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Archive for January, 2017

The Measure of a Man

Recent conversations with my colleagues involved the words percent (‘for every 100’) and cubit (the length of the ‘lying down’ part of the arm when bent; the forearm). I got to thinking about the words we use to talk about measuring things. The lexicon of physical measurement includes some very bodily words: think about that cubit, or a foot, or marking a horse’s height in hands (four-inch units). There is an ell, now equal to 45 inches, but historically variable and denoting some measure of an arm’s length, like a cubit; that <ell> is unsurprisingly a free allomorph of the <el> in elbow and cousin to ulna, a Latin word used not only as the name of the bone, but also of a Roman unit of measurement. It is also the name of the letter that looks like a bent arm.

Of course, this way of making meaning is not unique to English. In German, pi mal daumen, or ‘pi times thumb,’ is a term for approximating a measurement. The French word pouce means both ‘inch’ and ‘thumb.’ I recall learning this while living in Paris, and I marveled, because my dad had once told me that if you don’t have a ruler, using your thumb from the first knuckle to the tip is a good estimate. While it’s not an exact measurement across human incarnation, it anchored deep in my belly, as a kid, what an inch is. Made it internal and recognizable, fathomable. It allowed me to embody and own my understanding of an inch, gave me an inch to stand on.

Sometime after college I first heard the apocrypha suggesting a link between a rule of thumb and domestic violence. While there’s no evidence for that link, it’s been in our collective consciousness since at least the 18th century, and that (false) consciousness is anchored by a rich and surprising set of semantic links between sizing things up and body parts.

Sizing things up by body parts. We do that in So. Many. Ways. Tall men are judged as good and honest; women’s shapes are…evaluated. Literally. An outsized public figure with tiny hands boasts and speculates about other anatomical measurements. Look, don’t make me spell it all out for you. Body parts are measures as much as they are measured.

Anyhow. As I was researching and writing this post, I noticed something about the terminology of measurement, especially the modern metric system, that is built out of classical roots: it has sharp edges and joints and movable parts.

per + cent
mill(e) + i + liter
kilo + gram
met(e)r(e) + ic

This agglutination is common for words of modern scientific origin in general, plucked from classical words in parts or as wholes. This is something Douglas Harper and I have been talking about lately in our joint work (pun intended, I guess, now that I’ve noticed it), but I’m confident that he’s been thinking about it a lot longer than I have. In fact, the sharp-edges trope is his. He has a gift for linguistic metaphor.

The terminology of the English measurement system, on the other hand, is full of Old English and Old French shards whose edges and hinges have been worried smooth or corroded over time. Both inch (OE ynce) and ounce (OF unce or once), for example, are Latinate words that made their way into English within a couple hundred years of each other. Their shared root is the Latin uncia, a unit of measurement that was one-twelfth of a larger quantity, like a Roman pound (libra) or an Anglo-Saxon foot. Uncial is a savant word adopted from Late Latin and first attested in Modern English; it is now most commonly used to refer to the style of Medieval chancery script from which our majuscule letters are derived. Inch and ounce and uncial are members of a huge word family that includes the Germanic one and once and the Latinate unit and unique, and their many cognates and derivations. I think of people counting on their fingers starting with the thumb for “one,” though I could never prove any connection there.

Anyone who has studied real script will appreciate that the measurements and proportions of writing bear a direct and compelling relationship with the hand.

The hand, like the foot, has survived as both a body parts and a unit of measurement, now equaling four and twelve inches respectively. Feet are still part of our everyday dimensional discourse, of course. While hands as a measure only useful for those sizing a horse, connections to hands and the arms they come with are embedded in our ways of measuring things. Both a bushel (now eight gallons of dry goods) and a dram (now 1/8 fluid ounce) are words that once denoted a ‘handful.’  Fathom is both a noun, a measure of depth equivalent to about six feet, and a verb, to understand, to imagine; they are the same word, historically denoting a human armspan, and/or an embrace.

What’s more embodying than an embrace? The <brace> also surfaces in <bracelet>; it’s from the Latin word for ‘arm.’ It’s the very opposite of keeping someone, or something, at arm’s length.

