Archive for the ‘Affixes’ Category

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.

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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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:






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.)


moon~month (which I wrote about here)



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:


worship~ worth






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.]


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



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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This past fall, I attended the annual conference of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), as I have nearly every fall for the past dozen years. I was astounded and delighted by the number of sessions — including two of my own — dedicated to spelling and/or morphology.

Along with some colleagues, I attended a day-long symposium on spelling on the first day of the conference, entitled “Spelling: Development, Assessment, and Instruction.” In order to attend the conference, I had canceled one day of the college course I was teaching in English orthography, but I had assigned my students an article co-authored in 2008 by three of the symposium’s five panelists and a fourth author. I had asked my college students to prepare notes on the article for our class that would reconvene the Monday after the conference. That article was referred to several times during the symposium, and I was eager to see what my students would learn and discover in their own readings.

This post details what my class and I learned that week.

My colleagues and I greatly enjoyed the symposium overall, and I was eager to go back and tell my students what I had heard. The panelists, widely known as the best spelling researchers Science-Based Reading has to offer, urged the inclusion of morphology and etymology in any consideration of English orthography as critical. I was pleased to see the discussion move beyond the phonology that is typically the primary consideration in literacy instruction circles. But perhaps my favorite part was when one panelist told a story from her own past, referring to herself as a then “hot-blooded grad student.” She then encouraged the “hot-blooded grad students” in the audience to speak up, because they (we) often have perspectives that the field needs to hear.

This post details a few things that this “hot-blooded grad student” thinks the broader field needs to hear.

First, I was dismayed that the day’s last panelist, a writing instruction researcher, repeatedly referred to spelling as a “lower-level skill,” as though it were the linguistic equivalent of learning to eat with a fork. This panelist was especially disappointing after her colleagues and an audience of several hundred had spent the previous five hours exploring the ways in which English spelling is rich, structured, and captivating — the antithesis of both “lower-level” and a mere single “skill.” Moreover, for a researcher that spent 90 minutes presenting quantitative data, research statistics, effect sizes, and other very important sciencey things, she sure felt comfortable presenting spelling as a “lower-level skill” without offering one ounce of evidence in support of such a characterization. I appreciated having the opportunity to address this gross misrepresentation during the Q&A session, and I encourage IDA, its panelists, and its audience to pay careful attention to the kinds of false messages that even reading scientists promote about spelling.

This post details some of those controvertible messages about spelling.

Second, after the session, I approached one panelist to address a statement he made regarding the suffixes <able> and <ible>. During the Q&A, he had claimed that “we add <ible> to Latin roots, and <able> to Anglo‐Saxon [Old English] base words like readable and passable.” This is not an uncommon assertion, and one that I heard more than once at the IDA conference; it is one of those messages that gets repeatedly repeated over and over again and again in spite of running counter to the evidence. In fact, I had also previously encountered it in the article authored by some of these panelists that I had assigned to my class. Here’s how I wrote about this encounter with this panelist for a seminar paper on orthographic fact and affect:

While I had previously encountered and critiqued this line of thinking in their article, I had by no means intended to raise it in their conference session. However, because the Spelling Expert himself reiterated the faulty claim — and because his co-panelist had thrown down the gauntlet to the hot‐blooded grad students (HBGSs) in the audience — I girded myself for orthographic battle. My heart raced as I approached the podium where the Expert still stood, gathering his papers. My face felt hot. I approached him and introduced myself, including my HBGS status. I showed him where I had jotted down his claim about readable and passable, and informed him straightforwardly that passable is neither Anglo nor Saxon, but French.

“Well, life is full of exceptions,” he quipped, spelling expertise intact.

“Be that as it may,” I answered, “the writing system is not. Let me show you.” I proceeded to explain that the <navig> in navigable is Latin, as is the <punish> in punishable that he cites in his article. In fact, I explained, the suffixes <able> and <ible> are themselves Latin, and didn’t exist in Old English. They are variant spellings of the same suffix, and as such, could not possibly have different languages of origin.

“Well,” he intoned as though to a novice, “we work with very young children, and it’s a very simple thing to teach them that when you take off the /әbl/ and you have a whole word, it will be spelled <able>.” He held firm to his ideologic, solidly confident in his Spelling Expertise. Apparently, according to this ideologic, very young children need what’s simple, regardless of whether it’s accurate. Here, the rhetoric of spelling as “simple,” basic, and elementary surfaces again.

“So if <able> is always added to a whole word, how do you explain sensible and responsible?” I asked. “Those both have <ible>, but their stems are whole, freestanding words.”

“I’d have to check,” he said, “but I think those are Latin.” While my heart was no longer pounding, my skin seemed to prickle with the eagerness of fact.

“They are Latin,” I reassured him. “But so are navigable and punishable. You can look them up.” It was at this point that I saw this Spelling Expert become destabilized. He was speechless. He didn’t move toward or away from me; he made no move to end the conversation. But he didn’t know what to say. He no longer had a response. I had finally succeeded in interjecting factual evidence in between him and his belief system.

I then suggested to the panelist that it’s really not acceptable to teach children things that are demonstrably false, regardless of how simple the things and how young the children. I also told him that I was teaching a university class on English orthography, in which my students has been assigned the article he had co-authored for our class on the Monday following the conference. Since these panelist-authors collectively make the same claim about <able> and <ible> in the article, I told this panelist that I had asked my students to read the article critically, and that I would share their discoveries and comments after our course ended. He indicated that he would be amenable to receiving their feedback.

This post details my students’ feedback on the article.

1. The article claims: “In 1773, Noah Webster stated that ‘spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

Student response: “Noah Webster was born in 1758. Was he really only 15 when he said that?”

