Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Have you ever felt that you needed to nip something in the butt, or had the misfortune to witness a damp squid? And what can Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi and Freddie Mercury tell us about language change?

Well, if you know Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze”, you surely remember the moment where he interrupts his train of thought with the unexpected request, ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Or perhaps you recall “Living on a Prayer”, where we hear that apparently It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not. And who can forget the revelation, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard?

Wise words from Celine Dion

If you do remember these lyrics fondly, you are not alone – lots of people are familiar with these exact lines. There is just one problem, of course: none of those songs really say those things. Instead, the lyrics involved are ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky; It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not; and Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. And yet thousands of English speakers the world over have had the experience of listening to “Purple Haze” and the others – and of misunderstanding the words, entirely independently, in exactly the same way.

Mishearings of this kind are common enough that they have been given a name of their own, mondegreens – a word invented by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a poem containing the following lines:

For they hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green

and assumed that it listed not one but two victims – the unfortunate Earl himself, and “Lady Mondegreen”, a plausible character who happens not to feature in the real poem.

Why does this kind of thing happen? One reason has to do with the nature of spoken language. On the page, English sentences come pre-packaged into words, each of which is made up of distinct, easily-identified letters which look pretty much the same every time. But pronounced out loud, they are not like that! Instead, a continuous, mushy stream of noise makes its way into our ears, and it is up to our brains to work out what speech sounds are actually in there, where one word ends and the next one begins (think the-sky versus this-guy), and so on. Obviously this process is not exactly helped when there are rock guitars competing for your attention too.

Obama’s elf….. don’t wanna be… Obama’s elf… any more…

But another reason is that we are never ‘just listening’ passively. Instead, behind the scenes, our minds are busy trying to relate what we’re hearing to our existing knowledge – not only our linguistic knowledge, but our general knowledge about the world. For example, the common-sense knowledge that people tend to kiss other people, rather than intangible abstractions like the sky. This is obviously very useful most of the time, but in the “Purple Haze” case it leads us astray, because the more implausible meaning is the one that Jimi Hendrix intended.

What has this all got to do with language change? Well, the crucial point is that what I’ve just said – interpreting sounds is complicated, and to navigate the process we engage our common sense as well as our knowledge of the language – applies just as well to normal conversation as it does to song lyrics. We don’t always hear things perfectly, and even if we do, we have to square the things we’ve just heard with the things we already knew, which provide a guide for our interpretation but may sometimes take us in the wrong direction.

So if you hear someone referring to a really disappointing experience as a damp squib, but are not familiar with squib (an old-fashioned word for a firework), what is to stop you thinking that what you really heard was damp squid? A squid is, after all, a very damp creature, and not always something that people are hugely fond of. Similarly, the expression to nip in the bud makes sense if you latch on to the gardening metaphor it is based on – but if you don’t, well, nipping an undesirable thing in the butt does sound like a very effective way of getting rid of it. So, people who think the expressions really are damp squid and nip in the butt have made a mistake along the lines of “kiss this guy”; the difference is that here they may end up using the new versions in their own speech, and thus pass them on to other speakers. And the process doesn’t have to involve whole expressions: individual words are susceptible to it too, for example midriff becoming mid-rift or utmost becoming up-most.

It’s beautiful, but undeniably damp

Misinterpreted words and expressions like these, which have some kind of new internal logic of their own, are known as eggcorns. This is because egg-corn is exactly how some English speakers have reinterpreted the word acorn, on the basis that acorns are indeed egg-shaped seeds. And the development of a new eggcorn may not involve any mishearing at all, just reinterpretation of one word as another one that sounds exactly the same. Are you expected to toe the line or to tow the line? Are people given free rein or free reign? In each case the two expressions sound identical, and each brings with it some kind of coherent mental image. For the moment, toe the line and free rein are still considered to be the ‘correct’ versions of these idioms, but perhaps in the future that will no longer be the case.

As words and expressions are reinterpreted over time, the language changes little by little: in speech and in writing, people pass on their reinterpretations to one another, in a way which may eventually pass right through the language. The underlying factors producing eggcorns are the same as those producing mondegreens. But unlike the lyrics of “Purple Haze”, words and idioms don’t generally have a fixed author and don’t belong to anybody, meaning that if everyone started calling acorns eggcorns, then that just would be the correct word for them: the previous, now meaningless term acorn would be no more than a historical curiosity, and English as a whole would be very slightly different from how it is now.

So this is how we get from Jimi Hendrix to language change – via mondegreens and eggcorns. Have you spotted any eggcorns in the wild? And how likely do you think they are to catch on and become the new normal?

Drinkable houses, edible canoes and Trojan horses

Drinkable houses, edible canoes and Trojan horses

Michael Lotito, a French entertainer known as Monsieur Mangetout, became famous for his penchant for devouring objects that most would consider inedible. From bicycles and televisions to the most bizarre of all, a Cessna 150 light aircraft.

