Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Trucha Affrication

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2015

If this were a fried chicken restaurant in the US, it would probably call itself "Motherpluckers."

Doug spent last summer in Ecuador at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where he doubled his life list by seeing 345 species of birds that he’d never seen before. He also ate a lot of good food, saw a volcano, and spoke mucho español. He got to speaking it pretty well, apparently. But some of the other guests that he heard there had a little bit of trouble with their accent.

He told me about one British guest, who really enjoyed a trout dinner that they served one night, and said so: “¡Me gusta la trucha!

This really amused the cook and one of the guides. One of them asked the guest a couple more times whether he liked la trucha. The guest said yes he did, and wondered aloud to Doug, “Why do they keep asking me that?”

Before I go further, I’m going to have to do a little bit of phonetic housekeeping, specifically with regard to the R sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet. On this blog, I’ve written the English pronunciation of the R sound with the IPA symbol [r], but that’s actually the IPA representation of a Spanish or Italian rolled R, as in the Spanish perro, or the American English edited (sometimes, for some speakers). The IPA representation of an ordinary Spanish R, as in pero, is [ɾ], which also happens to be the English “tapped” T or D (as in thataway). Of course, some UK speakers roll or tap their R’s, too, such as this Scottish guy. But today, I’m talking about the non-rolled pronunciation of R in American English and the English spoken by the British guest who so enjoyed the trout. That’s a “postalveolar R,” represented as [ɹ]. OK, on with the post.

Do you remember when I was writing about how in English, a /t/ is often pronounced as [ʧ] (the “CH” sound) when it comes before an /ɹ/? Sure you do!

However, that’s an English phonological rule. Do it in Spanish, and you just give yourself away as a non-native speaker (assuming you haven’t already done so by inappropriately aspirating, voicing, or devoicing your stops). You might even embarrass yourself, as this British tourist did. Trout in Spanish is trucha, pronounced [tɾuʧa]. Note the tapped R [ɾ]. The British guest was pronouncing it as [ʧɹuʧə], with a postalveolar [ɹ] and an affricated /t/. This, as it turns out, is uncomfortably close to another Spanish word, chucha [ʧuʧa].

Doug, being such a polite young man, declined to translate this word for me, but did offer that it was part of an expression of frustration or anger that he sometimes heard from the speakers there: ¡chucha madre!. Wikipedia tells me that in other Spanish-speaking countries, the expression is ¡chucha de tu madre!. De tu madre means “of your mother” — “your mother’s” something. I’ll just leave it at that.

Posted in Affricates, Taboo | Leave a Comment »

Peanut Eyes

Posted by Neal on September 24, 2015

In a social-media gimmick to promote the the new Peanuts movie, a web page is being shared that invites you to “get Peanutized!” I went there, expecting to upload a headshot and be amused at what came back once the secret Peanutizing software had done its thing. I was disappointed to find that it was really more of a character creator with fewer options than Doug and Adam had on their Nintendo Wii. I did it anyway, though, picking what I thought matched me best from the available options. No choice on the face shape; boys automatically get the Charlie Brown moon face, no lumpy face shapes like Linus’s, or other face shapes like maybe Schroeder’s. Here it is:

Peanutization complete

Aside from the less-than-impressive technology of the Peanutizer, I have a linguistic problem with it. How do you pronounce Peanutize?

Just sound it out, you say? Just say peanut and then add the suffix -ize? That’s all well and good if your base word is something like skolem or tender or Simpson. The trouble with having peanut as a base word is how to pronounce the /t/. Do I pronounce it like a typical, word-initial, aspirated [tʰ]? Or do I pronounce it as a tap [ɾ], the way I do with the /t/ in meter?

If, like my wife, I pronounced peanut to rhyme with seen it, with an unstressed second syllable, then Peanutize is no more a pronunciation problem than digitize. The final /t/ of peanut would be free to break loose from the end of the nut syllable, and attach itself to the ize. The ize become tize, and the /t/ at the onset would be pronounced [tʰ]: “ties.”