What we learned: Noah Webster was indeed born in 1758, and he published the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, whence this quotation, in 1783, at the age of 25. This first volume later became widely known — and used — as the “Blue-Backed Speller,” and it was the most common literacy textbook in American elementary schools for about 100 years.

This error has gained weird traction in both academia and the blogosphere, but I’ll deal with that in a separate post.

2. The article claims: “For example, ch pronounced as /ch/, as in chair or chief, appears in Anglo-Saxon or Old English words; the same letter combination ch pronounced as /sh/, as in chef and chauffeur, appears in French words of Latin origin; and ch pronounced as /k/, as in ache and orchid, appears in words borrowed from Greek.

My students’ response: “The words chair and chief are both Latinate, and entered English from Old French during the Middle English period.”

Also: “The word ache is from Old English, not Greek.”

What we learned: Present-day English words with <ch> pronounced as /ʧ/ (or, as the panelists say, /ch/) are more often French than they are Old English. Not only are chair and chief French; they derive from the same roots as chaise and chef respectively. Other French-origin words include chain, chance, change, channel, chant, chapel, chapter, charge, cheat, cheer, cherish, cherry, chess, chimney, chive, chock, choice, chowder, and chuck. Also Latinate-and-not-Old-English: ranch, blanch, cinch, launch, staunch, flinch, poncho, munch, peach, preach, and roach. Many other words with <ch> as /ʧ/ that are not Latinate also did not exist in Old English, and cannot be correctly called “Anglo-Saxon,” such as chub, chuckle, chat, chomp, chop, chap, and many others. There is so very much counter-evidence to this unfounded claim!

Also: Yes, ache is Old English (from acan), not Greek. It was respelled in the eighteenth century, because of folk etymology relating it to Greek akhos, ‘pain’. Just because an error is old doesn’t mean it’s not an error.

3. The article claims that homophonic suffixes (<er>, <or> and <able> <ible>) can be spelled according to the origin of their base or stem, as I saw at the IDA conference. The authors’ published commentary on <able> and <ible> appears at the end of this paragraph about halfway through the article:

Teaching morphemes often requires more information on word origin. For example, when teaching the spellings of words with the suffixes er and or, which mean one who, as in worker or actor, teachers can tell their students that words from Old English are basic survival words. Words such as worker, carpenter, farmer, grocer, baker, brewer, and butcher are Old English and use er, whereas words of Latin origin are more sophisticated and use or, as in actor, professor, educator, aviator, director, and counselor. The same principle applies to the suffxes able and ible, both meaning able to. We use able for Old English base words and ible for Latin roots. Thus, we have passable, laughable, breakable, agreeable, and punishable, as compared to edible, audible, credible, visible, and indelible.

Student responses:

“How does a young student differentiate between “common, every day, survival” words and “sophisticated” words?”

“The suffix <able> is found not only on Anglo-Saxon words, but also Old French and Latin.”

“If –able and –ible are variants of the same suffix, why would we assume that they have different origins?”

“Several of the words listed as Old English in fact have French roots that trace back to Latin: farmer, grocer, passable, punishable, and butcher.”

“Three wrong out of five would be an F.”

And a whole lot more.

What we learned: While it is evident that the <ible> spelling surfaces exclusively in Latinate words, it is categorically untrue that it surfaces in all Latinate words, and thus equally false that <able> occurs only in words of Old English origin. In fact, of the five <able> examples given in the article, three of them — passable, agreeable, and punishable are from Latin. Likewise, of the seven words with <er> listed as Anglo-Saxon, four are from Latin: carpenter, farmer, grocer, and butcher.

Moreover, the suffixes <able> and <ible> don’t mean ‘able to’ at all. Something that is laughable is not ‘able to laugh.’ Something that is sensible is not ‘able to sense.’ Rather, these words mean ‘worthy of laughter’ or ‘having the quality of sense.’ A taxable item is ‘subject to tax’, not ‘able to tax.’ A fashionable outfit is ‘in accordance with fashion,’ not ‘able to fashion.’ In fact, not only do the suffixes <able> and <ible> have a different orthographic denotation than the adjective able, but they also have a totally different origin. Here’s what my Mactionary says:

able |ˈābəl|

adjective ( abler , ablest )

1 [with infinitive ] having the power, skill, means, or opportunity to do something : he was able to read Greek at the age of eight | he would never be able to afford such a big house.

2 having considerable skill, proficiency, or intelligence : the dancers were technically very able.

ORIGIN late Middle English (also in the sense [easy to use, suitable] ): from Old French hable, from Latin habilis ‘handy,’ from habere ‘to hold.’

-able |əbəl| |əb(ə)l|

suffix forming adjectives meaning:

1 able to be : calculable.

2 due to be : payable.

3 subject to : taxable.

4 relevant to or in accordance with : fashionable.

5 having the quality to : suitable | comfortable.

ORIGIN from French -able or Latin -abilis, adjectival endings; originally found in words only from these forms but later used to form adjectives directly from English verbs ending in -ate, e.g., educable from educate. The unrelated able has probably influenced terms such as bearable, salable.

The Mactionary has no entry for the suffix <ible>. Tsk tsk.

And from Etymonline:

able: early 14c., from O.Fr. (h)able (14c.), from L. habilem, habilis “easily handled, apt,” verbal adj. from habere “to hold” (see habit). “Easy to be held,” hence “fit for a purpose.” The silent h- was dropped in English and resisted academic attempts to restore it 16c.-17c., but some derivatives acquired it (e.g. habiliment, habilitate), via French.

-able: suffix expressing ability, capacity, fitness, from French, from L. -ibilis, -abilis, forming adjectives from verbs, from PIE *-tro-, a suffix used to form nouns of instrument. In Latin, infinitives in -are took -abilis, others -ibilis; in English, -able is used for native words, -ible for words of obvious Latin origin. The Latin suffix is not etymologically connected with able, but it long has been popularly associated with it, and this has contributed to its survival as a living suffix.

