Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Phonetics and phonology’ Category

Grover and the Excellent Idea

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2019

It’s been called “the new Laurel vs. Yanny“: A six-second video clip from Sesame Street in which Grover expresses his enthusiastic approval for an idea that a fellow Muppet named Rosita suggests. In case you haven’t already read what people are hearing Grover say, I’ll let you listen to it before I bring in the spoilers. Here’s a clip of just the audio. Further commentary below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


Posted in Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology, Stress and focus, Syllables, Taboo, Vowels | 7 Comments »

Some Phonetic N-L-ysis (Or, You’ll Want to Hold Your Nose for This One)

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2018

In doing pronunciation tutoring for international students, I’ve found one pronunciation error to be particularly difficult for students to overcome. The specific problem, which I’ve noticed most often in students from Hubei, China, is in making a distinction between /n/ and /l/. Sometimes, /l/ is the troublesome member of the pair. When they pronounce it, it sounds like an /n/, so when they deliver a mock lecture for a teaching assessment, they might pronounce analysis as ananasis. Other times, /n/ is the source of the trouble, when not comes out as lot, or no as low, or my knife as my life.

This phonemic merger has happened despite the existence of common Chinese names such as Liu. One student admitted that it can sometimes be a problem to say words like these, and sometimes people from his home region will be teased for it when they travel to other areas of China. Apparently this local dialect, even though it’s a variety of Mandarin, is known to be difficult for other Mandarin speakers to understand. I imagine American English speakers with the cot/caught merger have a similar experience when traveling to a region where the speakers still make a distinction between these two vowels.

Working with speakers who are struggling to distinguish between /n/ and /l/ highlights how phonetically similar they are. First of all, they’re both made by putting the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth, on that bony bump behind them (the alveolar ridge). Furthermore, they’re both voiced sounds. Make an extended /n/ sound or an extended /l/ sound and put a finger on your Adam’s apple. For both sounds, you’ll feel the vibrations of the air being pushed through your vocal folds.

So exactly what is the difference between /n/ and /l/, anyway? It comes down to two things:

  1. Does the air pass through the nose? That is, are you making a nasal sound?
  2. Does the air pass over the sides of the tongue? That is, are you making a lateral sound?

So how do you know if air is coming through your nose or past the sides of your tongue? Take a deep breath, put your tongue into position for your /n/ or /l/, whichever one you’re trying to make, and say that sound for a good, long time: [nnnnnn….], or [lllll…]. I’m assuming that you’re able to do this, since you’re probably an English speaker if you’re reading this blog. However, in the unlikely event that you were not able to make that extended [n] or [l], then that means the answer to both of these questions is NO, which means you’re not making an [n] or an [l] at all; you’re making a different alveolar sound: [d]!

But supposing you were able to make that extended [n] or [l], here’s the next part of the test. Do it again, and this time do it while pinching your nose. Were you still able to do it? If pinching your nose totally disrupted things, then air must have been coming through there before, so the answer to the “nasal” question is YES.

On the other hand, if pinching your nose didn’t stop you at all, then air must have been escaping your head some other way, and it probably wasn’t coming out your ears. I mean, I guess it could have, if you get lots of ear infections like I did when I was a kid, and you’ve had tubes inserted into your eardrums. But still, it’s a bit of work to force air to go through there. The more likely escape path is past the sides of your tongue. To find out for sure, put your tongue into the position again, and then just breathe through your mouth for a little bit. You should feel the sides of your tongue is getting cold. So the answer to the “lateral” question is YES.

This means, looking back, that if air was passing through your nose a minute or two ago, and pinching your nose gave it no other way to get out, then it wasn’t just the tip of your tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge. It was actually the entire outer edge of your tongue, from the right all the way to the left, spreading out to seal the passage from your molars on one side, to just behind your incisors, to your molars on the other side. On the other hand, if air was passing over the sides of your tongue, then your tongue was squeezed into a narrow shape, so that only the tip was touching the alveolar ridge.

