Dys-

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A commenter's remark on the recent post "Dysfluency considered harmful":

I've always understood the 'dys-' prefix to be in contrast to an 'a-' prefix, where 'dys-' means something like 'born without' and 'a-' means 'loss of.' My favorite example of the contrast is 'dyslexia' vs. 'alexia', with the first meaning inherent problems with reading and the second meaning loss of the ability to read. Same with 'dysphasia'/'aphasia' and 'acalculia'/'dyscalculia.'

This is a good example of mistaken linguistic generalization from limited evidence. In fact the dys- prefix is usually said to be in contrast to the eu- prefix, not the a- prefix, though this is mostly an etymological idea rather than a fact of usage. In any case, dys- doesn't typically refer to inborn problems, but simply to abnormal, difficult, impaired, or bad characteristics.

I took that list of adjectives from Merriam-Webster, which glosses dys- as

  1. abnormal
    // dysplasia
  2. difficult
    // dysphagia
    — compare EU-
  3. impaired
    // dysfunction
  4. bad
    // dyslogistic
    — compare EU-

The OED gives the etymology as

representing Greek δυσ- [= Sanskrit dus-, Old Germanic *tuz-, Old High German zúr- (German zer-), Old Norse tor-, Old English tó- in to-break, etc.] 'inseparable prefix, opposed to εὖ [see eu- comb. form] , with notion of hard, bad, unlucky, etc.; destroying the good sense of a word, or increasing its bad sense' (Liddell and Scott).

Some other examples with their OED glosses:

dysarthria: defective or deranged articulation in speaking
dyschezia: difficult or painful defecation
dysfunction: any abnormality or impairment of function
dyskinesia: a class of diseases in which voluntary motion is impeded
dysmetria: inability to control the range of movement in a muscular action
dysmorphic: malformed
dyspepsia: Difficulty or derangement of digestion; indigestion: applied to various forms of disorder of the digestive organs, esp. the stomach, usually involving weakness, loss of appetite, and depression of spirits
dysphoria: A state or condition marked by feelings of unease or (mental) discomfort
dysrhythmia: an abnormal or disordered rhythm; spec., an abnormal rhythm in the electrical waves shown in an electroencephalogram
dysthymia: despondency or depression

The commonest English dys- word is dysfunctional, especially popular in "dysfunctional family". Neither afunctional nor eufunctional has any currency. And certainly there's no common contrast between dysfunctional and afunctional families, with the former condition being inborn and the latter one acquired.

As for dyslexia, the idea that the word always refers to an innate condition is directly called into question by the large literature on "acquired dyslexia", e.g. Badderley et al., "Developmental and acquired dyslexia: A comparison", Cognition 1982, as well as by the large literature attributing the prevalence of reading difficulties to faulty teaching methods.

 



17 Comments

  1. Athanassios Protopapas said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    Developmental dyslexia refers to poor reading, but not all poor reading. Poor reading that results from "faulty teaching methods" is not dyslexia, and inadequate instruction more generally is a clear exclusionary criterion for the diagnosis. Moreover, dyslexia only concerns "word-level" reading, that is, sounding out (or recognizing) printed words; it does not refer to the ability to understand what one reads (difficulties there would be referred to as reading comprehension problems, not dyslexia, and would likely be associated with poor oral language skills). Dyslexia is widely thought to be due to how one's brain is made up (though details are lacking and there are no clear indications of pathology).
    Acquired dyslexia refers to reading problems experienced by a formerly skilled reader that arise as a result of brain damage (such as a stroke). Alexia can be thought of as a specific (and severe) form of acquired dyslexia (actually more than one form), but as far as I know dyslexia and alexia are not often discussed as part of the same concept/syndrome in the neuropsychological literature, as they are associated with distinct types of damage (which is fairly well specified for alexia).

    [(myl) This is true as a matter of theory but the practical situtation seems to be quite different. In Mark Seidenberg's 2017 book "Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It", we find the simple statement that "dyslexia refers to impaired reading", and the observation that "The causes of such deficits can be addressed at multiple levels, ranging from immediate, or 'proximal,' causes that are closest to the impaired behavior to underlying, or 'distal,' causes, such as genetic anomalies that affect brain development and later reading". He goes on to note that

    How is dyslexia defined? Getting an answer requires deciding whom to ask. There is no keeper of the royal definition. Definitions vary because they are proposed by individuals and groups whose orientations, expertise, and goals differ enormously and because concepts have changed as more has been learned.

    and

    Dyslexics are children (and, later, adults) whose reading is at the low end of a normal distribution. Reading skill results from a combination of dimensional factors (that is, ones that vary in degree), yielding a bell-shaped curve. The reading difficulties of the children in the lower tail are severe and require special attention.

    Since that distribution of skills is strongly affected by environmental factors, including instructional methods, who falls below some designated threshold is also strongly affected by those factors.]

  2. Tom Dawkes said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    The dys- prefix is pejorative, as compared to the eu- prefix. A similar contrast is shown in Irish. The electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) shows "do-, du-: prefix with pejorative or negative meaning used with nouns, adjectives, participles, and verbals of necessity" and "so, su: With nouns to form nouns in meaning good . . ., excellent . . . (sometimes with merely intensive force, or for alliteration). With verbal nouns in certain constructions the force is adverbial ( well )."

  3. Cie said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 8:00 am

    That's a curious misconception. Examples like DYSMENORRH(O)EA (painful periods) and AMENORRH(O)EA (absence of periods) illustrate its wrongness.

