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Vowel substitutions

Asked by [ Admin ] , Edited by Peter Mortensen [ Admin ]

What is the origin of vowel substitutions, usually from e or i to a?

I often see this class of misspellings. All of the examples below have been observed in the wild.

Common to a:

  • definitely -> definately

  • persistence -> persistance

  • compatibility -> compatability (see below for an example from a scientific paper)

  • dependent -> dependant

  • existence -> existance

  • recommendation -> recommandation

  • extent -> extant (depending on context)

  • tendency -> tendancy

  • average -> avarage

  • deterrent -> deterrant (one-hit wonder?)

  • occurence -> occurance

  • reference -> referance (one-hit wonder?)

  • eliminate -> elimanate (one-hit wonder?)

  • accessibility -> accessability (one-hit wonder?)

  • efficient -> efficiant (one-hit wonder?)

  • simpler -> simplar

  • promenent -> promenant

  • privilege -> privilage

  • inadvertently -> inadvertantly

  • turbulence -> turbulance

  • consistency -> consistancy

  • infeasible -> infeasable (one-hit wonder?)

  • inherently -> inherantly

  • difference -> differance (one-hit wonder?)

Other common (and less common) ones:

  • than -> then (see below for an example from a scientific paper)

  • separate -> seperate

  • redundant -> redundent

  • brilliant -> brillient (one-hit wonder?)

The fourth one can be correct depending on context, but that is seldom.

This kind of misspelling can be found even in a scientific paper with an element of orthography (my emphasis):

Two experiments examined the effects on recall of encoding and retrieval "depth" (the extent to which subjects process the semantic as well as the phonetic and orthographic attributes of verbal material), encoding-retrieval cue compatability, and subject versus experimenter generation of cues

Here is another example from the scientific world, "Management implications of the interaction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards" (my emphasis):

The majority of published research has dealt with the effect on motivation rather then performance, but consequent effects can be evident in performance, and there are many theoretical predictions supported at least in part by empirical findings.

Has it something to do with the spoken language? For instance changes to it?

Are there some studies of this phenomenon?

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2 answers


donald remero [ Moderator ]

I do think that the basic cause of common misspellings is simply due to how one "hears" the word. Obviously, those who have have more experience in being corrected repeatedly and those who naturally pay more attention to these kinds of details will be ahead in the game.

This is a big, fat old problem that I don't think will ever go away. Our writing system is fundamentally phonetic, but it is not exactly that. There have been a lot of very bright people who have invested themselves in creating concepts for a simpler, more regular system, but none has ever caught on. But even if one of them had, I think certain common "errors" would still emerge because of the underlying divergence in spoken language among groups, which by their very nature will create the arbitrary distinctions they need to distinguish themselves from one another. Think "Cockney English," for example, even if we agreed upon a lexicon and how to spell each word, practical use will eventually produce vagueness, and eventually 'error.'

I'm not familiar with research about common spelling problems like these, but there is certainly a ton of scholarship out there about the basic issue, which from a linguistic point of view is "orthography" or spelling standardization. Obviously, there is going to be a purely psychological component to this general line of inquiry as well. "Why are some people 'naturally' better spellers than others?" --There's an individual neurological component to the answer to that question as well.

What are common misspellings today were almost certainly merely competing variations long ago. I think if you simply Google "orthography," you'll be on your way... =)

NN comments
peter mortensen
Remero: minor thing. I think it is correct, but when I read “long ago” I expected “a long time ago”.

donald remero

…I do think that the origin of vowels being mistaken for one another is so obviously because of their homophonic similarity that it might be hard to find someone to say exactly that. My general thought is that you can dip into the general conversation a bit more and see whether you are not perhaps “overthinking” this particular point. But it would also not surprise me if you found a book-length treatment of precisely this kind of thing, given that language people are the perfect sort to overthink such things — especially in writing! =)

peter mortensen
Remero: I think it would be interesting if there was a result such as “‘compatability’ started out as a misspelling in 1992-1993 among a small group of lower-middleclass PC users at the Alabama-Louisiana border and initially spread through PC help fora on the Internet.”. I know there are people studying these kind of things, also very obscure words. Etymologists?

donald remero
: A low-to-high movement into acceptability would be interesting because it almost never happens. Standardization and acceptability are virtually always determined by those who have power to determine and refine “official” discourses. I think the favorite “bastard child” of PC lingo is growing acceptance of the phrase “spell check,” as opposed to the correct term “spelling check.” This particular issue is not, though, strictly about spelling because of the grammatical element to it.

donald remero
: FWIW, This discussion somewhat reminds me of picking up a copy of the novel Robinson Crusoe a few years ago. As a literature student long ago, I guess I had become accustomed to reading 17th-18th c. texts in their original forms, because as I was reading through the first chapter of my new book, something was “bugging” me — something didn’t “feel right” about it. I woke up the next morning realizing that it was all because the spelling in it had been modernized and regularized. I was sensing the mismatch between the 17th c. sentence-level phrasing and the modern spelling.

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I think your examples fall into quite different categories.

Things like extent/extant then/than dependent/dependant (in British English) could just be a typo, one real word typed for another.

Many other examples seem to be related to the fact that the letter in question is pronounced as an unstressed schwa. If there was a word "seperate" it would be pronounced the same way we pronounce "separate". If there was a word "existance" it would be pronounced the same way we pronounce "existence". So if you've heard the word a lot but not seen it written, those mistakes are quite understandable.

Analogy plays a big role in this sort of thing, e.g. compatability for compatibility by analogy with capability, etc.

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