Archive for June, 2015

Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek (not quite — the diversity piece of the compound is Latin). Moats also indulges in a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon origins for amuse, engender, enable, and endure, all of which are of French origin in real life. Other words that Moats falsely associates with Anglo-Saxon across her work include crash, age, lilac, recess, cable, bugle, title, dabble, problem, commit, and adept, most of which were adopted from French. She also attributes gravity to Greek. Poor old French! It doesn’t even get a layer in the triangle.

Moats is unfortunately in good company. In a 2009 article in American Educator written with her reading science colleagues (Joshi, Treiman, and Carreker), more than half of the examples of Anglo-Saxon words and patterns they give are flat-out wrong, not including ambiguous examples like Calfee’s grave or the homographic found (past tense of find, to establish, and to pour molten metal — two of which are French). They mistake a Greek origin for ache (it’s actually Old English) and Anglo-Saxon origins for the following words: carpenter, farmer, grocer, butcher, passable, agreeable, punishable, catch, pouch, rich, age, saved, and plentiful, but they’re mostly adopted from French.

Le sigh.

All in all, this article alone boasts more than 40 etymological lies in 12 pages, and that’s just one piece of writing from these prolific authors. This is not an occasional error or a minor problem. It’s epidemic. It’s malpractice, and I’m not mean or nasty for calling it out. I’m right.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything. I make mistakes in my work, and when others point them out, I am grateful for the opportunity to deepen my own understanding. I’m not unreasonable. I don’t, for example, fault Moats and company for being unable to explain the spelling of words like us, thus, yes, if, his, much, which, such, or, all of which she refers to as “exceptions” to the final patterns <ss>, <ff>, and <tch>. These words aren’t really exceptions — there’s no such thing; rather, they’re function words, which take the smallest possible spelling (see in/inn, of/off, or/err). I don’t expect educators to have a good command of this yet, as it’s not necessarily terribly common knowledge, and not something a plain old dictionary will flag.

However, etymology — a word’s origin — is not a matter of guesswork or opinion. Any proper dictionary can tell us where words come from. We can look them up in the Online Etymology Dictionary on our phones for free, for crying out loud. People with Ph.D.s and secure jobs should be able to ask an intern or proofreader to look up all the examples in a dictionary if they don’t care to reap the incredibly rich, captivating understanding that word study brings for themselves. Either way, it is a professional and ethical imperative that these authors begin to ensure that the teachers and scholars reading the words they write will not continue to be systemically misinformed.

In addition to the rampant etymological underhandedness in print, teacher trainers and workshop speakers perpetuate the same careless claims in classrooms and conference rooms. I’ve heard countless examples myself, and colleagues who know better report them to me.

It kind of makes me mad. Like, mad angry and mad crazy.

Mistakes don’t make me mad. But willful, continual misinformation makes me mad. Irresponsible scholarship 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 make me really, really mad.

Well. Today I received the following email from a colleague:

“I was attending an Indiana IDA meeting yesterday in Indianapolis. In an adjacent room, [famous teacher trainer guy] was conducting his 1-day morphology training. I stuck my head in for about 10 minutes to hear him talking about how morphology builds vocabulary—OK so far.

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

Now, this man is a well-known, well-traveled, well-respected trainer whose work I have found troubling before. He has a habit of telling teachers not to teach the schwa because it’s “too complicated.” Of course, this advice is problematic because the schwa is the most common phone in an English utterance, but what really fries me is the all-too-familiar “don’t worry your pretty little heads” tone of a man telling a roomful of female educators what’s too hard for them to understand. Yuck.

Now, as far as crazy/insane/lunatic go, of course, I find the choice of subject matter to be a little ironic, ’cause I do indeed think it’s a little crazy to make unsubstantiated claims about word origins while stressing how important word origins are to word study. As you might expect, our morphology “expert” only got one of his examples right: insane does actually have a Latin root. But crazy is built on a French loanword, and lunatic is derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.

Instead, if you really want to have a look at cross-linguistic synonyms pertaining to insanity, I’d submit the following:

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.


Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

I’d love to be able to include crazy, but its origin is a hard tail to pin on that tired, old layers-of-language donkey. It’s originally Germanic, but was adopted from French. And the French in question is Norman French, not Parisian French. This is true of so, so many words educators erroneously attribute to Anglo-Saxon: they’re short, common, everyday words, but they were Norman French contributions, not Anglo-Saxon. Some of them are Latinate; others are Germanic. After all, it was a really Germanic French that English was adopting words from in the late Middle ages.

