October 02, 2007

Pinker's almer mater

The September 22 issue of The Guardian featured a long profile of Steven Pinker by Oliver Burkeman. It's worth reading, especially if you want to know about some of the extreme reactions that Pinker's work in linguistics and evolutionary psychology has provoked. ("You wouldn't believe the kind of hate mail I get about my work on irregular verbs," Pinker boasts.) But buried in the middle of the piece (as it originally appeared) is an error that Pinker would surely appreciate:

Pinker graduated from Montreal's McGill University in 1976, reading experimental psychology, then completed a PhD in that field at Harvard, in 1979. (He has spent the rest of his professional life in the neighbourhood of Harvard, moving to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then back to his almer mater.)

Jenny Davidson spotted the goof right away, and eventually the Guardian ran the following correction in the Oct. 1 paper:

An interview with Steven Pinker referred to his "almer mater"; we meant alma mater.

As Pinker himself pointed out in Words and Rules, "speech errors provide clues on how the speech system is organized." (Just ask our own blunder maven.) This is an error of the graphological rather than phonological variety (and not atypical for a paper endearingly called The Grauniad), but it too yields some linguistic insights.

The first thing to note is that "almer mater" and "alma mater" would be pronounced the same for the non-rhotic speakers that predominate in Great Britain: both would be [ˌalmə ˈmɑːtə], give or take some variation in the vowels (the a of "mater" is sometimes pronounced as [eɪ], for instance). Given this pronunciation, it's not too surprising that a Latin expression would be misrendered in this way, since it's opaque for anyone not carrying around the knowledge of its derivation from alma (feminine of almus) 'bounteous' + mater 'mother'. A non-rhotic speaker might remember the -er of mater and accidentally extend it to both elements of the compound — in this case possibly further encouraged by the subject of the article, Pinker (that's [ˈpɪŋkə] to non-rhotics). I've spotted the error in some other UK media sources, such as this from the Liverpool Daily Post: "Heidi [Range] recently opened the performing arts centre at her almer mater, Maricourt."

The non-rhotic pronunciation of er in unstressed position as [ə] is responsible for a number of peculiar orthographic phenomena — peculiar at least from a rhotic speaker's perspective. For instance, it makes this already cryptic passage from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh even more difficult to decipher:

When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, "But I thought he was a boy?"
"So did I," said Christopher Robin.
"Then you can't call him Winnie?"
"I don't."
"But you said—"
"He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what 'ther' means?"
"Ah, yes, now I do," I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.

Elsewhere, Milne introduces a similar non-rhotic pronunciation spelling in the name Eeyore, which rhotic readers might be surprised to learn is meant to represent the sound of a donkey, i.e., [h]ee[h]aw.

Another non-rhotic spelling stumper involving -er is the title to the Led Zeppelin song "D'yer Mak'er." That's supposed to be pronounced like Jamaica [dʒə ˈmeɪkə], with the spelling indicating a punnish misunderstanding in a rather lame joke. Wikipedia elucidates:

The name of the song is derived from a play on the words "Jamaica" and "Did you make her", based on an old joke ("My wife's on vacation in the West Indies." "Jamaica?" "No, she went of her own accord.") ... The title, which appears nowhere in the lyrics, was chosen because it reflects the reggae flavor of the song. [Robert] Plant has said that he finds it amusing when American fans completely ignore the apostrophes and pronounce it as "Dire Maker".

Some other non-rhotic pronunciation spellings with er I've come across: proberbly and princerple for probably and principle, Murkarker for Macaca [məˈkɑːkə] (which I found when researching last year's Macaca-gate), and manner (from heaven) for manna (one of several non-rhotic items in the Eggcorn Database).

Finally, there's er itself, used as a written representation of the "pause filler" or "hesitation particle" [əː], which rhotic speakers would tend to write as uh. In his entertaining new book Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, Michael Erard notes that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (father of the Supreme Court Justice) made an early complaint about this pause filler, using the variant spelling ur:

Once more: speak clearly, if you speak at all;
Carve every word before you let it fall;
Don't, like a lecturer or dramatic star,
Try over-hard to roll the British R;
Do put your accents in the proper spot;
Don't,—let me beg you,—don't say "How?" for "What?"
And when you stick on conversation's burrs,
Don't strew your pathway with those dreadful urs.
(Urania: A Rhymed Lesson, 1846)

For Holmes (born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1809), burr(s) and ur(s) would both have been pronounced non-rhotically, with the [əː] vowel. (Similarly, James Russell Lowell, another versifying 19th-century New Englander, used the pronunciation spelling princerple.) The proportion of non-rhotic speakers in the U.S. has since waned dramatically, so that now the spelling of the hesitation particle as er is sometimes (mis)construed rhotically, as if it were pronounced [ɚ] (rhotic schwa) or [ɹ̣] (syllabic r) — thus turning a pronunciation spelling into a spelling pronunciation.

I could go on about linking r's and intrusive r's and such, but I think I've wrung enough analysis out of the Guardian error for one post. (Hat tip, Regret The Error.)

[Update #1: Arnold Zwicky writes:

Googling on "almer mater" pulls up rather a lot of instances from American speakers. Some of these could be mere anticipations in typing or writing -- these are pretty common (my daughter's blog has a recent occurrence of "one one" for "on one", and I have some examples from my own writing, like "an organizing working" for "an organization working") -- but I'd imagine that many are reshapings of "alma mater" based on the knowledge that the expression is Latin and that words in Latin agree with each other in some way, leading to making the spelling of the first word "agree" with the spelling of the second, primarily accented word. ]

[Update #2: The Guardian writer, Oliver Burkeman, sent a very pleasant email. My apologies for originally spelling his name as "Burkmann," which was how Jenny Davidson had it in her post. The inevitable Bierce/Hartman/McKean/Skitt Law of Prescriptive Retaliation strikes again! Mr. Burkeman writes:

What a fascinating post! I feel strangely honoured. I'm tempted to pretend it was a deliberate error in a piece on language, intended to stimulate such an interesting discussion on language, but I don't think I have quite enough gall.
I can confirm that I'm a non-rhotic speaker, and that there's no difference between how I pronounce "alma" and the non-word "almer". I assume that's why I got this wrong, though of course when it comes to my unconscious mental processes, your guess is as good as mine. I did, of course, know the correct spelling of "alma mater", but that just makes things worse, really...
Also, I never studied Latin. That's the decline of the British education system for you.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 2, 2007 04:55 PM