Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

FAFSA Metathesis

Posted by Neal on October 16, 2016

One of the posts from my first year of blogging talked about Doug’s acquisition of the last few difficult pieces of English phonology (his interdental fricatives) as he was closing in on his sixth birthday. This post is about an information session the wife and I attended on how to apply for financial aid for college, since Doug is now in his senior year of high school. I can’t believe he’s been with us for 18 years now; it seems like only 15 or 16.

As the speaker talked about need-based aid, merit-based aid, personal-quirk-based aid, gift-aid, self-help aid, COA and EFC, I kept noticing one thing. In an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep myself awake, I tweeted about it:

That’s right; our expert speaker kept referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as the “FASFA”. Even when she was warning us to beware of the scam sites that awaited us if we went to, and carefully spelling out, she said, “That’s F-A-F-S-A, fasfa, dot G-O-V.”

As you may have gathered from my tweet, I found this puzzling. Aside from failing to sound out a pretty straightforward piece of English spelling, the speaker (and many of the audience members, too, including my wife) were behaving in a phonetically perverse manner, it seemed to me. Usually, changes in pronunciation make a word easier to say, by reducing the number of “gestures” that need to happen to pronounce it (i.e. the number of repositionings of the tongue, lips, or other articulators). As written, FAFSA has the advantage of having both /f/ sounds near each other, separated only by a vowel. Once you get your teeth and lips in position for that first /f/, you can leave them mostly in position while you say the /æ/ vowel, then bring them back together for the next /f/. Only then do you need to move the tip of your tongue into position to say the /s/, and after that, there are no more consonants to get into position for. On the other hand, to say /fæsfɑ/ requires you to move your articulators from /f/ position to /s/ position, and then back to /f/ position. Two repositionings as opposed to one.

If the /fæsfɑ/ pronunciation isn’t due to ease of articulation, maybe it’s due to frequency effects. In other words, maybe words or frozen phrases in English that contain the sequence /sf/ just occur more frequently than those that contain /fs/. More fas(t) forwards, hemispheres, and asphyxiating misfits than offseason games and Rafsanjanis.

Actually, I think that’s not a bad explanation, but in the past few days, another one occurred to me. I was giving Doug the highlights of the meeting his mother and I had been to…

“So,” I said, “You’ll need to fill out the FAFSA, which stands for ‘Free Application for Financial–‘ uh…” What was it? Free Application for Student Financial Aid? No, that couldn’t be right, because that would make the acronym FASFA, which we have established is wrong. So what was it, then? Oh, right: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The word financial isn’t even in there at all! The form that’s all about financial aid doesn’t have the phrase financial aid in its name! So it could be that people say FASFA because they expect the last part of it to stand for financial aid.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that FASFA is a common mispronunciation, so for all my USA readers, how do you say FAFSA? If you pronounce it FASFA, do any of the above three reasons ring true to you?

5 Responses to “FAFSA Metathesis”

  1. Ran said

    FWIW, I’m not sure that the number of articulatory gestures is really different, at least for me; my lower lip is actually further from my upper teeth when I say /æ/ than when I say /s/, so the work to return to /f/ is the same either way. And since our tongues are much more quick and agile than our lower lips, it seems plausible to me that it’s as easy to insert an /s/ while going from /æ/ to /f/ as to add it afterward.

    As for what it causes this metathesis . . . I wonder if one factor is the same sort of mechanism that caused the lag dissimilation in words like “purple” and “marble” (from Old French “purpre”, “marbre”)?

  2. M. Makino said

    I like your explanation. The term shares a register with a lot of other academic words that go from s to f. What other words go from f to s, where s begins a new syllable?

  3. I’ve always said /fæfsɑ/ and find the metathesized form really awkward to say.

    • Ran said

      Same here, but I think it’s a matter of practice; if /fæsfə/ were what I were used to, I think /fæfsə/ is what I’d find awkward to say.

  4. timoteostewart said

    No clue about the true etiology of /fæsfɑ/, but it seems like you’ve identified the prime suspects. Maybe it’s cousin to why when I’m talking about restaurants at the shopping mall I keep on saying “California Pizza Chicken” instead of the correct “California Pizza Kitchen.”

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