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Archive for the ‘Phonetics and phonology’ Category

Bibi and Koka

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2016


Every now and then, I’ll come across a mention of the bouba/kiki effect, a classic study of sound symbolism that has been revisited several times over the years. The procedure involves showing presenting experiment participants two shapes and two nonsense words, and asking them which word goes with which shape. One of the shapes is always spiky, the other bulbous, such as those shown here. One of the nonsense words consists of voiceless velar or coronal consonants and unround vowels, such as /kiki/. Variants have included the original /takete/, as well as /keiki, kʌte, kʌtiti,/ and /tite/. The other word consists of round vowels and voiced bilabial (usually) consonants, such as /buba, bamu, mabuma, maluma/, and the original /baluma/. As you have probably correctly guessed by now, most speakers tend to put the kiki-type word with the spiky shape, and the bouba-type words with the bulbous shape. “Right, because of the sounds of the word,” you may be saying. But how, exactly, because of the sounds of the word? Maybe it seems obvious to you, as it does to most people, that kiki just sounds like it belongs with something sharp and angular, and bouba with something balloony, but why, exactly?

I wondered: Are people taking their cue from the voiced or voiceless consonants? From the round or unround vowels? From the combination of unround vowels and voiceless velars, or round vowels with voiced bilabials? What would happen if I took kiki and bouba and just swapped the vowels in the two words, to get bibi and koka? What would people do then?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been finding out, running this experiment on my wife and sons, co-workers, fellow parents of members of the high-school marching band, and anyone else as opportunity arose. I’ve presented them with the shapes, drawn on a scrap of paper, and told them to imagine a previously undiscovered tribe of people, with no prior contact with any other civilization, and a language that seems to be unrelated to any known language. They have these two objects or shapes in their culture, and call one of them a bibi, and one a koka. Which is which? If you suspect that the consonants are the deciding factor, then the spiky shape should be the preferred koka, just as it is for kiki, and the globby shape should be the preferred bibi, just as it is for bouba. On the other hand, if you think it’s all about the vowels, then the spiky shape should be favored for bibi, and the rounded one for koka.

I’ve varied the order in which I presented the words, and the orientation of the paper when I show the shapes, to avoid bias based on order of presentation. Unfortunately, there are other sources of bias. After running my first three subjects (my wife, Doug, and Adam) by presenting the words on slips of paper, I realized that the angles of the letter k and the curves of the letter b might be a source of bias. Even now, this could still be a source of bias for literate participants, since they may imagine these words written down, but I couldn’t do much about that. (For a study involving pre-literate participants, see Maurer, Pathman and Mondloch (2006). I found it in the references for the Wikipedia article I cited above). In addition, by taking the most-popular words for this experiment, kiki and bouba, and making the minimal change of swapping their vowels, I’ve ended up with two words that actually do mean something in English. /koka/ can be a leaf, a carbonated drink, or of course, the Corpus of Contemporary American English. /bibi/ is a famous blues singer, an Israeli prime minister, a lovable droid, or the ammo for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Any of these could provide associations that lead a subject to choose one shape or the other, but hopefully with a large enough sample size, they won’t matter.

So what happened? So far, my sample size is 27. Of them, 15 participants (55%) mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and koka to the angular one. The other 12 (44%) mapped bibi to the angular shape, and koka to the rounded one. So it looks like the consonants have a slight edge, but not much of one. In fact, if I throw out the data from my wife and sons, who were looking at written representations, only 12 participants mapped bibi to the rounded shape, and it’s now a 50-50 split. So maybe it’s the combination of vowels and consonants that produce the well-defined bouba/kiki effect, since it mostly disappeared when I flip-flopped the vowels.

