Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Better Not Shout

Posted by Neal on December 11, 2009

Yesterday I heard a first-grade boy singing

You better not shout,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m tellin’ you why. . . .

He got distracted before he could get to “Santa Claus is coming to town”, but he already had me humming the song to myself, trying to remember what the real words were. It was hard after hearing the ones he sang, which were so close that they were interfering with my recall, but after a few seconds I managed to pull them up:


You better watch out,
You better not cry. . . .

I’ve blogged about this song before, on the semantics of who’s naughty and nice, and a later verse in the song made my four-part tweet on Christmas song lyrics that make me cringe. (That would be “rooty toot toots and rummy tum tums”.) But You better not shout was a new one to me. A bit of Internet searching reveals that some adults have made the same mistake, or have passed into adulthood with a childhood mistake uncorrected. For example, there’s the author of this post on mall-Santa hygiene in the age of H1N1:

Forget “You better not shout, you better not cry.” This year, the lyrics to ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ should include “You better not sneeze, you better not cough.”

Or the guy who proposes some updated lyrics:

So in order to get my song back on the charts, I’m currently working on a remix of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with my homeboyz Master P. and Run DMC. We’re adding some “phat” new beats to the song along with new lyrics. Here’s an excerpt:

“You better not shout (BITCH!)
You better not cry (BITCH!)
You better not pout (BITCH!)
I’m tellin’ you why (BITCH!)
Santa Claus is coming to town (BITCH!)”

I think the only intended revisions are the parenthetical additions, and the altered first line is taken to be part of the original.

I also see that some other people have kept you better watch out intact, and used you better not shout to replace you better not pout, but the mistake I heard is more interesting linguistically. It’s the reverse of what happened when I teased Adam about nachos a few years ago. You will of course recall that in that post I pointed out how the sound written as ch actually consists of [t] plus the sh sound [ʃ]. For that reason, when you hear [tʃ], you have to figure out whether you’re hearing two phonemes, /t/ followed by /ʃ/ (as in not show), or the single phoneme /tʃ/ (as in nacho). In this song, the mondegreen arises from hearing [watʃ aʊt] watch out and analyzing it as [wat ʃaʊt] wat shout.

Of course, wat shout doesn’t make any sense, and here’s where the power of analogy comes into play. We have three lines in succession, all warnings beginning with You better, and the last two of them continuing with not followed by a verb referring to a socially frowned-upon behavior. Shout fits right in with cry and pout, and the only thing keeping the first line from making a perfectly matched set with the other two is that instead of starting with [nat], it starts with [wat]. Well, that’s easily fixed. In fact, as with probably all mondegreens, listeners don’t even know they’re making a fix: They hear the line imperfectly, and fill in what they didn’t hear the best they can. If you didn’t even hear the [w], and caught only [at ʃaʊt], then supplying an [n] at the beginning doesn’t feel like a change so much as replacing a missing piece. And I have to admit, You better not shout, in terms of rhetorical parallelism, works better than You better watch out. Not that that makes it the correct line, but still. (Yes, there is one right version here: The one written by the song’s one author, Haven Gillespie.)

Of course, I’m just imposing my own idea of the most likely interpretation on this first-grader. It’s possible, I suppose, that he was actually singing You better notch out

UPDATE: More mondegreens for this song can be found here.

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7 Responses to “You Better Not Shout”

  1. Dann said

    “and a later verse in the song made my four- part tweet on Christmas song lyrics that make me cringe.”
    What’s your screen name? I’ve tried searching for you, but to no avail.

  2. Dann said

    Never mind. Just found it.

  3. Faldone said

    Regarding reanalysis of nacho, Garrison Keillor had an imaginary eating establishment called Nacho Mama’s in one sketch on A Prairie Home Companion. At one point in the skit the proprietress of the establishment said to a customer, “I’m not yo’ mama,” pronouncing the “not yo'” as nacho.

    • Neal said

      I’ve been meaning to write a post about this kind of affrication of both /t/ and /d/, but in a different phonetic environment.

      The joke I heard involving this ambiguity of nacho is the one where some Aggies (or other preferred butt of jokes) wanted to make nachos, but didn’t have enough money for all the ingredients. So they bought the chips and jalapenos, and decided to just steal some cheese from the first customer they saw exiting the store with some. Success! But as they were enjoying their nachos, it occurred to them to ask the cheese-stealer how he’d known that he’d gotten nacho cheese instead of some other kind. He explained: As soon as he grabbed the cheese, the victim yelled, “That’s nacho cheese!”, and he knew they were good to go.

  4. [...] The name Patrick reminds me of a phonology question I’ve had for a while. In the English I speak, the /t/ in a /tr/ cluster is actually pronounced [ʧ] (i.e. the “CH” sound). So Patrick is more like Patchrick; trick like chrick; troop like chroop, etc. In phonetic terms, the [t] is becoming an affricate — that is, a sound that begins with a stop consonant (in this case [t]) and ends with a fricative (in this case [ʃ]). (I’ve blogged about affricates before, here and here.) [...]

  5. sinhala said

    How to download or listen this song?

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