Friday, August 10, 2007

What's that Mistert Colbert?

Last evening we had several friends over representing the academic fields of renaissance medieval comparative and classic literature; Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, Old English and Old Saxon, linguistics and math. We spent the evening playing a board game and watching Ali-G on YouTube.

We took some time to watch Dave's videos as well. (Be sure to watch this one. I was particularly amused and pleased to learn that the football players at the end of the video had no idea what was going on. They were just heading out for a game and Dave jumped in to do his guerrilla filming.)

I found myself revealing my social ineptness when in the midst of several humorous stories about family, former students, odd professors, horrible bosses, funny movies, and dog-sitting I was carried away by a usage in one friend's story. She was reporting some of the misspellings she has encountered in her job as a tutor. In one paper a student wrote of 'robberts' 'gangsterts' and 'mobsterts'.

I don't know what anyone said for about 75 seconds after that. I kept going over those 3 words in my mind. My lips were moving and Buffy rolled her eyes when she looked over at me. She knows I have a happy little land in my mind full of shiny sounds and metallic IPA symbols happily flashing in the [sʌn].

"'robberts' 'gangsterts' 'mobsterts' 'robberts' 'gangsterts' 'mobsterts'..."

Why would this student spell and say all three of these words this way? Google™ shows 737 results for "gangstert" 179 results for "mobstert" (but very few English results, one of which is this same friend telling the story in the comments section on another blog) 1.4 millions hits for 'robbert'. But it's mostly a proper name and no relevant results that I could find. So I searched for "cops and robberts" and I got 9 hits.

This is a weak trend to be sure. But there's something happening here. Whether we can find the trend spreading or we have only this one student's usage the grouping of three makes me wonder what's behind this extra 'T' even if just in her idiolect.

I've come up four suggestions and I'm not sure how much laughter to stifle as I offer them.

Reduplicative metathesis: Two of these three words show a chiasmus or metathesized reduplication. The intrusive [t] turns [-stɻz] into [-stɻts]. Has 'robber' undergone the same process by analogy of related terms? But this does not work as elegantly if the singular also gets the final [t].

Voiceless plural morpheme after liquid: the plural morpheme [z] that we hear on words like bear bull and car is in some dialects sounding more like [s]. This is the same as saying the plural of whore exactly like horse. Might this voiceless alveolar fricative prime the environment for an intrusive voiceless stop in these words?

Corruption by another criminal -ert: Is it possible that the ending of pervert/s has influenced these three -er criminal words?

Hyper-correction by influence of Comedy Central: This is my favorite possibility. Stephen Colbert has allowed the silent 'T' in his name to corrupt his pronunciation of "report" in his show's title The Colbert Report: the "Colbare Repore" (if you will). For all I know this student only wrote the 'T' and she might not actually pronounce it. She might simply be following Stephen's lead.


  1. I'll throw my admittedly limited experience in this area by adding a hypothesis that I immediately considered on reading the story, so please excuse any incorrect use of linguistic terms.

    Slang approaches to spelling have been developing as email, messages, and other textual communications become more common. The ending -er has been replaced with an -a quite commonly, and plural -s has often become -z. So considering that, it is possible that the student was most often spelling those words with these slang modifications. The student would know they weren't accepted english for a paper, and therefore tried to reconstruct a standard spelling based on the -z slang plural. I would add as well, that many pinyin stylings substitute "ts" for sounds that resemble "z", though that might not have any bearing here. A more heavily emphasized "z" sound in their usual conversation could bring a "t" into the mind of the student as they attempted to recreate the usual spelling.

    Unless you could hear the student pronounce the words, it could be impossible to tell if this is an issue that involves pronunciation or not.

  2. Colbert's conflict with the Washington D.C. representative over the pronunciation of his last name is documented, but according to a Rolling Stone article I read, he changed the pronunciation from his nuclear family's.

  3. I wondered what you would think about those pronunciations. I didn't notice your momentary linguistic coma, however, because I myself was struggling to remember funny mispellings that I had run across, like when someone wrote that something "stroked" him--when he was trying to use, but also misusing, "stoke". Then there are the mispellings that come about because of the spell checker. I am often completly mystified by what the student means--once I saw "incisive" when the intention was "integral". With ESL writers the results can be even more ridiculous.

    Thanks for the link to my music video. This is my only chance at rock star status, and I am going to have to milk it.

  4. By the way, your video about Gilez was hilarious. Watching it made me want to get back into making movies. I hadn't even thought of the mockumentary genre back when I was playing around with a camera. You should post it on YouTube.

  5. Was the papert typed? Maybe this pertson has lartge fingerts.


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