Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Vowels’ Category

The Oral-Aural Merger?

Posted by Neal on November 24, 2012

I sent a message to the American Dialect Society email list earlier this month, about a pronunciation that I’ve begun to wonder about recently. Here’s what I wrote, but with more accurate IPA symbols inserted:

I’m sure this has been analyzed somewhere at some point, but I don’t know where. What is the dialect that has [ɔ] lowering to [ɑ] in a stressed vowel preceding /ɹ/ and an unstressed vowel? In other words, the dialect that pronounces forest as “farrest,” Florida as “Flarrida”,Oregon as “Ahregun,” horrible etc. as “harrible” etc., authority as “autharity”, but still has [ɔ] in fort, lore, etc.? What is this realization called?
I’ve been vaguely aware of it for many years, but have begun to notice it more, especially among certain NPR speakers. I even heard one guy on Planet Money talk about a “flarrist” (florist), which is right in line with the phonetic environment I described, but was still a new pronunciation to me.

Actually, this question is complicated by the fact that various historically distinct vowels have merged in various combinations in various dialects of English when they appear before /ɹ/. These include the so-called Mary-merry-marry merger, the steer-stir merger, the fir-fur merger, and others, which you can read about in this Wikipedia post. I was even surprised to learn about a horse-hoarse merger, which made me realize that my father was not joking or deluding himself when he once claimed that for him horse and hoarse were not homophones. I pronounce them both [hɔɹs], but speakers without this merger pronounce hoarse as [hoɹs]. I have a hard time even imagining this pronunciation, with [o] coming before an [ɹ] at the end of a syllable (or in coda position, as phoneticians say), and have never perceived it in Dad’s speech. However, I can definitely hear it when it comes before [ɹ] at the beginning of a syllable (that is, in onset position). If you know my father, you can hear it when he calls someone a moron, which he has always pronounced [moɹɑn]: “Mo-ron!” When he does that, I find myself imagining a Southern pair of twin boys, named Jim Bob and Mo Ron. (For more on vowels before [ɹ], see this post.)

Anyway, I got some interesting responses. Kate Svoboda-Spanbock wrote, “It is a longstanding source of amusement to my L.A.-bred children, who laugh when I say AH-rinj but who nonetheless say that they are SAH-rry.” Her post jolted me into looking at my own pronunciation, because I definitely say “SAH-rry” (i.e. [sɑɹI]), and for that matter “to-MAH-row” and SAH-row,” and find the [ɔɹ] pronunciations of these words unusual.

In fact, my “SAH-rry” might not even match that of Kate’s children, because phonetically, there is more than one “ah” sound. There’s the low back unround [ɑ] that I’ve been using in the IPA notations, but there’s also the low back round [ɒ], which might appear in cough, depending on your dialect. To tell you the truth, I’m not very good at distinguishing the low back vowels, and as far as I can tell, I might be using either of them.

Ben Zimmer wrote that [ɑɹ] instead of [ɔɹ] was common in New York City, as well as in Philadelphia and the Carolinas, and gave a link to the Wikipedia page I linked to above. Paul Johnston corroborated, citing his NYC parents’ consistent [ɑɹ] pronunciation, while also noting his own nearly universal shift to [ɔɹ] in his adult life.

Larry Horn wrote that the change is almost certainly happening via lexical diffusion–that is, somewhat haphazardly on a word-by-word basis. He recalled social pressure he experienced to change some of his pronunciations in college:

[T]ypically, whatever the shibboleths are may be under the most pressure to change, which is why I switched [to the [ɔɹ] pronunciation] on corridor and moral earlier–and more consistently than–Florida or florist.

Joel Berson confirmed the somewhat unpredictable nature of this change, writing:

[M]y vacillations and shifts are different from Larry’s…. For example, I’m sure I seldom
say “florist” but mostly “flarrist”. But I say “floral”, not “flarral”.