But as you’ll no doubt recall, I don’t pronounce peanut to rhyme with seen it. I pronounce it as a compound word, with primary stress on pea, and secondary stress on nut. So for me, the vowel in nut doesn’t get reduced to a schwa; it remains the “uh” sound [ʌ]. And since [ʌ] is a lax vowel, it generally needs to have a consonant close off the syllable. (Exceptions are interjections, such as duh and meh.) This brings up a new issue: Since I now have a /t/ at the end of a syllable (what phoneticians call coda position), and because I speak American English, I have the option of pronouncing the /t/ as a tap [ɾ].

However, this option has a problem. Typically, [ɾ] occurs in English between a stressed and an unstressed syllable (e.g. MET-er), or between two unstressed syllables (e.g. VOM-it-ed). Sometimes it can occur before a stressed syllable (e.g. what-EV-er), but I believe when that happens, that stressed syllable has to have the primary stress in the word. But in Peanutize, the ize doesn’t have primary stress. That honor goes to Pea. If I go ahead and tap that /t/ anyway, I end up with something that sounds to my ear like two words: peanut eyes (which I just discovered is actually an idiom in Thai).

There’s only one solution: Ask myself what Taylor Swift would do. She’d turn that /t/ into a glottal stop [ʔ], that’s what she’d do! So everybody, let’s get peanuh’ized!

Posted in Consonants, Kids' entertainment, Movies | 3 Comments »

Superior Complements, Superior Adjuncts

Posted by Neal on August 31, 2015

Adam is a high-school freshman this year, and is now a member of the school’s marching band. Over the weekend, I had to take him in to get measured for his bibbers and jacket. While he was busy with the band’s uniform chair, I noticed this message on the whiteboard in the uniform room:

We're inferior to you!

I stared at this message for a good half-minute or so, trying to figure out what it meant, because I couldn’t believe the writer actually intended to send the message this sentence seemed to be sending–that the band members’ parents and even the band director himself, Mr. Jason Gibson, were inferior to the band members themselves. We were telling a group of teenagers, in essence, “We’re not worthy!”

Having been a band parent for several years now, I knew the significance of the word superior: It’s the word associated with a “1” rating in an Ohio Music Education Association competition. A rating of “2” is “excellent,” and a “3” is merely “good”–basically, “thank you for participating.” I see from the OMEA handbook that there are also ratings of 4 “fair” and 5 “poor,” though I’ve never seen those awarded. I guess bands that are fair or poor know it, and don’t bother coming to the competitions. In any case, band boosters (that is, the band parents and other supporters) love to work superior into any words of encouragement to the band. Instead of saying, “Have a great season,” they’ll say, “Have a superior season!” Get it? Score lots of “superior” ratings at the competitions.

These competitions are a big deal. In fact, many band members and boosters see halftime shows at football games as mere rehearsals for the competitions. If a band gets enough “superior” ratings at OMEA local or regional competitions, it qualifies for the OMEA state competition. (By the way, in central Ohio, when a marching band or sports team qualifies for a state-level competition, they are said to be “going to states,” plural. Not “going to state,” as you may have heard in Friday Night Lights or in your own high school days. I take this to be an analogical extension of “regionals,” which is plural in my dialect. Of course, although there can be several regional competitions, there’s only one state competition, but I guess morphological regularity trumps logic here.)

Last year, the Raider Marching Pride did, in fact, make it to states. It was no small feat, either, given that two weeks of practices had to take place without the direction of Mr. Gibson, who with most other teachers in the district was on strike. The student band leadership and the band boosters stepped up to keep things going during that time.

At states, though, the Marching Pride fell short of a “superior,” earning an “excellent” instead. This message on the board must have gone up as a message of consolation. Remembering that, I had enough pieces to recover the intended message:

In the opinion of these parents and Mr. Gibson, you are all superior!

In syntactic terms, the ambiguity hinged on whether to these parents and Gibson was a complement to superior, or an adjunct to it. When I took superior as an adjective that required a to-phrase to complete it by designating the inferior party, I was taking to these parents and Gibson as a complement. (The mnemonic I use to remember this is that complement and complete come from the same Latin root.) But for the intended meaning, superior doesn’t need a complement to complete it. All by itself, it has its specialized meaning of “worthy of a rating of 1.” In that case, the phrase to these parents and Gibson is an adjunct, because it simply adds some extra information: “in our eyes, in our opinion, as far as we’re concerned.”

