How Does Pat Cahalan Become Pat Callahan?


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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  1. Wehn I was tcnieahg Eslingh as a scnoed lgguaane, I atlcualy uesd tihs cpnoect to guage the raenidg feucnly of my sednutts.Report

  2. Avatar Rod Engelsman says:

    And yet, conversely, why do misspellings jump out at me so easily and bug me so much?Report

  3. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    My thinking on this is that the phonics and whole word proponents are both correct, in different ways. Phonics is useful when learning how to read or when encountering unfamiliar words, because it gives you a way to figure out how a printed word maps to a spoken word. Ultimately, though, proficient reading requires us to learn how to recognize whole words as atomic lexical units, without considering the letters individually.

    In this sense, reading English is really not so different from reading Chinese or Japanese. In both languages, printed materials for children usually have phonetic annotations on the Han characters, and in Japanese, at least, it’s common for obscure characters to have phonetic annotations even in material intended for adults.

    The recognition relies on fuzzy matching, though. It’s not necessary that the word look exactly as it has when we’ve seen it before—if it were, we’d have to fall back on phonics every time we encountered a new font—but only that it look much more like one specific word than like any other word.

    So why, as Rod points out, do some misspellings stand out, while others go unnoticed? This is just a guess, but I think that it’s because those misspellings are common, and we’ve learned to recognize both the correct and the incorrect spellings as atomic lexical units. If this explanation is correct, then common misspellings should be more noticeable than uncommon ones.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      I was always a whole-word reader, with the result that when I was younger there were many words I recognized but had never heard and had no idea how to pronounce. I think that’s reasonably common.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        My take on phonics vs. whole is that the latter tends to be better for the more language-brained individuals and smarter kids while the former is good for those who are more inclined to struggle. My theory is that we went off the deep end with whole learning because it was particularly effective on exactly the sort of people who set language instruction policy.

        I think our fixation on trying to get kids to “love learning” comes from the same place. Policy is set by people who love learning and think that everyone should love it like they did and that everybody can.

        This isn’t quite what Mike is talking about, but my wife has a number of pronunciation ticks. By reading a whole lot more than conversing or even watching television, she came up with pronunciations of words that are logical, but wrong. And so she’ll be talking and use some word I never heard, I have to backtrack it in my mind, and say “Oh, yeah, that is how a voracious reader might pronounce it if they never heard it before.”

        I have a few of those myself. “cont-in-EWE-it-ee” sounds wrong to me to this day. It is and in my mind always should be “continue-it-ee.” Due to my affinity for comics, I read that word a thousand times before I heard it spoken. (I’m sure I’d heard it spoken prior to reading comics, but it never registered.)Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Wow, Will… there are some REALLY great points here, things I never thought of but which make perfect sense when framed as you did here. Thanks!Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          My theory is that we went off the deep end with whole learning because it was particularly effective on exactly the sort of people who set language instruction policy.

          That’s pretty much exactly the thesis of Why Johnny Can’t Read, which was the first shot in the phonics vs. whole-word wars.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          I’m not going to weigh in on the phonics vs. whole word debate, but I do want to say that when I was in grad school, one of the faculty (who’d been there since the 19th century, I think) was a big player in that debate, and when visiting faculty gave talks on the subject, the discussions (read: shouting matches that nearly came to blows) that resulted were like nothing else I’ve ever seen in academia.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I was a whole-word reader (and had the same “how do I pronounce this if I need to say it or read it aloud” problem), I assume because I was taught to read at a very young age by being read to, constantly.

        Phonetics came later, when I actually started school, and I do think it was helpful when encountering new words for the first time sans context (which is usually how I learned – just hit the same word two or three times while reading and you can get its meaning from context).

        Do they still teach kids Greek and Latin roots I hope? Those STILL help me when encountering new words.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          The Oklahoma legislature just passed a law forbidding the teaching of foreign roots.

          (No politics.)Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          Also, FWIW, I didn’t add an extra L to make Pat’s name “Callahan”; I just rearranged it to “Calahan”.Report

          • Avatar trumwill mobile says:

            I didn’t add a L or distinctly not add one. Rather, I just pronouncedit Callahan in my head until I nnoticed. (Even I I thought it might be a ruse to prevent googling).Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              I definitely “saw” it as “Calahan” – like, when I first noticed the discrepancy, I thought at first that he must have typo’d his own name as “Cahalan” – then I started looking at other posts, and smacking my forehead.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Our language is weird.

