Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Grover and the Excellent Idea

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2019

It’s been called “the new Laurel vs. Yanny“: A six-second video clip from Sesame Street in which Grover expresses his enthusiastic approval for an idea that a fellow Muppet named Rosita suggests. In case you haven’t already read what people are hearing Grover say, I’ll let you listen to it before I bring in the spoilers. Here’s a clip of just the audio. Further commentary below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


Posted in Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology, Stress and focus, Syllables, Taboo, Vowels | 7 Comments »

Some Phonetic N-L-ysis (Or, You’ll Want to Hold Your Nose for This One)

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2018

In doing pronunciation tutoring for international students, I’ve found one pronunciation error to be particularly difficult for students to overcome. The specific problem, which I’ve noticed most often in students from Hubei, China, is in making a distinction between /n/ and /l/. Sometimes, /l/ is the troublesome member of the pair. When they pronounce it, it sounds like an /n/, so when they deliver a mock lecture for a teaching assessment, they might pronounce analysis as ananasis. Other times, /n/ is the source of the trouble, when not comes out as lot, or no as low, or my knife as my life.

This phonemic merger has happened despite the existence of common Chinese names such as Liu. One student admitted that it can sometimes be a problem to say words like these, and sometimes people from his home region will be teased for it when they travel to other areas of China. Apparently this local dialect, even though it’s a variety of Mandarin, is known to be difficult for other Mandarin speakers to understand. I imagine American English speakers with the cot/caught merger have a similar experience when traveling to a region where the speakers still make a distinction between these two vowels.

Working with speakers who are struggling to distinguish between /n/ and /l/ highlights how phonetically similar they are. First of all, they’re both made by putting the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth, on that bony bump behind them (the alveolar ridge). Furthermore, they’re both voiced sounds. Make an extended /n/ sound or an extended /l/ sound and put a finger on your Adam’s apple. For both sounds, you’ll feel the vibrations of the air being pushed through your vocal folds.

So exactly what is the difference between /n/ and /l/, anyway? It comes down to two things:

  1. Does the air pass through the nose? That is, are you making a nasal sound?
  2. Does the air pass over the sides of the tongue? That is, are you making a lateral sound?

So how do you know if air is coming through your nose or past the sides of your tongue? Take a deep breath, put your tongue into position for your /n/ or /l/, whichever one you’re trying to make, and say that sound for a good, long time: [nnnnnn….], or [lllll…]. I’m assuming that you’re able to do this, since you’re probably an English speaker if you’re reading this blog. However, in the unlikely event that you were not able to make that extended [n] or [l], then that means the answer to both of these questions is NO, which means you’re not making an [n] or an [l] at all; you’re making a different alveolar sound: [d]!

But supposing you were able to make that extended [n] or [l], here’s the next part of the test. Do it again, and this time do it while pinching your nose. Were you still able to do it? If pinching your nose totally disrupted things, then air must have been coming through there before, so the answer to the “nasal” question is YES.

On the other hand, if pinching your nose didn’t stop you at all, then air must have been escaping your head some other way, and it probably wasn’t coming out your ears. I mean, I guess it could have, if you get lots of ear infections like I did when I was a kid, and you’ve had tubes inserted into your eardrums. But still, it’s a bit of work to force air to go through there. The more likely escape path is past the sides of your tongue. To find out for sure, put your tongue into the position again, and then just breathe through your mouth for a little bit. You should feel the sides of your tongue is getting cold. So the answer to the “lateral” question is YES.

This means, looking back, that if air was passing through your nose a minute or two ago, and pinching your nose gave it no other way to get out, then it wasn’t just the tip of your tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge. It was actually the entire outer edge of your tongue, from the right all the way to the left, spreading out to seal the passage from your molars on one side, to just behind your incisors, to your molars on the other side. On the other hand, if air was passing over the sides of your tongue, then your tongue was squeezed into a narrow shape, so that only the tip was touching the alveolar ridge.

