Good Enough for Folk Etymology—Part VIII—A. Pocryphal & Verity du Bius SpecGram Vol CLXXXVI, No 2 Contents Speculative Grammarian International Academic and Very Clever Professorial International Linguistics Conference 2020

The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective

Are you in a world of linguistic hurt? The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective (SLAC) will offer you empirical, empathic, emphatic advice you can use!*

Remember, if you can tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, then you don’t need advice! So, if you need advice, trust usand cut yourself some SLAC!


Dear SLAC,

How come when I tell someone my name, they always hear a ‘B’ when I say a ‘V’: McAboy vs McAvoy? And yet I never hear any confusion the other way around when spelling out a word with a ‘B’ in it? Why is the confusion only from V to B and not the other way around?

—J. McAvoy

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Hi Jennifer,

It’s all to do with the orthographic parameters of the two letters ‘B’ and ‘V’. You’ll see that ‘V’, or as linguists might write it, <V> (coz it’s a letter), has no enclosed spaces. This makes it much less salient phonetically. <B> on the other hand, has two enclosed spaces so it’s two times more salient; that’s why the asymmetry occurs. However, normally, people will be writing your name in minuscule<b>. This has only one enclosed area, so it’s less salient than <B> but more than both <V> and <v>.

This is also the reason why Greek has been shown to be much less intelligible than Spanish, French or English to monoglot L1 Japanese speakers. The Greek alphabet, overall, has more letters without enclosed domains that the Latin alphabet. So, to quote Trumpter-Major (1995), ‘the air escapes more easily’. (By ‘air’, of course, Trumpter-Major meant pulmonic egressive airstream. But he was only an amateur linguist (his professional background was in grouse farming) so linguistics has broadly forgiven him the terminology vagarity.) The Chinese character system has of course many enclosed spaces. However, because these represent a lexeme in most cases not a segment, the articulatory and auditory power of the character’s enclosed spaces is spread out and diluted across the entire lexeme, not concentrated around one constituent phone.

This is all based on recent work in graphophonology. Check out Zounds and Shapes (2012) for more. Prior to their work, most explanations of the phenomenon you draw our attention to would have been based on some vague acoustic phonetics principle about relative auditory salience of different types of speech sounds (stops versus fricatives here). But this is now disregarded broadly speaking.

Hofe that helfs!

—SLAC Unit #4465616b

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Dear James

It’s all about the connotations of the graphemes. B is a nice round friendly letter associated with adorable pollinating insects and tolerably good academic performance. V, however, is a mean sharp pointy letter associated with legal disputes, the flight patterns of obnoxious waterfowl, Thomas Pynchon novels, and evil reptilian humanoids from outer space. Therefore, since you are such a pleasant individual, people naturally assume your name is spelled with the nicer letter.

But if you’re so concerned, you could disambiguate by saying “V as in vat, not B as in bat.”

—SLAC Unit #456d696c79

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Dear Jessica,

I feel the disambiguation offered by SLAC Unit #456d696c79 is a little too complex for me. Simpler options include:

  1. ‘v’ as in the voice labiodental fricative not ‘b’ as in the voiced bilabial plosive
  2. ‘v’ as in Vader, not ‘b’ as in Boba Fett
  3. ‘v’ as in Spanish ‘Vasco da Gama’ not ‘b’ as in Spanish ‘Bilbao’

—SLAC Unit #4465616b

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Dear Mighty Young Joe,

Orthography is the last refuge of the scoundrelwhich both SLAC Unit #4465616b and SLAC Unit #456d696c79 knowso you should ignore them. Semantics is where it’s at!

Clearly your interlocutors are struck by your youthful appearance, which primes them to hear the spelling of your name as “a boy”. You can test this by going out in drag and seeing whether people hear your spelled name as “McAgirl”. Alternatively, dress as a sailor, which should result in a “McAhoy” interpretation.

Semantics is so intuitive, don’t you think?!

—SLAC Unit #54726579

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Dear McCurvy,

On further reflection, advise changing problematic letter to a thoroughly curvy one such as ‘O’ or ‘S’ which are known to suffer less distortion when articulated on curvy spheroids such as Earth. If this fails, feast on hamburgers and become yourself curvy; this will both enhance the stamina of your vocal tract leading to purer articulation and allow you to simply roll away from those who continue to fail to understand your name.

—SLAC Unit #4465616b

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Dear McVoynich McManuscript,

Please forgive the ignorance of my colleague, SLAC Unit #4465616b, concerning the shape of the planet! I am honestly embarrassed to be working with such a brainwashed... what’s the singular of sheeple? Anyway, the mishearings you describe are caused by echoes from the crystal sky-dome over the flat earth, and they are sadly unavoidable.

—SLAC Unit #456d696c79

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Dear Janet,

As a follow up to SLAC Unit #4465616b, I think better disambiguations would clearly be as follows:

—SLAC Unit #44616e69656c

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Dear Boy Mack,

You are surrounded by German spies. Due to the lack of phonemic distinction between [w] and [v] in German, German speakers typically confuse them when speaking English, stereotypically pronouncing /w/ as [v], but in real life being more likely to overcompensate and render /v/ as [w]. When in deep cover, they avoid both sounds so as not to give themselves away. Fortition is used because English speakers do not associate this process with German.

—SLAC Unit #50657465

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Raed Yovac(a)m,

A final thought: have you considered writing your name backwards? This can result in a more acoustically salient phonotaxis which not only solves the problem but also grants you an off-beat, left-field, uniquely you neonym (or ‘myneon’).

—SLAC Unit #4465616b

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Dear Attaboy,

Count yourself lucky, some of us spent most of our lives with teachers who couldn’t spell our first names, even if they were written down.

—SLAC Unit #4a6f6e617468616e

[While we never did learn Correspondent McAvoy’s actual first name, we did receive this follow up message: “As a result of your kind responses, I am changing my name to J. Smith.” —Eds.]

* Advice is not guaranteed to be useful, practical, or even possible. Do not attempt at home. Consult a doctor (of linguistics, philology, orin a pinchanthropology) before undertaking any course of treatment. This advice is not intended to cure or treat any disease or condition, inherent or contingent. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, except when it is not. “Empirical” means that we asked at least two other “people” whether our advice was good; one or more of those “people” may be voices in our own heads. “Emphatic” means that you may print out a copy of the advice for personal use in a medium, semi-bold, bold, heavy, black, or ultra-black weight of an italic or oblique typeface using an enlarged font size. “Empathic” means that deep down, in the darkest recesses of our blackest heart of hearts, we really, really care ♥just not necessarily about you.

Good Enough for Folk EtymologyPart VIIIA. Pocryphal & Verity du Bius
Speculative Grammarian International Academic and Very Clever Professorial International Linguistics Conference 2020
SpecGram Vol CLXXXVI, No 2 Contents