Eventually, the discussion wandered to some of those other pre-R mergers that I mentioned earlier. Although I excluded from my query words that had [ɹ] in coda position, some of them came up in the discussion anyway. Matt Wilson mentioned the cord-card merger, which Wilson Gray (recalling his youth in Saint Louis) might have called the fort-fart merger. In elementary school, he and his classmates preferred to avoid saying any number between 39 and 50 for this reason. I also hear this kind of merger in the speech of Jessica Lange’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum.

As the discussion petered out, Charlie Doyle brought up the knock-knock joke that depends on the [ɑɹ] pronunciation of orange, whose punch line is “[ɑɹə̃nʤ] you glad I didn’t say ‘banana’?” That reminded me of a poem composed by Tom Lehrer in response to the challenge of finding a word that rhymed with orange:

Eating an orange
While making love
would make for bizarre enj-
oyment thereof.

A couple of respondents to my post noted that there wasn’t a nice, convenient name for this particular phonetic phenomenon. Larry Horn proposed and quickly rejected “East Coast Ah-ringe”. My humble proposal is in the title of this post. If any dialectologists are reading this, what do you say? Is there a name? If not, what do you propose? Ben Trawick-Smith, and Rick Aschmann, I’m looking at you!

Posted in Diachronic, Variation, Vowels | 9 Comments »

Links for the New Year

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2011

Hey, what’s this post still doing in my drafts folder? I thought I hit Publish on January 17! Well, here it is now…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had any collections of interesting links to offer you, but a new year seems like a good time to start up again. I’ll start off with a couple that I’ve had sitting in an unfinished links post for months, and which still seem worth passing on.

You know that within the Phonetics and Phonology category, the pronunciation of /l/ has come up enough here to have its own tab. I’ve talked about Doug’s [j]/[w] realization of /l/ during his toddler years; the pronunciation of /l/ as a uvular nasal vowel by me as a child (and others); and the pronunciation of /l/ as an interdental sound, with the tongue tip between the top and bottom front teeth, the same position as for the TH sounds [θ] and [ð]). This Language Log post comments on and links to a YouTube video first noticed by Josef Fruehwald, who noticed Britney Spears’ /l/ articulation in both singing and lip-synching. She goes beyond the interdental articulation and into apico-labial territory — that is, the tongue curls up to touch the upper lip to make the /l/. (Apical is more specific term than lingual; it refers to the tip (of the tongue).) Don’t believe it? Watch the videos! They’re montages, with the relevant snippets shown at normal speed, then slowed down and repeated.

Next, here’s a short one from Phonoloblog on a news-limerick fail: The contestant in the current-events-limerick-completion challenge on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! can’t figure out the missing word to put in because it only rhymes in dialects with the low-back merger. If you don’t know what that is, that’s OK; the post makes it clear.

In addition to her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast, Mignon Fogarty does one called Behind the Grammar, in which she interviews anyone she takes a mind to about some aspect of language or writing. In this August 2010 pisode, she interviews sign interpreter David Peach about sign languages in a number of countries. Take it with a grain of salt when he talks about how it’s more logical to use noun-modifier order than vice versa when praising the logicality of a particular language. Otherwise, it’s an interesting look at how sign languages vary, from language to language and from speaker to speaker of one language.

So much for old business. Now to the newly accumulated items to share. First of all, you may have noticed that I have a link to Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column, and I recommend checking that every week anyway. (Or better, you can follow @OnLanguage on Twitter, and read the columns a few days before they’re published in the New York Times Magazine.) However, I found this week’s especially interesting, because he answered a question that I didn’t even realized I’d had: What exactly does trove, as in treasure trove, mean? I especially liked this column because (1) I realized that I’d never asked myself this question; (2) I totally should have asked myself this question long ago; (3) the answer was a complete surprise to me, involving calques (see the article), Anglicized pronunciations, and morphological reanalysis.

