Yeah, No

The woman on the left is the founder of a reading intervention company, and the woman on the right is one of her trainers.

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Yesterday, at the International Dyslexia Association conference, the woman on the right came over to my exhibit table. I did not know her, and I noticed that she was not wearing a name tag in the highly-monitored exhibit hall. There was a small crowd of people at my table, and Catherine began to ask me some very confrontational questions of the “What do you do for a kid who has X problem and can’t Y” nature.
“What do you do for a kid who has a really low vocabulary and can’t understand one of those tables [a word matrix]?”
Or “What do you do for a kid who can’t remember all the sounds in a word?”
Et cetera.
I patiently answered her questions. “A child with a low vocabulary still knows the words do, does, done, doing, undo, redo,” I said. “Or today, tonight, tomorrow, into, onto,” I added.
When she barked her fourth or fifth question at me, which was, “What do you do for a kid who needs phonemic awareness training?”, I did what any good teacher does:
“Well,” I asked her, “how do you handle that now?”
“I DO PHONEMIC AWARENESS ACTIVITIES!!!!” she verily hollered at me. She moved herself closer to the table and pointed her finger my way. “But I’m not here to answer your questions. I’m asking YOU questions. What do YOU do?”
So, although she clearly believed that she was there to impersonate a machine gun, I responded thoughtfully, as I had been responding to people’s questions for two days. “We work with the understanding that English spelling makes sense,” I began to explain.
“Yeah, I know all that,” she interrupted. “I’m asking how you do phonological awareness.”
I continued. “When you start with sense and meaning, then you put phonology in its proper place. See, Orton-Gillingham puts phonology first,” I went on.
“I DON’T DO ORTON-GILLINGHAM!” she responded. She said she does “linguistics.” She said something about teaching kids “mouth cards,” whatever that is. But she also articulated the following abject garbage:
~She claimed that the [j] in onion was a “schwa.” I explained that a schwa is a mid-central vowel and pointed out that [j] is a palatal consonant.
~She claimed that the word action has an <act> base and a *<tion> suffix, but that the two <t>s “overlap.”
My colleague responded, “That is not a thing.” Because, you know, that is not, in fact, a thing.
~She claimed that the words union and onion were not related, even after I showed her that they both derive from the Latin root unio/unionem.

In the meantime, other people were listening, enjoying, and making that little mind-blown signal with their hands.

~She claimed that <ea> only spells [eɪ] in “three words” — but I pointed out that the base element <break> alone surfaces in close to 100 words.
~She claimed that the word <yea> is pronounced [jæ] — but it is, of course [jeɪ ]. She had no idea what ‘yea and nay’ or ‘the yeas have it’ meant. I explained that [jæ] is spelled <yeah> and takes the final <h> because it has a lax vowel. “But yeah is informal, and yea can be formal,” I said. She shook her head at me.

Here’s what the Mactionary (and every other dictionary, really) has to say:
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~She referred to [s] and [dʒ] as *sibilates. Close: they are sibilants. She appealed to the authority of her colleague, trained in the same silliness. Warning: appeal to authority is a logical fallacy.
~She claimed that there are four suffixes which she pronounced [ʃʌn, ʒʌn, ʧʌn, & jʌn]; I patiently explained that there was only one suffix, spelled <ion>, and that an <i> can palatalize a preceding <t>, <s>, <c>, or <x> in Latinate words. She off-gassed some more Phombie gospel about shuns and chuns and chit.
“I’ll tell you what,” I offered. “I teach a class on Latin palatalization,” I said. “I will let you take that class for free.”
“I TOOK LATIN! I know all that.”
At this point, I didn’t even try to explain to her the difference between someone who took a Latin class once, and the deep and coherent study of how Latinate patterns work in English spelling. I just reiterated my offer to take a $140 class for free.
And she just reiterated how she already knew all the Latin things, only louder. In among the word salad, she shredded some grammarese. “I studied Latin and I learned that every word has a case.”
“Well, if you learned that, you were lied to,” I said. “Every Latin noun has a case, but not every Latin word. Verbs don’t have case.”
“Yes they do!” she insisted. “They have cases that show their tense.”
I shook my head in stunned disbelief. “Look, you’re obviously very confident in your understanding, but you’re wrong,” I explained. “Verbs have tense, but case is nominal. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles can have case, but not verbs. I think you mean inflection,” I offered.
Adding several decibels and to her outside voice, she began to continue her tirade, so I said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you need to leave my table now. Not only are you patently wrong, but you’re yelling at me.”
She huffed one last puff, and as she walked away, she turned back and shrieked my way, “No WONDER they stuck you way over in the corner ALL BY YOURSELF!” Everyone stared at her. The fact is that I had chosen a booth on an aisle near the restrooms and an exit, and had no shortage of visitors.
The small crowd at my table began to assure me that this woman had behaved bizarrely confrontationally, and that I had responded patiently and generously. One New Yorker said, “You’re my new guru. My one talent is being able to tell when someone knows what they’re talking about, and you clearly do.”
A bit later, someone told me that that woman — the shouty one who’s memorized all the phonics on the answer key of life — was actually a fellow IDA exhibitor; she was there running the Wired for Reading booth. Oh, she was Wired all right. WfR is a phonics program that calls itself “linguistics” although the developer is not a linguist and the people who work there have not studied linguistics — that seems to be a trend [cough cough DTI]. The developer of the program, Laura Rogan, admits that she relies on her “intuition” and “creativity,” neither of which are actually linguistics. Anne Phillips, a Phombie who dedicates part of her life to misrepresenting SWI on Twitter, is also a WfR person. I looked up WfR online, found Catherine Thompson’s photo, and realized that she had actually removed her name tag specifically to come over and harangue me at my table in front of a small audience of my gobsmacked clients and colleagues.

