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Archive for the ‘Morphology’ Category

My Symposium in the Pines ended ten days ago; my last guests departed the next day. Since then, I’ve ordered school clothes and school supplies for my son, who starts school on August 1st. My InSight 3 Decks arrived,  were processed, and shipped. I still have shipping stuff all over the living room, both coming and going. The wine glasses from the Symposium’s freaking magical Wednesday night dinner were still sitting on my dining room table two Sundays later, waiting for me to make sense of the kitchen and run them through the dishwasher.

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Worth it.

In January of this year, I realized that the Australia trip I had imagined for this summer was not going to materialize, so I decided to focus my energies on bringing people to Prescott. I moved here with my son two years ago, and have marveled at the natural beauty, the Native American presence, the rip-roarin’ Old West history, the charming Courthouse Square downtown, the diverse architectural treasures, and the present-day arts-and-antiques culture. I wanted to share all of this, so I paid a huge deposit on a boutique hotel undergoing renovations and crossed my fingers.

Worth it.

By the end of April, I had deposits from enough people to fill the hotel’s 12 rooms. A couple people backed out, and a couple more came to take their place. I could not have designed a better group, though I suspect that pretty much any mix of my serious clients would’ve had its own special character. Some people who came have only been studying with me for a little over a year; for others, it’s been closer to two decades. No one took everything home from the week, but everyone took something. Lots of things, in fact. The content was organic: sketched out at the beginning of the week, but open for questions and tangents and rabbit holes. IMG_20190727_102429

I am somewhat embarrassed to write that several attendees brought me gifts.  I mean, in addition to paying to be there and traveling in from afar, they brought me gourmet chocolates, fancy paper drinking straws with little die-cut cacti on them, a book about swearing in many languages, a handmade mussel-shaped dish, and a hand-crocheted market bag that I christened this weekend. One lovey brought me homemade spanakopita in her suitcase, frozen for the trip. I did nothing to deserve any of it.

But I did organize a hell of a week.

In addition to our studies, we toured the Sharlot Hall Museum and learned about Arizona’s earliest days. We visited local pre-Columbian petroglyphs and went kayaking at Watson Lake — our three brave paddle-boarders were no match for strong winds and had to be rescued, but no one was hurt, unless you count my stupid sunburn. There was an early morning hike to Thumb Butte. We had this beautiful catered group dinner on Wednesday night at the stunning Foxbriar Inn, and on Thursday we got to tour the stunning 1907 Masonic Temple downtown, its original ceremony room now a photography studio, with the original pentalpha lighting and carved wooden lintels intact. Those who stayed Friday night had an impromptu Friday night wine-and-pizza gathering at the beautiful home of one of the local teachers who had joined us.

Of course, none of this was the point.

We studied our hearts out. We clarified PIE patterns and Germanic grammar, Latin twin bases and combining forms, and Greek formative elements. We investigated lexical doublets and French cousins and we even had a Zoom visit from Doug Harper, who walked us through the suppletive tendencies of the verb to be. We examined the three suffixing patterns in English, and we teased apart differences between conventions and principles. We discussed zero allophones and etymological markers, default graphemes and competing constraints. Over the course of the week, we circled back several times to the replaceable <e>, because how could we not? So-called ‘silent’ letters in general make English spelling work optimally, but the <e> in particular is the linchpin to the whole system. I bet you a dollar that’s in every single person’s notes.

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When my great-grandmother, Idonia, was pregnant with or a new mother to my paternal grandfather, Charlie, in 1900, her husband, Harry, skipped town or went to prison or something, after committing some kind of financial fraud. We don’t know much about Harry or exactly where he came from: Idonia was from West Virginia, but gave birth to Charlie in New York. No one knows where Harry went after he left. Somewhere in there was the Ohio State Penitentiary and a fire. The details are sketchy for me, though some of my cousins may know more.

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Idonia divorced Harry and raised Charlie on her own as a single mother, working as a stenographer and a postmistress. She smoked a pipe. In the 1910 census records, she is listed under her maiden name of Lytle, living alone in a rented home in West Virginia. Under the column for “children,” there is a big, fat zero. This must’ve been during the time that Charlie spent in a Catholic boys’ home, as family legend has it, the same one Babe Ruth spent time in for his youthful waywardness. Like I said, the details are sketchy, and the people who might’ve known more about them personally are gone now.

Charlie grew up with a last name (Cook) different from his mother’s (Lytle), something that undoubtedly marked them both in the Ohio and West Virginia neighborhoods where they lived. When Charlie reached adulthood — which couldn’t have been easy in the early 1900s with a single mama, no matter how resourceful — he added an <e> to the last name he had inherited from his father, Harry Cook, as a way to disavow him and become his own man.

That final <e>, you could say, is the linchpin in the family story.

Charlie Cooke-with-an-<e> worked most of his adult life for the Columbus Dispatch newspaper as a typesetter; the 1940 Census shows his profession as “Composition” for the “Newspaper.”

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He was a father to four, one of whom, my dad, started his career as a Linotype machinist for the Dispatch, later became a typesetter, and eventually, ran the photocomposition department for Peterson Publishing Company in Los Angeles. My dad and my grandpa are a big part of why I proudly use a union printer for my LEX materials. I never knew  Charlie, as he died two years before I was born. All told, he was grandfather to 24, known as Pop Cooke, and posthumously, a great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather now, to too many to count. We are all “Cooke cousins,” even those bear a different name.

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One of the things we studied at the Symposium was base elements that have two forms — one with a replaceable <e> and one without — like the free base <sore> and the putative <sor> that we find in <sorry>, or the <tom> in <atom> that’s a <tome> in its free form and derivatives, like <ana + tome + ic + al> and <en + tome + o + loge + y>. We investigated what becomes of the <e> in words like truly, truth, only, once, judgment and fledglingunanimous, and philharmonic, words in which that <e> is not being replaced by a vowel suffix. We made sense of these patterns by studying not only individual words, but each word’s permanent context in its own family and within the system as a whole.

