Spoonerisms and you

Have you ever woken up in the morning and found yourself shaking a tower when you really should be taking a shower? Or maybe you are accidentally mending the sail instead of just sending the mail. You have probably run across a few of these kinds of speech errors and laughed at how silly they sound, but they end up being more complex than they initially appear.

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These particular speech errors are known as spoonerisms. The etymology of the word spoonerism dates all the way back to the early 1900’s to a man named Reverend William Archibald Spooner. Reverend Spooner was evidently quite famous for making these particular errors to the point that The Times, a London based newspaper, coined the term spoonerism in a 1921 article.

Spoonerisms are the result of switching consonant sounds, or vowel sounds between two words in a phrase. The easiest examples to think of are ones where the word onsets are switched like I have shown above. This is not the only way to form a spoonerism though. You can also switch vowel sounds between two words to form a phrase like Kinkering Kongs their titles take as opposed to Conquering Kings their titles take (A famous example from Reverend Spooner himself).

Spoonerisms are a subtype of speech process error known as metathesis where sounds in a word (or words) are rearranged in some way. Metathesis is most commonly applied to two adjacent syllables in a word in a process called local metathesis. A good example of metathesis would be the common mistake of pronouncing it perscription rather than prescription. Spoonerisms are the result of a long-distance metathesis process across multiple words and are less common overall.

As I mentioned earlier, spoonerisms aren’t just the result of a swimple sitch. There are some restrictions that unconsciously control our ability to produce these errors. The first restriction is the pronounceability of the resulting words. To put it simply, the words will both need to be pronounceable and, ideally, already be words on their own after the switch occurs. This prevents you from forming spoonerisms from a phrase like juicy fruit because neither fruicy nor juit is a word. As I said, they do not need to be words. Sitch, is not a word (unless you count the hip shorthand for situation), but the spoonerism at the beginning of this paragraph is still plausible. In addition, swimple is not a word, but it contains the word swim, which is a word, and so we are able to pronounce it without difficulty.

A second consideration for these spoonerisms is that they cannot result in a curse word being formed. I would not exactly call this a rule because I am sure that someone, somewhere, at some time, has made a spoonerism that resulted in a curse word. What I mean here is that our brains will unconsciously monitor our speech and avoid accidentally cursing. Intentionally cursing is a different story, but unintentionally cursing is something we normally don’t like to do.

For example, one would not likely metathesize the phrase shoddy bit to form… well, you know… But that is not to say it is impossible either! If you have an example that you have come across, feel free to let me know.

Now at this point you might be saying “but Jesse, what is the point of these? When will I ever need to know this?” And to that I say, you won’t! This is just a fun thing that we as humans do. But perhaps it may be useful if you ever want to read about the wonderful tale of Rindercella! Rindercella is a story told by many people over the years that contains many examples of metathesis and spoonerisms (some of which follow these guidelines but most of which do not). And if you go and read or listen to this now, you will be able to pick out the well formed and ill formed examples. Here is a small excerpt from the text to show you what I mean.

When Rindercella arrived at the bancy fall, the prandsom hince met her at the door because he had been watchin’ behind a woden hindow. And Rindercella and the prandsom hince nanced all dight until nidmight…and they lell in fove. And finally, the mid clock strucknight. And Rindercella staced down the rairs, and just as she beached the rottom, she slopped her dripper!

It turns out that when you are making spoonerisms for the sake of comedy you can ignore all of the rules (and in fact it is funnier if you do) so we really have to dig for a proper one. The closest that we can get it slopped her dripper, but even this one is questionable because there is an intervening word.

Of course the lack of good ones provides us with plenty of bad ones! Switches like nanced all dight and prandsom hince are only barely pronounceable and are certainly not English words. We will let these slide though because this was all done intentionally for giggles. We can also see several examples of local metathesis though with switches like rindercella, and nidmight.

And now you know a bit more about spoonerisms. This is just a quirky little thing that we humans will do from time to time. Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


The Fan-fkn-tastic Rules of Language

Whether its to express anguish or to emphasize something excitedly, The F Word is a versatile word within the English language. We all know that it can be a noun, a verb, and an adjective already, but a lesser discussed feature of it is what It can do inside of a word. The ability to insert The F Word into the middle of a word, or infix it, is constrained by the underlying structure of the word.

Take the word “fantastic” for example. It’s a three-syllable word with no prefixes of suffixes. We can easily insert The F Word after the first syllable and end up with something like “fan-fkn-tastic”, but we can’t put it between the second and third syllables to make something like “fanta-fkn-stic” (or fantas-fkn-tic depending on how you want to divide it).

You can probably think of some other three syllable words that pattern the same way so you might try to generalize that The F Word can be inserted between the first and second syllable of a word. But what about a four-syllable word like absolutely. You can “abso-fkn-lutely” break it up like this, but it’s “ab-fkn-solutely” weird to put it anywhere else.

So what can this tell us about the structure of these words then? If it’s not just about the syllables, what is constraining where we put The F Word? This is where we need to talk about the concept of a prosodic foot. This is a concept that you may already be familiar with if you study poetry.

Essentially, a prosodic foot within a word is what gives us a sense of rhythm within a word. Prosodic feet are composed of two (disyllabic) or more syllables in a word, one of which is stressed or “long”, and the rest being unstressed or “short” (there are cases of all stressed syllables and all unstressed syllables in a foot, but we won’t be talking about those today). The two most common types of disyllabic feet that you have likely heard of are iambic feet and trochaic feet. In an Iambic foot, the second syllable will be stressed while in trochaic feet, the first syllable will be stressed. Iambic feet are pretty well known thanks in part to William Shakespeare and his penchant for writing in an iambic rhythm.

With these definitions in mind, lets review some of the words from above:

If we assign a beat structure of sorts to these words where “DUM” is a stressed syllable and “da” is an unstressed syllable we can see that they both have uniquely different rhythms.

Fantastic – da-(DUM-da)

Absolutely – (DUM-da)-(DUM-da)

The two words shown here both happen to have trochaic feet where the first syllable in the foot is the one that is stressed. So now we can adapt our rule to say that the F word can only be infixed in front of a foot.

xkcd #1290

Of course, this just wouldn’t be English if there weren’t a few exceptions to the rule. What about a more complex words like “unbelievable”? I think we can all agree that “un-fkn-believable” sounds a lot better than “unbe-fkn-lievable”. Linguists have adapted the rule to prioritize morphological boundaries of a word over the rhythm and foot structure in these cases, and because the “un” in this word is a prefix that attaches to the word “believable”, we would prefer to separate it for the sake of infixing than to use the rhythm structure and leave behind this “unbe” thing.

Now think about a word like Kalamazoo. You might be okay with both “Kala-fkn-mazoo” and “Kalama-fkn-zoo”. Maybe you have a strong preference one way or the other. At the end of the day, there is no perfect answer to the problem of where we can infix The F Word in English, but there are certainly some interesting things you can do with it. I encourage you all to go out there and see what you can F up!

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.