Slang bans and aphaeresis

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, ’Scuse me, squire – ’tis just aphaeresis gives a brief account of the linguistic phenomenon known as aphaeresis or apheresis, which involves:

the dropping of an initial sound or sounds of a word. Despite its uncommon name, the process is familiar. It’s what lies behind the shortening of especially to ’specially, because to ’cause (also spelt cos), espy to spy, esquire to squire, and alone to lone. As you can see, what’s lost is often an unstressed initial vowel – this is a particular type of aphaeresis known also as aphesis.

Though it’s essentially a phonetic shortcut, what happens in speech tends to manifest in writing. Poets are fond of aphaeresis because it lets them manipulate prosody better. This is why in many poems you’ll see upon appear as aphaeretic ’pon, amid as ’mid and it was as ’twas.

Aphaeresis also explains the silent ‘k’ in knife and knee, and why drawing rooms aren’t for drawing in, and it lies behind pairs of now-semantically-distinct words such as amend and mend, and etiquette and ticket. Read the rest for more.

*

Is banning slang counterproductive? follows up on a recent news story in the UK where secondary school students were given a list of words and phrases to avoid. I am of course sceptical (and skeptical) about this measure:

That those responsible have implemented the ban only in certain ‘formal language zones’ – not the canteen, for instance – suggests they know how futile a whole-school ban would be. It also suggests they trust that their students know how to switch from formal to informal registers – so why introduce the ban at all? Couldn’t awareness be raised through classroom discussion?

Complaining about young people’s slang is a popular pastime among older generations. Even celebrities get stuck in. Actor Emma Thompson lambasted what she deemed improper language: ‘It makes you sound stupid, and you’re not stupid.’ Compare her criticism with linguist William Dwight Whitney’s remark that slang combines ‘exuberance of mental activity’ with the ‘natural delight of language-making’.

The post also considers what the students themselves think of the ban, and shows how it might backfire on them socially.

Comments on either post are welcome here or at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and my archive is here if you want to browse older articles.

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13 Responses to Slang bans and aphaeresis

  1. I noticed when I first read them that between the two posts, there are three ways to write the contracted form of because. There’s ’cause and cos in the first post, and coz in the second.

    Personally, I use the compromise ‘cos, keeping the apostrophe but changing the spelling. I find ’cause is too readily pronounced the same as cause, cos makes me think of cosines, and coz has too much of a children’s literature feel about it. These objections aren’t particularly logical, but nevertheless, I prefer ‘cos.

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      On my side of the Atlantic, it’s ‘cuz.

    • Stan says:

      Adrian: More than that, when we count fromcouchtomoon’s ‘cuz and apostrophe-less forms such as cause. I also see abbreviations like bc, b/c and bcs used regularly on Twitter (and have, I think, used each one myself on occasion). I avoid ’cause for the same reason you do, but I prefer cos to ‘cos, even though it connotes both lettuce and trigonometry.

  2. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:

    Thanks for writing about aphaeresis.

    The term falls into that fuzzy class of “what’s the word for?” words like “muntons” ( small strips of wood separating each pane of glass in a window frame – known in the UK, as “glazing bars”), …the list is endless, and endlessly fascinating.

    I purposely shun aphaeretic usage when I write poetry (Tennyson, anyone?), to avoid sounding like a Victorian.

    As to slang-banning: It reminds me of Orwellian attempts to set up an academy. It’s double-plus un-good, and it won’t work; besides, slang is an incubator of new language. I sling slang when it’s appropriate to have it slung.

    • Stan says:

      Marc: I know what you mean about the use of some aphaeretic forms in poetry: they can lend a decidedly old-fashioned air. But ’tis handy and natural enough in other contexts. Slang as an ‘incubator of new language’ is a good way of putting it. Educators would do well to restrain the repressive urge that leads to such overkill as bans.

  3. John Cowan says:

    Yeah, cos in any spelling is impossible for U.S. speakers, and doubly so for Easterners like me with the LOT=PALM, CLOTH=THOUGHT mergers as opposed to the LOT=CLOTH, PALM, THOUGHT pattern of most of the Anglosphere. For us, cos would represent [kɑz], whereas (be)cause is [kɔz ~ kʌz] and the aphetic form is always [kʌz]. When I see cos, I have to interpret it as one of those highly irregular spellings like come. (For me, at least, mathematical cos is [koʊs], the same as cosine [ˈkoʊsaɪn].)

    • “Why do mathematicians choose to stay indoors? ‘Cos it’s a sin to get a tan.”

      I remember making some variation on that joke around the time I first messed about with a scientific calculator. But I don’t think I’ve ever consciously analysed how I articulate cos when doing calculations.

    • Stan says:

      It’s a long time since I had regular contact with sin, cos and company, but I don’t think I ever gave those two independent pronunciations; I just called them “sine” and “cosine”.
      Cuz is also a fairly common abbreviation of cousin (cus is used for this too, but very rarely).

  4. Mrs Fever says:

    As there is no ‘Like’ button…

    I just wanted to tell you I like your blog. :)

    I am very much enjoying meandering about, exploring your little piece of real estate up here in The Cloud.

    • Stan says:

      Mrs Fever: Thanks very much, and welcome! My posting schedule is erratic, but there’s lots in the archive if you ever take a notion to wander through it.

  5. jessjennison says:

    Two very interesting posts! And yes, it is counter-productive, and entirely futile but bless the prescriptivists, they do try. A+ for effort.

    • Stan says:

      Thank you, Jess! There are useful points to be made about refraining from slang and other nonstandard locutions in certain contexts, but young people tend to figure this out without difficulty, or with a little instruction. I fail to see how language bans will help.

  6. Hey, I like this blog. It drives me crazy when people make huge gaffes or grammatical error. One of my favorite spelling faux pas is when people spell ‘intelligent’. Especially if it is a business.

    I saw that from a business that specializes in intelligence gathering. Also, if I err here just ring me up. lol

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