There are other possibilities, too. Maurer et al., who hypothesized that the roundness or unroundness of the vowels was the important factor, mentioned that it could be that English or other languages have a detectable pattern whereby real words with rounded vowels (or spelled with round letters) denote round things, and real words with unround vowels refer to pointy things. For support, they point out that there has been one study where the kiki/bouba effect did not show up, involving the Songe people of Papua New Guinea. Maybe, they note, this language doesn’t have the same kind of previously existing sound/shape correspondences. This was why Maurer et al. wanted to do their experiment on very young children, who hadn’t had as much exposure to their native languages.

More intriguingly, Maurer et al. suggest that “the effect is stronger for some consonant/vowel pairings than others” (p. 320). They suggest this because in just one out of their four pairs of nonsense words, one word contained voiced velars and round vowels–in other words, the same combination I had in koka that I didn’t think other researchers had looked at. Their word was /goga/, and for the pair /goga, tite/, they did not get the clean mapping that they got with the other words. (They also suggested that it could have been a problem in the story that they told their toddler subjects for this particular pair of words.)

So that’s my bibi/koka experiment. If you try it on your friends or family, let me know how it goes.

Posted in Phonaesthemes, Phonetics and phonology | 5 Comments »

Bongo Is Wrongo!

Posted by Neal on June 19, 2016

At lunch today, Doug and Adam were looking at a Twitter poll that one of their friends had put up. He had a new guinea pig, and was trying to decide what to name it.


Enter a caption

Doug and Adam both liked Lúcio, the name of a character in a videogame they’ve been playing recently. I was partial to Phillip, even though it was spelled with too many L’s. “I like Bongo,” Doug said.

Now since they’d only read this poll, and hadn’t talked to their friend about it yet, I could see at once that there was a problem, a little orthographic ambiguity that would have to be cleared up before Doug could make a valid judgment on this name. “But is it [bɑŋgo] or [bɑŋo]?”  I asked.

“[bɑŋgo] or … what?”


Doug tried again: “[bɑŋgo] … no, that’s not it…”

“[bɑŋo],” Adam said.

I tried to break it down. “OK, just say ‘Bong!’ and then say, ‘Oh!'”

Doug focused. “[bɑŋ…o]–oh, that sounds so bad! [bɑŋgo]–ugh, I can’t even say it, it sounds so bad! How do you do it again?” He was laughing because the name was so ridiculous.

“[bɑŋo],” Adam and I said. “It has to do with how strong you say the G,” Adam added.

“Almost. It’s like this,” I said, and drew a table. “See that little letter next to the G? That’s the ng sound. And sometimes you’ll actually pronounce a G after it, and sometimes you won’t. It’s why finger and dinger don’t actually rhyme. Or fungus and among us.”

  1. finger /fɪŋgɹ̩/  dinger /dɪŋɹ̩/
  2. fungus /fʌŋgəs/  among us /əmʌŋ əs/
  3. Bongo /bɑŋgo/  Bong-o? /bɑŋo/

“I’m gonna have to say this to him the next time we talk. ‘So hey, did you name your guinea pig [bɑ̃ŋo]?'” Doug could hardly finish the sentence because he was laughing so much. “It just sounds so wrong!”

“You mean [ɹɑŋo]?” That was me, getting the last word.

That conversation was so much fun that I’m going to suggest Doug tweet his friend with this response:

None of above. Instead, “Butch,” not w the vowel in “foot,” but the one in “but”. Like starting to say “buttcheek” & stopping<

Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 2 Comments »

Trucha Affrication

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2015

If this were a fried chicken restaurant in the US, it would probably call itself "Motherpluckers."

Doug spent last summer in Ecuador at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where he doubled his life list by seeing 345 species of birds that he’d never seen before. He also ate a lot of good food, saw a volcano, and spoke mucho español. He got to speaking it pretty well, apparently. But some of the other guests that he heard there had a little bit of trouble with their accent.

He told me about one British guest, who really enjoyed a trout dinner that they served one night, and said so: “¡Me gusta la trucha!

This really amused the cook and one of the guides. One of them asked the guest a couple more times whether he liked la trucha. The guest said yes he did, and wondered aloud to Doug, “Why do they keep asking me that?”

