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!