Though Monsieur Mangetout hailed from France, one might have thought that he was from the archipelago of Vanuatu. This small island nation is not only famous for being the most linguistically dense country in the world – with over 130 languages for a population of just a quarter of a million – but is also renowned for its intriguing possessive classifiers, which turn up in sentences when you talk about the things that you own, much like the possessive pronouns in English – my, your, hers etc. But in the Oceanic languages of Vanuatu these classifiers also tell us about how you will use the item that you own.

It took Michael Lotito two years to eat the Cessna 150!

The most common distinctions these classifiers make are between three types of possessions: ones that can be drunk, eaten and a residual classifier used when the more specific instances of eating and drinking aren’t needed. So, for example if you speak Paamese you can make a distinction between a coconut that you will drink, ani mak ‘my drinkable coconut’; one that you will eat the flesh of, ani ak ‘my edible coconut’; or one that you intend to sell, ani onak ‘my coconut for an unspecified use’.

But, more intriguingly, several languages of Central Vanuatu, spoken on the islands of Pentecost, Ambrym, Paama and Epi, use the food and drink classifiers for some rather strange items that one might not consider to be edible or drinkable — though of course Michael Lotito might beg to differ. The drink classifier in the language of North Ambrym covers a rather broad range of entities, including the obvious drinks such as water, tea, coffee and juice:

(1)	ma-n			we	/	ti	/	jus
	DRINK.CLASSIFIER-his	water		tea		juice
	‘his water/tea/juice’

But the classifier is also used with items that can’t be drunk, like the words bwelaye ‘cup’ or bwela ōl ‘coconut shell (used as a cup)’, but also im ‘house’, hul ‘mat’ and bulubul ‘hole’. And in the Sa language spoken on Pentecost island, the food classifier can also be used with the word bulbul ‘canoe’!

The languages of Central Vanuatu where houses can be drunk, except for Raga which likes to be different.

How do you drink a house? How do you eat a canoe? While Michael Lotito might well be able to eat canoes and drink houses, the people who speak these languages certainly do not! So what explanation can be given as to why and how these non-drinkable and non-edible entities are included within the semantic domain of drinks and food?

The words meaning cups and containers of liquids are included with the drink classifiers in some of these languages due to a process of semantic extension. This is when the coverage of the semantics of a classifier are extended to include entities that are frequently associated with the core meaning of that classifier. This type of semantic extension is known as metonymy, where the word for a container can be used instead of the word for what it contains – e.g. in English we can use the word ‘dish’ to refer not only to a plate, but also to its contents. It is not such a large cognitive step to associate drinks with cups, and that is why containers of liquids are now included in the drink classifier’s semantic domain. However, it is quite a large cognitive leap to think that houses are associated with drinks and canoes with food.

To explain how houses are now classified along with drinks and canoes with food we have to look into the history of the languages and how these languages have changed through time. This is of course quite a difficult endeavour considering that these languages have no literary traditions and are only now just starting to be written down. We cannot  consult old texts to see how the language used to be several hundred years ago as these don’t exist. Though limited records exist for a few languages going back to the mid 1800s, we mainly have to rely on comparing how related languages in the area differ and try to figure out how they got to be different.

Let’s start by looking at the language of Apma, spoken on Pentecost. The word for house, imwa, doesn’t occur with the drink classifier, but instead occurs in a different possessive construction where the owner is marked directly on the word for house, instead of on a classifier:

(2)	imwa=n		atsi
	house=his	person
	‘a person’s house’

This type of construction, called direct possession, normally occurs with possessions closely associated with the possessor, including body parts and kinship terms, but sometimes includes more intimate personal possessions as well. Now if we look at Apma’s neighbouring language, Ske, spoken to the south, the noun for house occurs with the drink classifier:

(3)	im	mwa=n			azó
	house	DRINK.CLASSIFIER=his	person
	‘a person’s house’

As you can see the word for house in Ske, which historically for the languages of Pentecost would have been imwa just like it is in Apma, has been split, where the first part im now means ‘house’, and speakers recognise the second part of imwa, namely mwa, as identical in form to the drink classifier. Speakers have now reanalysed the second part of the word for house as being the drink classifier, and now accept houses as being classified along with drinkable entities. A similar mechanism has occurred across several other languages of Central Vanuatu, and this is why houses are classified along with drinks.

Just what is a drinkable house anyway?

In most languages of Vanuatu this change didn’t occur and houses are either directly possessed or occur with the residual general classifier. But in a few other languages, the word for house developed into a distinct classifier that is different from the drink classifier. In the languages of Southern Vanuatu the word for house iimwa has now turned into a classifier for locations and places, and is distinct from the classifier for drinks — nɨmwɨ.