Before I go further, I’m going to have to do a little bit of phonetic housekeeping, specifically with regard to the R sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet. On this blog, I’ve written the English pronunciation of the R sound with the IPA symbol [r], but that’s actually the IPA representation of a Spanish or Italian rolled R, as in the Spanish perro, or the American English edited (sometimes, for some speakers). The IPA representation of an ordinary Spanish R, as in pero, is [ɾ], which also happens to be the English “tapped” T or D (as in thataway). Of course, some UK speakers roll or tap their R’s, too, such as this Scottish guy. But today, I’m talking about the non-rolled pronunciation of R in American English and the English spoken by the British guest who so enjoyed the trout. That’s a “postalveolar R,” represented as [ɹ]. OK, on with the post.

Do you remember when I was writing about how in English, a /t/ is often pronounced as [ʧ] (the “CH” sound) when it comes before an /ɹ/? Sure you do!

However, that’s an English phonological rule. Do it in Spanish, and you just give yourself away as a non-native speaker (assuming you haven’t already done so by inappropriately aspirating, voicing, or devoicing your stops). You might even embarrass yourself, as this British tourist did. Trout in Spanish is trucha, pronounced [tɾuʧa]. Note the tapped R [ɾ]. The British guest was pronouncing it as [ʧɹuʧə], with a postalveolar [ɹ] and an affricated /t/. This, as it turns out, is uncomfortably close to another Spanish word, chucha [ʧuʧa].

Doug, being such a polite young man, declined to translate this word for me, but did offer that it was part of an expression of frustration or anger that he sometimes heard from the speakers there: ¡chucha madre!. Wikipedia tells me that in other Spanish-speaking countries, the expression is ¡chucha de tu madre!. De tu madre means “of your mother” — “your mother’s” something. I’ll just leave it at that.

Posted in Affricates, Taboo | 1 Comment »

Peanut Eyes

Posted by Neal on September 24, 2015

In a social-media gimmick to promote the the new Peanuts movie, a web page is being shared that invites you to “get Peanutized!” I went there, expecting to upload a headshot and be amused at what came back once the secret Peanutizing software had done its thing. I was disappointed to find that it was really more of a character creator with fewer options than Doug and Adam had on their Nintendo Wii. I did it anyway, though, picking what I thought matched me best from the available options. No choice on the face shape; boys automatically get the Charlie Brown moon face, no lumpy face shapes like Linus’s, or other face shapes like maybe Schroeder’s. Here it is:

Peanutization complete

Aside from the less-than-impressive technology of the Peanutizer, I have a linguistic problem with it. How do you pronounce Peanutize?

Just sound it out, you say? Just say peanut and then add the suffix -ize? That’s all well and good if your base word is something like skolem or tender or Simpson. The trouble with having peanut as a base word is how to pronounce the /t/. Do I pronounce it like a typical, word-initial, aspirated [tʰ]? Or do I pronounce it as a tap [ɾ], the way I do with the /t/ in meter?

If, like my wife, I pronounced peanut to rhyme with seen it, with an unstressed second syllable, then Peanutize is no more a pronunciation problem than digitize. The final /t/ of peanut would be free to break loose from the end of the nut syllable, and attach itself to the ize. The ize become tize, and the /t/ at the onset would be pronounced [tʰ]: “ties.”

But as you’ll no doubt recall, I don’t pronounce peanut to rhyme with seen it. I pronounce it as a compound word, with primary stress on pea, and secondary stress on nut. So for me, the vowel in nut doesn’t get reduced to a schwa; it remains the “uh” sound [ʌ]. And since [ʌ] is a lax vowel, it generally needs to have a consonant close off the syllable. (Exceptions are interjections, such as duh and meh.) This brings up a new issue: Since I now have a /t/ at the end of a syllable (what phoneticians call coda position), and because I speak American English, I have the option of pronouncing the /t/ as a tap [ɾ].

