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Here comes our 8th annual Etymology! conference, April 3, 4, 5, in Scottsdale, Arizona

Saddle up with Douglas Harper and Gina Cooke for a wild ride through the history of American English and a study of its hoofprints on English spelling. Place names, animal names, plant names, natural pheomena: everything new in the New World needed a new word.

Join us in the Arizona Territory as we investigate the etymological effects on English spelling and explore indigenous influences in the Online Etymological Dictionary. Deepen your understanding of the many common English words that are not Germanic, Latin, or Greek, but uniquely American. 

Full registration details are now available in the LEX Store. This includes attending one, two, or all three days in person, or the 3-day online attendance option.

Or Download the Conference Registration PDF.

Westward Ho!


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Yeah, No

The woman on the left is the founder of a reading intervention company, and the woman on the right is one of her trainers.

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Yesterday, at the International Dyslexia Association conference, the woman on the right came over to my exhibit table. I did not know her, and I noticed that she was not wearing a name tag in the highly-monitored exhibit hall. There was a small crowd of people at my table, and Catherine began to ask me some very confrontational questions of the “What do you do for a kid who has X problem and can’t Y” nature.
“What do you do for a kid who has a really low vocabulary and can’t understand one of those tables [a word matrix]?”
Or “What do you do for a kid who can’t remember all the sounds in a word?”
Et cetera.
I patiently answered her questions. “A child with a low vocabulary still knows the words do, does, done, doing, undo, redo,” I said. “Or today, tonight, tomorrow, into, onto,” I added.
When she barked her fourth or fifth question at me, which was, “What do you do for a kid who needs phonemic awareness training?”, I did what any good teacher does:
“Well,” I asked her, “how do you handle that now?”
“I DO PHONEMIC AWARENESS ACTIVITIES!!!!” she verily hollered at me. She moved herself closer to the table and pointed her finger my way. “But I’m not here to answer your questions. I’m asking YOU questions. What do YOU do?”
So, although she clearly believed that she was there to impersonate a machine gun, I responded thoughtfully, as I had been responding to people’s questions for two days. “We work with the understanding that English spelling makes sense,” I began to explain.
“Yeah, I know all that,” she interrupted. “I’m asking how you do phonological awareness.”
I continued. “When you start with sense and meaning, then you put phonology in its proper place. See, Orton-Gillingham puts phonology first,” I went on.
“I DON’T DO ORTON-GILLINGHAM!” she responded. She said she does “linguistics.” She said something about teaching kids “mouth cards,” whatever that is. But she also articulated the following abject garbage:
~She claimed that the [j] in onion was a “schwa.” I explained that a schwa is a mid-central vowel and pointed out that [j] is a palatal consonant.
~She claimed that the word action has an <act> base and a *<tion> suffix, but that the two <t>s “overlap.”
My colleague responded, “That is not a thing.” Because, you know, that is not, in fact, a thing.
~She claimed that the words union and onion were not related, even after I showed her that they both derive from the Latin root unio/unionem.

In the meantime, other people were listening, enjoying, and making that little mind-blown signal with their hands.

~She claimed that <ea> only spells [eɪ] in “three words” — but I pointed out that the base element <break> alone surfaces in close to 100 words.
~She claimed that the word <yea> is pronounced [jæ] — but it is, of course [jeɪ ]. She had no idea what ‘yea and nay’ or ‘the yeas have it’ meant. I explained that [jæ] is spelled <yeah> and takes the final <h> because it has a lax vowel. “But yeah is informal, and yea can be formal,” I said. She shook her head at me.

Here’s what the Mactionary (and every other dictionary, really) has to say:
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~She referred to [s] and [dʒ] as *sibilates. Close: they are sibilants. She appealed to the authority of her colleague, trained in the same silliness. Warning: appeal to authority is a logical fallacy.
~She claimed that there are four suffixes which she pronounced [ʃʌn, ʒʌn, ʧʌn, & jʌn]; I patiently explained that there was only one suffix, spelled <ion>, and that an <i> can palatalize a preceding <t>, <s>, <c>, or <x> in Latinate words. She off-gassed some more Phombie gospel about shuns and chuns and chit.
“I’ll tell you what,” I offered. “I teach a class on Latin palatalization,” I said. “I will let you take that class for free.”
“I TOOK LATIN! I know all that.”
At this point, I didn’t even try to explain to her the difference between someone who took a Latin class once, and the deep and coherent study of how Latinate patterns work in English spelling. I just reiterated my offer to take a $140 class for free.
And she just reiterated how she already knew all the Latin things, only louder. In among the word salad, she shredded some grammarese. “I studied Latin and I learned that every word has a case.”
“Well, if you learned that, you were lied to,” I said. “Every Latin noun has a case, but not every Latin word. Verbs don’t have case.”
“Yes they do!” she insisted. “They have cases that show their tense.”
I shook my head in stunned disbelief. “Look, you’re obviously very confident in your understanding, but you’re wrong,” I explained. “Verbs have tense, but case is nominal. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, articles can have case, but not verbs. I think you mean inflection,” I offered.
Adding several decibels and to her outside voice, she began to continue her tirade, so I said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you need to leave my table now. Not only are you patently wrong, but you’re yelling at me.”
She huffed one last puff, and as she walked away, she turned back and shrieked my way, “No WONDER they stuck you way over in the corner ALL BY YOURSELF!” Everyone stared at her. The fact is that I had chosen a booth on an aisle near the restrooms and an exit, and had no shortage of visitors.
The small crowd at my table began to assure me that this woman had behaved bizarrely confrontationally, and that I had responded patiently and generously. One New Yorker said, “You’re my new guru. My one talent is being able to tell when someone knows what they’re talking about, and you clearly do.”
A bit later, someone told me that that woman — the shouty one who’s memorized all the phonics on the answer key of life — was actually a fellow IDA exhibitor; she was there running the Wired for Reading booth. Oh, she was Wired all right. WfR is a phonics program that calls itself “linguistics” although the developer is not a linguist and the people who work there have not studied linguistics — that seems to be a trend [cough cough DTI]. The developer of the program, Laura Rogan, admits that she relies on her “intuition” and “creativity,” neither of which are actually linguistics. Anne Phillips, a Phombie who dedicates part of her life to misrepresenting SWI on Twitter, is also a WfR person. I looked up WfR online, found Catherine Thompson’s photo, and realized that she had actually removed her name tag specifically to come over and harangue me at my table in front of a small audience of my gobsmacked clients and colleagues.

Gee, why do you think this gaggle of lady language liars might be threatened by a real linguist? As my colleague who witnessed the whole thing said, “If you’re going to try to take on Gina Cooke about phonology, you better buckle up.”

I’ve offered free classes to dozens of people, but people like Catherine Thompson never take me up on it, because they’re more interested in feeling right than in sharing in an accurate and coherent understanding. So, Catherine Thompson, the Latin Palatals class is still yours to take for free, but the offer expires at the end of this calendar year.

Is the class any good, you wonder? Well, just ask anyone who’s taken it.

The yeas have it.

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Ooh, Shiny!

LEX has a brand new calendar for 2020. The backgrounds and graphics are all shiny. Gold, silver, copper, jewel tones. The theme is dedicated to worldwide observances each month.

I hope to put together a second option, geared toward kids, as well. As always, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to support Cure JM, in honor of Cupcake.

Order yours now! Before it’s too late.

LEX 2020 Calendar All Months.png

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Miss Informed

The following lies, which I have corrected below, are from a single table (4.2) on a single page (84) in a single book (Speech to Print, 2nd edition, 2010) by Louisa Cook Moats:

  1. ‘Sky’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Middle English word borrowed from the Old Norse word for cloud. The real Anglo-Saxons used heofones, ‘heavens,’ for sky.
  2. ‘Pants’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Modern English abbreviation of pantaloons, which was also a Modern English word borrowed from French, which got it from an Italian proper name.
  3. ‘Coat’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It is a Middle English word borrowed from French.
  4. ‘Want’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It is an early Middle English word borrowed from Old Norse. The Anglo-Saxons used the verb willan, which grammaticized into the modal auxiliary verbs will and would.
  5. ‘Touch’ is not Anglo-Saxon. It’s a Middle English word borrowed from French.

