepts, such as stress. The issue of whether to add ‘e’ to a base element comes up very often for me. For instance, my youngest son recently spelled ‘nutritious’ as ‘nutritous’, so after correcting the spelling and working on the phonology of the word, we dicided to contruct a matrix. We came down to having to decide whether the base is ‘nutr’, nutri’, or ‘nutre’. After considering each option, we ruled out ‘nutri’ as a possible base; that left us with ‘nutr’ and ‘nutre’ and issue of connector ‘i’ surfaced because we had to decide whether the ‘i’s we were seeing in all the words were all the same. Through word sums we were able to resolve our issues (or at least I think we did).

      Without proper understanding of the fundamental issues, dealing with such questions when they come up becomes difficult. I am not being unscientific, I’m just trying to gain the basic understanding of what goes into determing what a base element is: once you trace the source of a base, how do you render that base in English?

      I think I need to work on my understanding of morphemes being spelling. I know that in theory, but now I see that my understanding of that concept is not firm yet.

  15. Dyscover Learning says:

    Mind totally blown! This is just too amazing!

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