Two from xkcd

Two recent cartoons from xkcd: #1571 of 8/31, “Car Model Names”; and #1572 of 9/2, “xkcd Survey”, with one question about spelling (“What word can you never seem to spell on the first try?”) and one about words you know (“Which of these words do you know the meaning of?”):



Car Model Names. As Explain xkcd tells us, the formula seems to depend on letter frequencies (in car names vs. ordinary English text), but the model names also involve great dollops of cultural knowledge of various kinds (as with 2CHAINZ and ZIZEK). CERVIXXX gets a high score because of those Xs (and probably the V), and then there’s a double dose of sex (in CERVIX, Latin ‘neck”, but specialized as an anatomical term for a part of the uterus; and then in XXX as well).

Linguists have not neglected car model names. See Mark Aronoff’s “Automobile semantics”, Linguistic Inquiry 12.329-47 (1981).

The Survey. Questions ranging over all sorts of matters (“Have you ever been skydiving?”, “Can you roll your tongue?”, “What color are the walls around you right now?”), including those two about language.

The word knowledge question includes some fakes, “words” that aren’t in standard dictionaries: slickle, fination, trephony, tribution, unitory, cadine. Presumably to tap respondents’ anxieties about their command of language.

The spelling question is very carefully phrased: “What word can you never seem to spell on the first try?” It asks about words you do in fact know how to spell, but falter on when you try to reproduce that spelling, for one reason or another. You might be led into a continuation error, for instance. Or you might misplace the location of a doubled letter; many people have  produced GOGGLE when they were aiming for GOOGLE. These are straightforward typos.

Or you might recall that there’s an issue in spelling some word but have to reflect for a moment to retrieve the correct spelling, as many people do when aiming for either HARASS (one R, two Ss) or EMBARRASS (two Rs, two Ss). (Things are even worse if you know the French noun EMBARRAS.)

Though the line isn’t always clear, these problems in spelling performance are to be distinguished from “false knowledge” about spelling (where you think you know the correct spelling, but you’re wrong) and simple ignorance about spelling (where you don’t know the correct spelling but improvise on the basis of what you know about regularities linking spelling and pronunciation. (Note: simple ignorance can turn into false knowledge; these two  situations are not easily distinguished.)

For some reflection on a very complex case of false knowledge / ignorance (plus variation), see my 6/22/08 Language Log posting “Ar(c)tic”.

Another complex case: alternative spellings for ENVIRONMENT. These turn on pronunciation variants, starting with the very common (mis-)spelling ENVIROMENT, which I recently noticed on a sign in the window of a local store. In ordinary pronunciations, [ǝn] (with nasalized schwa) before the nasal [m] is simplified to nasalized schwa (actually producing the [n] strikes me as bordering on hyperarticulation), and that’s the pronunciation represented in the spelling with O rather than ON.

Meanwhile, [ajrǝ] (spelled IRO) is made easier to pronounce via metathesis, to [ájǝr] (with [ǝr] or just syllabic r), perhaps facilitated by the pronunciation [ájǝrn] (rather than [ájrǝn]) for the word IRON. That gives us spellings like ENVIORMENT, ENVIERMENT, and ENVIRMENT. Independently, the vowel of the first syllable, [ɛ], spelled E, is raised (in many dialects) to [ɪ], spelled I, before the nasal n; or (in even more dialects, including mine) unaccented /ɛ/ is realized as [ɪ] (as in the first syllable of ECONOMY); either way, we get variant spellings with IN as the first syllable, like INVIROMENT. (If I didn’t know the correct spelling or any part of it and had to wing it, I’d go for INVIROMENT.)

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