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Update: Due to an overwhelming response, inquiries for this training opportunity have been closed.

I’m inviting a small group of people into a unique online study starting this summer. Here’s why, and below that is how. Space is limited, and costs are to be determined based on the number of participants.

My entry into language education was Orton-Gillingham, a teaching approach developed specifically for individuals with dyslexia. The approach was named for Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neurospychyatrist, and Anna Gillingham, a psychologist and teacher. While a few other colleagues contributed significantly to the approach, it bears Sam and Anna’s names, and, I like to think, it also bears their legacy of refusing to accept the status quo for bright children struggling with literacy.

My training began nearly 15 years ago, just before the field began its journey toward accreditation, certification, and standardization of its practices. The Initial training program was structured and rigorous, requiring 45 graduate-level seminar hours and a 100-hour supervised practicum over the course of a year. The program later became accredited by the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council, or IMSLEC, and I still maintain my continuing education records for recertification under IMSLEC’s banner. My trainer, Dave Winters, was patient and thorough, and he remains a friend and mentor today. As the field continued to professionalize in the early 2000s, Dave became a Fellow in the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE).

Within a few years I had become a supervisor and was observing others’ lessons. I began the Advanced Training, and in 2002 started working with my first training, group, still under Dave’s expert guidance. A few years later I had the privilege of interning as an Advanced Trainer under Marcia Henry, also a Fellow in the AOGPE, and a legend in the field. Marcia herself had trained under Paula D. Rome, a teacher whose physician uncle was a student and colleague of Sam Orton. Dave too had been trained in the same tradition, with Paula’s partner, Jean Osman. By my calculations, this puts me just three handshakes from Orton and Gillingham themselves. It’s a professional genealogy I am proud of, though I have no right to be, as I didn’t earn it.

Over the course of my career, I have trained hundreds of teachers in fifteen states in Orton-Gillingham, in the same rigorous IMSLEC-accredited program I am certified in, at both the Initial and Advanced levels. I have traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada, where I have attended and presented at countless conferences, and have both taught and observed thousands of lessons with children. But none none of these is my proudest achievement in this field.

While these numbers are indeed earned, they do not give my work integrity; I am not McDonald’s. Rather, what makes and keeps me credible in my work is that I keep learning. My own continuing studies have been a bit of a challenge to the field, to its traditions, and to some of its personalities. My public writing, including this website, documents that. I have loved this field and love it still, but my orthographic work has both widened and narrowed my scholarship community, and I’ve been saying a long goodbye to Orton-Gillingham training.

Or so I thought. It turns out, this field has been affected by this spelling work, and more and more, people within the OG field are seeking a coherent understanding of the writing system. Not everyone, just small pockets here and there. But these pockets are seeking me out. They want OG training, but they also want to engage with the understanding of our writing system that Real Spelling, Pete Bowers, and I might offer.

LEX is not an accredited training facility. As an individual, I am a certified instructor in an accredited training program, but that certification is confined to my training in that (or in another) accredited program. I can train and certify people in OG as LEX, but that certificate is not part of any accredited or recognized OG program.

Yet still people ask me to do the training.

Here’s the invitation to study: The most recent request is for a training that will take place online, in real time, over Zoom, a video conferencing platform. This will be a full, year-long training consisting of 45-50 Zoom seminar hours, plus a private, supervised practicum. Participants will not only learn to deliver the Orton-Gillingham approach, but will study OG as a field — its history, its structure, where’s it’s been, and where it’s going.

Dates are already set for summer.  Space is limited, and sessions will not be recorded.

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Although I spent my college years and a summer in New England, I never made it to Maine. I’m pleased to announce the imminent remedy to that oversight!

To register, go here, or send in the registration form below.

Hope you can join us!

140920 Bangor Seeing the Sense Flyer 1

 

140920 Bangor Seeing the Sense Flyer 2

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I just emailed Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley to congratulate her on her impressive TED-Ed video on dyslexia, which I will certainly be using in upcoming classes and seminars. Kelli quickly responded, and indicated that she was in the midst of “looking for reasoning behind why some words as spelled with w and some with wh…”

I appreciated Kelli’s phrasing: she was looking for reasoning, trusting that English spelling is orderly, driven by meaning, and reasonable. I started to respond in an email, then decided the fruits of my brief investigation would be better shared with a wider audience.