Now for a couple tangentially involving last weekend’s LSA conference. The Saturday plenary lecture, given by Joan Maling, discussed the development of a new passive-voice construction in Icelandic. I missed it, because Pittsburgh linguist Lauren Collister had convinced me and some other linguists on Twitter that we should go out for lunch at a locally famous place that served sandwiches with fries and coleslaw actually in the sandwich! (Actually, the sandwich was pretty good — once I picked out those french fries. Hey, I tried it!) Oh, well, I’ve read the paper on this topic anyway, and the interesting comparison that Maling made with English has been written up by Mark Liberman at Language Log. There was a time when the present progressive passive voice (e.g. is slowly being eaten by army ants) was considered ugly, irrational, needlessly innovative, nonstandard English. Why say is slowly being eaten by army ants when the perfectly sensibe is slowly eating by army ants already does the job? Liberman via GoogleBooks links to the peeve as described in 1869 by Richard Grant White.

Phoneticians classify vowels according to various articulatory and acoustic properties, and end up with natural classes of vowels according to criteria such as “height,” “roundness” and “tongue root advancement”. These classes often seem to have psychological reality, as phonological rules will affect only some natural class or other. However, you have to know about phonetics to classify vowels this way. One linguist wondered what kind of classes of vowels would shake out if people without linguistic training listened to recordings of a lot of vowels and were told to classify them into two, three, or four classes. He presented the poster during the LSA conference, and I’m hoping he’ll make the research available online. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I’ll be interested to see if some of the new natural classes that emerged turn out to be relevant in phonological processes. The main reason I bring it up is that the linguist is Douglas Bigham, whose big project right now is the rollout of Popular Linguistics Online — or at least, it was until he tweeted about it as PLO and learned that there were associations there he probably didn’t want to burden a new publication with. So instead, today marks the public release of Popular Linguistics Magazine. The title says it all, and I hope the magazine succeeds. I also owe PLM a thank-you for 200 of yesterday’s hits. I didn’t see exactly where they were coming from at first, but eventually figured it out: The left sidebar on the main page is a list of several linguistics blogs that changes with every page refresh, and every now and then, Literal-Minded turns up there, with the last two or three posts listed. In this way I also learned of a couple of llinguistics blogs I had been unaware of, so check it out!

BTW, I think for future linkfests, I won’t try for one a month. When I have at least three interesting links that I haven’t already passed on via Twitter, I’ll put them up and start accumulating the next batch.

Posted in Linkfests, LSA, Morphology, Passive voice, Variation, Vowels, What the L | Leave a Comment »

At Church

Posted by Neal on December 7, 2009

Now that Doug’s in fifth grade, he and the other fifth graders at our church are doing acolyte duty, which (I found out at the same time as Doug) means assisting in the church service by doing things like lighting the candles or bringing more bread or wine to the communion assistants. Yesterday was his first day on the schedule, and all in all it went well, except for the one candle that refused to be extinguished at the end. He was putting that snuffer on again and again, and it was like one of those relighting candles you put on someone’s birthday cake as a joke. He finally succeeded, but it meant that instead of getting out of there as soon as the last announcement was made, we had to wait for Doug to finish putting out all the candles at the ends of the pews.

One of the things he had to do was hold up the liturgy for the pastor to read during a baptism. As the baptism proceeded, my wife and I read along on an insert in the bulletin. In several places the congregation was supposed to speak; mostly short responses like “We do”, and “I renounce them”,
but also some longer passages, including the Apostles’ Creed. As I read along, I noticed this part in the middle:

Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried.

It’s another multiple-level coordination! The full verb phrases are was conceived by the Holy Spirit, suffered, died, and was buried. Buried among them is the participial verb phrase born of the Virgin Mary, with the was that would complete it understood from the first VP. To be perfectly parallel, the passage would have to be one of the following:

Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried.
Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried.

