16 April 2009

AIANOS Horribilis

The title of this post obviously stands for Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations Not Otherwise Specified. For years I knew that it was wrong to call the type of abbreviations such as NYC, the PO (a favourite Oxford pub) and OHS (my school) "acronyms" but it took me a while to remember that the correct term for them is "initialisms" (or sometimes "alphabetisms"), probably because it's not a very good term--sure, it conveys the meaning but it doesn't have the nice, pseudo-Greek ring to it as acronym. Maybe that's why most people don't know or care that only AIANOS, SPEW and CUMS and the like, which can be pronounced as a word without having to enunciate each letter in turn, really count as acronyms.

As the topic involves linguistics and pedantry, I am usually interested, though and so a post I read on the BPS Research Digest Blog today caught my attention: "Eating a BLT at the BBC - we love our acronyms but are they really words?" The post reported on a paper published in a journal which requires me to register and (I think) also pay, entitled, "Is there room for the BBC in the mental lexicon? On the recognition of acronyms," which I would like to read. 

Of course, the blog post (and, no doubt, the paper) refers throughout to BBC et al. as acronyms rather than initialisms. This might sound like an overly pedantic point for me to make but the paper is dealing with the definition of "word" (a definition that causes as much trouble for linguists as "species" does for biologists), more specifically, whether priming effects can be observed when a participant is primed with an "acronym" (e.g. BLT) and then recognises "sandwich" as a word more quickly. Does "BLT" get stored as a "unit of meaning" in our mental lexicon, the authors ask, and the answer seems to be yes.

Lumping acronyms and initialisms in the same category doesn't seem very sensible to me, though, if that is what the authors did. If a word is a unit of meaning associated with an (arbitrary) sound, there might be a psychological difference between acronyms (which are pronounced like "ordinary" words) and initialisms (which are, effectively, spelled out). Of course, even the word BBC is associated with the sound beebeecee so it doesn't really matter that English does not allow words without vowels and words with an initial double b. Initialisms don't break any phonological rules of the English language--it is precisely because English doesn't allow initial-double-b that BBC must be pronounced letter by letter rather than a Croatian-like [bbk]. It sounds like there is some confusion between the spelling of a word (i.e. the letters it contains) and the units that make up the sound pattern we associate with the word. Poor old de Saussure wouldn't be impressed.

The post ends with a quotation from the paper. "Whether this may be interpreted as an encouragement to further increase the number of acronyms in the English language is a different matter that cannot be addressed on the basis of the present data," the researchers said. 

You might expect such a comment were the authors based at the Académie française (I'm sure there are laws in France to limit the number of acronyms and initialisms allowed to enter the French language each year). I don't think that the fact that acronyms are represented in the mental lexicon in the same way as "ordinary" words means we should start creating new ones (like AIANOS) just for the hell of it or that if the authors' findings had been different, we should have started to cull abbreviations from the dictionary.

In answer to the authors' question, then, there is plenty of room in the mental lexicon for acronyms and initialisms. Of course, not every speaker of a language will know every abbreviation that exists in the language; many are very jargonistic and specific, some are formed hapax legomenon, some just don't catch on. There is certainly plenty of room for all of these abbreviations and more in the dictionary (if there is room for some of the words and phrases Schott comes across, there is definitely room for The OC, the BBC and MTV--I mean, FFS!) . 

Not that any of this gets us any closer to a satisfactory definition of the word word, however; perhaps it's just easier to stick to orthographical words, phonological words, lexemes, et tout ça.

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