Sunday, December 07, 2008

A question about initialisms

One area of variability in contemporary English is the pronunciation of initialisms, as described by Wikipedia with discussion of difficulties in the names for these creatures:
There is … some disagreement as to what to call abbreviations that some speakers pronounce as letters and others pronounce as a word. For example, the terms URL and IRA can be pronounced as individual letters: [ˈjuːˌɑrˌɛl] and ['ɑɪˌɑrˌeɪ] respectively; or as a single word: [ˈərl] and ['ɑɪˌrʌ] respectively. Such constructions, however—regardless of how they are pronounced—if formed from initials, may be identified as initialisms without controversy.
Sorry for bringing up the issue of IRAs if you're giving any thought to retirement, but, hey, it's data. If you think about how these forms might change over time, you might expect them to become more word-like, especially as people forget what the initials stand for. That is, you might expect IRA to start out life ['ɑɪˌɑrˌeɪ] and become ['ɑɪˌrʌ], keeping the wiki-transcription as was.

But there seem to be a couple of examples of the reverse. Through college and grad school, Reserve Officer Training Corps (and its members) were more or less [ɹatsi] for me and in the circles I traveled in. This is enshrined in the anti-war-era chant, "ROTC, ROTC, just another Nazi", which only works with that pronunciation. I haven't heard that except rarely in a long time, though, and hear it almost only 'pronounced as letters' in wiki-speak. I can see the former form, especially given the chant, being understood as negative, so that a change could be socially motivated.

Similarly, when I came to Madison back in the 1970s, the Madison Area Technical College was known as [mætsi]. That pronunciation seems to be gone today, and I've abandoned it too after being corrected on it a couple of times.

Are there other examples like this? Maybe these are as odd as weak verbs becoming strong (sneak snuck, dive dove)?* Or maybe the trend doesn't work as sketched above even for these two?

*I'm not entirely convinced that those are as rare as some people claim, but that's a topic for another day.


John Cowan said...

Some other wrong-way conversions (verbs that have gone from the weak conjugation to the strong by analogy with existing strong verbs) are dig (which had the weak preterite digged in the KJV), stick (according to the OED, a weak verb conflated with a strong verb steek of similar meaning), and twig (a U.K.-only verb which is going from twigged to twug even as we watch, quite likely following in the footsteps of dug).

Outside the standard dialect, we find the forms dole (for dealt), glode (for glided -- the historical strong form is glid), and skun (for skinned) in Mencken's 1921 list. The list also contains a bunch of weak verbs with irregular shortening, ending in -eep/-eap, -ept in the standard dialect, that have lost their final t for phonological reasons, thus becoming technically strong, and likewise tole for told.

Clum(b), however, is not a conversion but a survival; brung is a survival but brang is apparently a conversion.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Yeah, those are the kind of data that make me think this isn't so rare -- see Lieberman et al.'s piece in Nature last year for the usual view. I wonder if anybody has done corpus-based work on relative frequencies of strong/weak forms of these?

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about ROTC in Madison, but when I was an undergrad (late 90's, early 2000's), we exclusively said [ɹatsi], to the point that I actually never associated it with ROTC until I asked one of them one day why they were called 'rotsis'.

Mr. Verb said...

And what was the response? Did they take the name as negative?

Ollock said...

ROTC as [ratsi] reminds me of a couple of "pseudo-acronyms" I've encountered here in Morgantown. Most WVU students seem to refer to RFLs (Resident Faculty Leaders -- dunno if the term is universal) as [rɪfl(z)]. An even odder one, may people pronounce DP Dough as if the first part were a word spelled deepy rather than an initialism (["di.pi.'dou] in stead of ['di'pi"dou]). Both terms confused me as a freshman until I saw their spellings.

The Ridger, FCD said...

My sister did some post-grad work at MTSU, pronounced Mitsu, like a Japanese car my mother always said. (Er. Middle Tennessee State University.) I now hear that as MTSU (em tee ess you).

fev said...

Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, ammunition-shipping port near the mouth of the Cape Fear. Called "Mot-sue," but I don't remember how widely.