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Did you just call me Tom?

11 Jul 12 | Re: The persistence of H | Link-U-Post

Let’s say you quite like Radiohead and you know the name of their lead singer, but you’ve only heard it said on the radio or in conversation, never seen it in print, so you aren’t aware that Thom Yorke prefers to spell his first name with an H. Naturally, you assume it’s written Tom Yorke, though you have never written it down. Do you really know what his name is?

I would contend that you are, in fact, making a small mistake. Yes, ‘Tom’ and ‘Thom’ have the same basic pronunciation. But dictionary pronunciations are only a canvas onto which a world of nuance is painted. When I say ‘Thom’, my mouth and my brain hold the sound and the idea slightly differently. There’s a barely detectable tone change that comes from my treating it as a vaguely exotic name, in a different category from Tom Baker and Tom Boonen and Tom Basden and all the other normally spelt Toms.

I even think that if I wanted to be insulting or dismissive of Thom Yorke, I would be able to (speaking) call him Tom Yorke instead, and bring that through in my tone.

What if this fictional Radiohead-appreciator was illiterate? To him, you might argue, there would only be one kind of Tom. There could never be an H in Tom because H does not figure at all in his mind. But still, I think he would be incorrect - trivially so, but still incorrect. Once a language stops being purely oral and starts being written, written conventions bleed back into the oral language and can’t be easily ignored or removed. A word and its spelling are irreversibly bound up together, and even if the speaker was incapable of recognising an H, the H would lurk in the shadows of his listeners’ brains, nudging them and disconcerting them, perhaps without them knowing quite why.

What I do wonder is whether Thom Yorke hates being called Tom in the same way as David Mitchell says he hates being called Dave, and if he can tell when people are Tomming him and pick them up on it. I bet he can, and I bet he does.

Posted by MAYORALA ELMIRA at 20:57

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