This year, though, there’s no strike looming; the show is shaping up to be awesome; the band is ahead of schedule; and Adam’s in it playing baritone! We are anticipating superiority.

Posted in Adam, Adjuncts and complements, Ambiguity, Ohioana | 2 Comments »

The Flesh-Presser

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2015

“So you’re going to be at the Tomato Festival?” Doug asked me. That would be the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, our own addition to the list of small-town festivals celebrating odd things. In nearby towns we have the Circleville Pumpkin Show and the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival, but here in Reynoldsburg we honor the tomato.

In any case, yes, I was going to the Tomato Festival, not so much because I’m a big fan of tomatoes (they’re OK in a salad or sandwich, or chili or spaghetti sauce), but because like many such festivals, it’s an opportunity for political candidates to get out and meet a lot of people, and during the teacher strike in our school district last year, I decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education.


In elementary school it was Neal the Banana Peel

“Yep,” I said. “I reckon I’ve got to get out there and press the flesh, as they say.”

“What?!” Doug said. “What do you mean?”

“You know, going out and shaking lots of people’s hands,” I answered.

“Ugh, don’t say that. It sounds obscene!”

“Really?” I asked. I searched for the term on my phone, and the first hit that came up was an Urban Dictionary definition. If there really was an X-rated meaning for press the flesh, this would be the place to find it. But the most popular definition read:

To meet people in person, particularly at an event where you can network with other people. The actual pressing of flesh here refers to shaking hands with people.

All the other definitions said essentially the same thing. Later, at the Tomato Festival, while Doug was off with his girlfriend and some of their friends, I saw her mother and father and told them the story. Her mother laughed. “Just because his mind’s in the gutter…!”

The girlfriend’s father, whom I”ll call Mr. J, just chuckled and wished me well as I went to continue my flesh-pressing.

Or at least, that’s all he did in my presence. When he caught up with Doug and his daughter later that night, he made sure to say to Doug, “So your dad’s off pressing the flesh, huh?” I learned this when we were all back home, and Doug asked, “Dad, did you tell Mr. J. to use the expression pressing the flesh with me?

Nice going, Mr. J.! Now I’ll just have to push it a little further by morphing the idiom into a gerund (flesh-pressing), or an agentive noun (flesh-presser), or maybe really mess with Doug by turning it in to a backformed compound verb, and saying things like, “I flesh-pressed a lot of potential voters out there last week!”

Posted in Backformation, Doug, Ohioana, Politics, Taboo | 2 Comments »

Modal Miscommunication

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2015

I got a Facebook message from someone who had friended me based on my linguistical online presence. From his profile, he seems to be Middle Eastern. He was asking about graduate linguistic programs in the United States, and whether I knew of professors who had similar research interests to his. Trying to be helpful, I asked about his research interests, then mentioned a few of the professors at Ohio State, and wrote:

I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them if you’re interested in asking about studying at Ohio State.

I saw later that the Facebook friend had responded. I was startled to see that he was thanking me for being willing to do that for him.

Whoa! I wanted to be helpful, but not that helpful! At least, not for someone that I only know through Facebook. Where did he get the idea I was offering to actually craft an email for him? I looked again at my previous message, and then wrote back:

I’m sorry, I miscommunicated. When I wrote “I would email them”, I was using an implicit conditional sentence, in which I left an “if” clause unsaid. If I had written it fully, it would have gone “If I were in your situation, I would email them.” This is a way of making a suggestion or giving advice, but it was not an offer to email these professors for you. I think an email coming directly from you would be better, although if you wish, you can mention my name (for example, “Neal Whitman recommended that I …”).

By the way, to make an offer, I would probably write “I COULD email them” (to mean “I could email them if you wanted me to do so”), or “I CAN email them” (to make the same offer, but more emphatically), or “I WILL email them” (to indicate that I intend to do it without waiting for you to accept my offer).

