Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Vowels’ Category

Diphthongs for Doug

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2005

I was looking over the graded schoolwork Doug brought home today. One page was from a phonics workbook, and the task was to circle the words in which y had a “long e” sound. There were eight sentences, such as Ty and Molly were taking care of baby Freddy, and They heard Freddy cry in his crib. Doug had done pretty well, circling Molly, baby, Freddy, hurry, everything, funny, bunny, very, happy, and silly. He’d lost a few points, though, for circling they in the three sentences where it appeared, and play in another one. At supper, I asked him why he’d circled those words.

“Listen, Dad,” he said. “Theyyyyyyyy, playyyyyyyyyy.

Far out–he’d perceived that the long a sound was actually a diphthong. I didn’t think kids were supposed to have conscious access to that kind of information.

“Congratulations, Doug,” I said. “You’ve figured out that the long a sound is actually two sounds smushed together. Most people can’t hear that long e at the end. It just sounds like one sound to them.”

He was pleased enough at having made this discovery that I had him say a long, drawn out, “Ohhhhh” so he could hear that the long o sound actually ended with a long u. Then I picked his worksheet back up and told him there were actually some more words that ended with y making a long e sound as part of a diphthong. He didn’t believe it, and started running through the words to rule them out: “Well, it’s not try, it’s not cry…” I made him slow down, and then he heard the long e creeping in at the end of the long i sound. He thought it was pretty funny that if he’d counted the long i sound as having a long e, he’d have circled every word on the page that ended in y.

And then, the most important part of the lesson: “So now you know that when they say long e, they mean long e that’s NOT part of some other sound like a long a or long i.” I don’t want him going to his teacher tomorrow, trying to argue that y really does make the long e sound in all these words. From the kind of arguments he’s been having with me lately, I could see him trying it.

Posted in The darndest things, Vowels | 2 Comments »

Check It Out, Dude

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2004

For the readers of this blog who haven’t already heard about Scott Kiesling‘s Dude paper via Language Log or seen this AP article about it that an anonymous commentator gave the link to, I recommend reading the whole thing. It’s only 20-some pages, and is entertaining and pretty easy to understand (except for the stuff about “poststructuralism” and “cultural Discourses,” but you can skim over that and still get the main points). If you liked reading about yuh-huh, like, and duh, definitely check this one out.

One interesting fact Kiesling discusses is that the /u/ in dude is usually fronted. That is, it’s actually pronounced like [i] (aka “long e”), except that you still have your lips rounded as if for [u]. (It’s the same sound as ü in German.) This is the pronunciation sometimes transcribed as “Dewd!” Kiesling has some comments about why this happens, but it reminded me of another marked fronting of /u/ for stylistic effect that I heard a few years ago…

My wife and I lived in an urban neighborhood down the street from a corner grocery. When we’d drive or walk by, there would often be a black and white cat in the window. My wife, naturally, had to ask the store’s proprietor the cat’s name. It was Bloomers. After that, every time we saw Bloomers in the window, my wife would say, “Aw, look! It’s Blümers!”

“Oh, yeah, Bloomers!” I’d agree, making sure I backed the hell out of my /u/.

“No, it’s Blümers!” she insisted. “It’s cuter that way!”

Posted in Ohioana, Vowels | 7 Comments »

Anybody Want a Peanut?

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2004

An anonymous commentator said:

The DVD Player/DVD part of this post recalls something I’ve wondered about for a long time: how come when two little peanuts are in their native shell, we call the whole ensemble “a peanut,” but once we remove the tasty morsels we have “peanuts” and a peanut shell?

I never thought about it, but Anonymous is right. As my Webster’s dictionary puts it, peanut denotes “the seed or seed-containing pod of the peanut [plant]”. Or more accurately, “seed-containing pod that actually still contains the seeds, not one that has just been emptied of them,” which as Anonymous notes, is called a peanut shell. So if I ate 10 peanuts, it could mean I ate 20 seeds (assuming 2 seeds per pod) if I’m using the “seed-containing pod” meaning, or just 10 seeds if I’m using the “seed” meaning. To someone counting every calorie, this could be even more vexing than the question of how many troops are in a troop.

Anyway, all this talk about peanuts reminds me of one of my favorite lines from nearly everyone’s favorite source of movie quotations, The Princess Bride. In one scene, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (André the Giant) play a game, where Montoya will say a line, and Fezzik has to reply with a line such that the two of them form a rhyming couplet. Their boss, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) gets more and more irritated with the game, until finally:

Vizzini: No more rhymes! And I mean it!
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?

I always laughed at that line just because it wasn’t a perfect rhyme–the same way I laughed at Ernie on Sesame Street forcing nice to rhyme with eyes, or Tom Lehrer rhyming You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas with Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollahs.

Why isn’t it a perfect rhyme? The part of mean it that is intended to be rhymed is [in@t], where @ represents the schwa sound typically found in unstressed syllables in English. But the part of peanut that is supposed to complete the rhyme is [in^t], where ^ represents the “uh” sound heard in but or up. Very close, but not a perfect rhyme.

A few years ago, though, I realized that for some people, mean it and peanut are a perfect rhyme. Whereas I usually pronounce peanut with a secondary stress on the nut, others have no stress there at all, pronouncing it as [n@t] instead of [n^t].

The difference between [pin^t] and [pin@t] can be difficult to hear when someone is just talking about one peanut; it shows up better when they’re talking about peanuts: [pin^ts] vs. [pin@ts]. The first time I heard someone say peanuts and mistook it for penis, I knew for sure they weren’t pronouncing it the way I was!

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Vowels | 3 Comments »