leonard-nimoy-393861_1280My son and I were building Star Trek ships out of Legos once, and he told me about one of the parts he’d built – “This is a photon candon.”

I said, “Cannon.”

He said, “No,” before emphasizing the word, “Photon.” Pause. “It’s a photon candon.”

“A cannon.”

“No!” He got very irritated with my denseness at this point. “A photon candon!”

I finally understood the reason for his frustration, and so I naturally decided to put more effort into correcting him. Until this point I’d been admittedly more absorbed in my building of the USS Enterprise (or “USF Enterprise” as my son seemed stuck on saying) than with correcting his speech.

“It’s a photon cannon. You meant to say cannon. There’s no such thing as a candon.”

One could see the wheels of his mind turning by the expression on his face. He then very quietly said, “Cannon. Cannon. Cannon,” before announcing, “This is a photon cannon.” A few minutes later he called it a candon again.

Later, this episode got my own wheels turning. My son frequently did this sort of thing. The incorrect word would get “stuck” in his head despite him never having first heard the word.  This is a point worth repeating: He’d never heard the word “candon.” Why would anyone use a word without first having heard it?

Experience also told me not to worry. Anderson would not forever be doomed to a life of being made fun of for his inability with this word. He would not have to sweat out any future job interviews, praying the word “cannon” would not somehow pop up. He would learn how this word is actually used in our language, and probably pretty soon. There had been many words like this before – breafkast for breakfast, cockapit for cockpit, college cheese for cottage cheese, hootel for hotel, and cans of city for Kansas City, among many others. All of these incorrect production have since gone extinct. But why does this happen, and what does it say for how we learn language?

Some thoughts:

– This happens in phonology (e.g. pour for four), but these are simplifications almost always; candon for cannon is not a simplification.

– My theory is that the mind records an imprint of a word the first time this word is attended to (contrasting with the first time the word is heard).  The attention can occur in self talk, or it could be misheard and then imprinted as the incorrect hearing.

– Things can also go wrong in the recall of the word. The memory may distort it just as memories are distorted all the time. The initial imprint could also have been recorded incorrectly to memory, i.e., it could have been “misheard.”

– These imprints get reinforced. They can be reinforced by talking or thinking to one’s self or by using the word without being corrected. The more reinforcement the more permanent the imprint.

– This may be a significant cause of speech and language disorders.