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Words, like people, make more sense when we know more about the families they come from.

We looked at words like borne and come and please, words whose <e> completes them, marks them as lexical forms, and differentiates them from otherwise homographic structures. We discussed the final <e> in candle and bible and double, and the highly mutable <e> in words like meter~metre and center~centre, switched around by a young Noah Webster in a newborn American nation.

Noah Webster and Charlie Cooke were both men of letters, you could say.

At the end of the final afternoon of the Symposium, one of the attendees, Marie, brought me another one of these undeserved gifts, this one a shiny white draw-string bag with several small, square metal plates in it. They spelled out my name. At first I thought they were typesetting molds called — brace yourself — matrices that shape and hold the punches in letterpress printing. “Oh Marie, I love these!” I effused. “My dad was a printer. So was my grandpa.” Now, after looking around a little, I think that they are actually brass etching guides, used for a different kind of ‘printing.’

Either way, they’re perfect: to write, glyph, a graph, to scribe, to print — all of these are etymologically a cutting, a carving, a punch, an engraving, an etching. Character derives from a very ancient word for a pointed tool. Character is, after all, that which is imprinted on our soul.

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On Friday evening, over wine and pizza, I shared this photo with those who had not seen the letter plates earlier that day. People asked Marie where she had found them.

“In an antique shop around the corner,” she said. “I was going to give them this morning, but I saw Cooke written and thought, Oh, hell, there’s an <e> on the end of her name! So I had to go back at lunch for an <e>.”

It was then that I remembered that Marie had been uncharacteristically late coming back from lunch that day. We got started, and when she arrived after a few minutes, she was breathless and sweaty, her sweet Scottish freckle face flushed. It was clear that she had rushed to get back.

“The clerk and I had to dig through the whole bin,” she explained that evening. There weren’t many <e> plates in the bin, and it took them a while to find one. That was why Marie was late. An <e> is a pretty popular letter, you see. Kind of the linchpin for the whole system.

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I hesitate to write about these gifts at all. My purpose is not to boast, but to marvel, and this includes marveling that my people know me so well. They know that I love books and cacti and Arizona, swearing and all kinds of pink things, local history and farmers markets and France, chocolate and coffee and baguettes.

And words.

I am so grateful for and even embarrassed by the love in these gifts.

But the best gift, the biggest return on my investment, is watching what these people take home from here. They take home what we studied: things that they had wondered about and now understand for the first time; things that they understand better and more deeply than before; and things that they never even imagined. Things I never even imagined.

We discussed several times over the week how so many of our students — specifically, the students of the people in the Symposium room — find us as a last resort. They’ve been through phonics. They’ve had years of OG or one of its offshoots. Their parents have begged and pleaded and fought for Wilson or Barton or Lindamood Bell only to find after years of it that their kids are still half-literate at best, unable to spell English and hopelessly unconvinced that it’s even possible.

You know what I mean. These are the kids that are called treatment resisters, the mamas who never get eye contact from school personnel because they’re so difficult, the papas whose hair’s gone gray over bills for tutors and lawyers and conferences and advocates, all promoting more phonics.  When teachers can show these kids and families how things work in English — why two has a <w> and why one has an <e> — then not only does the language make more sense, but the families can also understand themselves as systematic, scientific thinkers instead of as defective learners.  When I see a light bulb go on for a teacher in my room, and then I watch her shine that light on language for her families, there is no better gift.
  
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I got an email from Marie a few days ago, exactly a week after that wine and pizza.

Dear Gina,

I know you are super busy, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you again for all the insights and information you shared at the Symposium.

I taught all week, and was able to bring back to the students lots of the new learning from the Symposium.

I talked about the concept of curiosity with a student who started with me for the first time this week after two years of intense phonics instruction. She was not very happy with bring brought to ANOTHER tutor and told me that what I was doing was NOT science.

On day one we explored why there is an < > on the end of the word horse as she loves horses. This led to a discussion on the difference between suffix < -es > and < -s > and investigating the word plural and its connection to plus.

On day two we looked at the spelling of < have > and then last night she went home and wrote up a list of over twenty words that ended in < e > and asked me today to help her understand why they ended in < e >.

The word < be > happened to be on the list, so we jumped into a discussion on function and content words. As she sat happily sorting out content and function words and drawing little pictures for the content words, she stopped and said, “this is science, Marie, it is word science.” To which I said, “that’s pretty much what Linguistics is.”

Her mom was very moved by her daughter’s progress and said to me, “she seems to be really getting this,” to which I said, “because this is the truth of hour our language works and the truth sticks.”

Thanks for sharing the truth about language. I had so much fun this week bringing the learning from the Symposium to the students and parents.

Thank you for arranging the Symposium. I will be forever grateful.

Meeeeeeeee too.

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A few weeks ago, one of my wonderful clients asked me for some help in moving her practice from OG to SWI — especially with the more severely struggling kids. She’s been moved by some of my recent posts here and on Facebook about, well, what’s wrong with OG and why we need to change its false practices and false assertions. So see, this is why I shout it from the rooftops. Because when people are ready to move away from language lies like syllable types, they move in the right direction.

So this client emailed me and said she was struggling with SWI, but instead of just whining at me, she actually sent me some examples of her work, of her efforts to really study words with her students. This allowed me to give her specific feedback. For one thing, she was neglecting etymological relatives, and we discovered that’s a space where she can refine her understanding and help her students better. I’m pretty good at helping when people are willing to share their work, be wrong, and not be panty-twisted when I tell them they’re wrong.