I know that it’s often tough for English-language learners to get a grip on all the shades of meaning for all the modal verbs in their different tenses. If any of you have learned both English and some other language that’s not your native language, what do you think? Are English modal verbs (and quasi-modals like ought to and have to) harder to learn than similar verbs in other languages?

Posted in Language learning, Lexical semantics, Modal verbs, Politeness | 7 Comments »

Polar Panphonemic

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2015

Polar_Bear_-_Alaska by rubyblossom.

Polar_Bear_-_Alaska by

Last September, a reader named Richard Gunton left a comment on my panphonemic poem post with the following panphone that he’d composed:

Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.

I commented back:

By George, I believe this is panphonemic! How did you come to write it? And if you don’t mind, could you give your own vowel inventory in IPA, and show which word(s) go(es) with which vowel? The low backs are hard enough for me to keep straight in my own dialect, let alone a different accent. If there’s an interesting story behind this, I’d be happy to put it up here as a guest post.

Richard responded back with a list of every phoneme with the words it appeared in, with this commentary and backstory:

It’s interesting that my list of vowels distinguishes a much greater number than the one in your table above. I took it from my dictionary, and I do believe these all represent distinct phonemes for standard British English.

As to how I came up with it – well, back at the end of 2008 I had just moved to France, so had the subtleties of exotic phonemes on my mind, and a bilingual dictionary to hand. My French colleagues and I had been comparing French and English pangrams, so I thought a sentence with every sound of a language would be the next challenge. I realised that /ʒ/ was one of the rarest phonemes in English, so I started with “pleasure”, prefaced that with “huge” since /dʒ/ seemed a bit uncommon too, and built it up around that. That’s all I can remember now – it did take me quite a few idle nights to get there!

Well, that’s interesting enough that I really should have turned his work into a guest post by now. Better late than never. But I’ve made just a couple of adjustments to his panphone (with adjustments made accordingly to the list of words and phonemes), to give it some topicality:

Catching weary dolphins on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they now enjoy good meat unharmed.

Thanks, Richard!

/p/ polar
/b/ bears
/m/ meat; unharmed
/f/ dolphin
/v/ gives
/θ/ thin
/ð/ they
/t/ meat; dolphins
/d/ and; good; unharmed; dolphin
/n/ dolphins; on; thin; and; ensures; enjoy; unharmed
̣/s/ ice; surly
/z/ gives; bears; ensures
/l/ dolphin; surly; polar; pleasure
/r/ weary
/ʃ/ ensures
/ʒ/ pleasure
/tʃ/ catching
/dʒ/ huge; enjoy
/j/ huge
/k/ catching
/g/ gives; good
/ŋ/ catching
/w/ weary; waterfowl
/h/ huge; unharmed

Vowels and Diphthongs (‘ follows vowel being referred to)
/i/ weary’; meat
/I/ catchi’ng; thin; gives; e’nsures; e’njoy; ‘dolphin
/ɛ/ plea’sure
/æ/ ca’tching; and
/ɑ:/ unha’rmed
/ɔ/ on
/ɔ:/ dolphin
/ʊ/ good
/u:/ huge
/ʌ/ u’nharmed
/ə/ pola’r; pleasu’re
/ə:/ su’rly
/Iə/ wea’ry
/ɛə/ bears
/eI/ they
/aI/ ice
/au/ now
/əu/ po’lar
/ɔI/ enjoy’
/uə/ ensu’res

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 5 Comments »

Pretty Salad

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2015


Sofra Salad, by snowpea&bokchoi, Creative Commons

“All right,” I said. “So was there anything else you wanted to ask about?”

Jenna, a student from the semantics class I was teaching, had come in with some questions about lambda calculus, and we had spent about half an hour doing some practice derivations.

She smiled as she packed up her notebook. “No, pretty salad!”

That was a new one on me. It reminded me of the expression Cool beans!, which I first heard in the late 1980s. Was this what kids were saying now? Awesome beans were out, and good-looking salad was in? This required further investigation.

“Oh, is that an expression where you’re from?”

Jenna hesitated.

