Laptop vs. labtop — two words that differ by just one letter and sound very similar when spoken, but what exactly are they, and do they have the same meaning? Non-native English speakers regularly misconstrue words, and then, through repeated use, these errors become more common and start to confuse people as to what the correct version is.
A laptop is a small personal computer that opens like a clamshell with a design for use on the go. “Labtop” is incorrect and is merely a mispronunciation of the correct word. This stems from the fact that they sound similar, and it’s fairly common for people who are learning English to confuse “p” and “b” sounds.
This article will explore how the word “laptop” originated and other compound nouns like it. We’ll also look at consonant sounds and spelling in English with specific reference to the tricky “p” vs. “b” sound.
What is a Laptop?
A laptop is a small portable personal computer, which some often refer to as a “notebook.” It includes a screen, keyboard, and trackpad and has an internal battery that allows it to function without you having to plug it into a power source. A laptop can fold shut so you can easily transport it from place to place (source).
Laptops differ from traditional desktop computers because of their all-in-one design, which means they can operate independently without plugging in.
They usually have various ports that give the option of attaching peripherals, such as larger screens, keyboards, etc. They are also usually more expensive than traditional computers.
Origins of the Word “Laptop”
The word “laptop” first emerged in the early 1980s as a combination of the words “lap” and “top,” and it could function as a noun or an adjective (source). Technicians coined the term to describe a mobile computer that could theoretically sit on the user’s lap and differentiate it from the heavier desktop computers that already existed.
Whether functioning as a noun or an adjective, it still describes a small, portable computer. Consider the following sentences.
Laptop as a noun:
Please remember to bring your laptop on the field trip.
Students must hand in their laptops for safekeeping.
Laptop as an adjective:
He went to buy some laptop accessories.
I like to use a laptop stand.
As these devices became progressively smaller during the 1990s, the term “notebook” became more common because the size was similar to that of a spiral-bound notebook. Today, the two terms are often interchangeable.
Grammarians define “laptop” as a compound noun because it comes from combining two words. Most commonly, compound nouns form when we put two nouns together. Sometimes they can be made up of a noun and verb or a noun and an adjective (source).
Below are some examples of these various types of compound nouns.
Noun + noun
Lap + top = laptop
Car + park = carpark
Ice + skate = ice skate
Noun + verb
Door + way = doorway
Spin + doctor = spin doctor
Play + group = playgroup
Noun + adjective
Blue + berry = blueberry
Black + board = blackboard
Soft + ware + software
We most commonly write compound nouns as one word as in “laptop.” However, we sometimes hyphenate them, as in “six-pack,” or we can write them as two words, as in “full moon.” The design of a laptop is to sit on top of your lap, and the compound noun, therefore, makes perfect sense!
The Behavior of Compound Nouns
Once we form them, compound nouns act as a single unit, and we should treat them just like any other noun. We can modify the musing adjectives or other nouns, such as “my pink laptop” or “the office laptop.”
When speaking, one should place stress on the first word of a compound noun, as is the case with “laptop.” This is important because it helps with meaning in some compound nouns.
If you say “greenhouse,” with the stress on the first word, then I know that you are referring to a glass structure containing plants. But, if you put equal stress on both words, then you are more likely talking about a house that is green.
Why Someone Might Think It’s a “Labtop”
Just google “labtop,” and you’ll find there are many incidents where people use the word, even though it is a misspelling.
The main reason for this is that the sound may be indistinct when one hears it. Also, someone who is unfamiliar with technology could assume that it has something to do with a science lab because of its connection to academia.
English speakers typically voice consonants differently. Sometimes this is just because of the way an individual speaks, and sometimes it’s a result of regional inflection. Because many English speakers tend to voice over the middle consonants in “laptop,” it can come out sounding like “labtop.”
This is the same effect as hearing different people say the word “bottle.” It can come out sounding like “boddle” or “bo-il,” depending on where the speaker comes from and how they voice the consonant sounds.
Consonants & Vowels
We build words from vowels and consonants. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, consisting of 5 vowels and 21 consonants, but there are about 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds. These vary slightly depending on accent and how specific you want to be.
As you probably know, the vowels include “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” and “u.” For the purposes of spelling, we can also include “y” as an honorary vowel.
A vowel sound is the basis of any spoken syllable, made with the mouth fairly open. We make a vowel sound when the speaker’s mouth or throat does not block the air coming from the lungs. Almost all English words contain at least one vowel.
Conversely, we make consonant sounds with the mouth fairly closed, and this includes all speech sounds that aren’t vowels. To make consonant sounds, we obstruct breath in the vocal tract.