Gee, why do you think this gaggle of lady language liars might be threatened by a real linguist? As my colleague who witnessed the whole thing said, “If you’re going to try to take on Gina Cooke about phonology, you better buckle up.”

I’ve offered free classes to dozens of people, but people like Catherine Thompson never take me up on it, because they’re more interested in feeling right than in sharing in an accurate and coherent understanding. So, Catherine Thompson, the Latin Palatals class is still yours to take for free, but the offer expires at the end of this calendar year.

Is the class any good, you wonder? Well, just ask anyone who’s taken it.

The yeas have it.


  1. Michael Bennett Cohn says:

    So where can I sign up for the free class on Latin palatalization?

  2. True knowledge always wins! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me and the rest of the world. I am enlightened by every post I read. Please keep writing.

  3. Sharon Sudman-O'Neill says:

    Being there, I can only say that those two only had the intention to start a confrontation no matter what was said!!!! Gina it was such a pleasure to meet you in person and look forward to another path on my journey to help individuals learn. I can only inspire to possess a fraction of the knowledge you have!!!! Thank you and your colleague (I’m sorry for forgetting your name, but loved speaking to) for all of your information yesterday!!!!! Please come back to IDA again!!!!!

    • I really enjoyed meeting you too, Sharon! So glad you came by. The point is not the *amount* of knowledge one has; the point is one’s willingness to keep learning. My colleague Emily is the very best, and was such a great help to me. Conferences are exhausting is many ways, but what energizes me is getting to meet so many curious, honest, and dedicated people like you who are motivated by a coherent and elegant understanding of written language.

  4. Catherine Thompson says:

    I will be happy to take you up on your offer to take the class as the only person yelling at that table was you. When is the next one offered?

    • Great! You can learn about course scheduling on the LEXinars tab of my website. The website is currently being redone, if you’d rather wait for the new website that will be ready in a few weeks.

      If I pay for a table, then I can yell at it if I want to. What *you* did was to approach *my* table with no name tag on, pretending to have questions, carrying a bizarrely hidden agenda, and start pointing and yelling. What you did was unhinged, Fren’.

      When you do join the class, you will have to mind your manners, as there will be witnesses there just like there were in the conference hall. One of them has already posted in the comments here, LOL.

  5. Bernie Frost says:

    Boy I wish I was there. I would’ve liked to see you in action. Good for you!!

  6. Shawna Audet says:

    We all have unpleasant encounters from time to time. The wonderful thing about those moments is that they provide us with opportunities to grow. Instead of fighting against the unpleasant feeling that comes when you feel that you are being verbally attacked, examine the roots of your feelings so that you can make peace with it.

    Since Catherine is planning on taking your class, I urge both of you to press the “reset” button on your relationship. Start fresh. When the class begins, your relationship is one of a teacher and a student. That means that the teacher is there to create the best learning experience for her student and the student comes an open mind and is ready to learn.

    I wish you both the best.

    • So, for starters, total stranger giving me unsolicited advice, which is weird in and of itself, Catherine and I don’t have a “relationship.” That’s like saying that someone has a “relationship” with their mugger or with the wacko on the subway who shouts insults at fellow passengers. No. Relationship.

      Second — and far more importantly — I think that your advice to “make peace” with “being verbally attacked” in a “relationship” is patently INSANE. That’s the kind of terrible advice that leaves people stranded in abusive relationships.

      For the record, I have taught that class three times since I offered it to Catherine for free, and she has not taken it. So she really isn’t a serious student, she really doesn’t want to learn, and she has clearly violated the unsolicited, weirdly middle-aged-lady-lecturey advice you offer in your last sentence.

  7. krisclark3 says:

    Appalling behavior. The truth is, that I know that you would have been more than willing to listen to a valid argument and admit it if someone else has a good point. I have seen you listen to a valid argument and change your thinking on a topic. I can understand disagreeing, and even being a bit defensive of your own beliefs, but arguing beliefs rather than trying to have a disagreement based on a discussion of actual facts is childish at best. And to come up to your professional table as another professional and try and shame you in front of your peers and potential customers is just wrong.

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