Now what about the edible canoes that I mentioned earlier? This strange occurrence happens in the language of Sa, also spoken on Pentecost island:

(4a)	a-k			anian		(b)	a-k			bulbul
	FOOD.CLASSIFIER-my	food               	FOOD.CLASSIFIER-my	canoe
	‘my food’					‘my canoe’

Historically, the word for canoe was waga in Proto Oceanic, and the word for bulbul was used for a specific type of canoe. Sometimes linguists get lucky and there can be historical documents that help show us the way. Miss Hardacre, a missionary living in northern Pentecost in the early part of the twentieth century, made a small dictionary of the Raga language. In this dictionary she recorded the generic-specific word pairing waga bulbul, ‘canoe type/raft’. Now in Sa, the original word for canoe, waga, underwent several sound changes until it ended up looking like the food classifier, where only the medial vowel /a/ was left! The new word for canoe was bulbul, whereas the old generic term, waga, merged into the food classifier. In other languages of the area, such as Raljago, spoken on Ambrym, a separate classifier for canoes and boats emerged, distinct from the food classifier. Thus, the food classifier is a, but the canoe classifier is ai.

Sometimes when a merger takes place, the noun that merges into a classifier acts as a Trojan horse. Looking back to the language of North Ambrym, where the drink classifier can occur with other nouns denoting houses, parts of houses, and mats. The word for house that originally merged into the drink classifier acts as a locus for semantic extension, opening a back door to other nouns that are semantically similar — those that are in the domain of houses — to enter into the drink classifier as well.

I think Michael Lotito would have felt at home speaking one of the Oceanic languages of Vanuatu. He might even have said of his Cessna 150ː

(5)	a-k			Cessna 150
	FOOD.CLASSIFIER-my	Cessna 150
	‘my edible Cessna 150’

Many thanks to Andrew Gray who runs the languages of Pentecost Island website and is my co-conspirator in turning this post into a journal article!

A whole nother story

A whole nother story

Words do some truly inventive things when they change, and change they always do. Some switch their sounds around, like when hros became hors, nowadays spelt with an extra e as horse. Some lose their sense of having an internal composition, like when wāl-hros ‘whale-horse’ became walrus. Some cave in to peer pressure and change their looks to conform with others, including one of my favourite cases in English, when under the influence of similarly-meaning words probably, possibly, plausibly which all end in -bly, we get supposably, which is how in some varieties of modern English you can say ‘supposedly’. One the of truly odd things that words do though, is to start stealing sounds from their neighbours.

A famous case in English is an apron, which used to be a napron, until the n got snaffled by the a. It goes the other way too. A newt was originally an ewt. Of course, in Middle English when this n-theivery was underway, there were a few more words complicit in the heist, for example my napron also became mine apron, and your napron became yourn apron, since at that stage in English, words like my/mine, your/yourn worked like a/an. So, ever wondered why the nickname for Edward is Ned? As in mine Ed, ourn Ed? Got it? Speaking of which, nickname was originally ekename and was also involved in a swindling of n from the previous word (the eke-, which is related to eke in ‘eke out a living’, meant an addition or supplement, so mine ekename was my additional name).

It’s not only in English that words have indulged in this shifty business. In late Latin, the word originally borrowed from Greek apotheca would have been l’aboteca, which you may recognise today as Italian la bottega, Spanish la bodega or French and English boutique. In Danish, the plural pronoun meaning ‘you’ is I, related to English ye, but in closely related Swedish it’s ni with an extra n. Where did it get it? Theft. The corresponding plural verbs used to end in -en, like haven i ‘have you?’, and you can see what happened next. In fact, the same game played out a thousand years earlier with singular ‘you’ in several West Germanic languages, except this time it was the verb that kept a piece of the pronoun, when phrases like habēs thū ‘have you?’ became habēst thū, which you might recognise as English havest thou.

How does all this shifting of sounds between words come about? To get an idea, try saying quickly: ‘an apron, a napron, an apron’, and you’ll already have a sense of how this is possible. Unlike on the printed page, words in spoken language stream forth in a smooth and almost seamless flow, and the human brain performs some impressively deft reverse-engineering to slice that stream back up into words. In fact, picking out the individual words in speech is one of the first monumental intellectual tasks we embark on as infants, even before we start learning what the words mean. Recent research suggests that we may even begin this process from within the womb, where we get pre-season access to language courtesy of the muffled rhythms of speech that seep in to us from outside.

Now, you may well wonder how anyone, let alone an infant, can slice up a speech stream into individual words without knowing any of the meanings. Good question. It would appear that the brain operates like a finely tuned statistical inference machine, storing and calculating the relative frequencies at which sounds follow one another, and from this it can begin to pinpoint where the word boundaries are located, since at those boundaries, it is much less predictable what sounds will come next. The trick, then, is that word boundaries are zones of unpredictability, irrespective of their meanings. Of course, we might ask next, why is it that the sounds are so predictable inside the words? One of the reasons for that has to do with what linguists term ‘phonology’: the fascinating way in which sound sequences themselves are intricately structured and highly non-random within the words of human languages, but I’m afraid that for now, that’s a whole nother story.