Error, error on the wall, which the fairest of them all?

I came across two interesting errors today, one in English by a German speaker and one in German by a Spanish speaker. The first error was an error in word choice in spoken speech and the second was a spelling error in jotting down a word that was heard.

Error 1   “If it stops, will you please turn it off?”
The intended sentence was “When it stops, will you please turn it off?”

It wasn’t difficult to figure out the intended meaning, given the “it” being discussed was a dishwasher and in the unlikely event that it never stopped there would be more to worry about than turning it off. So, what was interesting for me was not that I could understand this sentence after only a brief re-parsing, but rather that I had a very good idea of the source of this error, an intuition that I would not have had before learning some German and making a similar error in the reverse direction. Here are the relevant word pairs:

wenn – if
wann – when

Wenn and “when” sound very much alike (/ɛ/ and /e/) but they have different meanings (our old enemy the “false friend”) and this sound similarity gets in the way for the language learner. The German-speaking English learner thinks /wɛn/, this activates both the German word, wenn, meaning “if” and the English word “when” as this is the intended meaning. However, the connection between the sound /wɛn/ and the word wenn is more firmly established and pushes the speaker in the wrong direction. In a bit of reverse action, the English-speaking German learner, namely me, sees or hears the word wenn and this also activates two things, the English word “when,” which has the wrong meaning in this context, and, more weakly, the meaning “if” which is associated with the actual form heard or seen, wenn. The latter association is weaker and I may misunderstand what I read or hear (the effect is stronger when I am reading as there is the additional spelling similarity to push me toward the “when” rendering of wenn because at least in speech you get the /v/ vs. /w/ cue to help you).

Error 2 im Unterbewurstsein
The intended phrase was im Unterbewusstsein

The intended phrase means “subconsciously” and was introduced by a native German speaker in the context of discussing how people “talk” with their hands and the fact that we are often using gestures automatically and without being much aware of the extent to which the movements we are making are intrinsic to speaking. The Spanish-speaking German learner was pleased to learn this new word and attempted to write it down in order to research it further at some later point. While what she wrote down is not a real word in German, adding the “r” does make some sense for a Spanish speaker. First, you really don’t have to learn to spell as a Spanish speaker because the connection between spelling and sound is almost totally reliable – because  in almost all cases there is just one possible spelling, if you know how a word sounds then you know how it is spelled. German, while being much, much more rule-governed than English, still has a number of options for how particular sounds can be spelled.

Secondly, there are a number of words that end in with “vowel+r” that to the non-native speaker sound pretty much identical to words that end with the same vowel on its own (i.e., with no “r”). For example, the final sounds of Die Liebe and lieber are very similar, the first ends in /ə/and the second in a /ɐ/, and neither ends in /r/. In addition, when the “r” appears before a consonant, as it does in die Wurst, the articulation is much softer, with none of the rolling of the tongue that you hear before vowels or when the “r” is in the syllable initial position (to get a feel for this reduced “r” sound, compare die Wurst and die Wüste). These sorts of reduced /r/ situations could lead to the overgeneralization that “vowel+r” is an alternative spelling for “vowel.”

Of course, I must admit that this second error stood out not because of what it showed about changes in pronunciation of the letter “r” across contexts (this video does nice job of delineating them). Instead it was commingling “sausage” and “consciousness” that caught my attention!

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