Since then, I have seen a huge shift in the depth of her understanding, her engagement with the writing system, and her willingness to bring this understanding and engagement into her sessions with students. She’s shared with me and others some of her study and discoveries, and it’s so clear how much she’s enjoying herself as well as how much she’s learning. Her frame of mind is totally different than it was just a few weeks ago, when she was scared and uncertain and kind of weary. I am so glad she reached out — many people are benefitting from the dialogues about real language that she is now initiating.

Today, she revisited a question she had asked me about fluency, right before the Etymology conference, when I had said “Let’s talk later.” Well, now is now later, so I responded to her this time, and thought I’d share it here, because it will help other people too.

Her original question was, “Do you recommend doing anything in addition to SWI for fluency or comprehension? I don’t know if that’s outside of the scope of what you’re currently doing but I thought you’d be a good person to ask.” Today, she reached out again: “I wanted to follow up on the topics of fluency and blending,” she said, “but mainly how to teach kids with dyslexia how to read.
 
“I’m not a die hard OG person,” she continued; “it’s just the only training I have for teaching kids how to read so I am totally open to new ideas.” I think a lot of people are in that same boat. Not that they’re married to OG; they just don’t know what else to do.

“I didn’t used to focus on fluency,” she wrote, “but a lot of experts say it’s important to become fluent in cvc words before moving on in an OG program so I’ve been working on it with my students but I would love to hear your opinion on the topic. As I think of doing SWI with my students, how would I work on reading with them? Especially the ones who struggle a lot.”

Again, these are all fair questions, and so articulate in the asking. Notice that she didn’t come to me to defend OG. She didn’t make any defensive claims about how helpful it is. She very honestly said, This is really all I know. She didn’t insist that syllable division or timed drills or nonsense words are really very valuable, or try to explain to my why that was so. She nailed it, you guys. She thought about it, pinpointed her needs, and opened herself up to being wrong, and to learning new things.

Learning is just so beautiful when we let it be.

Here’s my response:

The whole “become fluent with CVC words” is very phonicky. It’s artificial. Reading doesn’t really develop that way, and in my experience, the most severe strugglers, when met with that kind of thing, the nonsense words and the blending and the lists of monosyllables, they get stuck there. They often become just unable to move past CVC into larger words, let alone into real reading.

If you’re working with a new, young, or severe kiddo where you’d do a lot of CVC work for a long time in OG, then my suggestion is to go ahead and use whatever OG CVC words you’re use to using, but study them with SWI. Build out their families. For example:

fat: fats, fatter, fattest, fatted (like the fatted calf, a fatted lamb…), nonfat, fatty

cat: cats, catty, catted, catting, cattish, cattail, catwalk

mat: mats, matted, matting, bathmat

sat: outsat, babysat (it’s already past tense, so it doesn’t do much else morphologically)

at(well, this compounds in atone, but as a function word, it doesn’t do much else) 

This gives you a chance to get the kiddo reading and recognizing patterns besides just CVC. It is rich for being able to discover that a real word family doesn’t mean words that rhyme; it means words that share a base element. This is huge, and so productive, and kids see the difference right away. They really do.

As he encounters these words in the families you build, you can provide whatever reading support he needs. Step away from requiring him to perform. If he can’t read a word, have him spell it out first. If he still doesn’t know, then tell him, and ask him to use it in a sentence. Maybe try to revisit it again later. You’re not asking him to spell words with a doubled consonant yet, but you can notice that with him. Just notice it and say, “Huh! There’s that doubled consonant again!” You and he will also be able to notice affixes — especially the <ed, ing, s> that are so common, and also compounding. For writing / spelling, you can have him ‘tap’ mat or cats and write it from memory if you want, like SOS in OG, but you can also give him a synthetic word sum like < cat + walk > ➙ and have him solve it. You can tell him what the <walk> spells, and then ask him what the whole word is. 

For fluency more generally, start with a study of function and content words. You will learn the basic framework I use for that study in the Function & Content LEXinar. You pay attention to stress, which is different in function and content words, and that practice can really help improve prosody. You practice having the kids read phrases:

Noun Phrasesa big test, lots of kids, the rest of the cake, ten pet cats, the red sunset…
Verb Phrasesmight have gone, had been running, didn’t see, could’ve been sleeping, were done…
Prepositional Phraseson the bus, up a hill, with a big dog, at six, at home, in the way…


Phrases can also be practiced for writing (dictation, if you do that). Their grammar can be studied. They can become the kernel for a sentence that the child completes (and writes, or dictates to you). For writing, don’t be afraid to have the child do more copy work — where you build a phrase together, and you write it, and then he writes it. Or you can give him 3 or 4 phrases already written (or typed), and then have him arrange them into a sentence, then write the whole sentence. So, for example, if he had the phrases above, he could build Lots of kids might have gone on the bus. You can build real sentences or silly ones, like Ten pet cats had been running in the way. I prefer stuff that makes sense, but the thing is, if you go Noun Phrase – Verb Phrase – Prepositional Phrase, in that order, you will make a grammatically correct sentence every time, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. You just might have to make the verb agree with the subject (was done instead of were done). 

If you have an oral reading component, like where the kid is reading aloud, you can do some shared reading, as that helps him read in a text that’s maybe a little out of reach for him independently. If you are used to ‘controlled’ texts, then don’t be afraid of reading Dr. Seuss, poetry of any kind, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, folk tales, or other real texts that still have repeating patterns and perhaps a simplified language. I also really like reading things with kids where they can actually learn about their language, like Why is a Tiger a Tiger? That one’s great for sharing because some pages have hardly any text, and some have a lot, and you don’t have to read the whole thing. We might also read about the history of the alphabet, or the Vikings.  

