Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Nuclear Contamination

Posted by Neal on March 16, 2011

With the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, there has been a lot more occasion to hear nuclear-related vocabulary on the news. I’ve been learning new terms, and getting a scary refresher on others I hadn’t been entirely clear on before. I’ve now learned about containment vessels and control rods, and have also learned that a meltdown is so named because the fuel rods literally melt, a detail I’d been unclear on before. (Hey wow, unclear and nuclear are anagrams.)

On the American Dialect Society email list, a discussion has been going on about another nuclear-related term: fission. The question is: Is it pronounced more like fishin’ and mission, or like vision? That is, is it pronounced [fɪʃən], or [fɪʒən]? Before Sunday, I would have said [fɪʃən] (a lot like fishin’), no question, but that afternoon I heard Adam’s den leader pronounce it as [fɪʒən]. I dismissed it as one guy’s error, but judging from the ADS-L thread, the pronunciation is pretty common.

To me, it sounds like another case of contamination. We have a set of semantically related words; in this case, the pair fission and fusion. The words have something in common phonetically as well as semantically: their initial [f] and final [ən] syllable, not to mention the fact that both [ʃ] and [ʒ] that are similar acoustically. The words become even more alike phonetically when the [ʃ] in fission becomes an [ʒ] like the one in fusion. The different vowels in the words’ respective first syllables remain different from each other: one remaining phonetic difference to convey the semantic difference.

Why did fission become more like fusion and not the other way around, so that fusion ended up more like fuchsia and Confucian? Because fusion is the more familiar word, appearing in collocations such as fusion cuisine or jazz fusion. It’s also transparently related to the verb fuse. Although I see that fission also has biology- and anthropology-related meanings, the only time I ever hear it is in the context of nuclear stuff, and it has no related verb. Well, it does, but just not in English; the Latin verb source is findere.

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14 Responses to “Nuclear Contamination”

  1. dw said

    Are you sure that [ʒ] in “fission” is more common than [ʃ] in “fusion”? I would expect the latter to be quite common from non-native speakers who lack [ʒ] in their first languages.

  2. Ryan said

    I kind of wonder if the voiced fricative might be a more common pronunciation because fission with esh and ‘fishing’ in fast and casual speech sound so similar. Yeah, I realize that the general population, when they have occasion to talk about fission, will probably be using a more formal register of speech, and will thus be enunciating more carefully, and the semantics of each word are entirely incompatible, meaning confusion is very unlikely. Regardless, I seem to remember reading something about how an established word in a language with a certain phonological form can prevent speakers from morphologically deriving a similar word from an unrelated (borrowed?) stem with a different meaning. But then, I might be making it up, I can’t seem to find anything on it.

    At any rate, when I say [fɪʃən] I mean , and is exclusively [fɪʒən].

  3. The Ridger said

    I grew up in a town built on nuclear technology (Oak Ridge, TN) and I’ve never said – nor, I tentatively say, heard – anything but the “vision” rhyme. Tentatively, because I’m not sure I would have noticed if one of the non-native-English speakers had used it, or that I would have noticed it at all, really. But I’m surprised to hear that the ‘fishin’ version is common.

    • Beth said

      Ok, I’m so late on this, but…
      Me too. Everything you’ve said here goes for me, including where I grew up.

      It strikes me that a difference in the pronunciation of fission and fishin’ could actually be important in that town. There are some places there one shouldn’t go fishin’ because of fission (or, rather, nuclear waste). Might not be a good thing there if these two words sounded the same. God help the guy that scales the barb-wire fence complete with pole and bait because he heard it was there because of [fɪʃən]! (Gotta be a lot of fish in a pond that’s been fenced off for decades, doesn’t there?) Yeah, it strikes me as a good thing that these words are pronounced differently.

  4. Ran said

    I remember commenting to my sister once that “fission” is unusual in using <ss> to denote /ʒ/ rather than /ʃ/, and being shocked when she replied that she pronounced it with /ʃ/ — and then I looked it up, and I found that dictionaries only had pronunciations with /ʃ/, too.

    I also pronounce “fissure” with /ʒ/, though I suppose that could be secondary contamination by “fission”.

    (By the way, you’ve posted about contamination before, and “nuclear” has various linguistic senses, so I was totally expecting both parts of the the title to be puns. Then I saw that you were writing about Japan, and I thought that neither part of the title was a pun. The end result was pleasantly surprising.)

