Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Metathesis: Not the Same as a Meta-Thesis

Posted by Neal on September 27, 2004

This week I finally received my June issue of Language, which I’ve been trying to read faster than usual, since I should be getting the September issue any day now. The first article in it, by Beth Hume of the Ohio State University, is all about metathesis. The first thing one needs to know about metathesis is that it is pronounced meTAthesis, not MEtathesis. On at least one occasion I’ve seen the word in print while I wasn’t wearing my phonology hat, pronounced it the wrong way, and thought it referred to a thesis about theses. In fact, it refers to transpositions of sounds within a word. For example, I’ve heard several people talk about “agpar scores” for newborn babies, when they mean “Apgar scores.” Or for another example, check out Semantic Compositions‘s posting on cavalry vs. Calvary

The conventional wisdom on metathesis is that, unlike other sound changes that might affect a language’s phonology over time, metathesis is a sporadic, irregular process. If some other sound change, such as a vowel shift or devoicing of final consonants, takes hold in some language, it eventually affects every eligible word in the language; but with metathesis, that doesn’t always happen. But even so, there are cases where it looks just about as regular as any other sound change. For example, there was the swapping of adjacent [l] and [k] sounds in Classical Latin words as they evolved into Spanish: Latin periculum ‘danger’ > Spanish peligro; Latin miraculum ‘miracle’ > Spanish milagro; Latin parabola ‘word’ > Spanish palabra; etc.

Hume’s article takes on this issue, and gives a pretty convincing story on where metathesis is most likely to happen, and why. In short, the more difficult it is for the hearer to make out the sequence of sounds they’re hearing in a word (whether because of the acoustics of the sounds, or their position in the word, or the rarity of the sound combination in that particular language), the more likely they are to use their knowledge of the prevalent sound patterns of the language or of similar-sounding words to fill in the sounds in question. Hume also argues (with evidence to back it up) that the result of a metathesis operation will always be one that already exists in the language. So for people who say agpar instead of Apgar, we would expect that the consonant sequence -gp- is more frequent in their lexicons than the sequence -pg-. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

Aside from the above highlights, though, it seems that Semantic Compositions and I are in good company in enjoying fast food linguistic analysis: On p. 223, Hume has a fun discussion of the alteration of chipotle to chipolte.

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7 Responses to “Metathesis: Not the Same as a Meta-Thesis”

  1. Anonymous said

    Perhaps the metathesis in “Agpar” is encouraged by a perceived semantic connection to “par”, which can mean a kind of score or rating. At least it can mean that in golf.

    Hebrew and Georgian both have productive and predictable metathesis rules in their phonologies. The Georgian situation involves /r/ and /v/ and can be seen in action in the numerals between 10 and 19, the word for 10 being something like /tvra/ or /trva/. I don’t remember the details.

    In Hebrew there is a derivational verb affix /-it-/. It goes before the verb root, but after an obligatory tense/mood/agreement prefix. Or perhaps the correct analysis is that the affix is /hit-/ and some of the tense/mood/agreement prefixes displace the /h/. Regardless, the prefix forms causatives or reflexives or middles or something like that from ordinary transitives. For example, /labeS/ is “dress, clothe”, while /hitlabeS/ is “dress oneself, get dressed”.

    If the first segment of the verb root falls into a small natural class — I guess “apicodental obstruents” is the best way to describe it — then the /t/ of the affix switches places with that first segment. For example, the verb /SameS/ (sorry, don’t know the meaning offhand) becomes /hiStameS/ instead of the expected */hitSameS/.

    –ACW

  2. Neal said

    Thanks, ACW, for the info on Georgian and Hebrew. For readers who want some more details on these examples, check out Beth Hume’s metathesis database I linked to in the posting: it discusses these and examples from other languages, too.

  3. Anonymous said

    Funny, I eat as much Mexican food as anyone, and I can’t say I’ve ever come across chipotle being pronounced as chipolte, although it certainly sounds like something a native English speaker would do to a Spanish (Aztec?) word like that.

    I’m not sure if I would call it a speech error, but I often hear English speakers pronounce the word as though it ended the same way as “poodle”; i.e., with a syllabic /l/ following the previous syllable, and ignoring the vowel at the end. The reason I hesitate to call that an error is that it’s not clear to me that there’s anything “wrong” about normalizing a borrowed word to your own language’s phonology. I don’t have any firm intuitions about what the pronunciation of chipotle ought to be to a monolingual English speaker.

    –SC

  4. Anonymous said

    i’m not a linguist but this phenomena reminded me of another one that i’ve always personally found interesting. do you know much about why we sometimes switch the corresponding parts of words in a phrase? for example, why do people sometimes say “wottle of bater” when they intend to say “bottle of water”? i imagine this tells us something about how our brains process and implement language — specifically, they we don’t speak without knowing exactly what we’re going to say (if we said “bottle” before knowing “of water” was going to come next, we wouldn’t be able to subconciously switch the “b” and “w” sounds). also, why is “of” or other connectors usually immune from this problem?

  5. Anonymous said

    i’m not a linguist but this phenomena reminded me of another one that i’ve always personally found interesting. do you know much about why we sometimes switch the corresponding parts of words in a phrase? for example, why do people sometimes say “wottle of bater” when they intend to say “bottle of water”? i imagine this tells us something about how our brains process and implement language — specifically, they we don’t speak without knowing exactly what we’re going to say (if we said “bottle” before knowing “of water” was going to come next, we wouldn’t be able to subconciously switch the “b” and “w” sounds). also, why is “of” or other connectors usually immune from this problem?

  6. I do not know what neuro-psychological phenomena cause spoonerism. All I know is that it is terribly funny.

  7. (As usual, your new category labels have brought old posts into my feedreader, so I’m commenting on a 8-year-old post.)

    I’ve got a few things to say about this:

    First of all, I believe (accidental) metathesis occurs when the swapped sounds are phonetically similar. So, in your Latin-to-Spanish example, it was not the [l] and the [k] that switched, but the [r] and the [l]: periculum became pelicurum somewhere along the line, and was later reduced to peligro, and similarly for the rest. (Note that parabola does not even have a [k] in it.) I believe the same occurs in the spoonerisms mention in the comments: saying “wottle of bater” likely only happens if the first syllable of your pronunciation of water has the same vowel as the first syllable in bottle. (It doesn’t for me, so I would likely never make that slip of the tongue. I did, however, once say “quee triz” instead of “tree quiz”, so that’s interesting.)

    Secondly, I have a feeling that these resyllabifications in words like Apgar and cavalry have something to do with the sonority hierarchy. I’m not quite sure what the details might be, but I think it’s worth looking into. I would certainly say that it has nothing to do with the semantics of the word in question, as has been suggested. That’s likely just a coincidence. (For example, I made the confusion before I even knew they were two separate words—I went to look up which pronunciation was the standard one and was surprised to find out that they were actually two distinct words!)

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