You can also pull phrases from any oral reading text and use them in your phrase practice. Then, when he goes to read the paragraph or page or whatever, he’s already practiced several of the phrases in it. That’s good for what the ‘experts’ call fluency, which is really just a question of having enough comfort in a text to be able to concentrate one’s mental deskspace to understanding meaning. Because after all, that’s the whole point.  

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A couple days ago I just finished teaching my Syllables: Fact and Fiction LEXinar. And in a few days I will finish up another round of the Zero Allophone LEXinar. Scholars who have taken those classes understand more deeply each day why the syllabaloney of phonics has gone bad.

I recently engaged in some commentary on the blog of Dr. Tim Shanahan, a longtime proponent of phonics who appears to be unable to understand two key truths: (1) studying the language accurately is not just ‘doing morphology,’ and (2) pedagogical research is not the only research in the world.

One of Shanahan’s acolytes, Jo-Anne Gross, owner of a phonics company called Remediation Plus, demonstrated impressive tenacity in her misapprehensions, like that */c/ is the first phoneme in cat. Oh my. While repeatedly telling me that I’m wrong by citing actually wrong people like Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats, Jo-Anne also offers readers this stinky piece of linguistic charcuterie: “a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not ‘sound’ driven.”

I’ve offered Jo-Anne and Harriet free Syllables LEXinars with me. So far the only sound I hear is crickets. Crickets chirping is, by the way, a sound, but it’s not a flipping phoneme. It’s not even phonological. So please stop referring to phonology as “sounds.”

So today I asked Jo-Anne and Tim (who has just stopped responding to me since I told him to stop sending me private emails assuming my age and experience and scolding me for being the scholar that I am) and Harriet, “So how does phonics explain such contrasts as tennis-menace, bobbin-robin, rabbit-habit, hammer-camel, finish-Finnish, polish-Polish, and the like?”

In this post, then, I will offer you what I wrote on the blog, and interspersed you will find the really beautiful, coherent understanding that real language study offers us.

I just studied finish-Finnish and polish-Polish with a 6th grader. I also studied why ‘love’ isn’t spelled with a ‘u’ with her 2nd grade sister. Same with do, to, and who. They’re both dyslexic. Tell me again about beginning readers?

Although they are proper adjectives, Finnish and Polish have totally coherent structures; we can see their free base elements in Fin, Finland, and Pole (but not in the blend Poland). Finish and polish both have base elements with single, final <e>s: <fine + ish>, <pole + ish> — we see that latter bound base also in polite. My fantastic 6th grader and I also investigated that <ish> suffix, which we also found in establish, embellish, and punish — it is a suffix formed from the <iss(e)> verbal stem suffix in French: etablissement, embellissezpunissons.

But perhaps she would’ve preferred to divide words into syllables on a list, eh?

As for to, do, who, and love, any real spelling scholar knows that when you can’t use a <u>, you use an <o>. And they know why you can’t use a <u> in those words. And so does my 2nd grader. Why? Because I showed her. And you know what? It totally mattered to her, even though Dr. Shanahan likes to speculate that facts don’t matter to 7-year-olds.

Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.

Those are just true things. No one has to like them. But kids really do like them, especially the dyslexic ones who have had so many prevarications from phonics pushed at them.

How, in your syllable artifice (with which I am 100% intimate — I taught that stuff for years) would you explain the difference between puzzle and pizza, phonologically speaking?

The only way to explain the distinction is etymologically. Pizza is Italian, as is the mozzarella you put atop it. Patterns, people.

Because no one could claim in seriousness that kindergarteners don’t know anything about puzzles or pizzas. What is the phonology of the second syllable of castle, wrestle, jostle? Why is the ‘t’ there? Because, château (oh, let your kiddos live a little!), wrest, and joust. Look, a lot of 6-year-olds would dig studying castles and châteaux and jousts, since phonics is so concerned with building everything around what kids want. We fact-finders will also tell you why wrestle needs a <wr> — because it denotes ‘twist.’ But all phonics can do is teach ‘stle’ as though it was a thing (it’s not), and ignore the pattern of the ‘t’ in listen, often, soften, and even ‘prints.’

Why is there a ‘c’ in muscle? Muscular. Or a ‘b’ about ‘subtle’? That’s an <sub> prefix, of course. Man, whoever stuck a ‘b’ in that word deserves a prize. Heh. Silent letter humor is the best humor because it’s the smartest.

What of island and isle and aisle? The <s> is etymological in isle but folk etymological in the others. Isle is Latinate and related to insular and peninsulaisland is Germanic, totally unrelated, but its <s> marks its wide historical association with the others. Aisle denotes ‘wing’ and is related to aileron and axis. That <s> was also a scribal error that stuck, because people associated it with isle, which came by its <s> honestly.

But I’m sure no small children would enjoy a story about long-ago monks and their false-steps and flourishes. Because it would be a lot more important for kindergarteners to study, you know, that */c/ is a phoneme. For Chrissakes.

How about in prin/ci/ple — why isn’t that ‘i’ long if it’s in an ‘open syllable’? Because in real life, there are only two types of syllables; open and closed. Open syllables end in a vowel (but not a lax vowel in English), and closed syllables have a consonant coda. The letters in a syllable have little to do with what ‘type’ of syllable it is: though is open but but cough is closed, and neither is exceptional. The word principle has an actual structure, and it’s <prin + cip(e) + le>. Which is different from a <prin + cip(e) + al). Check out that <le> suffix again, yo. Prince was clipped from the root of principle and principal, and princess was built from prince

What about treble and pebble? Yikes. Well, treble is related to triple (think 3-part harmonies), which also lacks a doubled medial consonant. Because, once again, in real life, it has an actual structure: <tri + ple> — stick a pin in that <ple> base element, which denotes ‘fold.’

