f(o)etus and f(o)etal --and a bit on sulfur/sulphur

If you're looking for discussion of other (o)e or (a)e words, please click here to see/comment at the more comprehensive post on the topic.

So, as we've seen in that aforementioned blog post, British and American spelling differ sometimes in the use of the ligature (connected letter) œ, or as it's more often written now, the digraph (two letters for one sound) oe. To give a quick summary of the story so far:
  • English took a lot of its œ words from Latin.
  • Latin got them from Greek. œ is Latin's way of representing the Greek .
  • American English (following Noah Webster and other spelling reformers) usually simplifies the Latin/Greek oe to e
But then there's foetus (or fœtus). This is a British spelling of the Latin word fetus. That is to say, the œ might look like it comes from a classical language, but it just doesn't. Sometime in the 16th century, someone (mistakenly, one might say) started spelling it with an œ, and it stuck.

This creates a dilemma for British spellers who know a bit about Latin. Spell it foetus and commit a little etymological crime. Spell it fetus and get accused of Americanization by people who don't know about the Latin--and maybe even by some who do know about it. And if there's one thing worse than committing Latin sins, it's being accused of spelling like an American.

But still, brave British doctors have fought to get rid of the o, mostly by writing letters to the editor of major medical journals. Here's one:

I shall resist to the  last ditch any movement for the general replacement of diphthongs* by single vowels – the American practice. But when, etymologically, the foreigner is correct and we are wrong, it would seem that by adhering obstinately to a false diphthong we are weakening our case for maintaining our justifiable diphthongs in the face of contrary “common usage” by far more than half the English-writing world. (Napier, L. Everard. 1 Nov. 1952. The correct spelling of medical terms [Letter to the Editor]. The Lancet vol. 260, pp. 885-6.)

The Lancet and the British Medical Journal now consider fetus and fetal the ‘correct’ spellings, and the Oxford Dictionaries entry for fetus remarks:
The spelling foetus has no etymological basis but is recorded from the 16th century and until recently was the standard British spelling in both technical and non-technical use. In technical usage fetus is now the standard spelling throughout the English-speaking world, but foetus is still found in British English outside technical contexts

At the foetus entry, it just says: "Variant spelling of fetus (chiefly in British non-technical use)."

How true is this, that it's the accepted technical spelling in the UK? In The Lancet and the BMJ, it's doctors writing for other doctors. What about the rest of the medical professions? What about when medical types communicate with patients?

My first stop was the NHS Choices website, where the readers are would-be patients. A search for foetus brings up 27 hits, but fetus has 7. But, going the other way, foetal has 66 hits and fetal 82. What's going on?

I contacted the website to ask if they had a policy on this and they were extremely helpful (as the NHS always has been for me ♥). They put me in contact with their Head of Editorial Production, who sent me both a link to their style guide (which has fetus as an Americanism to be avoided) and his own document entitled 'Fetality', which he wrote when the Fetal Anomaly Screening Programme (so spelled) asked if the rest of the website could switch to fetal/fetus. In his paper he gives several arguments for retaining foetus/foetal, even on pages where it will conflict with the FASP program(me)'s spelling, but I think this first one is key:
NHS Choices is a ‘British English’ service and, as stated in its Editorial Style Guide, is bound to:
·       Write plain English
·       Avoid medical jargon and technical terms as far as possible
On the basis of those two points, if it is accepted that foetus is the general spelling and fetus the technical-medical, NHS Choices should use foetus.
Bolton, Barry. 2014. Fetality. Internal document, NHS. Received with thanks from the author.)
Looking again at the o-less hits on the NHS Choices site, many of them seem to be in comments from site users--so the house style doesn't apply. Are they misspelling it, or do they know the 'technical' spelling? Why so many more fetals? Possibly because it's in the name of a lot of things, not just the FASP program(me), such as the 'Fetal Medicine Unit team at St George's Hospital', which is indeed how the hospital spells that unit's name.

It's an interesting mixture: the NHS website keeps the traditional British spelling in communication with patients in order to avoid technical language, but the hospitals and such seem quite happy to foist the technical spelling on patients in the names of units and program(me)s.