However, this option has a problem. Typically, [ɾ] occurs in English between a stressed and an unstressed syllable (e.g. MET-er), or between two unstressed syllables (e.g. VOM-it-ed). Sometimes it can occur before a stressed syllable (e.g. what-EV-er), but I believe when that happens, that stressed syllable has to have the primary stress in the word. But in Peanutize, the ize doesn’t have primary stress. That honor goes to Pea. If I go ahead and tap that /t/ anyway, I end up with something that sounds to my ear like two words: peanut eyes (which I just discovered is actually an idiom in Thai).

There’s only one solution: Ask myself what Taylor Swift would do. She’d turn that /t/ into a glottal stop [ʔ], that’s what she’d do! So everybody, let’s get peanuh’ized!

Posted in Consonants, Kids' entertainment, Movies | 3 Comments »

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

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 6 Comments »

Pretty Salad

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2015


Sofra Salad, by snowpea&bokchoi, Creative Commons

“All right,” I said. “So was there anything else you wanted to ask about?”

Jenna, a student from the semantics class I was teaching, had come in with some questions about lambda calculus, and we had spent about half an hour doing some practice derivations.

She smiled as she packed up her notebook. “No, pretty salad!”

That was a new one on me. It reminded me of the expression Cool beans!, which I first heard in the late 1980s. Was this what kids were saying now? Awesome beans were out, and good-looking salad was in? This required further investigation.

“Oh, is that an expression where you’re from?”

Jenna hesitated.

“You know, pretty salad. Is that like cool beans?”

“Uh, no,” Jenna said. “I just meant, I think I’ve got it pretty salad.”

Suddenly I realized. “Wait! You’re from Rochester, right?”


“Still, that’s prime Northern Cities Shift territory!”

She hadn’t heard of it. “You mean you haven’t heard of the biggest shift in English vowel pronunciation since the Great Vowel Shift of Elizabethan times?”

Nope. So I gave her the relevant highlight: the vowel in socks sounds like the vowel in sax. In her case, working backwards, what I thought was salad was actually solid. And in fact, she did have it pretty solid; she ended up with an A in the course.

Finally, it seems that “pretty salad” really is a thing. I’m not sure I get the joke in this piece of sketch comedy I found, but pretty salad is a big part of it.

Posted in Food-related, Variation, Vowels | 3 Comments »

U-Nine-Ed States

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2014


Photo by Alan Light

Photo by Alan Light

Glen emailed me a week or so ago:

Do you sometimes feel like people pronounce “united” to sound like “unined”? (Three syllables, but replacing the t sound with an n sound.) If so, is there some principle that would explain it?

In fact, I have heard this. It’s particularly noticeable in the Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know podcast. However, instead of [n], Glen may have been hearing the nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ̃]. (I have enlarged the font to make the diacritic visible.) The non-nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ] is the voiced, /d/-like sound that you hear in American English in words like atom and writer. As for the nasalized version, just as [p] and [b] have a nasal counterpart [m]; and [t] and [d] have a nasal counterpart [n]; and [k] and [g] have a nasal counterpart [ŋ]; the alveolar tap [ɾ] has a nasal counterpart. But there isn’t a special IPA character for it; instead, we just make do by putting a nasalization tilde above the tap symbol: [ ɾ̃].

You may notice that there’s something missing from this picture. [m] corresponds to two both a voiceless and a voiced non-nasal consonant, [p] and [b]; [n] to [t] and [d]; and [ŋ] to [k] and [g]; but [ɾ̃] corresponds only to the voiced [ɾ].

Or does it? It turns out that a voiceless alveolar tap is possible, as I learned on John Wells’ Phonetics Blog. You devoice it the same as you devoice any other consonant: by not letting your vocal folds vibrate while you say it. It’s just that taps happen so much faster than other consonants that it never occurred to me that this was possible. Again, there’s no special IPA symbol for it; instead, we write it by putting a “voiceless” diacritic under the tap symbol: [ɾ̥].

