Learning from ‘please’

Word sums of the base<please>

please + es  –>  pleases please + ed –>  pleased

please + ing  –> pleasing please + er  –>  pleaser

please + ure  –> pleasure please + ant  –> pleasant

dis + please  –>  displease dis + please + es  –> displeases

dis + please + ed  –> displeased

dis + please + ure  –>  displeasure

un + please + ant  –>   unpleasant

Note that the vowel suffix always causes the removal of the final ‘silent’ <e>. The word ‘pleaser’ sounds strange on its own, but when you consider its use in such compounds as “a people pleaser” or “a crowd pleaser” it makes sense.  It describes someone who is disposed to pleasing others.

The word ‘please’ is one of the most common words that children learn early.  It features quite frequently in their writings as well. However, they don’t always spell it correctly. Another important point to note is that a lot of children fail to understand the meaning of the word beyond its use in making requests. I once asked a student who was having difficulty understanding the word “displeased” whether he saw the connections between the words “please” and “displeased”.  He just shook his head.  When I   asked further what the word “please” meant, he just said: “Beg”. To him, the word ‘please’ meant ‘begging’.  It is not difficult to understand why he associated “please” with “begging” since the usage of the word is often associated with asking for either a favor or permission.  In a sense, when I say “please”, it implies that I want something from you, so it’s pretty easy to understand why the student connected “please” with begging. However, like so many other words in English, “Please” is polysemous; it has a multiple of meanings such as ‘to make happy or satisfied, to like, to wish, to gratify’.

English orthography favors vocabulary and spelling acquisition.

The matrix and word sums of <please> reinforce the importance of morphology in building vocabulary and establishing correct spelling.  Once the correct spelling of the base has been established, adding the various affixes (prefixes and suffixes) becomes easy.

Teachers and parents sometimes voice concerns over how little vocabulary students know these days.  The lack of sophistication in vocabulary shows up in their writings and  comprehension.  Countless hours are spent in workshops on how to improve student vocabulary. The fact of the matter is that English  orthography has evolved to make vocabulary and spelling acquisition relatively easy.  This is done by representing morphemes in a consistent manner even in the face of pronunciation changes.

For example, once you understand the meaning and spelling of the base <please> you can easily learn most, if not all, of its derivatives by studying the various affixes that go with it:  suffixes <es, ed, ing, er, ure, ant> and <dis, un> for prefixes. You can also learn about the grammatical functions of the suffixes; that is, how the different suffixes affect the meaning and word class of the bases.  For instance, the suffix <-ure> tends to convert words from other parts of speech into nouns. <-ant> suffix often indicates either a noun or an adjective.  Knowing such details about words makes it possible to understand how words are used in text and also enables one to use words correctly when writing.

The easiest route to understanding English phonology is through understanding morphology.

We hear of comments such as ‘Children need to learn how to analyze the spelling – sound connections in words first.  They cannot do that if you emphasize morphology.’  This view is the farthest from the truth. In fact, you cannot properly understand English phonology – spelling-pronunciation relationship – until you understand morphology.  This is because the phonology works within the context of morphology.  Richard Venezky emphasized in his book “The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography” that English spelling is morphophonemic. For this reason, he considered it important to carve a complex word along its morphological or word-part joints before studying the phonological patterns. So <pleasure> is analyzed as <pleas(e) + ure> before the spelling – pronunciation units are analyzed

Let us analyze the grapheme-phoneme correspondences of the base <please>:  <p.l.ea.s> –> /pliz/. The cluster <pl> corresponds to the cluster /pl/ in pronunciation. That part is easy!  The vowel digraph <ea> corresponds to /i/, and the <s> corresponds to /z/.  The question that arises is “What about the final <e>, what does it correspond to?  The answer is simple: it doesn’t play any part in the word’s pronunciation. If so, why is it there? The answer is: the final <e> in the spelling is a marker.  You may be asking: “What is a marker?”

Final <e> as a marker

A marker is any letter or group of letters that does not have a direct pronunciation in a word but provides some form of information about the word.  A marker may indicate how a previous grapheme (letter) is pronounced. For example, the final <e> in words like <hope, name, write, flute, scene> indicate that the preceding vowels <o>, <a>, <i>, <u>, and <e> are pronounced like their names: they are ‘long’ vowels.  The final <e> in these words, is considered a phonological marker since it signals a pronunciation of another grapheme. Let us look at another example of the final <e> as a phonological marker: In <prince>, the final <e> is a signal that the <c> is pronounced as /s/ instead of the default /k/.

So, what kind of marker is the final <e> in <please>? It is a plural cancelling markerHere is a convention in English spelling: when a word is not plural (indicating more than one), when it is written as text it does not have to look like it is a plural word: a final <s> gives a false indication of plurality.  So when a word ends in a single <s>, <e> is added to it to cancel the appearance of plurality.  To state the above convention in simple terms: if a word is not plural, it doesn’t have to look like one when it is written down. Consider these two words: <pleas> and <please>.  <Pleas> is a complex word: plea + s.  It is the plural of the singular noun ‘plea’.  Writing <please> with the final <e> distinguishes it visually from the plural noun <pleas> and marks it as singular.

Choice of grapheme <ea>

Now let us take a look at the <ea> digraph. In the first place, how do you let a child know that the /i/ is written as <ea> and not <ee> or <e-e> in order to avoid spellings as *<pleese> or *<plese>? The answer lies in two factors: the first is etymological. Remember that English spelling represents morphology, etymology and phonology. Morphology and etymology often influence how the phonology (Pronunciation) is represented.  <Please> was borrowed from French ‘Plaisir’ which in turn is derived from the Latin word ‘placere’ which meant ‘to be acceptable’.  “Placere” provides the base for words like ‘placate’, ‘placid’  ‘complacent’, and ‘complacency’.  Because the <a> appears in both French and the Latin origin, English chooses a spelling with <a> in it: <ea> instead of <ee>. Also the conversion from <c> to <s> in the spelling occurred in French. In a sense, the spelling of <please> shows its history from Latin through French into English.

The second reason for the <ea> digraph is provided by the shift in pronunciation from /i/ to / in the various derivatives of <please>.  As we saw earlier, the <ea> in <please> is pronounced /i/ same as in the word <eat>.  But the <ea> is pronounced as /ɛ/ in <pleasant> and <pleasure>. The digraph <ee> is always pronounced /i/.  Spelling the /i/ as <ea> allows for the shift in pronunciation from /i/ to /ɛ/ in some of the derivatives without affecting the spelling of the base. In this way, the pronunciation of the base in derivatives can change without affecting the consistency of the spelling of the base: the pronunciation can change but the spelling stays the same.  This principle of morpheme consistency is common throughout English and one cannot understand it well until one understands how morphology (meaning) and phonology (pronunciation) work together in spelling and vocabulary.

The point that I have been trying to emphasize is this: when we understand why words are written the way they are, we can help make vocabulary and spelling easier for students to learn. English words are not spelled based primarily on ‘sounds’.  If you understand that then you know why <pleasure> is spelled with <ea> instead of <e> because it is related to <please>. The pronunciation of the <s> also changes from /z/ in <please> to / in <pleasure> but the spelling stays the same because <s> can represent /s/, /z/ and /ʒ/.

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