To investigate this a little further, I did a little survey in which I asked for UK medical personnel to tell me which spelling they would use in a work context: foetus or fetus, sulphur or sulfur and amoeba or ameba. F(o)etus was the only one that respondents disagreed about:

(The 'it depends' person gave that answer for every question and said they'd use the American spelling if they were writing to an American.)

I invited respondents to explain their preferences to me, but unfortunately only four did, and two of those used the space to tell me about words I hadn't asked about. The two relevant comments were:
I am an allied health professional who wouldn't use these words much in my work, but these were how I was taught to spell them at school. I've heard in the past that "foetus" is completely wrong, though I can't quite remember why and I write the word so infrequently that I wouldn't change my spelling of it anyway!
and apparently not knowing about the etymology of fetus:
Homogenisation of the English language to accommodate American English is a pernicious assault on the richness and diversity of English usage. It shouldn't be tolerated!
Unfortunately, I didn't ask for demographic information beyond country of abode, so I can't see whether the people who prefer fetus are in professions in which they need the word more often than the ones who prefer foetus.

But my impression is that fetus/fetal seems to be something of a medical shibboleth in the UK now. Doctors use the e spelling and it sets them apart as 'in the know', and maybe they don't mind that the rest of the country goes about putting the o in it. All the better to tell who the truly educated are. I'd love to hear from people 'in the know' in the comments. Have I got that wrong?

And before I leave, a note about the other false etymological form that readers of The Lancet (well, at least one) have tried to change. Here's another letter to the editor:
SIR,-Spelling is a curious blend of phonetics, etymology, tradition, and nonsense ; we should take care not to let the last preponderate. Dr. Napier (Nov. 1) is to be congratulated on his attack on the absurd o which it is customary now to insert into fetus. I would like to raise support for a similar attack on the ph with which we generally mis-spell sulfur and the other words derived from it. Sulfur comes from a Latin word. Undeniably some Latin authors used the ph form, but there is good reason to think that this was a blunder, and most of the European languages that use the Latin root have not followed the erroneous spelling. The spelling sulfur was common in Britain from the 14th to 18th centuries, and this presumably explains its present day use in the U.S.A. It is in no sense an American innovation.  (Pirie, N.W. 15 Nov. 1952.The correct spelling of medical terms [Letter to the Editor]. The Lancet vol. 260, pp.987-8.)

The argument for sulfur seems not to have been heard—sulphur still rules Britannia absolutely.

*It's a digraph, not a diphthong, but what do doctors know?

In other news...
Votes, please? I failed to be self-promotional enough to make it to the voting round for Bab.la's Top Language Lovers blog competition this year. (I foolishly assumed being nominated was enough to get to the voting round.) But I did get to the finals for my Twitter feed, under my name (Lynne Murphy), rather than my Twitter handle (@lynneguist). But if you (BrE) fancy helping me out with a vote (or sabotaging me with a vote against!), please click here to go to the voting page.

Cheeky Nando's: Marking season is to blame for many things, including my failure to do a timely, topical post on the Buzzfeed 'Cheeky Nando's' phenomenon. But happily Ben Yagoda has done one at the Chronicle of Higher Education Lingua Franca blog, so now I probably don't have to!  (To discuss cheeky Nando's, I recommend leaving comments at his post.) What I have done a post on is the BrE use of 'a [fast-food type]' to refer to a fast-food meal (a Chinese, a Burger King and, of course, a Nando's).

Thanks for reading to the bottom--this is longer than the (BrE) first-year essays I assign!


  1. I am an American and have been reading this blog for quite a while and find it incredibly interesting. One thing I wasn’t aware of until I started following years ago is how readily British English speakers are to lay blame on American English speakers for words they find (for myriad reasons) to be ‘wrong’. I am in my mid-50s so I have been around a while, and can honestly say I have rarely come across an American who feels the need to criticize British speakers for their differences. Perhaps the people I associate with are more open-minded than most and as a result have no difficulty accepting variations on spelling, pronunciation, and usage. What an uninteresting world this would be if we all spoke exactly the same.
    -Jane Elizabeth

  2. Jane Elizabeth (a beautiful name):
    “.emas eht yltcaxe ekops lla ew fi eb dluow siht dlrow gnitseretninu na tahW”
    .uoy htiw eerga etiuq t’nod I diafra m’I

    I’ve just voted for you.