  4. Peter Erwin said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 8:09 am

    An obvious example of "dys-" contrasting with "eu-" is dystopia versus utopia. (And obviously "dystopian" doesn't mean "born without a place"…)

  5. Ursa Major said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 10:40 am

    "Dys-/Utopia" is the first one I would think of too, but it is not such a good example because "utopia" was invented to mean "not-place" as well as "good-place". In fact, the OED has "eutopia" going back almost as far back, which I guess suggests a need to use it in a non-satirical way. ("Dystopia" goes back only to the 1950s.)

    The other dys-/eu- contrast I think of is Tolkien's "eucatastrophe" for a happy conclusion to a narrative. IIRC he also coined "dyscatastrophe" in the same letter for an unambiguously bad conclusion but dismissed it as unnecessary.

    [(myl) This is not a morphological connection, but when I was at Bell Labs in the 1970s and 1980s, we used the term "success catastrophe" when a piece of work was received with such enthusiasm that it generated uncomfortably large amounts of follow-up work. I believe that I borrowed this term from friends at Xerox PARC.

    An opposite interpretation of a similar phrase can be found in Tennessee Williams' 1947 essay "The Catastrophe of Success".]

  6. Allen Thrasher said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 12:05 pm

    In any case, surely we may all agree, "Lysdexics of the world, untie."

  7. Allen Thrasher said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

    On a more serious note, I think 'dylexia' is often used not for problems in reading, but for scrambling syllables or words in speaking. Right?

  8. Michael Watts said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 2:32 pm

    Nobody thought of euphemism/dysphemism? Both are in current use.

  9. maidhc said,

    May 22, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

    Following up on Tom Dawkes's observation, AHD says that eu- comes through Greek from an IE root esu-. But evidently in Irish it developed into su-.

    I've heard it said that there are other IE languages that feature the su/du contrast, but I can't immediately think of any examples.

  10. Athanassios Protopapas said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 4:30 am

    it's not just Mark Seidenberg — there is a clear consensus in the field that dyslexia concerns the low end of the distribution of reading skill, and we're citing a bunch of well-known dyslexia researchers on that, see https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3425/8/4/61 (bottom paragraph on p. 3 of the pdf).

    I'm pretty sure though that Mark Seidenberg would agree that a child falling below the threshold because of poor teaching should not be considered dyslexic. In actual practice, this means that if a poor reader responds well to good instruction (provided as a first-tier intervention) then they would not be diagnosed with dyslexia (or, if originally diagnosed, should be re-classified).

    On the other hand, it's also quite reasonable to say that whether a child crosses an arbitrary threshold or not will depend on a multitide of potentially interacting factors. I'm not disagreeing with that. But the point of having the construct of dyslexia is the inability of (or great difficulty in) learning to read *in spite* of an otherwise conducive set of circumstances, including physical, cognitive/motivational, and educational conditions.

    For much more on these issues, there's Elliot & Grigorenko (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge University Press. Not everyone agrees with their conclusions, but their review of the field is, in my opinion, comprehensive and even-handed.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 5:07 am

    Following up on Tom Dawkes's observation, AHD says that eu- comes through Greek from an IE root esu-. But evidently in Irish it developed into su-.

    The IE root is *h₁su-. Most branches lost the mysterious consonant *h₁ right away, but Greek first stuck an *e between *h₁ and any other consonant. Later, Greek turned *s into *h whenever a vowel followed, and then this *h was lost except at the beginnings of words (and there it was retained only if Grassmann's law hadn't eliminated it).

    Sanskrit also has both prefixes.

    Utopia works as a pun only in English.

  12. Chandra said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

    In my field (adult literacy education) "dyslexia" refers only to a congenital condition that causes particular difficulty with reading and writing (though it can also affect speaking), that cannot be explained by other factors such as general cognitive function, acquired illness or injury, etc. This is a useful distinction because people born with a learning disability often have an entirely different set of learning challenges, ingrained patterns, coping strategies etc. than people whose language difficulty is more recently acquired or resulting from other issues.

  13. Chandra said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

    As an example of my comment above: I currently have a student whose difficulties with writing arose after a stroke. Over the course of the last semester his ability has improved at a remarkable pace, probably because he still retains some foundational aptitude and skill from his years of fluent writing prior to the stroke. With a congenitally dyslexic adult student, this type of rapid progress is very rarely seen.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2019 @ 1:25 pm

    myl's notes above re "success catastrophe" remind me of my nominee for best-subtitled academic book on a language-related topic, viz. The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, by the late Geoffrey Lewis.

    Separately, for a basic illustration of the eu-/dys- contrast I might go with euphoria/dysphoria.

  15. Jerry Packard said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    I stand corrected. Although, the alexia/dyslexia distinction as used in the field is quite well-established (@Chandra), and despite the Seidenberg definition which is correct but I would argue non-technical. The even less technical definition is letter scrambling (@Allen Thrasher), and the even LESS technical, popular, definition I think we will all recognize is 'mentally impaired.'

  16. David Bird said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 10:01 am

    Here are more examples. From its beginnings, the field of limnology has been bound up with the differences among eutrophic, mesotrophic, oligotrophic and dystrophic lakes. The conditions for growth of phytoplankton are impaired in dystrophic lakes, those that are tea-stained by high levels of dissolved organic matter. The water column of the ocean can be divided into the upper euphotic zone, where net-positive oxygen production is possible, the intermediate dysphotic, or twilight zone, and the deep aphotic zone.

  17. Jerry Packard said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 8:39 pm

    I have heard the term 'dystrophic' for an organism that has muscular dystrophy.

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