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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