Archive for February, 2018

Spirit Animals

I am ridiculously excited to welcome two new companions to my study circle.  The first time I meet with a child for the first time, I always ask them what their parent has told them about our meeting.

Wynn identified me as a linguist. I asked him what a linguist studies, and he said, “Words?” So I showed him that yes, we can study words, but we can also study structures larger than words and smaller than words. For any of those structures, we can consider how it’s built, where it came from, and what it is and is not related to.

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Wynn is a 5th grade boy who is a non-writing avid reader who loves history and his pug. He’s not the first adolescent boy who snugged his pupper during our whole online session; my ‘in’ words with other boys have included both dachsund (German for ‘badger-dog’) and cockapoo (a portmanteau of cocker spaniel and poodle). Next time I meet with Wynn, we’ll study pug. I have no idea where that word came from: Was the pub named for its nose? Or was the nose named for the dog?

Zebra is a 2nd grade girl who pegged me right away as a “word specialist” and who loves, well, zebras, of course. Zebra and I both love pink and glitter, so we totally bonded.

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She already knew that < a, e, i, o, u > and sometimes < y > are vowels; I told her that lexical words that end in < a > or < o > are not native English words. She had a hunch that zebras were from Africa, so we looked at the history of the word, and found out that it is indeed foreign, just like the thing it names. We built a house for our word family, also known as a matrix, and we practiced a couple of word sums.

I also told Zebra about my other study partner Cupcake, who loves pandas like a crazy person. When I was that age, it was koalas. Hey! Look! All those animal words end with < a > and name animals that are not native to England and do not have native English names!

Animals are an inspired way in to language study for so many kids. Even the word animal is itself wonderful and revealing to study, for those who aspire to an understanding. The wonderful ways that humans have named their animal companions make for fascinating study, and that study can really breathe new life into how kids understand and are motivated to understand their writing system.

Over the past several years, it has been my pleasure to offer Dave Buchen’s Why is a Tiger a Tiger, as it provides an almost conspiritorially enticing entry into etymology for any kid who resonates with animals. LEX kept that book alive in a second edition after the first went out of print. Dave recently informed me that he is doing a Spanish version of the book, and will be publishing both on his own later this year.

I will continue to sell the book through this year’s Etymology conference; order yours now so you don’t miss out! You never know what will transpire.

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I’ve used this title for workshops and conference presentations and professional developments — and I’m using it again for exciting work next month in Portland! But it’s also what I do for kids and families, on a daily basis: Make Sense of English Spelling.

While schools and schoolteachers bask in the ignorance of lists and quizzes, I take those lists and make sense of them. Word sums. A matrix, maybe. Word histories. Patterns that are the same. Patterns that differentiate.

Last week, I made sense of a spelling list for a dyslexic 6th grader I’ve studied with a handful of times. He got 100%. I don’t really care about that grade, but I do care about what it reveals: that dyslexics are not phlawed people who need to be phonemed to death; they are liberated by the truth about their own language. After only about 6 or 7 meetings, he’s self-reporting that reading is “easier” and “makes more sense.”

Today, one of my favorite Mother Bears posted her kiddo’s silly spelling list:

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Not a single one of these words is a native English word. What, praytell, makes papaya a bigger challenge than macaroni? These are abritrarily grouped according to “Spelling Words” (which are somehow not challenging?) and “Challenge Words” (which also have to be spelled?). How totally random.

Instead, how about if we grouped them into Non-English Foods and Non-English Natural Phenomena? Or New World Words and Old World Words? Or How Imperialism Stole Words and Butchered Them Before Handing Them Over to English?

Native and nativized English lexical words do not end in single syllabic vowels other than <y>. A final <e> is non-syllabic; English doesn’t end words in <i> or <u>, and polysyllabic lexical words that end in <o> or <a> are not native. Sofa, aroma, banjo, bongo, tacohaikucaribouplateau, all adopted.

