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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What of island and isle and aisle? The <s> is etymological in isle but folk etymological in the others. Isle is Latinate and related to insular and peninsulaisland is Germanic, totally unrelated, but its <s> marks its wide historical disassociation 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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I began studying inflections in English about five or six years ago, and I’m hooked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote that. Then I saw this:
skin ffs

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

Tickles me pink.

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

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

break~breach               seek~search (also sought),

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

pocket~pouch               invoke~vouch

crook~crotch                dike~ditch

book~beech                  pick~pike~pitch

teach~token                 wreak~wrack~wretch

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

snack~snatch            cake~cook~kitchen           bake~batch

Food for thought, right?

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

grow~growth

heal~health

steal~stealth

weal~wealth

dear~dearth

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

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

die~death

moon~month (which I wrote about here)

strong~strength

deep~depth

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

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

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

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

foul~filth

worship~ worth

gird~girth

slow~sloth

brew~broth

merry~mirth

young~youth

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

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

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

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

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

cloth

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

oath

bath

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

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

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

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

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

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

My question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here’s what I told her:

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

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

<lie> + <ed> → *<lieed> → <lied>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the outset, the purpose of this post was going to be to inform folks about the Pennsylvania seminars. But I ended up deep in language (surprise!).

Here’s what happened: I started thinking that I really should reorganize this website (I need my own website, I know, I know), and I should have a page just for announcements, and a different page for language investigations. That got me to thinking about the word organize, and I was off and running. So my excuse for not having an organized website (yet) is that this post is both: an announcement and an investigation.

Putting together two weekend seminars out of state is no mean feat. It takes a lot of organization. The Friday spelling seminar is $75, payable to Stratford Friends School, and the Saturday-Sunday etymology seminar is $225 ($250 with lunches), payable to LEX. Folks who sign up for both get $25 off the weekend seminar. So, you know, it’s complicated bookkeeping, which is so not one of my great loves. I can do it, and I do it fine, but I don’t love it. On top of that, there’s hotel information for those traveling in ($124/night includes shuttle service, so no rental car needed). Please contact me for more information or registration flyers. I’m sorry it’s cumbersome — one of the things I plan to have better organized in the future, along with the website.

Thinking about the word organize, I started to wonder whether <org> or <organ> is the base element, and whether it’s related to <erg>, a free base element that denotes ‘work’. I was thinking of the word cyborg, a 20th-century neologism coined from “the first elements of cybernetic and organism” (The Online Etymology Dictionary — the only unadulterated OED). Sure enough, I see that <organ> and <erg> are indeed etymologically related — both courtesy of Greek via Latin. I have some evidence that <org> is a base element, but that’s a story for another time.  Suffice it to say that I’m satisfied for the time being with the following understanding:

<organ> is a stem meaning “instrument” — literally, denotationally, “that with which one works” (Etymonline, and elsewhere). Now if only I could get my website and my LEX life more finely tuned!

This word family — organize, organization, organic, organism, organ — is etymologically related to the base <erg> (‘work’) and its family of energy, allergen, ergonomic, ergative (look it up! I promise you will learn something). Also related etymologically: urge, surgeon, and — you guessed it — work!

Now, this investigation took me some (shocking!) places I didn’t expect to go, and it also took me back to some places I’ve been before, thus deepening my understanding of those previous journeys (one with surgeon was particularly rich) and whetting my appetite for others. One of the things I have to work out along the path of my investigation is how I know when I’ve got a morpheme and what’s simply, as one well-known morphologist likes to call it, “etymological residue.”

How can we tell? No resource will tell us reliably what the orthographic base element of a word is; this is something we have to discern by an organic process. So what does that process look like, and how do we know when we’ve ventured away from morphology, and entered into etymological markings and connections rather than morphological analysis? Well, as it so happens, this is a central question of my current work. I have a sense of how this works, but my present academic research and writing are targeting  these questions explicitly. This is the work I will be sharing, in its latest form, at these weekend conferences in Pennsylvania.