That’s 5 wrong out of 34 examples of “Anglo-Saxon” words. That is a middling B. In my college prep high school, it would’ve been a C. Not exactly impressive odds from a so-called expert.

  1. ‘Cuisine’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word.
  2. ‘Triage’ is not Norman or Old French. It is also a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word, and its current sense dates to the 1930s.
  3. ‘Rouge’ was borrowed twice from French – once from Middle French in late Middle English (meaning ‘red’), and a second borrowing, in the 18th century, with the current cosmetic sense.
  4. ‘Baguette’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a Modern English borrowing from Modern French, which in turn got it from Italian. The two present-day senses of a long loaf of bread and a rectangular-cut gem? Both 20th century. 
  5. ‘Crouton’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a 19th century borrowing, from the French word for crust.

Louisa must’ve been hungry while she was imagining her list: cuisine, baguette, crouton… Reminds me of that stupid non-word test that includes pettuce, hausage, kiscuit, and polonel — because apparently it was written over a KFC value meal.

But wait! There’s more! Louisa is like the Ginzu knife commercial of bad etymology.

  1. ‘Coupon’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a 19th century borrowing of a Modern French word.
  2. ‘Nouvelle’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s a a Modern English borrowing of the Modern French feminine word for ‘new’ – it’s essentially the same word as novel, which was the borrowing of the Old French word. Nowadays it’s used mostly in collocations like nouvelle cuisine or nouveau riche.
  3. ‘Boutique’ is not Norman or Old French. The Normans were Vikings, Louisa. They did not have boutiques. This word is a 20thcentury borrowing of a Modern French word, which the French got from Provençal. This word is actually an old Languedoc bastardization of apothecary, which is Greek.
  4. ‘Ballet’ is not Norman or Old French. William the Conqueror didn’t like toe shoes or tulle, so, you know, no ballet. Ballet the word, like ballet the dance, is from the Modern era. It’s an Italian Renaissance thing. Modern English borrowed it from Modern French, which in turn borrowed it from Italian. The word is derived via Latin from a Greek root.
  5. ‘Croquet’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a 19th century word for a 19th century pastime. But at least this word does have a Viking root, the Old Norse krokr, also the source of crook and crooked, which are good words to describe Louisa Moats’s etymological exaggerations.
  6. ‘Coquette’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word for ‘flirtatious or wanton woman.’ So, you know, let’s make sure that all the kids know how to read and spell this word.
  7. ‘Mirage’ is not Norman or Old French. It is a Modern English borrowing of a Modern French word. It means when you see things that aren’t there, like Louisa does wth etymology.
  8. ‘Debut’ is not Norman or Old French. It made its debut in the 18th century, which is Modern English, from Modern French.
  9. ‘Depot’ is not Norman or Old French. It’s an 18th century loan from Modern French. The Vikings did not have trains or buses.

This tallies up to 14 out of 19 examples of “Norman (Old) French” that are just plain wrong. That’s a big fat F on this section. Louisa doesn’t know the difference between Norman French, Old French, and Modern French loanwords in English, which is also evident elsewhere in her writing. But remember, this is one single table.

Now, if Louisa Moats were a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, such promiscuous linguistic ignorance would not be a big deal. But Louisa Moats is none of those things. She is, in addition to being a leading critic of my personality, supposed to be a language expert. The Moatsian table I’m citing is not entitled “Mistakes Most People Make” – rather, it’s entitled “Features of English orthography by language of origin.” So she is actually providing baldly wrong examples of the very thing that the table claims to be elucidating.

Louisa calls me “arrogant” and “misinformed;” she says that the things I write are “nasty and undeserved.” And she barks these opinions of me behind my back, on her friends’ personal Facebook pages, where she and her fellow literacy dinosaurs can massage each other’s weathered mean-girl egos. If you are reading this and, like Emerson Dickman, feeling indignation and defensiveness on behalf of your “heroes,” maybe ask yourself why you don’t feel so damn hot in the face when you read Louisa’s linguistic lies.

Not done. On to the “Latin” section.

  1. ‘Pacify’ was not borrowed directly from Latin; like all words that end with an <fy> base, this one evolved through French.
  2. ‘Extremity’ also was not borrowed directly from Latin; like all words with a <-ty> suffix, this one came from French, where it had a <-té>, on its way from Latin, where it had a <-tas/-tatem>.
  3. ‘Locomotion’ was not borrowed directly from Latin either; it was built in Modern English from Latin parts. Like the Vikings, the Romans had no trains.
  4. ‘Paternal’ was borrowed in late Middle English from Old French.
  5. ‘Maternity,’ like extremity above, gives away its French roots with its suffix.
  6. ‘Hostility’ also has that French-form <-ty>.
  7. ‘Amorous’ was borrowed from Old French, which is to be expected, given its French-form <-ous> suffix. Words borrowed directly from Latin retain the <-ose> form of that suffix, like verbose and morose.
  8. Louisa claims that Latinate words are “organized around a *root” [sic – she means a base element], “many with prefixes or suffixes.” This is a repackaging of the very common false understanding that Latin doesn’t compound, but she provides two Latin compounds in her list (base elements in all caps):

a. < PACE + i + FY >

b. < LOCO + MOTE + ion >

Louisa misidentifies 7 of her 21 “Latin” examples. Guess you could say we’re all misinformed, as long as we continue to read Louisa’s work.

  1. While all of the Greek examples Louisa gives are indeed built from Greek parts, some of them are modern words and were not around in Greek. Louisa also makes the false claim that Greek-origin words are “constructed from combining forms” that “compound.” Nope, no combining forms. Just base elements that can compound or affix. Moreover, 3 of the 9 words that Louisa gives as examples of Greek only have a single base element:

a. < HYPN + ose + is >

b. < a + GN + ost + ic >

c. < cata + TONE + ic >

That’s a third of the items wrong again. That’s not quite an F, but it’s a pretty embarrassing D. Especially from someone who is supposed to be an expert. Especially especially for someone who built her career on screeding about teachers’ woeful lack of linguistically accurate knowledge.

All in all, this single table on a single page in a single book offers 83 examples, of which 31 are wrong. That’s 63% accurate — a D or an F, depending on the scale.

Would you get on a plane that had a 37% chance of crashing?  Of course not, but that’s Louisa does every time she expects dyslexic kids and their teachers to believe what she writes.

You know what’s even shadier?

Louisa lists “Source: Henry (2003)” at the bottom of her shoddy table. She blames this foolish fakery on her beloved colleague Marcia Henry. And while Marcia Henry’s 2003 edition of Unlocking Literacy does have some etymological errors in it, none of them are anywhere near as egregious as Louisa’s lazy guesswork in Speech to Print. While the etymological framework Marcia presents in her work is deeply flawed, Louisa’s indolent examples are entirely her own. Not a single one of Louisa’s bad examples came from Marcia’s book. I know because I looked, in addition to looking up all 83 examples in an actual etymological dictionary.

It’s nasty and ungracious work, but someone has to do it.

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Why Lie?

Well, the International Dyslexia Association has done it AGAIN: They’ve published a flagship article on morphology in their periodical, Perspectives, and it’s FULL OF LANGUAGE LIES. But whyyyyyyyy though? I’ve been at this for a decade, and these people know me and they now my work. But they insist on publishing lies. In a four-page article, there are more than a dozen falsehoods.

Here they are:

1. It is not “necess[ary]” to “identify and categorize…Anglo-Saxon compounds, inflectional affixes, and derivational suffixes; Latin-based prefixes, roots, and derivational suffixes; and Greek-based combining forms.” (23) This is a false taxonomy, and I’ve written and taught about that extensively for a decade. It’s a lie.

2. The word lamppost not *Anglo-Saxon. Lamp is Greek and post is Latin. (24)

3. The words speller and respelling are not *Anglo-Saxon. (23) While <spell> is a Germanic base, this sense was not around in Old English (duh, because the Anglo-Saxons were terrible spellers). It’s from French, and it didn’t settle in until the Middle English period. Moreover, the <re-> prefix is Latinate.

