Friday, 3 July 2009

Homophone Phobia

I have been pondering the parallel between text-message abbreviations (e.g. CUL8R = see you later) and puns. Both rely upon the *sound* of the word, either to communicate meaning (the text message abbreviations) or to substitute another meaning entirely with humorous intent (puns). This realization goes a long way to explain why I have always been reluctant to make puns or to use such abbreviations.

When I am reading I convert the word shape to meaning without an intermediate step of thinking about the sounds of the words. There have been many times in my life when speaking when I stumbled when attempting to say a word and realized that I didn’t know what it should sound like—that while the word was part of my vocabulary because I use it in writing, I had yet to hear it used in spoken conversation. Because of my tendency to translate word shape to meaning without thinking of the sound, text message abbreviations look wrong to me. Indeed, I find it frustrating when someone sends me a message using such abbreviations; it requires more effort and is much slower to take the time to read it out loud and decode the meaning from the sound than it would be to simply read a word which is spelled correctly (or, even, a misspelled word which happens to have more or less the same shape as the correctly spelled version of the word).

Likewise with puns, the play in words is dependant upon their sound. In the case of puns they are more often shared in the spoken form and the hearers then think of all of the various meanings which happen to all have that sound in order to “get the joke”. This is not a step I do instinctively, even when I hear words, I tend to translate them directly to meaning, without paying much attention to the individual sounds. Indeed, even from an early age I would often picture words in print when hear them—even in spoken language it is the *shape* of the word which is tied to the meaning for me. This may have a fair bit to do with having grown up with a hearing problem. My hearing is good enough that if I’m not wearing my hearing aids, and you have my undivided attention I am likely to be able to hear you well enough to understand most of what you say, if you are speaking clearly and looking at me while you speak, and you are not too far away, I will probably understand most, if not all, of what you say (assuming, of course, that you are speaking English, which, so far, is the only language in which I am fluent). However, it often happens that I’m not quite close enough to hear clearly what was said, and sometimes I don’t even realize that I’ve misheard the speaker until later in the conversation when other clues make me realize that I’ve responded to something other than what was actually said. Those embarrassing moments are rare now that I wear hearing aids, but I strongly suspect that the embarrassment of having often misunderstanding others when they spoke is a large part of why puns don’t make my list of top ten fun things to do—since they require “mishearing” what was said.

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