If the answer to the nasal question is YES and the answer to the lateral question is NO, then you’ve got yourself an [n]. If the answer to the nasal question is NO and the answer to the lateral question is YES, then you’re making an [l]. But what if the answer to both of these questions is YES? In that case, you’re making a sound that isn’t even in English’s phonetic inventory. In fact, there isn’t even an International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for it; the best we can do is to use the [l] symbol and use the tilde (~) to indicate that this is a nasalized consonant: [ l̃ ].

This halfway consonant is usually what the students in question have been making for both /n/ and /l/, leading to the confusion between not and lot; no and low; knife and life.

Here are the differences summed up.

air does not   pass through nose        air passes         through nose
air does not pass  sides of tongue [ d ] [ n ]
air passes sides of tongue [ l ] [ l̃ ]

Once the students are more aware of what’s going on with their speech articulators, it’s a matter of practicing the two sounds, sometimes while pinching their nose to make sure air can’t pass through it unnoticed. When they get good enough at producing the two sounds during our session, they can take on the homework challenge of singing the hook from Roy Orbison’s classic doo-wop tune!

Posted in Consonants, Language learning, Music, What the L | 15 Comments »

Photogenic People Take the Best Pictures

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2018

Now that it’s Adam’s senior year in the marching band, a vinyl poster with a picture of him in uniform is hanging at the football stadium, along with posters of all the other senior band members, cheerleaders, and football players. My wife and I saw it at the first home game, and he looked really good in it. We’d been a little nervous, since Doug had been dissatisfied with how he looked in his senior band picture two years ago. At lunch the next day, my wife said,

Adam, you took a great picture!

“No, he didn’t,” I said. “The photographer took a great picture.”

I was amazed to hear that sentence, because only hours earlier, I had heard a similar sentence from an instructor at the gym. At the end of a class, the instructor was making some small talk with the participants, and she got to telling about how it didn’t matter what she was wearing or how she did her hair,

I take crappy pictures.

It instantly set off my syntactic tripwire: The teacher wasn’t taking the pictures. People with cameras took pictures of her. Yet here she was, making herself the subject of the verb phrase take crappy pictures. I was especially alert for sentences like this because at the time, I’d just finished writing a script for the Grammar Girl podcast (which I’ll link to when Mignon runs it). One of her listeners had asked about sentences like

This screw screws in easily.

and she’d passed it on to me to see if I could do something with it. I figured it would be a pretty quick piece to write. This kind of sentence is sometimes said to use the middle voice, since it has characteristics of both active voice and passive voice. On the one hand, the verb phrase looks to be in the active voice, with that active verb screws instead of the passive is screwed. On the other hand, the subject is not the do-er of the action (i.e. the agent); it’s the undergoer of the action (i.e. the patient), the hallmark of passive voice. (At least, it’s the hallmark when both an agent and a patient are involved. For verbs like die, which require only a patient, active-voice verb forms are expected.)

In addition to these characteristics, there are a couple of other things that linguists have noticed about these middle-voice sentences. One is that they often don’t refer to a specific event. Of course, sometimes they do, like the sentence talking about that time when the band photographer took a picture of Adam. But a more typical middle-voice sentence would be ones like these:

I don’t embarrass easily.

These cookies freeze well.

Our kit sells for $10.99.

Speakers of these sentences aren’t talking about particular embarrassments, or a specific time when they froze some cookies (even if they’ve done it many times), or all the times that someone paid $11 for their product. These speakers are more focused on saying something about themselves, or the cookies, or the item for sale.

This brings us to the next characteristic of middle-voice sentences: the subject gets the credit or the blame. In a prototypical active-voice sentence, such as

Kim took a picture,

the subject is not only the one taking the action (i.e. the agent), but is also the one exercising their volition. The subject is responsible for this action happening. On the other hand, in the middle-voice sentences, even though the subject isn’t the agent anymore, it is still at least partially responsible for pictures turning out great or crappy, or someone getting embarrassed, or the successful freezing of the cookies.

The third characteristic of middle-voice sentences is that they often have an adverbial element to them. In the example sentences we have easily and well. As with the event-reference tendency, there are exceptions that don’t contain adverbs. I tend to notice them in computer contexts:

Your receipt is printing.

The program is downloading.

