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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

Pine Thugs: A useful neologism

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2012. See all posts

So, I’ve been teaching phonetics for a few years now, and each semester, I experience the joys of scrambling to find a word (or word-word pair) which exhibits a certain phonological trait or change. Because the examples you come up with on the spot are completely absurd, this brings me considerable joy.

For example, English has a phonological process called “Dental Assimilation”. In this process, an alveolar sound (like /t/, /n/ or /l/) becomes dentalized (made with the tongue behind the teeth) before dental sounds (/ð/ or /θ/). In order to demonstrate this (or better still, to test students), you need to come up with sets of words in which one word ends with an alveolar sound and the next starts with a dental sound.

Of course, there are a few common cases (“that thing”), but inevitably, in front of 66 people (or when asked to give an example on an exam), you can’t think of something reasonable like “can’t think”. So, you come up with something on the spot, and end up with something like “stupid thyroid” or “bell thief”.

To get these wonderful word pairs the recognition they deserve, I propose a neologism (a new word for an existing concept). I recommend that henceforth and forever more, a word combination which would be completely absurd in any context other than demonstrating phonology should be called a pine thug, in honor of the best/worst pair I’ve ever come up with in front of a classroom.

I know, I know, it’s tough to get a good neologism going. Most are gone within a few months (cf. “linsanity”), and barring political necessity (as has propelled “Santorum”, a neologism created explicitly to mock Rick Santorum’s anti-gay stances), making a neologism stick is very difficult. However, I’ve known enough phonetics instructors (and students!) who acknowledge the agonies and ecstasies of pine thugs that maybe, just maybe, this one will take root.