If the answer to the nasal question is YES and the answer to the lateral question is NO, then you’ve got yourself an [n]. If the answer to the nasal question is NO and the answer to the lateral question is YES, then you’re making an [l]. But what if the answer to both of these questions is YES? In that case, you’re making a sound that isn’t even in English’s phonetic inventory. In fact, there isn’t even an International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for it; the best we can do is to use the [l] symbol and use the tilde (~) to indicate that this is a nasalized consonant: [ l̃ ].

This halfway consonant is usually what the students in question have been making for both /n/ and /l/, leading to the confusion between not and lot; no and low; knife and life.

Here are the differences summed up.

air does not   pass through nose        air passes         through nose
air does not pass  sides of tongue [ d ] [ n ]
air passes sides of tongue [ l ] [ l̃ ]

Once the students are more aware of what’s going on with their speech articulators, it’s a matter of practicing the two sounds, sometimes while pinching their nose to make sure air can’t pass through it unnoticed. When they get good enough at producing the two sounds during our session, they can take on the homework challenge of singing the hook from Roy Orbison’s classic doo-wop tune!

Posted in Consonants, Language learning, Music, What the L | 15 Comments »

Clickable IPA

Posted by Neal on September 5, 2018

One of the courses I teach is individual pronunciation tutoring for international students who are going to be teaching assistants here at Ohio State University. One of the resources I use a lot is this clickable IPA chart. Click on any of the sounds in this chart, and you’ll hear a recording of someone uttering the sounds.

Sometimes, though, I wished that it was possible to reduce the visual clutter by having the chart show just the sounds of English, or just the sounds of Chinese, or Korean, or whatever other language a student spoke. I could toggle between the different languages’ phonemic inventories, allowing us to quickly view the phonemes common to multiple languages, and those that are in one phonemic inventory but not another.

At the same time as the chart had too many sounds, it also didn’t have enough of them. Some sounds, like the affricates /tʃ/ (as in chump)and /dʒ/ (as in jump) are displayed on a supplement to the chart (not shown in the screenshot here). There are even bigger gaps for Chinese, since it has three times as many affricates as English, and some of them aren’t displayed on the chart anywhere at all. This is because they’re versions of some affricates that are already shown in the chart, but they’re aspirated (i.e., pronounced with a short puff of air after them). It makes sense not to show these, because if you recorded aspirated versions of all the consonants, it would double the size of the consonant chart. And if you’re going to have separate recordings for the aspirated consonants, why not for the glottalized ones, or the pharyngealized ones, or the nasalized vowels, or the creaky vowels? But still, when I’m working with a Chinese student, and want to show them exactly how the set of sounds they’re used to matches up with what we have in English, I’d like to have all the affricates, aspirated and unaspirated, up there in the main chart with everything else.

A more elaborate clickable IPA chart that I recently learned about and have been using is this rtMRI IPA chart. This one was created by the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory at the University of Southern California. When you click on the IPA symbols in this chart, you not only hear them pronounced, you also see them pronounced with a real-time MRI (rtMRI) video clip. It is incredibly useful that someone took the trouble to do one of these rtMRIs for each of these sounds, and as a bonus, there are also clickable rtMRI recordings of some minimal vowel sets, some short sentences, and a couple of longer passages that I suspect are panphonemic, though I haven’t checked to be sure.

However, as with the other chart, you need to already know what sounds are in a language in order to know which ones you’re interested in clicking. And like the other chart, this one sidelines the affricates, and shows even fewer of them than the other chart. It wasn’t the customized tool that I sometimes wished were available to me and my students.

A few months ago, I was telling the ESL Programs’ curriculum director, Karen Macbeth, about the kind of chart I wished existed somewhere. As it happens, she was (and is) working on creating an e-textbook for all our Spoken English courses to use, and she said a chart like this one would go well in this kind of digital resource. She put me in touch with one Mike Shiflet, who works for Ohio State University’s Office of Distance Education and E-Learning and who has been helping Karen with her project. I gave Mike some printed IPA charts with different languages’ phonemic inventories highlighted on each one: English, Chinese, Korean, Turkish, Hindi, and Spanish. I showed him the clickable IPA chart that inspired this project. I provided him an audio clip of me pronouncing each of the sounds I wanted. From there, Mike produced the chart I had been dreaming of, and it’s now on OSU’s ESL Programs Spoken English web page for anyone to use! Me, I’m going to start using it tomorrow.

