I’ve had the immense pleasure recently of working with two different second graders. One’s journey I’ve been documenting in a Facebook group (complete with pictures and narratives about our sessions); I call her Cupcake, because that’s the word she wanted to investigate with me first. The other, whom I call River, I just began with after working with other family members for the past couple of years.

River lives a little ways away from me, so she and I met online. Her mom prepared the physical materials for our session from files I emailed her, and I prepared the electronic version so River and I could work together.

I had met River only once in the past, and that was brief. Our first session together was yesterday, and our second, today. Yesterday, we established some basics: a base element (<heal>), its immediate family — the relatives built on <heal>, and its more distant family — the relatives that share a root but not a base.

I gave her a lot of words. I read some. She read some. If she hadn’t heard of a word, I made a decision — I either told her what it meant and used it in a sentence, or I put it aside. She identified those that had an <heal> and added them to the square that will become our matrix. Words River thought might be related went in or near the circle. Words deemed unlikely to be related went in the lower right. Over the course of our 45 minutes or so, River read several words and gave examples of those words in sentences. We discussed bases, suffixes, digraphs, pronunciation, word relatives (and people relatives).

Here’s how our screen looked at the end of our first session:





Today, we picked up where we left off, and I was smart enough to record some of our time together to share with curious folks, thanks to River’s mom.

We’ll continue with this study next week, and I’ll update this post then.

Etymology! V

Because we all need a little something to look forward to: Mark your calendars for the fifth annual live Etymology! weekend with Douglas Harper and me.

Hold your place with a refundable deposit and start making plans. The weekend will be in Greater Chicago and will cost somewhere under $350 — depending on catering and facility costs yet to be determined. Anyone making a refundable deposit by 12/31/16 will receive a discount on the final registration fee and will be entered into a drawing for a free $50 LEX Gift Card at the conference.


The $75 will be applied to registration costs. It is fully refundable if requested in writing by January 31, 2017, and 50% refundable if quested in writing by February 25, 2017. Full registration will be refundable, less $75, for requests made after February 25th.

We hope to see you there!

Basket Case

Over the summer I had the privilege of traveling to Pennsylvania to work with some old colleagues and make some new ones. The travel itself is a slog — three hours in a car, four hours on a plane, several more hours in a rental car for a few days, another four hours on a plane, another three hours in a car. By the time I get home, all I want to do is watch a little Netflix and go to bed, but my brain doesn’t wind down so easily. After my return, I found myself turning over a couple of conversations in my head. I didn’t consider them to be related, but of course, there are no coincidences.

The first thing I kept turning over was something I heard from a colleague while I was on the road. She was summarizing for me some comments she had heard from a bigwig phonics apologist (we’ll call her BW for BigWig) during a professional development event. So first, I want to acknowledge that this is total hearsay; I am now reporting this to you third-hand, which is probably irresponsible, but it’s not like I’m going out on a very far limb: it’s a ubiquitous perspective, and one that confronts me a lot in my work. A lot of people are laboring through the whole erroneous sound-it-out, A-is-for-Apple thing out there. But this story was sticking with me because it offers such clear evidence that people highly trained in multisensory structured language education are getting really bad information, right from the top, as though it were scientific or factual. Again.

It went something like this: after a lively discussion about language and teaching, the training session ended with BW admonishing her teacher trainers: “You’ll hear a lot of talk out there about morphology and etymology,” she said. “But the fact is that children need to master their phonology first.”

Just let that sink in: children need to master their phonology first.

My colleague brought it up because after a few hours of orthographic study with me, she could so clearly see that morphology and etymology both outrank phonology in the hierarchy of the writing system’s concerns, and she was well aware that she was being warned away from my work and the work of my orthographic scholarship community, because it threatens the rabidly phonocentric foundations of the trainer’s life’s work.

I looked at my colleague and asked her, “So at what point does she suggest children have mastered their phonology?”

And now I’m looking at you and asking you to consider at what point you mastered your phonology, and what exactly that means.

*                                    *                                    *

The second thing keeping me up was a question that had popped up on Facebook about spelling and, of course, pronunciation. Actually, questions pop up on Facebook every day. I do some of my best writing in response to those questions. There was a thread on whether the vowel in bang, sang, hang, etc., is ‘long’ or ‘short.’ It was a long conversation about who’s pronouncing what, taking place among people who, like my Pennsylvania colleague, are highly trained and knowledgeable about the English language. What most of them didn’t understand was that regardless of what you feel like you’re pronouncing, the vowels in those words are all phonologically checked, lax, or (shudder) ‘short,’ just like they would be before <tch> or <ck>.