Most words spelled with a <wh> are from Old English, where they were spelled with an <hw> digraph. They were actually pronounced /hw/ rather than the more common /ʍ/ (a voiceless /w/) that some folks have now. Most of us in the U.S. just say /w/, but some southerners and some non-U.S. speakers also devoice and/or aspirate the beginnings of words with <wh>, like Hank Hill from “King of the Hill” or Stewie from “Family Guy.” 

Many <wh> words are, of course, “question” words: who, what, where, when, why, which, whether, whose, whom, or otherwise grammatical/function words: wherefore, while, whence. These words often have Latinate cognates with <qu> (who/qui/quien, when/quando, what/quoi/que, which/quel/qual) — that’s because the <h> in <wh> and the <q> in <qu> both represent sounds made in the back of the mouth, and the  <u> and <w> both represent lip-rounding sounds. Similarly, whale is related to squalus and squalene, rorqual, and narwhal.

Several others have to do with a blow or blowing or brisk movement: whack, wham, whistle, whisper, whap, whop, wheal (also weal), wheedle (etymologically, to fan someone), whiff, whim, whimper, whine, whip, whippet, whirl, whorl, whisk, whiz, whump, whoosh, and even wharf (home to brisk activity).

Some are convenient spellings to have for homophones, like whet/wet and whit/wit and whole/hole. And we need that <wh> because it can also spell /h/ before the letter <o>, as in who or whole. Some <wh> words are related to other words that begin with <c>, because a <c> in Latin or Greek words and <h> in English words can be related — there’s that velar connection again — hearty/cordial/cardiac, horn/unicorn. Here are some more surprising relatives: whore/charity (both denote ‘loving’); wheel/cycle (both are round); whir/whirl/circle (all again denote roundness). A few others are simply marking relationships to other words — like the cognates white and wheat, or whine and whinge.

As Kelli knows, graphemes are driven by their etymology, not just by their phonology. So why are some words spelled with <wh>? Well, not only do <wh> words represent all possible pronunciations by English speakers, be they Canadians or Texans, New Englanders or old Englanders, they also whisper to us of ways our long-ago forebears perceived and spoke about their world.

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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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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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As my last post went up and was seen by the world of LEX readers, I was excited to see 120 hits in a day. That seemed like a lot of people. But compared to the American Educator‘s maelstrom of 900,000 readers, my little blog isn’t even a bathtub eddy. The journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which published the article I critiqued last time, regularly has nearly two million eyes fixed upon it. And the article in question is loaded, linked, and recommended on hundreds more Web pages.

The article has likely been read by millions of people.

Now, I’m thrilled that there’s a growing interest in spelling and spelling instruction that’s more than just memorize-and-test. I’m pleased that the article gets a lot right: English orthography concerns word structure and word histories, not just sounds. But the article is saturated with so much linguistic error that, as it’s gone fractal out there, it’s formed its own whole galaxy of teachers, tutors, speech pathologists, language therapists, curriculum developers, administrators, and others, who have a muddled understanding of how both English spelling and etymology actually work. In a world of instant access and free PDFs online, these experts’ errors have become viral juggernauts in both academia and the blogosphere. They’re scattered like feathers on the wind.

Let’s trace just one of the article’s errors — a mere typo, the one that’s easiest to trace — and see where it goes. As you know if you read Simply Put: Part I, the article in question begins with the following sentence:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

But, as my students and I learned, Webster was born in 1758, and would only have been 14 or 15 in 1773. In fact, in 1773, the young Noah was studying Greek and Latin with a Hartford pastor, in preparation for his entry into Yale the following year. So where did the article’s authors get their bad information? They give the citation in the following endnote:

Cited in Richard L. Venezky, “From Webster to Rice to Roosevelt,” in Cognitive Processes in Spelling, ed. Uta Firth (London: Academic Press, 1980), 9-30.

Okay, so the Great Big Spelling Expert authors cite Venezky, who cited Webster. When I check the Venezky source cited, however, I find this:

So Venezky got it right. Since the late linguist counted a copy of the 1783 text in his personal collection (donated to Stanford), it looks like he actually consulted the original. Venezky also cites, in the same article, another pearl of wisdom from the pen of Mr. Webster, but references it as “Webster, 1783/1968, p. 11.”  This refers, of course, to a 1968 reprint of the original 1783 work. But it’s clear from his bibliography that the two sources are one and the same.

So, an eighteenth-century lexicographer / grammarian writes something down, an opinion, really, a characterization. Not a stone-cold fact or a first-time discovery, but an argument. He gets cited by some linguist just under 200 years later, in the late twentieth century. Then the twentieth-century linguist gets cited 20-some years later, in the twenty-first century, but incorrectly. (It’s all so exciting! Literally!)

