Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Panphonic Phun’ Category

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 »

How Do You Say Hubert?

Posted by Neal on September 27, 2011

In a post at Lingua Franca, Geoff Pullum writes about reading a novel and being pleasantly surprised when the protagonist referred to the “th” sound in that as a voiced dental fricative, which, in fact, it is. (Interdental, more specifically, but still.) But his admiration turned to disgust when he read another novel in the same series, and the protagonist tells the Secret Service that from their recording of a bad guy saying, “You won’t get that lucky again” and “Hey, I want to talk to you,” they have all the phonetic information they need to identify the guy: “All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”

A panphonic set of unscripted utterances consisting of only 13 words? Pullum sets the record straight in his usual style. I already knew firsthand how difficult it would be to round up all the English phonemes in one utterance, having tried doing it in the Mission: Impossible poem, which Ben Zimmer kindly linked to in a comment. For panphonic passages written by other people, check the other posts in the Panphonic Phun category.

As it happens, I was thinking about my panphonic poem just the yesterday. I had just read a post at Grammarphobia about the pronunciation of h before [ju], as in Hubert or Houston (the city in Texas, that is, not the street in Manhattan). Here’s Patricia O’Conner’s description of it when it is pronounced (instead of dropped, as some speakers do):

Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).

I was surprised for a moment, since I’m used to thinking of [h] as a voiceless glottal fricative, made simply by opening your vocal folds wide and letting air from the lungs pass through the opening between them (i.e. the glottis). But then I realized that I do pronounce Hubert and Houston with a palatal fricative at the beginning. I started to say Hubert, but quickly switched to home after saying the /h/, and the pronunciation sounded off.

This phonetic realization makes sense, since [j] (that is, the “y” sound) is a palatal consonant, and turning the glottal fricative [h] into the palatal fricative [ç] before [j] is a typical assimilation. Alternatively, instead of producing a fully palatal fricative, a speaker might get the back of the tongue only as far forward as the velum (aka soft palate) before making the /h/ sound, in which case it would come out as the voiceless velar fricative [x]. If you speak German, you’ll recognize [ç] as the sound at the end of Ich, and if you listen to Bill Cosby comedy routines, you may recognize [x] as the way he often pronounces /k/, but that’s about as but English doesn’t have /ç/ or /x/ as phonemes in their own right, so using them for /h/ here and there doesn’t cause confusion.

The significance for my poem, in which I had attempted to use not only every phoneme but also every allophone (way of pronouncing) every phoneme, was that I had learned about one more allophone that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in. I had /h/ in the words he, him, and horrible, and in all those words I think it’s realized as simply [h] and not [ç] or [x]. Some speakers might have it as [ç] in he, but not as reliably as they would in Hubert.

What about you? Do you use a glottal, velar, or palatal /h/ before the “you” sound?

Posted in Books, Consonants, Panphonic Phun | 2 Comments »

The Virginia Theatre

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2010

“It is usually rather easy to reach the Virginia Theatre,” the passage begins, and already, you can tell something’s a little off. If I were giving directions to someone, I’d probably say “get to” instead of “reach”, but what’s odder still is the “usually rather easy” business. It’s not easy to get there, but just “rather easy”? And it’s only that way “usually”? There must be something weird about how to get to this Virginia Theatre for the speaker to draw attention to something that should be understood: Naturally it will be harder to get there on days with bad weather or heavy traffic. From there the directions start to sound normal, but when the speaker mentions a gift shop landmark, they wander off on a tangent about how it has “little children’s playthings that often look so clever you wish yourself young again: such things as books and toys, and behind the counter, a playroom with an elegant rug and smooth shining mirrors.” Huh?

The reason for these oddities is that the real purpose of this passage is to contain every phoneme in the English language. That’s right, it’s another panphonic text, like the grocery list, tiger story, or poem about a cruel friend that I’ve blogged about under this category. It comes from the book Training the Speaking Voice (1977, Virgil A. Anderson), although I became aware of it in a video on the website of dialect coach Amy Stoller. (Hat tip to Lynne Murphy, of Separated by a Common Language, and Langology). Anderson’s book also contains two more panphonic passages, one about a rat named Arthur, and another about rainbows. Here’s the rest of the “Virginia Theatre” passage:

It is usually rather easy to reach the Virginia Theatre. Board car number fifty-six somewhere along Churchill Street and ride to the highway. Transfer there to the Mississippi bus. When you arrive at Judge Avenue, begin walking toward the business zone. You will pass a gift shop displaying little children’s playthings that often look so clever you wish yourself young again: such things as books and toys, and behind the counter, a playroom with an elegant rug and smooth shining mirrors. Beyond this shop are the National Bank and the Globe Garage. Turn south at the next corner; the theatre is to your left.

