I've been getting tons of great questions lately, and can't resist sharing them here.
A teacher from Alberta recently emailed me with this questions:
I have been asked about 2 words and the cannot figure out. Why is there a g in align? Why is “straight” spelled the way it is?
I have some ideas of how to start to answer these questions, but I'm sure I can use the RS community's help too!
First let me look at <align>.
I assume that this question arises as it seems like a "silent g" which doesn't seem like a real spelling feature. There are a number of reasons why this question makes sense though. The idea of "align" seems so related to the base <line>, so why not the spelling <*aline>?
Well, the fact is that is not the spelling, so there must be a good reason out there somewhere. What I can say, is that this is not the only base in English with a final <gn> for the phoneme /n/. By typing gn$ into the search field of the Word Searcher, I get 20 words with a final <gn>. Getting rid of derivations, I end up with the following words:
sign, align, deign, feign, benign, impugn, araign, foreign, campaign, and soverign
Hmm. Interesting that all but one of these words has an <i> preceding the <gn>. That's worth keeping in mind.
Also in all of these words, the final phoneme is /n/. This looks like good evidence of a digraph <gn> for /n/. With that I consult my trusty LEX grapheme cards and I find this information:
So the first key response to this question is that there is no "silent g" in <align>. Instead, this word simply uses the digraph <gn> for the final /n/. We can still ask, though, why not <*aline>? I just checked etymonline and found some very interesting infromation to share on that:
When we see a suprising spelling, it is always a good idea to check the history of the word. Perhaps some other references can shed more light on this. For now all I can say is that I see <gn>s in the French influences too, so this grapheme seems to signal that history to us.
How about <straight>?
One thing that comes to mind right a way is that this word has the homophone <strait>. So even if I can't go any farther than that, at least I can tell my students that its a good thing that the spelling for the word <straight> as in a 'straight line' isn't spelled the same as the word <strait> as in the "Strait of Gibraltar."
For those who have the Real Spelling Tool Box, Theme 2A presents this convention:
- the pattern of < vowel + igh > as a way of representing the ‘long < a >’
The word <straight> then, seems to be following this convention.
Now, other than to avoid colliding with the spelling <strait>, I can't say why, this word uses the <igh> trigraph, but I suspect that the answer lies in the history of the word. I will let others investigate their resources for that.
Whether or not we arrive at a final answer to this question, there is certainly much to learn from the investigation so far!
Any other ideas welcome!