June 08, 2004

Those obstinant n's

I found Gene Buckley's example of inclimate weather delightful, partly because it reminds me of one of my favorite bedtime stories: a little paper written by Otto Jespersen in 1902, called "The nasal in nightingale" (Englische Studien 31, pp. 239-242). It seems that English speakers have been having a hard time with nasals before consonants for centuries—probably ever since the sound change that deleted [n] before consonants in weak positions, as in an tomato > a tomato, mine life > my life, in the > i' the, and so on. Certainly, the phonetic difference between [ɪŋkləmə̃ʔ] (with a nasalized vowel in the final syllable) and [ɪŋkləməʔ] (without) is so subtle as to be hardly noticeable in many instances—especially when the nasal [m] right before it is exerting its own nasalizing influence. In the case of inclement ~ inclimate, the tantalizing connection with climate breaks the tie. But what if there's no handy eggcorn to be had?

Interestingly, the usual trend seems to be to err on the side of caution, adding extra nasals "just in case." Jespersen points that several English words have been altered in this way: nightigale > nightingale, passager > passenger, messager > messenger, etc. For many centuries, the country to the west of Spain was known as Portingall (Chaucer, Epilogue to the Nun's Priest's Tale: "Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyghen With brasile ne with greyn of Portyngale".) Other fun examples that used to be more popular than they are now include skelinton, milintary, and cementery. And this process is by no means dead: Google turns up lots of hits for things like dormintory, compensantory, exanctly, Ambercrombie and Fitch, and even celenbrate. Another stunning example was recently given to me by Jaye Padgett, who admitted that a family member of his says [ompən] for open.

Confusion among -ate ~ -ant pairs is even more prominate, since both are legitimant suffixes. I myself must confess to saying obstinant, inordinant and indiscriminant, with nasalization from the preceding nasal misinterpreted as belonging to the suffix. (I myself don't say fortunant or unfortunant, but a fair number of people seem to.) Even without the preceding nasal, though, folks often feel compelled to sneak in an extra one:

  • [link] "From the moment of walking in, they would see how lowfully inadequant it was."
          (lowfully??? Someone's been listening to Tom Brokaw too much—this one merits a post all of its own!)
  • [link] "In protected harbours or areas of low water movement more delicant and faster growing seaweeds can dominate"
  • [link] "But still, I'm willing to trust the judgement of an illiterant, dyslexic, no hoper barman!"
  • [link] "Mrs. Murrary was very passionant and caring."
  • [link] "I'm Anglican, which is about as close as you can get to being Roman Catholic without having celebant priests"

There are, of course, some that go the other way round, too:

  • [link] "They probably reported a delinquate payment because of this girl's ridiculous incompetence"
  • [link] " Learn to write, pronounce, and recognize the consonates and vowels."

For the most part, however, substituting -ate for -ant/-ent has to be encouraged by folk etymology (as in inclimate) or by the existence of a related -ate verb:

  • [link] "IP is the dominate protocol in the internet today"
  • [link] "The benefits to the participates and sponsors include opportunities to learn about and influence formation of international standards..."

(A notable exception is the word elephate for elephant, which pops up a generous handful of times on Google)

One last aside: English isn't the only language that has had sporadic insertion of nasals: the etymology of Spanish manzana 'apple' is mattiana > maçana > mançana, and the use of sandwinch for sandwich seems to be at least as common in Romance languages as it is in English.

Posted by Adam Albright at June 8, 2004 05:37 PM