Then what happens?

Then the error is reproduced and gets a foothold in print and digital media, in scholarly works and casual websites alike. Now, clearly the twenty-first century Spelling Experts simply executed a typo, and no one — not them, not their preliminary readers, not the journal’s editors — no one thought to double-check the date, or the original source, a citation re-cited, before sending it to press. No big deal, right? Typos happen all the time. They’re not actually real errors, just a simple mistake.

Mmm, maybe not.

The spelling article was originally published in American Educator in late 2008. Since then, in just three years, it’s been made freely available not only on American Educator‘s website, but also on literally hundreds of others, including several outside the U.S. In addition to the 900,000-strong readership of the journal, the freestanding article itself has easily seen hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more readers. And those readers have shared the article’s content uncritically with others: colleagues, college students, parents, and children.

This one single 1773 error alone is far more easily locatable than all the linguistic misapprehensions, and I found it in several diverse places:

*on this blog, which was reposted here

*in this professional association newsletter (Spring 2009)

*in this dissertation (A)

*in this dissertation (B) too

*in this book on cognitive abilities in older adults, and even

*in Estonian, on this website, whence Google will re-translate the quotation back into a garbled “spelling is based on reading and writing, the largest piece of jewelry.” Ha!

So the error’s got traction.

Interestingly enough, the “ornament of writing” quotation doesn’t appear in every edition of Webster’s speller — over more than a century, this enormously popular book has come out in multiple editions — over a hundred in Webster’s lifetime alone. But not all of them have that line. Take, for example, the 1793 edition, which is digitized here. Within just 10 years, that line had disappeared from the speller. Known over time by different names, Webster’s text was hugely popular, at one point the best-selling book in all of North America. It was originally published in 1783 (not 1773) as the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (the other two volumes were a grammar and a reader, respectively), and changed names over time, including The American Spelling Book and The Elementary Spelling Book, but best known as the Blue-Backed Speller (I’ve also seen Blue Back Speller in several searches). In its multiple editions and reprints over more than a century, the speller included a variety of prefaces, introductions, commentaries, advertisements, and testimonials.

The “foundation of reading” quotation does not appear in the 1807 edition of the book, then called The American Spelling Book. But that doesn’t stop one of the Spelling Expert authors from citing it indirectly in a 2005 article, where he attributes the quotation to Webster “as early as 1807.” While it’s not a lie — I mean, clearly Webster did say it as early as that — why not just get the citation right and check an original source? Didn’t we all learn in college to check original sources whenever possible? The Interwebs were around by 2005 — it wouldn’t have taken long to figure out when and where Webster wrote this oh-so-beloved quotation. Since the author offers no citation reference for this “as early as” information, however, it’s impossible to tell why he picked that particular year. It betrays a scholarship that thinks Webster is important enough to quote, but not to actually study.

Webster was, in fact, one interesting guy, as we might expect. As a child, he received his education largely from his mother; he found his one-room schoolhouse teachers to be pious and illiterate dullards, and his adult desire was to see well-trained teachers in every American classroom. In fact, he himself wrote of his speller that its rules and guidelines “are rather designed for the master [teacher] than for the scholar [student]; for if all instructors pronounced words with correctness and uniformity, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of pronunciation” (found in an early nineteenth-century edition, digitized here). While I don’t get too moved by Webster’s orthoepy or syllable division or his fairly narrow focus on a single American English, I can get down with the idea of well-trained teachers, hence my complaints about shoddy scholarship in education journals and elsewhere. Indeed, if all instructors — or all Spelling Experts — approached word structures and histories with correctness and discipline, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of scholarship.

Now wait just a minute. Aren’t those awfully strong words, for just a typo? Shoddy? Vicious habits? Shouldn’t I just gear down?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the sources that pass along the 1773 error. Doing so myself convinced me even further of the need for improved rigor in spelling scholarship. When scholars simply cite, cite, cite, rather than to seek evidence themselves (I already wrote about that here), they’re also likely to blindly trust that what they cite must be correct, without questioning, interrogating, or verifying their sources’ claims. Folks just really trust these Spelling Experts, and they’ll take what they say without checking it further. This blog didn’t give any source for the faulty citation until I asked for one; while it claims to be a “linguistic” site, and refers to linguistics as the “scientific study” of language, the blog itself is decidedly casual. That’s to be expected in the world of weblogs, I suppose.