Really, there are so many ways to make sense of these. Here’s one:

Not English because it ends in <i>:

khaki ~ From the Persian word for ‘dust.’ Besides the <i>, the <kh> is also foreign. We find it in words we’ve adopted from Persian, Hindi, Arabic, Turkish, sometimes Greek, and former Soviet-block languages. Also non-English: the <k> after a single vowel letter. Like yak or anorak.

safari ~ From the Arabic word for ‘journey.’ Picture a dusty journey through the desert sands and you’ve got khaki and safari. The vowels are all <a>s outside of that final <i>.

macaroni ~ From Italian, of course, in which the <i> on the end of pasta marks them as plural (in Italian only. In English we would say macaronies and spaghettis).  The word was probably originally Greek, but it denotes paste or pasta or dough and is related to macaroon and macaron — two different kinds of sweet (pasty) treats. I could go on about that <on> in there, so I will: it’s all over Romance languages. In French, it’s <on>. We anglicized it to <oon>: saloon (compare salon), spitoon, balloon, cartoon (carton)… In Italian it’s <one>, and when that’s pluralized, it’s <oni>. Like Patrone. Note the single <c>.

Just for fun:

spaghetti: ‘little strings’
linguini: ‘little tongues’
orichetti: ‘little ears’
radiatori: ‘little radiators’
ditalini: ‘little thimbles / little digits’
penne: ‘feathers‘ (plural of penna

tsunami ~ From Japanese, in which it is a compound: tsu ‘harbor’ + nami ‘wave.’ In Japanese, /ts/ is an affricate / cluster phoneme. In English, sometimes we pronounce the [t] and sometimes we don’t.

Not English because Imperialism:

succotash ~ Corn and lima beans. Native New World foods. Note the <cc> double. Native American loanwords are one of the few places we see that non-English <cc>: raccoon, tobacco, moccasin, yucca.

papaya ~ The same thing as a pawpaw. This is the Spanish / Portguese version of the New World word.

barbeque ~ Also spelled <barbecue>, because it’s not English. It’s also a Spanish / Portguese rendering of a New World word.

tomato ~   also a Spanish / Portguese rendering of a Native American word.

banana ~ Spanish / Portguese version of a native Mande (Niger-Congo) word.

Not English because food (in addition to the above):

yogurt ~ Also spelled <yoghurt> or <yoghourt>, because it’s not English. Turkish. That <gh> is sometimes in there? It’s like the <kh> that we saw above. Why are words that can be spelled multiple ways even on spelling tests? Duh.

artichoke ~ from Arabic via Spanish & Italian. A handful of food words from/through Arabic start with <a>: alcohol, alfalfa, apricot, aubergine, because of the Arabic article al.

sauerkraut ~ The <kr> sequence is foreign. A German compound: sauer ‘sour’ + kraut ‘cabbage.’ People have called Germans ‘Krauts’ since the 19th century, but the morpheme just means cabbage. That <au> as /aʊ/ is German: frau, ablaut, umlaut.

Not English words because not English things:

karate ~ Japanese. The <ka> sequence is foreign. The syllabic final <e> is foreign. The CVCVCV is very Japanese (also in tsu.na.mi).

koala ~ From an Aboriginal Australian word for the animal, of course. The <ko> sequence is foreign, as is a final <a> in a polysyllable (see also banana, papaya).

stampede ~ Another Spanish contribution to the English of the New World, this used to be stampedo, and it’s related to stamp; they are both historically Germanic and have a denotation of ‘press, pound.’

The red words have European origins. The purple ones are Japanese. Green are New World. Maroon and brown and orange are Middle Eastern and African and Aboriginal. At least give kids an idea that words, like people, are diversely storied. Their foreign origins make them more interesting, not something to be avoided.

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This is the time of year when many of my linguist friends are reading (and often groaning) through piles of urgent and tender and cloying personal statements from would-be linguists and speech pathologists applying for university admission. Many years ago, I wrote something like that, a statement of purpose for my application to graduate study in linguistics at the University of Chicago. My stated interest, at the time, was admittedly lofty: I wanted to build a career on teaching tolerance through the study of foreign language.