And of course, our photography sentences don’t have adverbs. But look closer: Even these sentences manage to convey some idea of how the photographing goes, by modifying picture(s) with the adjectives great and crappy.

I wrote about all these kinds of sentences in the Grammar Girl script except for one: Sentences like You took a great picture and I take crappy pictures. These sentences have something that the others don’t: a direct object! In all the other sentences, this middle-voice construction takes a verb that’s ordinarily transitive and makes it intransitive, but in the two sentences I heard on that Saturday a few weeks ago, the transitive verb take is still transitive, taking the same direct object, picture(s) that it usually does. And instead of pictures becoming the subject, in a sentence like

*These pictures took well,

we have a noun taken from somewhere inside what would have been the direct object in an active sentence. Here, I’ll illustrate:

The photographer took a great picture of Adam.

Adam took a great picture.

The noun Adam is inside the of prepositional phrase, inside the direct object a great picture of Adam. In all the reading I’ve done on middle voice in previous years, and in the more recent reading I did in order to write the Grammar Girl episode, I haven’t come across this kind middle-yet-still-transitive sentence. I’ve tried to think of others, and so far I have only one candidate. It’s make, as in this pair of sentences:

My wife made a fantastic pie from these apples.

These apples would make a great pie.

Other examples, real or imagined, are welcome in the comments.

Posted in Ambiguity, Passive voice, The wife, Verbal diathesis alternations | 4 Comments »

Clickable IPA

Posted by Neal on September 5, 2018

One of the courses I teach is individual pronunciation tutoring for international students who are going to be teaching assistants here at Ohio State University. One of the resources I use a lot is this clickable IPA chart. Click on any of the sounds in this chart, and you’ll hear a recording of someone uttering the sounds.

Sometimes, though, I wished that it was possible to reduce the visual clutter by having the chart show just the sounds of English, or just the sounds of Chinese, or Korean, or whatever other language a student spoke. I could toggle between the different languages’ phonemic inventories, allowing us to quickly view the phonemes common to multiple languages, and those that are in one phonemic inventory but not another.

At the same time as the chart had too many sounds, it also didn’t have enough of them. Some sounds, like the affricates /tʃ/ (as in chump)and /dʒ/ (as in jump) are displayed on a supplement to the chart (not shown in the screenshot here). There are even bigger gaps for Chinese, since it has three times as many affricates as English, and some of them aren’t displayed on the chart anywhere at all. This is because they’re versions of some affricates that are already shown in the chart, but they’re aspirated (i.e., pronounced with a short puff of air after them). It makes sense not to show these, because if you recorded aspirated versions of all the consonants, it would double the size of the consonant chart. And if you’re going to have separate recordings for the aspirated consonants, why not for the glottalized ones, or the pharyngealized ones, or the nasalized vowels, or the creaky vowels? But still, when I’m working with a Chinese student, and want to show them exactly how the set of sounds they’re used to matches up with what we have in English, I’d like to have all the affricates, aspirated and unaspirated, up there in the main chart with everything else.

A more elaborate clickable IPA chart that I recently learned about and have been using is this rtMRI IPA chart. This one was created by the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory at the University of Southern California. When you click on the IPA symbols in this chart, you not only hear them pronounced, you also see them pronounced with a real-time MRI (rtMRI) video clip. It is incredibly useful that someone took the trouble to do one of these rtMRIs for each of these sounds, and as a bonus, there are also clickable rtMRI recordings of some minimal vowel sets, some short sentences, and a couple of longer passages that I suspect are panphonemic, though I haven’t checked to be sure.

However, as with the other chart, you need to already know what sounds are in a language in order to know which ones you’re interested in clicking. And like the other chart, this one sidelines the affricates, and shows even fewer of them than the other chart. It wasn’t the customized tool that I sometimes wished were available to me and my students.

