Johanna Rubba jrubba at
Mon Mar 21 00:16:16 UTC 2011

I know a lot of Latinate and Greek-derived morphology, but I, too,  
didn't notice that "rooster" is analyzable until it was cited here.  
Also, I didn't notice until my mid-40's that "mistake" was "mis-" +  

Latinate morphology is also not beautifully transparent, as we all  
know. We have those pesky sets: the '-ceive' set – 'transceive,'  
'receive,' 'conceive,' 'perceive,' which then do their crazy  
alternations to '-cept' and '-ception.' And the '-mit' series:  
'transmit,' 'submit,' 'commit,' 'permit,' 'admit,' which alternate  
with '-ssion.' Since educated people stopped studying Latin, these  
roots, and most of the prefixes, are opaque. Assimilation in the  
negative prefix also masks compositionality: 'illegal,'  
'irresponsible,' 'indecent.'

For some reason this brings to mind something that might well be  
irrelevant, but that Pam Munro's note about "-ster" reminded me of.  
Ever since I've been teaching phonetics/phonology, I've noticed that  
a large number of students don't break up syllables according to the  
patterns linguists expect. It wouldn't surprise me if they divided  
'rooster' into 'roo-ster', as they tend to keep clusters together  
regardless of where they appear in the word. It's armchair guessing,  
but I think one thing that led me to be blind to 'mis-take' was that  
I thought of the word as 'mi-stake,' even though, as a linguist, I  
"know better."

While I'm on the subject of students not conforming to linguist's  
expectations, there is another behavior my students, as native  
speakers, are "not supposed" to do. Very many of them do not perceive  
the "hierarchical" structure of a complex word as we would expect  
them to. For instance, given a word like 'repayment,' they're just as  
likely to analyze it as 're+payment' as 'repay+ment.' In other words,  
they show very little sensitivity to the relation between category of  
root and category the affix applies to. Since our linguistic  
descriptions are supposed to be based on what native speakers do,  
I've always wondered how linguists would explain these behaviors.

Dr. Johanna Rubba, Ph. D.
Professor, Linguistics
Linguistics Minor Advisor
English Dept.
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407
Ofc. tel. : 805-756-2184
Dept. tel.: 805-756-2596
Dept. fax: 805-756-6374
E-mail: jrubba at calpoly.ed

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