Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

One of the prime way I deepen my orthographic understanding is by responding to questions I receive from people I study with. 

Jenny Moody is a teacher educator in the UK who started studying in my on-line courses a little while ago. It was immediately apparent that she saw the implications of the orthogrphic concepts I was presenting and she dug in deeply. One reason her orthographic learning has grown so fast is not just that she studies hard, but when she identifies something she is not sure about, she works hard at posing her questions in a clear scientific manner. (See another recent post on posing scientific quesitons here.)

The other day Jenny wrote with excellent questions about "orthograhpic markers" that we studied in my 5-session course. I thought I'd share questions and my response here so that more can learn from this discussion of this important orthographic structure. 

My text is in bold.

Hey Jenny!


Hello Pete

Please can you help – I am trying to make sure I understand 'orthographic markers' and how to identify them in words.

1. Is 'Orthographic Markers' an umbrella term which would include the different types of markers?
 
Yes! In the same way that “grapheme” can be used as an umbrella term for single letter graphemes, digraphs and trigraphs.

2. A plural cancelling marker where the <e> at the end of the word <please> is not a grapheme but differentiates it from the word <pleas>?  Are there any other words where this happens?  Do I need to look at homophones?
 
Yes the final non-syllabic <e> (single silent <e>) is ALWAYS an orthographic marker. In the word “please” it can be described as a “plural cancelling marker” which is also functioning to prevent this word from being spelled the same as its homophone “please.” But a word does not need there to be a another word that is homophonic plural to have a plural cancelling marker. The word “house” has a plural cancelling marker, but I have no knowledge of a base <hou> that could be made plural by adding an <-s> suffix.


3. A letter that marks the pronunciation of a preceding letter in a word, for example, in the word <fleece> is the <e> marking the pronunciation of the preceding <c>?  What about <police>, <disease>, <produce> – are these the same?
 
In the words “fleece,” “police” and “produce,” the orthographic marker <e> is signaling the pronunciation of the <c> grapheme as /s/. 
 
But in “disease” that <e> is functioning as a plural canceling marker — it is playing no role in the pronunciation of the <s>. The <s> grapheme can spell /s/ or /z/ in almost any circumstance. The only circumstance I know of in which the <s> does not spell /z/ is when it is word initial. 
 

4. What about the <w> in <two> <twin> <twice> – could this be an etymological marker, not a grapheme, because it is providing relevant historical meaning for understanding the spelling <two> and explains why there is a <w>?
 
Yes the <w> in <two> is an orthographic marker (umbrella term). If we want to describe the kind of marker that it is, we can refer to it as an “etymological marker” . 

5. In words where a consonant at the end of the base element has to be doubled when a vowel suffix is added, for example, chop(p) + ed ➞ <chopped>? Is that added <p> the marker or is it the doble consonant that acts as the marker?  What sort of marker is it?  Would it be a morphological marker?
 
Yes, I consider a “doubled consonant” due to suffixing -- like the second <p> in <chopped> -- to be an orthographic marker. 
 
Otherwise we have to multiply entities unnecessarily to a ridiculous extent. If that <p> is not a marker, it would have to be considered part of a <pp> digraph. Then we would have to have  a <p> grapheme and a <pp> digraph — and then we’d have to do that with every consonant other than <w> or <x> (the two words that can be considered consonants that never double). (Click HERE for a page on my website on the principle of 'elegance' that informs this understanding.)
 
It is not necessary to give a name to every function of orthographic markers. We can just use the term to identify a letter or letter sequence that is not a grapheme. 
 
But if I were to choose to give the “doubled consonant letter due to suffixing” a name — “morphological marker” would be a totally valid description.
 
Consider the word sums for “hopping” and “hoping”.
 
hope/ + ing —> hoping
hop(p) + ing —> hopping
 
The “doubled <p>” orthographic marker is marking the morphemic boundary, and the fact that the base of “hopping” is NOT <hope>. The doubled consonant letter marker can tell us whether or not the base the vowel suffix is fixed to is spelled with a final, non-syllabic <e> or not.
 