A few months ago, I was telling the ESL Programs’ curriculum director, Karen Macbeth, about the kind of chart I wished existed somewhere. As it happens, she was (and is) working on creating an e-textbook for all our Spoken English courses to use, and she said a chart like this one would go well in this kind of digital resource. She put me in touch with one Mike Shiflet, who works for Ohio State University’s Office of Distance Education and E-Learning and who has been helping Karen with her project. I gave Mike some printed IPA charts with different languages’ phonemic inventories highlighted on each one: English, Chinese, Korean, Turkish, Hindi, and Spanish. I showed him the clickable IPA chart that inspired this project. I provided him an audio clip of me pronouncing each of the sounds I wanted. From there, Mike produced the chart I had been dreaming of, and it’s now on OSU’s ESL Programs Spoken English web page for anyone to use! Me, I’m going to start using it tomorrow.

Below is a screenshot of just the (Mandarin) Chinese version of the chart.

I hope this chart proves to be as useful to some ESL/EFL teachers and students as the other clickable IPA charts have been for me.

Posted in Language learning, Panphonic Phun | 3 Comments »

I’m Tired of Taking Clothes On and Off

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2018

My wife needed to buy a black suit, and spent most of the day Sunday doing it. After visiting about a dozen stores and logging 10,000 steps on her pedometer, she finally found what she needed. I haven’t seen it yet, though. At home last night, I asked if she was going to model it for Adam and me. She said,

I’m tired of taking clothes on and off.

Taking clothes on and off?

I know she can take clothes off; I’ve seen her do it. But I don’t think I’ve seen her or anyone else take clothes on. They’ve only put them on. Or maybe thrown them on if they were in a hurry. (The people were in a hurry, not the clothes.) What my wife must have meant was she was tired of putting clothes on and taking them off. So was this simply a production error after a long day of shopping? I don’t think so.

First of all, she judged all of the following to be ungrammatical, while standing by her original utterance:

  • *I’m tired of taking clothes off and on.
  • *I’m tired of putting clothes off and on.
  • *I’m tired of putting clothes on and off.
  • Second, the corpus data favors the phrasing she used. First, I searched COCA for any form of take followed by any word and then “off and on” (search term “TAKE_vv* * off and on” if you’re interested). I got only five hits, and of them only two were relevant:

    TAKE_vv* * off and on

  • you don’t have the labor problems of taking covers off and on
  • it’s, you know, hard getting on the ladder, taking them off and on
  • (The irrelevant hits had off and on as a verb phrase modifier meaning “occasionally” (taking Pilates off and on), or just near each other by accident (takes Fridays off and on weekends gets….)

    On the other hand, when I did the same search with on and off (“TAKE_vv* * on and off”), I got nine hits, and of them five were true examples what I was looking for. The last one in the list even has on and off taking an object: windrows (which I’ve learned from are “long line[s] of raked hay or sheaves of grain laid out to dry in the wind”).

    TAKE_vv* * on and off

  • The youngster fidgets with an unusual looking pair of sunglasses, taking them on and off.
  • In fact, you had to take them on and off, and stroke them several times, right?
  • If I wear it here, I have to take it on and off all the time.
  • hadn’t developed a mechanical method to take covers on and off.
  • you’re buying covers and taking them on and off windrows for a year or five years,
  • Then I did the same two searches with the verb put. For put [something] off and on (“PUT_vv* * off and on”), I got nothing at all. For put [something] on and off (“PUT_vv* * on and ff”), I only got one hit, with on and off taking an object:

    PUT_vv* * on and off

  • she was able to put herself on and off her ventilator
  • Because I got so few results on COCA, I took my search to Brigham Young University’s iWeb corpus. With 14 billion words instead of 520 million, I got enough more hits that I wasn’t going to try to look through them to find the true positives, but the pattern seems to hold. take [something] on and off (758 hits) still wins over take [something] off and on (187 hits), and over either order with put (231 hits for on and off; a mere 6 for off and on). Here is a relevant hit of each type that I found:

  • with an adjustable wide quick-strap closure so you can easily take them on and off.
  • The kids goggles will stay put and taking them off and on will result in less complaining from the little ones.
  • I like the fancy straps for putting them on and off.
  • they stayed on well (when he wasn’t playing at putting them off and on).
  • What does this all mean? I’m not sure I can generalize much of anything from this pair off antonyms, put on and take off. Further investigation will have to wait.