  3. Sulfur is the IUPAC agreed name, but certainly when I was at school and studying such things at university, sulphur was the accepted spelling. Sulfur was a (insert adjective of choice) Americanism and to be avoided.

    It's a bit like fetus/foetus etc. the chemists will write to each other using sulfur but everyone else will use sulphur. My background sort of straddles both worlds (my academic background is biomedical sciences and then microbiology) but I don't actually work in it any more. But even 20 years ago in the UK you'd certainly see foetus, foetal, sulphur etc. as the accepted standard in an academic setting. You still read recent papers published in UK journals that use those forms too.

  4. Interesting, Eloise, since when I was looking at Lancet & BMJ I was only finding -ph- sulphurs. So in this case it's the pharmacists who are fighting the etymological 'good fight'. :)

    Thanks for the vote, Emilio (and anyone else)!

  5. This is a British spelling of the Latin word fetus. That is to say, the œ might look like it comes from a classical language, but it just doesn't.

    Ah, but it does, Lynne. OK, previous editions of the OED appeared say to otherwise. Thus:

    The etymologically preferable spelling with e in this word and its cognates is adopted as the standard form in some recent Dicts., but in actual use is almost unknown. (N.E.D.)

    The operative word, however, was etymologically. They were upset that the cognate relationship with fēmina was obscured. The Third Edition puts it differently

    < classical Latin fētus (also foetus: see note)
    In Latin manuscripts both fētus and foetus are used; in inscriptions only fētus .

  6. I'm afraid you're not quite right. The spelling foetus did not exist in Classical Latin, it's true, but emerged in Late Latin, well before the 16th century, and was adopted by English, French, German, Dutch and undoubtedly other European languages. It was emphatically not an English affectation. So only if we consider Classical Latin the only legitimate source of loans is the spelling 'foetus' nonsensical. Otherwise, it's no more nonsensical than other similar spellings.

  7. Wrong chemists. Chemists like inorganic chemists and biochemists, not pharmacists!

  8. I would have called the oe a diphthong, too; my four-year-old grandson, who learns phonics at school (why, when English is not a phonetic language, as he has already discovered?) would call it a digraph!

    As a complete lay person, I would have definitely spelt it foetus (and sulphur, too, and aluminium with an i).

  9. Ah, Eloise, that's why it's not carrying over to other medical types, then! Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  10. In English, lots of borrowed words acquire different spellings from their parent tongues, so it's not like we have any duty to Latin to do things their way. And you didn't say so, but I would guess it was spelled foetus in America too before Webster took charge, so you might say (if you were inclined to regard the Latin spelling as somehow more correct) that we achieved the right result by accident.

    Of the other words you noted, I think amoeba is a lot more common in America than ameba - seldom see the latter.

  11. Yes, I was making no claims about am(o)eba--it was just another oe word to put in the questionnaire to see if the respondents who said 'fetus' also said 'ameba', indicating a personal tendency toward spelling simplification rather than telling me that 'fetus' is an exception to the British 'oe' rule.

    The original post about oe/ae discusses other cases and the fact that the simplification has not been consistent in AmE.

  12. There's a surprising number of towns in the US that go by the name White Sulphur Springs, so spelled. I knew of one in West Virginia but according to Wikipedia there are quite a few others.

    Several of them are in the east and were presumably named in colonial times, with the British spelling, but there's also one in Montana (pop. 939!) which must have been founded later. Possibly it was named by someone in recognition of one of the eastern editions of the town.

  13. Gaston Dorren

    The spelling foetus did not exist in Classical Latin, it's true

    The OED generally makes a very clear distinction between Classical Latin and Late Latin in its etymologies, and they unambiguously opine

    < classical Latin fētus (also foetus:see note)

    That note states that only the fetus spelling was used in inscriptions — by which I assume they mean engraved inscriptions to the exclusion of graffiti.