-ible: suffix forming adjectives from verbs, borrowed in M.E. from O.Fr. -ible and directly from L. -ibilis; see -able.

Okay, so the symposium panelists / authors are not the first to associate the suffix <able> with the adjectival free base <able>, but precedent is not the same thing as rectitude.

4. The article uses several words throughout its 13 pages that bear the suffix <able> or the related <ably>. We decided to check them against the authors’ own assertions. These words’ word origins checked in multiple etymology sources via Memidex, and verified by my own knowledge of French:

variable: First clue: bases that start with a <v> are almost always Latinate, or at least passed through French on their way into English. This one is from Latin variabilis, from variare, ‘to change, to vary’, via French variable.

predictable: I can tell this is isn’t Anglo-Saxon from looking at it: the <ct> is a dead give-away. Words with <ct> are either from Latin or Greek. This one is a Thoroughly Modern Millie, first attested in the 19th century, but has Latin roots, though, from prae ‘before’ and dicere ‘to say.’

undesirable: A modern etymological hybrid (17th century) from Old English <un> plus desirable from Old French desirable, ultimately from Latin desiderare — a gorgeous word related to consider and sidereal that refers to reaching for the stars.

manageable: Again, if you know what to look for, you know this is Latinate. The <age> suffix is from French, and the bound base <mane> I recognize from the Latin manus, ‘hand,’ also seen in manipulate, manifest, manufacture, and manure. But I check my hunches before I publish them, and I was surprised to find that this didn’t enter English via French, but probably via the Italian maneggiare ‘to handle.’ The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that it meant “especially ‘to control a horse,'” and was likely “influenced by French manège ‘horsemanship’.” This and other sources confirm that it’s traceable to Latin manus. See that? Latin. Neither Anglo nor Saxon.

available: The word avail was formed in Middle English from Old French parts, and the <able> was added a couple centuries later. The <a> is a prefix meaning ‘to, toward,’ and the <vail> is a free base (probably aphetic — look it up) meaning ‘benefit, bring worth.’ It’s also found in prevail and in one of my favorite words: countervailing, and is related to the bound base <vale> as seen in value, evaluate, valiant, valor, valence, valid, and convalesce, all Latinate, of course.

damageable: There’s that <age> again. Anyone who ever took French 100 learned C’est dommage, a cognate. It’s from Old French, and is cousin to the Latinate damn, condemn, and indemnity.

knowledgeable: The <kn> digraph betrays this one as having the only truly Old English base. The stem <knowledge> derives from the Middle English knowleche, whose base <know> is traceable to the Old English cnāwan. Our modern <know> counts ken, uncanny, and can among its first cousins, and agnostic and recognize and many others words among its more distant cousins. I already wrote about them here.

reasonably: Middle English from French raisonable, from Latin ratio ‘reckoning, calculation, reason.’ I’m telling you, this word study stuff is my raison d’être.

reliably: The stem <rely> comes from Old French relier, which is traceable to Latin religare ‘bind, tie together.’ Interestingly, reliable took a detour through Scottish to get here. But Anglo-Saxon it’s not.

That’s right. Of these nine words, only one has an Old English stem: knowledgeable. Funny how often we come back to knowledge in these LEX posts.

5. Finally, the article claims that the following words also belong to the  “Anglo-Saxon layer” of English. They do not:

catch (from French)

peck (late Middle English)

pouch (from French)

badge (late Middle English)

fudge (early Modern English)

age (from French)

hinge (from Middle English)

scrooge (an eponym courtesy of Charles Dickens, 1843)

desk (from Latin)

peek (late Middle English)

bagged (Middle English)

cub (Modern English — 16th c)

club (Middle English meaning ‘large stick’ and Modern English meaning ‘organization’)

class (from Latin via French)

cube (from Greek, as are most words you can add an <ic> to)

found (the past tense of find derives from an Old English word, but the present-tense verb meaning ‘to establish’ is Middle English from French from Latin).

That’s a lot of mistakes.

Here’s what one of my students said about reading this article, and he nailed it:

“I love tracing a word back to its roots and checking that against claims made by experts in language. It’s not that I’m looking to show someone that they are wrong, it’s simply my feeling that if you’re not checking on your own work then somebody should. My thought [is] that experts should be working to sharpen each other by checking their claims and what someone presents as fact.” (DK)

My students also expressed more faith in very young children than the panelist. One student captured this eloquently:

“I think it is crazy that we are just now learning these things as juniors and seniors in college. Had we started learning to spell and write like this in elementary school we all could have much better understanding of the language. A lot like [my classmate], a lot of these concepts are new to me with this class. I think that this is why I am so shocked that we have never learned any of this before. It all makes so much sense and would really help learn the language if we would be taught these topics starting at a younger age than college.” (QG)

Experts are supposed to be reliable. We’re supposed to be able to trust them to tell the truth, to verify their information, and to admit when they’ve been proven wrong. Children, no matter how young, deserve to learn what’s factual, not what’s easy. Teachers deserve to read educational articles that are fact-checked. Experts, no matter how widely published or how famous in their field, need to maintain integrity and rigor in their scholarship.

It’s that simple.

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Cartoon of a schwa-shaped moon with the caption "After linguists first landed on the moon . . ."I’ve been a bit of a lunatic about the moon this winter.  Its bright fullness through my unadorned windows, especially “on the breast of the new-fallen snow,” contributed to a somewhat maddening sleeplessness on more nights than just the one before Christmas. Sometimes I met my insomnia with bouts of cleaning, sometimes with yoga, but often with language, my favorite companion when my household is asleep. I found the rituals of dusting and wiping, stretching and breathing, and reading, writing, and questioning language to be comforting and soothing in the wee hours. I figured that because the moon was keeping me up — and might do so a couple nights a month through the winter — I might as well learn more about it in the cozy hibernacle of my study.