The span in armspan (or wingspan, for the aspirational among us) was used in Anglo-Saxon England as a measurement of about 9 inches, marked by the span between the tips of one’s extended thumb and pinky finger. That word, span, can denote a distance or the thing that bridges it: the Old English verbal root could mean to “join, link, clasp, fasten, bind, connect; stretch,” as Doug puts it. But its relatives really bring more balance to our understanding:

~spangle: think of a glint of something metallic, like a clasp or gold link
~spin, spindle, spider: think of a weight on the end of a string (the span), spinning
~ponderous, preponderance, ponder (to ‘weigh’ something)
~pendant, pendulum, expend, pensive (‘hanging’ or ‘weighing’ something)
~pound: a unit of weight measurement, abbreviated as <lb.>*
~the <poids> in avoirdupoids, a French loanword meaning ‘having weight’
~poise: composure, equilibrium, balance

*A pound is now 16 ounces in the avoirdupoids system, but 12 ounces still in a troy weight pound. While a pound is not a body part, its etymological connections to the physicality of weights and scales, hanging and spinning, spanning a balance, stretching taut a string or a balance, are evident. The mental image I can’t escape is a pockmarked metal weight my brother and I found at the local park when we were kids, on the end of a fishing line. We played with that thing forever. I think we were 8 and 13, two analytical tinkerers, stretching and spinning, hanging and weighing that heavy spangle on its string all summer long. I can still feel its weight in my hand.

*While pound has a lot of Latinate relatives, the word itself is Germanic. The <lb.> that we use to abbreviate it, however, is all Latin, an abbreviation for libra, the Latin word for a balance, for scales, or for a full measure of weight (a pound). A libra pondo is a ‘pound weight’ or a ‘pound weighed.’  After Proto-Italic, the trail goes cold, but moving forward, this Italic word family grew in some meaningful and revealing ways. A pound sterling in French is a livre; the Italian and Turkish lira were units of currency (all money traces back somewhere in history to physical, corporeal goods). And a liter is a Hellenic word, a unit of measurement named for a Sicilian coin, a litra. A pound.

But there’s more bang for your linguistic buck. There’s Libra, of course the zodiac sign whose symbol is the balance. And there’s the bound <lib(e)r> base denoting ‘to weigh,’ as in equilibrium and deliberate. Go ahead, take it for a spin.

How’s your brain?

Anyhow, as I was researching and writing this thread, I located something of editorial note in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and I sent Doug a message about it. He’s the one who pointed me to bushel and to dram, whose cousin is drachma, another unit of currency. He confirmed that the use of the thumb as roughly an inch is attested back to about 1500. He suggested span. I said I had already been down that rabbit hole. He had asked me if I’d already looked at ell (I had); he told me, as only he can, to “give em ell.”

I continued researching, and dove into yard, as in yardstick, which derives from a Germanic root denoting ‘rod, staff, measure.’ An overly-optimistic Shakespeare used this yard euphemistically. Ahem, body parts again. This yard has nautical echoes still present in a yard-arm and in its influence over the spellings of the unrelated halyard and lanyard.  I always unconsciously thought of this yard as the same thing as the other yard, as in backyard. It’s not.

That yard, ‘an enclosure,’ is related to garden, jardin, kindergarten, Kirkegaard (‘churchyard’), gird, girth, garth, orchard, horticulture, cohort, and the <grad> in Leningrad, but not to the yard in yardstick. This discovery led me down a new garden path upon which I explored a couple other homographic (but unrelated) elements in this whole measurey arena:

~<pound>: (1) pound weight~ponder; (2) dog pound~pond (also an ‘enclosure’); (3) pound to bits (no known relatives); and (4) the bound base in expound, propound, and compound (related to expose, proponent, and composite). In this last family, this <d> is excrescent, or “unetymological,” in the Dictionary. Hmm…I wonder how that happened?

~<lib(e)r>: (1) deliberate, equilibrium, weigh~ponder; (2) liberate, liberty, liberate, to free (also in deliver); and (3) library, libretto, and delibrate. Not deliberate, but delibrate, which means to peel the bark off a tree. This last family denotes ‘skin, peel, or rind’ and is related to leaf.