    Posted in Coordination, The wife | 2 Comments »

    Through Houses They Had Never Been Through Before

    Posted by Neal on June 30, 2018

    It’s been a while since I wrote about things I noticed in books I read to Doug and Adam at bedtime. It started to be tough to do that when they started going to bed later than I did, and became just about impossible while Doug was off at his freshman year at college. But a member of the extended family is having a baby soon, and one of the gifts we’re sending is a book that the wife and I would read to them about 15 years ago. It’s Mr. Putter and Tabby Walk the Dog, by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard.

    Pictured: Tabby, Mr. Putter, Zeke

    We like the series because it has an adopted, aged cat in it; the mother-to-be will like it (we hope) because she likes English bulldogs, and will get a kick out of Mr. Putter’s neighbor’s English bulldog Zeke. Also, as I wrote inside the cover:

    One of us particularly likes the ambiguity in the phrase "through houses they had never been through before"--look carefully at the illustrations both times it's used!

    Here’s the first time: “He tugged Mr. Putter and Tabby through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”

    The first time I read it, it was startling to read “through yards and creeks and houses”–what, was Zeke actually dragging Mr. Putter right through the front door and into and out of an individual house? Then I looked at the illustration and realized that Zeke was pulling Mr. Putter between two houses. In other words, the first time, “through houses they had never been through before” has a collective reading: Considering a group of houses all at once, Zeke pulled Mr. Putter through the group.

    Now, here’s the second one: “The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.”
    The big dogs pulled them through yards and creeks, and houses they had never been through before.Having gotten used to the idea of the collective reading, I was surprised and amused to see that this time, the illustration showed exactly the implausible distributive reading I had questioned before! This time, Zeke is pulling Mr. Putter right through a single house.

    Lots and lots of research has been done on collective and distributive readings. I’ve been reading a 1996 paper by Brendan Gillon on the subject, and he even has an example with through: “Bill drove through the redwoods”, and imagines the distributive reading that involves Bill either destroying a redwood or using a tunnel. For more details, with a lot of mathy details, you can read Gillon’s paper. Or if it’s behind a paywall from where you are, you might like this set of slides from a presentation in 2009 from Eytan Zweig at the University of York.

    Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Distributivity and collectivity, Kids' entertainment | Leave a Comment »

    Forcibly Arriving

    Posted by Neal on May 31, 2018

    Last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. That rather vague name may not ring a bell for you, but if you’ve been hearing news stories about a “lynching memorial,” that’s the place. An article by Kelly Macias in the Daily Kos argued for the need for such a memorial, calling it a

    space that is intentionally designed for us to finally have an adult conversation about the generational trauma and terror black people have experienced since we forcibly arrived upon America’s shores

    By context and historical knowledge, I could make sense of forcibly arrive: The blacks arrived, but the action wasn’t voluntary; they were taken by force and transported here. But seeing forcibly used in this sentence was surprising to me.

    Forcibly, like a number of adverbs, is agent-oriented. To show what this means, let’s compare it to an adverb that is subject-oriented: willingly. In the first sentence below, willingly describes how Dr. Riviera did the examination. In the second sentence, it describes how Homer underwent the examination. In both cases, willingly says something about the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, when we put in forcibly, then in both sentences, it’s talking about Dr. Riviera. Although Riviera is the subject in one, and the object of the preposition by in the other, in both cases he’s the agent.

    1. Dr. Riviera willingly examined Homer.
    2. Homer was willingly examined by Dr. Riviera.
    3. Dr. Riviera forcibly examined Homer.
    4. Homer was forcibly examined by Dr. Riviera.

    So I’m accustomed to agent-oriented adverbs with verbs that can be either in active voice (examined) or passive voice (was examined)–i.e. transitive verbs. What about intransitive verbs? Those can work, provided you have a verb that refers to something that can be dumb forcibly:

    1. Bart forcibly jumped over the curb.
    2. ?Marge forcibly slept.

    Now let’s talk about arrive. It’s a member of a class of verbs called unaccusatives, whose subjects don’t have the role of agent. Other members include suffer, die, and the intransitive versions of verbs such as melt. These verbs definitely don’t go well with agent-oriented adverbs:

    1. *Seymour forcibly suffered.
    2. *Maud forcibly died.

