Soft palettes

From Christine Haughney, “Banned by Many Airlines, These Bulldogs Fly Private”, NYT 10/7/11:

The [brachycephalic]  breeds, which also include Persian and Himalayan cats, have smaller openings to their noses and elongated soft palettes on the roofs of their mouths, which make breathing more difficult for them, veterinarians said.

This is from the print edition. The soft palettes have become soft palates in the on-line version.

As far as I can see, this is a simple spelling confusion, based on the homophony of palate and palette (not to mention pallet, though that doesn’t figure in this story) — rather than some deeper, eggcornish confusion. (Brians’s Common Errors treats it straightforwardly as a matter of spelling.)

A subtlety: there are many English speakers for whom palette/pallet and palate are not homophones, though they’re very close: for these speakers, the unaccented vowel in the first words is higher than the corresponding vowel in the second word. For these speakers, the difference is notable in pairs like roses vs. Rosa’s; in near-rhymes like messes and Texas (Nobody messes with Texas); and in puns like the one in There’s no right way to eat a rhesus (punning on Reese’s, here).

People who don’t make the distinction are of course unlikely to detect it; the two variants will “sound the same” to them.

But even for people who make the distinction, the phonetic differences are small and the the actual tokens are variable. In addition, the distinguishers are faced with a great many productions from non-distinguishers, and these vary from tokens that are generally higher to those that are generally lower. For these reasons and others, even distinguishers may be poor at detecting the difference.

The result is that although the distinction is in some sense out there, it might not make much of a difference perceptually for most people most of the time: the pairs are then effectively homophones. Spelling palate “by ear” can lead you to PALETTE (or perhaps PALLET).


One Response to “Soft palettes”

  1. On the bulldog watch « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] — or, as the people interviewed put it, brachycephalic (earlier mention on this blog here): He argues that we’ve bred dogs like the bulldog (and other short-faced “brachycephalic” […]

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