How have these historically distinct elements weighed on each other, and what considerations have hung in the etymological balance? Doug has said that words have gravity (‘weight’) and pull each other into their orbits. I messaged him again. Yard,” I wrote. “I had no idea that yard and yard were unrelated.” Doug said, “there’s a collection of words for (sort of) ‘enclosed space’ that seem to lead to something the ancients saw that we can’t understand anymore.” I had seen that also, maybe, in the impound~pound~pond family.

That’s when he sent me to fathom. To embrace. “Neat, huh?” he asked. “And thus the nautical measure of the width of the arms. There were no ‘machines’ on board an English sailing ship until the 19th century. Everything at sea was in human terms. The body is the immediate reference for everything before you introduce the poison of technology.

I recognized a familiar perspective in his words, and I said so. “You are channeling Old Grouch. Or he is channeling you. But he talks about this same phenomenon in terms of the written word, human script, the chancery arts. The hand is the measure of script. There’s a great deal of meaningful proprioception to one’s hand, properly trained or intuited. Both ‘manuscript’ (print) and ‘cursive’ were invented for machines, and that’s what we cram down kids’ throats in schools, if they’re even lucky enough to get some cursive,” I explained. “A legible hand has a sense of measurement and proportion to it. This whole thing is blowing my mind.”

I went from dram to gram, which is, of course, related to diagram and grammar and graph, ‘to write.’ A gram as a unit of measure derives from a special use of the Greco-Latin word gramma, a special use of the the word meaning ‘letter’ to denote a unit of weight.

This post brings together so many conversations over the past several days. Not only the math and measurements of percent and cubit; not only checking in and dialoguing with Doug as I wrote. But a much broader conversation that I return to again and again in my studies: a conversation about ancient connections between physicality, goods, measurements, math, money, and writing. As I studied measuring, I kept coming up against the body, marking, marking on the body and with the body. I’ve been thinking and writing too about the word body since it showed up on a student’s <y>-to-<i> spelling list lately. Why does it only have one <d>? I can’t find any evidence of substructures in <body>, so there’s no doubling as in knobby or dropping an <e> as in copy, but why not *<boddy>, as in <toddy> or <lobby>? Because. An element’s spelling has to wok for every member of its family. A doubled consonant is the mark of a lexical spelling and it doesn’t follow a schwa. The base <body> has to work for every member of the family, including the pronouns anybody, everybody, somebody and nobody. So *<boddy> wouldn’t measure up.

I also kept coming back around to writing, to script, to the hand. To the hand that writes, the human hand that scratches out and wears smooth the written word over time. I thought again of a span, of the joints in words and the joints in hands. I remembered another recent conversation with a colleague about the word ancient with its excrescent <t>: lacking an <ent> suffix and with a base that surfaces nowhere else, it is unanalyzable in present-day English. Its joints and spans have weathered, ossified, but we can still see the structure of the word that was. Here’s what I wrote to that colleague:

“It’s kind of like a fossil: it’s all fused together now but you can still see where its bones once articulated at the joints.” Bones. Joints. Checking the joins. Structures and histories. Maybe I’m catching on to this etymetaphor thing Doug does so effortlessly.

There’s “lots of bad, bogus etymology to hack through in those sorts of words,” Doug had warned me in our dialogue. “But man is the measure of all things. Or human. Why I prefer Fahrenheit to centigrade. It’s human.” That was already the working title of this post when he wrote that. I already had script and da Vinci’s Vetruvian man in my mind. I know that writing makes physical what is not, what is in the human mind. Our grammar, our hand. And then Doug re-minded me about the humanity embodied in our writing, in our words, in how we size up our shared understanding. We discover our humanity in the written word. I’m pretty sure the Old Grouch has led me to ponder that before.

I have got to get those two men within arm’s distance of each other. I can hardly fathom the conversations that might result.

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Every year, Doug Harper and I put our heads together to figure out what we’re going to study for and with the folks who show up to our annual Etymology! weekend, and this year is no different.

