Archive for the ‘Prefixes’ 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.’ The original sense for ‘needle’ was botanical, as in a pine needle, not a sewing needle. 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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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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