Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Contamination’ Category

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.

Posted in Contamination | 14 Comments »

Even More Contamination

Posted by Neal on March 26, 2008

I told Doug the joke that ends with the punchline, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” He loved it, and told it to his mom that night. He started out:

Some psychiatrists did an experiment on two kids. One was an optimist, and the other was a pestimist….

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Contamination, Folk etymology, Morphology, The darndest things | 9 Comments »

Appendix Contamination

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2007

No, this isn’t about bacteria; it’s about back matter. Back in July, Doug was on spoiler alert even after he’d finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Articles about Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling kept mentioning The Lord of the Rings, so Doug quit reading them to avoid running into a LOTR spoiler. He decided he’d better start reading the series now, before a spoiler got through his defenses.

I warned him: He’d better be prepared to plow through the boring parts fast to get to the good stuff. When I first tried to read The Two Towers, I got so bored with what was going on with Aragorn et al. that I skipped ahead to see what Frodo and Sam were up to. Before I knew it, I’d reached the end of the book, and couldn’t bring myself to go back and finish reading the other part. But Doug has prevailed: He read The Hobbit and got all the way through books one and two of LOTR.

Now he’s on book three, which isn’t as long as it looks because the back is stuffed with not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but six appendices and an index. Doug was flipping through the back, and asked me:

What’s an appindex?

“It’s an ap-pen-dix,” I told him, and explained it was where you put details on things some readers might find interesting, but which would slow down the story. Doug started looking at them more closely: “Appindex A: Annals of the Kings and Rulers.”

There it was again: appindex. Looks like Adam’s not the only one in our family to have produced a contaminated linguistic form. Two words with a phonetic resemblance, index and appendix, dragged into even closer phonetic resemblance because of their semantic commonality: “stuff in the back of a book.” That’s contamination, all right.

Addendum: I’ve learned that appindex is a real word, a compound of app(lication) and index.

Posted in Contamination, The darndest things | 2 Comments »


Posted by Neal on February 10, 2005

Adam has an unusual ability for a four-year-old: He can say both ‘th’ sounds, [θ] (as in thick) and [ð] (as in this). It’s not so much that he’s precocious in this regard as that he tends to keep his tongue a little forward in his mouth in general. So even though he makes perfect [θ] and [ð], with his tongue right between his front teeth where it needs to be, he also keeps it there for his alveolar consonants (t, d, n, s, z), so that his perfect th’s come along with a lisp and funny-sounding t’s, d’s, and n’s.

Meanwhile, Adam has been playing Mousetrap a lot during the past week, and I get to hear his perfect [θ] whenever he rolls a three. But when he rolls higher than a three, say a five, he’ll pick up his mouse, and count:

One, two, three, Thor, thive!

Where other kids are busy turning three and free into homophones just because they can’t say [θ], Adam’s taking that [θ] and going to town with it! But why is he replacing his [f] with [θ], when he doesn’t have a problem saying [f]?

It’s because his three has contaminated them. Contaminated them, I tell you! And not only is it a clear case of contamination (i.e., semantically related words becoming more similar to each other phonetically), it’s even a canonical one. According to Hock’s Principles of Historical Linguistics, “contamination occurs frequently in antonyms….” and get this, “It is also commonly encountered in the numerals” (p. 197). The first example Hock gives is from Latin, where septem ‘seven’ and decem ‘ten’ influenced an earlier Latin noven ‘nine’ to become classical Latin novem. The second example is a dialect of Greek in which the initial [h] of hepta ‘seven’ contaminates okto ‘eight’, turning it into hokto. So Adam’s following the Romans and the Greeks (not to mention the Norse) when he says “Thor” and “thive.”

Just as linguists say you shouldn’t, I tried to correct him, to undo the contamination:

Me: Adam, say “three, four, five.”
Adam: Four, five!
Me: Say “three, four, five.”
Adam: Free, four, five!

D’oh! Now the four and five are ganging up on the three and contaminating it!

Posted in Contamination, Phonetics and phonology, The darndest things | 8 Comments »