I had no idea then that my career would orbit around English, let alone around English spelling. I’d argue that my experiences with foreign languages equipped me uniquely to make sense of English spelling; would-be linguists who are not polyglots lack a broad enough linguistic vision to be able to do so. It wasn’t my plan, but everything I ever studied in earnest prepared me for this life: languages, logic, set and number theories, writing, and linguistics.

Good thing I worked so hard then so I can explain spelling lists now.

Someone ought to.

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This next point may sound like I am politicizing things, and I am.

In a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia, in an era in which immigrants are demonized and widely and falsely associated with crime, in a day in which it is increasingly hard to Dream, for crying out loud, can we please at least talk to kids about the very real and very cool things that can and do happen when different peoples and languages and cultures contribute to each other?

Like karate and barbecue and macaroni. Hold the succotash, though. I can’t make sense of lima beans.


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E-Etymology and Syllable-S

Two announcements:

Online options for attending this year’s Etymology! VI conference with Douglas Harper are now available in the online store. I will have two people running the Zoom room and conversation: one in the Zoom room joining us remotely, and one in the room room live with Doug and me. That way we can make sure you have a good view of anything being presented or shared. Please make sure to select the correct option when you sign up.

I’m also offering a totally unrelated resource — a researched monograph on syllables — delivered electronically as a PDF. This is not a published paper, just my academic writing, made available because I am sick to death of chipper people insisting that I just haven’t met the right syllable pedagogy yet. The field has known for nearly 50 years that syllables are hogwash; it’s time to stop perpetuating chipper lies because you feel good about them. Please. So here’s a link where you can get “Making Sense of Syllables”.

Happy studying!


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Stuck in the Middle?

Sundays are busy.
Garbage goes out. Grocery store. Prep for school. Organize paperwork. Check the calendar. Plan the week.
These days, Sundays also include 1 or 2 kiddos in the morning, followed by Old English for Orthographers. That LEXinar was one of my first two, developed in 2014 because a beautiful and curious soul from Nashville asked me for it. Since a lot of my scholarship community has some kind of background in Orton-Gillingham (or MSLE), many of them have encountered Bob Calfee’s “Layers of Language” triangle model in which English words are divvied up into so-called Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek “layers.” You can totally google it if you want to see it.
That triangle is problematic for a lot of reasons. For starters, of the dozen words it claims are “Anglo-Saxon” (bird, blood, cry, ditch, girl, grave, jump, laugh, mother, mouth, run, wash), at least three are not, and a fourth one might not be. The words girl and jump lack Old English roots, and cry is from Old French, from a Latin verb for ‘wailing or keening’ and probably originally echoic, like squeal and squeak or whine and wheedle.
The word grave is actually two different words — homographs — and honestly, I don’t think either of them is really a “common” or “everyday word used often in ordinary situations” — if it is, I feel sorry for those kids. One of the graves is, in fact, of Old English origin, and thus “Anglo-Saxon”: the one that means ‘burial place.’ It’s related to groove and thus to groovy. The other one, unrelated, means ‘serious’ and it’s Latinate, as we can see when we look at its broader word family: gravity, gravitation, gravitas, aggravate.

Even the 8 words that are actually of Old English origin paint a false picture. Many words of Old English origin are wonderfully abstract, higher-register words, like forlorn or fathom or abide.

Another problem is that the triangle uses non-empirical descriptors, contending that words of Latin origin are “technical, sophisticated words,” and then cherry-picking their examples. They conveniently overlook words with Latinate histories like cup, plate, sock, pen, pencil, note, round, square, class, catch, lesson, and chair.  The triangle does the same thing with Greek, stacking the evidence deck by picking only “specialized words used mostly in science,” like atmosphere and chromosome. They mistake genome for a “compound,” and they choose 100% Modern English words, coined by modern scholars, from Greek parts. I can assure you that the ancient Greeks never once discussed the atmosphere, chromosomes, genomes, photographs, or thermometers.