    I think we can conclude

    • Recent analysis of all Classical Latin texts has revealed spellings previously overlooked — perhaps because the texts containing them were void of importance or interesting content. This is more liable to happen now that researchers delegate choices to computers, which lack the curiosity and/or literary good taste of scholars.

    • In Classical times, foetus was regarded as a spelling mistake at the strictest editorial level.

    Other information in the OED article reveal that the foetus spelling occurred in earlier texts in Middle French and Middle Dutch (albeit only once) — and, of course, Middle English. And the earliest German spelling they record is Fötus.

    So it seems that something happened to the spelling around the sixteenth century, but it wasn't confined to English. Over a swathe of Western Europe, literate people — who of course knew Latin — chose to regularise one Latin spelling over the other.

    The lingering legacy for us in Britain is that foetus looks more authentic, even if it isn't.

  14. i have never went through such a informative and unknown post about linguistic

  15. My former colleagues in a well-known London department of Paediatrics (!) and Child Health spent a good deal of effort in promoting the use of 'fetus' rather than 'foetus' - this certainly was the general approach in British medical publications. However, when I used the former term in scientific publications and reviews, it was almost invariably changed to 'foetus' by the editors. So it has been most interesting to see that general-interest publishers also favour 'foetus', as a means of avoiding arguments from pedantic readers!
    BrE retains anaesthetic, aesthete, and other -ae- words in all fields, I believe. Except (the term) pedagogy. Hmm.

    Other classically-derived scientific or medical words with a lower profile in the language have quietly dropped the -oops- digraph: ecology for instance. And what about the diaresis (I knew that one!) in zoology; this hasn't been seen for 70 years or more!

    The terms for chemical and biochemical molecules are decided by international panels such as IUPAC, mentioned by Eloise above: thus usage is more complex than American/British differences such as sulfur/sulphur, aluminum/aliminium, hemoglobin/haemoglobin and so on. Biochemists on each side of the Atlantic continue to use terms such as acetic acid instead of the chemists' ethanoic acid; the latter reflects its chemical structure rather than its origin in vinegar. Many biochemicals have 'classical' names related to their sources - for example butyric (rancid butter), capric (goats), myristic (nutmeg) acids. Chemists' terms should allow the reader to work out the chemical structure directly from the name of the molecule; even here, one can be tripped up when the convention is changed, for example numbering the positions in a ring structure clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. OK, enough chemistry! My point is that scientists have to be very precise in their terminology in order to communicate their work in a form that can be repeated by others, which is an essential feature of scientific progress.

  16. Anonymous in first comment:

    I don't think British people would criticise Americans for speaking American English. That's their language, and that's fine. We only criticise Brits for doing so (often wrongly, but that's another matter).

  17. It's a nice thought, Mark, but as an American I can tell you that there's no shortage of British people willing to criticize Americanisms when used by Americans.

  18. I completely agree with biochemist that the naming isn't as simple and consistent as it could be. I could name the amino acids by the IUPAC names but I'll be damned if anyone would understand them. Call them alanine, glutamine etc. and everyone knows what you're talking about. However, you then have to remember their structures, whereas with the IUPAC names, once you know the rules you can basically write the structures from the names.

    But that's getting complicated and way off topic. And not a BrE/AmE difference.

  19. Jane Elizabeth28 May, 2015 23:04

    Thank you, Lynne, for confirming my statement. Perhaps Brits don't realize how often (and openly) they criticize Americans but it gets very tiresome. Nonetheless I do greatly enjoy reading about the differences and similarities on your blog. Learning is always a good thing.
    -Jane Elizabeth

  20. Biochemist: even in the UK, economists don't speak of the oeconomy, though that spelling was common in the 18C.

  21. John - thanks! Same root (oeco) I suppose. Ecology was definitely still a specialist term in the 1960s, but of course economy has domestic as well as specialist uses.
    Did some of this simplification coincide with changes in printing technology?

