January 06, 2004

Public Service Announcement: Wedding Vows are not Wedding Vowels

As I've mentioned in this space before, I occasionally check our server logs to see who is visiting us and what they're looking for. These logs show me the URL from which a visitor was referred to our site. About 30 to 40 times a day, the referring URL is something like


In other words, 30-40 people a day are finding our site because they are asking Google or Yahoo! or some other search engine to tell them about "wedding vowels" or "renewing wedding vowels" or "alternative wedding vowels" or the like. I'm convinced that nearly all of these people are planning to get married, or planning to renew their commitment to an existing marriage, not exploring funny word substitutions.

Their searches lead them to a Language Log post by Geoffrey Pullum citing "wedding vowels" as an example of a certain kind of linguistic error, or a jokey discussion by me that mentions one such search.

I wish these people well in their quest, and to help them on their way, I've edited our wedding vowels posts by adding the following announcement, right at the top:

Public Service Announcement: If you've come here because you're interested in solemn promises of faithful attachment in marriage, and you've searched for "wedding vowels", you really should make this search for "wedding vows" instead. A vow is "a solemn engagement, undertaking, or resolve, to achieve something or to act in a certain way." A vowel is "a speech sound produced by the passage of air through the vocal tract with relatively little obstruction, or the corresponding letter of the alphabet", usually contrasted with consonant. Your vows will need to contain both vowels and consonants. I wish you all the best in your ceremony and in your life together!

There is a linguistic point here on which I'm willing to be entirely prescriptive: people who think that a marriage ceremony involves the exchange of vowels are making a mistake. (Well, vowels are part of their ritual statements, but you know what I mean.) There are many dialects of English that fully vocalize syllable-final /l/, turning it into a high back off-glide, and for speakers of these dialects, vows and vowels have merged phonologically. They've become homophones. However, that doesn't make "wedding vowels" a legitimate variant. For /l/-vocalizers, the distinction between vows and vowels is like the distinction between beats and beets -- an arbitrary convention of spelling that they need to learn. Even if /l/-vocalizing became as widespread as the merger of hoarse and horse is -- and that may be where things are headed -- this wouldn't change. I don't make any distinction in pronunciation between hoarse and horse, but if I write about "riding a hoarse", I'm making a joke or a mistake.

Standard English spelling really is prescribed. It's a set of artificial social conventions that change only very slowly. The resulting system has many problems, especially for learners; there are a few regional differences (e.g. -our vs. -or); there are some corners of the culture such as hip-hop lyrics and instant messaging that manage to develop their own conventions; but basically we're stuck with it. This is not a necessary condition -- Elizabethan spelling was not standardized, and writers and their readers got along fine. However, things are different now. English spelling is frozen, and it would take the social equivalent of a hydrogen bomb to make any big changes.

Pronunciation, on the other hand, continues to be a matter in which local speech communities are free to go their own way. In some societies, there are standard ways of talking that are defined in terms of the practice of elite communities -- the Queen's English, the language of the court. But in modern America, there are many potential models, and by no means any popular consensus that we should have a single pronunciation standard, much less any agreement about whose pronunciations should be privileged. I don't personally see any reason to change this -- our welter of accents works as well for us as the variety of Elizabethan spellings did for Shakespeare, even though it can sometimes lead to miscommunication.

There may be a few people who pronounce vowels and vows differently but get confused about which is which. For them, using vowels when they mean vows is just a malapropism, like using epitaph for epithet. Here the politics are somewhat different. If a malapropism becomes common enough, the meaning of the words might simply change, as word meanings do all the time. This appears to be in the process of happening for fulsome in the sense of abundant, fortuitous in the sense of fortunate, and infer in the sense of imply. In the early stages of such a change, it's just a sporadic mistake, and sometimes it never goes any further than that. In the middle stages, it gets to be a sort of battle over what the conventions should be. Things get confused because prescriptivists are often bad historians -- they don't distinguish between variant usages that are innovations, like fortuitous, and those that are hold-outs, like notorious. Whatever the historical details, this is just a struggle over a kind of social convention that often changes, sometimes fairly rapidly. There may be a quick winner and loser, or the struggle may go on for centuries. The one thing that's certain is that trying to keep word meanings fixed over time is not a matter of principle. It's not even possible, and it wouldn't be a good thing if it were. We each have our own opinions about how words should be used -- it give me the willies, personally, when someone uses infer to mean imply -- but as linguists, we have no dog in that fight.

This seems to lead to a contradiction. Spelling is frozen, but meanings are not. So we can't decide spell vows as vowels, but we could perhaps decide that vowels means vows? Well, I don't believe that either change will become more than a sporadic error. But there's no contradiction in any case, because there's no fundamental principle involved. Anglophone society could decide to change its spelling conventions -- it's just a fact of life that this hasn't happened much over the past couple of hundred years, and doesn't seem likely to happen much now. Regions of the anglosphere can also decide to change their conventions about word senses -- and the fact is that this happens all the time.

[Update 1/26/2004: A reader has pointed out that the word avowal is no doubt part of the pattern that results in the vow/vowel confusion. (myl)]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 6, 2004 07:35 AM