There are a few other linguistic observations I’ve collected at church, but never put into posts of their own, so I might as well put them here. First is some variation in possessive morphology I’ve noticed between the regular pastor and a newly hired associate pastor. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how they pronounce Jesus’. I’m used to seeing the bare apostrophe after Jesus — why, even Strunk and White condone it after Biblical names! However, in my dialect, the possessive suffix on a singular noun is pronounced, whether it’s written ‘s or just as an apostrophe. So for me, Jesus’ is pronounced [ʤizəsəz]. That’s how the regular pastor says it, too. The associate pastor, though, pronounces it as if it were like the bare, unpronounced apostrophe that you find on plural possessive nouns. He just says [ʤizəs], which I find disconcerting in the same way as when I hear people say Texas’s or Texas’ as just [tʰɛksəs]. In fact, I wonder how our pastors would say Texas’s, and whether it would match up with how they spelled it.

Then there’s the pronunciation of worship. I’ve always pronounced it [wɔrʃəp]. It sounds a lot like warship, which is kind of funny, but for me, the two words are distinguished by the non-reduced second vowel in warship: [wɔrʃIp]. Still, maybe that’s too close for comfort for a lot of people, and I wonder if that’s why I hear the regular pastor (also my wife, and others) pronounce worship as [wrʃəp]. That’s a syllabic [r] in there (although I can’t get the IPA symbol for it to show up); it’s as if he’s saying wereship. That is, the plural past tense of be plus ship, not a person who turns into a ship during a full moon. It also sounds like the pastor is reducing the second vowel as much as possible. He and I both say [ə], but it sounds like they’re trying to eliminate it altogether, as if they were trying to say wershp, but were stopped by the phonotactic unacceptability of a [ʃp] syllable coda.

And on the subject of worship, there’s also the strange path it took from transitive to intransitive to transitive again via causativization, in that one church bulletin I read a few years ago. Worship the transitive verb is easy; people worship a god, or gods, or whatever else they find worthy of reverence. As an intransitive verb, as in We worship at such-and-such a church, it’s the same action, but the object of worship is left unsaid. (Linguists call this “unspecified object deletion” or “indefinite NP deletion”, and it happens with numerous verbs: eat, teach, write….) The next step is causativization. This often happens with intransitive verbs, which are turned into transitives with the meaning “make/let someone Verb”. You can walk, or you can walk the dog; you can sleep in a room that sleeps four. But when you causativize a verb that also exists as a transitive, you end up with ambiguities like this one:

Last week, we worshipped 372 people.

Wow. Does your church worship you?

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Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Syntax, Vowels | 12 Comments »

Arrr-Colored Vowels

Posted by Neal on September 19, 2008

Last month, I said

I’ll have more to say about “r-colored vowels” … on September 19.

Now that it’s September 19, it’s time for me to do that. As I wrote in that earlier post, I don’t like how phonics materials, and even phonetics texts, represent the er in landlubber or the ur in scurvy. Sometimes they call them a schwa or short U plus /r/, and sometimes they use the combination symbols [ɚ] (for the unstressed syllable) and [ɝ] (for the stressed one).* To me, though, this syllable just sounds the same as the [r] sound that you get in words like rum, except that instead of being used as a consonant, it’s being used as a vowel. Or in phonetic terms, it’s being used as the nucleus of a syllable.

When a consonant is used this way, it’s referred to as a syllabic consonant. Syllabic consonants are represented in the IPA by a small vertical line under the character, but since I don’t know how to do that in Unicode, I’ll use an underline. Here are a few words with syllabic consonants in English:

  • [brn] burn
  • [mɪʔn] mitten
  • [baɾl] bottle
  • [phst] psst!
  • [s̃ ʌʔm] something (pronounced sumpm)

There are two consonants that have their own designated vowel character for their syllabic versions. Instead of saying “syllabic W”, we just call it a long U ([u] in the IPA). Instead of saying “syllabic Y”, we call it a long E ([i] in the IPA).