While the winter of 2010-2011 has been a rough one for weather (thundersnow!) and geological events (tsunami!), it’s been good for astronomers and philologists alike. It began with an eclipse on the first day of the northern winter, December 21st, a rare, red-mooned spectacle that kept people up into the wee hours hoping to catch a glimpse. And now, as I finish writing this entry, on winter’s last day, March 19th, the moon is rising out my window, nearer to the earth than it’s been in eighteen years, and will appear larger and brighter in the night sky than usual.

Besides their exceptional visuals, both of these events have wonderful orthographic treasures waiting to be explored: a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice and the perigee moon on the eve of the vernal equinox are full of fancy words just waiting to be unpacked. The solstices mark the beginnings of winter and of summer, when the sun (<sol>) appears to stand still (<stice>, as in armistice).  The vernal (spring) and autumnal equinoxes are marked by equal (<equ>) hours of both day and night (<nox>). As the sun guides our seasons, the moon guides our months. So, equipped with our standard investigatory tools, this column is dedicated to our nighttime satellite, the moon, and the words we use to understand it, in hopes that it can shed a little light on the patterns that guide our lives and on those that guide our writing system.

The first of these hibernal events captures the Latinate forms for both the nocturnal and diurnal orbs in lunar and solstice respectively. The adjective derives from the Latin luna, ‘moon,’ also the name of the Roman moon goddess, Luna (Selene in Greek). A quick word search on morewords.com reveals the astronautical terms perilune and apolune, meaning ‘close to / far from the moon’ respectively.  These words suggest a base of <lune> rather than *<lun>, as do the words lunette (‘little moon’), demilune (‘half-moon’), and lunate, all connoting crescent shapes. But the moon isn’t all outer space and pretty shapes: it has also been long associated with madness. Moon-induced sleepwalking, or lunambulism, has been blamed for lunacy. While the Latin word lūnāticus originally meant ‘moon-dweller’, by the time it made it into English, via French, as lunatic, it already referred to periodic insanity, the waning moods and waxing madness blamed on the phases of the moon.

Of course, the Romans weren’t the only culture to associate the moon with insanity; the concept was likely a calque from ancient Greek, in which moonstruck manics were called selenobletos. According to etymonline, the New Testament Greek word for ‘epileptic,’ mistakenly thought to be a mental illness, was seleniazomai — remember the moon goddess Selene? Compare selenology, the scientific study of the moon, or selenography, lunar map-making, what geography is to the Earth. The OED lists a couple dozen selenic relatives, including my favorite, selenotrope, a plant that turns toward the moon.

In Modern English, the word moon retains several senses of madness: over the moon means crazily happy; to moon over someone is to pine obsessively, and to moon about means to loaf or mope depressively. Someone who is foolishly daydreamy may be called moony or moonstruck, and both moonshine and moonlighting have criminal origins. To ask for, reach for, or promise the moon is to expect the insanely impossible, and to think someone hung the moon is to give him mad credit. The English association of selenicism and insanity dates all the way back to the earthy Anglo-Saxons: etymonline informs us that the Old English word for ‘lunatic’ was the compound monseoc, ‘moonsick,’ and periodic ‘lunacy’ was mona­ð­seocnes, or ‘monthsickness.’

Here we see that the moon is not only associated with madness, but also with months. Moon and month are obviously related conceptually, but what about orthographically? They cannot be morphologically related, since they don’t share a base, but they are clearly etymologically related. While the Modern English words don’t share a base, the Old English words did: mon or mona meant ‘moon’, and it was suffixed to form monað, ‘month.’  The Old English suffix <-að> (also spelled <-aþ>) is just one of several word suffix spellings that merged into the Modern English <-th> suffix, which forms nouns from either verbs, as in growth, stealth, and health, or from adjectives, as in dearth (<dear> + <th>, ‘scarcity, dearness’) or warmth. But in addition to affixing to free base words that themselves have inherent grammatical categories (or parts of speech), the nominal <-th> suffix more frequently applies to bound bases that have free cognates, as in birth (see bear), depth (see deep), strength (see strong), and breadth (see broad).  The word month is just such a construction: the <-th> suffix affixes to the bound base <mon>, meaning ‘moon,’ which is also seen in the proper noun <Monday>, a compound just like its calendrical predecessor <Sunday>.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins tells us that the “Indo-European [base] *mēnes- meant both ‘moon’ and ‘month.'”  This reconstructed historical base gave us the Latin mensis, ‘month,’ whence the Modern English menses, meniscus (yet another crescent-shaped ‘little moon’), and semester (literally, ‘six months’). Associated with menses are its cousins menstruation, amenorrhea, menopause, and premenstrual syndrome. Goddess or gender studies might consider herein the nexus of a monthly cycle, the pull of the moon, madness, fertility, and ritual that runs deeply through the human experience. Long considered a kind of periodic, moon-induced insanity, mood swings and disorders associated with hormonal fluctuations were once treated by removing a woman’s reproductive organs: it’s no coincidence that hysterectomy and hysteria share a spelling, because they also share a meaning and an origin. One 1887 medical text explains that “It would have been as reasonable to extirpate the bed-sore of a sufferer from paretic dementia, and to cut off the hæmatomatous ear of a terminal dement, with the hope of curing his insanity thereby.”  Although the practice was condemned as early as the 19th century, it continued at least into the 1980s in North America in a shameful example of medical madness. Now that’s crazy.

