Monday, March 13, 2023

Word confusion – much ado about something



The structure of languages invites confusion. Spelling systems can be inconsistent, complicated, redundant or any combination of these. Word pronunciation is affected by local patterns, silent letters and inconsistent sounds, to name just a few factors. The resulting confusion is a rich source of material for comedians and song writers but can be a source of problems for professionals whose work is based on these words. It is my pleasure to give some examples of word blending in English, French and Hebrew entertainment as well as its potentially less charming impact on linguists.

The best routines involving simple word confusion were Gilda Radner’s editorial replies to the wrong issues using the name of Emily Latella. In her classic discussion of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974 punishing countries that discriminating against Jews, notably the Soviet Union, she goes a wild rant about why the United States should not save Soviet jewelry until Chevy Chase explains that the law is about Soviet Jewry, leading to her iconic "never mind". She also discussed school busting and violins on television, to name a few other topics. The comic premise, two completely different words that sound similar because the distinguishing syllable is generally swallowed, is so simple. Yet, with its perfect delivery, the clips are still funny 50 years later.

In French, not only is word play a part of comedy but also of song. In his classic Une valse á mille temps, Jacques Brel plays with the fact that identical sounds can be written numerous ways with different meanings. Note that the phrases in each of the columns are pronounced the same:





Une valse à cent temps

100 times

Une valse à mille temps

100 times

Une valse à cent ans

100 years

Une valse a mis le temps

Took the time

Une valse ça s'entend

Is heard




As the text is heard, not read, the listener must interpret the words by context. For years, I “heard” a son temps, meaning has its time. This ambiguity adds to the depth of this wonderful classic.

Hebrew is marked not only by the absence of vowel signs in standard written language, e.g., newspapers and signs, but also sometimes affected by similar sounds having different letters and different pronunciation of the same consonant depending on syllable accent, formally called spriantization. In practice, it is possible to confuse words, with amusing results. This last week, the comedy group Ze u’ze played on this confusion. The word for a dubber in Hebrew is מדבב [me-da-bev] while the word for a person introduced into a jail cell in order to get the person to admit his guilt is a מדובב [me-do-vev]. In a wonderful scene involving dubbing of a children’s cartoon with three artists invited, two dubbers imitate animal voices while the third one looks and talks like a criminal and doesn’t understand why the director is upset. The truth is that many native speakers would not distinguish the two words, which makes the scene even more amusing.

Unfortunately, real people, especially non-native speakers, can confuse similar-sounding words. For example, there is a wonderful song, written by Haim Israel and sung by Avihu Medina, called נעלה [na’ale] often heard in Israeli folk dancing. For many years, I thought, apparently not deeply, that it was about shoes as in נעלי ספסרט [na’ale sport]. Alas, I was quite wrong. It is about going up to Jerusalem not only topographically but also spiritually as the meaning of the title is “Let us go up”. I am still  a bit embarrassed by that.

Even Hebrew native speakers can fall into a trap. My ex-wife, a retired teacher, once went for a job interview at a rather small school. After 10 minutes, the interviewer mentioned that she had no qualifications. The source of the problem was that the notice in the paper was for a teacher of  ספרות, which can be pronounced [sifrut], literature, or [saparut], hairdressing. The school was not looking for a literature teacher, much to her embarrassment.

As a translator, I have days where I read thousands of words of text. Alas, occasionally I skip over or reverse a letter and insert a perfectly logical translation, one that makes sense to me. Unfortunately, the writer intended a different message, also logical. Usually, proper QA identifies such errors before they reach the customer. However, from time to time, translators and editors do not catch them in time, creating a bit of confusion and unpleasantness.

To err is human. With languages, it is also easy, amusing and sometimes embarrassing. Whether to create humor or rhyme or due to lack of knowledge or attention, word confusion makes an impression for better or worse. All in all, a little linguistic chaos enriches the world as Groucho Marx demonstrated with his classic question about a Roman viaduct in the movie Cocoanuts: why a duck?

* Picture captions allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

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