So let’s go to the other end of things. In a book chock-full of facts, figures, and statistics, a book claiming to “focus on research foundations,” a book published by Springer Science and Business Media, the authors of Chapter 10 trot out the erroneous 1773 claim, and don’t offer any citation for it. When we read their text, we’re just supposed to take their word that Webster said what he said, but in 1773. Written, then cited, then cited again, then cited again, and with each citation, it moves further away from its source, further away from real scholarship. These authors do cite the Spelling Experts’ article a couple of sentences later, so I can be certain that’s where they got the error.

Let’s also consider how the two doctoral dissertations cite Webster, just for kicks. As a doctoral student myself, I know how hard doctoral students work. I know how much detail goes into preparing a dissertation, including gathering appropriate copyright information, cross-referencing works cited, and dotting <i>s and crossing <t>s, so I was (am) troubled to see these two dissertations show evidence of some scholarly sloppiness.

In the first dissertation, the author (A) attributes the Webster quotation thusly:

In 1773, Noah Webster suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 1989, p. 12).

She also mentions Venezky 1989 in the very first sentence of her abstract. When I check her bibliography, however, the only Venezky publication listed is Venezky, R.L. (1999), The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford. Sigh. I check my copy of Venezky 1999 for the Webster quotation, and it’s not in there, on page 12 or anywhere else. What is in there, however, is a four-page biography of Noah Webster, including his 1758 birthdate and his 1783 publication of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I. In fact, reading Venezky was the reason my students had an inkling that 1773 was off.

I also checked to see what Venezky had published in 1989. He doesn’t refer to any 1989 work in his own bibliography, and the only thing I could find that Venezky authored solo and published in 1989 was a book review that was published on pages 89-92 of the American Journal of Education. While I don’t have a copy of that source to see if the quotation is in it or not, I can tell that it has no page 12. Ultimately, I’ll never know where the dissertation’s author got that citation. Fortunately, dissertations are not known for being widely read. Perhaps the erroneous buck will stop here.

But there are a few other bucks out there. The second dissertation (B) has its own citation problems. In a totally undergrad-level move, the author closely paraphrases the Spelling Experts’ article. Here’s what the article’s first paragraph says:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.” He was right. Good spelling is critical for literacy, and it makes writing much easier. . . [S]pelling instruction underpins reading success . . . As children learn to spell, their knowledge of words improves and reading becomes easier.

And the dissertation’s first paragraph says this (with most of the sources removed to make the reading easier):

In 1773, Noah Webster correctly suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 2000). Good spelling ability is critical to the reading process, as is reading to spelling. . . As children’s knowledge of spelling increases, their knowledge of words improves; thus, reading and writing become not only easier but interconnected (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2009).

Now, while this dissertation does cite the Spelling Experts, she doesn’t credit them with the Webster quotation; rather, she credits that to Venezky 2000.  So I check her bibliography, and I find Venezky 1993, which she also cites in the text, and Venezky, R. L. (2000). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press. But the book has just one publication date, and it’s 1999, not 2000. Double sigh. Venezky did publish an article in 2000 (“The Origins of the Present-Day Chasm Between Adult Literacy Needs and School Literacy Instruction” in Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 4, Issue 1), but the Webster quotation doesn’t make an appearance. Webster is mentioned in it, however: “Noah Webster published his first speller in 1783” (24); once again, Venezky gets it right.

One of my students noted that the Spelling Experts claimed a collective “eight decades of experience helping preservice and inservice teachers improve their instruction in spelling, reading, and writing” (page 6). “You’d think,” said my student, “that in 80 years they would’ve had plenty of time to check their facts.” We all had a good chuckle, and I had to admit that my student had come by his spelling snark honestly.

As I detailed in my last post, I tried to guide my students toward epistemological rigor and accuracy. This experience made the reasons behind my nagging crystal clear. The point is never the snark: it’s the call to a higher standard for scholarship in the field. These authors are prolific, and have their hand in published spelling curricula, as well as the “research” base it relies on. I’ve written about other linguistic errors in some of their other writings, too. One of them says in that same 2005 article that <hear> is the base element of <rehearsal>; it isn’t — it’s <hearse>, like the funeral car, and here’s the proof. Another says in this book that <tube> is Anglo-Saxon. Nope and nope. I could go on. And I probably will.

