Eric Nielsen ericbarnak at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 23 06:19:17 UTC 2010

Yes, this usage seems odd to me, too. While both words (attenuate and
attention) may be cognate and have to do with a narrowing or thinning out,
attention (in my experience) refers to a narrowing of mental or physical
focus to strengthen one's understanding or perform an activity with superior
Attenuation (as I have heard it used) refers to a thinning out that results
in weakening such as attenuation of a radio signal or light waves
propagating in an optic fiber, or  the attenuation of a bacterium or virus
which results in a less virulent form.


On Thu, Apr 22, 2010 at 2:03 PM, Charles Doyle <cdoyle at uga.edu> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Charles Doyle <cdoyle at UGA.EDU>
> Subject:      "attenuation"
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> A few days ago I came off the bench hurriedly to join a doctoral committee;
> a semi-final draft of the dissertation was already completed. The
> candidate's field is second-language acquisition (or, more specifically, her
> interesting study was of native-speaking students' ability, acquired skill,
> or willingness to comprehend the speech of "foreign" teaching
> assistants)--certainly not one of my fields of (pretended) expertise.
> In the dissertation, the student used the word "attenuation" is a way that
> was quite unfamiliar to me; I assumed it was simply a mistake, so I circled
> the word and inscribed a large question mark in the margin. Then, in the
> oral defense of the dissertation she used the word again, presumably in the
> same way (I can't remember whether the word used was "attenuate" or
> "attenuation"; I had already given her back my edited copy of the
> dissertation). So I asked her about the word. Both she and the other
> committee members concurred in informing me that the word has a special
> sense in ESOL discussions, having to do (as best I could understand the
> explanation) with "paying attention" to something--almost as if the word
> "attenuation" derives from "attention."
> Of course, "attenuation" and "attention" are cognate (in a Latinish way).
> Still, the specialized use of "attenuation" looks to me a little like a
> folk-etymologizing.
> Anyhow, I resolved to ask "my" linguists about the usage!  It certainly
> doesn't correspond to anything recorded in the OED. I suppose it's the use
> illustrated in the following sentence (hastily found on the internet):
> "The possibility of creole-specific learning or attenuation to second
> language contrasts is also addressed."  Eric Russell Webb, "An Optimal
> Theoretic Account" (abstract), _Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages_ 23
> (2008).
> I'll appreciate any information.
> Charlie
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