October 23, 2007

Voilà!  Ear spellings

Those of us at Eggcorn Central get a lot of mail about things that are dubious as eggcorns: simple misspellings, word confusions, morphological reshapings, "demi-eggcorns", etc.  Often it's hard to know quite what to say about particular examples -- "In 1776, America through off its monarchy", from a posting to soc.motss on 9/26/06; you might not know what to say about this one, until you learn that the poster is a notoriously unsteady speller -- but every so often a pretty clear not-an-eggcorn-or-anything-close-to-it case comes along.  I offer you an assortment of spellings for voilà in English: walla, wallah, wala, wa-la, wella, wha-la, vwala, etc.

These spellings have been noted several times in the eggcorn database; Brians's Common Errors mentions "vwala" (with distaste) in its entry for viola/voila; and two correspondents have written me at moderate length on the subject (one last August and one today).  Here at EC, we are dubious that anything more than "ear spelling" is going on here; I don't see any evidence of reanalysis at any level, or of any semantic content introduced in the spellings.  As Pat Schwieterman wrote in the Eggcorn Forum on 10/25/05:

Personally, I think it's just a phonetic spelling rather than an eggcorn. There is a word "wallah" in English, but it's hard to see that people who use "walla(h)" in place of "voila" are thinking of the usual meaning of "wallah."

I'd add that the existing English word wallah (borrowed from Anglo-Indian) has main stress on the first syllable, voilà on the second (with, in English pronunciations of the word, a first syllable either unstressed or bearing a secondary stress).  (In fact, the hyphenated spellings might be an attempt to suggest primary stress on the second syllable, as in ta-da!)

Today's correspondent, Earl Davis, supplied some hits for the "wh" variant (and suggested that this spelling might be an attempt to represent the complex onset /vw/ in French):

"Wha-La! Class Schedule!" [blog title]
Finally done and ready for your perusement...MOSAIC CLASS SCHEDULE Winter 2007...  (link)

"Unfortuneately this gave the younger gneration the liscence to start feathering the sides of their hair, which eventually lead to chopping the sides off--leaving only the long hair in the back. And Wha-la: you have the classic mullet."  (link)

"Splenda is actually just the brand name for sucralose, a sugar derivative, which is made through a patented multi-step process that converts natural sugar cane to a no-calorie, non-carbohydrate sweetener that your body doesn't recognize as sugar or carbohydrate -- so it doesn't get metabolized. Wha-la! It's calorie-free!"  (link)

My August correspondent, Paul Wolman, suggested that the "wella" spelling (which seems not to be nearly as common as some of the others, though the existence of the Wella company makes it hard to tell) might convey some connection to the English adverb well -- something like "Well, there!" -- but I'm inclined to think the "e" is a spelling for a neutral vowel in an unstressed first syllable.  (Still, there might be a few people who've made a connection to well.  People are ingenious.)

A reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.  If you've heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven't seen it in print (or don't remember having seen it in print, or didn't realize that the spelling "voilà" represented this particular word), you're in trouble.  People tell you to look up words if you don't know their spellings, but where do you look in this case?  If you don't know French, or don't recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/ (I think this is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren't "putting on", or at least approximating, French)?  So you spell it "the way it sounds".

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 23, 2007 03:16 PM