Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Heard the Word? The Word Is …

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2009

Doug has been taken aback to find that some of his latest spelling words require actual study. When he was making the same mistake on the same words on three tests in a row, I spoke with him about studying his graded tests, and we’ve seen improvement. Doug will still sometimes misspell a word on three tests in a row, but now he’ll misspell it in more than one way.

It brings me back to Doug’s first grade year, when his class was learning to spell the days of the week. Saturday was giving him trouble. Satterday? Sadderday? I wrote Saturday on a paper for him, and observed that it contained the word turd right in the middle. He never misspelled Saturday again, and for a few weeks afterward, he would always pronounce Saturday as “Saa-turd-ay”, or in IPA, [sæː ‘tʰrd eI]. Since it was helping him with his spelling, I didn’t explain to him that the word Saturday really didn’t contain the word turd phonetically. Phonetically, Saturday is [‘sæDrDeI], with the turd part corresponding to [DrD] — a flap, a syllabic /r/, and another flap. (In fact, the flap is written [ɾ] in the IPA, but I find this symbol too small and too much like [r] to use in this format, so [D] it is. I’m also not bothering with the dot under the [r] to indicate it’s a syllabic [r].) This sequence can’t even stand alone in English, much less be confused with [tʰrd] — an aspirated /t/, a syllabic /r/, and a [d].

A word that’s a little more suitable for scatological reinterpretation came up on last fall’s October 16 episode of The Office. The character Jan had had a baby girl, whom she brought to the office and introduced as Astird. Not Astrid, but Astird, as Kirsten is to Kristen. The other characters were puzzled as to why someone would name her daughter Ass-Turd. No one actually spelled it, but you could tell that’s what they were saying. But (aside from it making a funny joke) how was I able to tell that they were saying ass turd and not Astird? For that matter, why is it easy to tell the difference between bustard, mastered, or blistered and bus turd, mass turd, or bliss turd? For one thing, bustard, mastered, and blistered are all trochaic feet: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Bus turd, mass turd, and bliss turd are all spondaic feet: two stressed syllabes in a row. This shows up as a difference in the duration of the er or ur sound (i.e. the syllabic [r]). Using Praat, I measured my [r] in Astird at .11 seconds; my [r] in turd, on the other hand, was twice as long, between .2 and .3 seconds. This is a perceptible difference; for comparison, it’s more of a difference in duration than in my [r] sounds in Bert and bird, with the former about 70% of the latter. Of course, with Bert and bird, we have the [t] vs. [d] difference to settle things, but it’s well known that vowel duration contributes significantly. This is especially true when you whisper, and the distinction between [t] and [d] is for the most part erased.

The second reason I don’t mis-hear these words is that in bustard, mastered, and blistered, the second syllable is phonetically [trd] instead of [tʰrd]. Although both strings have a syllabic /r/ in the middle and end with a [d], turd starts with an aspirated [tʰ]: There’s about a .01-second delay between the release of the tongue and the voicing of the [r]. With [trd], there is no such delay after the [t].

The month after that episode of The Office, Nancy Friedman wrote about a dish called turbaconducken. Turba con ducken? Is that like chile con carne? No. Actually, to appreciate turbaconducken, you first have to be acquainted with another dish called turducken, which Friedman wrote about a year earlier. You can probably see where this is going now, but one step at a time: Turducken is a “three-fowl dish consisting of a turkey stuffed with a duck that has in turn been stuffed with a chicken.” Now we can come back to Friedman’s introduction to turbaconducken:

Yes, that’s turducken wrapped in bacon…. Because sometimes you need a little mammal around your three-fowl pièce de résistance. (Or because sometimes you’re embarrassed to order a dish whose first syllable is turd.)

First of all, for those of you who are thinking that a pig isn’t such a little mammal, Friedman has turned the count noun mammal into a mass noun: a little beef, a little pork, or more broadly, a little mammal. But what about the claim that the first syllable of turducken is turd? This clashes with something known a the Maximum Onset Principle. Let’s say you have some consonants occurring between vowels, and you want to know which consonants are part of the end (or coda) of the earlier syllable, and which consonants are part of the beginning (or onset) of the later syllable. Maximum Onset says that as big a chunk of the consonants as possible go into the onset of the second syllable, subject to the language’s constraints on allowable consonant clusters. In our case, the [d] would be part of the onset of the second syllable, not part of the coda for the first syllable. So the first syllable would be [tʰr], not [tʰrd].