I’ve been speaking and writing about this very thing for a long time. One of the big things that this triangle misses is French — not the modern loanwords like mustache and chef and chaise and niche  and château in which a <ch> spells /ʃ/, but the much earlier contributions from those Franco-Vikings, the Normans, and their Scandinavian version of Old French. Words like chance and choice and march and catch. The words chair and chief — commonly mistaken as “Anglo-Saxon” words — were actually borrowed from Old French in early Middle English and then re-borrowed from Modern French into Modern English centuries later as chaise and chef.

The river we call English has not stopped flowing, but the triangle has no place for any of those words.

Where a word — or an element — came from and how it got here? That matters. Even to young kids, just acquiring their literacy.

One of my online students, I call him Thane (go look it up), is in 6th grade and has a wonderful dyslexic mind. He understands his dyslexia to require him to take additional time to process and produce language; indeed, I have noticed that speeding through things with him is never helpful, but given enough time to think through his understanding, he makes clear and often brilliant connections. He is finely-tuned to pronunciation, and it’s something we talk about all the time. For example: “Where does the [ʧ] come from in country?”

Today, we were studying the words contract and contrast, and it was really a lesson in WYSIWYGgery, that tendency to fail to look beneath the surface. These two words look a lot alike on the surface, and all phonics would do with them is divide them into syllables. However, word sums for the two words reveal two very different structures: one is a compound <contra + st>, and the other is a base plus a prefix <con + tract>.

We decided to zero in on contrast, and he chose the <st> base to study further. Along the way, we encountered stage and state, two words commonly mistaken for “Anglo-Saxon” words. The truth is so much more interesting. I asked Thane to do a word sum for state, and he offered *<sta + te>. I was taken aback, because we had just been looking at that <st> base. I know that feeling well, the sense of being totally puzzled by my dyslexic student’s error, because we had just been talking about a thing.

But given enough time, and my curiosity, Thane was able to explain his reasoning, which was really brilliant. “Why did you put the plus sign there?” I asked. I did not tell him he was wrong, or tell him to trace it, or pull out a flashcard. I just asked him what he was thinking. And I’m so glad I did.

“Well, I know that ate is a word on its own, so it can’t be a suffix.” Again, I didn’t tell him he was wrong. I just nodded and moved on.

“So what does ate mean?” I asked him.

He told me, “Like, I ate dinner.

“OK, so it’s the past tense of eat. I said. Every day I eat dinner; yesterday I ate tacos.” He nodded. I pointed again to state. “Does the word state have anything to do with eating?” I asked.


“Well then there must be something else going on.” I pulled up the Online Etymology Dictionary. We looked up ate, and it directed us to eat. We went to eat and Thane told me right away that it’s from Old English. Then I typed <-ate> into the search bar, and we found that any <-ate> suffix we have in English is Latinate. They are not the same form!

“Oh, wow!” he said. There it was: understanding and proof. Not drills and memorization, but understanding.

“Let’s look at another one,” I said. We studied <st + age>. Thane knows his way around a theater, so he could tell me what a stage is. I also used the phrase at this stage of my life… to give him another idea of the word’s senses. “Do you think that the <age> has to do with age?” I asked him. He did not. We also studied postage and courage and garage to see a different pronunciation of that suffix.

Just because things may look or sound the same doesn’t mean they are the same. And just because they look or sound different, doesn’t mean they are! The suffix <-less> and the quantifier less are not the same; the suffix <-ful> and the adjective full basically are the same. The suffix <-able> and the word able are not the same; the suffixes <-able> and <-ible> historically are the same thing. They’re allomorphs: variant forms of the same deeper morphemic structure.

The Germanic grave is not the same thing as the Latinate grave. They may look the same, but they’re not.

All those sweet little pieces of English that get missed in the triangle? That Norman French that burst into an already Scandinavianized Old English? Yeah, that’s Middle English. It’s just where Doug Harper and I will be picking up for our Etymology conference next month.

I will be announcing options for virtual attendance this week. Don’t get Stuck in the Middle (English). Stay tuned, and join us.

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