Why is there an ‘o’ in people? Or is that word off-limits for very young people too? Because it’s so popular?

Why do double and couple and trouble have an ‘ou’ but octuple has just a ‘u’? Because, doubt and duplicitous, copula and copulate and because that <co> is the footprint of a prefix — you know, the one that carries a force of ‘with or together’? And octuple (not *octupple) has a connector <u>, as does quadruple, in which the pronunciation of the <u> is different. Ooh, fancy.  Why isn’t oc/tu/ple pronounced ‘octooople’? Because no one would understand you if you said that. Why isn’t multiple spelled *multipple? Because it’s <mult + i + ple>, that’s why (compare <mult + it(e) + ude>). In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs.

Why circle and sparkle but not *cirkle or *sparcle? Because, circus and sparkPhonics doesn’t answer that. Do beginning readers understand words like sparkle and circle in real life? Why is needle needle and not *neadle? Because an <ee> digraph is preferred in lexical forms that have associated connotations of ‘twoness’ or ‘more than oneness.’  Pine needles and porc + u + pine needles always come in more than one. Why isn’t poodle *pudle or noodle *nudle? Because they’re modern loans or coinages (both from German), respelled in the present-day English default, like shampoo and google and boondoggle.

There are reasons for these captivating patterns and cues in the language. They are not exceptions or irregular. They are not oddballs or outlaws or demons, and no one has to just memorize them. Even if Reid Lyon or Tim Shanahan or Jo-Anne or Harriet says so. 

Anyone who would like to see the understanding that can explain these inquiries can find it on my website. The title of the post is “Fickle Syllable Boondoggle.” Funny how the syllabullies don’t hesitate to use the word “syllable” all the time with children who can’t “handle” big words.

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You know, sometimes you just have to talk to a doctor about something embarrassing and there’s no way around it, so here I go.

To Dr. Karen: A Review of Your “30 Tier 2 Words for Language Therapy”

This freely available, online, language education resource is written by Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan, my fellow scholar from Illinois State University, one of the nation’s oldest public universities, and one of the largest producers of educators in the U.S. Whether those claims to fame are good things or bad things depends on your opinion, I guess.

Here’s something that doesn’t depend on opinion, however: facts. Not alternative facts; the real kind. Like, for example, linguistic facts. So I’d like to offer you my opinion on the facts — and the fictions — in your work. In the free sample you offer visitors to your website, you offer 30 words for study, and more than a third of them are misidentified. Oops! That’s a 63%. At ISU, I’m pretty sure that’s a D.

Since you took the time to check out my work, Dr. Karen, I thought I’d do the same, so I ordered the free resource you offer on your web page, and I watched your video to learn all about the “magic bullet for treating language disorders.”

Just curious. Have you read any of the research on the effects of morphological study on vocabulary? I don’t give a toot, myself, but I know how much you like research. And vocabulary. I did not realize that vocabulary was a magic bullet at all! Imagine my surprise in learning that if you study what words mean with your students, they do better with language tasks! Clearly magic is the only reasonable explanation for such an improvement.

As far as bullets go, I admit that I have not yet tried shooting my students to see if that helps. But then again, I’m not a doctor, and if you google me, you can verify that fact.

I thought about asking the people on SpellTalk what they thought of your work, Doctor Karen, but since the administrators kicked me out of their club for truth-telling like five years ago, I couldn’t. So I decided to just write in my own space, publicly, instead of to other people in secret, to alert you directly to the following conceptual errors in your resource:

1. You identify as nouns the following words: route and trance. Of course, they can both be nouns, but they can also be verbs. You don’t know what they are until they’re in an actual phrase, but they’re not. They’re disembodied on flash cards, with no explanation or investigation. Just as you can’t tell how a morpheme will be pronounced until it surfaces in a word, you also can’t tell what part of speech something is until it surfaces in a phrase or clause.

a. They will route the new bus line though my old neighborhood. 

b. She’s tranced and won’t be roused.

The other nouns on the list have reliably nominal suffixes or suffixion constructions: recreation, compassion, location, assortment, disability, gratitude. Masterpiece is a compound noun, and memory, like history  and category, is a noun too,  and linking it to memorial (historical, categorical) makes better sense of its meaning, structure, and pronunciation.

I’d like to see the empirical research evidence that flashcards are a better mechanism for teaching vocabulary than actually studying the a word’s structure and relatives, upon which you undoubtedly based your materials.    

2. On your list of verbs to memorize, you offer ramble, embraced, challenge, underestimate, and collapse. Again, while these can be verbs, they also have other possibilities:

a. Let’s go for a ramble through the woods, shall we? (Noun. If a clown is asking, say no.)
b. Embraced by visual artists, the new technology has made a big splash. (Adjective.)
c. Well that’s a challenge, isn’t it? (Noun.)
d. The adjustor’s underestimate was rejected by the contractor. (Noun.)
e. Did you ever study the collapse of the Roman Empire? (Nounity noun noun. Et tu, Brute?)

So, fully half of the words that the Doctor prescribes for verbosis, with no phrasal context to establish them as verbs, can also be, well, not verbs.

Have you got any good peer-reviewed research to support calling nouns “verbs,” I wonder?

Well hey, third time’s the charm, right?

3. Wrong. Of your ten “adjectives,” three can be other word classes, (leisurely, tender, and cunning) and one is patently not adjectival (rehearse):

a. The governess pushed the pram leisurely along. Pip pip and cheerio. (That’s an adverb.)
b. I’m gonna be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender. (A noun.)
c. Please tender my regards to your kindly mother. (Verb.)
d. The garden’s tender had passed away, and the garden grew weedy. (Noun again!)
e. Her cunning is unmatched. No, really, it’s unmatched I tell you! (Noun.)
f. You should really rehearse your parts of speech before you make false claims. (Verb? Word.)

