Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on August 18, 2013

This is a sub!These are limes!

“What’re you listening to, Holt?” Ken asked as Holt climbed into the back of the van.

Longtime readers may remember Doug’s friend Holt from this one post back in 2008. You may also remember Ken, who once told Doug “I’ma kill you!” and played the straight man in Doug’s impromptu bit of lunchroom comedy involving the lost-and-found. Now all three of these guys are going into high school, as members of the marching band, and have spent the last couple of weeks of summer break going to practice and rehearsal from 8:00 until noon. I was the morning car pool guy for them and one other friend who isn’t relevant to this story, so we’ll just ignore him.

Removing his earbuds, Holt said, “Sublime.”

“It’s ‘Sublime,’ not ‘Sublime,'” Ken told him.

This sounded interesting. “Uh, what’s your complaint, Ken?” I asked.

“It’s ‘sub-lime,'” Ken said. “Not ‘suh-blime.'”

“So when he pronounces it that way, it sounds like he’s saying ‘Blimey!’ or something?”


Actually,” I said, “that’s what we linguists call the Maximal Onset Principle at work. It’s a phonological rule of English. When you have a consonant cluster, you put as much of it as you can at the beginning of the next syllable, instead of at the end of the last one. Since you can start a syllable in English with B-L, you get blime. If the word had been sudlime instead, then he’d have pronounced it ‘sud-lime,’ because dlime isn’t a good English syllable. That’s why we say that someone’s taste in music is ‘e-clectic’ instead of ‘ec-lectic,’ even though that’s how the word roots break down.”

“That,” said Holt, “is exactly what I meant to do.”

5 Responses to “Sublime”

  1. Ran said

    > It’s a phonological rule of English.

    Somehow I thought it was [supposed to be] a cross-linguistic principle?

  2. Beth Johnson said

    With the “car-pool guy” being a linguist, how can these kids escape?

  3. dw said

    FWIW, John Wells seems to disagree with this principle. (I don’t agree with his arguments, but they’re out there).

  4. […] day in August, I picked up Doug and a couple of his friends from band rehearsal (remember Ken and Holt?). It was a special day, because after a couple of weeks of anticipation, the band members’ […]

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