So, while moon and month share a common ancestry, few people would automatically associate them without prompting; the connection isn’t obvious to everyone. Germanic languages, including English, Dutch, and German, all have different but related words for ‘moon’ and ‘month,’ but most Romance languages diverge completely: Latin mensis gives us Spanish mes, Portuguese mês, and French mois, all meaning ‘month,’ but their words for ‘moon,’ luna, lua, and lune respectively, derive ultimately from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base *leuk-, meaning ‘to light, shine,’ an etymon which also gives us light, translucent, luminous, illustrate, elucidate, illuminate, and luster, but also Lucifer, ‘light-bearer,’ an epithet for both Venus and Satan, and leukemia, named for white blood cells.  All that glitters is not, apparently, gold.

Ultimately, many languages, though not all, differentiate lexically between ‘moon’ and ‘month;’ some have a word for moon from one historical base, meaning ‘light,’ and others from another historical base that is cognate to month. The PIE base *mēnes- is itself derived from *mē-, ‘to measure.’ Ayto tells us that “in ancient times the passage of time was measured by the revolutions of the moon.” This same ancient PIE base *me yields measure, mete, meter, immense, meal (a ‘measure’ of food eaten at regular intervals), dimension, and commensurate. The presence of these two divergent etymologies for words that mean ‘moon’ speaks to the dual role of that heavenly body: it both measures and illuminates our world and how we perceive it.

Of course, people still try to make false and silly claims about the moon (the lunar perigee does not, for the record, cause tsunamis), as well as about the words that denote it (<month> is not, for the record, the base element of bimonthly). Such unscientific blunders, like surgical cures for hysteria, are an embarrassment to anyone who pursues real scientific inquiry. Can you imagine, for example, the data that early humans must have collected to determine just how the moon marked and was marked by time, how meticulous someone’s records must have been? It inspires me to think of how humans, in striving to understand the heavens, have leaned on the scientific principles of seeking patterns, weighing evidence, and always opting for the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions and accounts for the most examples.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2011

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You know how sometimes a certain word will keep popping up over and over?  By the time the same word has appeared three or four times, you start to wonder what it might be trying to tell you.

So, of course this happened to me recently.  Across a few different books I was reading, the words conscious, conscience, unselfconsciousness, and unconscionable were cited of examples of certain linguistic phenomena — different phenomena in each case.  In each case, the word was a poorly chosen example, and with plenty of other examples available, I wondered why it was chosen at all.

The first encounter was in an advanced English syntax seminar I’m taking, for which I’m reading Rodney Huddleston’s Introduction to the Grammar of English. Here are the two passages of interest to me here:

(i) “Words may be formed by the application of more than one morphological process.  In unselfconsciousness, for example, the first step is one of compounding, joining the simple stems self and conscious to form the compound stem selfconscious.  To this is then added the prefix un-, yielding the complex stem unselfconscious; and finally -ness is suffixed, to give the final complex stem unselfconsciousness.” (22)

(ii) “The minimal units of morphology are simple stems and affixes . . . In English, almost all simple stems, like stems in general, are free, that is, they can stand alone as words.  Those that cannot are called bound: they include the amic, dur, prob, conscion, vulner of amicable, durable (or duration, etc.), probable, unconscionable, vulnerable . . . ; the beknown and (for most speakers) kempt of unbeknown and unkempt; scissor and trouser of scissors and trousers.” (31)

In order to unpack all of this a little, let’s narrow our focus: we’ll only be worried about Huddleston’s treatment of conscious and conscion as “simple stems” in English.  In order to do so, we’ll need to figure out what Huddleston’s definition of a “simple stem” is.  He is clear that a “simple stem” may be free or bound, as illustrated in (ii) above.  We can also assume that by “minimal”, he means not further divisible.  This is certainly what he means by “simple stems in the sense that they are not analysable into smaller morphological units” (22).

Huddleston explains that simple stems may compound by two joining together, as in blackbird or goldsmith, or, “in affixation, an affix is added to a stem to yield a complex stem” (22).  He then goes on to differentiate between prefixes and suffixes.  Some words, of course, involve more than one morphological process, as he outlines in unselfconsciousness.

Now, let’s get back to those assertions: okay, so if conscious and conscion are “simple stems”, according to Huddleston, that would mean that they are “not analysable into smaller morphological units,” in his own words.  Hmm . . . but if we’re peeling off the -able and -ness suffixes, then why aren’t we also peeling off the -ous and the -on suffixes?  And if affixation includes both prefixes and suffixes, then shouldn’t we also peel off the easily recognizable prefix con-?  If we approach this problem orthographically, we can use word sums to figure out the real structure of these words and their respective “simple stems,” for which I prefer the term base element:

<un> + <self> + <con> + <sci> + <ous> + <ness>

<un> + <con> + <sci> + <on> + <able>

Once we get down to a real simple stem, <sci>, it appears that these two words, in fact, share that stem.  But is it the same stem in both words?  Does it mean the same thing, and come from the same place? Let’s consider the meaning and history of each of these words to look for clues to the meaning of <sci>.

