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The Natural Selection of Language Errors

“Why do some language errors catch on and become permanent while others vanish without a trace?” 


PROVO, Utah (November 14, 2019)—Professor Jeff Turley, Spanish & Portuguese department chair, gave this year’s James L. Barker Lecture. The annual lectureship recognizes exemplary work in linguistic studies. Turley’s remarks were geared toward common language errors and their adaptability into general language usage.

Turley commented that language mistakes often result due to either innocence or ignorance. For example, children who misunderstand words and use similar, funny alternatives are regarded with patience. Educated speakers understand that children typically do not have an in-depth knowledge of language yet but will acquire knowledge with time. So, these errors are born of innocence.

Because we see innocent mistakes as humorous, Turley noted, we disregard their validity in a language. “Eggcorns,” words or phrases incorrectly used for other words or phrases that are similar and logical; “Hobson-Jobsons,” outlandish English interpretations of foreign language words; and “mondegreens,” logical misheard phrases (often from songs and poems), are three examples of language errors that make the unfamiliar more familiar but are not taken seriously enough to effect a lasting change in language.

Language flubs made by educated speakers, however, are not usually received with the same attitude. When an adult speaker makes ignorant, linguistic errors it is often regarded as annoying. However, Turley made the distinction that mistakes made from “excusable ignorance” often have a lasting effect on language.

These excusably ignorant mistakes lay the groundwork for folk etymologies, or language mistakes that provide a logical replacement for a confusing piece of language; it occurs to many people in many places that a certain linguistic element is better off replaced by another more familiar one.

Turley gave the example of the Hindi word sīrsakar. The word originally denoted a striped, puckered cotton fabric and entered the English vocabulary in the 18th century. Because they were not familiar with the Hindi language, English speakers began to refer to the fabric as seersucker, “even though the fabric had nothing to do with seers or suckers,” because it was a logical, recognizable replacement for the foreign term.

Folk etymologies lead to permanent change in a language, Turley concluded, because “they take something that’s incomprehensible and they fix it, they supply a reasonable error.”

Tori Hamilton (Editing & Publishing ‘20)

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