Posted by Neal on June 3, 2009
This is Doug and Adam’s last week of school, so they’ve been bringing home folders stuffed with papers they never got around to bringing home before, and things that only come home at the end of the year, like their workbooks and journals. I was flipping through a journal-like booklet that Adam brought home, which turned out to be what he’d used every week for an assignment that consisted of copying several words in cursive three times each, then copying a sentence, and then copying the beginning of another sentence and making up an ending for it. The sentence start for one week in April involved a robot:
I bought a robot that was supposed to clean my room, but it mouth functioned, made a mess in my room, and blew up.
Adam’s teacher had simply put a line through mouth and written mal in red pen, probably the work of two seconds as she made her way through a pile of 25 booklets that day. I, on the other hand, stared at mouth functioned for a good minute, going through what must have happened to result in Adam’s creation of this new compound verb…
First of all, the /l/ in malfunction, coming as it does after a vowel, is pronounced as dark /l/, otherwise known as velarized /l/, written [ɫ]. That is, the back of the tongue is raised toward the soft palate (aka velum) as if it were on its way toward making a velar sound like [k] or [g].
Velarized /l/ is often perceived as another velar consonant in English, namely [w]. (Although the main thing you do to make a [w] is to round your lips, it’s a fact that the back of the tongue also rises toward the velum.) In fact, speakers of some dialects consistently produce [w] where others would have [ɫ]. So do some children who may eventually grow up to pronounce good velar /l/s. I still remember visiting my cousin Greg when we were four years old and him calling me Neo, i.e. [niw]. In the case at hand, [mæɫfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n] is liable to be perceived as [mæwfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n], and perhaps even spoken that way by Adam’s peers.
So Adam has in his vocabulary the word [mæwfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n], and now he has to write it to finish his sentence. How does he spell it? Mowfunctioned? Maufunctioned? Maybe. But he can tell that this word consists of function and some kind of prefix or independent word: [mæw]. What the heck does that mean? It’s certainly not a prefix he’s heard on any other words, or standing on its own (unless he’s caught me singing “Elvira”, going “Giddy Up A-Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow”, but I try not to let that happen).
But wait, he reasons, maybe what he’s been hearing as [f] is really two consonants: [θf]. That’s reasonable: it would be easy to hear two voiceless fricatives next to one another as a single phoneme if you weren’t expecting them, or if the speaker wasn’t clearly enunciating. In that case, the word at the beginning is not [mæw], but [mæwθ] — mouth! This is a compound verb: mouth function. Of course, mouth function doesn’t make much more sense than malfunction if you don’t know the prefix mal-. But as with most cases of folk etymology, a little bit of sense is better than no sense; a word with a meaning (mouth) beats what is to him a nonsense syllable (mal).