“You know, pretty salad. Is that like cool beans?”

“Uh, no,” Jenna said. “I just meant, I think I’ve got it pretty salad.”

Suddenly I realized. “Wait! You’re from Rochester, right?”


“Still, that’s prime Northern Cities Shift territory!”

She hadn’t heard of it. “You mean you haven’t heard of the biggest shift in English vowel pronunciation since the Great Vowel Shift of Elizabethan times?”

Nope. So I gave her the relevant highlight: the vowel in socks sounds like the vowel in sax. In her case, working backwards, what I thought was salad was actually solid. And in fact, she did have it pretty solid; she ended up with an A in the course.

Finally, it seems that “pretty salad” really is a thing. I’m not sure I get the joke in this piece of sketch comedy I found, but pretty salad is a big part of it.

Posted in Food-related, Variation, Vowels | 1 Comment »

Content with Nothing

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2015

Today’s newspaper had a story from AP about one Dylan Miller, a college student in Pennsylvania who has been living, Thoreau-like, in a hut in the woods since last summer, as part of a research project. As I read in the article:

The title of his project–Content with Nothing–carries a double meaning.

Of course it does. It’s the old ambiguity between the quantificational meaning and the state-of-affairs meaning. Why don’t we let Miller explain it for us? He starts with the quantificational meaning (emphasis mine):

We can’t be content with anything, really. Nothing can make us content; we’re always looking for something else,” Miller said.

In other words, there exists no x such that we are content with x. Now how about the state-of-affiars meaning? Miller explains this one, too:

“And then the solution, content with nothing, means we are content with having nothing. We don’t look externally for satisfaction or desire luxury. So the whole project is how to get to that final state of contentment.”

"The title has a quantificational meaning, and a state-of-affairs meaning!"

I call this the state-of-affairs meaning because in it, nothing means the state in which we have nothing, or nothing exists. Miller expressed it more concisely by using a gerund phrase: having nothing.

Miller seems pretty taken with the double meaning in his project title. Maybe he hasn’t been sensitized to quantifier/SOA ambiguities; he’d’ve only been five or six years old when the “show about nothing” aired its last episode. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t stop by my 2011 LSA poster presentation on the subject, either.

Posted in Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 2 Comments »

Answers Must Be in the Form of a Cleft

Posted by Neal on March 30, 2015

Here’s a draft that’s been sitting in the blogpile since September 2007. School had just begun, and Doug and Adam were beginning third grade and first grade. I wrote at the time…

Now that school has resumed, at the end of every week, Doug and Adam are required to take their schoolwork that’s been sent home during the week, and put it in their respective boxes under their beds. So far, though, they haven’t been able to do it because the boxes have been full of all their schoolwork from last year. So last weekend I finally emptied the boxes, and as I was sorting through the papers, I came across one of Doug’s history worksheets from the unit on the Constitution.

One of the questions was:

Where does the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech?

Doug’s answer:

Where the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech is in the First Amendment.

I remember when Doug first brought this paper home. Hey, nice pseudo-cleft, I’d thought when I read it. A pseudo-cleft is a sentence of form:

noninverted wh-question + be + answer to wh-question

I’m not sure how it got the name “pseudo-“cleft. There are various kinds of clefts; I think the “real” cleft that the pseudo-cleft was being compared to when it was named was the it-cleft: It’s in the First Amendment that…. Other examples of pseudo-clefts would be:

Where he keeps it is under the bed.
Who really got upset was Sam.

I’d thought it was interesting that Doug would have used such intricate syntax to express the thought, but I hadn’t looked at the rest of the paper.

That was as much as I wrote back in 2007. I was probably waiting to copy some other sentences off the homework, but it’s seven years gone now. But I remember that as I looked closer at the homework, and read question after question and pseudo-cleft after pseudo-cleft in response, I realized that Doug had misunderstood his second-grade teacher’s instructions. In order to get the kids to write their answers in complete sentences, she would always tell them, “Restate the question.”
Of course, questions are sentences, too.
Doug would have answered this question about Jackie Robinson by saying

How Jackie Robinson demonstrated the trait of perseverance was by …

Like saying “Rhyming words sound the same,” telling kids to “restate the question” is a good example of giving a rule in rather vague terms and figuring that they’ll will click on to the right idea and you won’t have to go into the troublesome details. But in Doug’s case, he was told to use the same words in the question in his answer, so he did!