When I consult my standard sources (my Mactionary, the OED, and the online etymology dictionary), I learn the following:

The words conscious, conscience, conscientious, and the now archaic conscionable (“fossilized in its negative,” says etymonline.com) are all related, as are some less familiar words, like conscient, consciental, conscioned, and consciencely. Of all these words, conscience has the earliest attestation, in The Ancren Riwle, a 1225 “treatise on the rules and duties of a monastic life” (Morton 1853).  While I’m not suggesting that these words all developed from one another, I am suggesting that they are morphological siblings, and it’s interesting to look at how they play out chronologically:

1225: conscience

1541: conscionable

1565: unconscionable

1611: conscientious

1651: conscious

1688: self-conscious

1838: unselfconsciousness

When I look up the earliest of these, conscience, I confirm that conscience is related to science, and thus this family of words is related to scientific, scientist, unscientific, and a host of other derivatives, all from the Latin verb scire, ‘to know.’  Interestingly, science is attested in 1300, a little later than conscience, representative, perhaps, of ways in which intellectual pursuits often shadow moral instruction in the Middle Ages.  At any rate, in uncovering the etymological root, we can now get a sense of the meaning that ties these words together in the Modern English base element, <sci>:

conscience: ‘inward knowledge’, vying with and finally replacing the Old English inwit.

conscionable: ‘having a conscience, being reasonable or aware’, derived from a misanalysis of conscience as a plural *conscions.

conscientious : ‘according to inward knowledge or awareness’

conscious: ‘knowing, aware’

science: ‘knowledge acquired by study’ or ‘a particular branch of knowledge’

But wait! That’s not all!  I can add the prefixes <un> and <sub> and several suffixes to some of these words too, and come up with new layers of meaning.  What if we consider prefixes other than <con>?  I decide to visit Neil Ramsden’s Word Searcher and http://www.morewords.com to look for other words with <sci>, and I come up with prescient, nescient, omniscient and their respective -ence forms, all of the <scient> words, the <consci> words mentioned in his post already, and the etymologically delicious adverbial compound scilicet.  I check with Melvyn Ramsden to see if he’s got a matrix, and he sends me one.  A few days later, he sends me a revised copy, along with a great story.  Here’s the corrected matrix:

Matrix for <sci>

Matrix by Melvyn Ramsden

All of this evidence, then, rather shows Huddleston up.  He himself defines “simple” as “not analysable into smaller morphological units,” a characterization that simply cannot and does not apply to *conscion or to conscious, both of which he calls “simple stems.”  Huddleston is not alone in this misapprehension of morphological analysis: Joan Bybee also refers to realize as a “monomorphemic lexical item” (1985:11). While it is indeed a lexeme, it is not monomorphemic; we can analyze <realize> at least into <real> and <ize>, if not even further into <re> + <al> + <ize>.  At any rate, monomorphemic it is not.  It’s uninflected, which may be what Bybee meant, but that’s not what Bybee wrote.

Perhaps I’m in the wrong here and I’m the one who’s misapprehending the meaning of concepts like morpheme, simple, complex, and analyze, and I’d welcome any linguistic challenges to my assertions.  I suppose some would argue that native speakers aren’t “aware” of the base element <sci>, or of the <real> in <realize>, but I would argue (as I have in these writings several times before) that just because a native speaker isn’t aware of something in language doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and a linguist should be the last person to suggest such an idea.

*               *               *

So, now that we have an understanding of the morphology and the etymology of these words, what about their phonology?  As it turns out, another encounter with the word conscience, in a different text, brought up some very interesting questions, and clarified just how the orthographic phonology works in words with the base <sci>.

In her brand new edition of Speech to Print, Louisa Moats uses the word conscience to illustrate two principles of graphophonemic correspondence, but makes such unscientific errors in her analysis that she unconsciously muddies up the very graohophonemic correspondences she lobbies for.  Moats writes that in the word conscience, “the letter c stands for three different speech sounds: /k/, /š/ and /s/” and also that “a vowel team (two vowel letters) . . . is needed to spell the second vowel /ə/.” (2010:25)

There are two assertions in this statement: one is about the multiple roles of the letter <c> in this word, and the other is about how the schwa sound in the last syllable is spelled.  In her analysis, Moats reveals her unwavering determination to be able to “map” every phoneme onto a grapheme, in a way that leaves no letter unaccounted for.  While I admire her desire to account for every letter in a spelling — something every real speller knows how to do — I cringe at the saturation of error in her proposal.  Let’s take it apart.

In the first assertion, Moats claims that the letter <c> “stands for” three different “speech sounds,” /k/, /ʃ/ and /s/.  While the first <c> does indeed spell /k/, and the final <c> does indeed spell /s/, with some help from the final non-syllabic <e> that follows it, her analysis fails thereafter.  However, if we attempt to map out all of the phonemes and graphemes as Moats suggests, that leaves us with some letters unaccounted for:

<   c   o   n   s   c   ie   n   c   e   >

/   k    ɑ  n        ʃ   ə    n   s       /

If, as Moats says, the medial <c> is spelling /ʃ/, then what is the <s> doing?  Why is there an <s> there at all?  Well, we know from the analysis above that the <s> is part of the base <sci>.  Examined morphophonemically, it’s clear that the <sci> base spells /ʃ/ here.  And that shouldn’t be surprising when we consider the pronunciation of related words like prescient, nescient, omniscient, conscious, or unconscionable.  A <c> can and frequently does spell /ʃ/ before an <i>, but that <i> is often a connector vowel, as in special, musician, or gracious.  Here, the <i> is in the base itself, <sci>.  Even though that <i> isn’t spelling a vowel phoneme, we can’t just drop it from the base.  Clearly, the <c> is not spelling /ʃ/ alone.  It would seem kind of important that we account for that <s> and that <i> as well.

