Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Hey Real Spellers...

Here is a question I received from a Grade 1 teacher I got to work with in Sofia and Istanbul...

We were learning about the "long e" sound. We found out that the word 'people' has a long e sound but couldn't figure out why it has the <o>. We went on the word searcher website to find other words with <eo> but we couldn't find other words where the <eo> made the long e sound. Now we think the "long e" sound comes just from the letter <e> but we want to know why it has the letter <o>.

Thank you so much for your help.

Best wishes,

Grade 1 at IICS.


Well, Grade 1 word scientists I'm so impressed with your question!

Look at what you did...

1) You were looking for words with the "long <e>" phoneme and you encountered the word <people> which does have a "long <e>"

2) You developed a reasonable hypothesis that there was an <eo> digrpah in this word.

(A hypothesis is an educated guess base on some evidence. Apparently you already know about letters working in teams of two to represent a phoneme. You probably know about consonant digraphs like <th> and vowel digraphs like <ee>. Why not look to see if there is a vowel digraph <eo>? By the way, I'd be curious to know if you have found any trigraphs like <igh> or <tch> in your investigations?)

3) You tested your hypothesis by going to the word searcher, and found no other examples of words with an <eo>. And here's my favourite part of your scientiic thinking. When you found no evidence to support your hypothesis, you recognized that you had to reject that hypothesis and go back to the idea that the <e> must be the single-letter grapheme representing the "long <e>" in <people>.

4) Now that you have explained the <e>, you are left with a question about the <o>. You and your teacher seem to know that there is always going to be  a good reason for a spelling. And here is my other favourite part of your question. Clearly, you did not assume that this was just an "irregular spelling" just because you couldn't expalin a letter. You knew that this was just the sign of an interesting question to explore. 

5) Having reached the limit of your understanding, you explained what the learning you did and asked someone else for help. 

That work that I just described is worth celebrating with a big pat on your back even before we look at some possible answers to your question. With that kind of scientific approach to learning, I know you will go very far. And the exciting news is that you are already very close to what I think is the answer to your questions!

When you asked about the "long <e>" I thought I'd look into the Real Spelling Tool Box and see what I could find there. I happen to know your school has a Real Spelling Tool Box 2. It turns out that from the original K theme (that I think you have) thre  is a theme (Kit KF) on "digraphs for the "long <e>". Here is a diagram I found there:

Graphemes for long e

For those with the new Tool Box you can find a theme  1I: The orthographic phonology of ‘long E’ 

I see lots of digraphs for writing /iː/, but you are right, I don't see any <oe>. In fact you already have better evidence than this by looking at the Word Searcher and finding no other examples of <oe> for /iː/. Who knows, maybe you would have found some examples that Real Spelling missed?

Since we know that there must be a reason for the <o> in <people>, one place that is always good to go when we look for spelling clues in word relatives is to get information about the history of words -- their "etymology". One of my favourite places to get the stories about words and their spellings is Etymonline. Here is what I find when I look there:

people (n.) Look up people at
late 13c., "humans, persons in general," from Anglo-French people, Old French peupel "people, population, crowd; mankind, humanity," from Latin populus "a people, nation; body of citizens; a multitude, crowd, throng," of unknown origin, possibly from Etruscan. The Latin word also is the source of Spanish pueblo, Italian popolo. In English, it displaced native folk.

If you and your teacher look closely in this information you might notice something. The word <people> seems to be linked to the word <population>. We see that this English base word <people> comes from a Latin root "populus".

Do you notice that all of these word have to do with the idea of a group of people? Do you notice something else about the spellings of the English word <population> and the Latin root 'populus'? 

I think you might see that all of these words have the letter <o> in them. 

I bet that if you start looking now, you are going to find a whole bunch of words that have this related meaning and have <pop> in them. Hey there is an interesting word right there! Do you know what "pop music" is? You can look that up on Etymonine too. 

So the idea that you need to learn about is that there is a fascinating feature of our spelling system that is called an "etymological marker letter". We find these when we find letters in a word that have no job in terms of representing anything about the pronunciation in a word, but that letter is there to signal a group of words with related meaning.


One example I often use for this is the spelling of the word <two>. You might know that, including this word, there are three words in English with exactly the same pronunciation: <to>, <too> and <two>. 

You might know that when words have the same pronunciation, English spelling usually evolves to mark those words with different spellings -- because spelling's main job is to represent meaning. 

In the spelling of <two>, the <w> might seem like an unexpected letter like your <o> in <people>. It's a good bet that one job of that <w> is to make sure this word for the number has a different spelling than the other words that have the same pronunciation. I'd be curious to know if you and your class cant think of other words. that have a <tw> letter sequence in them that also have a connection in meaning to the idea of "two things". 

I bet you can. And then you will have evidence that the <w> in <two> is an etymological marker that is there to signal a group of words that it is realted to in meaning - and to distinguish it from other words that have the same sound. 

And that is just like the <o> in <people> that is an "etymological marker" that is not there to represent any sound, but to signal other words that are related in meaning. 

Maybe you can go on a class treasure hunt and find make a chart for all the words you can find that related in meaning to and spelling to the words <people> and <popular>, and another chart for all the words you can find for "two things" with a <tw> in them!

If you do, please send a picture we can share!

Congraualtions for doing such amazing spelling science work. 

You made my day, and I think you will help a lot of other teachers and students make sense of your excellent question.




Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thanks for redirecting us to this post, folks. I also like Leslie's DNA analogy. What follows is musing (but may not be amusing)...

In re-reading the Etymonline entry for <people> I was struck by the Old French <peupel> in which the <e> appears (as part of the <eu> digraph). In a sense, it is that letter which is "new". That French digraph would have no application as the pronunciation shifted to a "long e", but I wonder if the original pronunciation of <people> was a long e. Also struck by the common pattern whereby words that had had an <-el> ending shifted to an <le> in English.

Comment was last edited about 2 years ago by Skot Caldwell Skot Caldwell
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thanks Leslie.

Like the "DNA" of ancestors analogy!

Also, I'm pleased that you are digging around this site to find older posts. I forgot about this one, but I may well use it as one I link to to introduce etymological markers.

Peter Bowers
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Pete, Hats off to you for a beautifully laid out response to this fantastic question by 1st grade Word Scientists. I love how you walked them through all the things they did so well! I like to talk about ancestors with kids, and how they are walking around with the DNA of their ancestors, just like words carry the DNA of their ancestors too. Pretty cool!

Leslie Chalmers Gravel
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