Friday, June 20, 2008


The word "eggcorn" was coined by the good folks at Language Log (by Geoff Pullum, to be specific), and refers to the substution of an analyzable word or phrase for one which is obscure or archaic. The eponymous example is "eggcorn" for "acorn." Since "acorn" is monomorphemic (and apparently obscure in someone's dialect), a woman insisted that the word was "eggcorn," presumably because acorns resemble small eggs. As much as wikipedia insists that eggcorns and folk etymologies are completely separate occurrences, I think there are obvious similarities. Folk etymologies are more technically only found throughout a society, as opposed to in a single idiolect, but the idea behind them is the same: making sense of an otherwise nonsensical word or phrase. An oft-cited example is "sparrow grass" for "asparagus" (though personally I've never heard someone say it).

There is a whole rash of words that arose via the misparsing of articles and the words they attach to. A different process perhaps, but again, one that stems from a common source: the belief of speakers that they understand the origins or a word or phrase. Examples include "an apron" for historical "a napron," "an orange" for "a norange," "an asp" for "a nasp," etc. One common example that I think we all run into from time to time is "a whole nother." People almost never write this, opting instead for "a whole other," because they know that the word is "other," not "nother." The astute observer may notice that in all the above examples the /n/ is moving from the article to the noun, and never the other way around. This is due to the tendency of syllables to have onsets. Phonetically, when presented with the sequence VCV, people will almost exclusively parse it as V.CV, even if morphologically it is [VC][V]. This is formalized in OT as the constraint Onset (syllables should have onsets).

One final discussion: spelling pronunciations and pronunciation spellings. Spelling pronunciations occur quite often, and are simply pronunciations based on how a word is represented orthographically as opposed to what the historical or more common pronunciation is. A great example of this is the [r] in Burma. The name of the country was more accurately pronounced ba:ma, and in non-rhotic British English, the way to signify vowel length was to add an "r". For them, of course, it would yield something approximating the correct pronuncation, but for us rhotic speakers it creates a non-underlying [r] sound.

A great example of a pronunciation spelling I ran across recently is "pubity" for "puberty." Presumably the person lives in New England, in which case "puberty" and the hypothetical "pubity" would be pronounced the same: pʲubəɾi.

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