01 April 2010

Hypercorrecter Than Thou

I've been called a grammar nutter before (a pedant too, although I take that as a compliment) but the truth is I am, like many linguists, a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist. Still, it irritates me more when people make grammatical mistakes when trying so hard to avoid "things wot they've heard iz wrong." The classic example of this is when people say "I" instead of "me" because they've heard that saying "me" is bad (saying "Alex and me went to the cinema" instead of "Alex and I..." is supposedly bad therefore one should also say "he came to the cinema with Alex and I" --technically, one shouldn't). This is hypercorrection. It doesn't just happen in English either, although is common in the speech of those who wish to sound as though they are from a higher social class.

As a child, I was precociously good at spelling. So much so that at age ten, I was pointed towards the Oxford English Dictionary and told to pick my own spellings to learn each week. No one taught me IPA, however, which meant that although I could spell Madagascar, chlorofluorocarbon and other similarly lengthy and/or difficult words, I never found out how to pronounce them. I was fifteen before I found out that Madagascar isn't pronounced ['mah-duh-guh-''saah-kuh] and that [in-dikt-munt] is usually pronounced [in-dite-munt]. Even now, from time to time, I will say a word I've seen in writing but never heard in speech before and will be me with stares and then laughter.

Most recently, though, I've been a victim of orthographical hypercorrection. On the radio, I've often heard people mentioning [mef-uh-drone] and as many people in southern England pronounce th as f, I assumed this drug was spelled methedrone. I was hypercorrecting, of course, and am clearly a massive snob for assuming that everyone else is just labialising their dental fricative (th is pronounced by pushing air past the tip of the tongue against the teeth; f involves blowing air past the teeth against the lower lip).

On the other hand, mephedrone has been in the news a lot recently. Both methadone and methedrone are also drugs and I have potentially heard them mentioned on the news in the past. I have definitely been hypercorrecting recently but this error may have been reinforced by having heard the other two words in the past.

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