Voiced and Unvoiced Consonants
All sounds that the English language uses are either voiced or unvoiced — some refer to this as voiceless. Voiced consonants are those that cause the vocal cords to vibrate when we speak them. Conversely, unvoiced consonants are those that don’t require movement from the vocal cords.
To test this, place your fingertips on your throat as you say the sounds. When saying the voiced sounds, you should be able to feel a vibration, and when saying the unvoiced sounds, there should be none. The table below illustrates which sounds are voiced and which are unvoiced (source).
|Voiced consonant||Examples||Unvoiced consonant||Example|
|b||bad, back||p||lap, pack|
|d||dog, bleed||t||top, net|
|g||gum, plug||k||cap, lake|
|v||vein, river||f||fuel, refine|
|“th”||As in the, they||“th”||As in thick, moth|
|z||zip, his||s||sick, city|
|j||jelly, enjoy||“sh”||shop, shine|
|m||mouse, lame||h||hot, hand|
|n||newt, town||“ch”||champ, which|
As you will see from the table, “b” is a voiced consonant while “p” is unvoiced. Therefore, if pronounced correctly, there should be no confusion between “laptop” and “labtop.” However, it often happens that an individual will mishear this sound and mispronounce it because of various speaking habits.
If a person speaks without emphasizing the syllable break between “lap” and “top,” then the word could easily come out sounding like “labtop.”
Interestingly, there is a specific difficulty in the pronunciation of the “p” and “b” sounds amongst Arabic people. This is because one’s first language directly affects how you hear and produce English sounds (source).
The phoneme “p” doesn’t exist in Arabic, and there is a tendency to use “b” instead or to use the two sounds interchangeably.
Arabic speakers are perfectly capable of saying the “p” sound because the articulation for “b” and “p” is the same — the production of both comes from the same place in the mouth with the tongue in the same position. The only difference is that one is voiced, and the other is unvoiced.
The issue for many Arabic speakers is not that they can’t make the sound but, rather, that they can’t distinguish between the two sounds. For this reason, they will often spontaneously change “p” sounds to “b” sounds because one naturally reverts to behavior that is comfortable and familiar.
The younger you are when learning English, the easier it will be to replicate foreign sounds. Also, the more you hear a new sound, the more likely you are to be able to distinguish and replicate it.
Assimilation, which is the process that causes adjacent speech sounds to become similar, also plays a part in “laptop” vs. “labtop.” When speaking, we often anticipate the next sound and, in so doing, may not fully form the preceding sound (source).
This happens within words and from one word to another. For example, if I said “ten bucks” quickly in everyday conversation, it would likely come out sounding more like “tembucks.” This is because my lips are already making the “b” sound before I’ve finished making the “n” sound. Another example is “input,” which most often sounds more like “imput” in everyday speech.
Likewise, in saying “laptop,” speakers are unlikely to carefully annunciate the “p” and the “t,” and the “p” could easily get lost and sound closer to a “b” sound. Therefore, if you are spelling a word as you hear it, then you could easily mistake “laptop” for “labtop.”
Spelling in English is notoriously difficult, especially because we spell so many words differently from how we say them. There are numerous rules that can help with spelling, but these only apply to about three-quarters of English words. The rest, frustratingly, are exceptions.
“Laptop” is not an exception, however. It contains two words that are both single-syllable, phonetically spelled, common nouns. The confusion comes in when one hears someone speak the word.
However, if you understand the origin of the word and what it is actually describing, then it would be unlikely that you would think it should be “labtop.” This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
It can be useful to use the International Phonetic Alphabet to explain how to spell something to someone when letters sound similar.
A non-English speaker could be further confused by laptop vs. labtop when they hear someone spelling the word out loud because “b” and “p” sound so similar.
In this case, you could use the phonetic alphabet to explain the word as follows:
L for Lima
A for Alpha
P for Papa
T for Tango
O for Oscar
P for Papa
Another word that English students often misspell because of how it sounds is “weird.” Read this article to find out more about why this is the case.
In our pursuit to speak better and better English, we will come across many confusing words. Sometimes, if we break them down to their roots, then we can make sense of them.
This is the case with “laptop” vs. “labtop” because, as soon as we realize that the word is for an on-the-go computer that you might use on your lap, we know which is the right word to choose.
Spelling in English is far from easy, and with the vast differences between the spoken and written word, it’s understandable how difficult it can be to master. Also, the way many individuals speak some words and the habits that come from speaking fluently make their component letters hard to decipher.
Still, it’s important to know what a laptop is because it’s a very useful tool in learning any language.