Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

How L-odramatic

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2004

The first time I heard this, is was passingly weird. But now I’ve heard it twice, and I want to know what’s going on. In a scene in the movie Ice Age, a sloth character needs to fake his own death in front of some enemies. He does this by jumping into a saber-toothed tiger’s mouth and shouting, “Help! Help!” Both times when he yells “Help!”, he uses clear /l/ rather than velarized /l/ (a distinction discussed earlier here). It’s very distinct; it’s what makes his cries sound so fake and melodramatic. Why it should do that, I don’t know, other than that it makes his pronunciation sound unnatural, foreign.

More recently, Doug and Adam were watching a Fairly Oddparents video, with an episode called “Crime Wave.” Here, too, someone who was faking a call for help used the clear /l/ to do it. Why the correlation between deliberately corny melodrama and clear /l/? Is the idea just to violate some phonological rule of English to draw attention to the utterance?

5 Responses to “How L-odramatic”

  1. marklow said

    I’m no linguist, but the pronunciation of /l/ in these two cases has little to do with “the correlation between deliberately corny melodrama and clear /l/” and a lot to do with the fact that we are talking about cartoons.

    Cartoons are notorious for being cartoonish. The threat of violence in cartoons is always softened with deliberate melodrama, to ease the possibility of suffering (however slight) for the viewer. In this case, a distraction caused by the /l/ in “help” allows the viewer to be slightly (or in your very specific case, overtly) distracted.

    An extraordinarily subtle find. I enjoy your blog very much.

  2. By any chance are the faux-victims also faking British accents? I’m thinking of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, wherein a politically aware peasant being threatened by King Arthur cries, “See the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being oppressed!” Are the British more likely to use the clear /l/? And even if not, might Americans *think* they do and thus use the clear /l/ when imitating the British?

  3. Anonymous said

    Old Looney Toons cartoons don’t follow this mold… when Bugs is faking distress, he stresses the e sound, and the l is almost inaudible.

  4. I’ll bet the Looney Toons characters were imitating black American dialect. If I was right in my prior comment, we may have a pattern: when feigning the need for help, adopt an accent.

  5. Anonymous said

    I like all the posts about your kids. Adam has good concentration abilities demonstated by his playing so long with one toy. I predict he will be a success at whatever he choses to do. I have found that the ability to focus and sustain one’s interest in things is a great asset.

    Evangelical Christian preachers are notorious for changing inflections etc. in their sermons. Just why is this appealing to listeners? I find it pompous and irritating. It is fascinating that people can be mesmerized by altering slightly the way words are pronounced. Glen once mentioned how he likes the way some Old English words sound in their natural state. I agree; why mess with a time-honored lexicon?


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