Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Alias Phonology Essay Question

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2006

Now that Alias is winding down to its series finale, I’m remembering back to a time a few years ago, a time when Alias was still good, and my wife and I still watched it every week. When the series premiered, I wasn’t planning on watching it at all. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation, and I had even dropped my longstanding Sunday night date with The Simpsons, so I wasn’t about to start watching some new show, no matter how much the critics liked it. But that was before Glen told me that our friend Bob Orci was one of the writers. So then I tuned in out of curiosity, and was hooked for the next couple of seasons.

One of the episodes in season 1 provided the basis for an essay question in an exam I gave later. It went like this:

In an episode of Alias last season, secret agent Sydney Bristow must get past bad guy Arvin Sloan’s electronic security system. She knows the password; the trouble is that the voice-recognition system will only recognize it when it is spoken by Sloan. To get a recording of Sloan saying the password, Sydney engages him in a conversation while wearing a wiretap. She is told that Sloan doesn’t have to say the actual password, because “there are only 40-some phonemes in English,” and if Sloan will just utter the phonemes that are in the password, those phonemes can be digitally strung together to get a recording of the password in Sloan’s voice.

The scriptwriters are right about the number of phonemes in English, but the task would be considerably harder than just picking out the right phonemes from the recording of Sloan. What complication have the scriptwriters left out? (Hint: Suppose, for example, that the password is tickle. The phoneme /t/ is needed, but what if the only word containing /t/ that Sloan says is kitten?)

The answer I was looking for was that each phoneme could be realized as several different sounds (referred to as allophones) that the speakers of the language perceive as being the same. To use my hint for an example, the /t/ in tickle would be pronounced as [tʰ] (that is, a [t] followed by a puff of air), while the /t/ in kitten would probably be pronounced as [ʔ] (a glottal stop, the sound separating the syllables of uh-oh). Pronounce tickle with [ʔ] at the beginning, and all you’ll have is ickle, which isn’t a word. (Or if it is, it’s a different word than tickle.) For each phoneme, Sydney would need to collect the particular allophone(s) that would be needed in the password, or risk the computer rejecting the digitally spliced-together password.

Of course, that was a minor quibble compared to some of the other stuff the show asked us to suspend our disbelief for. I didn’t mind doing so for the cool gadgets the characters used, or for Sydney being able to fluently speak whatever langauge she needed to in order to accomplish a mission, but I did eventually get tired of wondering how many times some character would be killed only to turn out to be alive after all: Sydney’s mom (twice), Sloan’s wife, evil Francie, and from what I’m hearing now, Vaughn, too.

By the time I gave up on Alias, Bob had long since moved on to other projects. But at some point I must have mentioned the phonemes-vs.-allophones technicality to him, because a couple of years later, he sent me an email asking… ah, well, that’s another story.

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