Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Polar Panphonemic

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2015

Polar_Bear_-_Alaska by rubyblossom.

Polar_Bear_-_Alaska by

Last September, a reader named Richard Gunton left a comment on my panphonemic poem post with the following panphone that he’d composed:

Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.

I commented back:

By George, I believe this is panphonemic! How did you come to write it? And if you don’t mind, could you give your own vowel inventory in IPA, and show which word(s) go(es) with which vowel? The low backs are hard enough for me to keep straight in my own dialect, let alone a different accent. If there’s an interesting story behind this, I’d be happy to put it up here as a guest post.

Richard responded back with a list of every phoneme with the words it appeared in, with this commentary and backstory:

It’s interesting that my list of vowels distinguishes a much greater number than the one in your table above. I took it from my dictionary, and I do believe these all represent distinct phonemes for standard British English.

As to how I came up with it – well, back at the end of 2008 I had just moved to France, so had the subtleties of exotic phonemes on my mind, and a bilingual dictionary to hand. My French colleagues and I had been comparing French and English pangrams, so I thought a sentence with every sound of a language would be the next challenge. I realised that /ʒ/ was one of the rarest phonemes in English, so I started with “pleasure”, prefaced that with “huge” since /dʒ/ seemed a bit uncommon too, and built it up around that. That’s all I can remember now – it did take me quite a few idle nights to get there!

Well, that’s interesting enough that I really should have turned his work into a guest post by now. Better late than never. But I’ve made just a couple of adjustments to his panphone (with adjustments made accordingly to the list of words and phonemes), to give it some topicality:

Catching weary dolphins on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they now enjoy good meat unharmed.

Thanks, Richard!

/p/ polar
/b/ bears
/m/ meat; unharmed
/f/ dolphin
/v/ gives
/θ/ thin
/ð/ they
/t/ meat; dolphins
/d/ and; good; unharmed; dolphin
/n/ dolphins; on; thin; and; ensures; enjoy; unharmed
̣/s/ ice; surly
/z/ gives; bears; ensures
/l/ dolphin; surly; polar; pleasure
/r/ weary
/ʃ/ ensures
/ʒ/ pleasure
/tʃ/ catching
/dʒ/ huge; enjoy
/j/ huge
/k/ catching
/g/ gives; good
/ŋ/ catching
/w/ weary; waterfowl
/h/ huge; unharmed

Vowels and Diphthongs (‘ follows vowel being referred to)
/i/ weary’; meat
/I/ catchi’ng; thin; gives; e’nsures; e’njoy; ‘dolphin
/ɛ/ plea’sure
/æ/ ca’tching; and
/ɑ:/ unha’rmed
/ɔ/ on
/ɔ:/ dolphin
/ʊ/ good
/u:/ huge
/ʌ/ u’nharmed
/ə/ pola’r; pleasu’re
/ə:/ su’rly
/Iə/ wea’ry
/ɛə/ bears
/eI/ they
/aI/ ice
/au/ now
/əu/ po’lar
/ɔI/ enjoy’
/uə/ ensu’res

7 Responses to “Polar Panphonemic”

  1. James said

    Lovely! Your adjustments don’t quite work for me (British RP) though. Firstly, wouldn’t the dolphins be under the ice, not on it? 🙂 But also, the first vowel of “dolphin” duplicates the vowel of “on” for me, but the first vowel of “waterfowl” is different and doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else.

  2. Reading your revised panphone, I immediately missed, like James, the /ɔː/ of /ˈwɔːtəfaʊl/ (in Richard’s standard British English). Even if /ɔː/ doesn’t feature in your own dialect, don’t the vowels of “dolphin” and “on thin” (/ˈdɒlfɪn/ and /ɒn θɪn/ in BrE) still rhyme for you?

  3. Neal said

    James and Kevin:
    Yes, I suppose I cheated a little bit here with the first vowel of dolphin. The original was written assuming some kind of British English accent (though I know far too little about them to identify it as a particular one). Since the /ɔ:/ didn’t appear in any other words, I kind of nudged dolphin into containing it. No, that’s not how I say it, but I don’t have whatever accent Richard Gunton had in mind when he composed this sentence, and maybe with a little bit of luck, it would turn out that the speakers with this accent really did say dolphin this way! As for Americans, many of them make no distinction between /ɔ/ and /a/ anyway, so … you know …

  4. Jonathan Avery Wright said

    Some of the commentary puzzles, for I didn’t see the word dolphin used in the initial sentence which I thought was being discussed. In the vowel and diphthong list, I is shown as encompassing what I think are two different sounds, the initial vowels in insist and enjoy: i and e. Not being familiar with how these are presented academically, I’m wondering how they are here grouped together as one sound.

  5. Jonathan Avery Wright said

    Oh, now I see that dolphin was inserted in a later version above. Please address the vowel issue, however.

  6. As an American Southerner I would have to add a word with voiceless w, such as where or when. But that is disappearing even in the south.

  7. Steven Lytle said

    In my mostly North Midland American dialect, none of the listed words with schwa (polar, pleasure, surly) work for me; they’re all syllablic r. To fix the panphone so that it does work, I changed the phrase “weary dolphins” to “a weary dolphin”, although it could just as easily have a single polar bear instead.
    I would also like to see a way to include the various allophones of t, as in “bottle”, “mountain”, and “twenty”.

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