That’s not the question that stuck with me, however; it was a post that took on disyllabic words that end in <et>, like blanket or locket or basket.

The common understanding out there in Phonicland is that these words have an /ɪ/ in the final syllable, but are spelled with an <e>. Because of what is perceived as a mismatch in the orthography, many teachers and tutors try to cue students in to the spelling by articulating the final syllable with a pure [ɛ]: “lock-ET.” The thing is, no one talks like that in real life. That word is never pronounced that way in a normal utterance, only in a phonics lesson. If the kid is writing a sentence sometime later with that word, they’re going to be thinking about the content of their composition, and it won’t feel like “lock-ET” in their head. So if that’s the approach, it’s likely that kids will continue to spell these (and other) words according to the way they pronounce them with little regard for sense and meaning.

Let’s consider these words, or at least a goodly number of them, in terms of our four questions of structured word inquiry. The thing is, we usually take these four questions to the study of a specific word, but this time, I want to take them to the study of words with that have an <et> suffix, and of that <et> in general.

  1. What does it mean?

Most of these words are of French origin and have a diminutive denotation, at least historically. The <et> may no longer clearly express smallness in the word (as in musket), and the word’s semantics may have drifted considerably from their etymon, but somewhere in many of these words’ etymologies is diminution (the history of musket includes an association with a ‘little fly’ — think mosquito).

A packet is a small pack of something; a locket is a little locking thing; a rocket is, etymologically speaking, a little cylinder. They are by and large nouns, though many have been zero-derived into verbs, as in snow that blankets the landscape. In the French that they come from, <et> is a masculine diminutive suffix, and <ette> is its feminine counterpart. English uses both: kitchenette, rosette — sometimes with the same base element, even: planchet, planchette, or toilet, toilette.

  1. How are they built?

Well, since <et> isn’t a word, we need to think about this a little differently. It’s a suffix, not a base, but we can still take a look at how its morphology works. It attaches to both free bases (locket) and bound bases (banquet). These words take the typical nominal inflections, as in two caskets or the rocket’s red glare, and they may also compound, as in basketweaving or toiletpaper, or take derivational suffixes, as in toiletries or musketeers. The suffix is never stressed in these word families, so words like magnetic tell us that we’re not dealing with the same diminutive suffix here.

Now, I wouldn’t argue that all of these words are very productive for analyzing morphologically in the present day; you won’t find the <rock> in <rocket> in any other words without the <et>, and the <jack> in <jacket>, while free (a kind of sleeveless tunic or, well, jacket), is archaic and no longer used. But even many of the words that are not morphologically generative are still hugely etymologically productive.

Let’s take a look.

  1. What are their relatives?

Well, I’ve already given several examples of the kinds of morphological relatives you’ll find with these words. Some compound prolifically (basketball, breadbasket, wastebasket), others compound a little (straightjacket), while still others don’t compound at all (blanket). Where we really hit paydirt is with the etymological relatives. When we peel off that <et> and identify the base, even if it’s not morphologically generative in present-day English, it often points to relatives that help us deepen our understanding not only of the meanings of these word families, but also of the kinds of relationships we mark in writing. Consider the following relatives and their shared historical denotations:

banquet ~ bank ~ bench ‘table’

blanket ~ blank ~ blanch ~ blanquette ‘white’

bracket ~ breeches ~ britches ‘support or armor’ (influenced by, but unrelated to, brace)

crocket ~ crook ~ crochet ~ croquet ‘hook’

latchet ~ lace ~ lasso ‘lace’ (historically, ‘rope, noose, snare;’ influenced by, but unrelated to, latch)

market ~ merchant ~ merchandise ~ mercantile ‘to buy’

picket ~ pike ~ peak ~ pique ~ pitch ‘to prick or point’

pocket ~ pouch ~poke (as in pig in a poke) ‘bag’

planchet ~ planchette ~ plank ‘board’

placket ~ placard ~ plaque ‘plate or tablet’

ratchet ~ rocket ‘spindle or cylinder’

ticket ~ etiquette ~ sticker ~ stitch ‘to stick, to fasten by sticking’

As we study these shared denotations and the stories they tell, we also begin to see another dimension of the writing system come to life: the etymological relationships between phonemes and graphemes. In the examples above, we can see certain relationships repeated in the graphemes: <tch> or <ch> and <ck> or <k>; between <c> and <ck> and <k>, and <qu>; sometimes multiples of these. We see these same relationships across English orthography, even in words without the <et> including dike~ditch, break~breach, wreak~wretch, mystic~mystique, and so many others.

