Thursday, 22 January 2015
My wife came home the other day and said, “I have a language thing for you.” (This is always an excellent way to get my attention.) Her story: “I noticed that a person I work with says fustrasting for frustrating.” In other words, they leave off that first R in fru-.
That sounded interesting. I tried some web searches, but this proved, um, somewhat frustrating, because search engines overwhelmingly want to auto-correct your fat-fingered entry. (Did you mean...?) But I managed to get some hits, including Urban Dictionary, the Grammarphobia blog, the amusingly named Ottawa Valley to English Dictionary, and some cites on the Wordnik site. I didn’t get a lot of insight, but these hits did tell me that the pronunciation of my wife’s colleague was not an idiosyncrasy and that a fair number of people say (and apparently even write) this.
When you encounter a pronunciation that’s “wrong” but is nonetheless often attested, it’s a good bet that there’s a linguistic basis for the pronunciation. For example, the (in)famous variation ask-aks/ax reflects dialectal variations in English that go back 1200 years. As another example, people often “add letters” when they pronounce words, like mason-a-ry and ath-e-lete. This turns out to be a well-understood phenomenon that goes by the name epenthesis. (Some words that are perfectly standard today, like thunder, reflect historical epenthesis.)
I had a hunch that the fustrating pronunciation had some phonological basis, so I sent a query to a couple of actual linguists. One of them directed me to an entry on the Phonoblog, where I learned that R-less fustrating is an example of the delightfully named liquid dissimilation. (“Liquid” here is used here to refer to the “liquid” consonants: in English, R and L.) The exact mechanism isn’t nailed down, but Nancy Hall, the blog post author, mentions another linguist’s observation that the dropped R is in words that have another R in them next to a schwa sound, and a theory is that, to put it generally, the existence of one of the R’s is causing speakers to drop the other.
What made this vivid for me, and not just a weird thing that people with some other dialect do, was to see the long list of words in which this can occur. It’s very easy for me to hear, including possibly from myself, the dropped Rs in words like these:
As Hall points out, this can also occur with L—her specific example is Pache[l]bel’s Canon; there’s even a lovely example of this on Amazon.
- prost[r]ate (not to be confused with prostate [cancer])
- … and many more. (See the blog entry for her list.)
This is just another example of one of the wonderful things about learning linguistics—you go from “Why do people say this wrong?” to just “Why do people say this?” And the latter is actually a much more interesting question.