(Re)bracketing

I was recently trying to explain to the ever-present Frenchman in my life why writing “a whole nother story” was not a mistake on my part. No, I had not made a typing error, and no, ‘nother’ should not be written with an apostrophe before it as the ‘a’ had not disappeared, it had merely reappeared in front of the ‘whole’, and no, “another whole story” just wouldn’t mean the same thing.

I couldn’t think of the linguistic term for this phenomenon (‘an other’ >> ‘another’ >> ‘a nother’) so I searched around and disocvered the wonders of ‘rebracketing’ (or metanalysis or misdivision). Essentially rebracketing appears when pronunciation leads people to misunderstand where the parting between words occurs, and so the orange fruit which came from the Arab ‘narandj’ (still ‘naranja’ in Spanish) became ‘an orange’ when it firmly settle into the English language in the 14th century after transforming from ‘une norenge’ to ‘une orenge’ across the channel.

Other such examples are the transformations of Medieval words like ‘a napperon’, ‘a nuncle’, and ‘a nadder’, but rebracketing can go the other way too, with the best known examples being ‘a nickname’, ‘a notch’ and ‘a newt’, which were originally ‘an eke-name’, ‘an otch’ and ‘an ewt’. This, of course, can all happen far more frequently when a good part of the population is illiterate and the writing system is barely codified. Although that’s not to say that someday ‘nother’ might not enter the dictionary as an entirely seperate term.

Rebracketing can also happen in more complex cases, like when you misunderstand a whole phrase and interpret it differently as often happens when listening to songs. In ‘The Power of Babel’, John McWorther recalls how his mother always misheard a Church hymn as a girl, singing “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”, all the while imagining a visually impaired children’s book character. And I’m sure we can all sympathise having at some point mis-sung our favourite band’s lyrics at the top of our lungs, blind to the nonsensical nature of what we were saying.

There are multiple other examples: Stark-raving > Star-craving, Let alone > Little lone, Prima donna > Pre-madonna. And if you tell someone to “Polish it behind the door”, be careful that they don’t think you’re saying that Polly….

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