    I have been thinking about the f/ph question. Presumably each is a valid transcription from the Greek. Biochemists use the suffixes -philic (as in hydrophilic, water-loving) and -phyll (as in chlorophyll, the colour in leaves), but students often get them confused.
    Even more so, now that the thin leaves of pastry are now marketed as filo!

  22. -ph- is what you get if you Hellenize the Latin word, but this is one that the Romans didn't get from Greek. The Greek θεῖον is what the sulfuric prefix thio- comes from.

  23. Undeniably some Latin authors used the ph form, but there is good reason to think that this was a blunder, and most of the European languages that use the Latin root have not followed the erroneous spelling.,

    I don't buy it. Throwing around 'there is good reason' and 'blunder' and 'erroneous spelling' is empty assertion, not argument.

    The spelling sulfur was common in Britain from the 14th to 18th centuries

    This is pretty dubious. Only a small minority of the OED quotes from that period use anything like the sulfur spelling.

    and this presumably explains its present day use in the U.S.A. It is in no sense an American innovation.

    An extremely unlikely presumption. Far more plausibly, it's the work of a reformer like Webster.

  24. Looking at later OED quotations, among the authors using the sulphur spelling are Henry Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson and Herman Melville.

    OK, just possibly these are from editions published in Britain with revised spelling. But I doubt if this can be true of the 1881Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers.

  25. Five thoughts.

    1. Does anyone, seriously, on either side of the Atlantic, spell amoeba 'ameba'?

    2. 'Aluminium' and 'aluminum' are pronounced differently. The English spelling is pronounced as 5 syllables. From recollection from rather boring films on chemistry one was shown many years ago at school, the US one is pronounced as 4.

    3. It may be unusual these days to include a diaresis in zoology, but it is still pronounced. How, though, is it pronounced in the US? In the uk it is normally zoo-ology, but I can recall elderly people who used to say zoe-ology. I'd be surprised if anyone, anywhere, says it as three syllables.

    4. The spelling 'paediatrics', is quite important. Otherwise, people would be likely to pronounce it with a short 'e' and assume it has something to do with feet.

    5. Mind, pedants of the world unite. I usually make a point of using the spelling 'wikipaedia'.

  26. Eloise

    I could name the amino acids by the IUPAC names but I'll be damned if anyone would understand them.


    The terms for chemical and biochemical molecules are decided by international panels such as IUPAC, mentioned by Eloise above:

    IUPAC seems to be powerless because it doesn't enjoy a monopoly, judging by the OED entry for aluminium/aluminum:

    ALUMINIUM n. coexisted with its synonym ALUMINUM n. throughout the 19th cent. From the beginning of the 20th cent., aluminum gradually became the predominant form in North America; it was adopted as the official name of the metal in the United States by the American Chemical Society in 1925. Elsewhere, aluminum was gradually superseded by aluminium, which was accepted as international standard by IUPAC in 1990.

    The earliest (1811) quote for aluminium was written by somebody in doubt as to whether it actually existed. The second earliest (1812) expressed the writer's preference over the less classical-sounding rival name aluminum.

    In its linguistic prehistory, Humphrey Davy wrote (1808) that he would have called the alumina-derived stuff he was looking for alumium. But he did't find it. Still, some scientists remembered his term and used it. In 1845 someone called J Pereira wrote:

    Aluminum, aluminium, or alumium, is the metallic base of the earth alumina.

  27. I edited the Institute of Biology's* official guidelines on nomenclature about 15 years ago, and they were insistent on "fetus" as the only acceptable technical spelling.

    I don't often have any call to write the word, but like a good little editor I would probably use "fetus" for scientific work and "foetus" for non-scientific.

    * Now the Society of Biology, soon to be the Royal Society of Biology

  28. Dru, AmE replies to your thoughts:
    1. Microsoft Word spell check allows ameba, so there's one. (I don't know if anyone else spells it that way, i haven't had occasion to write the word since high school biology, so i'm not sure what I'd do.)
    2. That's correct: 4 syllables, with the accent on the second.
    3. Same here, zoo-ology. I've never heard zoe-ology, but that doesn't count for much.
    4. I've also never heard anyone either mispronounce pediatrics or confuse it with podiatry, but it's perfectly possible that someone somewhere has, I guess?
    5. You do you.

