Momentary confusion

Just one letter when writing or one phoneme when speaking can make make the difference between a sentence which is easily understandable and one which is likely to cause at least momentary confusion (and possibly serious confusion, terminal ambiguity or a complete breakdown of communication).

Example 1: A few days ago, a Facebook friend of mine commented on a thread on someone else’s Facebook page, about people’s experiences with the ‘deep web‘, in particular the murkier parts of it, and for some reason Facebook thought I’d be interested in this. One commenter mentioned ‘snuff movies’. (If you don’t know, and are of delicate sensibility, don’t ask and don’t search.) Another then referred to ‘sniff movies’. In the context, it was clear that this was a typo (though what might jokingly be called ‘sniff movies’ actually exist).

Example 2: Creating a sentence using the word ‘predator’, a student said ‘My /pu:p/ was eaten by a predator’. I think she meant ‘/pʌp/’.

What I find interesting here is thinking about just why these mistakes happened, and similar mistakes happen. In the first case, ‘i’ is next to ‘u’ on the keyboard, and ‘sniff’ is a more common word than ‘snuff’ (though, surprisingly, only just).  On the other hand, that commenter had already seen the word ‘snuff’ at least once and possibly more times immediately prior to typing that. (On the subject of typos, I recently had to type the Korean surname Choi. I automatically typed ‘Choir’, even though the two words are totally unrelated and sound totally different.) In the second case, /ʌ/ does not occur in Korean. Koreans usually replace it with 어 (approximately /ɒ/) rather than the 우 (/u:/) which this student did. We know (and this student certainly did, from having learned and used the word in the course of the chapter) that the important fact about a predator is that it hunts and eats other, usually smaller, animals (compare coprophagy (delicate sensibility warning)).


2 thoughts on “Momentary confusion

  1. Perhaps she’s previously had a teacher from Ireland or northern England? In those dialects, /pʌp/ would be pronounced /pʊp/, which isn’t so different from /pu:p/ – close enough for confusion from a non-native speaker.


  2. I must admit that I didn’t think of that, but after thinking about it, I don’t think so. Your suggestion relies on 1) her having a teacher from Ireland or the north of England (and there’s not a lot of these in Korea) and 2) that teacher saying ‘pup’ or related words enough times for the student to (consciously or otherwise) remember. I’ll go for the phonological explanation of a second language speaker replacing a phoneme not in her language with one in her language. (I also wonder if any ESL teacher ever says ‘pup’ in the classroom; if so, how often. I can’t remember that I have, in fact I’m fairly sure than I haven’t, though maybe I have said ‘puppy/puppies’.)
    I have also realised that if she *had* used /ɒ/, she would have said ‘My pop was eaten by a predator’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s