Below is a screenshot of just the (Mandarin) Chinese version of the chart.

I hope this chart proves to be as useful to some ESL/EFL teachers and students as the other clickable IPA charts have been for me.

Posted in Language learning, Panphonic Phun | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on March 17, 2018

Limericks have been on my mind f the last couple of months. It started when I discovered a Twitter account called @Limericking, which puts out a constant stream of limericks based on the news, usually better than the ones featured each week on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. Here’s the limerick that showed up on my timeline in January:

So clever, and such a good illustration of the cot/caught merger, which I just wrote about in a piece I just did for Grammar Girl on vowel mergers. For me, cause and flaws both have the mid back round vowel /ɔ/, but Oz has the low back unround vowel /ɑ/. It could just be that the writer of this limerick was settling for an imperfect rhyme, but I see that @Limericking is based in Canada, one of the places where the merger is widespread, so it’s probably a perfect rhyme for them.

Then, at the end of the month, Merriam-Webster started tweeting out limericks about English usage. I particularly liked this one:

At the beginning of March, of course, it was National Grammar Day once again, with its annual limerick contest. This was the winner, and deservedly so:

I didn’t write a grammar limerick, but after I read the limericks from Limericking and Merriam-Webster, I decided to take another crack at writing a panphonic poem, within the constraints of five short lines. The first time I tried putting all the sounds of English into a single poem, I tried to work in not only all the sounds that English speakers perceive as separate sounds (in other words, all the phonemes), but also all the variant pronunciations of each phoneme (i.e. all the allophones). For example, I didn’t want to put in just the vowel [i] as in she, but also the nasalized vowel [ĩ] as in scheme. Ultimately, I didn’t succeed, so I set my sights a bit lower this time. Here’s what I ended up with:

In normal spelling, it’s

Hear in this short limerick’s strains
Every sound which my language contains.
Could it be an illusion?
Panphonic profusion?
Something linguists enjoy as a game?

I would rather have said panphonemic profusion because it’s more specific, and because the meter works better, but panphonic was the only word I had with the vowel /ɑ/. And I’d prefer sound that to sound which, but I needed a /tʃ/. Maybe I’ll try again someday, without such a meta topic.

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 1 Comment »

Flappin’ Shit

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2018

A few years ago, I blogged about hearing some English speakers pronouncing their /t/’s as glottal stops in an unexpected place: after a stressed vowel, before an /h/. Some of the examples I talked about were a local public radio news reporter’s pronunciation of Statehouse,and Doug’s pronunciation of pothole. Another example, which I thought I’d blogged about but apparently hadn’t, is Doug’s pronunciation of warthog, which is different from the others in that there’s an /r/ between the vowel and /t/. But they’re all similar in that I would personally pronounce the /t/ as a flap [ɾ] in these words, and I heard other speakers using a glottal stop [ʔ].

Last week, I happened to think of another word with a /t/ between a stressed vowel and an /h/. It was shithole! For me, the /t/ in this word is pronounced as a flap, just like in Statehouse, pothole, and warthog: shi[ɾ]hole.

But the events of last week’s news cycle naturally got me to wondering: How are other people pronouncing shithole these days? With a flap, like me? As shi[t]hole, with an ordinary [t]–shi[t]hole? Or maybe even as shi[ʔ]hole with a glottal stop?

In this montage of newscasters reporting on Trump’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and (some?) African countries, I hear mostly shi[ɾ]hole, with a few shi[t]holes thrown in. No glottal-stop shi[ʔ]holes.