  29. Fascinating discussion on fetus, f(o)etal etc. A curiosity question however - I'm told the German language has had many bouts of spelling reforms. Wikipedia says they had one in 1901, another in 1944 and one as recently as in 1996. How come English has not had any in recent times? Is it that hard to bring the Americans, the English, the Aussies, the Kiwis and the South Africans together? Not to mention the major non native users like the Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Kenyans, Nigerians, Malaysians and several other nationalities? I'd have thought good Scotch would have paved the way for historic orthographic agreements :)

    On another note however - I've never seen the personal name Phoebe misspelt. Neither the girl carrying that name nor her classmates, including my then 10 year old, ever had any doubts about how it was spelt. Now I can't pretend to understand why that should be so.

  30. Spelling reform in English? Fuhgeddaboudit!

    You see how the Brits kick and fuss about a simple oe vs. e spelling--can you imagine them approving of anything with even a just slightly American scent to it? Or Americans not thinking of British spelling as anything but insufferably hoity-toity and therefore to be resisted until we boot the English off our continent yet again?

    Besides, we English/American speakers seem to be much more devotedly attached to the illogical, the irregular, and the just plain weird stuff about our language than them there furr'ners are about theirs. I mean, we got PASSION here! Therefore the donnybrook that would result from even an intimation of changed spelling would last well into the next millennium, at which point English will have changed so much it'll be irrelevant anyway.

    (But if we ever do have reform, I'm voting we spell it nucular instead of nuclear. Because how much more American can you get?)

  31. What many people may not know is that we tried radical spelling reform here (England and Wales only, I think) for children learning to read. The idea was that once they'd mastered the basic skill of reading they would pass on to standard orthography. Given that the fundamental bar to spelling reform in English is that we have far too many vowel sounds and a few too many consent sounds for the 26 letters available, spelling used a new alphabet. So the whole project was known as the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

    It failed.

    Over and above the difficulty of first learning then unlearning an alphabet, I suspect that what doomed the whole project from the start is the variation in accents — even within England and Wales. To take but one example, there's a whole family of sounds spelled VOWEL + R which have an R-sound in certain accents but not (except under special conditions) in most English accents, including the most prestigious.

    Actually, English spelling isn't really all that mad. Almost every spelling arise for one of a small number of reasons. Even things that seem crazy to us now like debt were created with good intentions, which were appropriate for the time.

    Yes, English is spelling difficult if you start from knowing the sound of the word and nothing else. But it's far less difficult to deduce and/or recognise the sound of a word from its spelling.

    • either sulphur or sulfur is clear to any reader

    fetal is clear to specialists

    foetal is clearer to the rest of us, who are far more familiar with petal and metal.

    A huge plus in the English spelling system is that it preserves signals of family relationships. The usual example is

    electric, electricity, electrician.

  32. If those were spelt phonetically, I think they'd be 'ilektrik', ilektrissiti, 'elektrishn'. Would anyone either recognise them or realise they were different permutations of the same root?

  33. L N Srinivasakrishnan:
    Phoebe, yes: but perhaps your daughter has classmates with a good educational background, or at least a willingness to spell unusual names correctly. I overheard a mother telling her daughter that Harry Potter's friend was called Armani....
    There is a shrub (and perhaps a girl's name) called Hebe.
    And Zoe and Chloe don't make sense without the diaresis (where? on the e)

  34. Many. many years ago, I was asked by an Emily Dickinson fan in Russia if I could explain the lines

    I was a Phebe —nothing more—
    A Phebe —nothing less—

    I couldn't even recognise the word as Phoebe, let alone explain Dickinson's meaning.

    Today it's easy to google an explanation, and also to Google the spelling more generally. Sure enough, the spelling Phebe is used. There may be ways of discovering the extent, but I don't know how.

  35. "...my four-year-old grandson, who learns phonics at school (why, when English is not a phonetic language...?}"
    Because English is phonetic enough for phonics to be the most efficient way of learning to sound it. Abandoning phonics set a whole generation back.