Moving to the second part of Glen’s question, I would call the [jũnɑɪ̃ɾ̃̃əd] pronunciation of united a progressive assimilation, because the nasal quality of the first /n/ persists, turning the subsequent alveolar tap into [ɾ̃]. As for why it persists, I guess it does because it can. We don’t distinguish between ordinary and nasalized alveolar taps, nor between nasalized alveolar taps and /n/. Furthermore, there’s little danger of a speaker hearing it as /n/, because if it were actually an /n/ before the suffix -ed, we’d only have two syllables: [jũnɑɪ̃nd].

If it’s just the nasality of the /n/ that’s causing the assimilation of the tap, we should expect it to happen with other nasal consonants, too. For example, you would expect that people might also realize the /t/ or /d/ as [ɾ̃] in words or phrases like mated or outmoded, hang it up or ring it up. Maybe I have, but if so, I’ve never noticed it the way I’ve been noticing “you-nine-ed.” Have you?

Posted in Consonants | 1 Comment »

Unexpected Glottal Stops

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2014

It began a couple of months ago, as I would listen to the morning news on the radio. Whenever this one guy from the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau signs off, he says, “Andy Chow, Statehouse News Bureau,” but he pronounces Statehouse as [steɪʔhɑus], realizing the /t/ as a glottal stop, instead of turning it into a tap, like I do: [steɪɾhɑus]. I thought it was just a one-time pronunciation glitch the first time I heard it, but the next day, he did it again. I started to listen for more of Andy Chow’s unexpected glottal stops, and they were there: whenever a word ended with a stressed syllable followed by /t/, and the following word also began with a stressed syllable, possibly with an /h/ at the front.

This is not where I expect glottal stops in American English. In a post on his now-discontinued but still great Phonetiblog, John Wells quotes himself from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary on glottal stops in American English:

ʔ is found as an allophone of t only
• at the end of a syllable, and
• if the preceding sound is a vowel or sonorant

Provided these conditions are satisfied, it is widely used in both BrE and AmE where the following sound is an obstruent

football ˈfʊt bɔːl → ˈfʊʔ bɔːl
outside ˌaʊt ˈsaɪd → ˌaʊʔ ˈsaɪd
that faint buzz ˌðæt ˌfeɪnt ˈbʌz → ˌðæʔ ˌfeɪnʔ ˈbʌz

or a nasal

atmospheric ˌæt məs ˈfer ɪk → ˌæʔ məs ˈfer ɪk
button ˈbʌt ən → ˈbʌʔ n
that name ˌðæt ˈneɪm → ˌðæʔ ˈneɪm

or a semivowel or non-syllabic l

Gatwick ˈɡæt wɪk → ˈɡæʔ wɪk
quite well ˌkwaɪt ˈwel → ˌkwaɪʔ ˈwel
brightly ˈbraɪt li → ˈbraɪʔ li

This has been my understanding of American English glottal stops up until now. I take it to be an indication of the novelty of this pronunciation that even John Wells, who has made a career out of knowing this stuff, doesn’t mention it at all.

The next phase began when I heard Doug refer to that classic 1990s comedy cartoon duo, Beavis and Butthead. He pronounced Butthead as [bʌʔhɛd] instead of [bʌɾhɛd]. Once I heard him say that, I started listening more closely, and now know that he regularly produces a glottal stop in such words as butthole and pothole as well. Just a couple of days ago, he was making spaghetti sauce, and said,

I [heɪʔ] how the brown sugar gets so hard.

(Yes, we put 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in our spaghetti sauce. So what?)