Fine, you say. Maybe the vowels represented by er and ur (and for that matter ir as in mirth and ear as in pearl), should all just be considered syllabic [r] in American English. What about other vowel+R combinations, like the ones in Arrr!, corsair, ashore, tour, and buccaneer? Antony Dubach Green has an interesting paper on this very subject. Before I give his claim, some background is in order. I’ve talked about diphthongs before. The most commonly discussed diphthongs in English are [ai] (“long I”) as in Aye, [au] as in now, and [ɔi] as in Ahoy!. Even materials for nonlinguists recognize these as diphthongs. Less easy for English speakers to recognize are the “long A” and “long O” sounds, which are usually pronounced with an [i] or [u] at the end. So hey would be transcribed [hei], and yo ho ho would be transcribed as [youhouhou].** So far, all these diphthongs end in [i] (a high front vowel), and [u] (a high back vowel). Seldom mentioned at all in the introductory phonetics texts I’ve seen is the fact that some diphthongs end in neither a front nor a back vowel, but a central one, specifically [ə]. This typically happens before [l], as in keel, which would be transcribed [khiəl̴]. (Also in Neal). This kind of diphthong is known as a centering diphthong.

So at this point, two vowels that also serve as consonants appear as the ending vowel in English diphthongs: [i] and [u]. Why don’t we also have diphthongs that end in our other vowel that also serves as a consonant, namely [r]? That, in fact, is the gist of Green’s claim, which builds on a similar claim from John Harris’s 1994 book English Sound Structure. He concludes that some Vowel+[r] sequences are actually diphthongs that end in [r]. Specifically, they are the r-colored vowels in Arrr!, corsair, and ashore. He also argues that the r-colored vowel in scurvy and landlubber is a diphthong, but that’s where he and I differ, since (as I said earlier) I’d call it a syllabic [r]. However, Green believes that sequences of a high vowel followed by [r] — in other words, the [ir] and [ur] sequences in buccaneer and tour — really do consist of a vowel followed by [r], in the same way as you can have two vowels in a row that don’t form a diphthong, as in rio.

What is Green’s evidence for this claim? To support the claim that at least one r-colored vowel behaves like a diphthong, he cites a 1990 study by A. C. Cohn, who observed that after a speaker pronounces a nasal consonant ([m, n, ŋ]), the nasal passage closes back up again over the course of one vowel. Diphthongs act as a single vowel, so that in a word like night, the [i] part of the [ai] diphthong is still nasal; that is, air is still exiting through the nose. Cohn noted that the [r] in more was also still nasalized, indicating that the [ɔr] sequence is acting like a diphthong. However, the [o] in neo and the [r] in near are not nasalized, indicating that [io] and [ir] are not diphthongs, but two-segment sequences.

As for the rest of the r-colored vowels, Green offers evidence from a language game called Uzzlefuzz, in which every syllable of a word is replaced by V+uzzle+V, where V represents the original vowel in the syllable. Thus, keel would be keezlefeel, and booty would become boozlefooteezlefee. Diphthongs count as a single vowel, so aye would be [aizlfai], not [azlfai]. The words nurse, sharp, scarce, and north treat the r-colored vowel like a diphthong, resulting in nurzlefurse, sharzlefarp, scarzlefarce, norzleforth. But [ir] and [ur] are treated as separate segments, so that fierce and poor (presumably pronounced to rhyme with tour) become feezlefierce and poozlefoor, and not fierzlefierce and poorzlefoor.

So avast, me hearties, and welcome aboard syllabic [r] and its r-final diphthongs [ar], [ɛr], and [ɔr]!

*Since I’m doing a whole post about [r], I should note that [r] is not the IPA symbol for the (American) English R sound. In the IPA, [r] represents the trilled R, as in Spanish perro, while the English R is represented as [ɹ]. However, since I won’t be talking about both of these sounds, I’m just not going to bother.

**The consonant Y sound is not represented as [y] in the IPA, but as [j]. For easier reading for a nonlinguist audience, I’m using [y] anyway.