  36. Little Black Sambo

    Because English is phonetic enough for phonics to be the most efficient way of learning to sound it.

    That's just saying that phonics is good for learning phonics.

    Learning to read is different. Of course, phonics can help children to accelerate the process of reading. But the 'proof' that phonics is essential for initial teaching rests on tests which amount to tests of phonics.

    I learned to read in the 1940's without any phonics teaching that I can remember. In fact, I don't think teaching had much to do with it. There was writing all around, much of it on tins and jars. One day I astonished my mother by reading some. In infant school, I started every reading test with a n apology that i couldn't read. But it turns out that I could. When I was already a reader, there were lessons in 'silent e' etc. But I'm sure we always referred to letters by name (EIGH, BEE SEE etc), never by their sound (or one of them).

    For a year or so I taught the skill of reading English to children who were either illiterate or literate in another alphabet. Look-and-say flash cards were by far the most effective and quickest starting point. The value of phonics came later. But if I understand correctly what is meant by synthetic phonics it's something I never touched.

    One test in the synthetic phonic regime is reported to demand the reading aloud of nonsense syllables. If a child guesses a sensible. meaningful near-match, this is penalised. I'm appalled. The last thing we want young children to think of reading is that it doesn't involve deducing meaning from text.

    Reading has ben characterised as a linguistic guessing game. There's no way that everyday reading can operate by sounding. There's far too much information. Only a selective impression can be processed in the time available. We recognise meanings. (One striking experiment found that bilingual readers could understand a text in two languages without actually recalling which information was expressed in which language.) Sometimes we recognise words. Rarely, very rarely we slow down and recognise sounds.

    By the end of the process of learning to read, children should be able to do all of this. Phonics (though probably not synthetic phonics) should come in somewhere. The start may be the appropriate stage for children with particular learning styles. But I wish teachers could go back to the days where they could sequence the learning in different ways for different children.

    Abandoning phonics set a whole generation back.

    It didn't do me any harm. I'm so pleased I missed it.

    The essence of reading is extracting meaning from text. Anything else is 'barking at print'

  37. Mrs Redboots

    my four-year-old grandson, who learns phonics at school (why, when English is not a phonetic language, as he has already discovered?) would call it a digraph!

    It is a digraph, Annabelle, and always was. Back in the day it represented a diphthong, but that was long before the fall of the Roman Empire, when Western Europe still spoke Latin — and still retained the old spellings.

    As you see, I've attempted to rubbish Little Black Sambo's reply to your question. Here' mine ...

    The term phonetic language sends phoneticians up the wall. What laymen mean by it is

    a language with a spelling system displaying a reasonably consistent relationship between written words and the way they are spoken

    This conceals a truth especially relevant to English that there are two relationships:

    1 from spelling to sound: the recognisability of what written words represent

    2 from sound to spelling: the predictability of how spoken sounds will be spelled.

    Languages described as 'phonetic' are able to be consistent-isn in both relationships. Italian is the usual quoted example. I've come across others and what they tend to have in common is:

    • a fairly small number of vowel sounds

    • pretty well the same number of stressed and unstressed vowels

    • little or no duplication of letter symbols representing the same sound

    No spelling reform can fix the vowel problems short of a new alphabet. Which is why the IPA was invented. Spellings such as fetus and sulphur are tiny isolated reforms, which are pretty insignificant as long as we retain physics, Phillip, graph, Oedipus, Phoebe, subpoena etc.

    However, problems like the three only affect relationship number [2], the predictability-of-spelling relationship. They don't interfere with relationship [1], the recognisability relationship. Here the inconsistencies are few and untroubling: words such as slaphead, poetic and a few more.

    Some languages are 'good' at relationship [1] without possessing the predictable [2] relationship. French pronunciation, for example, is largely deducible from the spelling of its words — especially if you disregard proper names and letter H. German, I think, is comparable. Yet neither language allows you to write unfamiliar words from dictation with any confidence. Russian is almost as 'good' as them without stress marks, and very much easier to read aloud if the stresses are marked.

    (I haven't quite finished, sorry!)