When I talk about this orthographic structure - the “orthographic marker” I try to be very clear that we do not need to have names for all the types of markers. 
 
There are some useful descriptive phrases like “plural cancelling marker” or “etymological marker” that we can provide clear definitions for. But instead of thinking “What is the name of this orthographic marker in this word?” I recommend focusing on first determining if the letter or letter sequence you are looking at  is a grapheme, part of a grapheme, or an orthographic marker. 
 
We can do that without having a “name” for that marker. 
 
But what we should do is try to understand the function or functions of any letter or letter sequence we have identified as an orthographic marker. 
 
Hope that helps!
 
Jenny then responded with a follow up. Her next question and my response follows...
 
Good stuff!
 

not sure I understand why the <e> at the end of <disease> is a plural cancelling marker. 

 
In terms of “disease” that <e> is a plural cancelling marker which means the spelling conforms to the  convention that no complete English word is allowed to appear like a plural if it is not.
 
That convention applies whether or not there is a spelling <disea> or not. 
 
I use <please> and <pleas> as a way to introduce the concept because it is easier to see, but that’s why I move right to <house> right after - to give an example of a word where removing the final <e> does not leave a word that actually is a plural — just one that could be confused for a ‘plural something’.
 

Are <disease> "not at ease" and <disease> "disorder of structure or function"  homophones? 

You have described two connotations of the word <disease>. But we can see that “disorder of structure and function” is just a kind of “not at easeness”.

 
What you have identified is not that these are two different words (with different historical roots bringing their own sense and meaning). Instead you have found a single word “disease” that is polysemous. One word with many meanings.
 
We only call words homophones if they are two different words that can be pronounced the same. On the relatively rare occasions in which we have words we think might be homophones that are also homographic the only certain way to determine if they are actually homophonic instead of polysemous, is to do the ‘meaning test’ — see if they share a historical root.
 
When the spelling is the same, the ’structure test’ cannot distinguish them. The ‘meaning test’ is not just is there some kind of connection I can perceive. Instead it is a falsifiable test — do the two words I’m wondering about get their sense and meaning from the same historical root, or do they get that from distinct roots.
 
Take these pairs
 
bat — the animal
bat — the base ball bat
 
It is not surprising that these words do not share a root — so these are homophonic homophones. 
 
block — a wood block
block — I will block you in football
 
If you look up this noun and verb in your dictionary, you will find they share the same historical root. The word “block” is polysemous. We can’t call them ‘homophones’ because it is one word with many meanings. The verb is a ‘metaphorical’ sense of putting a physical block in your way. 
 
Polysemy can get quite extreme. Think about the ’table’ you eat dinner on and the ’table’ with numbers on in in your computer spreadsheet. I could say, ‘let’s table that discussion for now’. That base even constructs the ‘computer tablet’ (<table/ + et —> tablet>)! 
 
In a deep sense these are all some sort of ‘flat thing we put things on. Even 'tabling that discussion" is metaphorically letting an idea sit on the table until we come back to it. 
 
From Etymonline...
 
table (n.)
late 12c., "board, slab, plate," from Old French table "board, square panel, plank; writing table; picture; food, fare" (11c.), and late Old English tabele "writing tablet, gaming table," from Germanic *tabal (source also of Dutch tafel, Danish tavle, Old High German zabel "board, plank," German Tafel). Both the French and Germanic words are from Latin tabula "a board, plank; writing table; list, schedule; picture, painted panel," originally "small flat slab or piece" usually for inscriptions or for games (source also of Spanish tabla, Italian tavola), of uncertain origin, related to Umbrian tafle "on the board."
 
Jenny, there is something about they way you pose questions that forces me to to find ways to try and be clearer about how I describe ideas I discuss all the time. 
 
I learn so much from your questions!
 
Pete

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