Finally, I drove from Ohio to Northern Virginia a few weekends ago for the funeral of the wife of oldest friend. On the way back, I listened to this episode of This American Life, which was devoted to a single story reported by Susan Zalkind. As I drove, I realized that Zalkind had this pronunciation, too. Every few minutes, she’d do it again, in a string like met Eric or shot Ibragim. But having an entire episode to listen to, I decided to listen closer, to hear if there were places where she had the opportunity to make one of these glottal stops, but realized her /t/ as a tap. It turned out there were, and that they had just been slipping by, undetected because they sounded so normal.

When I got back home, I re-listened to the podcast, and wrote down every example of /t/ that occurred at the end of a word before a word that began with a vowel or /h/ plus a vowel. I kept a list of /t/ realized as [ʔ] and /t/ realized as [ɾ], put them in a table, and was surprised to find that the two columns were just about equal. The glottal stop hadn’t completely taken over this phonetic environment after all.

So then the question was whether Zalkind (and others with this pronunciation) used it randomly, or there was some rule that could predict when she would use it. It didn’t seem to matter whether the following word began with a stressed syllable (e.g. at all) or unstressed (e.g. about it), or what vowel the second word began with. But I was able to make one generalization: When the second word began with /h/–in other words, the very environment that I’d noticed with Andy Chow’s Statehouse and Doug’s butthead–the /t/ was almost certain to be realized as a glottal stop. Out of 17 examples of /t/ at the end of a word before a word beginning with /h/, 15 of them realized /t/ as [ʔ]. Furthermore, if that second word began with a stressed vowel, chances of a glottal stop were 100%. (The /h/ examples appear at the bottoms of their respective columns.) In other words, a phrase like beat him up was likely to contain a glottal stop, and a phrase like got home was certain to.

In thinking about this pronunciation, I’ve begun to wonder why I should consider it such a natural environment for speakers like me to have a tap. The canonical location for [ɾ] is between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. This isn’t the case in a word like statehouse, where the vowels on both sides of /t/ are stressed, and we have an intervening consonant, /h/. In fact, having a glottal stop before /h/ would allow Wells’s rules to be stated more concisely. Instead of referring to “obstruent, nasals, semi-vowels, and syllabic /l/,” it could refer to “all consonants”. Well, make that, “all consonants except /r/”. Even so, this pronunciation that sounds so strange to me can be seen as just a step in the direct of regularity.

If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.)

Posted in Consonants, Ohioana | 10 Comments »

Nae Nae, Nini, No-No, Noo-Noo

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2014

Soon after Mercer College’s amazing upset of Duke University in the NCAA March Madness tournament, both Slate and the New York Times published articles about a dance that the Bears’ team member Kevin Canevari was doing on live national TV while his teammates cheered. The dance, Slate explained, was

the Nae Nae, a dance created by Atlanta fivesome We Are Toonz. As Billboard pointed out a couple of months ago, it’s loosely inspired by the character Sheneneh, played in drag by Martin Lawrence on his popular eponymous sitcom from the ’90s.

When I read that, my first reaction was, “Aha! Another entry!”

A few weeks ago, Mignon Fogarty ran a guest script that I wrote for her Grammar Girl podcast, on the history of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. That was an excerpt from my book-in-progress, whose working title is The Babbler’s Lexicon, a phonetically organized book of word histories, with words having one thing in common: That they consist of a reduplicated consonant-vowel (CV) syllable. I got the idea when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett discussing the word juju on an episode of A Way with Words, and got to wondering how many words in English consisted of a single reduplicated syllable.

I decided to narrow the search to reduplicated CV syllables containing any of the vowels /a, e, i, o, u/, the vowels in bot, bait, beat, boat, and boot. The crossproduct of English consonants that can begin a syllable and {a,e,i,o,u} gave me 115 possible words, which I’ve listed at the bottom of the post.

