Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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

/p/
[pʰ] pass
[p] displaying, shop

/b/
[p] Board
[b] the business, Globe

/m/
[m] Mississippi, number, room
[m syllabic] not present

/f/
[f] fifty, yourself

/v/
[v] Virginia, Avenue, arrive

/θ/
[θ] Theatre, playthings, south

/ð/
[ð] the, rather, smooth

/t/
[tʰ] to
[t] fifty, left
[t dental] at the
[ʔ] Street and (maybe)
[ɾ] that are
[tʃ] Transfer

/d/
[t] shop displaying
[d] ride
[d dental] toward the
[ɾ] that are
[dʒ] children’s (maybe)

/n/
[n] number, an elegant
[n dental] and the
[n syllabic] National (maybe)

̣/s/
[s] six, Mississippi

/z/
[z] zone, easy, is

/l/
[l] loved, usually, flesh
[l voiceless] playthings
[ɫ] Globe, elegant, pull
[ɫ dental] not found
[ɫ syllabic] little

/r/
[r] rather, arrive, car
[r voiceless] not found
[r syllabic] Theatre

/ʃ/
[ʃ] shop, National, wish

/ʒ/
[ʒ] usually, Garage

/tʃ/
[tʃ] Churchill, reach

/dʒ/
[dʒ] Judge, Virginia

/j/
[j] you, Beyond

/k/
[kʰ] counter
[cʰ] not found
[k] books
[c] not found

/g/
[k] not found
[c] not found
[g] the Globe, elegant, rug
[ɟ] begin

/ŋ/
[ŋ] young
[ɳ] things

/w/
[w] world, away

/h/
[h] highway

/æ/
[æ] pass
[æː] Avenue
[̃æ] transfer, Bank

/e/
[eI] playthings
[eIː] highway
[eĨ] not found

/ɛ/
[ɛ] next
[ɛː] said, help, every
[̃ɛː] when
[ɛ r-colored] there

/i/
[i] reach
[iː] easy
[ĩː] not found

/I/
[I] little
[Iː] Mississippi
[Ĩː] Virginia, -ing,
[I r-colored] year

/ʌ/
[ʌ] bus
[ʌː] Judge
[̃ʌː] something

/ɐ/
[ɐ] shop
[ɐː] Garage
[̃ɐː] beyond
[ɐ r-colored] car

/ɔ/
[ɔ] walking
[ɔː] not found
[̃ɔː] along
[ɔ r-colored] Board

/o/
[ou] so
[ouː] Globe
[oũː] zone

/u/
[u] not found
[uː] you
[ũː] room

/ʊ/
[ʊ] books
[ʊː] not found

/au/
[au] south
[auː] not found
[aũː] counter

/aI/
[aI] like
[aIː] rIde
[aĨː] behind

/oI/
[oI] not found
[oIː] toys
[oĨː] not found

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.

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9 Responses to “The Virginia Theatre”

  1. kip said

    [Iː] is what’s traditionally called a “short” i sound, right? I think it’s pretty rare for anyone to use that as the last vowel sound in “Mississippi”. Most people end that word with the same sound as the last vowel in “Tennessee”. It’s also the only pronunciation listed on dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/mississippi

    Maybe you meant to bolden one of the other i’s in the word? (Maybe not, I don’t know the difference between a sound that does and doesn’t have the [ː] appended to it.)

    • Neal said

      To answer the easier question first, the [ː] indicates a vowel that is pronounced for a longer time. (In other words, we’d call it a “long vowel”, except that in English, long vowel has a different meaning.) This happens before voiced sounds, and in fact, longer vowel duration is one of our phonetic cues that a voiced consonant is on the way. That’s how we can tell the difference between rip and rib even when someone is whispering, and the voiced consonant is devoiced. Rip is [rIp], and rib is [rIːb].

      Next: Like you, I am used to thinking of the last syllable of Mississippi and Tennesee/i> as long E’s. However, in my first linguistics class, I learned that the final syllable for words like these is actually [I], or at least, closer to [I] than it is to [i]. I didn’t believe it at first, but gradually I realized that my supposed “final long E” wasn’t sounding like the long E in Pete. When I carefully made it with a long E sound, it sounded like I had some kind of accent, as if I were learning English as an adult. One of these days I’ll record myself saying something like feet and fit, then something like happy, and see if the spectrogram has the -y closer to [I] than it is to [i].

      • Ellen K. said

        If the sound (phonetics) is closer to [I] than [i], why do we most of us tend to hear it (phoneme) as /i/? Any information or theory on that?

  2. I’d say the strangeness of the paragraph comes about because it contains some abrupt changes of register.

    Because of these register switches, I find it hard to decide whether to pronounce “theatre” with rising or falling intonation. Rising intonation better fits the register that precedes it; falling intonation better fits the register that follows.

    Would you be interested in uploaded recordings from your readers? I’m willing to give it a go.

  3. [...] “Foot heads arms body.” Diagrams of grammatical tenses. Canadian English style. Panphonics. On plural adjectives. Collection of concise usage tips. When cool became cool. Same old, same old. [...]

  4. Tim said

    What is interesting to me is not so much that the paragraph is panphonemic as much as there are more sounds in our language than I ever realised. I can’t tell the difference between those two /g/ sounds, for example, so never realised that phonetically they are considered to be different.

    Accent would surely play a part in how one would perceive a difference between phonemes; especially when it comes to vowel sounds, which are perhaps the most noticeable between dialects and international accents. If you can’t hear the difference between sounds that are purported to be different, how do you determine which phonetic sound they are? Aurally this must be impossible for the average person.

    • Neal said

      It’s hard. That’s why it’s so hard to speak a foreign language without an accent pegging you as a non-native spraker. With phonetic training, it can be done. I envy the phonetic training that David Crystal had, as described in his book Just a Phrase I’m Going Through.

  5. [...] an example, let’s try this lamely nonsensical panphoneme (ignoring boring rhotic [...]

  6. Hello – I’m very interested in this. Coming a few years late to the conversation, may I offer a panphonic of my own invention? It certainly isn’t panphonetic, but I believe it’s panphonemic, and much shorter than any of the examples you cited:
    “Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.”
    Have I missed any phonemes? (I’m a British speaker, by the way, in case that makes any difference!)

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