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

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

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

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

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

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

This post details some of those controvertible messages about spelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post details my students’ feedback on the article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student responses:

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

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

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

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

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

And a whole lot more.

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

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

able |ˈābəl|

adjective ( abler , ablest )

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

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

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

-able |əbəl| |əb(ə)l|

suffix forming adjectives meaning:

1 able to be : calculable.

2 due to be : payable.

3 subject to : taxable.

4 relevant to or in accordance with : fashionable.

5 having the quality to : suitable | comfortable.

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

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

And from Etymonline:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

catch (from French)

peck (late Middle English)

pouch (from French)

badge (late Middle English)

fudge (early Modern English)

age (from French)

hinge (from Middle English)

scrooge (an eponym courtesy of Charles Dickens, 1843)

desk (from Latin)

peek (late Middle English)

bagged (Middle English)

cub (Modern English — 16th c)

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

class (from Latin via French)

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

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

That’s a lot of mistakes.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s that simple.

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