The words that are correctly pegged as adjectives? Glorious, adorable, flawless: those suffixes, <ous>, <able>, and <less>, and are reliably adjectival. The reason those words are adjectival is because that syntax is carried in their final morphemes (compare gloryadore, and flaw).

Can you please point me to the empirical research studies that prove it’s better to memorize three adjectives off of flash cards than it is to study the facts of the writing system?

I’m asking for a friend.

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I began studying inflections in English about five or six years ago, and I’m hooked.

I mean, I had studied inflection before, and I knew the difference between inflection and derivation. But I really started looking deeply at inflection, and how it intersects with orthography, during my PhD program. It’s something I address quite a bit in my LEXinars as well.

To support the growing understanding of inflection among my scholarship community, I’m pleased to announce the development of a new LEX InSight product: InSights into Inflections.
screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-1-53-01-pm

This deck includes 10 white cards printed on both the front and back in black ink, with easy-to-read text and deep investigations of how inflections work in English. The deck features the eight inflectional categories of English, foreign inflection in English, inflection in general, and a supplement card.

The cards are currently in production, and are about 75% completed. They will retail for $10, but may be pre-ordered at a 15% discount through March 26th. Pre-ordered cards will be ship on March 30th, and the discounted decks will also be available in person at Etymology V! in greater Chicago.

Anyone who ever wondered what a participle actually is will want to catch this grammar bug too.

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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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Several days ago, a friend’s Facebook comment got me to thinking about the word pink. I like pink. And pink things. Probably to a pinkfault. I still daydream about a pink-rhinestone-covered stapler a former colleague had. I have pink pillow shams, lots of pink clothes, pinkish boots, a pink flashlight, and a pink lampshade. I can’t resist snapping photos of pink sunrises and sunsets from my hilltop home. I need a new pink purse because I’ve worn out the last one. I even made the instruction cards in my first InSight Words deck pink.

So the word was stuck in my head for a few days, which means it had to be investigated if I had any hope of accomplishing anything else. It turns out there are no fewer than seven different base elements spelled <pink> in English:

  1. The color pink  is named for the flower.
  2. The flower (Dianthus) may be named for its ‘pinked’ edges (perforated or punctured) — think pinking shears. Or it may be named for pink eyes — not conjunctivitis, mind you, but an early Modern English phrase on loan from the Dutch pinck oogen, ‘small eyes,’ — referring to the flowers’ appearance reminiscent of small, half-closed eyes. The pink in these pink eyes doesn’t historically refer to the color, but to size.dianthus
  3. The first hypothesis for the flower’s name, it’s ‘pinked’ edges, is its own etymological wild goose chase. Found today mostly in reference to sewing or design, this <pink> may be related to Germanic words like peck, pick, and/or pike, or to Latinate words like puncture, poignant, pungent, punch, and pugnacious.
  4. The second hypothesis for the flower’s name, pink [‘small’] eyes, works well as a translation of the French synonym oeillet, a ‘little eye.’ The Dutch word pink has a historical denotation of ‘small,’ and is used to refer to the pinkie (or pinky) finger, whence the English name for the littlest manual digit.
  5. The ‘small’ sense also shows up in the name of a pink, a fast, nimble little watercraft common in the  Atlantic ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish pinque and Italian pinco also reflect this Dutch derivation.
  6. Some folks say an engine knocks and pings; others, mostly Brits, say it pinks.
  7. There’s also a dated term pink that refers to a kind of lake (lacquer) pigment, but it’s yellowish and of uncertain origin. Go figure.

The pronunciation of pink is worth paying attention to: #6 is onomatopoeic, and #3 belongs to either one or another family of words that also kind of sound like what they mean: pike, pick, and peck, or puncture, punch, and repugnant (literally, something that ‘punches back.’) The word pink has a nice ring to it. It’s sharp and tingly and saying it makes you smile a little.

Pink has a straightforward orthographic phonology, too: it has four graphemes <p i n k> and four phonemes /p ɪ n k/. The phonetic realization of those four phonemes, however, sends a lot of folks into quite a tizzy. The /n/ is realized as a velar [ŋ] because of its coarticulation with the velar /k/ — the same thing happens in words like distinct or banquet, but few phonics programs address [ŋ] beyond monosyllables. The /ɪ/ is nasalized, and often raised by the velar coarticulation too, so it ends up feeling more like an [ĩ] — a long, nasal eeeee. That’s the part that makes you smile.

Traditional phonocentric approaches teach this and other velar nasal patterns as whole rimes (ink, ank, onk, unk) and giving them made-up names like “welded sounds” or “nasal blends,” rather than taking an accurate look-see at the orthographic phonology. Instead of studying the phonology of <n> — which can be realized as [ŋ] before a velar consonant — these approaches add to the cognitive load for each child by piling eight new patterns (including ing, ang, ong, ung) into the mix, and often not clearly identifying them as rimes and not as graphemes or as that phonics horror of horrors, “blends.” This is largely because phonics is so stuck in its misapprehension of the phoneme that it can’t deal with the difference between the /n/ phoneme and the [ŋ] allophone. [I’m happy to consider an argument that there is a /ŋ/ phoneme, but it has to present an accurate understanding of the difference between a phoneme and an allophone.] Another phonics problem I’ve observed time and again is the failure to differentiate between an <ing> rime and an <ing> suffix. This distinction is a non-negotiable understanding in orthographic study: the same sequence of letters doesn’t always bear the same identity or the same function. It depends on which word they’re surfacing in.