    So now, coming back to arrive, it’s often classified as an unaccusative verb. The subject is not an agent, and since the verb is intransitive, there’s no object to be the agent, either. No agent in sight. And in that case, how does forcibly get to describe the causer of the arriving? My guess at the beginning of this post was “pure context,” and it still is. Maybe it was even a cut-and-paste error, with an original were forcibly transported replaced by arrived, and forcibly never got changed accordingly. However, I can’t say it’s something that people just don’t say or write, because I’ve found a couple of other examples:

    • In Brazil and Cuba, where thousands of African slaves forcibly arrived each year, slavery dominated most economic activities…. (link)
    • With their ancestors having forcibly arrived to the New World enslaved, and with African females becoming “beast[s] of burden,” newly freed southern black … (link)

    Posted in Adjuncts and complements, Lexical semantics | Leave a Comment »

    She Never Saw a Dog and Didn’t Smile

    Posted by Neal on April 30, 2018

    A tweet about a dog lover and friend of Los Angeles Parks named Nicole Campbell went viral yesterday. More accurately, it was a tweet about the message on a plaque memorializing Ms. Campbell on a park bench in LA. Here’s the tweet, from Twitter user Jen d’Angelo:

    Like Jen, I feel bad for laughing at this memorial to someone who must have been a lovely person to know, and who was clearly loved and admired by the people who bought this plaque. But I can’t help chuckling at the message that so neatly manages to say (under one parse) the complete opposite of what it intended. The intended message, of course, was one that could also have been phrased who never saw a dog without smiling, or who smiled whenever she saw a dog–or to put it the way they’d do in a semantics textbooks, a statement confirmed by one of Campbell’s friends in a reply to d’Angelo’s tweet. But I’m still smiling at responses such as “Why didn’t someone just show this poor woman a dog?”

    The sentence is a nice example of an attachment ambiguity, which I’ve diagrammed below. The intended reading is on the left, in which never attaches “high”, to the entire verb phrase saw a dog and didn’t smile. The funny reading is on the right, where never attaches “low”, to just the VP saw a dog.

    I think one of the factors that makes the sober-faced dogless reading so easy to get is that under the smiling-at-dogs reading, you have to mentally expand the sentence out to

    …who never saw a dog, and never didn’t smile.

    Here, you get a double negative that actually is intended to be read as making an affirmation: She always smiled. Negatives like that are harder to parse, although you do get them for effect sometimes…

    Posted in Attachment ambiguity | 4 Comments »


    Posted by Neal on March 17, 2018

    Limericks have been on my mind f the last couple of months. It started when I discovered a Twitter account called @Limericking, which puts out a constant stream of limericks based on the news, usually better than the ones featured each week on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. Here’s the limerick that showed up on my timeline in January:

    So clever, and such a good illustration of the cot/caught merger, which I just wrote about in a piece I just did for Grammar Girl on vowel mergers. For me, cause and flaws both have the mid back round vowel /ɔ/, but Oz has the low back unround vowel /ɑ/. It could just be that the writer of this limerick was settling for an imperfect rhyme, but I see that @Limericking is based in Canada, one of the places where the merger is widespread, so it’s probably a perfect rhyme for them.

    Then, at the end of the month, Merriam-Webster started tweeting out limericks about English usage. I particularly liked this one:

    At the beginning of March, of course, it was National Grammar Day once again, with its annual limerick contest. This was the winner, and deservedly so:

    I didn’t write a grammar limerick, but after I read the limericks from Limericking and Merriam-Webster, I decided to take another crack at writing a panphonic poem, within the constraints of five short lines. The first time I tried putting all the sounds of English into a single poem, I tried to work in not only all the sounds that English speakers perceive as separate sounds (in other words, all the phonemes), but also all the variant pronunciations of each phoneme (i.e. all the allophones). For example, I didn’t want to put in just the vowel [i] as in she, but also the nasalized vowel [ĩ] as in scheme. Ultimately, I didn’t succeed, so I set my sights a bit lower this time. Here’s what I ended up with:

    In normal spelling, it’s

    Hear in this short limerick’s strains
    Every sound which my language contains.
    Could it be an illusion?
    Panphonic profusion?
    Something linguists enjoy as a game?

