The Virginia Theatre
Posted by Neal on May 4, 2010
“It is usually rather easy to reach the Virginia Theatre,” the passage begins, and already, you can tell something’s a little off. If I were giving directions to someone, I’d probably say “get to” instead of “reach”, but what’s odder still is the “usually rather easy” business. It’s not easy to get there, but just “rather easy”? And it’s only that way “usually”? There must be something weird about how to get to this Virginia Theatre for the speaker to draw attention to something that should be understood: Naturally it will be harder to get there on days with bad weather or heavy traffic. From there the directions start to sound normal, but when the speaker mentions a gift shop landmark, they wander off on a tangent about how it has “little children’s playthings that often look so clever you wish yourself young again: such things as books and toys, and behind the counter, a playroom with an elegant rug and smooth shining mirrors.” Huh?
The reason for these oddities is that the real purpose of this passage is to contain every phoneme in the English language. That’s right, it’s another panphonic text, like the grocery list, tiger story, or poem about a cruel friend that I’ve blogged about under this category. It comes from the book Training the Speaking Voice (1977, Virgil A. Anderson), although I became aware of it in a video on the website of dialect coach Amy Stoller. (Hat tip to Lynne Murphy, of Separated by a Common Language, and Langology). Anderson’s book also contains two more panphonic passages, one about a rat named Arthur, and another about rainbows. Here’s the rest of the “Virginia Theatre” passage:
It is usually rather easy to reach the Virginia Theatre. Board car number fifty-six somewhere along Churchill Street and ride to the highway. Transfer there to the Mississippi bus. When you arrive at Judge Avenue, begin walking toward the business zone. You will pass a gift shop displaying little children’s playthings that often look so clever you wish yourself young again: such things as books and toys, and behind the counter, a playroom with an elegant rug and smooth shining mirrors. Beyond this shop are the National Bank and the Globe Garage. Turn south at the next corner; the theatre is to your left.
At this point I want to create a distinction between two kinds of panphonic. First, I will use the term panphonemic to refer to something that contains all the phonemes of a particular language. As a reminder for longtime readers, and background for newer readers, a phoneme is what a non-linguist would probably just call a sound of the language. For example, take the “hard G” sound, /g/. Although speakers think of /g/ as one sound, it can be pronounced in more than one way. In a word like good, /g/ is pronounced with the back of the tongue contacting the soft palate, and is represented phonetically as [g]. In a word like gear, however, the /g/ is pronounced with the back of the tongue not landing squarely on the soft palate, but hitting nearer to where the soft palate meets the hard palate. This sound is represented as [ɟ]. [g] and [ɟ] are said to be different phones, but in English, they are both perceived as the single phoneme /g/. (Also note the convention that phonemes are written between slashes, while phones enclosed in square brackets.)
Why bother making the distinction between [g] and [ɟ] at all, if no one hears the difference? In fact, when we’re talking about phonemes, we don’t. We just use /g/ to refer to something that might actually be either [g] or [ɟ]. However, some people do hear the difference between [g] and [ɟ]–speakers of languages in which [g] and [ɟ] are considered different phonemes, /g/ and /ɟ/.
So much for panphonemic. “The Virginia Theatre”, like the other panphonic passages I mentioned, is indeed panphonemic. For example, it contains the phoneme /g/ in begin. But I’m also interested in whether a panphonemic passage is also panphonetic: For each phoneme, does it contain all the phones that it could be pronounced as? The phoneme /g/ is in the word begin, but which specific phone is it, [g] or [ɟ]? In fact, it’s [ɟ]. To be panphonetic, this passage would also have to contain [g]. In fact, it does, in elegant.
I wrote my panphonemic poem with the intent of making it panphonetic, though I fell short. The panphonemic tiger story came closer to being panphonetic. So how does “The Virginia Theatre” compare?
|Consonants||Vowels and Diphthongs|
So this passage is definitely panphonemic, but misses being panphonetic by 13 sounds (by my reckoning). That’s fewer omissions than the tiger story had, but on the other hand, this passage has only 104 words, compared to the tiger story’s 240. One of these days I’ll have to take a fresh look at the grocery list and my poem to see how many phones short of a panphonetic set they are in their below-100 word counts.