    If I write “sleigh” most of us would immediately know what it said and how we would pronounce that combination of letters.
    If I wrote “treigh” we’d get all confused. No one would say “Tray” even though, technically, you could arrive at that. But we don’t right “Tray” that way and -eigh doesn’t phonetically make sense there but we’ve just come to understand that certain words utilize that structure to make the long-a sound.
    Most of us don’t even have to think about it. We say “sleigh” and think “Santa!”; we see “treigh” and think “What idiot wrote that nonsense word?”Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      There’s a sorta-rule for sleigh and enough and suchlike. Enough is simply of Germanic roots, genug. Sleigh comes very late, it was always sled or sledge. Laugh from German again lachen.

      -gh endings are how English has often coped with consonant endings which lost their terminal consonants in spoken usage or phonemes we dropped. Scots held onto the Saxon ch in written usage, loch, etc.

      As some point, probably in the late 1500s, we see usages such as laughe. Chaucer is mostly to blame for the -gh usage, he spreads it about like peanut butter: droughte, knyghte, though, she wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Oh, sure… As I get more into the weeds of spelling instruction, I’m learning that there are more often rules for things that we simply don’t realize. Case in point hard and soft C’s…. certain following vowels dictate one sound from the letter while others dictate the other. I never realized or was taught this… I just thought it was random.

        But my point is about how we use context. When I see “-eigh” coming after “sl-” I understand exactly what it means because I understand the word “sleigh”. But if I just see “-eigh” by itself or after “tr-” I don’t understand it because I don’t understand those letter combinations out of context. English is highly context-driven for decoding and pronunciation because it is such a mutt language, with so much less dependence on phonetics than other languages.

        It is why I have to implore parents to stop freaking out their 4-year-olds because they sound-spell words “incorrectly”. They’re correct… it is the language that’s wrong!Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          So many oddities in the history of English spelling vs pronunciation. As Blaise points out, words were borrowed from several different languages, with different spellings for the same sound. The introduction of the printing press led to standardization of spelling before the end of the Great Vowel Shift. At the same time as the Vowel Shift, the previously pronounced ‘e’ at the of many words became silent, but was retained in spelling as a signal that the vowel was subject to the shift. The example I seem to remember was “name”, which went from being pronounced roughly n?m-? to n?m — the a changing because of the Vowel Shift, the now-silent e becoming a pronunciation marker. And for reasons unknown, the Great Vowel Shift simply didn’t get applied to some words.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            Grumble, grumble,… stupid software filters… grumble. The first question mark is supposed to be an a with the smiley over it that means short, the second one a schwa, and the third an a with the straight line over it that means long. They all showed up just fine in the editing window.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              I’ve found it safest to use HTML entities for anything non-ASCII (now I will no doubt fish this up completely):

              The example I seem to remember was “name”, which went from being pronounced roughly námə to nāmReport

          • Avatar kenB says:

            The Great Vowel Shift, to linguistics grad students better known as the Great Vowel Movement. It applied only to long vowels, and one common way that vowels became long in Middle English was from the loss of final “e” and the compensatory lengthening of the previous syllable — so the loss of “e” pre-dated the vowel shift.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          When I encounter someone who doesn’t speak English well, I always sympathise with them, saying it’s the worst language in the world, a train wreck, promiscuously appropriating words and phrases from everyone. The grammar is awful, usage a writhing mass of exceptions.

          But English is the one language in the world which can be spoken badly and nobody seems to mind. As such, I tell these kids, don’t you fret about it. But don’t sit there and nod if you don’t understand something. Stop and ask. Ask someone else to read what you write. Without exception, America was settled by people who didn’t speak “American”. Millions of people have gone through this process. And the greatest thing about America is this: nobody’s going to ask you to quit being what you were before.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            “But English is the one language in the world which can be spoken badly and nobody seems to mind.”

            As I understand it, American English technically has no major dialects. There is some movement to declare AAVE as such, but the overwhelming sense is that everyone in America speaks the same English. Do any other countries have a population like ours that is as spread out as ours is yet maintain a single dialect? Because I venture to guess that a lot of what we consider “poor speaking” might be closer to dialectic differences.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              A lot of people talk of “southern accent” when the reality is that there are multiple ones. Someone from Georgia doesn’t actually sound like someone from Texas (though someone from Arkansas is likely to). It’s true of dialects, too, though to a lesser extent.

