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Reanalyzing Words

We just passed 100,000 pieces of spam deleted from this blog’s “Replies”. I spend a good 15 minutes a day weeding out the porn, pharma, investment, and other offers from companies who are bent on destroying the Web by choking it with unwanted ads. One company was sweet enough to send over 100 copies of the same piece of spam as a reply to one of our blog entries in the course of one day.

OK, now that is out of my system (sort of), let’s take a look at word reanalysis. I mentioned phrase reanalysis in an earlier blog. Some call reanalyses mondegreens, after perhaps the most famous instance, which you may read about here. Just remember that mondegreens are not limited to song lyrics.

The real process is called reanalysis by linguists because what happens is that the listener mishears a phrase and draws the lines between the words in the wrong place. Listening is not a passive process: a listener is constantly analyzing sentences and drawing words out of what is a long single tune coming from the speakers mouth. Language is a spoken means of communication and there are no spaces between words in speech as they are here, for example.

The alternation of a and an before nouns has presented problems of analysis by hearers for as many centuries as English has had this article. Generally, the rule is a before a word beginning with a consonant and an before a word beginning with a vowel: a pear but an apple. The problem has always been in drawing the line between this word and the next when the next begins with an N.

My first example is orange, which arose from the misanalysis of the original phrase ‘a narange’, based on Arabic word narange “orange”.

Another famous example is Old English naedre “adder” (an nadre) which turned into an adder between 1300 and 1500, after two centuries of wide-spread, constant reanalysis.

The noun apron was originally napron, from Old French naperon, the diminutive of nape “tablecloth”, which came from Latin mappa “napkin”. Well, the phrase a napron became an apron but the English diminutive of napron, napkin, a small apron after all, survived the cut and preserved its initial N.

Now I have discovered yet another of these misanalyzed phrases: auger is a reduction of Old English nafogar from Germanic compound *nab-gaizaz, a tool for splitting wheel hubs. nab came from PIE *nobho- “navel”, which also referred to the navel of a wheel, its hub, called its nave. This produced in Old English nafu-gár “nave-piercer”. This word reduced by Middle English to nauger and the phrase a nauger. But if you (mis)place the space one letter, the result is what we have in Modern English: an auger.

So don’t laugh at your children when they mistake “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” for “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear”.  Adults misanalyze and reanalyze spoken English in ways that permanently affects it.

2 Responses to “Reanalyzing Words”

  1. Travis Spencer Says:

    I thought this article was very interesting. It was great to hear how some of the words we perceive to be right, actually come from something else. It reminds me of being around toddlers that con not speak very well.

  2. Brn Says:

    As a young boy in North Carolina, I once heard a visiting revivalist denouncing some country singer as “a Nashville Christian” (i.e. partying all week and then going to church on Sunday) and wondering what is wrong with Christians in Asheville.

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