I also searched for shithole in YouGlish, this website I learned about in the course of teaching English pronunciation to my international students. You search for your word, and it brings you video clips of people saying that word in real contexts. Their four entries for shithole all use the flap pronunciation. (In unrelated findings, all eight of their clips of coup de grace pronounce it as if it were coup de gras.)

Among the family and friends I asked, the flapped pronunciation is also the most common. I was even surprised to find that this was the pronunciation that Doug used, when I asked him to repeat this word of the week. I wonder how he pronounces pothole, butthole, and warthog now…

Three people in my sample of 14 used the [t] pronunciation. One is a co-worker who later mentioned that he thought of shithole as two words: shit hole.

I did find two speakers with glottal-stop shithole. One was one of my in-laws, and the other was one of Doug’s floormates in his dorm. That’s right: He’s a freshman in college now, and when I called him with my linguistic question, he gave me his answer and offered to pass the phone around to the other residents in the room, and one by one they got on the line and said “shithole” to me.

UPDATE, Feb. 5, 2018

When I tweeted this post, Michael Covarrubias (@wishydog) responded, “i hear your flap and /h/. i hear a lot of glottal stops in the video. apparently, my /t/ is a glottal stop very often.” So I went back for another listen. It turns out I listened too quickly the first time. On closer inspection, and with the use of the phonetics software Praat, I have segmented out 57 tokens of shithole (or a related form, such as the plural, or the derived form shitholer), and of them, eight have the glottal stop pronunciation, for 14%. Seven tokens have the [t] pronunciation, making 12.3%. Tokens with a flap make up the remaining 73.7%.

I labeled each token impressionistically by hear, but then also examined their spectrograms using Praat, labeling the duration of the air stoppage for the /t/, doing my best to separate it from the pronunciation of the /h/. Sometimes I had to give up. I also tried to record whether the /t/ and following /h/ were voiced or not, but sometimes had to give up on this, too. If anyone is interested in looking at or listening to the data, you can find the WAV file, accompanying Praat text grid, and a spreadsheet with the data for each of the 57 tokens in a Google Drive folder I’ve named the Vice Shithole Corpus.

Posted in Doug, Flap (tap), Glottal stops, Politics, Taboo | Leave a Comment »

Another Thought Coming

Posted by Neal on April 19, 2017

Last weekend, I spent part of my Saturday afternoon marching from the federal building to the Statehouse and back with a few hundred other people demanding that Donald Trump keep his campaign promise of releasing his tax returns. There were a few hundred in the Columbus Tax March, but nothing like the thousands in the marches elsewhere across the nation. I read about them the next day in the paper, where I learned this about the Tax March that happened in Washington, D.C.:

One of Trump’s sharpest critics in the House spoke to protesters at the U.S. Capitol just before they set off on a march to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, of California, said there’s nothing to prevent Trump from releasing his income taxes.

“If he thinks he can get away with playing king, he’s got another thought coming,” Waters said.

At once, I remembered a handful of blog posts from Language Log years ago (almost ten years, it turns out). It started when Mark Liberman wondered which expression came first: to have another thing coming or another think coming. The latter has going for it the fact that another think echoes the earlier think in the idiom: If he thinks…. In other words, think again. ‘ Mere hours later, Ben Zimmer explained why the OED listed think as the earlier version, but had thing in its earliest citation, from 1919. They simply judged that think was the original, but hadn’t gotten around to finding citations to prove it yet. Ben helpfully took on the job right there, producing citations from 1897 and 1898. For those really interested in the phonetics of thing coming and think coming, Mark wrote a full-on phonetic analysis the following year. Since then, Ben’s 1898 attestation has made it into the OED, and is cited in several online discussions of another think vs. another thing. (I don’t know why his earlier example didn’t make it.)

Nowhere in that Language Log discussion was the possibility of another thought, which, as I considered it, made the most sense of all: Thought is the usual noun form of the verb think, rather than think itself pressed into service. This possibility has been batted about in various grammar discussions, such as this one from the Word Detective:

So why not just say “thought” in the first place? Because it would have ruined the symmetry of the phrase, which depends on the first “think” (“If that’s what you think”), a verb, matching the second “think” (“…you’ve got another think coming”), a noun. That’s what gives the phrase its zing.

