Earlier this month, I gave two weekend seminars called Seeing the Sense in Spelling. Each one was a thorough joy, though they were very different.
The first was a one-day seminar in a small market, where most of the 16 attendees were new to the scientific study of orthography. Four of them made an eight-hour round trip in order to be there; toward the end of the day, they said that they were looking forward to the drive back, so they could continue the dialogue. I could actually see the participants seeing and internalizing how spelling makes sense. I could tell by when they bent over their papers to jot something down, by the things they chose to record, that spelling was indeed making sense to them.
The second was a two-day seminar, longer in the planning, and in a much larger market. The 92 attendees were a mix of seasoned word detectives and the newly curious, along with a stray mathematician, a psycholinguist, and a Freemason with some knowledge of sailing who made some interesting observations about the spelling and pronunciation of words like leeward and coxswain. Folks traveled far for this one too — to Cincinnati from all over the state of Ohio, from Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and even one lone, dedicated orthographer from San Francisco, California.
I know this isn’t a math blog, so let me spell it out for everyone. That’s 108 people who showed up to roll up their sleeves and learn more about how words work. Actually, 109. Because I was there too. And, boy, did I learn more.
Two lessons in particular stood out to me, both courtesy of that dear, diminutive scholar who flew in from San Fran. The first was conceptual. As questions arose about scopes and sequences, how to teach and how not to teach, how to build a solid orthographic understanding into classrooms or clinics, where to begin, what tools to use, and how to integrate new information into traditional methodologies, I demurred. I kind of hate answering those kinds of questions; I’d rather talk about words than about lesson plans. My Bay Area buddy came to the rescue, offering this perspective:
When we have a curriculum or a scope and sequence, we have the false impression that, as teachers, we have complete information, that we know and can teach all of the things about our subject. But that’s an illusion, and one that’s contrary to real scholarship. It’s a common perspective in literacy education; one well-known reading scientist frequently laments that teachers don’t know enough about language, and that the materials they use are rife with linguistic error. Of course, I’m down with that. But here’s where she loses me: “Such [linguistic] details,” she writes, “do matter because we can help students make sense of the relationship between spoken and written language only if the information they receive is complete and accurate” (emphasis added). Again, accurate I’m down with, but complete is problematic.
At what point is a teacher’s information or knowledge complete? Most of us have experienced a teacher who thinks their knowledge is complete, and it ain’t pretty. When, in literacy education, do we know or have access to everything? All the answers? The whole kit and linguistic caboodle? Never, of course. In fact, the concepts of accurate and complete are at odds with each other when it comes to real scholarship: the only accurate understanding knows there’s always more to learn.
So there was that.
The other revelation, for me, was in the discovery of a new bound base element, one that has since been hitting me over the head in my daily encounters with words. It was one that had been glimmering at me for a long time, hoping to catch my attention, but I needed a shove in the right direction. Fortunately for me, and for everyone else in Cincinnati, my West Coast collaborator was right there to help me along.
As the group was investigating words, we decided to look at that perennial favorite (especially for kids), antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s so affixalicious. But it’s getting to the base element that’s really orthographically nourishing. I had worked, in the past, with <establish>, the form that many lay people would peg as the base of antidisestablishmentarianism, so I knew that the initial <e> could be peeled off — it’s a variant of <ex>, a Latinate prefix meaning ‘out’, which we also see in <erupt>, <egress>, <emit>, <elect>, and many others. I also knew that the <ish> was a verbal Latinate suffix, just like in <punish>, <embellish>, <languish>, <replenish>, and so on. That left me with <stable>, which I assumed was a free base element:
<anti> + <dis> + <e> + <stable> + <ish> + <ment> + <ary> + <an> + <ism>
That’s what I was thinking as I sent my groups into the study of antidisestabilshmentarianism. I hinted that they’d find a free base element, thinking of <stable>. Soon, the Golden Gate Girl was standing right behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder. “It doesn’t have a free base,” she told me. I frowned, still thinking of <stable>, but I listened. “The <able> is a suffix,” she said.
Oh. Dang. Of course it is. Right away I could see the Latin root in my head, stabilis, in which the <abilis> is the familiar origin of the present-day English <able> suffix.
“Didn’t you see those emails?” she asked. Apparently, a 5th grader in Dan Allen‘s class in Switzerland had discovered the bound base element <st>, and the news had gone round our orthographic community. I must’ve been mired in the middle of my semester, translating Old English or grading grammar exams or something, because it didn’t even make my instrument panel, let alone my radar screen.
So I grabbed the mic, and corrected my misstatement to the groups. “Actually, it’s not a free base,” I said. “And it’s going to blow your mind.” They worked for a few more minutes, and then we did it together. We looked at the etymology, and linked the <st> to the Latin root stare (pronounced disyllabically as /’starə/), which means ‘to stand.’ Something that is stable is ‘stand-able.’ Whoa. We offered as evidence the following word sums in which the <st> base is again traceable to that Latin root:
<in> + <st> + <ant> (that which does not stand)
<con> + <st> + <ant> (that which stands intensively)
<st> + <ate> (the present act of standing)
<contra> + <st> (to stand against)
<circum> + <st> + <ance> (that which stands around you)
Holy cow. They kept coming. Status and institution and substance. We verified their <st> base with word sums, and their common Latin root stare on Etymonline and in dictionaries. My understanding deepened. A number of people were astonished by the information. Not everyone was thrilled with this revelation, however. People got stuck in their prior thinking, unable to grasp how something that’s not syllabic can be a base element. I explained that it’s because base elements, like all written morphemes, have no pronunciation until they surface in an actual word. So, /st/ isn’t a base element; <st> is. Other people mistook the letters <st> for the base element <st>, thinking that I was suggesting that anytime <st> is in a word, it’s a base element. But that isn’t true for <st> any more than it is for <ed> or <ing> or <ill>: in planted, eating, and illness, these sets of letters are morphemes, but in sled, bring, and fill, they’re just spelling sounds, and they carry no meaning on their own. Likewise, just because burst and step and paste all have the letters <st> does not mean that they have the base element <st>.
