Archive for the ‘Free Bases’ 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 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.

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:






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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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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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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