Archive for November, 2018

Content Enough to Function

I’m pleased to announce a long-overdue new LEXinar: The Content~Function Continuum.

Here’s the flyer:

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If you’ve received your new LEX Grapheme Deck, or an InSight Deck, and you’d like to understand more about “lexical spellings” or “functional spellings,” this is the class for you.

I’m offering this class twice over the northern hemisphere’s winter break: Friday, December 28th at 5pm CENTRAL Standard Time, or Thursday, January 3rd at 9am CENTRAL. When you register, please indicate which one you’d like to take.

The class includes a printable activity handout.

Please join me! Go here to register.

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2019 calendars are now available!

The cover has been updated (get it? up+DATE+ed!), and the inside features the same beautiful word studies and matrices for the months of the year as before.

LEX 2019 calendar cover

These make great holiday gifts for teachers, kiddos, college students, and word nerds.
Save $5 when you order before December 1st. Contact me for overseas orders.

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Stranger Danger

A longtime client just ordered a couple decks of cards, with this thoughtful and provocative note:

Hi Gina, I appreciate all that you do to help educate those of us who need to further our understanding of how the English writing system works. If you find a spare minute, I’d like to know why /g/ in anger is different than the /g/ in danger.

It’s a fine question, and I have financial paperwork to avoid, so I thought I’d write up a response and share it.

First, there is no */g/ in danger, and that’s the point. What my client actually wants to know is why the <g> in anger is different than the <g> in danger.

Second, we need to consider the Four Questions: what each of the words Mean, how each word is Built, and what each word’s Relatives are, before we can consider the fourth question, which is about Letters and Pronunciation, which is what my client’s question is about. I understand that it’s tempting to ask Question #4 without addressing any of the first three questions, but it’s also lazy.

I’m going to assume that my readers know what both of those words Mean and can use them in a sentence, maybe even the same sentence. Both words can be nouns, but only anger can be a verb; if you want to verb danger, you have to add a prefix: endanger. Huh. Whaddya know? An <en-> prefix is French! Even though Louisa Moats claims that it’s *Anglo-Saxon, it’s not. She’s wrong. That kind of guesswork malpractice crap from well-paid “experts” really angers me, and it’s dangerous to our public dialogue.

Oh, hey, look. An <-ous> adjectival suffix. Also French; compare to Modern French <-eux>, as in heureux. If I want to make anger into an adjective, though, there’s no *angerous. Just angry. Huh. Looks like hunger~hungry and winter~wintry. English has a handful of different <-y> suffixes, but this is the only adjectival one. It’s also the only Germanic one. It derives from an Old English <-ig> suffix, which itself is related to the <-ic> we see in Classical words and the French <-ique> that derives from it.

Once we start talking about prefixes and suffixes, of course, we’re moving into how a word is Built and what its Relatives are. So far we have anger, angers, angry and danger, endanger, dangerous, but we haven’t established the structure of anger and danger themselves. Both have <er> at the end, but is it a suffix? English also has a handful of different <-er> suffixes; some are Germanic, and some are French. The two most common suffixes —  the comparative <-er> inflection as in smarter, truer, bolder; and the agentive <-er> derivation as in thinker, writer, truth-teller — are both Germanic, but neither of those are in place in either of these words. Neither word is an adjective, so they can’t be comparative forms, and their nominal uses are not agentive. Anger is not something that *angs, and danger never *danges. It is also not the case that either word is a frequentative verb, like flitter or stammer.

In the entry for one of its six <-er> suffixes, my Mactionary lists danger as an example of a noun with an <-er> “ending corresponding to Latin -arius, -arium.

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Really, both of those words — butler and danger — are bad examples, because neither of them has an attested Latin root with an -arius or an -arium at all (though *dominarium is reconstructed in the Vulgate). Both of these words were molded in French from Latin pieces, but neither of them are Latin words with an -arius or an -arium in the same sense as stationer (L. stationarius) or vintner (L. vinetarius).

