Saturday, January 29, 2011

an eggcorn and a spelling pronunciation

In this post I just wanted to quickly document two items I came across recently.

The first is the substitution of "upmost" for "utmost". This fits the classic definition of an eggcorn: mistaking a particular turn of phrase for a phonologically similar word or phrase that makes more intuitive sense. When we talk about something "of the utmost importance", we mean something of the highest import, something that should be at the top of our list. Thus it makes perfect sense that some people would reanalyze "utmost" as "upmost", especially given that the stops are in coda position next to a bilabial /m/, making the phonetic distinction between the two probably very slim. This substitution seems to be fairly common; I got almost 5M ghits, and the top one was an article called "Don't Confuse 'Utmost' with 'Upmost'", hosted on a site related to grammar tips. COCA only returns 8 results, not all relevant, but given that "upmost" is most likely to occur in speech, and transcribers may simply hear "utmost" since that is the standard, most likely there would be significantly more results.

The spelling pronunciation I came across recently is "half to". While not an eggcorn ("half to" makes no more intuitive sense than "have to", in fact I'd say it makes less sense), I still find this interesting. Most likely the writer here is thinking of the fact that the word 'have' contains a /v/, and since the /v/ in "have to" is devoiced (obligatorily, at least for me), "half to" more accurately represents the phrase phonetically. Voicing the /v/ in "have to" sounds quite archaic to me, and primes constructions like "I still have homework to do" much more than the relevant meaning "I am required to X". Unfortunately constructions like "one and a half to two" and "half to death" make it almost impossible to turn up genuine results of this online. A similar situation obtains with "supposed to": if you tell me you're "suppo[zd] to do" something, my first thought is that someone's making a supposition about you, rather than giving you a requirement. The devoicing here is so necessary in my idiolect that voicing the final cluster sounds like hypercorrection to me. The spelling "suppose to" again seems very common: almost 7M ghits, with several grammar sites warning against this "mistake". COCA actually turns up some instances that seem to be genuine as well. This type of phonological reduction is common with set phrases, and I'm guessing is assimilation in voicing to the following /t/.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

pragmatic ambiguity?

Last weekend was the annual LSA meeting, and so I drove to Pittsburgh, PA to spend a few days carousing with linguists. On the PA Turnpike there are a number of tunnels through the mountains in central PA. Naturally, you should have your headlights on when driving through these tunnels (though they are somewhat lit). Signs just before the tunnels instruct you to do so: "Turn on headlights". However, I was more puzzled by the signs after such tunnels: "Headlights on?" I knew how to answer the question: "Yes." But why was it being asked? Clearly the designers thought it was an obvious question to ask, but I was more confused. Were they making sure I still had my headlights on, because I was going to be going through another tunnel soon? This doesn't seem right, because I'm pretty sure the signs appeared after every tunnel, including the last one coming through the mountains. But in that case it would seem they're asking to make sure I remember to turn them off. This seems odd because daytime running lights are a common safety feature on newer vehicles, and in fact some areas of the country require you to drive with your lights on all the time, since it increases the visibility of your car. So I'd be surprised if they were reminding me to turn off my lights. However, I can't really think of any other options. It seems insane to say that they're just calling my attention to the state of my lights so that I can adjust them as I see fit. What else is there?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

heritage languages

Many Americans don't give a thought to what their heritage language is. No doubt this is partly because we are titans of assimilation and monolingualism (and I don't mean that entirely as a bad thing -- it's no doubt the reason why it's not ridiculous to speak of "Americans" in a country with dozens of ethnic groups spanning almost 4 million square miles). I'm only the third generation born in the U.S. on my maternal side, and I know exactly three phrases in German (excluding things I learned outside my family), and one of them is "Gesundheit". I think another reason we don't think about heritage languages is that we have so many of them. I don't know if I know a single second-generation (or greater) American who has ancestors from a single ethnic group. Depending on which line I'm tracing, my "heritage language" might be German or Scottish or Irish (or maybe even Italian or Hungarian -- old census and shipping records aren't the clearest).

In another sense, we all speaker our "heritage language", if we define heritage language to refer to the language of the culture we identify with. While the U.S. has no official language, English has become the de facto lingua franca, with 82% speaking it natively and up to 96% fluently. Insofar as English is the national language of the U.S., and insofar as I consider myself an American, English is in some sense my heritage language. But I think for many people that use the word "heritage", it means a lot more than this. It's not just about genes or cultural affiliation, but about self-identification. If a German child is adopted by Lakota parents and grows up speaking Lakota without knowing a word of German, is Lakota his heritage language any less than his parents? I don't doubt that there are many who would say "yes", but it's a touchy subject trying to foist heritage languages on others.

It's not by accident that I chose Lakota in the above example. The concept of a heritage language is of utmost importance for people who are losing their language. For native peoples of the Americas (I'm choosing North America because that's where I live and those are the languages I've studied the most), language is much more bound up in culture than for Europeans. European traditions, religions, and politics have been translated and adapted so many times that I have met very few people of European descent who identify strongly with the language they speak. While nuances are of course lost in translation, I would wager that few would say that the ideas in Machiavelli's The Prince would be lost if we lost the original Italian printing. On the other hand, there is a very strong feeling among American language speakers that losing their language means losing their culture, and means losing unique ways of looking at the world. (NB: there are other American language speakers who feel equally strongly for the opposite view.) Thus the concept of a heritage language is a very important one.

These are just musings. You may disagree with some or all of them. That's fine. One final thought: given that languages evolve, where does our "heritage language" begin and end? If English is John's heritage language, is Middle English? Old English? Proto-Indo-European?