Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Degemination Trouble

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2008

I’m used to the fact that in English spelling, doubled consonants aren’t always pronounced twice. Sometimes they are; for instance, to say top pick, you hold your [p] (oh, grow up!) for a longer time than you would to say topic. This extended pronunciation is referred to as gemination (“twinning”). But often, doubled consonants are pronounced just the same as a single consonant, and that’s what makes words like accommodate so difficult to spell if you don’t learn their Latin roots. The cc and mm were pronounced as geminates in Latin, but somewhere along the way to modern English, they got degeminated. I’m fine with all this.

But darn it, it doesn’t work in the other direction! You don’t go around pronouncing non-doubled consonants as geminates. Well, usually you don’t. The words thirteen, fourteen, and eighteen are exceptions that come to mind: Many speakers (including me) pronounce them as if they were thirt-teen, fort-teen, and eight-teen. Actually, though, eighteen is a good example of what I’m talking about. I don’t like it when people take a compound word written with a doubled consonant, remove one of them, and still expect me to pronounce the word with a geminated consonant. For example, there was that playpen we bought for Doug when he was a baby. I remember it… as if it were… about nine years ago…

It wasn’t just any playpen. It was one that the manufacturers were calling a play yard, because it was so big and spacious, you know, with plenty of room to play touch football or have a picnic. I objected enough as it was to this repositioning of playpens as play yards — this futile attempt to recast a confining device for a baby as a fun personal space. But what made it even more galling was the manufacturers’ spelling of the word: playard. Not only did they want me to abandon the word playpen in favor of this marketer’s creation; they wanted me to disobey the conventions of English spelling to do so. I refused: As far as I was concerned, playard rhymed with layered, and was a ridiculous name for a playpen. I’m not denying you could call a playpen a “playered”; you could also call it a frop, a siff, or a kluppy if everyone agreed on the meaning. But why would you?

What reminded me of all this was a sign I caught a glimpse of last week while I was driving. I’m assuming it was for a swimming pool equipment store:


But hey, who am I to say there’s no market for scatological theme parks?

13 Responses to “Degemination Trouble”

  1. Viola said

    Knowing there had to be an exceptional play on words with this writing, I looked up scatological in my handy-dandy-wrist-breaking Webster’s and just about fell over laughing! Too funny! I can see clearly now how Doug has inherited an innate ability to describe bodily functions in great detail.
    As a teenager I could not understand why anyone would chop off the end of our hard-earned years (eighteen, especially,) and expect to get away without pronouncing and spelling it the way it was originally intended. I had a “middle-finger-to-the-world” attitude about it for awhile, then eventually succumbed to the general population’s way of handling it. It’s good to see you have not completely given up on the fight for our right to spell and pronounce numbers in keeping with their originality. Doggone it! Even forty has the “u” taken out of it. Just when I thought those days of frustration had passed….thanks Neal….thanks a bunch….

  2. Kip said

    This seems to happen primarily with brand names. I guess it’s “youthful” or “edgy” because it breaks the rules?

  3. Nancy said

    Ah, yes–Pooland. As Urban Dictionary informs us, it’s “situated 2 metres below Poland.”

    And let’s have a moment of admiring silence for, purveyors of fine writing implements surrounded by a body of water.

  4. Alexis said

    In Adelaide, Australia, there’s a place by the beach called The Beachouse. (It’s a big building with waterslides, arcade games, dodgem cars, etc.) I’ve never been able to figure out if it’s supposed to be a compound word from ‘beac’ and ‘house’, or from ‘beach’ and ‘ouse’ (and what on earth are beacs and ouses, anyway?), nor can I figure out what exactly the people who named it were thinking when they did so.
    But wait, the story gets even better. The Beachouse replaces another structure that once stood in its place. It was a big building with waterslides, arcade games, dodgem cars, etc., cunningly disguised as a big fibreglass rock. (Why? I have no idea.) This big fibreglass rock looked disturbingly like a giant fibreglass poo. We would jokingly call it the Big Poo (its actual name was Magic Mountain), but I suppose we should have called it Pooland.

  5. Glen said

    Viola, purposely or inadvertently, brings up the word “doggone,” which seems to be undergoing degemination at this very moment (both “daw-gawn” and “dog-gone” sound okay to me). The related but less socially acceptable “goddamn” may be in a similar state of transition, though I still much prefer the geminated pronunciation.

  6. Viola said

    Freudian slip on my part! I prefer “goddamn” as well, but my puritanical upbringing causes me to think of a lightning bolt hitting something/someone if I actually say or write, “God damn it.” So far I’m in the clear as I type. Perhaps it’s time to say it like I mean it……geminated and all.

  7. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I’ve long thought the double consonant in “thirteen” and “fourteen” was odd. I wonder why it’s there.

  8. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’ve seen at least one laundromat here in Madison that brands itself as a “Washouse”; that spelling bothers me for the same reason that “Beachouse” bothers Alexis. Come on–is the owner advertising the building’s history (“was-house”), or was he thinking of an “ouse” (whatever that is!) to do washing in?

  9. ACW said

    The usual spelling of the word “threshold” has always bothered me for exactly this reason.

  10. Robert said

    I do not pronounce the t in eighteen as a double consonant. For me it is eigh-teen, the first syllable being pronounced like ay, the archaic word meaning ever. I am English, so this could be a regional pronunciation difference.

  11. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    The “thirt-teen, fourt-teen, eight-teen” geminations are so natural to most Americans that I’ve rarely heard anyone criticize them. (I suspect that the first two got geminated T’s by analogy with the last, which really is “eight” plus “-teen” historically.)

  12. […] Now that I think about it, though, why shouldn’t we get degemination here? It happened with fully and really long ago. Another adverb that Rowling used often enough for me to notice Dale’s pronunciation is coolly, and that one Dale seems to pronounce sometimes with a geminate /l/, and sometimes without. (I wonder how he’d pronounce Pooland.) […]

  13. qpnvjckflxbn said

    In my dialect, gemination is inserted on sevent-teen and nint-teen as well.

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