In researching these possible words, I’ve learned that almost any of them can be used as a nickname, especially those that sound like the names of letters, because they can be people’s initials: J.J., C.C., DeeDee, etc. Also, a surprising number of them have also been used as euphemisms for sexual anatomy. (Given the way I organized my list phonetically, I considered calling the book From Papa to Hoo Hoo, but realized that just wouldn’t do.) Anyway, the /n/ series consists of /nana, nene, nini, nono, nunu/. Here are the entries I have at present:

/nana/: Nothing. I’m not including single words, such as nah, that are said twice for emphasis.

nene /ˈneˌne/, n: The endangered goose Branta sandvicensis that is the state bird of Hawaii. The name was borrowed from Hawaiian in the early 20th century.

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Nae Nae /ˈneˌne/, n: See above.

nini /ˈniˌni/, Spanish slang, n: A young person who just wants to party and have a good time. According to an entry on Urban Dictionary, this comes from the Spanish ni estudia ni trabaja (“neither studies nor works”). This definition is backed up by the existence of “The Nini Anthem”:

no-no /ˈnoˌno/, n, adj: Something forbidden. The OED has this from 1942, and gives an interesting usage note: It’s usually with the indefinite article. That is, you can say something is a no-no, but even after that, you won’t refer to it as this no-no or the no-no. And I mean it!

Noo-noo /ˈnuˌnu/, n, adj: The animate vacuum-cleaner creature on the late 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies. Clever Noo-noo!

If you have other N words that belong in this set, leave a comment. I have just learned, for example, that there is a hair-removal device called the No-No, and that in South African English, nunu refers to a big, creepy insect. Other words that belong in The Babbler’s Lexicon at large are welcome, too.


/p/ /f/ /t/ /z/ /ʒ/ /k/
/b/ /v/ /d/ /ɹ/ /ʧ/ /g/
/m/ /θ/ /n/ /l/ /ʤ/ /h/
/w/ /ð/ /s/ /ʃ/ /j/

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology, Pop culture, Sports | 7 Comments »

Interdental L for Emphasis

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2013

“Who put Blackfish on our Netflix queue?” my wife asked.

“Oh, that was me. Entertainment Weekly recommended it.”

She didn’t want to watch it, though, so I ended up watching the documentary on killer whales in captivity myself, while I wrapped Christmas presents last week. It was a well-done film, and it was short enough that I even watched the DVD extras while I finished wrapping. They included an interview with marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose, in a segment called “The Truth About Wild Whales.”

At the end of the interview, Rose was asked whether she thought Sea World should be shut down. She finessed the answer by saying that as a business, Sea World would do what its customers demanded, and offered this advice about how customers could make their wishes known:

They have to [pause] write a letter. [pause] Change their vacation plans. [pause] Let Sea World know they changed their vacation plans.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "letter".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “letter”.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "Let".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “Let”.

I had to put down the scissors and the wrapping paper and rewind the video to the beginning of that statement to watch and listen to it more closely. There it was! In the first sentence, Rose pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of the word letter in the way it’s described in texts on English phonetics: with the tip of her tongue behind her front teeth. But in the third sentence, she pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of let with the tip of her tongue between her top and bottom front teeth, in the same position as it would be if she were pronouncing /θ/ (as in thick) or /ð/ (as in this). In other words, she was pronouncing it as an interdental sound rather than an alveolar one.

This is a pronunciation that I learned about about 10 years ago from some college students in southern central Ohio. Now that I think more about it, I imagine that probably most English speakers pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. Since that link no longer works, here’s a fresh one. In the post, Mark Jones sums up responses from other list members, some of whom note that the interdental pronunciation seems to be used for emphasis, or when a speaker is hyperarticulating. That, I think, is what’s going on in Rose’s interview. Before she says let Sea World know, she pauses slightly and leans forward; and as she says it, she speaks at a higher volume.

Whether or not you’re interested in Dr. Rose’s interdental and alveolar /l/s, I recommend watching Blackfish. I wish I’d seen it before taking Adam to Sea World in San Antonio when we went down for my sister’s wedding in May.

Posted in Movies, Variation, What the L | 3 Comments »