              Which I think is why we don’t have major dialects. There are so many fractures.

              I think the perception that we “speak the same English” is that because dialects are considered “wrong” rather than regional differences. I was raised in a different part of the country than you were, but I expect that we were both taught the same thing as “English.” And English is pretty standard in entertainment, regardless of where a show happens to take place. Though accents, of course, do differ, I’ve noticed that characters from my neck of the woods may speak with an accent, but are unlikely to use our dialectical patterns. Unless the portrayal is intended to be ignorant.

              I don’t know how it works in other places, but among more educated southerners, you get a lot of people that work in two modes*. The way we talk to one another in an informal setting, and the more “standard” language we use if giving a presentation in Chicago. I doubt this is too atypical, but it’s obviously the main thing I have experience with.

              * – Some only have one. A lot of parents, conscientious of stereotyping or just particular about such things, fight their kids tooth and nail when it comes to alternate usage. On the other side, some forget what they learn in school (or don’t learn it in the first place) and just slide into vernacular as the only thing they do.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                It’s actually a tad ironic (or interesting, at any rate) that I am most likely to hear southern speech patterns in black characters on TV than white. Isiah Whitlock (Clay Davis) of The Wire being a big example.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Likewise, there are many New York accents and several New England accents, but they tend to get lumped together too. I worked in Vermont a few, umm, decades ago, and was disappointed that no one talked like Titus Moody. It was explained to me that that’s a Maine/New Hampshire accent.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                All good points. It is possible that Blaise was also speaking of the wrongness of much of our formal, correct English. My Latin teacher, who hailed from Scotland and spoke a full buttload of languages, lamented that Americans learned of only three tenses. “What is pluperfect? That doesn’t exist. It is future, present, and past.” Now, it is true that we don’t often use such structures because we don’t conjugate our verbs in a way that makes them roll off the tongue, but they are there. Things like, “By lunch time tomorrow, I will have had done that”… future perfect… goofy sounding in English, so much so that we don’t really use it… but technically correct.

                I’ll also cop to not necessarily knowing the difference between a “dialect” and “accent”. I always thought of “accent” as pronunciation and “dialect” as grammar and syntax.
                “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” is an accent.
                “I been done with my homework” is a dialect.

                Or something.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                A lot of people talk of “southern accent” when the reality is that there are multiple ones. Someone from Georgia doesn’t actually sound like someone from Texas

                While I was a graduate student at the University of Texas, I had to learn to differentiate between the different Texas accents. Houston is an ugly variation on Deep South; the Panhandle Great Plains twang is different from how they speak in Dallas; and someone from El Paso has yet another accent. After a couple of years, I got so I could pin down which part of Texas a student was from with reasonable accuracy just by listening to them.

                At least to my ear, there is no other accent as grating as a woman speaking “Houston”. When I had to listen to it for a while (eg, office hours), I wanted to just pound my head on the desk.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              With what constitutes a dialect, here we leave off linguistics and fall headlong into pedantry. My old man did a paper on how the radio attenuated American dialects into a few big untidy lumps. Television has done even more to change American English. Mass media really does stabilise a language.

              My theories on AAVE run along these lines: first, there’s no one AAVE. The AAVEs are artefacts of many generation of systematically un- or under-educated black people. Linguistic diversity thrives on illiteracy.

              Are there other countries where a single dialect has made headway? Again, what’s a dialect? My definition says a dialect has never made it into writing. Once a group of people start publishing and broadcasting in their own mutually intelligible form, it’s promoted to a language.

              Consider the higgle-piggle of Proto-German, Dutch, Danish, Frisian and Saxon English. Ask a Frisian, he’ll tell you there are three different languages. Frisian almost got lost: nobody was writing and publishing in it. Thankfully, a few foresighted people started writing in it again and saved West Frisian.

              If and when AAVE ever stabilises and starts publishing, it might be promoted to a language — but I doubt it. It prefers to remain a set of dialects.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                A dialect is a manner of speaking shared by a group of people. A language is a mutually intelligible group of dialects. Oxford, Houston, Brooklyn, and mid-Atlantic are all dialects, just like AAVE. For AAVE to become a “language”, it would have to cease to be understandable by non-AAVE speakers.