Moats makes no attempt in her “mapping” to account for the <s> in the word here, although she does offer <sc> instead as the spelling for /ʃ/ in this same word on page 93 in this same book.  She does attempt to account for the <i> by grouping it with the <e> as part of a “vowel team.”  Of course, <ie> can be a vowel digraph, two vowel letters acting as a single grapheme in spelling a phoneme, as in the words chief, believe, cookie, or pie.  But is the <ie> a single grapheme in conscience? We can see our answer very easily in the morphological analysis of the word:

<con> + <sci> + <ence>

We can see that the <i> and the <e> are in two different morphemes.  Since a single grapheme cannot bridge two morphemes, the <i> and the <e> must be separate graphemes.  When we assume that two letters next to each other are a single grapheme, we fail to understand how the word is structured, and why it is spelled and pronounced the way it is.  We can confirm this hypothesis when we look at the related words science or conscientious, where the <i> and the <e> each spell different vowel phonemes in different syllables.  Because of the variety of pronunciations of the base <sci>, it’s easiest and most accurate to refer to it by its spelling, <sci>, rather than as any of its allomorphic surface representations, /saɪ/, /ʃi/, /ʃ/, /sɪ/ or any others that may surface in dialects other than mine.

Understanding this principle, that graphemes spell phonemes inside of a single morpheme, allows us to understand the following broader examples from English spelling:

*The word <cried> has no <ie> digraph, despite contentions to that effect in many reading and spelling curricula.  It has an underlying <y> that changed to an <i>, followed by <ed>.  The <i> and the <e> are in different morphemes.

*In the word <father>, the <th> is a single grapheme that spells the phoneme /ð/.  In the word <fathead>, the <t> and the <h> are separate graphemes, spelling different phonemes in different morphemes.

*In the word <cook> the <oo> grapheme spells a single phoneme, /ʊ/, but in the word <cooperate>, each <o> belongs to a different morpheme and spells a different phoneme in different syllables.

Now that we’ve seen (1) the real structure of these words, (2) the errors of these language experts, and (3) a little more of how the English writing system works, let’s consider just why it is that this family of words, words about knowing and awareness, is so structurally obscure to language experts. Although <sci> is the base of about 100 English words, it is noticeably absent from Marcia Henry’s Unlocking Literacy (2010) or Patterns for Success (1996), as well as from Marsha Geller’s SLANT System morpheme deck and from the Advanced Language Tool Kit by Paula Rome and Jean Osman, an old standard in dyslexia remediation.  In fact, I’ve never seen it surface in any list of Latin morphemes in English that I’ve encountered, other than in the work of Melvyn Ramsden and Pete Bowers.  I did recently see Nancy Cushen White present the base <sci> at a conference, but she too has studied with Melvyn Ramsden.

Does this mean that everyone is wrong, and only Melvyn and Pete are right?  Well, yes and no.  Huddleston and Moats are demonstrably incorrect in their morphological and graphophonemic analyses of words with the <sci> base, respectively.  But more to the point, they are unconscious, unknowing, unaware of how the writing system, and its morphology and its phonology, actually work.  They are equally unconscious of their own unconsciousness, assuming their analyses are correct without investigating  them.  Because their understanding of English orthography is based on surface observations, phonological half-truths, and exceptions, it’s unscientific and misses the scientific principles at work in the spelling system.

While it’s understandable that even the most comprehensive list or curriculum would have errors or omissions, what’s unconscionable is when lauded experts perpetuate ideologies, inconsistencies and guesswork about language instead of structural, analytic linguistic science.

*               *               *

Here’s the great story Melvyn Ramsden sent me along with his corrected <sci> matrix: a seven-year-old discovered an error in the original matrix because he understood the system.  He caught an <ion> suffix in the original version, which would have rendered an impossible *<unconsciionable>.  What I love about this anecdote is that (1) it illustrates how to handle getting caught in an error (fix it, as Ramsden did, and give credit to the person who found it), and (2) it proves that a child can be made conscious of the tidy patterns that govern our orthography in ways that, apparently, the most vaunted authorities cannot.


Geller, M. Prefix, Root and Suffix Cards. Buffalo Grove, IL: Geller Educational Resources.

Henry, M. (2010) Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding & Spelling Instruction. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Company.

Huddleston, R. (1984). Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press.

Moats, L. (2010). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Company.

Rome, P. and J. Osman. (2006). The Advanced Language Tool Kit: Teaching the Structure of the English Language. Educators Publishing Service.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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Some linguist friends and I were recently chatting about spellchecker-generated spelling errors (I know, I know–we need to get out more).  Most computer spellcheckers make errors of omission, such as when you type in their instead of there and it doesn’t notice.  But they can make errors of commission too.  For example, if I want to type in obvious, but I accidentally insert an extra <i>, my computer will read *obivious as oblivious, and before I know it I’ve unwittingly written something that sounds, well, more oblivious than obvious.

Another good example of a spellchecker error of commission is the replacement of *definatly with defiantly, when what the writer means is definitely.  I have long noticed many people who are otherwise good spellers misspell the word definitely as *definately or even *definatly.  It is a very common spelling error even among quite literate sorts.  This common orthographic foible is a perfect example of why the sense and reason behind a spelling matters more than how a word looks, how it sounds, or what a good memory the speller has.

In the conversation, I submitted that these common misapprehensions of definitely could be easily corrected with some instruction in orthographic morphology:

<de> + <fine> + <ite> + <ly>

The problem with *definately is that the suffixes <-ate> and <-ite> can sound identical when they are unstressed, as in syndicate, requisite, and adequate.  When learners are taught to “sound out” words, or taught that the job of spelling is to represent sound, then they are trained to rely on how a word sounds in order to spell it.  That strategy too often doesn’t work.

If we teach that spelling is about representing meaning rather than sound, however then accurate patterns become evident.  A word’s orthographic phonology often becomes more evident when we look at other members in a morphological family, like syndication, requisition, and equate. Likewise, the suffix /ət/ in definite is spelled <ite>, the same as in the related words finite and definition, where the suffix is stressed and its spelling thus more phonologically transparent.  It all seems perfectly clear when we consider the following matrix, which I developed using principles I learned from Real Spelling.

Matrix for <fine> by Gina Cooke

What words can you derive?  Are there words you never considered to be morphological relatives before?  It makes sense that words like finish and final are related, but it also makes sense that finances are finite and that someone who is refined also has finesse.

