Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Here's a question I got from my friend Sharon with which I could use some help. I've pasted her question below and will add some comments within the text as I often do in emails:


I have a quick question for you...

We were learning about /dƷ/ and looking at kit 3G in school today and we were investigating that <j> only comes at the beginning of words or bases but not in the middle of words and certainly not at the end.

One of my students asked about adjacent and so we talked about the fact that <ad-> is a prefix etc...

Nice! it is easy to forget the conventions for whether a grapheme can be initial, medial or final apply only within morphemes. I've never really thought about this word, but your observation suggests an initial word sum like this:

? ad + jacent --> adjacent

I know there is an <-ent> suffix. Maybe there is one here. That would suggest the following two possible word sums:

? ad + jac + ent --> adjacent


? ad + jace/ + ent --> adjacent

Perhaps your students or someone out there wants to take a stab at the Word Searcher to see which of these three possible word sums has the best evidence. 

Back to your question.

Then one of my students said, what about the word <major>. I was stumped. I looked it up and see it's related in etymology to majesty both meaning big or grand. Both have a <j> in the middle of the word.

Any insight? In the tool kit it does state that <j> is only initial...


Hmm. This is a great question. I start with the same understanding as you that <j> is quite a boring grapheme. Not only do I understand it to only ever occur intially (at the beginning of a morpheme) but as far as I know it only has one job, to represent /dƷ/. 

When I see a spelling that doesn't appear to follow English spelling conventions here are the options I have to consider:

1) It is not an English word, but a loan word that therefore doesn't follow English spelling convetions, but the spelling conventions of the language from which it came. 

2) It is not a complete English word. For example <rev> is a clip of <revolution>. It is an abbreviated form of a word that violates the structure of that original word. So <rev> takes  the <re> of the prefix and the <v> of <re + volute/ + ion> to generate this new 'non-complete' word. Clips are not bound by conventions of "complete English words" because they are not complete! Thus <rev> is not an exception to the convention that complete English words avoid ending in <v>. 

3) It is a function word. (See the the video at this link.)


4) I have to revise my understanding of English spelling conventions. 

So, as far as I can see, the answer to  your question can be found in one of these options. But which one is it? My guess is that you were on the right track when you started to look at etymology. Is <major> a loan word? 

 First I wanted to double check my understanding of the <j> grapheme with my LEX grapheme cards. Here's what I found there:


I note that this reference is less definitive than I have been. It says "usually initial to a base" and that "English bases rarely end with <j>. But I don't have examples of these rare words to test. 

My guess is that <major> and <majority> etc. that you found are likely to be loan words. but what evidence is there of that, and how do I determine it?

My Oxford offeres this etymological information:

Middle English: from Latin, comparative of magnus ‘great’; perhaps influenced by French majeur .

As is often the case, my Ayto provides more detail on etymological information. Check out what I just found:

"English originally acquired it [<major>] as an adjective. Its noun use, for an army officer, followed in the 17th century. This represented a borrowing from French major, which was short for sergent-major (in those days, 'sergeant major' was a more elevated rangk than it is today." The derivative majority [16] comes via French majorité from medieval Latin mājōritās."

So it looks like we have an answer, that the words you found <major> and the related <majority> are loan words (Ayto describes them as "a borrowing from French"). Thus, we still have no evidence countering the assertion that, at the very least the <j> grapheme is almost always initial. And until I find a word that uses a <j> in any way other than initial, I will stick with that assumption. 

Does anyone out there have any further ideas on how we can determine that a word is a "lone word" beyond just accepting that a reference tells me that it is? Certainly a non-conventional English spelling is a sign, but I can't just use that as my only reason, or it seems I end up in a circular argument. 

What are some other criteria of loan words?

Thanks for your great question Sharon. Come back and post questions on Real Spellers anytime!




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