Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on June 2, 2011

In 1988 I saw the movie Mississippi Burning. I stayed for the credits at the end because I wanted to find out the name of the actor who’d played the Ku Klux Klan leader. He’d had an interesting voice and resembled one of my favorite uncles, Uncle Ricky. (Decide for yourself: Uncle Ricky is the one standing in this picture.) Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught the character’s name, so I had to wait until I saw Great Balls of Fire the next year, where I saw him again and this time learned that his name was Stephen Tobolowsky. The guy kept turning up in movies here and there after that, so that when I saw him as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (1993), I was glad to see his familiar face in a great movie.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that Tobolowsky is an amazing storyteller. I came across his podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” immediately recognized the name, and listened to an episode out of curiosity. Since then I’ve been listening to all the back episodes of his “stories of life, love, and the entertainment industry”. I also listen to several other podcasts that feature storytelling: “The Moth,” “NPR’s Story Corps,” “Risk,” “This American Life”. They’re good, but sometimes a story on these podcasts will have me wanting to fast-forward to the next one. Not Tobolowsky’s. Even his dullest stories are interesting. And some of his stories are masterpieces. For out-and-out hilariousness, try “The Dangerous Animals Club” (episode 22). For suspense followed by inspiration and life lessons, listen to “Conference Hour” (episode 13). True, Tobolowsky does have some mildly annoying habits: his tendency to actually say “Pause” when he makes a dramatic pause; his consistent pronunciation of Cerberus as Cerebus when talking about an evil neighbor dog; his distortion of math and science concepts when he turns them into analogies for life. (It’s great that he likes and respects the math and science, but I still gritted my teeth every time he referred to “the x/y axis” in an episode called “The Moment Before Zero”). But overall, I recommend TTF right up there with those other podcasts I mentioned, and certainly above wearisome podcasts like “Tales from the South” and “Second Story”.

All well and good, but what’s the linguistic angle? First, a phonetic one. In listening to Stephen Tobolowsky talk a lot, I’ve realized he pronounces most of his /l/s as a uvular nasal, [N]. It’s easiest to hear when he has an /l/ between vowels, for example, in a lot. In light of this, it’s surprising that I can’t really tell if he’s pronouncing /l/ as [N] when he says his name at the end of the podcast (when he gives his Twitter and Facebook addresses), but I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m hearing during the rest of the show.

Second, Tobolowsky recounts a funny misunderstanding in episode 35, “Playing It As It Lays”:

Whenever I wanted to spend money, Mom and Dad would look at me very disapprovingly and tell me some gem of folk wisdom, like “A fool and his money are soon parted.” I never told Mom, but I never really knew what that meant. I never got the syntax that the money was parted from the fool. I always thought it was like some Quentin Tarantino movie where the fool and the money is chainsawed in two….

Or, I might add, one gruesome scene in The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyway, Tobolowsky talks about the syntax of this proverb, but this ambiguity is actually a matter of semantics, and has gotten a lot of attention from various semanticists. I read about it in Flexibility Principles in Boolean Semantics by Yoad Winter, who cites about half a dozen other linguists on the topic. Here’s the background: Certain verbs require a subject that’s composed of multiple entities; for example, meet. You can’t just say, I have never met, but Stephen and I have never met is OK. The subject doesn’t have to be compound; a singular works if it denotes a group of things. For example: The committee meets the first Monday of every month. However, if you do have a compound subject, the strong tendency is to interpret each of the noun phrases joined by and as one of the participants in the meeting.

Now, what happens if you coordinate two subjects, and each of them denotes a group of things? Something like…

The budget committee and the speakers’ committee meet the first Monday of every month.

If we mean that the budget committee meets with the speakers’ committee, that’s known as the “non-Boolean conjunction” reading. The Boolean conjunction reading would be the one in which the budget committee meets and the speakers’ committee meets, possibly in different locations.

Separate is another verb like meet, with a slight relaxing of the requirements for its subject. Instead of having to be composed of more than one individual, all that’s necessary is that the subject be something that can be split into more than one portion. Thus, in addition to parting fighting siblings, you can part your hair or part the waves. As with meet, though, the elements in a compound subject will tend to be interpreted as the different participants in the separation event. So in A fool and his money are soon parted, the non-Boolean reading in which the money is parted from the fool, is the most natural one.

Not to Stephen Tobolowsky, though. He got the strange Boolean reading, in which the fool is parted and his money is parted. Cool. I wonder if anyone has put up that same misunderstanding on I Used to Believe.

Lastly, a loosely pragmatics-related observation. The podcast was inspired by a 2005 movie called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, in which Tobolowsky plays himself, telling stories to the camera operator while preparing for his birthday party that night, and during the party itself. I don’t recommend this movie. First of all, many of the stories can also be found in the podcast. Second, it’s one thing to listen to a guy tell lots of his life stories in his own podcast that you choose to listen to. But as I watched him entertain his crowd of guests with story after story in the movie, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief and imagining that this was a regular party. The only one who did any talking in the crowd scenes was this guy that no one ever interrupted, even with a comment like, “What did you do?”, and who never yielded the floor to anyone else who might be reminded of a story that happened to them. The whole setup results in Tobolowsky coming off as a narcissistic, patronizing conversation hog. Better to stick with the podcast, where the same stories’ entertainment value is undiluted.

3 Responses to “Tobo-Linguistics”

  1. Ben Zimmer said

    Hey, it’s that guy!

  2. […] listening to (I believe it was) this episode of The Tobolowsky Files (the podcast I wrote about in this post). At one point in the episode, Tobolowsky said: It was intended for me to […]

  3. […] was pleased to discover that a new episode of The Tobolowsky Files had come out. (You may recall my blogging about this podcast last year.) This one was about a time in Stephen Tobolowsky’s life when he had an Icelandic […]

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