Some of the morphological relationships that emerge in this study are built around free bases and are fairly intuitive, like <face> + <et> or <cab> + <in> + <et>. Others have bound bases whose denotations make perfect sense, but may not be guessable, like the <buck> shared by <bucket>, <buckle>, and <buckboard>, which denotes ‘bulge.’ The <cors> in <corset> is related to corps and corpse — they all denote ‘body.’ I know, right? Wow.

We also see in many of these words all these medial spellings that we associate with being final to monosyllables, like <tch> and <ck> and <nk> and <dge>. Once we understand that, historically at least, those spellings are final to a base element, we understand those words and their spellings better. If we look at relatives like toilet and toilette or blanket and blanquette, floret and flowerette, ticket and etiquette, we ought to be able to surmise that the <et> and <ette> suffixes are related somehow.

Basically, the more relatives we can gather, the more data we have to support our understanding. I could go on, but I want to save some of the study for other people. So let’s wrap up with the fourth question.

  1. What segments of the pronunciation are relevant to the meaning?

This is really the question that started it all, as it so often does. Even though it should be our final question, this is frequently where people start when studying spelling: with the pronunciation. And that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake, as it was in the Facebook discussion, to zero in immediately on “why are these words pronounced like this but spelled like that?” without considering the other questions, the context of the meaning and structure and relationships that govern the spellings.

Just as with the <a> in rang, sang, and hang, people get hung up on what the physical pronunciation of a word is — its phonetics — rather than considering how we organize a word’s possible pronunciations within the whole system of our language — its phonology. All writing systems represent some aspect(s) of the language’s phonology, its psychological organization of the pronunciation of meaning, but no orthography represents phonetics, the physical properties of speech.

With the frequent phonics practice of stressing that second syllable in words like locket or packet — a with many frequent phonics practices — we not only fail to study how these words’ pronunciations actually work; we also obscure other facts about the pronunciation of this suffix. Sometimes it is stressed, especially in musical terms like quintet or quartet or duet or clarinet. Some of these can be spelled either with <et> or with <ette>: quintette, quartette. We also find the same diminutive suffix stressed but pronounced only as /eɪ/; these are later French loanwords like ballet, filet, bouquet, sachet, croquet. In French, which is a syllable-timed language, the tonic stress falls at the end; the closer a word is to its French origin in time, generally the Frencher it is in English.

Rather than fixating on whether a child spells the second syllable of these words correctly immediately and consistently, what if we left that alone for a bit and studied instead what is actually happening in these words, with this suffix? So far, we know that the diminutive suffix <et> can be pronounced as [ət] (as in musket), [‘ɛt] (as in clarinet), or [‘eɪ] (as in ballet).

Wait — what? So there’s no /ɪ/ in locket, bucket, basket, musket, and the like? Nope. Some people might feel like they’re pronouncing [ɪ] in these words, but there’s no /ɪ/. If you don’t know the difference between [ɪ] and /ɪ/, you need to take my IPA LEXinar post-haste. There is an /ɪ/ in fidget and in ticket, but it’s in the first syllable, not the second, and it’s spelled with an <i> as it should be. In fact, /ɪ/ is one of the simplest vowel phonemes to spell in English because it only has two spellings: <i> and <y>. The grapheme <e> is not associated with the phoneme /ɪ/ in English. It could be spelling the phoneme /ɛ/ in these words, arguably, but unless it’s stressed, it’s a schwa.

Now, not every di- or trisyllable that ends in <et> has a demonstrable or identifiable diminutive suffix, even diachronically. The word that started it all, basket, is of obscure origin. Hornet is Old English, not French, and isn’t actually related to a horn or anything. But as words orbited around each other in Middle English and beyond, surely their spellings have been influenced by that ubiquitous <et> suffix.