4. It is false that “Latin-based words…usually affix.” (23) The linguistic FACT is that all Indo-European languages compound, including Latin. The problem here is that the author, and the millions of mistaken minions who cite her work and follow in her footsteps, fail to recognize Latinate base elements that aren’t in complex words. Take post, for example, from #2. Or suitpants, case, class, cup, plate, cross, verse, cry, grace, table, crayon, pen, pencil, mirror, air, add, fairy, couch, dinner, lunch, supper, tube, plane, plant — these are all Latinate. And there’s a lot more where those came from. Latinate compounds include suitcase, pantsuit, briefcase, universe, pencap, airplane, and, in case you’re feeling like dropping to your knees right now, genuflect.

Rage interlude:

For the love of God, why won’t the IDA just pay some college kid $12 an hour to fact-check this shit before they publish it? I’m no longer an IDA member. Haven’t been for a long time, because I got tired of paying for lies. Are YOU an IDA member? How many hundreds of dollars do you pay each year to be lied to? Why are you paying to read the same morphotwaddle and edymuddle you’ve been reading for 40 years? Have YOU bothered asking the IDA to stop publishing lies? Because they’re sure as hell not listening to me, and I’m publishing the truth for free.

This article even refers to the current “research and professional practice guidelines on morphological awareness and etymology” and “word origin and word stducture,” and it has a whole section on “Word Origins.” So if this stuff is important enough to write about and publish in a so-called “scientific” journal, then why on Earth is it not important enough to bother with accuracy? Why is this kind of malpractice acceptable to anyone?

5. Just because Latinate words are “often thought of as more advanced words” (24) doesn’t mean that’s a fact. People think that because the IDA keeps blaring it on repeat, for one thing, even though it’s false. Again, Latinate words that do not fit this preconceived notion are dismissed as *Anglo-Saxon, without the author or the editors even so much as googling it.

6. The claim that “most Latin bases contain short vowels” (24) is specious at best. Sure, you can cherry-pick examples (in this article, there’s six of them), but I can cherry-pick twice as many that do not have *short vowels: sane, mete (n.), cite, note, rule, cute, farmgerm, firm, dorm, curve, and court. Once again, these non-*short-vowel free base elements are all Latinate, but they’re overlooked in the mad and perpetual attempt to cram these square morphological pegs into some round pedagogical hole, because they are misidentified as *Anglo-Saxon, for the millionth time.  Moreover, the example of dict that was given as an example of a *short vowel? Yeah, not so much in indict. See, you have to actually look at a word family, not just at disembodied morphemes that you think you know.

7. I appreciate that the article identifies that some Latinate bases are twins (24), but (a) there is no clue here about (a) what makes a twin base a twin base, or (b) how to determine whether bases are twins or are otherwise related.

8.  All four examples of twin base elements that are given bear inaccuracies. The article gives *vers/vert, *stru/struct, *mis/miss, and *pel/pulse. While the word families being referenced do indeed bear twin base elements, the forms given are inaccurate. It’s not *vers; it’s <verse>. I mean, that is a FREE base element and you can SEE how the damn word is spelled! Same with *puls — it’s <pulse>. The *stru also needs a final <e>, as in construe, at least parenthetically: <stru(e)>. Finally, there is no Latinate *mis — the twins are <mit> and <miss>, as in transmit~transmission. These rotten scrambled eggs are what the IDA is serving YOU for breakfast.

9. “Greek-based words” do NOT “generally compound” (24). Again, that’s only true if you cherry-pick and don’t bother to actually do any research to see if your statements are falsifiable or not. They are. Like Latinate words, the Greek words that do not fit this false typologizing are simply dismissed or ignored as *Anglo-Saxon. Words like lamp, base, music, magic, angel, school, type, math, desk, circle, zone, giant, turn, story, and chair are all from Greek. So, of course, as I have pointed out eleventy kajillion times, is the word dyslexia, which has a prefix, a base, and a suffix. Not a *combining form in sight. Other Hellenic words that aren’t compounds include autism, genesis, biome, historical, electricity, blasphemy, cardiac, prophecy, neurotic, and, ironically as all get out in this ascientific phield, phonetics.

10. There is no *<pt> or *<mn> in English. That’s not what’s happening in those words. The 3rd volume of my LEX Grapheme Deck will clear that right up for you.

11. No one has to follow any list of morphemes to teach, because if you just study words properly, then the most frequent patterns (affixes and bases) will emerge time and time again. That’s what “frequent” means. It doesn’t have to be packaged or canned.

12. The claim that “most Latin and Greek bases are bound bases” is not an empirical claim. The thing is, as I have already demonstrated above, free base elements of Classical origin are most frequently misidentified as *Anglo-Saxon.

13. The word respelled doesn’t necessarily mean “spelled again.” More typically, it means “spelled differently,” as in The Norman scribes respelled Old English <cw> as <qu>.

14. The article claims that “Prior to instruction, teachers need to be sure students understand the structure of polysyllabic words containing morphemes. Students need to understand that compound words are generally composed of two free bases…” (25) The problems with that claim are threefold: (a) all polysyllabic words contain morphemes. In fact, all words contain morphemes. There is no such thing as a word that does not contain morphemes. (b) Compounds do not necessarily have two free bases. The problem is that the OG world mistakes base elements as prefixes all the time, and that it fails to recognize bound base elements. Besides, you can’t have it both ways! How is it possible to have Greek *combining forms that compound while simultaneously having compounds that are mostly two free bases? Compounds with at least one bound base abound! Monday, Friday, genuflect, alderman, amphibian, aqueduct, and so many more. But wait! There’s more! (c) How in the hell are students supposed to understand any of this — even the falsehoods — “prior to instruction”? By osmosis? Brain transplants? Please, someone tell me how teachers are supposed to make sure their students know things before they’re instructed.

15. <fore> is not a “prefix” (25). It is a free base element, as anyone who plays golf knows; it compounds in lots of words, including pinafore, foreword, forehead, foreground, foremost, therefore, and heretofore (which has three base elements); and it is the only base element in the words before and afore. Likewise, <fold> is not a suffix; it’s a free base element.

16. There is absolutely no empirical reason that children have to be in 2nd grade before they learn about suffixing changes. (25)

17Several friends and colleagues pointed out to me that my work is cited in this article; however, just as in the DTI conference keynote, I am misquoted. The article claims that I “cite[] the example of cred in credit, credential, credence, and incredulous, (25) BUT I DON’T. I never, ever, ever say or have said anything about *cred other than to discount it. The base element in this family is <crede>, as evidenced by the fact that the words are not *creddit, *creddence, or *increddulous.

18. There is no Latinate base *<litera>. This is an error in this author’s work that I have corrected directly to her in the past. The base element, as shown in the matrix cited from my work, is <liter>. This matters because *<litera + ate ➙ literaate>, obvs.

19. No, please do not “match prefixes with their meanings,” (26) because prefixes don’t necessarily have “meanings.” They have a force, semantically speaking. As noted with <re> above, the “meaning” isn’t always ‘again.’ If I borrow money and repay you, I don’t pay you again; I pay you back. If I rely on someone, I’m not bound again; I’m bound intensively. The same thing can happen with any prefix. A <un> does not always mean ‘not.’ If I do my hair in a bun, and then I undo it, that doesn’t mean I did not do it. It means that I reversed what I already did. Sometimes prefixes and suffixes were added to words, in Latin especially, just to make them bigger, not necessarily to carry any actual semantic or syntactic force.

20Likewise, do not “match suffixes with their parts of speech,” (25) because that creates a false rigidity. If you teach that <-ed> is a “verb suffix,” then how do you explain words like talented or bowlegged, when neither talent nor leg is a verb? If you teach that <-ion> is a “noun suffix,” then how do you explain The prosecutors questioned the witnesses and the defense team championed their client’s good character? Huh? How? Also, as someone who teaches a lot of grammar in a lot of depth to everyone from pre-K kids to in-service teachers with PhDs, I’m on the record here with this claim: teaching the parts of speech of disembodied suffixes is not grammar. Studying how grammatical categories actually work in phrases and clauses, and learning what makes a noun a noun and an adjective an adjective is both critical and missing in grammatical study.

21There is no such word as *multimorphemic. The proper term is polymorphemic, because it’s all Greek, or, better yet, complex. A word with more than one morpheme can just be called complex, IDA, or compound, as the case may be.

One of the suggestions this article offers for a “Follow-Up and Reinforcement” (26) activity is to have students “Identify the language of origin in a word.” To this, I’d like to add, “and please use an actual flippin’ proper dictionary to do so. Do not guess.” Likewise, it suggests that students can “Find the etymology of an unknown word by going to http://www.etymonline.com&#8221; — which is great advice — but it’s advice that the author herself does not bother to take, as I’ve demonstrated over and over again.

But why though, IDA?

Is this the best you can offer your 10,000n members?



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“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the balking!”

Vowels don’t walk, and vowels don’t talk. Chalk it up to logic, but that silly little rhyme never made any sense to me. It’s obviously false most of the time, and, as my brilliantly dyslexic teacher showed me once, if vowels are “walking” in English text, which one is actually first? Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.56.30 PMAnd really, how in the heck is a dyslexic kid supposed to decide, given the challenges of directionality in their three-dimensional brains?

In phonics, vowel digraphs are often called “vowel teams,” as though literacy is one big fantasy sports league, and dyslexics are choosing their line-ups. This terminology is problematic, of course, because consonant digraphs are referred to as, well, digraphs, but somehow vowels get a made-up nomenclature. Adding insult to injury are the phontificators who do call two vowel letters digraphs, only they do so when they are not. These pholks announce confidently but erroneously that some words have what they call “unstable digraphs,” like create or ruin. The thing is, those words don’t have digraphs; they have plus signs:

< create ➙ cre + ate >


< ruinrue + in >

Oops! Gee, phonics, how embarrassing for you.

Anyhow, given all the bad information about vowel digraphs out there, I decided it was high time for some InSights into Vowel Digraphs also known as the 3rd Volume of InSight Words. Like the first two decks, this one features 28 words, examined and understood according to the Four Questions:Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.42.16 PM

 1. What does it Mean?

2. How is it Built?

3. What are its Relatives?

4. What are the Letters doing?

All of the words in Volume 3 have two consecutive vowel letters; some of them are vowel digraphs, but some of them, like in create and ruin, are not. In create and ruin, each vowel is syllabic, marking them more obviously as separate graphemes. But that’s not always the case! In a word like < circ + u + it >, one of the vowels is zeroed, so it’s less immediately clear that the <ui> is not a digraph.

Why is would spelled with an <ou>? How come our can be homophonic to both hour and are? And whatever on Earth is going on with the <ai> in said? An understanding of all this and more can be yours at a discounted EarlyBird rate for a limited time!

The deck is half done now. I was hoping to have it completed before Etymology! but darn it if being accurate and rigorous doesn’t take a long time! I suppose I could just guess at etymology like Louisa Moats does, or call everything “Anglo-Saxon” like her toadies do. Or I could just copy other people’s work like someone else I know who hired a lawyer to threaten me to stop using her name. But nooooooo, I actually have to, you know, look stuff up and provide evidence for what I write. Imagine!

My plan is to have the deck done by the end of June and then ship them after my Symposium in the Pines in mid-July. The decks are a steal at their regular price of $20, but through June, I’m offering them in the LEX store at a 10% discount. Make sure you select the Early Bird price from the drop-down menu when you order.

InSight Words are everything Sight Words are not: they’re revealing and deeply understandable. InSight Words offer InSights into 28 individual words, into their word families, and into the writing system as a whole. Unlike the answer-factories you find in those silly old teachery Facebook pages, the InSight Decks are generative for study. They explain 28 words and their families, but they also can show you and your students how to refine your own word investigations.

People often ask me, “How do other people get good at what you do?” and my first, last, and best answer is “Study with me.” And for a limited time, you can do so at a discount! What an InSight!


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This past weekend I heard from Emerson Dickman, Esq., a Dyslexia Industry lawyer whose lovely and competent wife, Georgette, was a colleague of mine in the Orton-Gillingham world years ago. Emerson invited me to help him understand my claims that the professional development I offer is “groundbreaking, game changing professional development.” So I thought I’d let the evaluations from the weekend’s Etymology VII! conference answer his question for me:

“I love that I can keep adding to my understanding of the English Language and debunk much of what I learned previously.” [Next to ‘debunk’ she drew a tiny Layers of Language triangle, LOL].

“Learned so much — spiked my love of all of this again…and renewed my interest in learning more — Thank you for all of that!”

“You turned my world upside down and opened a floodgate of learning opportunities for my students and myself. Thank you.”

“Thank you so much! Wonderful conference! I hope to attend again next year and I look forward to future LEXinars.”

“All teachers that will be teaching the writing system…should learn this information.”

“Highlighting related letters clears up so many reasons for how/why we came to our current spellings.”

“I loved learning about the connections between graphemes on a deeper level.”

“Really appreciate you sharing ‘the truth’ through all your research and application.”

“This conference changed my life a year ago and continues to IMPROVE my life and those of my students.”

“It was awesome! I’ll be back!”

“I loved it!”

This was the seventh Etymology weekend that Douglas Harper and I have put together. We started in 2013, and now, the broader community of folks who  study with us has a depth of understanding of the history and relationships inherent in English spelling that is unparalleled elsewhere. The biggest experts in the Dyslexia Industry — those who claim that etymology matters and is important — continue nonetheless to make egregious errors in identifying the etymological facts of written words, but my community of orthographic etymologists understands that a word is not Anglo-Saxon [sic] simply because someone kinda famous says it is. It really bothered Emerson that I called out some of these and other errors in the field.

Emerson is not one such famous expert himself, nor does he claim to be one. “I am not a scientist, researcher, or practitioner,” he writes, but that doesn’t stop him from going on to explain what he perceives the utility of nonsense words to be, and then goes on to offer this gem: “Rules will often have exceptions.” Of course, “exceptions” in the Dyslexia Industry are also known as *red words, *sight words, *learned words, and the like, but my orthographic study community understands that real science doesn’t rely on “exceptions” to pass its agenda. Mr. Dickman argues that it is not wrong “to follow an old saw that is neither one hundred percent accurate nor always factual,” but of course, that’s not a scientific statement, and his opinion is just an opinion.

I have a different opinion. My opinion is that it’s not OK to teach children things about their own language that are “not always factual” or “accurate,” any more than it would be OK to teach children things about math that are “not always factual” or “accurate.” Moreover, it’s definitely not OK to write academic book chapters and articles — especially when they’re about etymology — that identify the etymologies of words in ways that are “not always factual” or less than “one hundred percent accurate,” and I have written about this extensively. Unfortunately, Mr. Dickman is very busy and didn’t have time to read more than one blog post before writing to me. Fortunately, he had plenty of time to write to me about his opinions of me, his opinions of my work with which he is not at all familiar, and his opinions of etymology.

Emerson graciously and carefully explained to little old me that children really don’t want or need to study etymology. “Some children may be satisfied just learning to read,” he asserted. Now, I’m pretty sure that the curriculum-pushers are unmoved by what satisfies some children; more to the point, many children will have a devil of a time learning to spell unless they understand some things about etymology. Do they have to understand all the things? Of course not; no one does. Doug Harper said he’s been making The Online Etymology Dictionary for 18 years, and he’s still learning new things, and so am I. Just because I know a lot doesn’t mean I think I have nothing to learn. It does mean that I check a reliable dictionary or three before I call something an Anglo-Saxon word in my published work, though.

Just in case I was still unclear on what etymology is and its pedagogical value, though, Mr. Dickman stepped up his methodical explication of why it’s just not all that important. “Teaching a child to read is different from educating a graduate student (who can already read, write, and spell) as to the etymological foundation of a particular word,” he details, and none too soon, because boy howdy had I been confusing those two things! Phew! You guys, look how lucky we all are that Emerson wrote to clear this up for us! I am just so grateful for that clarity before I go on making a fool of myself studying etymology like an actual orthographic linguist instead of studying it the way a lawyer thinks I should.

Unfortunately, I am really slow on the uptake, apparently. See, the thing is, Emerson Dickman, Esq., is not the first man in the Dyslexia Industry to have to explain to me that (a) exceptions are a thing, and (b) it’s OK to lie to children about etymology if they’re young enough. Malt Joshi said the same things to me nearly a decade ago; his versions were “Well, life is full of exceptions,” after I told him that punishable, passable, and agreeable were not Anglo-Saxon words, and “we work with very young children, and it’s a very simple thing to teach them,” even though I had just falsified that “very simple thing” to his face. Apparently these important lessons still just haven’t sunk in for me. Womp-womp.

Gee, what would hot-blooded, middle-aged lady linguists and scholars like me do without professional men — specifically, lawyers and psychologists — to clear up for me how language does and doesn’t work and when it’s OK to teach children things that are not always factual or accurate. Wow. I am a Lucky Girl Linguist indeed, especially to have heard from Emerson about what a big head I have and how I should really be living my life and studying etymology with kids, right in the middle of Etymology VII!

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I started writing this post about our Etymology VII! weekend shortly after it ended on Sunday afternoon, sitting at the big table in the formal dining room of the 19th-century bed and breakfast we stayed in, in a historic neighborhood near Dayton, Ohio’s Great Miami River.


A Linguist in her Natural Habitat

My brilliant friend and colleague Emily took this photo of me working on this post, and it captures so much about the weekend during which she kept her eye on Douglas Harper
and me in more ways than one.

This Etymology! community is seven years old; it has a history, a biography. The community was conceived online, in emails between Douglas Harper and me, and it was born a bit later in a Quaker meeting house on the campus of a Friends School in greater Philadelphia, the site of our first Etymology! weekend. Since then, we have met at a Lifelong Learning Center in Chicagoland, Illinois, twice, and in three different private schools in Abington, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, California, and Portland, Oregon. Our seventh weekend, this year’s, was hosted by the Neil and Willa Smalley Children’s Dyslexia Center, lodged in the historic Dayton Masonic Center, built in the 1920s on Grafton Hill, facing the wide, greenish waters of the Great Miami.

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Dayton Masonic Center

The bed and breakfast we stayed in, Doug and Emily and our friend Peg and I, is a big,
old, brick mansion that has been lovingly restored by its current owner. Its neighborhood can best be described as ‘transitional,’ perhaps, as some of the neighbors are wealthier and living in well-tended, stately old homes, but many others are struggling, and their properties reflect that. The Dayton View neighborhood itself dates back to the 1830s, when an enterprising pioneer named J.O. Arnold homesteaded there, and over the years, effected his vision of developing a tree-lined neighborhood full of stately homes, surrounding his farmhouse. That original 1836 farmhouse still stands at the corner of Superior and Arnold.


J.O. Arnold 1836 Farmhouse

It was the Great Flood of 1913 that drove many of the neighborhood’s early, prosperous inhabitants out of their ruined houses and across the river to the higher ground of the Oakwood neighborhood where Orville Wright was building his success mansion, Hawthorn Hill. Many of the old Dayton View neighborhood’s grand mansions were abandoned. Over the years, less wealthy families moved into many of these abandoned mansions, but, unable to afford the maintenance, let them fall into disrepair. Many were converted into apartments and flophouses; our b&b had been re-converted from a 5-unit apartment back into a 3-story house.



Decompressing on the Back Deck

We all found the neighborhood to be charming and rather fascinating, an eclectic mix of restored manors, condemned ramshackle properties, and rundown but still-livable homes painted in pastel colors and adorned with Christmas lights, American flags, and fake flowers. When we first arrived last Wednesday, I gawked at houses as I drove around; Emily later went out on a photo-taking expedition. I marveled at the mixture and wondered how such beautiful old homes had fallen into disrepair. It wasn’t until our hostess at the Dayton Masonic Center explained the story of the flood and the historical pendulum swing between prosperity and poverty that the miscellany of the neighborhood, its quirks and hiccups, began to make sense.

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The Etymology VII! conference itself had a theme, as it does each year, and this year’s theme was English Spelling. Doug provided the backdrop, the story of Old English England and Middle English England, and I filled in the orthographic specifics. I gave participants a big picture of both periods’ writing systems, and also a detailed inventory of graphemes and their commensurate phonemes. Doug and I together painted a picture of the end days of Middle English: the effects of the Black Death, the printing press, and the Renaissance on the people and parlance of England, moving us toward Modern English. Then, on the afternoon of our last day, I invited everyone present to take a close look at Modern English spelling and to endeavor to discover its patterns and proclivities. What did Modern English have that Old and Middle did not? What could any of us explain to an alien about how Modern English writes its words?

Given this assignment, pretty much everyone started agitating about the effects of texting and other tech-age practices on the writing system, wrongly supplanting the “Modern English” of the assignment with “Present-Day English in My Immediate Sphere of Reference.” I pulled their heads out of digi-speak, and invited them to reflect on the actual freaking writing system, not some fearful knee-jerk reaction to changing technologies. Properly oriented, they did a beautiful job. Here’s what they came up with to describe Modern English Orthography:

Modern English orthography

     …represents meaning first.

     …prioritizes morphology over phonology.

has both productive and non-productive suffixes. 

     …requires a least 3 letters for content words; function words MAY have 1 or 2.

     …may make a change to a base or stem when adding a suffix in lexical words.

     …may have double or doubled consonants in lexical words.

     …may have a replaceable <e> in lexical words.

     …may contract function words.

     …may reflect Classical spellings in direct Greek and Latin loans.

     …has etymological markers that may reflect

                    ~Classical spellings.

                    ~scribal printing errors and innovations.

                    ~historical, native English spellings.

     …spells non-alphabetic loanwords with default spellings.

     …spells homophones differently, if possible (Homophone Principle).

     …may associate a single spelling with multiple pronunciations

     …may associate a single pronunciation with multiple spellings.

     …governs and constrains spelling choices by etymology and place value.

     …may be affected by stress.

     …has more digraphs than single letter graphemes, and it also has trigraphs.

     …has zero allophone markers.

Now, see, if you don’t understand anything about the history of English spelling, then it would be nigh on impossible to speak intelligently about its present. Both Marcia Henry and Louisa Moats make claims, for example, about Old English spelling being somehow more simple and shallow than our present-day system, and thus easier. “Anglo-Saxon vowels were spelled as they sounded,” claims Moats. And “Words in the Old English period were phonetically [sic] very regular,” claims Henry. These facile representations suggest that there was a single Old English writing system, and that it was comprised of an inventory of 1:1 graphemes and phonemes, a suggestion that is — like too many of the unchecked etymological claims these two writers make — demonstrably false.

Old English had not one, but two writing systems, the Futhorc runic system, and an adapted Latin alphabetic system. Within each of these was considerable variation. In the Latinate system, the graphemes <þ> and <ð> both spelled the voiced and voiceless segments we now spell with a <th>.  An <f> could spell both [f] and [v]. Anglo-Saxon scribes had their choice of three different characters to spell both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ pronunciations of <g>, and the letters <c>, <s>, and <h> could each be pronounced at least two different ways. In spite of Louisa’s false claims, Old English vowel graphemes all had two distinctive pronunciations, long and short, and the distinction was not marked in original Old English texts. Scribes in the north of the country pronounced and thus spelled things differently than scribes in the south, so again, there was really no unitary system for spelling Old English. Given the facts, it’s clear that the fawning characterizations by Moats and Henry of a system in which ‘letters’ and ‘sounds’ always played nicely and never left a mess is superficial at best, but really, ‘false’ is a more accurate descriptor.

Tip of the Day: Never believe stuff that people say about Old English unless, you know, they actually know Old English. Seems simple enough.

Middle English was largely written by native speakers of French, so it was even more wildly variable than Old English. The pairs of words heed and headfear and fair, and garden and guardian were often spelled the same in Middle English: heed, heede, hede; fere, fer, feyre, fare; gardeyn, gardein(e), gardaine. Reading even a short passage in Middle English makes Modern English look incredibly tame and — that Holy Grail of spelling misunderstanders — “regular.” I asked participants to reflect on the history and relatives of each of those pairs of words and explain why they all got the spelling they deserved in the modern era. Here’s what they uncovered:

heed has an <ee> because it is first cousin to hood
head has an <ea> because it is distant cousin to caption, captain, capital
fear has an <ea> because of the <a> in its root (faron)
     ~ fair has an <ai> because of the <g> in its root (ger)
garden has a <g> because it is cousin to yard
guardian has a <gu> because it is cousin to warden

These graphemic relationships are spelled out (Ha! I crack myself up!) in the 3rd Edition of my LEX Grapheme Deck, or, as I like to call it, my life’s work. It is the reason I laugh in the face of anyone who tries to lecture me about English orthography, phonemes, or phonology, because that deck is my proof in black and white of what I understand about English orthographic phonology AND the etymology that governs it.

The fact is that writing systems, like neighborhoods, are human. Regardless of the unfounded opinions of lawyers and psychologists, the fact is that children, even young dyslexic children, merit the facts of their own writing systems, and more importantly, the understanding that only facts can support. This not only makes them more securely literate; it also helps make them more confident in their own intellect and more curious about new learning.

Unlike the status quo in the Dyslexia Industry and its advice about exceptions and children, our community of orthographic scholars is actually growing, as is the depth of our understanding. What phonics calls *exceptions, *red words, *learned words, *sight words, etc., real orthographic study can actually explain, and those explanations help us understand the system as a whole. They are also often mind-blowing. No kid’s mind was ever blown by tapping and barking at nonsense words. It is only when we study the story of English spelling and the historical marks left upon it that we can begin to understand the miscellaney of our orthography; its quirks and hiccups begin to make sense.

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Five and a half years ago, the IDA asked me to write an article about Orton-Gillingham and Structured Word Inquiry. I’m providing it here to show that this “OG or SWI?” is not a new question. Here is my article:

Is This OG? (IDA Dyslexia Connection 2013)

Often, people new to my work assume that I just haven’t met the right OG yet, that if I really understood OG, I’d surely see it as the Godsend it is for dyslexics, rather than as a false understanding masquerading as science. So first, for those arriving in LEXland fresh off the dyslexia boat, let me first articulate that my OG and dyslexia credentials are impeccable. I’m a certified Initial & Advanced OG trainer in a nationally accredited training program, and my certificates are current. I have trained hundreds of teachers in OG and presented to thousands more at state and national conferences; I have supervised the instruction of more than a thousand children with dyslexia.

Second, I’d like to sketch out what I call my OGenealogy, my pedigree in OG. I’m very proud of my heritage in the field. I had remarkable trainers who themselves have had award-winning and prestigious careers in OG, dyslexia, special education, professional development, and higher education. So here’s that family tree, starting with Orton and Gillingham themselves.

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Marcia Henry and David Winters were my two OG trainers: Dave trained me at the Initial Level, and Marcia trained both Dave and me at the Advanced Level. Becoming an Advanced OG Trainer under Marcia Henry was a multi-year process, beginning in 2002 and ending with my certification in 2006. That means that for four years, I worked closely with Dr. Henry, shadowing her in trainings, preparing presentations to deliver under her supervision, co-observing tutors teaching at the Advanced Level, reading academic and historical texts about dyslexia and submitting reports on these books, giving conference presentations to Dr. Henry’s critique, and submitting reams of documentation under her authority.

It’s not the case that I just haven’t met the right OG yet, guys.

Yesterday, Dr. Henry offered the keynote address for the Dyslexia Training Institute’s annual Dyslexia conference, and I watched it. The title of the keynote was “O-G and SWI: Complementary or Incompatible?” In her presentation, Dr. Henry cited my 2012 article, “Is this OG?” shared above, but she mis-titled it as *”Do structured word inquiry and O-G go together?” That was not the title of the article I published, and it was definitely not the point of that article at all.

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Unlike Dr. Henry’s keynote, my article was not a piece of apologia for Orton-Gillingham; rather, it was an urgent call to action to the field, an exhortation that the field must do better, a screaming-my-head-off invitation to honor the  pioneering spirit of Orton and Gillingham, who honored the intellects of the children they worked with, and who were constantly revising their understanding and publications to keep up with new scientific developments. My article was and is an admonition to the field that real science doesn’t stagnate, that it’s not OK to rest on past laurels. As any freethinker knows, “We’ve always done it that way” is the last refuge of the scientific scoundrel. It is not sufficient to say “I’ve been doing this for 50 years.” Making the same set of errors for 50 years or even longer does not magically transform said errors into facts, or into anything noble. They’re just errors. My article implores the Dyslexia Industry to stop relying on past understandings because “that’s OG,” and instead, to remain true to the science-minded, ever-revising, innovative legacy that the founders of the field bequeathed us. It in no way argues that SWI and OG “go” anywhere at all, separately or together.

Dr. Henry’s keynote began with an acknowledgment that there’s been “lots of friction” around this question, and indeed, she came back to this theme with several negative commentaries times throughout her talk, as though disagreeing with the status quo in a scientific field is a bad thing.

Let that sink in.

She then articulated that “One size does not fit all,” a piece of empty rhetoric that I’ve also heard a lot from DTI itself and a lot of others. But you know what? Language is not a size, and facts don’t come in small, medium, and large.

Which children are the right size to be misinformed?

How large do children have to be to get the facts about their writing system?

I do appreciate that Dr. Henry went on to articulate that SWI is more than just morphology, and that OG is more than just phonics. That is an important understanding that often gets lost in the “friction.” Orton-Gillingham and its derivatives absolutely do include some morphology and etymology, but, as I’ve been writing for a decade, they get it really, really wrong. I for one never said that OG doesn’t “do” morphology and etymology; what I have said over and over and over again is that OG gets morphology and etymology wrong. I wish I could say that Dr. Henry’s keynote here was an exception to this sad rule, but as I will demonstrate, it is not.

These initial admonitions about friction and fittings were followed by a long history of the OG field, from its founders through its significant players, including most of the people whose photos you see above. “I was trained by one of the best,” said Marcia, reflecting on her revered trainer Paula Dozier Rome. In my notes, I wrote, “Well, I was trained by two of the best: MKH & DCW.” The thing is, the quality of the person who trained me 20 years ago really has nothing to do with whether what they taught me was accurate. Most of it was, but some critical pieces of it were not. We can play six-degrees-of-OG-separation all day long, bragging about our backgrounds and tracing our lineage back to the big O and G themselves, but that’s not science. None of that has anything to do with accurately understanding the structure of English as it has been researched in the present day. Marcia Henry does indeed have a wonderful professional history. So do I. That doesn’t make either one of us right or wrong in considering the relative merits of OG and SWI.

In comparing OG and SWI, Dr. Henry concedes, “Perhaps OG would put phonology first,” but there’s no perhaps about it. I am not going out on a limb when I critique the field for its wrong-headed Assumption of Phonological Primacy, and I’ve laid out that case over and over again. In fact, I am at the very root of OG: any OG documentation you can find, past or present, including IDA’s new-fangled, thinly-veiled ripoff of “Structured Language,” puts phonology first. Dr. Henry continued, “but in SWI, morphology is first.” Herein lies the problem: it’s not a question of preference of pedagogy, which comes first. The linguistic fact is that morphology is the defining and delimiting framework of the writing system; that’s not even remotely controversial. So really, here, Marcia inadvertently underscores what I’ve been saying all along: as an approach, SWI accurately represents the facts of English, and OG misrepresents those facts. A couple of times, she referred to the “guiding principles” of OG — you know the list, structured, sequential, cumulative, multisensory… But the thing is, SWI isn’t guided by any principles that aren’t linguistic. OG is top-down, super-imposing prescriptive “principles” on the language, false things like the *alphabetic *principle, or those old canards like “i-before-e” and “when two vowels go walking….”

Real linguistic rules don’t rhyme, y’all. SWI prescribes nothing, but instead seeks to discern and describe the actual principles inherent in the written language itself. Those two things cannot “go together.” Not just because I say so and I’m kinda famous, but because they don’t.

Dr. Henry continued by sharing with the audience several charts and other graphics that will be familiar to anyone who has followed her work for any of the last few decades, including Bob Calfee’s etymuddular triangle of “Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek” that I’ve written about for years, and her own similar grid from her doctoral studies and subsequent publications. I won’t reproduce them here. Dr. Henry’s grid features a column for “syllables,” a topic she began to discuss with the claim that “Some people think that’s a nasty word.”

Oh, really? Is that right? Some people think that “syllables” is a nasty word? I was not aware of that — I wonder who she means! Certainly Dr. Henry can’t be referring to me, because (a) I teach two well-documented, groundbreaking, game-changing professional development seminars about syllables, one called “Syllables: Fact and Fiction,” and the other called “Stress and the Schwa,” and (b) I have researched, written and self-published a monograph called “Making Sense of Syllables,” both of which take syllables very seriously and treat them with considerable respect. Both of these resources have also helped hundreds of teachers to better understand syllables and to incorporate a more accurate understanding of syllables and their effects on English spelling.

So clearly do not think that “syllables” is a “nasty” word.  Really, no one does. This is just Dr. Henry’s way of trying to take sides in what she referred to as “friction,” without really having to consider any actual linguistic facts, provide any researched evidence about syllables, or fairly represent my objection to OG’s syllabaloney. Unlike my courses and my monograph, Dr. Henry’s keynote did not offer any actual research about syllables. [For the love of God, WHERE are the people CONSTANTLY haranguing me for ‘research’ when it comes to these presentations?] What the keynote did offer was a lot of opinions about syllables:

“There is some logic to syllable division.”

“They do provide some new strategies.”

“We know that there are six syllable types [sic], and that’s useful for kids to know.”

In addition to her unfounded claim that “some people think [syllables] is a nasty word,” Dr. Henry also claimed that some professionals “scoff” at syllable pedagogies and call them “ridiculous.” Again, she can’t have been talking about little old me. I don’t “scoff.” I mean, maybe some people do, but I’m very specific in my critique of syllable-based pedagogies, and I give plenty of linguistic evidence, including nuclear theory of syllables, the stress-timing of English, and human data. I offer the linguistic understanding that there are just two types of syllables: open (ends in a vowel, has no consonant coda), and closed (ends in a consonant coda), and that has little to do with the way a syllable is written. The monosyllables bake, beak, and bike are all closed; bay, boy, and bough are all open, linguistically speaking, and again, that’s not controversial among people who study language structure. But even syllabogogues don’t agree on how many “types” there are, as a quick google search will reveal: there are pedagogical treatments for six types, seven types, five types, and even four types of syllables in English, all of which are top-down, prescriptive, and false, and all of which conflate spoken and written patterns indiscriminately. If, in fact, there were any “logic” to syllable types and division, why would syllable-based pedagogies disagree about the number of syllable types and division patterns that there are? Given these unsettling detailss, Marcia Henry’s claim that “we know that there are six syllable types” [my emphasis] is just plain false. We “know” no such thing. Really, it’s that claim that is ridiculous. Laughable. It’s not scientific. It’s just wrong.

Even wronger, perhaps, is Dr. Henry’s unfounded claim that these supposed syllable types are “useful for kids to know.”  The problem here is three-fold: first, that kids can “know” something that is not factual; second, that doing so is useful; and third, that this claim and others like it are routinely made by leaders in the field with no evidence for them. There is no evidence that syllable typing or division patterns are “useful” for children. None.  In fact, not only is there no research supporting syllable pedagogies in English, but there is actually research that suggests that morphological instruction has superior outcomes. Some of that research is nearly 50 years old, and I learned about it from Marcia Henry years ago. She writes about it in Unlocking Literacy, where she says, “Groff questioned whether teaching syllable division is an important part of reading” (2010:37) The thing is, though, he didn’t just “question” that — he researched it in an actual metanalysis, and found that it wasn’t helpful or important. Unlike Dr. Henry’s keynote, Groff’s research doesn’t offer his opinion; rather, he offers a constellation of what previous research had found. Groff’s100+-page metanalysis is part of the research I outline and update in my monograph, which you can buy as a PDF for $4. Does that sound like the behavior of someone who “scoffs” at syllables or thinks syllables is a “nasty” word?

Dr. Henry’s defense of syllable pedagogy is not a metanalysis, and it does not cite or rely on any actual research. Its structure is three-fold: personal anecdote and opinion, as I’ve already outlined; an insistence that some words require syllable division as they lack morphological complexity; and the belief that teachers and children benefit from having a “big bag with lots and lots of information” in it, regardless of the quality and veracity of that information.

Dr. Henry supports her claim that some words cannot be morphologically analyzed with the examples hobgoblin and mizzenmast, because, you know, it’s really really important for children to be able to read and spell hobgoblin and mizzenmast. More to the point, both of those words are morphologically complex: <hob + goblin>, in which both the <hob> and the <goblin> are free base elements with interesting eponymic histories.  And <mizzen + mast>, again, both free base elements. The Italianate <mizzen> denotes ‘middle’ and is related to mezzo and mezzanine, while the Germanic <mast> is one of English’s very old native words. Anyhow, most of the teachers I work with are working with kids who have never seen a ship and are unlikely to; like yacht, which shows up on pretty much every word-reading test out there, mizzenmast is a word that mostly serves wealthy white people. Regardless of the intended audience, both hobgoblin and mizzenmast are indeed morphologically complex, and neither one stands as proof of the utility of syllable division nonsense. Even her cherry-picked examples fall short.

Finally, Dr. Henry claims that syllable patterns are “useful” because teachers and children all need to have lots of information and lots of strategies: “[K]nowing the alternatives for dividing words into syllables provides students with another strategy for word analysis” (2010:37). She echoed that claim in her presentation: “I think it’s important to provide as many strategies as possible,” she said. So is it just a numbers game, then? Throw a whole lot of information spaghetti at the dyslexic child wall and hope a lot of it sticks? Whether it’s true or false? Really? The thing is, being educated doesn’t mean that you have lots and lots of information; it means that you learn to discern good information from bad information, and you keep the bad information out of your damn bag.

In addition to all I’ve outlined here, Dr. Henry’s presentation was punctuated by additional false claims about language, most notably mis-identifying the etymological origins of more than a third of the words she offered. She repeated the tired, old, false claim that Latin “generally” affixes while Greek “generally” compounds; I’ve written about this before as well. The fact is that all Indo-European languages compound, including Latin. Affixing developed later, but Greek does indeed affix, a lot. The most amusing example I can offer is the Hellenic word dyslexia — a word built from a Greek prefix, a Greek base element, and a classical suffix.  Dr. Henry gave several word lists in her presentation; among them are the following Latinate compounds:

<nave + ig + ate + ion>
<legis + late + ive>
<mult + i + plice + ate + ion>
<rec + i + proc + al>
<percent + age>
<circ + um + fer + ence>
<rect + angle>
<cent + i + meter><dece + i + meter>, <mille + i + meter>  (The meter part is Greek, but the concepts and the compounds were developed in French.)

Unfortunately, none of the live attendees noticed or addressed any of these problems. None of them asked Dr. Henry for “research” to support her “approach,” so I guess Phombies only do that when they’re talking to me. One attendee, also well-known for morphotwaddle and etymuddle in teacher training, praised Marcia as a “class act,” because apparently it’s classy to intimate that a nameless-but-obvious someone “scoffs” at syllables and finds them to be “nasty” and “ridiculous.” I guess that’s classy, huh? Doing things that way? Especially when you follow it up with unfounded opinions and sweeping statements about what’s “useful” for dyslexic children.