Recently, I was conversing with a dear friend and adviser about the purposes of my work, my audience, my goals. It’s great when people who are invested in me and my work question me, because it makes me organize my thoughts and put energy into capturing them in text. What I realized is that, while I might be allergic to bookkeeping and organizational details, I have a sense of urgency about my real work, my language work. Here’s the best I could articulate to my friend, “I just do it, like an artist or a writer, because I can’t not do it. Because there are stories to be told, even though not everyone wants to hear them.”

There are more stories about these words and so many others. I am so looking forward to sharing them here and in the March seminars (don’t forget — there’s one in the Chicago area March 9-10 too!). If you’d like to hear more, come and join us, or think about working with LEX to set up your own local workshop.

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Earlier this month, I gave two weekend seminars called Seeing the Sense in Spelling. Each one was a thorough joy, though they were very different.

The first was a one-day seminar in a small market, where most of the 16 attendees were new to the scientific study of orthography.  Four of them made an eight-hour round trip in order to be there; toward the end of the day, they said that they were looking forward to the drive back, so they could continue the dialogue. I could actually see the participants seeing and internalizing how spelling makes sense. I could tell by when they bent over their papers to jot something down, by the things they chose to record, that spelling was indeed making sense to them.

The second was a two-day seminar, longer in the planning, and in a much larger market. The 92 attendees were a mix of seasoned word detectives and the newly curious, along with a stray mathematician, a psycholinguist, and a Freemason with some knowledge of sailing who made some interesting observations about the spelling and pronunciation of words like leeward and coxswain. Folks traveled far for this one too — to Cincinnati from all over the state of Ohio, from Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and even one lone, dedicated orthographer from San Francisco, California.

For spelling.

I know this isn’t a math blog, so let me spell it out for everyone. That’s 108 people who showed up to roll up their sleeves and learn more about how words work.  Actually, 109. Because I was there too. And, boy, did I learn more.

Two lessons in particular stood out to me, both courtesy of that dear, diminutive scholar who flew in from San Fran. The first was conceptual. As questions arose about scopes and sequences, how to teach and how not to teach, how to build a solid orthographic understanding into classrooms or clinics,  where to begin, what tools to use, and how to integrate new information into traditional methodologies, I demurred. I kind of hate answering those kinds of questions; I’d rather talk about words than about lesson plans. My Bay Area buddy came to the rescue, offering this perspective:

When we have a curriculum or a scope and sequence, we have the false impression that, as teachers, we have complete information, that we know and can teach all of the things about our subject. But that’s an illusion, and one that’s contrary to real scholarship. It’s a common perspective in literacy education; one well-known reading scientist frequently laments that teachers don’t know enough about language, and that the materials they use are rife with linguistic error. Of course, I’m down with that. But here’s where she loses me: “Such [linguistic] details,” she writes, “do matter because we can help students make sense of the relationship between spoken and written language only if the information they receive is complete and accurate” (emphasis added). Again, accurate I’m down with, but complete is problematic.

At what point is a teacher’s information or knowledge complete? Most of us have experienced a teacher who thinks their knowledge is complete, and it ain’t pretty. When, in literacy education, do we know or have access to everything? All the answers? The whole kit and linguistic caboodle? Never, of course. In fact, the concepts of accurate and complete are at odds with each other when it comes to real scholarship: the only accurate understanding knows there’s always more to learn.

So there was that.

The other revelation, for me, was in the discovery of a new bound base element, one that has since been hitting me over the head in my daily encounters with words. It was one that had been glimmering at me for a long time, hoping to catch my attention, but I needed a shove in the right direction. Fortunately for me, and for everyone else in Cincinnati, my West Coast collaborator was right there to help me along.