Whether the schwa in these words is phonemic on its own or just an unstressed allophone of /ɛ/ in these words is anyone’s argument to make. But it’s not an /ɪ/. There are words, also schwaed at the end, that arguably do have an /ɪ/ phoneme in the unstressed syllable, because it’s spelled with an <i>. Latinate words like habit, limit, merit, and implicit all have a Latinate <it> suffix (compare rehabilitate, subliminal, meretricious, and implicate). Since its pronunciation is similar if not identical to an unstressed <et>, it bears examining what differentiates these kinds of words. First, the <et> suffix is French; these words reliably made their way into English via French, some from Latinate roots (like facet) and others from Germanic roots (like bucket). The <et> in French could be word-final, as it can in English. The <it>, on the other hand, is a Latin stem suffix, meaning it’s followed (in Latin, and often in French) by another suffix: habitare, limitem, meritare, and implicitus). While these words may have traveled via French, they retain a Latinness in their morphological families that the <et> ones don’t: compare habit, habitual, rehabilitate, inhabit to bucket, buckle, buckboard. The relatively concrete homeliness of the <et> words is what makes a lot of Phonics Pholks misidentify them as “Anglo-Saxon.” The Latin <it> almost always fixes to bound bases (inherit,circuit, audit), while the <et> is less selective.

Here’s what’s up, phonologically speaking: words that end in an unstressed <et> — whether or not it’s a suffix — do not have an /ɪ/ in the final syllable; if you want to name a pure vowel phoneme, it has to be an /ɛ/ or an /eɪ/; that’s all the orthography allows for. The unstressed ones have a schwa, because they’re unstressed. They may have an [ɪ], but when people are trying to identify the phoneme by saying “Well I pronounce it this way,” they’re missing the point. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Phonology isn’t in your mouth; it’s in your brain. Not in your physics, but in your psychology.

Orthography is human thought made visible as text. Because phonemes are in our heads, we can argue for a long time about their identity. Because phonemes are sets or categories in our linguistic psychology, we can debate their contents in perpetuity. If we want to identify them, literally, to figure out their identity, we need only look to the orthography. The orthography takes our phonology — our human thought — and makes it visible as text. Many orthographic scholars understand that the orthography doesn’t represent phonemes; rather, it pinpoints and identifies them with graphemes.

Here’s my hypothesis: [ɛ] isn’t typically realized in unstressed syllables in English. In compounds like redhead or daybed, the second element carries secondary stress; it’s not neutralized. In other words, you have to stress it to fully pronounce it. If you pronounce basket as *[‘bæsˌkʰɛt] you end up giving the second syllable some stress — it’s louder, longer, and maybe higher than in [‘bæskʰət]. It ain’t natural. So, instead of emphasizing or overemphasizing pronunciation (indeed stop doing that — good for the teacher who posted for identifying that this practice is both ineffective and misleading), zero in on meaning. Use the four questions as a guide. Talk about the phonology only after after you’ve made sense of the meaning, the structure, the history and the relatives of these words.

In these Facebook conversations, which are brave and honest and sometimes even moving, people reshape their understanding of English orthography. People are vulnerable and willing to be wrong. Everyone learns from each other that way. It struck me that in this friendly, brilliant, experienced, well-educated group of parents and educators and activists and innovators, conversations about phonology were still often woefully wandering. Participants remained fixated on the physics of their pronunciation, rather than looking at the grapheme that make human thought visible.

“You people have a phonological awareness problem and I am not kidding,” I posted. “I mean, I am, but I’m not. I mean this in the friendliest of ways.” Then I put a smiley face for good measure. I don’t want to insult anyone, you know.

I do want to suggest, however, that it’s possible they haven’t yet mastered their phonology. So rather than waiting until everyone totally agrees on the pronunciation of bang and sang and hatchet and blanket to start studying the structure and history, how about instead we use the morphology and etymology to make sense of the phonology? Go ahead, BW, keep all your eggs in one phonocentric basket and keep insisting that children master the phonology, whatever that means. I’ll be over here helping people understand it instead.

I’m pleased to announce that I’m ready to begin registrations for Multisensory Structured Language Education:
 A Course in Advanced Considerations.

This longitudinal course is designed to investigate, in community, the claims, benefits, and flaws of the field(s) known as Multisensory Structured Language Education, Orton-Gillingham, Dyslexia Prevention & Intervention, Reading Science, Science-Based Reading Research / Instruction.