    I would rather have said panphonemic profusion because it’s more specific, and because the meter works better, but panphonic was the only word I had with the vowel /ɑ/. And I’d prefer sound that to sound which, but I needed a /tʃ/. Maybe I’ll try again someday, without such a meta topic.

    Posted in Panphonic Phun | 1 Comment »

    Flappin’ Shit

    Posted by Neal on January 19, 2018

    A few years ago, I blogged about hearing some English speakers pronouncing their /t/’s as glottal stops in an unexpected place: after a stressed vowel, before an /h/. Some of the examples I talked about were a local public radio news reporter’s pronunciation of Statehouse,and Doug’s pronunciation of pothole. Another example, which I thought I’d blogged about but apparently hadn’t, is Doug’s pronunciation of warthog, which is different from the others in that there’s an /r/ between the vowel and /t/. But they’re all similar in that I would personally pronounce the /t/ as a flap [ɾ] in these words, and I heard other speakers using a glottal stop [ʔ].

    Last week, I happened to think of another word with a /t/ between a stressed vowel and an /h/. It was shithole! For me, the /t/ in this word is pronounced as a flap, just like in Statehouse, pothole, and warthog: shi[ɾ]hole.

    But the events of last week’s news cycle naturally got me to wondering: How are other people pronouncing shithole these days? With a flap, like me? As shi[t]hole, with an ordinary [t]–shi[t]hole? Or maybe even as shi[ʔ]hole with a glottal stop?

    In this montage of newscasters reporting on Trump’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and (some?) African countries, I hear mostly shi[ɾ]hole, with a few shi[t]holes thrown in. No glottal-stop shi[ʔ]holes.

    I also searched for shithole in YouGlish, this website I learned about in the course of teaching English pronunciation to my international students. You search for your word, and it brings you video clips of people saying that word in real contexts. Their four entries for shithole all use the flap pronunciation. (In unrelated findings, all eight of their clips of coup de grace pronounce it as if it were coup de gras.)

    Among the family and friends I asked, the flapped pronunciation is also the most common. I was even surprised to find that this was the pronunciation that Doug used, when I asked him to repeat this word of the week. I wonder how he pronounces pothole, butthole, and warthog now…

    Three people in my sample of 14 used the [t] pronunciation. One is a co-worker who later mentioned that he thought of shithole as two words: shit hole.

    I did find two speakers with glottal-stop shithole. One was one of my in-laws, and the other was one of Doug’s floormates in his dorm. That’s right: He’s a freshman in college now, and when I called him with my linguistic question, he gave me his answer and offered to pass the phone around to the other residents in the room, and one by one they got on the line and said “shithole” to me.

    UPDATE, Feb. 5, 2018

    When I tweeted this post, Michael Covarrubias (@wishydog) responded, “i hear your flap and /h/. i hear a lot of glottal stops in the video. apparently, my /t/ is a glottal stop very often.” So I went back for another listen. It turns out I listened too quickly the first time. On closer inspection, and with the use of the phonetics software Praat, I have segmented out 57 tokens of shithole (or a related form, such as the plural, or the derived form shitholer), and of them, eight have the glottal stop pronunciation, for 14%. Seven tokens have the [t] pronunciation, making 12.3%. Tokens with a flap make up the remaining 73.7%.

    I labeled each token impressionistically by hear, but then also examined their spectrograms using Praat, labeling the duration of the air stoppage for the /t/, doing my best to separate it from the pronunciation of the /h/. Sometimes I had to give up. I also tried to record whether the /t/ and following /h/ were voiced or not, but sometimes had to give up on this, too. If anyone is interested in looking at or listening to the data, you can find the WAV file, accompanying Praat text grid, and a spreadsheet with the data for each of the 57 tokens in a Google Drive folder I’ve named the Vice Shithole Corpus.

    Posted in Doug, Flap (tap), Glottal stops, Politics, Taboo | Leave a Comment »