As I’ve done a little research for my dissertation into Noah Webster’s work, I realize how much it has permeated literacy instruction in the U.S., for better and for worse. The fixation on syllable division, the focus on word lists, the assumption that pronunciation is the goal of orthography, the notion that there is a single American Standard English, and even that persistent and careless assertion that <tion> is a suffix, which it’s not (if you’re not convinced, here’s a proof, in the comments) — all these are traceable to the perseverance of Webster’s works in American classrooms. Popular publications — publications that get widely circulated and used over and over again — become part of the common knowledge out there.

This is why I care about the errors in the Spelling Experts’ article. It’s so widely read. It’s been posted and reposted, passed along, and it is still frequently and proudly cited, including by the authors themselves. Now, arguably, no one’s going to suffer too much from seeing the wrong date on a Noah Webster quotation; it’s unlikely to destroy someone’s conceptual foundations about language, history, spelling, and writing. It’s not evidence of anything except one famous man’s opinion. But if an innocuous error like getting a date wrong can have such far-reaching consequences in both scholarship and popular culture, what about the conceptual errors, like assuming that all short, common words are from Old English (gym class, anyone?), or assuming that all words from Latin are “sophisticated” (cup or pen, anyone?), or modeling etymology as something that can be guessed at? What are the effects of the wide dissemination of historical and linguistic error? I can’t help but wonder how far that article — and its errors — will reach a hundred years hence.

Time to get my readership numbers up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post details some of those controvertible messages about spelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post details my students’ feedback on the article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student responses:

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

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

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

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

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

And a whole lot more.

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

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

able |ˈābəl|

adjective ( abler , ablest )

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

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

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

-able |əbəl| |əb(ə)l|

suffix forming adjectives meaning:

1 able to be : calculable.

2 due to be : payable.

3 subject to : taxable.

4 relevant to or in accordance with : fashionable.

5 having the quality to : suitable | comfortable.

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

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

And from Etymonline:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

catch (from French)

peck (late Middle English)

pouch (from French)

badge (late Middle English)

fudge (early Modern English)

age (from French)

hinge (from Middle English)

scrooge (an eponym courtesy of Charles Dickens, 1843)

desk (from Latin)

peek (late Middle English)

bagged (Middle English)

cub (Modern English — 16th c)

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

class (from Latin via French)

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

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

That’s a lot of mistakes.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s that simple.

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Most people would agree that a teacher cannot be effective if she is ignorant about her subject. A skilled math teacher, for example, can’t just ignore the long-proven axioms of mathematics. An effective science teacher cannot remain agnostic about scientific principles, and a music teacher who cannot read music probably won’t have a good professional prognosis. No one can teach a subject before first studying it closely.

It is likewise with language education. In order to teach people accurately and effectively how the English writing system works, one must first study it closely. Yet, in spite of a growing emphasis on ‘evidence-based’ instruction, language education remains a discipline where surface observations go unexamined and guesswork often supplants analysis.

Besides investigating the English language itself, I also investigate the origins of the linguistic information presented in materials for language teaching, especially when those materials diverge from what the language structure reveals about itself. Recently, while reading the blog of a fellow language educator, I came across the following proclamation:

“When words share a similar meaning and spelling across languages they are called cognates (from -cog-, meaning ‘to think’, to recognize).”

This language educator’s assertion about thinking got me thinking. Is there really a meaningful element <cog> in the word <cognate>? If so, then what does the <nate> mean? This piece of “language education” bears further investigation.

Now, I’m already familiar with cognates. Most anyone who’s studied another language has learned about linguistic cognates: the French word rendez in rendez-vous is cognate with the English word render, for example. But the idea of cognates is broader than just linguistics, and understanding how it’s used outside of language helps us understand it within language. Here’s what my trusty Oxford English-based Mac dictionary (my Mactionary?) has to say on the issue:

cognate |’kɑgˈneɪt|
adjective
1 LINGUISTICS (of a word) having the same linguistic derivation as another; from the same original word or root (e.g., English is, German ist, Latin est from Indo-European esti).
2 FORMAL related; connected : cognate subjects such as physics and chemistry.
• related to or descended from a common ancestor. Compare with agnate.
noun
1 LINGUISTICS a cognate word.
2 LAW a blood relative.

Interesting. Okay, so to be “cognate” means to be related or connected. In fact, in a court of law, the word cognate would mean “a blood relative.”

So what’s this all got to do with thinking? Um . . . nothing.