There are also plenty of other examples of people simply using the expression another thought coming, as Rep. Waters did, without commenting on it at all.

So how far back does another thought coming go? Far enough to possibly be the original formulation of the idiom?

Well, no. The best I can do is this example from 1907, in a book called The Cho-Fur, by one Harry Morris Gordon, found in the Google Books corpus:

Interestingly, this example has thought instead of think as the antecedent, which according to the Word Detective should be the best place to find another thought instead of another think. (The passage even has another token of the word thought, which I took to be a mistake in spelling the word tough, made more likely by the tokens of thought before and after it. Doug, however, suggests that thought shell is a kenning for skull.)

In any case, I wasn’t satisfied with my Google Books example, so I headed over to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) to see what I could find there. Still no luck finding a pre-1897 example of another thought. The only hit was from 1942; note that the antecedent is thought instead of think(s):

an’ if Top Zuber thought he was scaring him, he had another thought coming.

Before I left, though, I also searched for another think, and was surprised to find a 30-year antedating of Zimmer’s find. Who’d’ve thunk it? I’ve included a bit more context than usual, so that the example itself makes sense:

No one looking like either was to be seen, and Tom’s mind at once went back to the vacant seats at the table. “By Jove, Ned!” he exclaimed. “I believe I have it!”
“Have what–a fit of seasickness?”
“No, but these empty seats–the persons we saw you know–they belong there and they’re afraid to come out and be seen.”
“Why should they be–if they’re not the Fogers. I guess you’ve got another think coming.”

Unlike the 1907 example from Google Books, this one doesn’t have think or thought as an antecedent. It has no antecedent verb at all, only a context that shows us someone’s thought process. Of COHA’s other 26 hits for another think coming, 15 had think(s) as an antecedent. Of the remaining 11, which I’ve listed below, seven had thought as the antecedent; two had other verbs (reckon, expect); and one had no antecedent at all, like the 1866 attestation above.

  1. And if she thought he was going to hot-foot it over to her mother’s and whine around and beg her to come home, she had another think coming. (1918)
  2. if any young college boy thought he could interfere with her career he had another think coming. (1936)
  3. And if she thought he would stay around only to hear her start tuning up, she had another think coming. (1949)
  4. If Capitol Hill newsmen ignored the story because they thought Metcalf’s resolution had no chance of being approved, they have another think coming. (1974)
  5. But if they thought they could change Moe Bernstein, they had another think coming. (1995)
  6. If this young woman thought she was going to be any luckier than the other one at slapping a paternity suit on him, she had another think coming. (2003)
  7. No sirree, if that old fool thought I was aiming to contract for a hundred chicken gizzards, he had another think coming. (1961)
  8. “If you’re reckoning to move in on this, my lad,” Peter said as they went down the veranda toward the nearly empty bar, “you have bloody well got another think coming.” (1955)
  9. If you expect me to be the little gentleman about it, you’ve got another think
    coming. (1958)
  10. And why do you look at me like that? As if I had something for you tonight! Well, sir, let me tell you, you have another think coming. (1964)

As for another thing, COHA’s earliest example of that is only from 1993, which is decades after its first known use. So it looks like another think still stands as the earlier form, with another thought arriving about 40 years later.

Now I thought I had one more thought about the Tax March before wrapping up this post. What was it? Wait, I think I feel a think coming. Closer … closer … ah, good, it’s here! So the day after the Tax March, I also read that Donald Trump had tweeted, “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies.” Boy, I’ll say! I still haven’t gotten my money! Maybe I missed the organizer handing out the envelopes of cash.

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, Ohioana, Politics | 3 Comments »

Babbling with L

Posted by Neal on February 4, 2017


I loved this punning tweet from @ScottishScouse that ties together the Oscar-nominated movie La La Land, the Teletubbies, and Eastern Europe. It has inspired me to post another installment of Babbler’s Lexicon, featuring the /l/ series: /lala, lele, lili, lolo, lulu/.