Thanks to some recent questions about phonesthemes, assimilation, and to the constant, steady drip-drip-drip of Phombie sheeple who keep bleating praise to their gods of phalse phonology (really — it’s been a crazy few weeks), this year we’re taking a look at pronunciation, sound, phonology, and phonetics, over time.

Read the Registration Flyer. Look up the word phylogeny. Or just go and register now. And then look up phylogeny.

Hope to see you in March!

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Wait — Is This REAL?

The reaction to my claims about nonsense words being, you know, nonsense, has been ongoing and wide — including four continents, pro-phonics people and anti-phonics people (I am neither), accolades and insults. I have heard about what people feel and believe and even think, but I have not seen any actual evidence to falsify my assertions. I’ve had my name dragged through the mud on Facebook, had people call me mean (uh-gain), and had my credentials maligned because a mom in Australia can’t find me on Google Scholar.

It has been incredibly stressful.

So I was really looking forward to my study session tonight with a 2nd grader I call Cupcake. We almost didn’t make it, because scheduling stinks. But she came tonight at the end of a long and busy day, even with a bad cold, eager to look at word sums and matrices and the stories of silent letters. I haven’t even told her yet that making a matrix in a circle isn’t a “game.”

Her mom had texted me a picture of her spelling list this week: words with <wr> and <kn> and <gn> — some of my favorites! Phonics says those digraphs have “silent letters” (which is not helpful) and rarely offers much more of an explanation; I told Cupcake we were going to study not only how these spelling words were spelled, but also why they’re spelled that way.

She chose <sign> off her list to study first. Of course she did! I have met many a true scholar whose journey started with a question about the <g> in <sign>. We talked about traffic signs and traffic signals, did a word sum for <signal>, and then we talked about signatures and the significance of whatever it is that signs and signals can signify. We talked about how the <g> in <sign> is a zero, but the <g> in <gnat> is just part of a <gn> digraph (a distinction no phonics phan ever understood, but this 2nd grader did). We saved the <kn> stories for last, but my favorite part of the lesson came while we were studying <wr>.

kn-wr-gn-list

Edit: I realized after I posted and shared this photo that the title should be TRUE, not REAL: look in the upper right corner. But that doesn’t change the story at all.

While we looked at the <wr> words on her spelling list (including writing, even though she hasn’t learned about replacing a final <e> in school), I explained that bases with an initial <wr> pertain to twisting or turning. We picked a word from her list, <wrist>. I asked her what it means. She said, “It’s like an ankle, only it’s on your arm.” I thought that was a perfect definition. I asked her to show me how her wrist moves, and we compared it to her elbow. One twists; the other doesn’t. We talked about the word <wrong> and how when your sock is on wrong, it’s twisted, and how when you write, there are some twists and turns and you use your wrist.

As we thought of examples, Cupcake looked at me with a grin-crinkled nose and interrupted delightedly: “Wait—” she asked me, “is this stuff REAL?”

I thought this was a fantastic question, and I said so just as soon as I got done cracking up. I understood exactly what she meant. “Yes,” I said. “it’s real. I am not making this up.” I pulled out the <wr> card, the <kn> card, and the <gn> card out of my LEX Grapheme Deck and we began to look at them. “This is not a magic trick or some silly thing I invented,” I said. “It’s the real story and structure of the language.” I pointed to the Four Questions. She and her mom were so smiley and so amazed. Poor Cupcake had a runny nose and was yawning, but she stuck with me, because she was getting something real and she knew it.

Sense and meaning are the whole point of language, and written language is no exception. There is no need for nonsense. It’s not controversial or fruitless to study real things. It’s not even hard.

It’s all in the wrist.

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Develop, not Envelop

OK, Phombies, let’s consider phonics from the perspective of professional development. Phonics requires participants to memorize arbitrary sets of made-up things, like these:

~phonograms, which may be single graphemes, clusters, markers, syllables, parts of syllables affixes, rimes, or combinations thereof.

~syllable types, which are an unspecified mix of spoken and written patterns. Are there 6? 7? 8? I’ve heard it all.

~syllable division patterns, which are noncontrovserially artificial. Are there 4 patterns? 5? 6? 8? Where do you divide royal? How about roil? Or father? Is it fa.ther or fath.er? How do you know? What’s the evidence? If you divide de.ter.min.a.tion or ques.tion, you are totally missing everything about those words.

