Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Metathesis’ Category

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?

Posted in Acronyms, Metathesis | 5 Comments »

Mavrelous Favre

Posted by Neal on August 5, 2008

I’ve been learning some interesting things about Brett Favre during the past week or two. For example, I learned that there’s a guy named Brett Favre. I also learned that he is (or has been) a quarterback for Green Bay Packers since 1992. I’ve learned that there are conflicting statements of why (or even whether) he is retiring from football, the latest being that he’s not. And I’ve learned that his name is not pronounced [feIvr̩ ], i.e. like favor, nor [favr̩ ] (which would rhyme with bother if you replaced the th with a v), nor even [favrə], with a little “uh” sound on the end. It is, in fact, pronounced [farv], rhyming with Harv, Marv, and starve.

It’s tricky for English speakers to figure out what to do with -re at the end of French loan words. I’ve heard them pronounced as syllabic [r], as in cadre (rhyming with otter); pronounced as [rə], as in Sartre, the two-syllable pronunciation of genre, or the three-syllable pronunciation of macabre; and simply dropped, as in the one-syllable pronunciation of genre and the [məkab] pronunciation of macabre. But with the [r] and preceding consonant metathesized? That was a new one to me.

Or so I thought at first. Then I remembered hors d’oeuvre, which I, like everyone else I knew, pronounced as [ɔrdr̩vz] “or-durves” — until I took French in high school, and learned that ordurves, which I’d heard pronounced but never seen spelled, and hors d’oeuvres, which I’d seen spelled but never heard pronounced, were one and the same. (Kind of like when I learned that a rendezzvuss and a rendezvous were the same thing, or that Tuckson and Tucson were the same place.) Since then, I’ve never been able to bring myself to say the word. I can no longer pronounce it [ɔrdr̩vz], but don’t wish to put up with the questioning looks, chuckles, or rolled eyes if I pronounce it [ɔrdʎvrəz]. Until horse doovers becomes standard, I’ll just have to make do with appetizers.

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Posted in Metathesis, Sports | 19 Comments »

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.

Posted in Metathesis, Phonetics and phonology | 7 Comments »