Cords and chords

I was reading a book on pronunciation this week which consistently referred to the “vocal chords.” As a Phonetics teacher, I’ve always understood and taught that the correct spelling is “vocal cords” (cords like ropes, not like musical chords). But since this book was written by reputable linguists, I thought I’d check which spelling was correct.

According to Wiktionary “The spelling vocal chords is often seen, but is considered to be incorrect. While prescribed against, published texts use vocal chords about one third as often as the “correct” form,” while Wikipedia explains the variation as “possibly due to the musical connotations or to confusion with the geometrical definition of the word “chord” and gives a figure of 49% for this alternate spelling.

But does frequency of usage make this spelling ‘valid’? It’s a good example of an eggcorn (expanded here) because of the relationship between voice and musical ‘chord’ rather than the anatomical membrane ‘cord’, but does that mean it should be accepted in respectable publications such as the one I just read? Lexicographers have to deal with this issue all the time, as noted in this interesting post from an editor of Oxford dictionaries.

This takes me into the dangerous territory of ‘prescriptivism’ vs ‘descriptivism’ in linguistics. I remember being challenged in first year linguistics that the role of the linguist is to describe what people do, rather than prescribe what they should do. The pedant in me took a hit, but I justified my intolerance of poor spelling and punctuation (including editing or denouncing grocer’s apostrophes when I saw them) by differentiating between spoken and written language. Spoken language is alive and changing, while the written language changes much more slowly, and while the English writing system is seriously flawed, if it changed to the way people spoke, then speakers of different varieties of English would not be able to communicate with each other in writing. Therefore the standards of the written language should be maintained, so that all English speakers are equally disadvantaged by the difficulties inherent in the writing system.

So now I’m faced with a challenge – while I will continue to use the ‘correct’ form of vocal cords, do I dismiss this other work because of its ‘incorrect’ spelling? Or should I expand my descriptive principles and say “well, if that’s how people spell it, then it must be an acceptable alternative”?

And why this emotional reaction? When the pedant purist and the descriptive linguist in me ‘clash’ in cases such as this – I’m left unsettled.  It’s easy to dismiss poor spelling or word use as signs of lack of intelligence, making me superior to all those mere mortals who suffer from such afflictions. But aren’t I just as afflicted in other areas of my life? Can I show no mercy while being shown infinite mercy by others?

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