My spelling teacher (who happens to be French) always says that there are no coincidences. As I was working on this pink-inspired piece, I spoke with a colleague who told me about a 3rd grader she works with who has a very hard time with the inks anks onks and unks of her Wilson Reading System instruction. The child reads words with these rimes just fine in connected text, but not in isolation. I bet you a dollar that she’s trying to “sound them out” and is trying to string [p ɪ n k] together, for example, but can’t make sense of it without a meaningful framework. My question — my colleague’s question too, which is why she contacted me — is What in the heck is the goal of “reading” words in isolation if she can read them fine in text?

I can’t answer that in any way that I can argue has the child’s best interest, her engagement with language, or her lifelong development as a literate soul, at heart. The bloom is off the phonocentric rose.

The phonology only has structure in a meaningful framework, which word lists really never provide. The ways in which <pink> makes meaning are interwoven with each other and with our history.  According to Oxford, the use of pinkie for ‘little finger’ was reinforced by the color sense (#1), but of course, that only works well for pasty Celts and Anglo-Saxons, not across the English-speaking world. The association between the flower, color, and flesh is also reflected in the word rose (think rosy cheeks), but especially in the name of one kind of dianthus, the carnation. In late Middle and early Modern English, the Latinate words carnation and incarnation were used to mean ‘the color of flesh,’ anything from ‘blush-color’ to ‘blood-color.’

Again, this whole pink-flesh connection only really works, at least on the surface, if you’re a white person. Oxford points out that not all carnations are pink, so of course not all dianthus are pink. Likewise, not all flesh is pink. I’d say Duh, English, but the French did it first.

I’ve also learned from my spelling teacher that the study of the writing system necessarily and organically brings about the possible study of so much more. What does it mean, in a world where we argue about whose lives matter, that the historical association of pinkness with human skin is captured in our written language? How would today’s third-grader respond to the information that my childhood Crayola box had a pinkish crayon labeled “Flesh,” but hers does not? What might a study of words like white and black reveal to us? I’m not interested in this because I had some social studies agenda in mind when I started studying pink; rather, these questions are where the study of pink led me. Just in time for Martin Luther King Day and everything.

I wrote that. Then I saw this:
skin ffs

There are no coincidences. That’s not some kind of mystical statement; it’s an observation. There are no coincidences; there are the connections that we conceive of, the stories that we tell, and the meaning we make.

Tickles me pink.

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Recently, some correspondence with a couple of different teachers has focused my attention on interesting sets of etymological relatives. For a while now, my pal Peg and I have been collecting pairs of word relatives in which one form ends with /k/ and the other with /ʧ/:

make~match                 wake~watch (also related to wait)

break~breach               seek~search (also sought),

buck~butcher               cluck~clutch (as in a clutch of hens)

pocket~pouch               invoke~vouch

crook~crotch                dike~ditch

book~beech                  pick~pike~pitch

teach~token                 wreak~wrack~wretch

speak~speech             hike~hitch (making hitchhike a pleonasm, perhaps)

snack~snatch            cake~cook~kitchen           bake~batch

Food for thought, right?

Now, in my last post, I wrote about relatives like bear~boreyear~yore, and earth~ore, and that last one got me thinking about the nominal <-th> suffix that’s at the end of earth. That <-th> carries a sense of ‘action, condition, or process,’ which can be seen pretty obviously in the following words, because they have free base elements:

grow~growth

heal~health

steal~stealth

weal~wealth

dear~dearth

Other ‘actions, conditions, or processes’ have bound variants of their base elements, but still are pretty obviously connected:

bear~birth (Also its homophone, berth from a difference sense of bear.)

die~death

moon~month (which I wrote about here)

strong~strength

deep~depth

broad~breadth (This connection helps explain the wisdom of the <oa> spelling for /ɑ/ in <broad>.)

wide~width (Actually, this word, like ninth, drops its <e> before the <th> so it’s not misparsed as having an <-eth> suffix: *<wideth> looks like a 2-syllable word.)

true~truth and rue~ruth(less) (These are like <width>, and I also have other thoughts about the <e> in these bases, but that’s a story for another time — also, (be)troth is a close relative to truth.)

Still others have bound bases with cognates most folks aren’t aware of, and some of them are breathtaking. The ore~earth connection isn’t alone in yielding real gems. Consider these:

foul~filth

worship~ worth

gird~girth

slow~sloth

brew~broth

merry~mirth

young~youth

be~booth (Mind-blowing, isn’t it? The job of a booth is to be somewhere.)

can~could~(un)couth (The word could was formerly spelled <coud>, in which we can still see a <cou> base; the <l> was inserted by analogy to <would> and <should>.)

A couple these nouns have more distant <th>-less relatives: faith~fidelity~defy and sooth~is.

And finally, there are several nouns with a final <th> that can no longer be analyzed as a suffix at all, and there aren’t even any present-day <th>-less relatives, but if we look at the history, it’s pretty clear that <-th> was historically a suffix at some point:

breath [Edit: after posting, I discovered that breeze is a relative, and more distantly, fervor and effervescent.]

cloth

smith  [Edit: after posting, I discovered that smite and smote are cognate to smith!]

oath

bath

What’s also interesting is that bath is a distant relative of both bake and batch: a batch is something baked, and both bath and bake carry denotative echoes of ‘warming.’ Huh. Whaddaya know? This <-th> thing is really pretty eye-opening. My interest in it really started a couple years ago, when a family member accidentally broke something kind of precious to me, and by way of apology, he said, “Oh, that was dear,” by which he meant ‘rare, hard to come by.’ I figured out from his comment the connection between dear and dearth — a lack, something in rare supply — and I’ve revisited it several times with new discoveries.

I guess you never know what a relative might teach you.