                Modern travel and communications has certainly contributed to the homogenization of dialects. AAVE has lasted as long as it has due to the relative isolation of blacks in America. If integration ever results in generally mixed neighborhoods and the demise of the separate block entertainment industry, it’ll go the way of Yiddish. Until them, you’ll still see a black guy from Chicago and another one from Pittsburgh meet for the first time at a convention, start off speaking standard American, and slowly move to AAVE as a sign of kinship.Report

              • Avatar kenB says:

                “A language is a dialect with an army & navy.”Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                That’s where it gets sorta awkward. Anyone who knows German understands most spoken Dutch. Can’t speak it effectively, can’t write it. They obviously share common roots.

                I maintain a dialect isn’t written, or can’t be distinguished in writing from its parent language. Ask a Texan, a Tidewater Virginian and a Vermonter to write a given sentence, you will get no difference. These are accents, not languages.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                The weird thing is that this rings true and at the extreme you get the various chinese dialects. They all have the same written form, but the sound for each word is different even if the same character means the same thing whether you speak Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka or MandarinReport

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                They are really different languages. They’re only called “dialects” in aid of the notion of Chinese unity, sort of conversely to the way Flemish and Dutch are called different languages because they’re spoken in different countries, even though they’re almost identical.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                You are free to use words however you like — it means you have your own private dialect (for which there’s a word: “idiolect”. That’s “idio” as in “self”, of course …)Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                If I were starting a new blog, maybe I’d call if Idiolect. That’d be kind of cool.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                And now, gentlemen, you know why I never taught linguistics. Linguistics and philology are as troublesome as philosophy and theology. I got sick of the endless arguments and talmudic parsing and failures of logic. I turned away from linguistics and went into software.

                After you’ve learned enough languages, dead and living — well let me tell you what it’s like. Languages aren’t rational, though every language swears it is. Nabokov talks about his synaesthesia: letters have colours. For me, languages have faces, friends if you will, the ones I know well enough to call friends, that is.

                Take the tags and gravatars off most of you and I’d know who you are and presume you can do the same. You aren’t merely speaking English, really. You’re speaking Truman-ish, Schilling-ish, Murali-ish. You do realise AI has progressed far enough to sort people out on this basis.

                As friendship has conventions, so does language. Chomsky thought there was a Universal Language and I am now sure he was wrong. There are only the universal conventions which guide us in the contexts of our lives. I once knew a man at Panasonic who’d learned Japanese from his wife, good guy too. But he spoke it as a woman might, his speech a bit too full of honourifics.

                I’ve heard all the debates about Dialect and Demotic, Affect, Idiolect, Accent — they’re all pretty much nonsense. Most of the world’s languages have been discovered. Unless you’re somewhere in the boondocks (itself a Tagalog word meaning mountain), In the absence of any other tangible discriminant, a dialect isn’t written and a language is.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            But English is the one language in the world which can be spoken badly and nobody seems to mind.

            For a while I had a housemate who was getting his PhD in linguistics. He used to say that English was one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn to speak well, for all of the usual reasons: huge vocabulary, as many exceptions as rules, etc. OTOH, he also said that it was among the easiest to learn enough to make yourself understood. He claimed that this was one of the reasons that English-based trade pidgins popped up in so many places, even those where the British weren’t the dominant set of foreigners. As I recall, he thought 5-tone Vietnamese was the hardest language to learn enough to get by in.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              But English is the one language in the world which can be spoken badly and nobody seems to mind.

              Mind? We decide he’s a good guy to have a beer with and elect him president.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain says:

      Occasionally I point out that my last name is an excellent example of the… flexibility of English spelling: Cain, Caine, Cane, Kain, Kaine, Kane, Kean, Keane, and Keanne, to hit the major ones.Report

  5. Are phonemes or graphemes the relevant property here. Or is it some combination of the two? Or is it the two in combination?Report

  6. Avatar Murali says:

    I doubt that the reason this happens has primarily to do with the way our brain works. It may have more to do with the way the language is structured. The first and last letters of words in the english language have fairly good predictive power at least in the relevant contexts. This is less so for tamil. Suffixes add various grammatical modifiers to words. i.e. grammatical elements do not have their own word. What this means is that you can always expect certain suffixes in particular contexts regardless of the root-word which is in use.Report