Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2013

I just emailed Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley to congratulate her on her impressive TED-Ed video on dyslexia, which I will certainly be using in upcoming classes and seminars. Kelli quickly responded, and indicated that she was in the midst of “looking for reasoning behind why some words as spelled with w and some with wh…”

I appreciated Kelli’s phrasing: she was looking for reasoning, trusting that English spelling is orderly, driven by meaning, and reasonable. I started to respond in an email, then decided the fruits of my brief investigation would be better shared with a wider audience.

Most words spelled with a <wh> are from Old English, where they were spelled with an <hw> digraph. They were actually pronounced /hw/ rather than the more common /ʍ/ (a voiceless /w/) that some folks have now. Most of us in the U.S. just say /w/, but some southerners and some non-U.S. speakers also devoice and/or aspirate the beginnings of words with <wh>, like Hank Hill from “King of the Hill” or Stewie from “Family Guy.” 

Many <wh> words are, of course, “question” words: who, what, where, when, why, which, whether, whose, whom, or otherwise grammatical/function words: wherefore, while, whence. These words often have Latinate cognates with <qu> (who/qui/quien, when/quando, what/quoi/que, which/quel/qual) — that’s because the <h> in <wh> and the <q> in <qu> both represent sounds made in the back of the mouth, and the  <u> and <w> both represent lip-rounding sounds. Similarly, whale is related to squalus and squalene, rorqual, and narwhal.

Several others have to do with a blow or blowing or brisk movement: whack, wham, whistle, whisper, whap, whop, wheal (also weal), wheedle (etymologically, to fan someone), whiff, whim, whimper, whine, whip, whippet, whirl, whorl, whisk, whiz, whump, whoosh, and even wharf (home to brisk activity).

Some are convenient spellings to have for homophones, like whet/wet and whit/wit and whole/hole. And we need that <wh> because it can also spell /h/ before the letter <o>, as in who or whole. Some <wh> words are related to other words that begin with <c>, because a <c> in Latin or Greek words and <h> in English words can be related — there’s that velar connection again — hearty/cordial/cardiac, horn/unicorn. Here are some more surprising relatives: whore/charity (both denote ‘loving’); wheel/cycle (both are round); whir/whirl/circle (all again denote roundness). A few others are simply marking relationships to other words — like the cognates white and wheat, or whine and whinge.

As Kelli knows, graphemes are driven by their etymology, not just by their phonology. So why are some words spelled with <wh>? Well, not only do <wh> words represent all possible pronunciations by English speakers, be they Canadians or Texans, New Englanders or old Englanders, they also whisper to us of ways our long-ago forebears perceived and spoke about their world.

Read Full Post »

Every time I come to post something on here, I feel like I need to start with an apology, because I haven’t posted in so long. I still need to finish writing about March’s 2-day Etymology Seminar, and the very exciting discoveries brought on by a long drive to Ohio for a recent seminar there. I’ve been considering the various roles of the final, non-syllabic <e> as well, and this post hints at where my thinking is . . .

This post is brought to you by the remarkable network of scholars all over the world with whom I am privileged to work. Tutors and teachers I’ve worked with frequently send me questions, and those questions become the impetus to refine and articulate my understanding. This particular question came from a tutor in the Midwest who has taken it upon herself to become an earnest and dedicated scholar of English in order to be a better teacher of it. After all, we cannot expect our skill in teaching something to surpass our willingness to study it.

So, this tutor emailed me with this question about a published word list purporting to feature words with an <ie> digraph:

“I was looking at a list of words . . . supposedly for the vowel digraph <ie>.  The list begins with words like <lie> <tie> <die>.  So far, so good.  But they also include <cried> <tried> <pried> on the list.  I know that in fact the <i> in those words is NOT part of the vowel digraph <ie> but rather is there because the <y> in the base word <cry> was changed to <i> before adding the suffix <ed>.

My question:

What about the word <lie>?  The past tense of this word is <lied> but explaining how this works in a word sum is confusing to me because I would not drop the final <e> to add <ed> because the <e> is part of a vowel digraph, not a final silent <e>?  And <lie>  + <d> is obviously not correct.    I suppose the same question could be asked of the word died, or tied, or vied??”