So first off, the La La of La La Land (both the movie and the nickname for its setting) is a play on the initialism LA for Los Angeles, since la la land is also, in the OED’s words, a “state of being out of touch with reality.” Both those senses emerged at the same time: The OED’s earliest attestation for both is 1979. In fact, the Los Angeles Times is the
source of that first non-Los-Angeles-related attestation: “Heather was in la-la land after…drinking the LSD-spiked iced tea intended for Diana.” It’s also the source of an even earlier attestation, from 1925, referring not to Los Angeles, but to France; the lexicographers surmise that there’s an ooh-la-la connection in there.

laalaaIn the movie scene that @ScottishScouse used, Emma Stone’s character is wearing a bright yellow dress, just about the same color as that of the Teletubby Laa-Laa. The others, of course, are the purple one (Tinky Winky), the green one (Dipsy), and the red one (Po…get it?).

I’m actually making an exception by including Laa-Laa in this list, because these days I’m leaning toward excluding people’s names. I’m discovering that almost every sequence of two identical consonant-vowel (CV) syllables that I’m looking at has been used somewhere, at some time, as someone’s name. If I think there’s something otherwise noteworthy about a person’s name that turns up in my searches, I’ll include it, but otherwise I won’t.


After excluding several people’s names, I didn’t really find much here. A search for “lay lay” turned up an Urban Dictionary definition for a lazy person, but I haven’t found the expression used in the wild, so I’m suspicious about this one.


Not much here, either, but as for people named /lili/, there’s the actor Leelee Sobieski. Onward!


Mostly proper nouns here, too. Briefly, Lolo is the stage name for the singer Lauren Pritchard, a character in a video game, and a nickname for the founder of a chain of chicken-and-waffles restaurants. It’s also a method of birth control also known as Lo Loestrin Fe. As a common noun, LoLo refers to a kind of cargo ship that uses on-board cranes to load (“lift on”) and unload (“lift off”) the containers.

Moving on to low low is another name for a low-rider, according to a convincingly consistent collection of definitions in the the not-always-trustworthy Urban Dictionary, as well as in . Finally, on the low low is a more reduplicate-y version of on the downlow; at least it is in this video:



Lulu is a fairly common nickname (also spelled LooLoo, Loo Loo, and Lou Lou), as well as the name of a self-publishing website. According to the OED, a lulu is “A remarkable or wonderful person or thing; freq. used ironically;” a citation from 1972 goes like this: “I do hope you’re not scared of earth tremors… This one was a real lulu.”
Looloo is a travel app for the Philippines.

All in all, my /l/ series is pretty short, but not as short as my /θ/ and /ð/ series. Maybe I should get those out of the way next!

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Phonetics and phonology, What the L | 3 Comments »

Kicks for Kooks

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2016

Keck Observatory

One of the things I didn’t mention in my review of John McWhorter’s Words on the Move was his use of minimal pairs to explore the vowels of English. A minimal pair is a pair of words or phrases that are identical in every aspect but one, chosen so as to illustrate how this one aspect results in a difference in meaning or grammaticality. For example, most English speakers find the sentence What and where will I sleep? ungrammatical, but if we change just one word, by replacing the verb sleep with the verb teach, the sentence improves for many speakers: What and where will I teach? This fact can then be used as evidence for your analysis of the syntax of wh-questions, or the semantics of verbs, or maybe other theoretical questions. In phonology, minimal pairs target not words, but speech sounds. So for example, we know that the vowels /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are two different vowels in English, as opposed to variant pronunciations of the same vowel, because words such as putt [pʌt] and put [pʊt] mean different things. (If this seems obvious to you, consider that /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ really were variants of a single vowel at one time, when blood rhymed with could.)