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Every time I come to post something on here, I feel like I need to start with an apology, because I haven’t posted in so long. I still need to finish writing about March’s 2-day Etymology Seminar, and the very exciting discoveries brought on by a long drive to Ohio for a recent seminar there. I’ve been considering the various roles of the final, non-syllabic <e> as well, and this post hints at where my thinking is . . .

This post is brought to you by the remarkable network of scholars all over the world with whom I am privileged to work. Tutors and teachers I’ve worked with frequently send me questions, and those questions become the impetus to refine and articulate my understanding. This particular question came from a tutor in the Midwest who has taken it upon herself to become an earnest and dedicated scholar of English in order to be a better teacher of it. After all, we cannot expect our skill in teaching something to surpass our willingness to study it.

So, this tutor emailed me with this question about a published word list purporting to feature words with an <ie> digraph:

“I was looking at a list of words . . . supposedly for the vowel digraph <ie>.  The list begins with words like <lie> <tie> <die>.  So far, so good.  But they also include <cried> <tried> <pried> on the list.  I know that in fact the <i> in those words is NOT part of the vowel digraph <ie> but rather is there because the <y> in the base word <cry> was changed to <i> before adding the suffix <ed>.

My question:

What about the word <lie>?  The past tense of this word is <lied> but explaining how this works in a word sum is confusing to me because I would not drop the final <e> to add <ed> because the <e> is part of a vowel digraph, not a final silent <e>?  And <lie>  + <d> is obviously not correct.    I suppose the same question could be asked of the word died, or tied, or vied??”

How do I love this question? Let me count the ways:

1. The tutor is bringing the full weight of her intellect and her understanding to her analysis of published materials. She does not assume that because it’s published somewhere, it must be accurate.

2. She checks and articulates her own understanding before bringing the question to me.

3. She understands that we must first ascertain the morphological structure of a word before attempting to ascertain its phonological structure. A grapheme cannot straddle a morpheme boundary: there is a <th> digraph in <father> but not in <fathead>. Similarly, as she states, there is no <ie> digraph in <cry> + <ed>.

4. She knows that written language makes sense, and that it is highly organized and orderly. So when she encounters the object of her question — <lied>, <tied>, <died>, <vied> — she doesn’t just chalk them up as “exceptions” or “irregular” (or sight words, learned words, red words, heart words, demon words, or any of the other silly named given to words-the-author-doesn’t-understand). Rather, she seeks to deepen her understanding, and to find the explanation she knows and trusts is there.

So, here’s what I told her:

You are correct about the vowel in <cried>, <tried>, <pried>, etc. NOT being part of the digraph <ie>.

Likewise, there is no <ie> in <lied> or <died>, because here’s what we have:

<lie> + <ed> → *<lieed> → <lied>

There are constraints on which consecutive vowels English will allow across morpheme boundaries (<agreed> but <agreeing>; <lied> but <lying>). [Actually, these constraints have to do with how English handles digraphs and trigraphs in proximity to identical letters — it’s the same phenomenon at play in <eighth> and <fully>, as opposed to *<eightth> or *<fullly>.]

I want you to think of the <y> and the <ie> as toggling word finally. Words like <cry>, <dry>, <try>, <pry>, <shy>, etc. can be spelled with a <y> because they start with 2 consonant letters, thus providing the requisite 3 letters for a lexical word once that <y> is there. Words like <lie>, <die>, <vie>, <tie>, cannot be spelled with a <y>, because they start with a single consonant and need the vowel digraph to make the 3-letter minimum for lexical words (compare <my>, <by>, <I>). [For the uninitiated, content/lexical words — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — require a minimum of 3 letters, while function words — pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions — may have just 1 or 2 letters.]

Let’s represent this <ie>-or-<y> with a <Y> — kind of an underlying representation — so we can see how this works when it surfaces in a word:

<lY> → <lie>
<lY> + <ing> → <lying>
<lY> + <ed> → <lied>

<crY> → <cry>
<crY> + <ing> → <crying>
<crY> + <ed> → <cried>

. . . We know that <y> and <i> alternate — that <e> in the final <ie> digraph is kind of a lexicalizing agent — it appears when we need it to lexicalize a word. But it doesn’t need to surface when we’re building something other than a free base element.”

Now, the <ie> digraph is a really reliable grapheme. It spells /aɪ/ at the end of a monosyllable (like lie), /i/ at the end of a polysyllabic word (like rookie), and /iː/ medially (as in field). It’s often  diminutive suffix, as in movie or doggie). But it’s widely misrepresented in phonics materials, which ignore words like movie and cookie (assuming new or struggling readers won’t encounter them?), and confound differently structured words like <cried> and <lied>, just like in the published list in question. Here’s what the LEX grapheme card has to say:

Word lists are a misguided attempt to go broad in teaching, to ensure that a child will encounter a large enough number of words with the pattern in question. What they don’t do, what they can’t do, is go deep. What this tutor did when she dared to question the wisdom of a published phonics word list is to go deep. If we go deep in our study — investigate what words mean, how they’re built, where they come from, and what they share with other words — we’re bound to go broad as well; it’s impossible to study a single word deeply without also encountering lots of other words that share a feature, a structure, a history. But breadth alone can never guarantee depth. Lists are a short-cut, a facility, an answer to an unasked question. They stand to absolve teachers and tutors from having to think deeply about the pattern under examination.

For years, the most common question I get when I speak at conferences or workshops is, “What materials/curriculum/books do you recommend?” Ultimately, the answer is “any of them, as long as you always bring your own understanding to the table.” My objective is not to point people to the best set of materials, but to the best understanding of language linguistic science can offer. A teacher thusly equipped — as is the one inspired this post — can make good use of any materials, including the wonderfully and importantly subversive act of teaching children not to believe everything they read, even if it’s written by an expert. Because sometimes they lie.

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