Saturday, December 01, 2007

Lexical chop shop

I don't follow slang and coinages as closely as some others do, so I'm often pleasantly surprised to come across a word for the first time that has a fairly well-establish role in the lexicon.

So there's a Church of Stop Shopping out there and it's headed by the flailing and annoying Reverend Billy who says of his credentials as a minister: "Well I didn't go to the Yale divinity school...But we've got a church. And we do...perform weddings and baptisms and funerals". And like every good evangelist he's using fear to change minds and inspire souls. What is the catastrophe he warns against? Well this one is new to me: shopocalypse.

Okay so he's doing it tongue-in-cheek...I hope. You never know. It is a nice nod to the perils of consumerism that many acknowledge. But that discussion isn't so interesting to my linguistic self. The word has potential. That's somewhat interesting. Here's what else I notice.

I'd likely pronounce shop as either [ʃap] or [ʃɑp]. In the word shopocalypse the first syllable is unstressed. Vowels in unstressed syllables like to neutralize -- so instead of shop ([ʃap]) + apocalypse ([əpɑkəlɪps]) = [ʃaˈpɑkəlɪps] we get a neutralization of [a] to [ə] for [ʃəpɑkəlɪps].

And such a vowel change is predictable and expected. This might make the portmanteau sound less like shop+ocalypse and more like sh+apocalypse but the spelling (and some common sense) indicates that shop is intended.

Well I can still wonder if the [p] which has now become an onset consonant is the [p] taken from the coda of shop or if it's the [p] taken from the second syllable onset of apocalypse? I'll say it's the [p] of apocalypse only because it's aspirated.

Now the coda /p/ is certainly allowed to change and this could be simple allophonic variation. But I have this weird obsession with portmanteau balance. There's this tiny part of my brain that attaches theories of justice and equality to issues that make me seem crazy if I say too much about them. (Those of you who know my "balance and symmetry" issues might recognize this.) I don't like it when two words are combined and only one of them loses a segment.

I could write about 6 pages on what shopocalypse has going for it and against it in this regard. Phonemically there's some equality but phonetically apocalypse has an unfair advantage. The spelling favours shop because its entire bank is represented even if we grant that the [p] is 'taken' from apocalypse. It's not a great portmanteau on the 'balance' regard. A word like 'liger' (lion+tiger) is pretty good because neither word is completely present. But it's not perfect because lion loses at least 50% of it's letters--maybe 75%; and tiger loses at most 40% of its bank--as little as 20%.

Maybe I've said too much. And I can see some of you slowly backing away.


  1. Is that sign outside the church a fork-in-the-road sentence like those we discussed last week (do parentheses help with timing somehow in writing?)?

    And wasn't it interesting how I didn't make my comment about parentheses self-conscious and reflexive somehow?

    Also: I take back all that stuff I said today about the noble lie, I think...

  2. Neal Whitman says:
    I've had the same kind of questions when I hear brand names that are portmanteaus with utopia, such as Petopia. [ε] can't end a syllable, so the first syllable must be pet and not pe. But we aspirate the /t/ to say the topia part, so we need that /t/ for the beginning of the second syllable. Which is it? Do I just neutralize the [ε] to [ə]? But then where's the connection to pets?


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