McWhorter tried to do this with all the English vowels at once, assembling what I guess you could call a minimal series of words, all of the form /bVt/, where V stands for any vowel. Here’s the series he used:

  1. /i/ beet
  2. /ɪ/ bit
  3. /e/ bait
  4. /ɛ/ bet
  5. /æ/ bat
  6. /u/ boot
  7. /ʊ/ book
  8. /o/ boat
  9. /ɔ/ bought
  10. /ɑ/ baht
  11. /ʌ/ but

His series isn’t perfect; notice that book breaks the pattern. As McWhorter explains, “There is, in general, no series of words that all begins with the same consonant and end with some same other one that includes every single one of the possible vowels in between.” This may also explain why for the last item in the list, McWhorter chose the marginally English word baht, the name of the Thai unit of currency. If he hadn’t, he would have had to choose the English bot, which refers to either an internet app for repetitive tasks or a botfly larva, and maybe he thought these concepts were more likely to require explanation than Thai money. Of course, if you’re among the many speakers who have the cot/caught merger, bought, bot, and baht all sound the same anyway.

So as you can see, trying to find these minimal series provides plenty of excitement, thrills, and surprises. One series that I’ve thought about now and again is the one consisting of monosyllables beginning and ending with /k/. I guess it started when I was a kid, and first heard the insult kook /kuk/. I found it fascinating that in writing, this word was distinguished from the word cook /kʊk/ not by changing the double-O in the middle, but by replacing the C with a K! In writing this post, I’ve also discovered that in addition to referring to a crazy person, kook is also a term for a clueless surfer wannabe.

As a teenager, I learned the verb cack (out) /kæk/ from this George Carlin bit on death (starting at 7:43)–

–but I’ve never actually heard anyone else use this expression, and I haven’t found it in dictionary searches. That’s OK though, because cack can also mean “a baby’s heelless shoe with a soft leather sole,” as well as “shit”.

Years later, as a homeowner, I noticed that the plumbers and handymen we’ve dealt with prefer to talk about sealing countertops and windows with caulking instead of just plain caulk. Knowing about the cot/caught merger mentioned above, I suspect that they’re trying to avoid the potentially embarrassing ambiguity of a cock/caulk merger, whether because they’ve merged those vowels or their customers may have. In any case, for speakers who maintain a distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, cock /kɑk/ and caulk /kɔk/ belong in the series.

Filling in the rest of the series, some easy ones are kick /kɪk/, cake /kek/, and coke /kok/, but after those, the going gets tougher. Even so, in the past few years I’ve been pleased to see the rest of the series emerging. I learned about the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. And it turns out that keek is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, meaning to “peep or look furtively”. Apparently, it’s also the name of a Vine-like social medium that I never heard about until I looked it up while writing this post.

Only one last, holdout vowel kept my “K” minimal series incomplete: the mid-central vowel /ʌ/. So close, but alas, cuck is not an English word. Or … is it?

  1. /i/ keek
  2. /ɪ/ kick
  3. /e/ cake
  4. /ɛ/ Keck
  5. /æ/ cack
  6. /u/ kook
  7. /ʊ/ cook
  8. /o/ coke
  9. /ɔ/ caulk
  10. /ɑ/ cock
  11. /ʌ/ cuck

It is! Thanks to the recent surging popularity of speech attacking feminism and the politically correct people who believe in it, I’ve learned that cuck is indeed an English word, and has been since at least 2007. It’s a clipping of cuckold, an archaic-sounding but still-current term for a man whose wife has extramarital sex. Cuckold is etymologically related to cuckoo, the connection being that just as cuckoos force their unwitting victims to provide for the cuckoo’s offspring, so a “cuckoo’d” man might end up caring for another man’s child. In an interesting connection to another item in the series, kook might also derive from cuckoo by clipping. But shortening cuckold to cuck isn’t the end of the story. The new development for 2016 is summed up in this article from GQ:

The word gained political potency during the 2016 election in the portmanteau “cuckservative” (cuck + conservative) used to imply that the mainstream conservatives of the Jeb Bush variety are weak and effeminate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not a cuckservative. He says what he wants and doesn’t care if it’s offensive. In reference to Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” radio host Rush Limbaugh snarked, “If Trump were your average, ordinary, cuckolded Republican, he would have apologized by now.”

