The non-existent magic e

Today it was like watching my students being told there was no Santa Claus for the first time.

“You mean we have been lied to?!” they screamed at me, and across the room at each other.

It took them a while for it to sink in. “What do you mean there is no magic e?!” “The e doesn’t make the vowel say its name?”

My responses calm, albeit snarky: “Well, I don’t know. Are the written words on a page actually talking to you?”

“No,” they reply.

“Graphemes don’t talk,” I continue, “they represent phonemes, which exist in your head. When you read out loud you are pronouncing those phonemes, but when you read silently, there is no sound. You are just comprehending what you are reading. You are making meaning from visual (some do this physically by touch with Braille) text. Text is human thought made visible. The Old Grouch taught me that.”

Their faces slightly more calm and a bit reflective. A magical sight.

So how did we get to this place of chaotic tension?

Love.

Why is love spelled l-o-v-e? 

Where to start? A familiar place: with the meaning of the word. I show my students love every day by giving them the truth about language and the structures within English orthography. My students love to learn and I love to watch them achieve. The feeling that you get when your students smash a test or ace a quiz they studied hard for. That feeling is love.

The structure of love reveals that it is a free base element that can affix (lovely) and compound (lovestruck). It is a free base element: love -> love.

The etymology of the word reveals it came from Old English: lufian. That explains the <l>, but what of the u, the v and the e? Old English suffixes either fell off, or stuck around as nonproductive relics (children). The f and the v are structural equivalents, the f a voiceless labio-dental fricative and the v it’s voiced pair. Go ahead and articulate both..what do you feel? It makes sense that something that might have been unvoiced at one time became voiced over time. It also makes sense when you look at other words that once had an f in Old English and scribes changed it to a v (give, cove, glove…etc).

What about the o and the e. If scribes changed the f to a v, and left everything as is, you might have *luv. Since the u and v were historically the same letter, and if you have a ‘double u’ you would have a different letter of the alphabet w, scribes changed the u before a v to o.

Finally, because no English word ends in v, the e helps the word conform to this convention. But that’s not all, the e also gives the word love lexical substance. It helps the word take a longer spelling because love, when placed in context, can be a verb or a noun. The e is helping the word perform its duties in English grammar.

The graphemes in love have all been accounted for and the pronunciation of the word (phonology-first) has nothing to do with it. The e is not making the o “say its name.”

We came up with this chart at the end:

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 11.10.22 PM

Why did my students think that it would? I can only assume they had been taught for years a phonic-y nightmare that involved a magic e and symbols that look like this.

Let me break down how phonics categorizes things that don’t make sense. First, it starts with a made up category, like *o_e. Of course this isn’t anything in actual orthographic linguistics. This is made up, so I put an asterisk by it. The in *o_e is supposedly making the o say its name. Here is a chart of seventeen words that also have a letter string -ove word final and how phonics might categorize them:

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 10.56.10 PM

I included the “red words” category with words where the o doesn’t actually represent what phonics labels the “long o,” more accurately labeled an /oʊ/ glide phoneme. Since there is no explanation for these words, they are labeled lots of different ways. I have been taught about “red words,” and have seen the term “exceptions,” “sight words” and “mystery words.” Apparently the isn’t so magical in just under half of our words.

Here is the thing about this letter string -ove though. The e, despite all of its magic, is not performing phonological duties in ANY of the 17 words listed (at least not primarily)**. It is protecting the English convention that no word ends in v.  So, categorizing words into an *o_e type and teaching kids lists of words like this is totally pointless.

Compare this type of categorization with the analysis my students did. They still talked about the phonological properties of love, but they did it in context. They talked about words, compared give and have and come and some (all common words and none with a magic e). They put the word love into context through phrases and clauses. It was a generative and engaging discussion that left them wondering at the end, “How could I have been so silly to believe in a magic e, when the truth was so much more reliable?”

We had a lovely day in class.

**A single final e can have multiple functions at once. A complete analysis of each of the 17 words would need to be completed before drawing the conclusion that the e has no impact phonologically. However, the primary purpose of the e in each of the words analyzed is not phonological.