Does it have anything to do with recognizing? The blogger’s parenthesis suggests a relationship between cognate and recognize. They do both have the letters <cog> in them. They sound similar. Could they be related? Do they share a meaning or a history, or just a surface appearance? Let’s investigate.

I can’t think of a meaning for recognize that has anything to do with being related, but I check the Mactionary just to be sure. That resource suggests that recognize means “to identify, acknowledge, approve of or pay tribute to.” While we might decide whether we want to identify or acknowledge our relatives, the words recognize and cognate don’t appear to have related meanings. But maybe I’m missing something, so I decide to look further into the words’ morphology (structure) and etymology (history) in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

cognate: from L. cognatus “of common descent,” from com- “together” + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci “to be born” (see genus). Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings.

Oh! So there’s no <cog> in <cognate>, not morphologically or etymologically, anyhow. The letter <g> in <cognate> belongs with the <nate>, not with the <co>. The structure of the word is <co> + <gnate>. While the /g/ and the /n/ may be in different syllables, syllables have nothing to do with meaning, and it’s important for teachers not to confuse syllables with morphemes. The <g> and the <n> are within a single English morpheme, <gnate>, ‘to be born.’  With a little further investigation at etymonline, I learn that <gnate> has a variant form which appears more commonly in Modern English, as in <innate>, <nation>, <native> and <prenatal>.  Hence, words that are cognates are ‘born together;’ they are always etymologically related.

Now that I know that <gnate> is the base of cognate, then I can see that the word is not morphologically related to recognize. The two words do share a string of letters, <cog>, but that’s just a clip in <cognate> where the <g>belongs to the morpheme <gnate>. There’s no <gnate> in <recognize>. So they don’t share a base element.

What about their history, though? Could these words be related etymologically? Here’s the Online Etymology for recognize:

recognize: from O.Fr., from L. recognoscere “acknowledge, recall to mind, know again, examine, certify,” from re- “again” + cognoscere “know” (from co- “with” + gnoscere “become acquainted;” see notice). Meaning “perceive something or someone as already known” first recorded 1530s. Related: Recognized; recognizing.

Just to be sure, I check both Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and the Oxford English Dictionary. I confirm that recognize entered English <g>-less from French, but regained its <g> later on in association with its original Latin form, recognoscere, from cognoscere, ‘to become thoroughly acquainted with, investigate, get to know.’ When we peel off the prefix co, meaning ‘altogether,’ we are left with the root (g)noscere, which means simply ‘to know.’

What we have in recognize is the root gnoscere, entirely distinct from the root gnatus that gives us cognate. One means ‘to know,’ and the other means ‘to be born.’ Neither one means ‘to think.’

So where did the edublogger get her information? Well, since she doesn’t explain her methodology or even cite a source, that’s hard to say. The blog claims to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” so I decide to investigate a little further. Where might her linguistic explorations have led her? What word knowledge is being explored, and how?

First, I look for words in English where perhaps the letters <cog> do indicate a morpheme meaning ‘to think.’  I find a couple of English word families that have the letters <cog> — without the <n> — that could connote ‘thinking.’ The word cogent means “Having power to compel assent or belief; argumentatively forcible, convincing” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the word cogitate means “To think, reflect, ponder, meditate; to exercise the thinking faculties.” This investigation calls to mind the famous Cartesian maxim, Cogito ergo sum, or ‘I think, therefore I am.’

However, while both cogent and cogitate have the letters ,<cog>, they do not spell the base element of these words. According to my standard sources, the <co> is again a prefix (I’m starting to notice a pattern again!), and words are related to agent and agitate. All of these words are cognate with act and come from a Latin root meaning ‘to drive, to move.’  As we can see, there’s no <cog> and no thinking here either.

Phew! What we have now is several word families that are similar on the surface, but which have completely distinct histories. Let’s sort out what we’ve got so far, with a little help from the standard resources:

1. Latin (g)nasci/(g)natus ‘to be born’ gives us Modern English cognate, ‘related.’ Words that share the this same etymological root (but not necessarily the same morphological base) include native, nature, and nativity, but also noble (‘high-born’), ignoble (there’s that <n> /<gn> alternation again), nascent, nee, pregnant (‘pre-born’), gentle (see noble), renaissance (a ‘rebirth’), genus, generation, all Latinate. From the same Indo-European etymology, we have the Greek gene and the Germanic kin. The <gn> is etymologically cognate with <g>-vowel-<n> in some words, with just <n> in others, and with <k>-vowel-<n> as in <kin>. All of these words were checked in the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. Latin agere ‘to act, move, to drive’ give us Modern English cogent, and agent, and their cousin (or cognate) act and its many derivatives (activity, actual, reactionary . . .).  The related Latin frequentive agitare gave us agitate and possible cogitate as well.