At this point I want to create a distinction between two kinds of panphonic. First, I will use the term panphonemic to refer to something that contains all the phonemes of a particular language. As a reminder for longtime readers, and background for newer readers, a phoneme is what a non-linguist would probably just call a sound of the language. For example, take the “hard G” sound, /g/. Although speakers think of /g/ as one sound, it can be pronounced in more than one way. In a word like good, /g/ is pronounced with the back of the tongue contacting the soft palate, and is represented phonetically as [g]. In a word like gear, however, the /g/ is pronounced with the back of the tongue not landing squarely on the soft palate, but hitting nearer to where the soft palate meets the hard palate. This sound is represented as [ɟ]. [g] and [ɟ] are said to be different phones, but in English, they are both perceived as the single phoneme /g/. (Also note the convention that phonemes are written between slashes, while phones enclosed in square brackets.)

Why bother making the distinction between [g] and [ɟ] at all, if no one hears the difference? In fact, when we’re talking about phonemes, we don’t. We just use /g/ to refer to something that might actually be either [g] or [ɟ]. However, some people do hear the difference between [g] and [ɟ]–speakers of languages in which [g] and [ɟ] are considered different phonemes, /g/ and /ɟ/.

So much for panphonemic. “The Virginia Theatre”, like the other panphonic passages I mentioned, is indeed panphonemic. For example, it contains the phoneme /g/ in begin. But I’m also interested in whether a panphonemic passage is also panphonetic: For each phoneme, does it contain all the phones that it could be pronounced as? The phoneme /g/ is in the word begin, but which specific phone is it, [g] or [ɟ]? In fact, it’s [ɟ]. To be panphonetic, this passage would also have to contain [g]. In fact, it does, in elegant.

I wrote my panphonemic poem with the intent of making it panphonetic, though I fell short. The panphonemic tiger story came closer to being panphonetic. So how does “The Virginia Theatre” compare?

Consonants Vowels and Diphthongs

[pʰ] pass
[p] displaying, shop

[p] Board
[b] the business, Globe

[m] Mississippi, number, room
[m syllabic] not present

[f] fifty, yourself

[v] Virginia, Avenue, arrive

[θ] Theatre, playthings, south

[ð] the, rather, smooth

[tʰ] to
[t] fifty, left
[t dental] at the
[ʔ] Street and (maybe)
[ɾ] that are
[tʃ] Transfer

[t] shop displaying
[d] ride
[d dental] toward the
[ɾ] that are
[dʒ] children’s (maybe)

[n] number, an elegant
[n dental] and the
[n syllabic] National (maybe)

[s] six, Mississippi

[z] zone, easy, is

[l] loved, usually, flesh
[l voiceless] playthings
[ɫ] Globe, elegant, pull
[ɫ dental] not found
[ɫ syllabic] little