How do I love this question? Let me count the ways:

1. The tutor is bringing the full weight of her intellect and her understanding to her analysis of published materials. She does not assume that because it’s published somewhere, it must be accurate.

2. She checks and articulates her own understanding before bringing the question to me.

3. She understands that we must first ascertain the morphological structure of a word before attempting to ascertain its phonological structure. A grapheme cannot straddle a morpheme boundary: there is a <th> digraph in <father> but not in <fathead>. Similarly, as she states, there is no <ie> digraph in <cry> + <ed>.

4. She knows that written language makes sense, and that it is highly organized and orderly. So when she encounters the object of her question — <lied>, <tied>, <died>, <vied> — she doesn’t just chalk them up as “exceptions” or “irregular” (or sight words, learned words, red words, heart words, demon words, or any of the other silly named given to words-the-author-doesn’t-understand). Rather, she seeks to deepen her understanding, and to find the explanation she knows and trusts is there.

So, here’s what I told her:

You are correct about the vowel in <cried>, <tried>, <pried>, etc. NOT being part of the digraph <ie>.

Likewise, there is no <ie> in <lied> or <died>, because here’s what we have:

<lie> + <ed> → *<lieed> → <lied>

There are constraints on which consecutive vowels English will allow across morpheme boundaries (<agreed> but <agreeing>; <lied> but <lying>). [Actually, these constraints have to do with how English handles digraphs and trigraphs in proximity to identical letters — it’s the same phenomenon at play in <eighth> and <fully>, as opposed to *<eightth> or *<fullly>.]

I want you to think of the <y> and the <ie> as toggling word finally. Words like <cry>, <dry>, <try>, <pry>, <shy>, etc. can be spelled with a <y> because they start with 2 consonant letters, thus providing the requisite 3 letters for a lexical word once that <y> is there. Words like <lie>, <die>, <vie>, <tie>, cannot be spelled with a <y>, because they start with a single consonant and need the vowel digraph to make the 3-letter minimum for lexical words (compare <my>, <by>, <I>). [For the uninitiated, content/lexical words — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — require a minimum of 3 letters, while function words — pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions — may have just 1 or 2 letters.]

Let’s represent this <ie>-or-<y> with a <Y> — kind of an underlying representation — so we can see how this works when it surfaces in a word:

<lY> → <lie>
<lY> + <ing> → <lying>
<lY> + <ed> → <lied>

<crY> → <cry>
<crY> + <ing> → <crying>
<crY> + <ed> → <cried>

. . . We know that <y> and <i> alternate — that <e> in the final <ie> digraph is kind of a lexicalizing agent — it appears when we need it to lexicalize a word. But it doesn’t need to surface when we’re building something other than a free base element.”

Now, the <ie> digraph is a really reliable grapheme. It spells /aɪ/ at the end of a monosyllable (like lie), /i/ at the end of a polysyllabic word (like rookie), and /iː/ medially (as in field). It’s often  diminutive suffix, as in movie or doggie). But it’s widely misrepresented in phonics materials, which ignore words like movie and cookie (assuming new or struggling readers won’t encounter them?), and confound differently structured words like <cried> and <lied>, just like in the published list in question. Here’s what the LEX grapheme card has to say:

Word lists are a misguided attempt to go broad in teaching, to ensure that a child will encounter a large enough number of words with the pattern in question. What they don’t do, what they can’t do, is go deep. What this tutor did when she dared to question the wisdom of a published phonics word list is to go deep. If we go deep in our study — investigate what words mean, how they’re built, where they come from, and what they share with other words — we’re bound to go broad as well; it’s impossible to study a single word deeply without also encountering lots of other words that share a feature, a structure, a history. But breadth alone can never guarantee depth. Lists are a short-cut, a facility, an answer to an unasked question. They stand to absolve teachers and tutors from having to think deeply about the pattern under examination.

For years, the most common question I get when I speak at conferences or workshops is, “What materials/curriculum/books do you recommend?” Ultimately, the answer is “any of them, as long as you always bring your own understanding to the table.” My objective is not to point people to the best set of materials, but to the best understanding of language linguistic science can offer. A teacher thusly equipped — as is the one inspired this post — can make good use of any materials, including the wonderfully and importantly subversive act of teaching children not to believe everything they read, even if it’s written by an expert. Because sometimes they lie.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: