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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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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.

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190426 Etymology VII page 2
 

 

 

One of the most misunderstood and misrepresented concepts in the study of PDE (Present-Day English) is verbal constructions, especially auxiliary verbs (“helping” verbs) and their roles. In English, one of the functions of auxiliary verbs is in the construction of interrogatives and negatives. If a declarative sentence has an auxiliary verb in its predicate, that auxiliary can be inverted wth the subject to form a closed interrogative (a yes-or-no question):
 
She can pick you up at seven.
Can she pick you up at seven?
 
That adorable baby has been sleeping well.
Has that adorable baby been sleeping well?
 
The Queen of England’s valet is coming over.
Is the Queen of England’s valet coming over?
 
The auxiliary also assists in negative constructions; the negator is placed between the first auxiliary and the following verb:
 
She will pick you up at seven.
She will not pick you up at seven.
 
That adorable baby has been sleeping well.
That adorable baby has not been sleeping well.
 
The Queen of England’s valet is coming over.
The Queen of England’s valet is not coming over.
 
When your declarative sentence has no auxiliary verb, then you need to add one for closed interrogative and negative constructions. But you don’t just add any old verb; you add some form of ‘do.’
 
She picks you up at seven.
Does she pick you up at seven?
She does not pick you up at seven.
 
That adorable baby slept well.
Did that adorable baby sleep well?
That adorable baby did not sleep well.
 
The Queen of England’s valet came over.
Did the Queen of England’s valet come over?
The Queen of England’s valet did not come over.
 
This auxiliary ‘do‘ is referred to in linguistics as Operator Do, Dummy Do, and Periphrastic Do. These interrogative and negative constructions — as well as other verbal constructions with auxiliaries — arose as Old English (c.500-1100 CE) evolved into Middle English (c.1100-1500 CE) — in fact, the Rise of Periphrastic Do is one of the hallmarks of Middle English grammatical development.
 
It. DOES. NOT. Have. Anything. To. Do. With. Celtic.
 
Begosh and begorrah.
 
See, this is the problem with just pulling graphics off the Internet when you have no real understanding to interrogate them. Some wack-job claims in a graphic on the Interwebs (which I refuse to share / perpetuate here in its entirety) that Celtic is responsible for Periphrastic Do in English (annotated):
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Oh No He Didn’t!

This is just patently false. Here are the facts, from This Language, a River: A History of English (Smith & Kim, 2018), a clear and concise and beautiful textbook by two of my teachers:
The use of do as an auxiliary verb may have its origins as early as the O[ld] E[nglish] period, but by M[iddle] E[nglish], the construction that becomes the present-day pattern emerges more clearly:

Whan Phebus doth his bryghte bemes sprede… (Troilus & Criseyde, 1.54)

See? Nothing to do with Celtic. The Celts who inhabited the British Isles before the Common Era — and for whom Britain and British and also Brittany in France were named — when the Germanic mercenaries arrived in the 5th century CE were conquered by the Romans, and then conquered by the Anglo-Saxons by and large. Conquered people don’t generally contribute syntactic constructions to the conquerors’ language. To wit:
The Anglo-Saxons did absorb some words from the [Celtic] Britons, place names like Thames or Kent, and words for geological features like torr (a high, rocky peak), a common element in place names like Torcross. But the borrowing was quite limited…. In some ways, these patterns of borrowing are not unlike the borrowing that occurred in the American colonies when speakers of English borrowed native names for places ike Waukegan from Native American languages. Patterns of borrowings such as these, being so largely tied to physicality (as opposed to more deeply cultural kinds of borrowing), being chiefly lexical (as opposed to grammatical), and numbering only about a dozen words in total, strongly suggest that Celtic-speaking peoples had little cultural influence among their conquerors.
~Smith & Kim
Features like the <-ing> participle, used in the progressive verbal construction (am running, was eating, will be studying…) — note, it’s a progressive aspect, not a *continuous *tense, the Periphrastic Do, and the loss of case/gender have NOTHING TO DO WITH CELTIC. It’s 100% Germanic. These are grammatical features, not lexical, and they did not really develop until the Middle English period, long after the conquered Celts were relegated to the far corners of the kingdom.

Here’s more from Smith & Kim, in their chapter on Middle English:

In the ME period we begin to witness the expansion of the verb phrase (e.g. the rise in frequency and types of periphrastic verb forms).
This has Nothing. To. Do. With. Celtic. At. All.
So the [Middle English] sound losses that we have been talking about obliterated a number of grammatical meanings…and weakened the entire system of case in the paradigm…
And
Noun classification according to grammatical gender becomes defunct.
Again, nothing t do with Celtic, for crying our loud.

How about this?

In OE the present participle (PDE: speaking) had the suffix -ende (e.g. sprecende [speaking]. In ME the familiar -ing replaces -ende in most dialects…. In OE and early ME, we find instances of the auxiliary verb be + the present participle both with -ende and -ing….

K. Aaron Smith is a real expert on the <-ing> form and the progressive construction, not some alternative medicine practitioner who only writes under a pseudonym. Isn’t it a shame when teachers don’t know how to differentiate between a reliable academic source and an Interwebs wingnut?

*            *            *            *            *

A colleague recently informed me of his belief that I “the level of content knowledge [I] demand … in grammar instruction” is unreasonable and discouraging to would-be scholars. That’s an interesting reprimand to offer someone who teaches grammar classes to people who understand nothing about grammar — that I hold people to a high standard if they are going to claim to understand grammar.

Wow.

You know, one of us has personal knowledge of what adults are capable of learning and understanding about English grammar, and one of us is only guessing.

It also strikes me as hypocritical that it’s somehow perfectly acceptable for people in this “scholar community” [sic] that I am so often lectured about to hold me to a very high standard of politeness and deference because it’s their opinion that I should be so held, and also acceptable that I am so often kicked out of Facebook groups, excoriated publicly, name-called, and harassed and threatened, because I don’t meet these totally subjective behavioral and personality-based standards.

See, the standards I want to hold people to are these: If someone is going to teach other people grammar — especially adults — that person should know how to tell the difference between a noun and an adjective. They should know the difference between form and function. They should understand that adverbs don’t always modify verbs. They should know how to interrogate Internet graphics that they want to share to make sure they’re accurate and from a reliable source. Likewise, if someone is going to try to teach people about the growth and structure of the English Language, they should actually have studied it, and they should have an understanding of how PDE grammatical forms developed historically so that they don’t fall for total rotten baloney like this bloody bloggy Celtic sausage-making and so they don’t continue to perpetuate these false understandings.

I am not mean or wrong to hold grammar teachers to such a standard. I’m not holding gas station attendants or certified public accountants or electrical engineers to a high grammar-knowledge standard. But people who make money teaching grammar? Absolutely. And for the love of God, that standard does not make me a bully. In fact, I regularly hear from people who appreciate it, because they can trust my integrity as a scholar and as a teacher.

This high expectation is not the same as people trying to hold me to some kind of standard of patience and politeness and tolerance of abject errors spread by “experts.” I do not owe politeness or patience to anyone who is lying to children and teachers, misrepresenting their expertise, or making excuses for the ignorance they are spreading. The thing is, this colleague doesn’t mind at all when I call out Louisa Moats or Malt Joshi or She Templeton on their spelling and grammar errors; it’s only when I call out someone he considers a friend.

That’s not scientific.

It also strikes me as interesting that a colleague — especially a male colleague — has no problem lecturing me about “offering time” to “deepen understanding” — but no one wants to offer me time to deepen my “patience” and “politeness,” even if I were interested in doing so. Of course it’s fine to take all the time you want to understand something, but maybe don’t try to teach a thing you have not yet had the time to come to understand. I’ve been learning, for example, about hypnosis in the treatment of sleep maintenance disorders, but that doesn’t make me a hypnotherapist, and I’m not offering online classes in hypnotherapy. It’s remarkable to me that some of my colleagues — male and female alike — have no problem expecting me to bear some politeness standard that is not even remotely empirical, and that lies outside of my area of expertise (I’m not a therapist or a sex worker; I don’t get paid to make people feel good), but the same people balk when I expect a teacher teaching other teachers to bear a knowledge standard in the subject area they are teaching.

Hogwash.

Seriously, go wash that hog, because it stinks.

            *            *            *            *            *
This past week, I was celebrating a family member’s college graduation, and talking with my older brother. My brother’s educational background is in physics and business, and he is a muckety-muck in water management in the southwestern U.S. (He also happens to be an amateur linguist who has a Greek tattoo and a Russian license plate and translate hymns from Old Church Slavonic.) Over lunch, he described to my mother and me a regional meeting he recently attended. Needless to say, water management is contentious, and at times, he said, he has to tell stakeholders, “Let’s not pretend like there are simple solutions here.” I seized upon that let’s not pretend.

“When you tell people ‘Let’s to pretend,’ do they call you mean?” I asked him.

“No. I’m not the mean one,” he said.

“Interesting,” I said, “because in my field, when I say things like ‘Let’s not pretend like you actually know what a phoneme is’ or ‘Let’s not pretend like that never happens in phonics instruction,’ people complain and call me mean.

“That’s because you say it in a mean way,” he teased. Har-de-har-har. What that really means is that I am guilty of facts while female.

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I’m starting a new round of Grammar for Grown-Ups — a class informed by my studies with Dr. Smith — a class that has radically changed and is continuing to change the understanding of grammar in this “scholarly community” — in March of 2019. It will be scheduled according to the needs of the first 10 people registered. Lock in your price now with a deposit before the New Year; prices are subject to change.

This class does not require any pre-requisites or prior grammatical knowledge; in fact, the more you think you know now, the more you’ll have to unlearn over the course of the year.

Do you want to understand English grammar? Does that sound good to you?

don’t doubt it.

I grew up in a very fruity family.

One set of maternal great-grandparents (Morris and Ann) met through their fathers (Solomon, a.k.a. Max or Meyer, and Sam), both Polish Jews who had emigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Meyer and Sam were both produce salesmen in California; later, Morris and his brother Pete ran Smith Brothers Produce, a small stand in California. I’m not positive what happened to Smith Brothers, but I think it was one of the small produce operations bought out by eventually giant produce wholesaler Levy-Zentner & Company.

Later still, my maternal grandpa, Ted — son-in-law to Morris and Ann — worked for Levy-Zentner. My mom and my aunt remember their father’s relationships with central Californian farmers and their families, including an Italian immigrant family whose daughter’s wedding they attended as young adults. I mostly remember my grandpa being retired, but I always knew he worked in produce; as a kid, I remember my large family receiving large cardboard crates of fruit from my him: grapefruits and mangos and California pears.  As a young adult, reading William Saroyan and John Steinbeck’s California fictions made me imagine what things might’ve been like in my grandfather’s life as a young husband and father, whom he may have encountered. I wish I had known enough to ask him when he was alive, but I lacked that foresight. For years, I schlepped stacks of yellowish ledger paper marked with their red rooster logo from one home to another around the country. I still have a few sheets, but most of it left my current premises at the urging of my office organizer.

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On my dad’s side, my uncle Tony was the son of one of Delaware, Ohio’s Dinovo Brothers produce wholesalers. An uncle by marriage, he was the third generation of Dinovo Brothers, the produce business having been started by his grandfather, Sam, in 1913. My Uncle Tony sold the business in the 1980s, and then ran a place called Cranberry Resort.

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See? Fruity.

Fruit is the thing I pretty much always feel like eating, and there really aren’t any fruits that I don’t like.

But my favorite? Pomegranates, hands down. They’re really only good for a couple months in the late fall / early winter. They taste better out west because they don’t have to travel quite so far. I remember visiting some of the old Spanish Missions in southern California whose gardens boast pomegranate trees full of unharvested fruit. I really wanted to take some of them home, but I didn’t. Some say that the pomegranate was the fruit of the Tree of Life in the mythical Garden of Eden, rather than the proverbial apple.

For those couple of months, I peel and eat the seeds of one or two pomegranates pretty much every day.

Both the Latinate pome (French pomme) and the Germanic apple have more general historical denotation of ‘fruit’ than their present-day specifics as Granny Smith or Fuji or Red Delicious apples. To wit: pomme de terre (that’s French for ‘potato,’ literally ‘apple of the earth’) and pineapple. A pomegranate is etymologically a grainy (or seedy) apple/fruit, because of its tight matrix of juicy seeds (or grains).

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A grenade is so named because of its resemblance to a pomegranate; indeed, in Modern French, the same word is used for both the explosive and the fruit. Classic grenadine is made from pomegranate juice, and the Spanish city of Granada (and its namesake Grenada) is likely named for the red fruit. The icy Italian dessert granita is named for its snowcone-like grains of flavored ice. And the granite countertops in my kitchen have a slightly grainy appearance, as any granite.

I guess you could say that my love of fruit, like my love of words, is set in stone.

My shippers are having a baby! Since they are already wonderful parents of a wonderful family, this is the best kind of news.

Their Christmas package arrives December 14th, and I plan to give them some time and space to family without worrying about shipments.

The last set of shipments for 2018 will go out on Friday, December 7th. Any subsequent orders received in 2018 will not ship until shipments resume on January 4th.

While LEXinar costs are holding steady, prices on study materials are subject to change after January 1st, so make your plans and place your year-end orders now.

I’m pleased to announce a long-overdue new LEXinar: The Content~Function Continuum.

Here’s the flyer:

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 10.01.19 AM

If you’ve received your new LEX Grapheme Deck, or an InSight Deck, and you’d like to understand more about “lexical spellings” or “functional spellings,” this is the class for you.

I’m offering this class twice over the northern hemisphere’s winter break: Friday, December 28th at 5pm CENTRAL Standard Time, or Thursday, January 3rd at 9am CENTRAL. When you register, please indicate which one you’d like to take.

The class includes a printable activity handout.

Please join me! Go here to register.

UpDate

2019 calendars are now available!

The cover has been updated (get it? up+DATE+ed!), and the inside features the same beautiful word studies and matrices for the months of the year as before.

LEX 2019 calendar cover

 
These make great holiday gifts for teachers, kiddos, college students, and word nerds.
 
Save $5 when you order before December 1st. Contact me for overseas orders.

A longtime client just ordered a couple decks of cards, with this thoughtful and provocative note:

Hi Gina, I appreciate all that you do to help educate those of us who need to further our understanding of how the English writing system works. If you find a spare minute, I’d like to know why /g/ in anger is different than the /g/ in danger.

It’s a fine question, and I have financial paperwork to avoid, so I thought I’d write up a response and share it.

First, there is no */g/ in danger, and that’s the point. What my client actually wants to know is why the <g> in anger is different than the <g> in danger.

Second, we need to consider the Four Questions: what each of the words Mean, how each word is Built, and what each word’s Relatives are, before we can consider the fourth question, which is about Letters and Pronunciation, which is what my client’s question is about. I understand that it’s tempting to ask Question #4 without addressing any of the first three questions, but it’s also lazy.

I’m going to assume that my readers know what both of those words Mean and can use them in a sentence, maybe even the same sentence. Both words can be nouns, but only anger can be a verb; if you want to verb danger, you have to add a prefix: endanger. Huh. Whaddya know? An <en-> prefix is French! Even though Louisa Moats claims that it’s *Anglo-Saxon, it’s not. She’s wrong. That kind of guesswork malpractice crap from well-paid “experts” really angers me, and it’s dangerous to our public dialogue.

Oh, hey, look. An <-ous> adjectival suffix. Also French; compare to Modern French <-eux>, as in heureux. If I want to make anger into an adjective, though, there’s no *angerous. Just angry. Huh. Looks like hunger~hungry and winter~wintry. English has a handful of different <-y> suffixes, but this is the only adjectival one. It’s also the only Germanic one. It derives from an Old English <-ig> suffix, which itself is related to the <-ic> we see in Classical words and the French <-ique> that derives from it.

Once we start talking about prefixes and suffixes, of course, we’re moving into how a word is Built and what its Relatives are. So far we have anger, angers, angry and danger, endanger, dangerous, but we haven’t established the structure of anger and danger themselves. Both have <er> at the end, but is it a suffix? English also has a handful of different <-er> suffixes; some are Germanic, and some are French. The two most common suffixes —  the comparative <-er> inflection as in smarter, truer, bolder; and the agentive <-er> derivation as in thinker, writer, truth-teller — are both Germanic, but neither of those are in place in either of these words. Neither word is an adjective, so they can’t be comparative forms, and their nominal uses are not agentive. Anger is not something that *angs, and danger never *danges. It is also not the case that either word is a frequentative verb, like flitter or stammer.

In the entry for one of its six <-er> suffixes, my Mactionary lists danger as an example of a noun with an <-er> “ending corresponding to Latin -arius, -arium.

Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 10.51.07 AM

Really, both of those words — butler and danger — are bad examples, because neither of them has an attested Latin root with an -arius or an -arium at all (though *dominarium is reconstructed in the Vulgate). Both of these words were molded in French from Latin pieces, but neither of them are Latin words with an -arius or an -arium in the same sense as stationer (L. stationarius) or vintner (L. vinetarius).

Even if we did analyze the <er> in danger as a suffix, however, it would not be generative, because there are no relatives with a *<dang(e)> base element. The word dang is a minced oath or euphemism for damn, and dangle is a Scandinavian word with unclear origins. Danger is befittingly an adventurer, a rogue member of its etymological family, and its vowel took a leap from the <o> that marks the rest of the family, as we can see in this helpful graphic from LIVE author Scott Mills (which I’ve doctored every so slightly by adding a yellow danger to the circle):

danger

Anger, on the other hand, has a final <er> that is not listed among the Mactionary’s <-er> suffixes, but which derives from an Old Norse verbal <ra> suffix whose descendent we also see in the present day words glitter, blunder, and teeter. If I analyze the <er> in anger as a suffix, then, can I find that same <ang> base element elsewhere? In other words, does it have any generative Relatives?

Well, yes. It does. And I posted about my understanding of them here, on my Facebook page in 2013 (go look). Since anguish and angina are Latinate, while anger and angry and angst are Germanic, one might decide not to include them in the same matrix. I now understand that the <u> in anguish is not a connecting vowel, because there’s no history of a connecting vowel letter in that word; rather, the <gu> digraph toggles here with the <g> to preserve the phonological governance in this Latinate word, just like a <ck> toggles with a <c> in words like panicky or trafficked.

That kind of thing — that toggling — happens in words with Latinate phonological histories, in which a <c> is palatized (or ‘soft’) before an <e, i, or y>. Because <c> and <g> are closely related, of course, the <g> can have the kind of palatalized variance in its phonology. Can have. A <c> does have that kind of variance; a <g> can, but it doesn’t have to.

The palatization of <c> and <g> in English is Latinate. Germanic words do not have an initial ‘soft’ <c> or <g>: words like cent, city, cycle, cell, ceiling, and gem, germ, giant, gym, and ginger all have Latinate and/or Hellenic histories. Latin itself didn’t have ‘soft’ <c> or <g>; the palatization occurred as Vulgar Latin evolved into French, Catalan, Italian, Galician, etc.  Most words that end with <ge> or <ce> are Latinate; those few that are Germanic were respelled after the arrival of the Norman French: once, twice, bodice, ice, mice all had a final <s> at some earlier point.

Every word that has an <ci, ce, or cy> in present-day English has a ‘soft’ <c>, but that does not hold true for <g>. Words like girl, get, giddy, gift~give, gimlet, giggle, gill, gillie, gear, gecko, and geegaw are not Latinate. Words that maintain a [g] before an <e, i, or y> are not Latinate. In native English words like clingy and tangy (related to tongue and tongs), the <g> does not have to ‘soften,’ but it might, as it does in dingy and stingy.

Let’s go back to anger and its relatives. The Germanic members of the family, like anger, angry, angsthangnail~agnail, all have a [g], while the Latinate angina has a [ʤ], and the Latinate anguish toggles out a <gu> for the <g> to maintain the [g]. The Latinate family also includes cousins with an <x>, like anxious and anxiety; the <g>~<x> relationship is common in Latinate families, like Rex~regal or lex~legislate.

Wow. What a cool writing system.

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Several years ago, in one of my university classes, one of my students investigated the words laughter and slaughter, both nouns that look almost identical, but clearly do not have the same phonology. While they are both native English words, their histories and structures are totally different. She learned, and shared wit the class, that words are not necessarily related just because their surfaces look alike; what matters is their structure and history.

One of my teacher’s common admonitions is to “beware of WYSIWYGgery” — there is no dent in dental, and there is no play in display. There’s no <-ing> in bring, and no <-ed> in bobsled. There’s no <sh> in mishap, and no <ie> in cried. It is not scientific to assume that two words that look alike are alike, in any other way than visual. That is a specious expectation: it is deceivingly attractive. It’s not science if you skip the history and the relatives.

No phonological question can be answered with respect for the writing system if that’s where we start, and English orthography is no stranger than any other writing system: phonology is always part of meaning-making. Always. Phonology is tied to meaning, and phonemes cannot be disembodied from words and morphemes and still properly understood. Even a /g/.

Recently, at the end of a professional development seminar, I called for any questions that participants might have.

“What do you think of Words Their Way?” asked one.

“How about [Some Other Spelling Curriculum]?” asked another.

I nipped that in the bud. I’m a linguist, not a curriculum clearinghouse. It is not the case that I sit in my home office reading and analyzing spelling workbooks; it is the case that I sit in my home office researching and analyzing the English writing systemSee the difference?

I do teach, but I’m not a teacher. I did not build a career trying out (or being forced to try out) different spelling books, so I am not now in a position to pick one that I can like and approve for all the teachers who apparently crave approval and convenience more than actual knowledge. More than a decade ago, I spent a couple of newsletter cycles writing up reviews of books and materials for the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (now Everyone Reading Illinois), but really, it’s not what I do. I’m not a curriculum reviewer. I’m not a pedagogical researcher. I am not your proofreader. I am not your therapist. I am a linguist. I study language, especially written language, especially especially written English. I do that study alone and in company. Like most researchers, I write up and publish my research; I just don’t do it uncompensated for someone else (like a university, a journal, an outside publisher). I do it myself.

That said, I thought it would be good for me to have a place where I can point people when they ask me about spelling curricula. So here it is.

My well-informed professional opinion on spelling curricula is that they are all garbage. They are all based on lists and quizzes, and they all operate from a Phonology Phirst phalse belieph system.

None of them involves investigating or understanding how written words make meaning, or how the system as a whole works. They involve busywork and “activities” like writing stories or sentences, sorting words into various piles, and playing “games” like word searching or scrambles that are generally not terribly helpful for anyone, and absolutely hell on wheels if you’re even slightly dyslexic. They involve pretests and test-tests, every damn week, that have no actual bearing on whether kids are actually thinking critically, problem-solving, or interrogating anything worthwhile.

I get asked about Words Their Way almost every time this question comes up. Because WTW mentions morphology, it creates a false impression among its consumers of “Oh, yeah, I do that.” No, actually, you don’t. While I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of any packaged classroom spelling curriculum (have I mentioned that’s not what I do?), I can absolutely pinpoint why I think they’re all garbage: because they misrepresent the writing system. Because they include words they can’t explain and then blame the system. They all do that. Every last one.

Words Their Way, for example, pats itself on the back for “doing” morphology, but Every. Single. Week. kids have to work with words that WTW calls “oddball words” [sic]. Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but “oddball words” is not a linguistic term. I frequently hear teachers fretting over terminology like grapheme or participle or allophone because it’s new to them, yet there’s no hesitation to use — and require kids to use — totally fabricated nonsense like “oddball word” as though that’s a thing.

It’s not a thing.

All spoken words are phonetic; no written words are phonetic. It’s really simple. Writing systems, including English, do not write words phonetically, but phonologically. It’s galling that people considered experts in the field don’t understand this. The words onetwodoes, and of, for example, are regularly pegged as “non-phonetic,” but that’s a misnomer. What people mean when they say that is “I can’t explain the spellingbecause I expect it to be driven primarily by pronunciation, and it’s not.” All of those words have an empirical orthographic phonology whose features belong in the system and are shared with other words.

The <o> in <does>, for example, is the only letter that could spell not only the [ʌ] in does and done, but also the [uː] in do and doing. An <o> also spells [ʌ] in son, mother, love, some, come, one, won, wonder, and a lot of other words. There’s nothing “non-phonetic” about that. And an <o> also spells [uː] in to, who, lose, move, through, and a lot of other words. Also, not “non-phonetic.” The <-es> suffix spells [∅z] just like it always does after a vowel: cries, tomatoes, pennies… No other grapheme would work across the <do> family.

Phonics Pholks always phail to consider this phundamental question: What would a ‘phonetic’ or ‘regular’ spelling look like for that word, since you don’t like this one?

Really — think about it. How do you think those words should be spelled, Phonics Phellow? What better way can you propose to spell does, what, one, two, or of?

Let’s take of. You can’t spell it *<uv>, because English proscribes those two letters consecutively, and because English proscribes a word-final <v>. You cannot spell it *<ove>, as in love, shove, glove, because that is a lexical spelling, and of is a function word. In fact, a <v> is a lexical spelling, always. And of is a function word, always. And nary the twain shall meet. Oh, look, twain. That <w> probably explains the <w> in two.

The facts about of, what, does, one, two are all available in the understanding I offer, for people who’d like to stop lying to kids.

Just like a “non-phonetic” word, an “oddball word” — like a red word, a learned word, a sight word, an irregular word, an outlaw word, heart word, demon word, whatever word [sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic] — is not a thing. Real science doesn’t offer a dozen different names for the same entity, depending on which curriculum you’re using. Words aren’t irregular, because all language is rule-based. Words that people call “irregular” are often being crammed into false rules, or at least rules they don’t actually belong in. This is garbage that publishers pass off as “science-based.” I’ve written and spoken about this before, herehere, here, here, here, and here. What these are are words that the author(s) don’t know how to explain.

In WTW, “oddball words” are words that have the same so-called ‘sound’ as the main list, but a different spelling pattern. But that’s only “odd” if you grossly misrepresent the English writing system as a messy, pronunciation-based transcription system. It’s not. It’s not a code. And just because the authors or Words Their Way don’t actually know how to explain, you know, actual freaking WORDS doesn’t mean that we all just have to line up and do things Their Way, which is false.

Here are some of the words that WTW can’t explain, but I can, and have: could, would, should; laugh, though, rough, tough, through,; have, give; some, come, done, love, one; what, said, want. Sigh. Seriously, though, what good is a spelling curriculum if it can’t even explain these enormously common, totally normal words, let alone the actual writing system in which they have a permanent context? Several of these words are in my LEX InSight Words decks; others are routinely investigated and explained in LEXinars. Hey, Shane Templeton, if you’re listening, please take a LEXinar. You too, Donald Baer. Louisa Moats, Rebecca Treiman, Marcia Invernizzi, Francine Johnston. Take a LEXinar — they’re really affordable — but if you’re a spelling expert and can’t afford $150, email me and you can come as my guest. But please, stop putting this nonsense in front of children’s faces. It’s hurting them, and their teachers.

Last night, I met with a high schooler and her tutor to study the words syllable and syllabic, which have a bit of a convoluted history: the former has an excrescent (or unetymological) <l> that was giving them trouble in their study. Throughout our session, this brilliant kiddo understood the evidence that I was showing her, but she didn’t like it, and that showed in her face.

I showed her some other words with excrescent letters, like island and ancient and midst. I entered “unetymological” in the search bar of the Online Etymology Dictionary and showed her how many English words had an unetymological feature in their makeup — and how that fact is part of the word’s etymology. “You don’t have to like the fact that that <l> is unetymological,” I explained. “But it is.” There are, after all, a lot of facts that any one of us doesn’t like. “At the risk of sounding callous,” I told her, “I don’t really care how you feel about a spelling; what I care about is that you understand the facts.”

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The tutor messaged me later: “When we ended session I could really tell that [my student] was still bothered. I asked her what was up and she said, ‘it just feels like how all of my old teachers taught me how to read.’ We talked about how there is a distinction between using history and evidence to explain a mutation [in how a spelling evolves, my emphasis] and just blatantly fabricating a cute story founded on no evidence to explain ‘odd’ spellings that you ‘just have to memorize.’ She understood but still felt triggered. It was such strong evidence of what damage a ‘phonics first’ approach can do to a person. Those scars run deep. I can relate girl, oh how I can relate. 💔

You see that? How all of her old teachers taught her — including with phonics — felt terrible to that kid. And that adult? The tutor? Also dyslexic, so she knows, “Those scars run deep.”  Adult dyslexics — including those who are teachers and tutors — tell me all the time that when they study with me, they feel like they are seeing and hearing their own language for the first time. They tell me that they are taking off coats of years of shame. They tell me that their kids’ anxiety is diminished or gone since they’ve started bringing orthographic fact and critical inquiry to the table.

The answer to the question, “What materials should I use?” is “Any of them, as long as you bring an accurate understanding to the task.”

I’ve picked on WTW in this post because it’s the one I know best. And it is widely heralded among the “reading science” types as the best spelling curriculum out there. And maybe it is. But they’re all misrepresenting the language, so in my opinion, they’re all garbage. And no one aspires to being the best bag of garbage at the dump.

Hey, hey, hey! Come to this conference.

Peter Bowers will be talking about morphology.

I’ll be talking about phonology. Not that phake phonnicky stuph passed off by the Dyslexia Industry and others. Real phonology.

Douglas Harper will be talking about etymology, and undoubtedly wowing us all with pearlescent metaphor and hilarity.

It’s a trifecta: Win, win, win.

Each of the three of us will have have a keynote and a breakout session, and I’ll be there the whole time with a table full of the most linguistically accurate materials money can buy, including the THIRD Edition of the LEX Grapheme Decks, and — I hope — a THIRD Volume of LEX InSight Decks.

Sure, Chicago will be cold in March. And all the cool kids will be there. Hot, hot, hot.

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