one-syllabus answers

On ADS-L on the 23rd, Victor Steinbok reported this find, in a comment on a TPM posting of an interview with Rick Perry about birtherism:

Was that a verbatim transcript? What’s up with his one syllabus (or close) answers? Is that how he interviews — like pulling teeth?

At first this looks like some kind of malapropism — presumably a Fay/Cutler malapropism (an inadvertent phonologically based error in word retrieval). But something more interesting might be going on.

First, there are other hits for syllabus ‘syllable’:

I was pissed for a few days now and gave her the cold shoulder, giving her all those one syllabus answers. (link)

… whenever I’m watching a talk show and Paris [Hilton] is on, its always a horrible interview. She gives one syllabus answers and is just so bland and annoying it gets really awkward and the host does most of the talking. (link)

My gal [2 ½ years old] was able to pronounce many single syllabus words (like egg, run, sway, jump, cook, stove, six, nine, ten, eat, pear, blue, green, beige, white, black, read, yes, juice) and a few two syllabus words (i.e. carrot, apple, orange, TV and yellow). (link)

I think I like two syllabus words for the name [for a cat]. I kind of want to think of a name to fit her color and personality. (link)

But much more common are occurrences of n-syllables (or n syllables) as a modifier meaning ‘having n syllable(s)’, for instance:

Not that the man was a talker by any stretch of the imagination, but most times, he would give back laconic, one-syllables answers if nothing else, terse punctuations to Richard’s non-stop stream of chatter. (link)

Need one syllables boy names? (link)

Develop phonemic awareness and knowledge of alphabetic principles by: (a) blending the phonemes of one-syllables words, (b) segmenting the phonemes of one-syllable words … (link) [note variation between one-syllables and one-syllable]

Maybe a sign that I have to start writing my ‘dream trip’ and pick a city that starts with a B for the initial city! Well, actually I think it is a two syllables word. What could it be? (link)

[poem “Ego”] The three lettered, two syllables word, / Adding to the incessant pile of chaos, … (link)

The shift from syllables to syllabus is then either spelling by ear (based on vocalization of the syllabic l in syllables) or eggcorning. But where does syllables come from?

For two-syllables and other modifiers with n of 2 or more, the source is pretty clearly semantics. Measure modifiers conveying ‘of n units’ standardly have the form n-UNIT (a ten-pound weight, a four-line verse form, a six-foot player, etc.), with the unit noun in the singular. But for n ≥ 2, the modifiers all convey plurality, so there’s some attraction for speakers to express this plurality morphologically. The attraction is especially strong for non-native speakers, who provide the bulk of the hits for the modifier two-syllables.

By itself, that doesn’t explain the occurrences of the modifier one-syllables. It could be that some speakers have generalized the n-syllables version to the case of n = 1. But there’s another route to one-syllables in expressions like one-syllables answers and one-syllables words: by anticipation of the plural in the head noun (answers, words).

Both effects might be at work, of course.


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