Another live attendee asked Dr. Henry to sanction the use of nonsense words, which she happily did. “It depends,” she said, and the conference host echoed that sentiment, offering her audience the pablum of “each student is different.” Dr. Henry again offered tradition and opinion, saying “I think they are useful…” but offering no research support, no evidence. And no one questioned it, because people suffer from an inability to be discerning about what they hear when they hear it from someone they think is an “expert.” Dr. Henry suggested that “older” children (undefined) can benefit from nonsense words. I’ve heard this before, and I’ve written about it before, but really, English has a million words, so if you can’t find any that your “older” child can’t read, then he probably doesn’t need what phonics will offer him. The statements of “it depends” and “for some children” and “each student is different” are empty rhetoric at whose core lives the following claim: some children merit being lied to, if it makes it easier for the teacher. Both Dr. Henry and the host reiterated that “true scholarship” is learning all you can, as though a large quantity of information is the goal regardless of the actual quality of that information. I will stand by my assertion that no child benefits more from lies about his language, from false information, than they do from the facts.

Dr. Henry ended her presentation with the question, “So are O-G and SWI Compatible?” and the answer “Yes!” But again, that’s a matter of opinion easily falsified by facts that the speaker herself raised: OG puts phonology first, and SWI puts phonology where it belongs, which is last. That’s not compatible, even if you an exclamation point after your “Yes!” This continued insistence that OG and SWI are simply different “sizes” to “fit” different children is specious. If that were the case, then really, if each child is different, why would just two sizes of fact be sufficient? I mean, if each child is different, then why not use the whole language and look-say and rote memorization that Dr. Henry denounced in her keynote? Even if children came in different literacy “sizes,” however, the language does not. The facts of the writing system are the same no matter what size you are. 

I’m not saying that Marcia Henry is a bad person. I have always been personally fond of Marcia Henry, and I appreciate the role she has played in my life and career. She was a wonderful trainer, and she’s been a good friend and mentor to me. She has offered me wisdom that extends far beyond word history and structure, detailed and helpful notes on my conference presentations, and advice and experience about things like divorce and dating and doctoral programs. What I am saying here is that Marcia Henry is wrong about OG and SWI, and I’m offering evidence for that assertion. If I kept my mouth shut, then I would not actually be the exacting professional she helped train me to be.   

I’m sure lots of people will read this and think I’m being mean. But you tell me what’s mean: calling out falsehoods in a professional conference, or charging people $150 to hear those falsehoods? Seriously, one of those things is A-OK, and the other is just WTF.

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I posted this yesterday on my Facebook page, and I already have 5 deposits. I expect that 15 participants will be the limit, maybe 20; I’ll know more after January 14th.

Reserve your spot today.

Come to beautiful Prescott, Arizona, home to LEX, and enjoy a five-day word study retreat in a historic downtown hotel plus local sightseeing ventures (Petroglyphs! Log cabins! Whiskey Row! Watson Lake!) for a single, economical price. Double occupancy discount available.

Space is limited. Final cost is contingent on group size. $200 deposit holds a spot and is fully refundable if canceled by March 15, 2019, and partially refundable until May 15, 2019.

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Etymology Seven!

Douglas Harper and I began our joint work in 2013 with our first Etymology! conference in greater Philadelphia. That first weekend was an exhilarating and dynamic study of a modern linguistic understanding and the website that cultivates it, carried out on wooden benches in a Quaker meeting house at a Friends School. I remember Doug writing about it afterwards, and likening my analysis of written words to loading and locking a weapon.

The 2013 beginning was just that — a beginning, an introduction to this greater world of etymology for our growing community of orthographic scholars, plus whatever local Pennsylvania teachers were brave enough to join us. We covered the basics of the history of the English language, the basics of the website, and some hands-on study.

Every year since then, Doug and I have put our heads together to pinpoint a single theme for the weekend — we continue to cover the basics, but we focus our lens on a limited time frame or a specific language origin or a particular aspect of linguistic study. The past six years of community scholarship have looked like this:

2013: Etymology! The Science of Word Stories (Philadelphia)

2014: Etymology Two! Word Origins, Word Meaning, and Word Knowledge (Philadelphia)

2015: Etymology Three! The Dictionary, The Dynamics, and the Stories of Words (Chicago)

2016: Etymology Four! Words and Writing: The History and Prehistory of English (San Francisco)

2017: Etymology Five! Philology, Phonology, and the Phylogeny of Words (Chicago)

2018: Etymology Six! Middle English: From the Battle of Hastings to the Wife of Bath and Beyond (Portland, OR)

This year? Lucky Number Seven? It’s all about Spelling.

2019: Etymology Seven! The History of English Spelling: Letters and the Lexicon

We will take a close look at the history of English Spelling, including the who (from King Alfred to Noah Webster), the what (from the Old English alphabet to modern-day abbreviations), the when (from the Norman Invasion to the Great Vowel Shift), and how (from the Printing Press to the Digital Age). We will study the Dictionary to see how we can understand orthography better from its entries, including bold new graphic timelines that depict the evolution of a written word.

But words aren’t the only thing that evolves: so do communities. Over the years of our joint work, our shared audience has grown (Doug’s own audience is huge; I’m referring to the folks who work with the two of us together, by and large), and we have established a critical mass of participants who are not beginning, but continuing their serious study of Etymology and English Spelling. Each year to this point, we’ve begun our study with Etymology Basics, to introduce or review foundational concept and to ensure a common understanding among the audience members.

Last year, for the first time, it became apparent that our core group of scholars — the weirdos who follow us around the country and spend time studying with us and somehow still manage to like not only Doug, who is immeasurably likable, but also me — had really already internalized the basic understanding of etymology and the dictionary that we were offering for the first several hours of the conference. A couple of said weirdos prevailed upon us last year to please consider separating out the introductory material and offering opportunities for deeper study in 2019.

So that’s what we’re doing.

This year, Doug and I are offering a new, 3-day conference format, with attendance options for people new to this study (Etymology Basics), as well as options to continue pursuing a deeper understanding.

We are back in the Middle West at the Historic Dayton Masonic Center in Dayton (of course), Ohio. On Friday, April 26th, we will offer a five-hour Etymology Basics seminar for beginners and anyone who’d like a refresher on synchronic and diachronic etymology and the structure and flow of the Online Etymology Dictionary. On Saturday and Sunday, we will delve into this year’s specific theme and offer a 10-hour, 2-day seminar on the History of English Spelling. Beginners who have attended Friday’s session are welcome to stay through the weekend! Veteran etymologists — those who have attended past Etymology weekends and/or the Etymonline Online LEXinar, may join us for the weekend only, without attending Friday’s session. In sum, beginners have the option to attend Friday only, or the full 3-day conference. Veterans may also attend all three days, or they may skip Friday and come for only the Saturday-Sunday conference.

Based on evaluations from past seminars, we are streamlining the agenda for this year’s seminar. We will continue to provide lunch on-site, but each day ends by 3pm to allow for processing, local color, rest, and time to travel home. Continuing Education contact hours will also be offered, either 5 for Friday only, 10 for Saturday-Sunday, or 15 for the full 3-day weekend. Local hotel and transit options will also be made available to those who register.

I am currently offering an EarlyBird Special: Pay a refundable $100 deposit on or before December 31st, and lock in the following discounted rates to register later:

$200 : Friday Only     ~     $375 : Saturday & Sunday     ~     $450 : All Three Days

This pricing means that the full, 3-day conference is only $75 more than last year’s (and this year’s) 2-day conference, and that includes lunch! It also means that the price of the 2-day conference has not increased. In fact, this basic cost has decreased since our most costly conference in San Francisco 3 years ago. These rates are much, much lower than the 1, 2, or 3-day conferences by professional organizations where speakers routinely lie to you about your own language.

Sounds like a bargain.

These rates are subject to increase on or after January 31st by $50-75, depending on what pricing information comes in from caterers and the venue, but you can lock them in now  by making a refundable $100 deposit. (Terms and conditions apply.) There’s nothing to lose, and money to be saved. These EarlyBird registrations also really help me with planning the event, so if you know you want to go, please sign up with a deposit today.

I’m not yet sure whether I will be able to offer an online attendance option yet or not, but I will post more as I learn more. I *am* sure that this year’s conference will be of maximum benefit for those who have received their new LEX Grapheme Decks and are fascinated by the new etymological content, as it will be informing what I present.

The understanding is right here for the taking. Understand Etymology! Understand the Online Etymology Dictionary! And understand English Spelling better, for one, two, or three days in Dayton in April 2019.


190426 Etymology VII page 2



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