Even so, same syllable or not, the next sound after the [tʰr] is a [d], and phonetically, [tʰrd] is inescapably part of [tʰrdʌkən]. So why can I so clearly hear the difference between tur ducken and turd ucken? Once again it comes down to vowel duration. Using Praat, I measured the [r] duration in my pronunciation of turducken and came up with .1658 seconds for this unstressed syllable, the shortest duration yet, even shorter than my [r] in Astird, and way shorter than my [r] in turd.

Then, of course, there’s turtle, which would be a great word for a little turd if it didn’t already mean something else. With this word, Maximal Onset doesn’t give such a clear answer for how the syllables break down. The second t turns into the flap [D], and you could argue for it belonging to the first syllable, the second syllable, or even both at once. In any case, the word contains [tʰrD], in a stressed syllable, which is the closest match yet, especially given that nonlinguist English speakers often can’t tell the difference between a true [d] and the flap [D]. This is giving me a new image of the Bog of Turtle Stench!

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7 Responses to “Heard the Word? The Word Is …”

  1. Kip said

    For the record, Jan’s baby was actually named “Astrid”, but Michael misheard it as “Astird” and that’s what he told everyone in the office.

    “Astird” is kind of a double-pun: not only does it sound like “ass turd”, but it is also very close to “bastard”. (Which is technically appropriate because the child’s father was a sperm donor.)

  2. Brilliant post, Neal. Thanks for putting a scholarly burnish on my little bagatelle and for introducing me to the Maximum Onset Principle.

  3. Uly said

    Something I remembered noticing today (that is, today is when I remembered noticing it, not that I suddenly noticed it today, forgot, and had to remember it) is a little thing my older niece does, and has since she was three or so (she’s five and a half now).

    If you ask her to break up or spell a word that starts with a tr-, like train or truck, she consistently will identify that first sound as ch-, regardless of the spelling (which she’s only just learning this year, so that makes sense, actually).

    That is of course how we actually say those words – or, at least, it’s how *I* say them and I assume most other people around us say them the same way, since she has that pronunciation – but I didn’t realize that until it was explicitly stated to me in college! And here she was three years old and she figured it out :)

    It reminded me of this post (http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2005/12/14/diphthongs-for-doug/), so I thought I’d comment randomly to you about it.

  4. hjælmer said

    This reminds me of a drive I once took through a development of McMansions on streets with British Isle names. I nearly wrecked the car when I passed Penistone.

  5. Neal said

    Kip: Thanks for the Astrid correction and the bastard connection.

    Nancy: And thank you for introducing me to turducken.

    Uly: I’ve noticed other kids occasionally spell tr as chr (and dr as jr), and I became aware I think in elementary school that I (and all the other speakers I heard) pronounced them this way. For that reason, I’m curious why introductory linguistics or phonology texts that I’ve seen don’t list [tS] and [dZ] as allophones of /t/ and /d/. It sounds like they didn’t overlook it in your class, so I salute whoever taught it. Actually, this is a weird case: On the one hand, you NEVER have /tSr/ or /dZr/ in English; on the other hand, you DO have /tr/ and /dr/ realized as [tSr] and [dZr]. If we spelled and thought of what we pronounced as [tSr, dZr] as underlyingly /tSr, dZr/, then we’d be wondering why there was a distributional gap such that we never had /tr, dr/.

    Hjælmer: I always felt sorry for CeCe Peniston for this reason.

  6. […] on an episode where their overheard conversation was translated by the character of Astrid (not Astird) Farnsworth, a linguistics major. I’ve forgotten a lot of Latin vocabulary, and I’m […]

  7. […] itself from the end of the first syllable to the beginning of the second one, in accordance with Maximal Onset, making the word homonymous with apprise. If this word is in your active vocabulary, let us know […]

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