Men tuh list

« previous post | next post »

A new cop show called Mentalist has been one of the big hits of this season’s television fare. It features Simon Baker as a former fortune teller turned honest by renouncing his former fraudulent practice and now working with an unlikely bunch of California Bureau of Investigation officers to catch the bad guys. What caught my eye, however, was the title of the show, which is broken into what the writers believe to be the syllables of Mentalist:

/’men – tuh—list/    noun

Okay, the second syllable is actually /t / plus schwa, but I don’t have a keyboard with a schwa, so you understand what I mean by the /-uh/.

Unless you are familiar with the popular lore about syllables, it might be hard to imagine how the program managed to syllabify this way. Mentalist is a word with a stem from the Latin word, mens (mind), along with a couple of suffixes, -al (meaning relating to or characterized by), and –ist (meaning one who performs a specific action) attached to it. These three morphemes produce: a person who is characterized by performing specific actions relating to the mind. The /s/ of mens is the Latin nominative singular form and ment is the genitive form from which mentalist is constructed.  One would assume that any knowledge of word construction would suggest that the syllables of mentalist should be:

/ment –uhl—ist/

This syllabification preserves the structural integrity of the component parts of the word. There is little pedagically useful basis for splitting it into /men–tuh—list/. Men and list are familiar English words, but are totally unrelated to the meaning of  menatalist. In fact, it’s counterproductive to suggest that they have anything at all to do with this word.

Since my curiosity was aroused, it seemed  obvious for me to check some standard dictionaries to see how they syllabify mentalist. They agree with the TV program’s /men – tuh—list/, which suggests that this version of syllabification is not about morphemes at all. It’s about the way English words are split at the ends of lines in conventional writing. Even though the TV program couched it as the way the word is pronounced, the components simply are oral syllables and it doesn’t seem to matter that they distort historical and morphological meanings. Despite the pedagogical usefulness for students to know when and how to use the suffixes like  –al and –ist, these useful productive morphemes are abandoned, probably because they don’t look nice when we split words at the ends of lines. That strikes me as a great deal to sacrifice about the opportunity to learn and use language.

This was not my first encounter with lay views of syllabification. My first interest came many years ago, when my older son was in third grade. He brought home one of those ominous notes from his teacher telling me that Tim was failing in reading and that she wanted to have a conference with me about it. I dutifully made an appointment and met her in her classroom after school. “What’s his problem?” I asked. “He doesn’t know his syllables,” she replied, adding, “If he doesn’t know his syllables, he’ll never learn to read.”

This struck me as odd, because I naively thought that the point of reading was to get meaning out of the text. But I decided to probe this further, asking, “How do you know that Tim doesn’t know his syllables?” She pulled out his test paper, which had Tim’s name scrawled at the top and a series of numbers under it, like this:
1.    1
2.    1
3.    1
4.    1
5.    1
This wasn’t exactly enlightening, so when I asked her what it meant, she told me that her pupils' task was to listen to her pronounce a word, then write down the number of syllables they heard in each word, and Tim was consistently one syllable short. Either he had a serious math problem or he was hearing her words very differently.  When I asked her how she had defined a syllable for the class, she was dumbfounded at my ignorance and told me, “I teach the children that a syllable is a word containing a vowel sound.”

My next question, as you might have guessed by now, was “what are the words that you pronounced?” They were, lemon, butter, cotton, bottle, and bottom. “Hmm,” I said, “let’s pronounce these words together.”

For each word we pronounced one vowel in unison, the first vowel in each word, followed by the syllabic consonants m, r, n. l, and m. I tried to explain to the teacher that these were syllabic continuants, not vowels, but she would have none of this. Losing patience myself, I demonstrated the sound of car starting it’s engine,/ r-r-r-r-r-r-r/, seven syllabic continuants with no vowels.  My performance made an even worse impression on her. Then I produced the syllabic continuant sounds, /m-m-m/ and /l-l-l/, asking her how many syllables she could hear. Still no recognition and by now she was angry and wanted to get rid of me fast, so she terminated the interview. To her, I was just one more doting parent trying to convince her that my child was brighter than she judged, which was probably true, for as it turned out, my son was an excellent reader. He read books at home and he must have learned something from my home instructions about the sounds of language. Sadly, he knew more than his teacher knew about syllables.

I didn’t get anywhere with this third grade teacher, but I made a bit more progress with the publisher of the reading materials she was using. After I explained the problem to the company, they hired me to help them revise some of their reading instruction materials. I have long since lost track of the field of reading instruction and the publisher is no longer in business (I like to think it wasn’t because of me). My son reads very well and he went on to distinguish himself at Georgetown University. He’s now a highly paid corporate vice president.

But Tim just couldn’t learn his syllables in third grade, whatever they were. Sigh.

Comments are closed.