~phonemes for a grapheme, which may or may not actually be phonemes (like grouping <a> in with ‘short u’) or graphemes (like *<eigh> or *<ti>)

~copious, endless lies about etymology (I’ve documented this widely — go look — cry is not Anglo-Saxon and television is not Latin. The Romans HAD no televisions and they were so jealous of the Greeks about that).

~”guided questioning” which teachers are supposed to be able to pull out of their mental hat, and which are based on the rest of the false understanding: “what type of syllable is it?” “what is the vowel sound in a closed syllable?” “How many phonograms are there in nation?” “What spells */shun/?” Infinite questions, finite discoveries.

~red words or whatever you call this abomination. Words are not red or tricky or demons unless human beings make them that way. That is a fact. Give me any word you think is an exception and I will make your brain grow.

~symbols for pronunciation, which differ from one program to another, beyond the short and long vowels. If you represent medial consonant in ‘father’ as */th/, then how do you represent the medial consonant in ‘panther’ (also */th/?) or in ‘hothouse’ (also /th/?). Some programs use /TH/ or they underline it or bold it or whatever — as I said, not consistent.

Phonics makes you good at . . . phonics. It may improve your literacy performance, but it won’t make you good at other things.

And then there’s real language study, in which you get to gather the following things, organized in an elegant framework with finite set of scientific tools to understand and infinite discoveries to make:

~morphemes, which may be free (bases) or bound (bases, affixes)

~graphemes, which are actually visible and have been researched, analyzed, and published in my LEX deck, which my “peers” are welcome to “review” at any time. Graphemes reveal and pinpoint the messiness of the phonemes that are in our heads, about whose pronunciation phonics people are arguing ad nauseum. (How do you pronounce <wh>? Or the <a> in bang or bank? Is <ar> spelling one phoneme or two?)

~syllable types: there are only two: closed, which have a consonant coda, and open, which have no coda. We also get to understand that the nucleus of a syllable is not always a vowel, and under what circumstances. Linguists don’t disagree about this, at all.

~IPA: a comprehensive, real-world symbol system that works not only for English, but for any language, and that is used not only by linguists, but by lexicographers (proper dictionaries), musicians, speech pathologists, dialect coaches, actors, singers, computer programmers, communications researchers, university professors, language teachers and students, translators and interpreters, and more.

~word sums: these work the same way for any word, including checking the joins for suffixing patterns, and they are an established tool in linguistic science.

~matrices: infinite possibilities, finite guidelines, scientific tool.

~questions: Four. The same four, always. Nothing arbitary. Finite questions, infinite discoveries.

~attested roots and reconstructed roots: etymology is a linguistic science, not a triangle with false examples.

~explanations, not exceptions.

~InSights, not sight words

~Tools to form, test, and falsify hypotheses based on physical evidence

I am not interested in developing phonics professionals. I’m interested in developing professionals. Actually, I’m just interested in developing people and being developed by them.

If you want to cheerlead for phonics here, please do so with evidence, not with citations about some article you read or what some government is doing with its schools.

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I’m saying goodbye to 2016 in appropriate fashion: spending time with my family, eating a lot, fighting a cold, and studying word things.

Over the years that I’ve been at this word study and teaching and training thing, I’ve encountered references to a 1966 study known as The Stanford Spelling Survey, by Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf, four professors of education who analyzed 17,310 English words and wrote up their research in an article that’s cited over and over and over.  From this analysis of less than 2% of English words and a lot of number crunching, Hanna et al. concluded that English is 67% “regular.” That study has been used as the foundation of so much of modern phonics, including pedagogical decisions based on what patterns are considered “regular,” “common,” and “exceptions.”

This 50-year-old phonocentric study was brought to my attention again while I was working on my dissertation this past week, and also by a comment on my last post which I did not publish out of deference to the writer, who, like me, is a business owner with a public profile; unlike me, she runs a phonics center that trains people in Wilson and LETRs and other shopkeeping packages that I’ve countered with linguistic evidence many times before.  She wrote a comment to argue that the “frequency of occurrence with regard to nonsense words” matters, and cited a table from a 2010 book (which I have) that was copied from a 1976 book (which I also have), which itself was citing an article from 1966 (which I also have), that was in turn built on one author’s question from 1949 (yes, I have that too).