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Posted in Vowels | 12 Comments »

Engma Enigma

Posted by Neal on September 2, 2008

You may remember that a few weeks ago, I was sorting through Adam’s spelling worksheets from the past school year, looking at how they handled teaching [ə], and the cot/caught vowel merger. I was also interested to see what they did with another question about vowels:

What vowel is in the word sing, and what vowel in the word sang?

I’d never really given it much thought until I got to college and took my first linguistics class, but up until then if you had asked me, I would have said the vowel in sing was long E, and the vowel in sang was long A. Transcribing them phonetically, I’d have written them as [siŋ] and [seŋ]. (There’s a whole introduction to engma, aka the ng sound, the one written [ŋ] in IPA, in this post from the Linguistic Mystic.) In class, though, I was surprised to learn that the expected transcriptions were [sIŋ] and [sæŋ] — in other words, with short I and short A, respectively.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Variation, Vowels | 16 Comments »

Phonics, Phonetics, and Variation

Posted by Neal on August 3, 2008

Wow, August. Why, it’s just about time for back to school. I finally got around to sorting through all Adam’s schoolwork from last year, throwing out the boring stuff that didn’t highlight his creativity or personality. One of the items that survived the culling was an illustration with the caption “When I am 100 years old…” He had completed the sentence with “I will be dead”, and drawn a tombstone. Another one was his personal timeline, with six milestones of his life illustrated on a big laminated piece of construction paper. Starting first grade is the last item; in the middle are a couple of family vacations and cat acquisitions; and at the beginning is “I was born”, illustrated with the story his mom tells him about the day he was born. Specifically, about how he peed on the doctor when he was lifted up. All the caption says is “I was born”; the rest is told in the full-color pencil-and-crayon picture. I can see from the fading on parts of the construction paper that this one must have been up on the wall on display for a while.

I poured a whole boxful of Adam’s less memorable schoolwork into the recycle bin yesterday, but I’m still hanging on to his spelling worksheets for a little while, because I’ve been curious about how a number of phonetic issues are handled in phonics-based instruction. One unit is called “Words with /ɘ/”, and it lists these words:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Vowels | Tagged: | 20 Comments »

Diphthongs for Doug

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2005

I was looking over the graded schoolwork Doug brought home today. One page was from a phonics workbook, and the task was to circle the words in which y had a “long e” sound. There were eight sentences, such as Ty and Molly were taking care of baby Freddy, and They heard Freddy cry in his crib. Doug had done pretty well, circling Molly, baby, Freddy, hurry, everything, funny, bunny, very, happy, and silly. He’d lost a few points, though, for circling they in the three sentences where it appeared, and play in another one. At supper, I asked him why he’d circled those words.

“Listen, Dad,” he said. “Theyyyyyyyy, playyyyyyyyyy.

Far out–he’d perceived that the long a sound was actually a diphthong. I didn’t think kids were supposed to have conscious access to that kind of information.

“Congratulations, Doug,” I said. “You’ve figured out that the long a sound is actually two sounds smushed together. Most people can’t hear that long e at the end. It just sounds like one sound to them.”

He was pleased enough at having made this discovery that I had him say a long, drawn out, “Ohhhhh” so he could hear that the long o sound actually ended with a long u. Then I picked his worksheet back up and told him there were actually some more words that ended with y making a long e sound as part of a diphthong. He didn’t believe it, and started running through the words to rule them out: “Well, it’s not try, it’s not cry…” I made him slow down, and then he heard the long e creeping in at the end of the long i sound. He thought it was pretty funny that if he’d counted the long i sound as having a long e, he’d have circled every word on the page that ended in y.

And then, the most important part of the lesson: “So now you know that when they say long e, they mean long e that’s NOT part of some other sound like a long a or long i.” I don’t want him going to his teacher tomorrow, trying to argue that y really does make the long e sound in all these words. From the kind of arguments he’s been having with me lately, I could see him trying it.