I’m sure that some minds were as blown by an <st> base as mine was, some even more. But like any good teacher, I really want the people I’m teaching to get excited about what they’re learning, so mostly I noticed the people who were confused or frustrated. That’s how learning and teaching go, though: there’s some discomfort in it, if it’s authentic. And sometimes the student just isn’t ready to learn a lesson yet. Just as I did not notice or register or understand an <st> base when the emails about it had gone around but did later, some of the seminar participants who were stymied or overwhelmed will go on, and later they will see new evidence that will seal their orthographic deal, and they’ll understand too. Some won’t, of course. But some will.
A little later in the seminar, after moving on from <st>, I happened to mention the word solstice. I gasped. The parts fell into place in my head:
<sol> + <st> + <ice>
The sun, standing.
I had written here about the solstice, and had assumed then that the <stice> in the word was a base element, also found in <armistice>. But in that Cincinnati seminar, I recognized that since the <st> was the base, the <ice> was the familiar nominal French suffix (also seen in service, justice, and cowardice, to name a few).
The solstice is something that humans have marked and named and celebrated for a long, long time. There are ancient monuments and rituals dedicated to the solstices, both summer and winter. The June solstice, the longest, lightest day of the Northern year, is always bittersweet for me. It’s sweet because I love summer, and I really love the extended light. I love the brilliant sunsets from my rural home, and I’m always a little breathless when I look for just how late I can go before I say to myself that it’s dark out. I begin thinking about it in February, when I first notice the lengthening of days, and I begin counting down the days in late May. The solstice is a kind of apex, a climax, and it is satisfying for me like a good, deep breath. It is a moment, the moment when the sun stands still. But that same character — the momentness of the solstice — is also bitter, a little sad because I know that the solstice is a kind of end: an end of days growing longer, and the point from which we begin the long slide toward the dark early afternoons of winter. (I wonder if people who like winter feel this way on their solstice.)
Fortunately, the solstice will return again. Few things are more certain. Just as the sun will rise in the morning, the days will lengthen in the spring. Like the lengthy daylight, the enlightenment of learning is something we can trust to return, if we are not ready or able to welcome and celebrate it at one moment, there will surely be another. “Revisiting is the essence of scholarship,” my favorite scholar said to me recently. Surely, like the sun, intellectual illumination will make another round.
Here’s what I realized in my reflections since that wonderful seminar: at any given time, in our learning, we are only at a moment. A single moment. It may echo some moments, or augur others, but it is its own moment. When I learned about <st>, when I saw it, grasped it, felt its embodiment in my understanding, I felt that moment. It was as if time was at a standstill, just then, just to add in that piece, to make that change to my appreciation of how words make sense.
Since that epiphanic seminar, the <st> base has made itself known again and again in surprising ways, standing right in front of me. In studying it further, I’ve found evidence that <st> is both a Latin and a Greek base element, from the same Proto-Indo-European origin, like <gn>, which I wrote about here. Besides the Latin examples above, <st> surfaces in the Greek-patterned static, ecstasy, metastasis, and even the proper name Anastasia, whose structure is <ana> + <st> + <ase> + <ia>, denoting ‘to stand up.’ That <ana> prefix is the same as in anabaptist or anachronism. There are historical relatives too, like the Old English stem and stand and stay, where the <st> is etymological, but not analyzable as a base element.
Here are some of the other words with an <st> base that I have found as astonishing and illuminating as the solstice itself: <ob> + <st> + <acle>, in which the <ob> means ‘against’ and the <acle> has a frequentive denotation (think spectacle, miracle, or receptacle); <co> + <st> (the price at which a desired item stands); <re> + <st> (the remainder, that which stands back); and <st> + <age> (a standing thing, like a blockage is a blocking thing). Also etymologically related, but no longer analyzable into an affixed <st> base, are oust (to stand in opposition to); and post, like a fence post (something that stands forth).
Even though each new <st> discovery is bright and remarkable, each of them is a little less surprising, a little less mind-blowing, than that first climactic vision of <st> in Cincinnati. Seeing the light in Cincinnati was a kind of apex, something I had been building to without even realizing it. Like the long days of summer, these continuing sightings of <st> still make me catch my breath, but they eventually move away from the apex of the the first time I saw it, when everything seemed to stand still for a moment, when the light was almost too bright to bear.
In our learning, we are always only at a moment in time. Whereas a curriculum or an answer sheet or a scope and sequence can give us the false impression of having arrived, in real scholarship there is no point of arrival, though there are many, many departures. In this way, orthographic study is not unlike the solar cycles. There are seasons, and moments when the sun seems to stand still, both in light and in shadow. There are long periods of illumination and intellectual heat, and long periods of darkness and chill too. The cycles of my orthographic learning are not as predictable or regular as the rotation and revolution of the earth, but the light at the center of them is just as strong as the sun, and just as stable.
© 2012 Gina Cooke and LEX