Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Can’t Spell Gas without G and S

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2005

There was a guy I knew in sixth grade. I don’t remember his name; I just remember that everyone called him Cow. A friend of mine asked him why, and in response he summoned up the longest, loudest burp I’d ever heard. Cow was an inspiration to the rest of us, and we tried to top his feat of burping the alphabet. The farthest I could go was to M or so. The worst part about trying to do this was when I’d force a couple of mouthfuls of air down my esophagus, then try to burp it out, and it wouldn’t come. I’d be sitting there with an inflated tummy, and there’d be nothing for it except to push down one more swallow of air to see if it would open up the passageway to let all the rest of the air out. That never happened to Cow, though. He was the master.

I was reminded of Cow yesterday when I read a bit that’s been making the papers worldwide: Ashlee Simpson can burp the alphabet, too. Simpson gave a curious elaboration, though. She said:

When I burp the alphabet, my favorite letter is G…. It is an open consonant, and it is at the beginning when my wind is strong. My worst letter is S. It is a closed consonant and at the end, when I am out of wind.

I’ve found this quotation repeated in numerous places, but not in a single one have they explained what I’ve been wondering: What on earth are open and closed consonants?

If someone were to ask me out of the blue what a closed consonant was, I’d guess they meant an obstruent: one in which there’s a complete blockage of the airflow (such as P, B, T, D, K or hard G), or an almost complete blockage (such as F, V, TH, S, Z, SH, or ZH), or a complete blockage followed by an almost complete one (J, CH). In the same vein, I’d guess that an open consonant was one of the glides (Y, W), or maybe the liquid R: consonants said with as little obstruction of the airflow as you can have before you end up with a vowel. But that doesn’t seem to be what Simpson has in mind, since her “open consonant” G is an obstruent.

In context, it looks like Simpson must have meant to say open and closed syllables. Gee would be an open syllable, since it ends in a vowel, whereas ess would be closed, since it ends in a consonant. Is this the terminology vocal performers use, or was she just making it up as she went along? Surely Ashlee Simpson wouldn’t go around just making this stuff up…would she?

4 Responses to “Can’t Spell Gas without G and S”

  1. Justin said

    Holy Cow! Ashlee’s just like Homer! (Sorry, that was terrible.)

    In reading this, I have to agree with your interpretation of “open” and “closed” as applied to consonants. So does this dictionary, which singles “s” out as an example of an open consonant (I’d never heard of it before; I just Googled it):

    http://onlinedictionary.datasegment.com/word/Open+consonant

    So it looks like Ashlee either: 1) got her terms backward (which would render the claims nonsense), or 2) picked them up from someone else and didn’t know what they meant (which doesn’t make her look better). Maybe she would use them correctly if someone told her they involved a backing track. Or not.

    –SC

  2. Anonymous said

    This is one corner of the vast continent of linguistic ignorance. Linguistics seems to be a field in which people feel free to just make up terminology. Another example from phonetics is the common practice of calling [æ] nasal.

  3. lemuel said

    I have heard of open and closed consonants, but I sure as hell have never heard of Ashlee Simpson. Happy me, I guess.

  4. Anonymous said

    Cow’s real name was Greg [something], and I only remember because his name was the first as mine. Yeah, he was very, very… gutteral, that Cow. He got his name Cow because of his burping prowess. You know that whole Carlin ruotine about the guy who would swallow air for an hour to save up for a huge burp? Yeah. Cow did that. He was in LD class, as I recall, for behavior problems, but he had some serious issues at home, I think. I recall hearing he was a foster kid, but it’s been so long, I don’t recall anything more. Cow was a great guy, though.

    I remember that he also used to imitate a fountain by squirting water between his teeth, and then he’d pose like some formal Roman marble statue.

    Awesome.

    [Grig… can’t remember his e-Blogger password]

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