3. Latin (g)noscere/(g)notum/(g)nitum ‘to know’ gives us Modern English cognizant, recognize, cognition, cognitive, and the etymologically related Latinate words narrate, ignore, note, notion and notice. But like #1, this root is old, old, old, and has lots of historical relatives. Cognates from Germanic include know, acknowledge, cunning, can (‘to know how’), could, uncouth, uncanny, and ken (‘range of knowledge‘). Greek relatives include agnostic, prognosis, diagnose and gnomic, ‘dealing in maxims.’ Again, we have surface forms with <gn> and <n> and , but also with /k/-vowel-/n/ and the digraph <kn>, all from the same Proto-Indo-European etymological roots. These historical relationships were verified by the Oxford English Dictionary, etymonline.com, and a linguist friend who knows both Greek and Latin.

This etymological family gives us the tiny-but-powerful Modern English bound base <gn>, which yields a significant body of words of both Greek and Latinate origins.

Now, I acknowledge that no one can know everything about a subject, and everyone makes mistakes. Even popular and highly-regarded structured language curricula make errors in regard to this rich etymological family (#3). The SLANT System gives *<cogn> as a Greek base (it’s not: it’s two Latinate morphemes) and Patterns for Success offers both *<cogn> and *<gnosi> as Greek bases. Of course, offering the letters <gnosi> as a morpheme (1) excludes words like diagnose, agnostic and prognosticate, and (2) actually present a clip that appears only in diagnosis, prognosis and the less common agnosia and gnosis.

Such errors could be quite confusing to learners, especially those who struggle inordinately with reading and spelling. I would suggest the following analysis instead, as it’s more parsimonious and accounts for the greatest number of cases (see Pete Bowers and Melvyn Ramsden on ‘elegance‘ in the writing system):

<dia> + <gn> + <ose> + <is>           and

<pro> + <gn> + <ost> + <ic> + <ate>

Certainly educators and authors do not intend to be in error; they are just ignorant (‘unknowing’) of the structure that underlies the surface appearance of these words, and they are agnostic about the tools to investigate it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an agnostic as “One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable.”  Surface patterns are the ‘material phenomena’ of the written language, but relying on them without investigation leaves the deeper, meaningful structure of words in the realm of the unknown and perceived wrongly to be unknowable.

Somehow, in her intent to “explore linguistic insight and word knowledge through an educational lens,” our edublogger managed to conflate three large but distinct word families into one gnarled, misleading and unchecked assertion. Perhaps her educational lens is out of focus.

Or perhaps she just confused thinking with knowing.

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

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Frequently, when I show fellow educators what I’ve learned about the written word, they balk.  The linguistic evidence I provide sometimes goes against tradition and conventional wisdom in language education.  Instead of offering counter-evidence, however, I find that more often, they offer citations.  They cite other people, like authors, researchers, or even linguists, or published materials, like references, dictionaries, curricula, and websites.  To be sure, that’s often how academic writing works, and much angst and effort goes in to teaching and learning how to cite “correctly.”

But is a citation really the same as evidence? What do those words really mean? Let’s investigate.

My starting place, for convenience, is always my Mac references application.  This time, I’m starting in the thesaurus.  Here’s what I find:

citation

noun

1 a citation from an eighteenth-century text quotation, quote, extract, excerpt, passage, line; reference, allusion.

2 a citation for gallantry commendation, mention, honorable mention.

3 Law: a traffic citation summons, ticket, subpoena, writ, court order.

Okay, all of these are pretty familiar connotations for the word, and they’re in keeping with the common use of citation in academic writing.  From the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learn that citation, and of course cite, derive from a Latin root meaning ‘to cause to move, arouse, summon, urge, call.’  That makes sense: when we cite we call on another author, summon another’s research, and cause the reader to move to another work if they want to understand the original methodology.

If we consider words that share the morpheme <cite> with citation, a stronger sense of the word begins to emerge: excite, incite, recite, resuscitate . . . all involve stirring something up, summoning, calling, even reviving something nearly dead.

If we go back further historically from Latin, we find that citation shares an Indo-European etymology with the Germanic words hest and behest, both of which denote urging or commanding, and with the Greek terms cinema and kinesthetic, both denoting movement.

