Friday, 08 July 2011 10:03
In a 30 Rock episode, Jenna stars in a movie, but no one gets the title—"Rural Juror." Jenna keeps calling it "rurur jurur," a hilarious combination of words, which made me want to try a few of my own—Worry Weary ... Arrow 's Error ... Fear of Furor...
Okay, not as funny as Jenna's, but then Tiny Fey's not exactly writing this blog. Still, it got me to thinking about the act of speech, a complicated process that depends on how we shape our hard and soft palates, open our glottis, move our tongue, shape our lips—and the order in which we do it all.
We perform these oral gymnastics with ease in our native languages, almost instinctively, because we've been doing so since childhood. And that's what makes tongue twisters so much fun: they confound our ability to perform our usual verbal gimmicks. Selling sea shells, Peter Piper's pickles, and the wood chuck chucking. Say them fast and you trip up—because you can't move your tongue to the proper position fast enough.
My favorite piece of linguistic trivia isn't quite a tongue twister, but it's close enough to have actually altered the way we say a common word or two.
Don't You Just ♥ Words?
Old English for thunder was thunner—an awkward word due to its phoenetic demands. Say it quickly...and you'll know why the "d" slipped in. It has to do with a slight mistiming—as we move our tongue from the "n" to the "r," says linguist Charles Barber.
This transition calls for two simultaneous movements of the speech organs: (1) the nasal passages are closed by the raising of the soft palate, and (2) the tongue is moved away from the teeth to unblock the mouth-passage. [If there's a mistiming], if the...nasal passages are closed before the tongue moves, a "d" will be heard....
Thus the "d" found its way into the word because it was easier to say. Thunder was was first noticed in the 1300s, but it took another 300 before it was accepted as standard English.
Thimble and bramble are two other words affected by a similar phonetic mistiming, says Barber. They both acquired a middle letter "b."
End of lesson, end of blog post...except to reference Charles Barber's The English Language: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge UP, 2000, p45.
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