When a typo says something about sound structure

Many typos are just mechanical errors. Examples are mis-hitting a key next to the right one, or missing a key altogether. But sometimes, a typo reveals something about the connection between sound systems (phonology / phonetics) and writing systems.

Here’s an example I saw the other day. Someone wrote ‘point of you’ clearly meaning ‘point of view’. That typo points to some features of English phonology and spelling:

  • although we write of with the letter <f>, which normally denotes an unvoiced consonant, we pronounce the consonant in this word as the corresponding voiced consonant /v/.
    To distinguish the word of from a similar word off with the unvoiced member of the pair, English spelling uses the double letter <ff>.
  • in of, the vowel spelled as <o> is generally pronounced very lightly as the unstressed neutral vowel (schwa) /ə/.   
  • view and you both contain the semi-vowel /j/, followed by the same vowel /u/. But the spelling of the vowel /u/ in view differs greatly from its spelling in you—so much so that no plausible simple mechanical error could lead to a mis-spelling of <iew> as <ou>.  
  • although of is (arguably) an independent word, it is a clitic—a word that phonologically depends on a following or preceding word. Indeed, the whole phrase ‘point of view’ might even be a single phonological word. If so, that phrase might be pronounced, in a single phonological word as /pɔɪntəvvju/
  • English makes little or no use of double consonants (geminates). So, the sequence /vv/ is pronounced /v/. It follows that although of and view are pronounced in isolation as /əv/ and /vju/, together they are pronounced as /əvju/. Accordingly, both point of view and point of you are pronounced /pɔɪntəvju/.

Conclusion

It is highly unlikely that this typo could have arisen through a mechanical error. Also, it seems completely implausible that the writer intended to write point of you—which seems incoherent—instead of the common phrase point of view. The sequence point of you has no meaning identifiable by combining the meanings of the individual lexical words; it also has no established idiomatic meaning as a whole phrase.

There is only one reasonable explanation of this typo: although the sequence point of you has no obvious meaning, it is a well-formed phonological word and sounds identical to a sequence having a clear and well-known meaning. The writer’s mind must have unconsciously linked the sound to the wrong sequence of spellings (orthographical words).

If you come across any more examples of this kind, please let me know!

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