The ideal participant will have experience with basic Orton-Gillingham or MSLE training and practices, and an abiding interest in deepening understanding of the English writing system. Participants completing course requirements will receive a super-cool certificate, but if it matters, I should let you know that LEX is not accredited by anything except your collective investment. The course itself should be approved for CEU credits by ALTA; that’s in process.

The year-long course is structured as follows:

  • 12 (monthly) one-hour self-guided study sessions featuring films, handouts, and exercises
  • 12 (monthly) three-hour online discussion sessions (90 minutes, break, 90 minutes)
  • Assigned readings and response exercises
  • Optional lesson plan consultation available (5-10 hours)
  • Optional practicum supervision available (5-10 hours)

So you probably want to know how much this jaw-dropping professional opportunity will set you back, huh? At this point, I’m not sure, but I’d guess somewhere in the $1000~$1200 range. Hey, it’s a year-long class! Lots of hours! Lots of resources! BUT the total cost will depend on how many people want to take the course. It’s a lot of work for you and me to figure that out, so what here’s what I’m offering:

I envision that the schedule will involve monthly online meetings in real time, although it is likely I will make use of some recorded sessions and other video throughout the course as well. These meetings are best scheduled in advance with make-up dates (that means scheduling a total of 24 dates over the course of the year).  We may schedule just 3 or 4 months at a time.

I’m anticipating that we’ll start in late August or early September. That’s a loaded time of year for educators, I know, but it allows us to stay ahead of the holiday curve, and it allows us to go with the academic flow.

I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

LEXinar Advanced OG

My silence here over the last five months does not betray any kind of real silence in my life, work or otherwise. Things have been moving quickly. I’m always pretty active on my Facebook page. I’ve finalized a divorce and all its staggering attendant paperwork. I’ve moved people and things into and out of my house. Picked berries and weeded. Worked like crazy on my new InSight Words deck (almost ready!). Worked to find my left foot and heal an injury that’s half as old as I am. Published an essay. Took a hiatus from tutoring. And more.

So now the wheels are in  motion for summer courses. Coming up are LEXinars on the International Phonetic Alphabet (June) and the NEW Stress and the Schwa (July). I have interest in Syllables: Fact and Fiction and Old English for Orthographers as well. Doug Harper is available to join me for Etymonline Online.

Live seminars include both greater Chicago and greater Philadelphia in July. Early Bird registration dates are quickly approaching, so grab a colleague and get registered. Philly has online options available as well.

Starting in the fall, I’m planning two longitudinal online courses. One will be an “Advanced Orton-Gillingham” LEXinar, addressing topics including morphology and etymology, but also comprehension, fluency, assessment and diagnosis, and professional standards and ethics. I was an Advanced OG trainer for a decade; I’m still certified. This course, however, rather than being focused on lesson plans and a scope and sequence, will be a deep study of these topics through the lens of word history, word structure, and the history and structure of literacy education. Ideally for scholars with some OG training, preferably certification, this course will include a supervised practicum option.

The second longitudinal course will be built around my dissertation, Spelling Stories and Spelling Science: How English Orthography Works. I’ll write; you’ll read; we’ll meet and discuss. Both of these courses include handouts and film uploads as well as scheduling flexibility. I can also offer payment plans; costs are not yet set and will depend in part on how many folks want to register.

Summer’s a good time to study. It’s hot and buggy out. Or raining. Or all three. Stay inside with your Internet and your air conditioning and join me. Or come out to one of the live seminars, connect with colleagues, and be a little pampered in a nice study space.

So get moving!

Inspired by my InSight Words, a friend and colleague asked me to give a webinar about so-called ‘sight’ words for the Upper Midwest Branch of the IDA, on February 23rd. Register online even if you can’t make it live, because you’ll get a notice linking you to the archived version to watch at your leisure. There are 500 spots available; nearly 200 have been taken in the first day of registration, so don’t delay. You know you want to.

If you don’t yet have the first volume of my InSight Words, you might want to consider amending that situation. The second volume is still in production, and this still available at a discount. I’m late, as per usual, because taxes and work and research and laundry. Everything always takes longer than you think it will.

Maybe that’s the best InSight I’ll offer you, but I don’t think so. Join me on February 23rd to find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote that. Then I saw this:
skin ffs

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

Tickles me pink.

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