As the group was investigating words, we decided to look at that perennial favorite (especially for kids), antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s so affixalicious. But it’s getting to the base element that’s really orthographically nourishing. I had worked, in the past, with <establish>, the form that many lay people would peg as the base of antidisestablishmentarianism, so I knew that the initial <e> could be peeled off — it’s a variant of <ex>, a Latinate prefix meaning ‘out’, which we also see in <erupt>, <egress>, <emit>, <elect>, and many others. I also knew that the <ish> was a verbal Latinate suffix, just like in <punish>, <embellish>, <languish>, <replenish>, and so on. That left me with <stable>, which I assumed was a free base element:

<anti> + <dis> + <e> + <stable> + <ish> + <ment> + <ary> + <an> + <ism>

That’s what I was thinking as I sent my groups into the study of antidisestabilshmentarianism. I hinted that they’d find a free base element, thinking of <stable>. Soon, the Golden Gate Girl was standing right behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder. “It doesn’t have a free base,” she told me. I frowned, still thinking of <stable>, but I listened. “The <able> is a suffix,” she said.

Oh. Dang. Of course it is. Right away I could see the Latin root in my head, stabilis, in which the <abilis> is the familiar origin of the present-day English <able> suffix.

“Didn’t you see those emails?” she asked. Apparently, a 5th grader in Dan Allen‘s class in Switzerland had discovered the bound base element <st>, and the news had gone round our orthographic community. I must’ve been mired in the middle of my semester, translating Old English or grading grammar exams or something, because it didn’t even make my instrument panel, let alone my radar screen.

So I grabbed the mic, and corrected my misstatement to the groups. “Actually, it’s not a free base,” I said. “And it’s going to blow your mind.” They worked for a few more minutes, and then we did it together. We looked at the etymology, and linked the <st> to the Latin root stare (pronounced disyllabically as /’starə/), which means ‘to stand.’ Something that is stable is ‘stand-able.’ Whoa. We offered as evidence the following word sums in which the <st> base is again traceable to that Latin root:

<in> + <st> + <ant> (that which does not stand)

<con> + <st> + <ant> (that which stands intensively)

<st> + <ate> (the present act of standing)

<contra> + <st> (to stand against)

<circum> + <st> + <ance> (that which stands around you)

Holy cow. They kept coming. Status and institution and substance. We verified their <st> base with word sums, and their common Latin root stare on Etymonline and in dictionaries. My understanding deepened. A number of people were astonished by the information. Not everyone was thrilled with this revelation, however. People got stuck in their prior thinking, unable to grasp how something that’s not syllabic can be a base element. I explained that it’s because base elements, like all written morphemes, have no pronunciation until they surface in an actual word. So, /st/ isn’t a base element; <st> is. Other people mistook the letters <st> for the base element <st>, thinking that I was suggesting that anytime <st> is in a word, it’s a base element. But that isn’t true for <st> any more than it is for <ed> or <ing> or <ill>: in planted, eating, and illness, these sets of letters are morphemes, but in sled, bring, and fill, they’re just spelling sounds, and they carry no meaning on their own. Likewise, just because burst and step and paste all have the letters <st> does not mean that they have the base element <st>.

I’m sure that some minds were as blown by an <st> base as mine was, some even more. But like any good teacher, I really want the people I’m teaching to get excited about what they’re learning, so mostly I noticed the people who were confused or frustrated. That’s how learning and teaching go, though: there’s some discomfort in it, if it’s authentic. And sometimes the student just isn’t ready to learn a lesson yet. Just as I did not notice or register or understand an <st> base when the emails about it had gone around but did later, some of the seminar participants who were stymied or overwhelmed will go on, and later they will see new evidence that will seal their orthographic deal, and they’ll understand too. Some won’t, of course. But some will.

A little later in the seminar, after moving on from <st>, I happened to mention the word solstice. I gasped. The parts fell into place in my head:

<sol> + <st> + <ice>

The sun, standing.

I had written here about the solstice, and had assumed then that the <stice> in the word was a base element, also found in <armistice>. But in that Cincinnati seminar, I recognized that since the <st> was the base, the <ice> was the familiar nominal French suffix (also seen in service, justice, and cowardice, to name a few).