Now, as I said, I’m not unreasonable. I get that understanding the nuances of language history and word histories requires study. After all, that’s what I do. I am sympathetic to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of etymological knowledge that I have. I get it. But that’s just the thing: you don’t have to have extensive knowledge of etymology in order to get it right, at least most of the time. You just have to look in a dictionary. Someone else has already done the study for you. It takes less than a minute or two to look up and read the entries for crazy, insane, and lunatic online.

Moreover, I’m not talking about generally held folk etymologies that get a foothold in the cultural rock wall; I’m talking about people who are widely regarded as “reading scientists,” people others rely upon for linguistic expertise and accurate information about language. Etymology as a field of study involves using established practices of comparative linguistics, based on the broader principle of the scientific method. The etymological guesswork across “reading science,” where every other example of an Anglo-Saxon word isn’t Anglo-Saxon, is pseudoscience, neither scientific nor a method.

Look, writing books and articles and speaking at conferences are activities that require research and preparation. I’m not a lunatic for pointing out that conference speakers, certified trainers, and respected, peer-reviewed authors be held to a higher standard when it comes to the empirical claims they make about words. Factual rigor is not an insane expectation for scholarly speaking and writing.

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.

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A Major Development

This past week, I had the pleasure of working with the staff of the Lower School at the University School of Nashville. Every workshop, seminar, and discussion about orthography leads to new learning for me; nothing motivates like understanding, and I am always moved when I find my orthographic foothold more secure than it was before.

I’ve been giving public and private workshops on English spelling for the better part of a decade. Not only do I learn more about language, but I also learn more patience, empathy, flexibility, and diplomacy. I’ve grown in my capacity to respond to questions that destabilize me or make me uncomfortable. There are still a million things I’m not good at as a scholar and a teacher, but the organic and unplanned trajectory of my work continues to bear fruit.

One of the things I’ve gotten better at understanding over the years is the etymological governance of grapheme choice. It’s captivating and revelatory in a way that morphology alone cannot be. Etymology is, of course, an unignorable factor in the writing system. As I told teachers, you don’t have to like it, but hey, I don’t like the San Andreas fault and so far it’s still there.

Now, etymology is not the only factor that governs grapheme choice. Phonology can and does play a role: the <k> in <provoke> does not hearken back to an ancient root (compare <provocation> and the Latin vocare), but maintains the phonology of the /k/ before the <e> necessary to mark the phonology of the <o>. Place value — the position of a grapheme within a morpheme — also can optimize one grapheme over another. The famously “final” <ck>, <tch>, and <dg(e)> graphemes are, of course, base-final, not just word-final.

Many of my posts on this site deal with grapheme choice, and my LEX Grapheme Deck is a tool designed to help clarify the processes involved in orthographic phonology. One grapheme choice, however, that has always troubled me is the <j> in words like major and majesty. The base element is demonstrably <maj>, but the grapheme <j> is typically not final. The default final spelling for /ʤ/ is <ge> (see large, cage, magic, and the like). The <dg(e)> spelling follows a single vowel letter (see bridge and edge etc.).

Historically, <j> and <i> were the same letter. The non-finalness of <j> is part and parcel of the non-finalness of <i>. Likewise, the letters <v> and <u> have a common ancestor, and neither is final in English either.  We can explain the <j> etymologically, because the root of this word family, the Latin maior (adj. “great”), has an <i> in it. However, it’s not unheard of for <g> and <i> to mark a relationship, as evidenced by such etymological cousins as tail~tag, paint~pigment, frail~fragile, chain~chignon, complain~plangent~plague, strain~stringent, rail~regulate, maybe rain~irrigate, and many, many more.

So why not spell this word family with a <g> instead of a <j>?

In Nashville, I mentioned major and majesty as examples of a base element that ends in a <j>. I said I hadn’t figured out why yet, but I wasn’t about to call it an exception. As soon as I said that, I realized that only a <j> would work in the words <major> and <majuscule>; because the <j> is followed by an <o> in one case and a <u> in the other, a <g> would not work as we’d be left with spellings unsuited to the /ʤ/ phoneme: *<magor> and *<maguscule>. While this would work phonologically for *<magesty> (a frequently unnoticed misspelling, by the way), it wouldn’t work for the whole word family. Etymological relatives like <mega> and <magnate> use a <g> as a <j> would not work. These words all point back to a PIE root *meg(h), denoting “great.”

Moreover, words that do have an <mage> base in English, like <magic>, <mage>, <magi>, and <magus>, have a totally distinct etymological origin. Their PIE root is *magh (1), denoting “to be able, to have power.” Relatives include may, might, machine, and main. The <maj> offers us a differentiation from this <mage>. Since the meanings “great” and “having power” could easily be conflated, careful study is needed to peel apart these two historical families.

I’ve wondered about that for years. Now I get it.

How great is that?

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