Posted in Clefts, Doug, Fused relatives | 2 Comments »

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing

Posted by Neal on February 26, 2015

Image Provided By:

Image Provided By:

Through June, July, and August, Doug complained about his summer reading assignment, a book called Strange As This Weather Has Been, by an author with the unusual name of Ann Pancake. He hated it. It was a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, told through an erratic combination of first-person and third-person narrative, with a plot that only started to move in the last few chapters of the book. Maybe it wasn’t about plot, I suggested. Maybe Pancake was just trying to give us a picture of the effects of this kind of mining through a character study of a family affected by it. Maybe so, Doug said, but none of the characters were likable people. And if she was trying to give him a lot of information about mountaintop-removal mining, in particular the Buffalo Creek disaster that was continually alluded to, he learned more about both those topics from their Wikipedia entries than he did from the entire book.

When it was time for him to write the report, he poured his frustration into his title:

Succeeds at Neither Entertaining Nor Informing.

Well-primed by Doug’s repeated complaints about the book, I told him his thesis sounded great. By that time, I was reading the book, too, fulfilling my promise to read the whole damn thing myself if he read it first. Doug’s criticisms were on the mark. In addition, the author had a disconcerting habit of having her characters use verbs (such as go) and adjectives (such as wet) as nouns without any morphological change (a go, a wet). Trying too hard to be creative with the language, and ending up just distracting and annoying the reader instead.

That was in August. In January, I came across an early printout of Doug’s paper in a pile of paper to recycle. Without the priming of Doug’s complaints, this time I read the sentence differently. This time, Ann Pancake succeeded! She succeeded at avoiding two things: entertaining, and informing.

I’ve often blogged about different, kinds, of ambiguity, here. But I was surprised to find that I couldn’t fit this ambiguity into one of the categories. I still haven’t quite nailed down where the ambiguity is coming from, but I’ll record some of my observations.

I’ll represent the meaning Doug intended like so:

NOT(succeed(entertain))(ann) & NOT(succeed(inform))(ann)

And the second meaning that I got, like this:

succeed(NOT(entertain) & NOT(inform))(ann)

One thing I notice is that I’ve pulled a fast one with the NOT. In the earlier translation, it was negating an entire proposition about SOMEONE succeeding. Here, I just have it negating individual verbs. Somewhere along the way, I’ll have to figure out what NOT means when applied to a verb instead of a proposition in my system.

The fact that I’m dealing with verb forms seems to be essential. Replace them with, say, prepositional phrases, and the ambiguity goes away. For example:

She succeeds neither at work nor at school.
NOT(succeed(work)(ann)) & NOT(succeed(school)(ann))

This sentence can’t mean that she succeeds at something that is neither work nor school. It can’t mean, for example, that she succeeds at love.

The ambiguity also disappears if instead of the double-barreled negation of neither…nor, we have the single negation of not:

She succeeds at not entertaining.

Now the only reading we get is the funny one, and once again I’m doing some funny business with the NOT by applying it to just a verb. If we want to get the reading in which someone fails, we have to use a negation suitable for present-tense verbs, i.e. doesn’t:

She doesn’t succeed at entertaining.

On the other hand, the ambiguity remains if we replace the correlative conjunction neither…nor with both…and. It’s not as obvious a difference as the difference between succeeding and not succeeding, but one reading is that she succeeds at entertaining, and she also succeeds at informing, while the other is that she succeeds at doing both those things at once:

She succeeds at both entertaining and informing.
succeed(entertain)(ann) & succeed(inform)(ann)
succeed(entertain & inform)(ann)

The same kind of ambiguity comes with either … or and even not … but.

Hopefully, I’ll have further analysis to present here in the near future.

Posted in Ambiguity, Books, Coordination, Doug, Negation | 5 Comments »


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