Paul Hanna’s 1949 question was “regarding the correspondences [of graphemes and phonemes] and their consistency in spelling,” as explained in the 1966 article. Twice I was directed to that 1966 article in my studies this week; there are no coincidences. As I said, I run into citations of that study frequently. It’s common. But this week’s two encounters were louder in my head than usual.  My email response to the LETRs Lady was clear and direct: I explained clearly that the “frequency of occurrence” of nonsense words is zero, and the “frequency of occurrence” of actual phonemes and graphemes in nonsense words is zero. The only evidence she had given me at all was a citation of a book citing another book citing an article, right? So I decided to trace it back to its source.

That table (which can be googled) was first published by Elsie D. Smelt in 1972 and has been cited widely since; her figures are taken from the 1966 Stanford Study. Smelt’s table says that “the most common way of writing each vowel sound is with one letter,” and this claim is attributed to the Stanford study as well. But what exactly do we mean by “common” or “frequent,” and how does that knowledge help readers and spellers? While single-letter vowel spellings may be the default grapheme for “long” and “short” vowel phonemes, spelling and reading strategies are not based on statistical calculations by proficient readers. Moreover, while we have only 6 single-letter vowel graphemes, we have more than 30 vowel digraphs and trigraphs, a ratio that troubles the notion of single letters being the “most common” spelling.  Let’s see what Hanna et al. actually say.

Here’s the basic framework they offer:

“These structural components of oral language include: (A) the phonetic reservoir from which a phonemic code is selected, (B) the phonemic base, (C) the morphological base, that is, the arrangement of phonemes into speech units which minimally express meaning, (D) the syntactic and grammatical base, that is, the arrangement of morphemes into syntactic patterns, and (E) the semantic base, which conveys meanings in terms of the conceptual system of a language community.” [I’m substituting his numbers with letters to make this post easier to write.]

Two things struck me right away: first, that these educators at least acknowledge a distinction between phonetic and phonemic concerns, which is more than I can say for many present-day phonics resources; and second, that they — and everyone who has followed in their formidable footsteps — have the way a language works totally backwards. Now, they’re talking about oral language rather than written, but the point is the same: you don’t start with phonetics and end up in meaning; rather, you start with meaning and from there, can analyze words (lexemes) into their sublexical (smaller-than-word) structures, including morphemes, phonemes, and the graphemes that pinpoint and reveal them.

In the word study I’m engaged in, we ask four questions:
(1) What does it mean?
(2) How is it built?
(3) What are its relatives?
(4) What segments and features of pronunciation matter to meaning? These segments are the only ones that are  revealed in the spelling.

Question 1 has to be first — there’s no point in knowing how to write a word whose meaning you don’t know.  And Question 4 has to be last — you can’t figure out the orthographic phonology until you have evidence for the other pieces. But Questions 2 and 3 can and do toggle considerably in any investigation. So you start with meaning, and you stay rooted in meaning all the way through. What does it mean?  And even Question 4, which deals with pronunciation, only concerns itself with aspects of pronunciation that matter to the meaning. So it’s the Stanford Study’s fifth and final concern — semantics, “the conceptual system of a language community” — which is where we actually need to start.

Our second question, How is it built?, is captured more or less in the Study’s third and fourth concerns, in which “the morphological base” and “the arrangement of morphemes” is considered. They define morphology as “the arrangement of phonemes into speech units which minimally express meaning.”

Oh if only there were some way to make those “speech units” that we use to “express meaning” visible!

Working backwards still, the Study’s second concern is phonology, the “phonemic base.” The reason there’s any fifth piece is because they’re talking about oral language, so phonetics is a thing because it’s actually spoken, and because although they differentiate phonetics from phonemics, they don’t seem to have any idea in the article that phonetics has nothing to do with orthography.