    • Ran said

      I’ve now confirmed, by Googling site:npr.org fissure, that I’m not alone in pronouncing fissure with /ʒ/. In this story, for example, the correspondent uses /ʒ/ at least once (though he also uses /ʃ/ at least a few times, and several times I simply couldn’t tell which he used); and the only interviewee to use the word, uses /ʒ/.

      Another example of unexpected /ʒ/ is in coercion. There are various reasons that it “should be” pronounced with /ʃ/ (the <c> spelling, the unvoiced /s/ in the related term coerce), and dictionaries only have a pronunciation with /ʃ/; but I pronounce it with /ʒ/, and the first YouTube hit for “coercion” that has an American speaker saying it is this one, and that speaker also pronounces it with /ʒ/ (about 12 minutes in).

      Similarly with torsion, which dictionaries give with /ʃ/, but which I am not alone in pronouncing with /ʒ/.

      And in fact, although there are a lot of words ending in <-r>/ʒ/<ion> that could be influencing coercion and torsion, many of them have related words in <-r>/s/ or <-r>/t/ (verse/version, immerse/immersion, convert/conversion), and dictionaries give a lot of them with both /ʒ/ and /ʃ/ alternatives. So this raises the question, where did their /ʒ/ come from? And why didn’t it affect words with <t>, such as abortion and assertion?

      So, I don’t know, I think the contamination explanation might be incomplete. It seems that /ʃ/ has changed to /ʒ/ in a lot of words for a lot of speakers, and in more words for some speakers than for others. On the other hand, fission and fissure are the only examples I can think of where the preceding vowel is not rhotic, so maybe there are multiple similar effects here, and contamination explains one of them? Or at least, explains why fission and fissure participated in an effect that they otherwise wouldn’t have?

      • Neal said

        This reminds me of equation, which is pronounced in the dialects I know of with /ʒ/, but I don’t know why. I note that the preceding vowel is not rhotic.

      • dw said

        Nearly all of these words are loanwords from French. Most of them are still French words today (with identical spellings). The contemporary French pronunciations are all with either /sj/ or /zj/. For example, “mission” is /misjɔ̃/ and “vision” is /vizjɔ̃/. When they first came into English, they were pronounced similarly: “mission” was /ˈmɪsjən/ and “vision” was /ˈvɪzjən/. The /sj/ and /zj/ clusters subsequently coalesced into /ʃ/ or /ʒ/ (which was a new phoneme) in most cases, although there are still a few residualisms: for example, “issue” is commonly pronounced /ˈɪsjuː/, as well as /ˈɪʃuː/, in England.

        My guess is that Verner’s Law is catching up with these French loanwords as they become common lexical items. They can run but they can’t hide :)

  5. Gabe said

    I’m in the same boat as The Ridger. Not in terms of growing up in Oak Ridge, but in so much as I only ever remember hearing the /ʒ/ pronunciation. I’d have been pretty surprised to see that as the standard dictionary pronunciation, but then again, coming from Pittsburgh, I pronounce a lot of things a little bit off.

  6. Glen said

    I’ve always pronounced it with the zh sound, and I’ve rarely if ever heard it with the sh sound. What’s surprising about this post is that I learned this word from our dad, so I’d expect Neal to have the same pronunciation.

  7. dw said

    Could voicing of /ʃ/ to /ʒ/ have any connection to voicing of intervocalic /t/ in American English?

  8. Jonathon said

    I don’t think voicing of /ʃ/ is related to voicing of intervocalic /t/ per se, except inasmuch as voicing of intervocalic consonants is a pretty common phonetic process, while devoicing in that context would be unusual.

    But I suspect contamination by fusion would be more to blame. I’ve never heard mission with a /ʒ/, so I don’t think intervocalic voicing is the primary culprit.

  9. The Ridger said

    Yes, mission and session are clearly /ʃ/. I bet fusion’s /ʒ/ has a lot to do with it. You’d be talking about both if you talked about either, probably.

  10. malkie said

    I suppose you’ve heard about what the dedicated nuclear engineer does when he’s on vacation? He goes fission. And, of course, he eats at the Atomic Cafe where he usually likes to order fission chips.

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