SLITHER, n.--another word with two (or 1.5) mommies?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Oct 8 12:43:19 UTC 2013

On Oct 8, 2013, at 3:25 AM, W Brewer wrote:

> NW:  <<Maybe it's the same phenomenon  "trough" as [trOT].>>
> LH:  << cockney (and AAVE?) /T/ > /f/.  ("trough" goes in the other
> direction) Maybe hypercorrection ...  semantic blend conditioned by
> phonetic proximity.>>
> WB:  I have vague memories of child-language acquisition sequences (having
> been a key-punch operator for Dan Slobin in my Berkeley days), and IIRC
> denti-alveolars are acquired before interdentals by Anglophone kids. The
> pronunciation of <bathroom> as [BAFF-room] has a "primitive" (ooh, tabu
> word!) or primordial flavor to it (from an SAE standpoint), as if the
> [theta] has not yet "evolved" (ontogeny/phylogeny) in the young child's
> phonology (due to stages in its physiological development). There must be
> some connection between this phenomenon and the merger (or simply lack) of
> [theta, thorn] (i.e. [T, D]) in certain dialects < sociolects < idiolects,
> resulting in a perceived affinity of the familiar [f, v] with the
> extra-lectal [theta, thorn]. In attempting to adapt to a more prestigious
> variety of English, such speakers could tend to hypercorrectively, if only
> sporadically, substitute [theta, thorn] for [f, v] (troth for trough,
> slither for sliver), taking on the form of a different phonemic/graphemic
> host, in these two cases without semantic connection whatsoever; Malkiel's
> multiple causation, Esper's abduction principles.
I'm not disagreeing with the gist of this (to the extent that I can follow it all) and I certainly agree that multiple causation is involved, but I'm not willing to dismiss semantic factors, given the long, smooth, slippery aspects of both slithery things (eels, snakes, etc.) and slivers (of ginger et al.), but clearly the phonetic resemblance is key (and besides "slither", v. and "sliver", n., there's "splinter").  And then there's the nominalized "slither", as of water.  I see the hypercorrection idea has been endorsed by some online peculators:

["Verbal abuse" blog]

Sliver or slither?

Rather like the pronunciation of ‘scone’, ‘sliver’ has suffered from snobbery.

A ‘sliver’ is a very thin slice of something.  However, many people think that the word is ‘slither’.  This is ridiculous, as ‘slither’ is what snakes do.  The trouble is that ‘v’ has been seen (heard?) as the lower-class equivalent of ‘th’.  The correctness of this assumption is irrelevant, but the consequence is not:  people think that they are being better spoken by changing the ‘v’ in ‘sliver’ to a ‘th’.  In fact, they’re just being plain wrong.



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