How enlightening.

The solstice is something that humans have marked and named and celebrated for a long, long time. There are ancient monuments and rituals dedicated to the solstices, both summer and winter. The June solstice, the longest, lightest day of the Northern year, is always bittersweet for me. It’s sweet because I love summer, and I really love the extended light. I love the brilliant sunsets from my rural home, and I’m always a little breathless when I look for just how late I can go before I say to myself that it’s dark out. I begin thinking about it in February, when I first notice the lengthening of days, and I begin counting down the days in late May. The solstice is a kind of apex, a climax, and it is satisfying for me like a good, deep breath. It is a moment, the moment when the sun stands still. But that same character — the momentness of the solstice — is also bitter, a little sad because I know that the solstice is a kind of end: an end of days growing longer,  and the point from which we begin the long slide toward the dark early afternoons of winter. (I wonder if people who like winter feel this way on their solstice.)

Fortunately, the solstice will return again. Few things are more certain. Just as the sun will rise in the morning, the days will lengthen in the spring. Like the lengthy daylight, the enlightenment of learning is something we can trust to return, if we are not ready or able to welcome and celebrate it at one moment, there will surely be another. “Revisiting is the essence of scholarship,” my favorite scholar said to me recently. Surely, like the sun, intellectual illumination will make another round.

Here’s what I realized in my reflections since that wonderful seminar: at any given time, in our learning, we are only at a moment. A single moment. It may echo some moments, or augur others, but it is its own moment. When I learned about <st>, when I saw it, grasped it, felt its embodiment in my understanding, I felt that moment. It was as if time was at a standstill, just then, just to add in that piece, to make that change to my appreciation of how words make sense.

Since that epiphanic seminar, the <st> base has made itself known again and again in surprising ways, standing right in front of me. In studying it further, I’ve found evidence that <st> is both a Latin and a Greek base element, from the same Proto-Indo-European origin, like <gn>, which I wrote about here. Besides the Latin examples above, <st> surfaces in the Greek-patterned static, ecstasy, metastasis, and even the proper name Anastasia, whose structure is <ana> + <st> + <ase> + <ia>, denoting ‘to stand up.’ That <ana> prefix is the same as in anabaptist or anachronism. There are historical relatives too, like the Old English stem and stand and stay, where the <st> is etymological, but not analyzable as a base element.

Here are some of the other words with an <st> base that I have found as astonishing and illuminating as the solstice itself: <ob> + <st> + <acle>, in which the <ob> means ‘against’ and the <acle> has a frequentive denotation (think spectacle, miracle, or receptacle); <co> + <st> (the price at which a desired item stands); <re> + <st> (the remainder, that which stands back); and <st> + <age> (a standing thing, like a blockage is a blocking thing). Also etymologically related, but no longer analyzable into an affixed <st> base, are oust (to stand in opposition to); and post, like a fence post (something that stands forth).

Even though each new <st> discovery is bright and remarkable, each of them is a little less surprising, a little less mind-blowing, than that first climactic vision of <st> in Cincinnati. Seeing the light in Cincinnati was a kind of apex, something I had been building to without even realizing it. Like the long days of summer, these continuing sightings of <st> still make me catch my breath, but they eventually move away from the apex of the the first time I saw it, when everything seemed to stand still for a moment, when the light was almost too bright to bear.

In our learning, we are always only at a moment in time. Whereas a curriculum or an answer sheet or a scope and sequence can give us the false impression of having arrived, in real scholarship there is no point of arrival, though there are many, many departures. In this way, orthographic study is not unlike the solar cycles. There are seasons, and moments when the sun seems to stand still, both in light and in shadow. There are long periods of illumination and intellectual heat, and long periods of darkness and chill too. The cycles of my orthographic learning are not as predictable or regular as the rotation and revolution of the earth, but the light at the center of them is just as strong as the sun, and just as stable.

© 2012 Gina Cooke and LEX

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