Posted in The darndest things, Vowels | 2 Comments »

Check It Out, Dude

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2004

For the readers of this blog who haven’t already heard about Scott Kiesling‘s Dude paper via Language Log or seen this AP article about it that an anonymous commentator gave the link to, I recommend reading the whole thing. It’s only 20-some pages, and is entertaining and pretty easy to understand (except for the stuff about “poststructuralism” and “cultural Discourses,” but you can skim over that and still get the main points). If you liked reading about yuh-huh, like, and duh, definitely check this one out.

One interesting fact Kiesling discusses is that the /u/ in dude is usually fronted. That is, it’s actually pronounced like [i] (aka “long e”), except that you still have your lips rounded as if for [u]. (It’s the same sound as ü in German.) This is the pronunciation sometimes transcribed as “Dewd!” Kiesling has some comments about why this happens, but it reminded me of another marked fronting of /u/ for stylistic effect that I heard a few years ago…

My wife and I lived in an urban neighborhood down the street from a corner grocery. When we’d drive or walk by, there would often be a black and white cat in the window. My wife, naturally, had to ask the store’s proprietor the cat’s name. It was Bloomers. After that, every time we saw Bloomers in the window, my wife would say, “Aw, look! It’s Blümers!”

“Oh, yeah, Bloomers!” I’d agree, making sure I backed the hell out of my /u/.

“No, it’s Blümers!” she insisted. “It’s cuter that way!”

Posted in Ohioana, Vowels | 7 Comments »

Anybody Want a Peanut?

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2004

An anonymous commentator said:

The DVD Player/DVD part of this post recalls something I’ve wondered about for a long time: how come when two little peanuts are in their native shell, we call the whole ensemble “a peanut,” but once we remove the tasty morsels we have “peanuts” and a peanut shell?

I never thought about it, but Anonymous is right. As my Webster’s dictionary puts it, peanut denotes “the seed or seed-containing pod of the peanut [plant]“. Or more accurately, “seed-containing pod that actually still contains the seeds, not one that has just been emptied of them,” which as Anonymous notes, is called a peanut shell. So if I ate 10 peanuts, it could mean I ate 20 seeds (assuming 2 seeds per pod) if I’m using the “seed-containing pod” meaning, or just 10 seeds if I’m using the “seed” meaning. To someone counting every calorie, this could be even more vexing than the question of how many troops are in a troop.

Anyway, all this talk about peanuts reminds me of one of my favorite lines from nearly everyone’s favorite source of movie quotations, The Princess Bride. In one scene, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (André the Giant) play a game, where Montoya will say a line, and Fezzik has to reply with a line such that the two of them form a rhyming couplet. Their boss, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) gets more and more irritated with the game, until finally:

Vizzini: No more rhymes! And I mean it!
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?

I always laughed at that line just because it wasn’t a perfect rhyme–the same way I laughed at Ernie on Sesame Street forcing nice to rhyme with eyes, or Tom Lehrer rhyming You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas with Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollahs.

Why isn’t it a perfect rhyme? The part of mean it that is intended to be rhymed is [in@t], where @ represents the schwa sound typically found in unstressed syllables in English. But the part of peanut that is supposed to complete the rhyme is [in^t], where ^ represents the “uh” sound heard in but or up. Very close, but not a perfect rhyme.

A few years ago, though, I realized that for some people, mean it and peanut are a perfect rhyme. Whereas I usually pronounce peanut with a secondary stress on the nut, others have no stress there at all, pronouncing it as [n@t] instead of [n^t].

The difference between [pin^t] and [pin@t] can be difficult to hear when someone is just talking about one peanut; it shows up better when they’re talking about peanuts: [pin^ts] vs. [pin@ts]. The first time I heard someone say peanuts and mistook it for penis, I knew for sure they weren’t pronouncing it the way I was!

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Vowels | 2 Comments »

 
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