Of course, the Stanford Spelling Study doesn’t even mention etymological relatives, because it has no idea about the etymological governance of graphemes. It can tell you that 10% of the 17,000 words  that have /i:/ are spelled with <ee>, and 10% are spelled with <ea>, but it can’t tell you why <beech> and <beach> make sense. This study knows nothing about etymological markers or why words have a single, final, non-syllabic <e>. We know better now, so why is 21st-century so-called reading research still so married to a half-century-old, roundly debunked understanding of graphemes?

Seriously, professionals need to stop embarrassing themselves by clinging to these relics.

I also took a look at the numbers and at the phonemic and graphemic inventories used by this seminal study. It’s a bloodbath. I am not exaggerating. The phonemic inventory is lifted directly from the Merriam Webster Dictionary, which is important, because even if dictionaries were actually right about everything (they’re not), we’re still talking about a dictionary that has been updated and changed multiple times, including with regards to its pronunciation key, over the past 50 years. So the “research” that people want me to consider is based on a 50-year-old dictionary, interpreted by 50-year-old research, cited 40 years ago, and then re-cited in very recent years, none of which is evidence of anything at all about the language other than what cruddy research practices we have in literacy education.

The authors themselves “readily admit[] that this pronunciation key [from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary] has several critical weaknesses.”  They also acknowledge that linguists don’t always agree about everything, and that their graphemic inventory (which was all about how easily a computer could process 17,310 words) was also flawed.: “Unfortunately, complete consistency with this criterion could not be maintained, and so some exceptions to this general rule will be found among the list.” So we’re in exception-land, which is really not science. They do ask questions like “Is <I> a part of the graphemic option <TI> or <IO> in nation? In conscience, is <I> a part of the graphemic option <SCI> or <IE>?”, and they conclude that “Again linguists disagree upon this point.”

Well, folks, linguists may have disagreed on that point a half century ago, but orthographic linguists don’t disagree about it now. I already laid out proof in another post that there’s no <ie> in conscience — no matter that Louisa Moats says there is as though she proved it (she didn’t). Linguistics is a science, and we know more now about these kinds of questions — we have better tools now than we had 50 years ago, like the lexical word matrix, the orthographic word sum, the mini matrix maker, and the Online Etymology Dictionary, and better, faster ways of disseminating and discussing investigations and new information (in real time online classes, on editable websites and social media. We don’t have to carry around some dusty old misunderstanding like it’s our last keepsake from our long lost Pappy.

For reals, why are professionals — researchers and educators, of all people — clinging to 50-year-old research that didn’t even conceive of today’s scientific tools? Can you imagine if a surgeon or a rocket scientist did that? Mayhem. Can you imagine if we elected someone who ignored and denied modern climate science as President? Oh, wait… Sigh.

Science matters. Understanding the difference between factual, physical evidence, scientific consensus, and the repeated sub-letting of citations from, uh, wherever, something sciency-sounding, is just so critical to everything.

Among the lettery circus freaks that the Stanford Study offers in its admittedly troubled graphemic inventory are a *<bt> in debt, a *<ua> in guard and a *<cc> in occur. In real life, the <b> in debt is an etymological marker (debit); the <u> in guard, guaranteeguerillaguest, etc., is part of <gu> digraph that can mark an etymological relationship to cognates with a <w>: guard~warden, guarantee~warrantee, guerilla~war, guide~guise~guywire~wit~witness (‘to see’), guile~wily.  And as any regular reader already knows, the two <c>s in <occur> are each in separate morphemes. That’s like saying that there’s an <ea> in react or a <th> in hothouse. Big fat can of graphemic nope.

I could go on and on and on and on, but I’m gonna go hang out with my kid and watch a ball drop on this crazy calendar year. I’m not much for resolutions, but I’d welcome resolve to move into 2017 not clinging to antiquated phonics research like it’s a bible or a gun and something evil is after you.

I’m sorry that modern phonics is built on a rickety, outdated, dismantled, misguided, misquoted old study. I’m not sorry for pointing it out, and I’m not sorry for yelling a little. If you were clinging to a life raft of the same age and quality and I had a new speedboat, I’d be yelling just as loudly to save your life as I am now.

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