Friday July 28, 2006

Bolinger on Eggcorns

In doing some background (re-)reading for a generals paper about phonesthemes, I came across a passage in Dwight Bolinger's 1949 article "The Sign Is Not Arbitrary" (Boletín del Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 5: 52-62) that relates some kinds of sound-meaning patterns in natural language lexicons with what we now call an eggcorn around the linguisitiblogosphere.

I've included a little context; the eggcorny part is at the end in bold:

But popular [folk] etymology is only one manifestation of the phenomenon [where "a meaning alters a phonemic shape"], an easy one to single out because whole words, and comparatively few of them, are involved.  It is revealed in another of its aspects in the identification of parts of words which are partially synonymous, where it is difficult if not impossible to regard the parts as separate morphemes.  English smash is converted from mash under the influence of smear, slash, etc.  Regardless > irregardless comes through attraction to irrespective and other words with initial irre-A broader aspect is that of larger units, whose shape may be determined by the suggested meaning of one of their parts.  English rapt, for example, is homonymous with wrapped, and phrases like rapt attention, rapt expression, where the observer is 'wrapped up' in what he observes, enjoy a higher frequency in spoken English than others attributable to the lexical meaning of rapt.  (pp. 56-7)

So Bolinger's idea is this: in the same way that constellations of similar-sounding words occur because related meanings influence speakers to coin new words with related pronunciation (e.g. smash, bash, crash, splash), people are more likely to use turns of phrase like rapt attention, even though rapt isn't a very common word, because their meaning is reinforced by the similar sound and meaning of wrapped.  It's easy to see how this kind of reinforcement, if it exists, could lead language learners to actually confuse rapt attention for wrapped attention, thus producing an eggcorn.  This isn't quite prior art on eggcorns, but Bolinger was definitely thinking along related lines.

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