Even if we did analyze the <er> in danger as a suffix, however, it would not be generative, because there are no relatives with a *<dang(e)> base element. The word dang is a minced oath or euphemism for damn, and dangle is a Scandinavian word with unclear origins. Danger is befittingly an adventurer, a rogue member of its etymological family, and its vowel took a leap from the <o> that marks the rest of the family, as we can see in this helpful graphic from LIVE author Scott Mills (which I’ve doctored every so slightly by adding a yellow danger to the circle):


Anger, on the other hand, has a final <er> that is not listed among the Mactionary’s <-er> suffixes, but which derives from an Old Norse verbal <ra> suffix whose descendent we also see in the present day words glitter, blunder, and teeter. If I analyze the <er> in anger as a suffix, then, can I find that same <ang> base element elsewhere? In other words, does it have any generative Relatives?

Well, yes. It does. And I posted about my understanding of them here, on my Facebook page in 2013 (go look). Since anguish and angina are Latinate, while anger and angry and angst are Germanic, one might decide not to include them in the same matrix. I now understand that the <u> in anguish is not a connecting vowel, because there’s no history of a connecting vowel letter in that word; rather, the <gu> digraph toggles here with the <g> to preserve the phonological governance in this Latinate word, just like a <ck> toggles with a <c> in words like panicky or trafficked.

That kind of thing — that toggling — happens in words with Latinate phonological histories, in which a <c> is palatized (or ‘soft’) before an <e, i, or y>. Because <c> and <g> are closely related, of course, the <g> can have the kind of palatalized variance in its phonology. Can have. A <c> does have that kind of variance; a <g> can, but it doesn’t have to.

The palatization of <c> and <g> in English is Latinate. Germanic words do not have an initial ‘soft’ <c> or <g>: words like cent, city, cycle, cell, ceiling, and gem, germ, giant, gym, and ginger all have Latinate and/or Hellenic histories. Latin itself didn’t have ‘soft’ <c> or <g>; the palatization occurred as Vulgar Latin evolved into French, Catalan, Italian, Galician, etc.  Most words that end with <ge> or <ce> are Latinate; those few that are Germanic were respelled after the arrival of the Norman French: once, twice, bodice, ice, mice all had a final <s> at some earlier point.

Every word that has an <ci, ce, or cy> in present-day English has a ‘soft’ <c>, but that does not hold true for <g>. Words like girl, get, giddy, gift~give, gimlet, giggle, gill, gillie, gear, gecko, and geegaw are not Latinate. Words that maintain a [g] before an <e, i, or y> are not Latinate. In native English words like clingy and tangy (related to tongue and tongs), the <g> does not have to ‘soften,’ but it might, as it does in dingy and stingy.

Let’s go back to anger and its relatives. The Germanic members of the family, like anger, angry, angsthangnail~agnail, all have a [g], while the Latinate angina has a [ʤ], and the Latinate anguish toggles out a <gu> for the <g> to maintain the [g]. The Latinate family also includes cousins with an <x>, like anxious and anxiety; the <g>~<x> relationship is common in Latinate families, like Rex~regal or lex~legislate.

Wow. What a cool writing system.

*           *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Several years ago, in one of my university classes, one of my students investigated the words laughter and slaughter, both nouns that look almost identical, but clearly do not have the same phonology. While they are both native English words, their histories and structures are totally different. She learned, and shared wit the class, that words are not necessarily related just because their surfaces look alike; what matters is their structure and history.

One of my teacher’s common admonitions is to “beware of WYSIWYGgery” — there is no dent in dental, and there is no play in display. There’s no <-ing> in bring, and no <-ed> in bobsled. There’s no <sh> in mishap, and no <ie> in cried. It is not scientific to assume that two words that look alike are alike, in any other way than visual. That is a specious expectation: it is deceivingly attractive. It’s not science if you skip the history and the relatives.

No phonological question can be answered with respect for the writing system if that’s where we start, and English orthography is no stranger than any other writing system: phonology is always part of meaning-making. Always. Phonology is tied to meaning, and phonemes cannot be disembodied from words and morphemes and still properly understood. Even a /g/.

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