One interlocutor in the spelling discussion defiantly countered my presentation of evidence from orthographic morphology by claiming that the polymorphemic word definite is the “root” [sic] of definitely, or maybe, he conceded, the “root” was define.  He argued that it’s easier to “just memorize” the spelling.  While that may be true for many, it’s certainly not true for all.  When people suggest that it’s “easier” to “memorize” words for spelling, it usually means that (1) it was easy for them, so it should be easy for others, and (2) it’s easier as a teacher to give students a list of words to memorize than it is to teach them how spelling works.  But I’m not in search of “easy.”  I’m in search of accurate, meaningful, well-defined information about how written English works.

But! This worthy opponent persisted in arguing his case.  Among his chief arguments were the following:

  1. Like the word define, the words abstain, retain, contain, and obtain are all “their own roots;” 
  2. The <de> in define can’t be a prefix because “‘fine’ isn’t a verb in English;” and
  3. “The only morphemes that matter are the ones present in the minds of current native speakers;”

He also threw in some stuff about Chaucer, Shakespeare and Webster.

Let’s consider these points one by one.

1. Like the word define, the words abstain, retain, contain, and obtain are all “their own roots.”  Or not. The word root is often used with terminological imprecision.  It is used both morphologically and etymologically. For example, if we say that Latin struere, ‘to build’, is the “root” of <structure>, we mean that in terms of its etymology or historical origin.  This is a precise use of the term.  Some people would use it differently, saying that <struct> is the “root” of <structure>.  That is a morphological use of the word, and it means the base element.  It refers to a single morpheme.  In the examples abstain, retain, etc., the words are polymorphemic, or complex.  They all feature a prefix and a bound base, <tain>.  Plenty of native speakers may not be aware of that base, but it’s real.  After all, plenty of native speakers of English are also unaware of me and of the square root of pi, but we’re both real too.  I think that perhaps my debater intended the word stem, which Real Spelling defines as “a complex word (i.e. a base which has already acquired another element) to which a further affix or element is to be added.”

2. The <de> in define can’t be a prefix because “‘fine’ isn’t a verb in English.” This is demonstrably untrue. Here, his argument is that, because words that have <de> + {base} are often verbs, like defog and de-ice, formed from adding <de> to an existing verb.  However, that’s not always the case, as in denude and defame.  In this statement, it is clear that he is relying on his own self-perceptions about the language rather than relying on evidence gathered from an investigation.  Any dictionary will tell him that fine is absolutely a verb in English, as evidenced by the following entry for fine in my Mac dictionary:


  1. [ trans. ] clarify (beer or wine) by causing the precipitation of sediment during production.
  2. [ intrans. ] (of liquid) become clear : the ale hadn’t had quite time to fine down.
  3. make or become thinner : [ trans. ] it can be fined right down to the finished shape | [ intrans. ] she’d certainly fined down —her face was thinner.

If someone’s facial features have fined down, then she has fine features, a refined look, or well-defined features.  Clearly these words are related morphologically.

The OED gives three separate entries for fine as a verb, each with a few definitions.  Here are some of my favorites, along with some compelling examples:

  1. (From entry 1) trans. To bring to an end, complete, conclude, finish. c1374 CHAUCER Troylus IV. Proeme 26 Father of Qwyrine! This ferthe book me helpith for to fyne.
  2. (From entry 2) 1. trans. To pay as a fine or composition. 1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, IV. vii. 72 Know’st thou not That I have fined these bones of mine for ransom?
  3. (From entry 3) b. intr. To grow or become fine or clear; to clarify. lit. and fig. Also, to fine down. 1719 Free-thinker No. 134 6 The perpetual violent Motions…hinder his Mind from fining.

This evidence demonstrates that not only can fine be a verb in English, but that it is also a verb with some meanings that are very close to define.  Whereas fine means “to clarify,” then define means “to clarify completely.”

3.”The only morphemes that matter are the ones present in the minds of current native speakers.” The only morphemes that matter to whom?  Matter for what?  How do morphemes become present in the minds of native speakers?  My conversant indicated that he’s interested in “how language develops regardless of formal education” (emphasis added).

Of course formal education has an impact on what is present in the minds of native speakers about their language.  For people whose formal education taught them to “sound out” words, that’s the first strategy they try.  In people whose formal education teaches Greek and Latin etymology in English, an awareness of those patterns can develop.  If people are taught that the base element in <definitely> is <fine>, then that morpheme will become “present in their mind,” whatever that means.

But formal education, like spellcheckers, can have an impact from omissions as well as from commissions.  If a teacher commits the error of assuming that <define> is a single morpheme, then that’s likely how her students will come to think of it, and they will not likely link it to words like fine or definite.  If she commits the error of calling a stem a “root” then her students may remain confused about both morphology and etymology.

In teaching language, errors of commission like those above are pretty common.  Even more common, however, are errors of omission.  If teachers simply omit any information about the morphological structure of words (often because they are unaware themselves), then students persist in approaching words as whole pieces, or as units analyzable by sound only.  If teachers commit the error of omitting instruction in favor of memorization, then students will come to think of words and spelling as things to be memorized, rather than as things to be studied, investigated and understood.

If my interlocutor wishes to study how language develops regardless of formal education, then he will need to consider both what is committed in the language classroom, and what is omitted in the language classroom.  Or, he will need to restrict his work to 2-year-old children.

Once again, let’s consider where what we think about language comes from, especially before we speak it in a classroom, teach it to another person, or assert it as fact.  Hunches, self-perceptions, inexactitudes and uninvestigated statements about language too often defy reason.  But evidence from the language itself definitely clears things up.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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