A citation, then, summons up someone else’s text, moves the reader to someone else’s woven ideas, someone else’s evidence.  But a citation itself offers no real proof, no independent confirmation of the validity of the cited source.

On the other hand, evidence boasts some pretty impressive semantic partners.  Let’s check back with the Mac thesaurus:

evidence

noun

1 they found evidence of his plotting proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, attestation.

2 the court accepted her evidence testimony, statement, attestation, declaration, avowal, submission, claim, contention, allegation; Law deposition, representation, affidavit.

3 evidence of a struggle signs, indications, pointers, marks, traces, suggestions, hints; manifestation.

Wow!  Proof.  Verification. Confirmation.   Okay, so evidence can mean just a hint or a suggestion, but if it does, it implies that there’s a trace, a vestige, a trail to follow.   Do these connotations hold up under closer morphological and etymological investigation?

Yep.  Using the Word Searcher, I determine that the base element in the word evidence is <vide>, which also surfaces, along with its twin, <vise>, in the words, provide, provision, vision, advise, and supervision.  This twin base hails from the Latin videre, ‘to see.’ The word evidence is built from the prefix <e->, meaning ‘out’ or ‘out of’ and <vide>, ‘to see.’  So evidence is something we can see out completely.

Beyond the morphological family of evidence, we can link the word etymologically to the following list: witness, guide, wit, wisdom, survey, view, clairvoyant, idea and even envy. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, we learn that these words come from an Indo-European root meaning  ‘to know, to see.’  When something is visible, obvious, or apparent, we say that it’s evident, not that it’s cited.

Let’s consider, as an example, the base of words such as credit, incredible, credulous, credential, and credence.  Several published sources, including the NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins, list <cred> as the base of these words, from the Latin credere, ‘to believe.’  But let’s consider the following linguistic evidence:

In English, when a base has 1 vowel and ends with 1 consonant, we double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix, as in the following example:

<rob> + <er> → <robber>

When we add a vowel suffix to a base ending with a final, non-syllabic (‘silent’) <e>, we drop the <e>, as we see in

<love> + <ing> → <loving>

Understanding these basic rules, then, let’s consider the base of credit, incredible, credence, etc.  If we credit NTC and other resources as credible sources, we would be stuck with such ungainly derivations as

<cred> + <ence> → *<creddence>

and

<in> + <cred> + <ible> → *<increddible>

If we consider the linguistic evidence, we would have to recognize that the actual structure of such words is, in fact, as follows:

<crede> + <ence> → <credence>

<in> + <crede> + <ible> → <incredible>

<crede> + <ent> + <i> + <al> → <credential>

It may be hard to believe, since the base <crede> does not surface in English anymore.  Its Old English form has long been respelled as <creed>, and all of its modern derivations have vowel suffixes, replacing that final <e> and giving the surface appearance of <cred> as a base.

But wait, what difference does it really make?  You say tomayto, I say tomahto, right?  Can’t we just cite the sources that claim that <cred> is correct?  Not if we’re concerned with ensuring that our writing system that is at work in robber and loving holds up through the whole of English.

In the professional development I’ve offered teachers for the past 15 years, I’ve cited experts plenty.  When something didn’t make sense to a student or a teacher, or to me, the only response I had was to cite the person or the resource that had said it was thus and so.  Now, however, if something about written language isn’t immediately clear to me, I’ve learned to investigate it: the evidence is right there, waiting to be discovered!  I’ve stopped taking resources at face value, and started interrogating them instead.

A good bit of my doctoral research now involves tracking down the original source of ‘linguistic’ information as cited in reading and spelling curricula and teaching materials.  Where was it cited from? What was the methodology of the original source? How did the original source gather its evidence?  Too often, it seems, folks are willing to parade published information as fact, just because it’s published. But the NTC dictionary‘s only methodology for ascertaining a base in a word is to boldface the letters that the words have in common.  But that’s not a real methodology; it’s just a surface observation.

So what’ll it be?  Moving the reader to another text, or proving how language works? Do we insist on seeing for ourselves or are we content with believing what others have written?  Are we too comfortable merely citing resources rather than interrogating them?  How do we know if what a source says about language is credible?

In math and science, we don’t cite sources as proof that 2+2=4, or that baking soda and vinegar react.  We demonstrate, we show, we provide visible evidence. Likewise, teaching language from an examination of linguistic evidence trumps whatever street ‘cred’ a famous person or published source — even the OED itself — might have.

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

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