  38. Annabelle, this is where I get to answer (I hope) your question. English shares, after a fashion, half the attributes of a so-called 'phonetic language'. This is what I wrote but made the posting too long for Blogger...

    Now, believe it or not, English spelling is remarkably 'good' at relationship [2] — given all the problems which the sound system presents to the task.

    • English has a large number of vowel sound in any given accent — compounded by the variability between accents.

    • In stressed syllables, that number shrinks to two or three in most accents.

    • The pronunciation of English has changed spectacularly over the centuries —during which time people have continues to read texts printed in the past, when the words sounded vey different.

    • Changes in the pronunciation of related words with different suffixes have altered the pronunciation of the root. I repeat: electric, electricity, electrician

    • The English lexicon is one of the most omnivorous (if not the most omnivorous) of the world's languages, 'borrowing' words from many, many languages with their diverse spelling conventions.

    Despite these and other difficulties within the sound system, English spelling is pretty transparent — less so than French, German and Russian, but still surprisingly recognisable.

    In that English spelling is recognisable to a competent adult (even if unconsciously so), it makes sense to teach young children to recognise the many regularities. This is the sort of phonics you grandson should be receiving. It's analytic phonics, which I believe is of use to anybody.

    Unfortunately, the Department of Education has been persuaded to engage in synthetic phonics — in effect teaching children to write (in their head, not on paper) before they can read. They learn Kuh-A-Tuh says cat in principle before they learn that the spelling cat carries the meaning of 'pussy cat'. The (often zealous) proponents of synthetic phonics point to experimental tests with quantified data. But these simply measure what can easily and objectively be measured: accuracy in 'reverse spelling' aka 'barking at print.

    OK it's possible that synthetic phonics is the best introduction to reading for some children. And you grandson could be one of them. The price to pay is

    • The only texts they read are composed of words like cat which suit the practice of phonics.

    • The all-important factor of meaning is removed from the start of learning to read.

    • The factor of enjoyment is also removed from the start — the chief complaint of the Real Books movement.

  39. I do so agree - he can make a good stab at writing "centimetres" ("senentmeetes") and "Stegosaurus" (didn't note that one down, but it was every bit as weird and wonderful), but I highly doubt he could read either of those words. And although he can read fairly fluently, and anybody who hears him read at home tells him to "make it make sense", I'm not absolutely sure whether he is yet able to read for pleasure, or to give pleasure to his small brother. I see the value of phonics, but I do think children need a sight vocabulary as well.

    This seems to have got rather off-topic so I suppose we had better stop.

  40. Mrs Redboots

    I bet he could read The pen is 15 centimetres long as a caption to a picture of a pen. And I have no doubt whatsoever that he could read stegosaurus beside the picture of one.

    It's admittedly hard to think of a book-context where the former would be entertaining. But I bet he'd love a simple book of dinosaurs, and would happily attempt most of the names.

  41. "That's just saying that phonics is good for learning phonics."
    I did not think that was what I was just saying! The banning of phonics as a method of teaching by sounding out the letters and parts of the word was perverse, given that written English is phonetic. Where phonics has been allowed again the standard of reading has improved; I think one of the first properly documented tests was in the Lake District. It may be that phonics is especially helpful to slow readers, and also to slow teachers, but that makes it all the more useful to many more people. Barking at print may run ahead of extracting meaning from text, but they are both parts of the same exercise.

  42. given that written English is phonetic

    But that's just exactly what it isn't! "Though the tough cough and hiccough...." Even my nearly 5-year-old grandson has come across this, demanding to know why the word "bear" had an "r" in it - and what about words that a 4-year-old might be expected to read, like "bar", "ear", "mar" and "raw"? Sorry, but you can't pretend it is a phonetic language.

  43. After seeing a feature on the compound Sodium laureth sulphate on BBC's "Trust me, I'm a doctor", I checked the bottles of shampoo etc. in my bathroom and noticed that they all spell it "sulfate". (Whoops, had to go back and change that as my computer had autocorrected the f to ph!)

  44. According to David Crystal in Spell It Out, Webster's 1828 dictionary included foetus — with a cross-rference to fetus. And there were separate entries for faeces and feces.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)