[r] rather, arrive, car
[r voiceless] not found
[r syllabic] Theatre

[ʃ] shop, National, wish

[ʒ] usually, Garage

[tʃ] Churchill, reach

[dʒ] Judge, Virginia

[j] you, Beyond

[kʰ] counter
[cʰ] not found
[k] books
[c] not found

[k] not found
[c] not found
[g] the Globe, elegant, rug
[ɟ] begin

[ŋ] young
[ɳ] things

[w] world, away

[h] highway

[æ] pass
[æː] Avenue
[̃æ] transfer, Bank

[eI] playthings
[eIː] highway
[eĨ] not found

[ɛ] next
[ɛː] said, help, every
[̃ɛː] when
[ɛ r-colored] there

[i] reach
[iː] easy
[ĩː] not found

[I] little
[Iː] Mississippi
[Ĩː] Virginia, –ing,
[I r-colored] year

[ʌ] bus
[ʌː] Judge
[̃ʌː] something

[ɐ] shop
[ɐː] Garage
[̃ɐː] beyond
[ɐ r-colored] car

[ɔ] walking
[ɔː] not found
[̃ɔː] along
[ɔ r-colored] Board

[ou] so
[ouː] Globe
[oũː] zone

[u] not found
[uː] you
[ũː] room

[ʊ] books
[ʊː] not found

[au] south
[auː] not found
[aũː] counter

[aI] like
[aIː] rIde
[aĨː] behind

[oI] not found
[oIː] toys
[oĨː] not found

So this passage is definitely panphonemic, but misses being panphonetic by 13 sounds (by my reckoning). That’s fewer omissions than the tiger story had, but on the other hand, this passage has only 104 words, compared to the tiger story’s 240. One of these days I’ll have to take a fresh look at the grocery list and my poem to see how many phones short of a panphonetic set they are in their below-100 word counts.

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 15 Comments »

The Tiger and the Girl

Posted by Neal on March 18, 2009

Albert Wolfe from Laowai Chinese left a comment on the post about the Mission: Impossible III poem, and linked to a short panphonic story he’d written called “The Tiger and the Girl.” It goes like this:girlandtiger

The Tiger and the Girl
by Albert Wolfe

There once was a tiger living in China. Each year he took a ship to an island. He loved visiting the sheep on the beach. One day, after he ate a little sheep, a girl saw him. She said, “What in the world are you doing?” He said, “Because all the sheep are white, they are like toothpaste to me. I usually eat just one sheep every day to keep my teeth clean.” At that time, he took a step and a beige thorn went into the flesh of his paw. He roared. The pain was like fire. The girl was so afraid that she could barely breathe. But she bravely said, “When I need help, I always ask my mother. Would you like my mother to help you? She’s not far away.” The tiger agreed and went with the girl to her hometown. The daughter found her mother, who was a doctor, prancing and singing near a big hedge. She asked her mother to help her new friend that very hour. The mother told the tiger to lie down and be quiet. She pulled the thorn out of his lowered paw. Her husband, who was a lawyer and basketball player, gave the tiger a toy wristwatch. The tiger said, “Thanks a million for everything you’ve done recently.” “It was our pleasure,” replied the couple. And the tiger and the girl went off to take a cab to the zoo.

I wondered if Wolfe had succeeded any better than I had at getting all the allophones of all the phonemes in there, especially since he was not constrained by length, rhyme, and meter. It looks like he came pretty darn close. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 2 Comments »

Speech Accent Archive Story on NPR

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2007

Hey, remember this panphonic paragraph that I mentioned back in May in this post?

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

They did a segment on NPR about it this morning. It’s about Steven Weinberger’s Speech Accent Archive project at George Mason University.

Posted in Panphonic Phun | 3 Comments »

A Panphonic Poem for Mission: Impossible 3

Posted by Neal on May 5, 2006

This weekend, I want to see Mission: Impossible 3, in spite of Tom Cruise. Wait, no. Not in spite of Tom Cruise. That sounds like Mr. Cruise doesn’t want me to go see this movie, and I want to go and see it anyway, just so he’ll make a little bit more money. I’m not too enthusiastic about doing that for this increasingly creepy, couch-jumping, not-content-to-
girls-with-it celebrity. What I should say is that I want to see the movie in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is in it. (Interesting that this ambiguity only arises when the object of in spite of is animate: I lived there in spite of the polluted air isn’t ambiguous.)

Why, you may ask, do I want to see Mission: Impossible 3 in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is in it? That goes back to the “other story” I mentioned at the end of my last post.
MILD SPOILER AHEAD Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Movies, Panphonic Phun, Self-promotion | 11 Comments »

The Alias Phonology Essay Question

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2006

Now that Alias is winding down to its series finale, I’m remembering back to a time a few years ago, a time when Alias was still good, and my wife and I still watched it every week. When the series premiered, I wasn’t planning on watching it at all. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation, and I had even dropped my longstanding Sunday night date with The Simpsons, so I wasn’t about to start watching some new show, no matter how much the critics liked it. But that was before Glen told me that our friend Bob Orci was one of the writers. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Panphonic Phun, TV | Leave a Comment »