But Donald Trump doesn’t apologize. He went on to win the Republican presidential nomination as Jeb Bush, the one-time favorite, was irrevocably set back by a simple insult from Trump delivered with an invisible wink: “low-energy.”

Since The Donald bested the field of cuckservatives with his manly virility and full head of hair, those who couldn’t see a good insult go to waste have continued to use it in its shortened form–cuck–which applies first to anyone supporting Hillary, but also anyone who would challenge Donald Trump on his spelling, his logic, or his facts.

Read the rest of the GQ article for some other interesting history and analysis. But just to recap the word’s morphological history, cuckold gave us cuck via clipping, which gave us cuckservative via blending, which has now given us cuck once again, via another clipping. Lovely! Inflammatory and hateful language has completed our /kVk/ minimal series.

Posted in Morphology, Politics, Portmanteau words, Vowels | 12 Comments »

FAFSA Metathesis

Posted by Neal on October 16, 2016

One of the posts from my first year of blogging talked about Doug’s acquisition of the last few difficult pieces of English phonology (his interdental fricatives) as he was closing in on his sixth birthday. This post is about an information session the wife and I attended on how to apply for financial aid for college, since Doug is now in his senior year of high school. I can’t believe he’s been with us for 18 years now; it seems like only 15 or 16.

As the speaker talked about need-based aid, merit-based aid, personal-quirk-based aid, gift-aid, self-help aid, COA and EFC, I kept noticing one thing. In an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep myself awake, I tweeted about it:

That’s right; our expert speaker kept referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as the “FASFA”. Even when she was warning us to beware of the scam sites that awaited us if we went to, and carefully spelling out, she said, “That’s F-A-F-S-A, fasfa, dot G-O-V.”

As you may have gathered from my tweet, I found this puzzling. Aside from failing to sound out a pretty straightforward piece of English spelling, the speaker (and many of the audience members, too, including my wife) were behaving in a phonetically perverse manner, it seemed to me. Usually, changes in pronunciation make a word easier to say, by reducing the number of “gestures” that need to happen to pronounce it (i.e. the number of repositionings of the tongue, lips, or other articulators). As written, FAFSA has the advantage of having both /f/ sounds near each other, separated only by a vowel. Once you get your teeth and lips in position for that first /f/, you can leave them mostly in position while you say the /æ/ vowel, then bring them back together for the next /f/. Only then do you need to move the tip of your tongue into position to say the /s/, and after that, there are no more consonants to get into position for. On the other hand, to say /fæsfɑ/ requires you to move your articulators from /f/ position to /s/ position, and then back to /f/ position. Two repositionings as opposed to one.

If the /fæsfɑ/ pronunciation isn’t due to ease of articulation, maybe it’s due to frequency effects. In other words, maybe words or frozen phrases in English that contain the sequence /sf/ just occur more frequently than those that contain /fs/. More fas(t) forwards, hemispheres, and asphyxiating misfits than offseason games and Rafsanjanis.

Actually, I think that’s not a bad explanation, but in the past few days, another one occurred to me. I was giving Doug the highlights of the meeting his mother and I had been to…

“So,” I said, “You’ll need to fill out the FAFSA, which stands for ‘Free Application for Financial–‘ uh…” What was it? Free Application for Student Financial Aid? No, that couldn’t be right, because that would make the acronym FASFA, which we have established is wrong. So what was it, then? Oh, right: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The word financial isn’t even in there at all! The form that’s all about financial aid doesn’t have the phrase financial aid in its name! So it could be that people say FASFA because they expect the last part of it to stand for financial aid.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that FASFA is a common mispronunciation, so for all my USA readers, how do you say FAFSA? If you pronounce it FASFA, do any of the above three reasons ring true to you?

Posted in Acronyms, Metathesis | 5 Comments »

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 | 6 Comments »