Top story of the morning in the UK for the serious language scientist must surely be the report in The Sun concerning a children's toy mouse that is supposed to sing "Jingle bells, jingle bells" but instead sings "Pedophile, pedophile". Said one appalled mother who squeezed the mouse, "Luckily my children are too young to understand." The distributors, a company called Humatt, of Ferndown in Dorset, claims that the man in China who recorded the voice for the toy "could not pronounce certain sounds." And the singing that he recorded "was then speeded up to make it higher-pitched — distorting the result further." (A good MP3 of the result can be found here.) They have recalled the toy.
Shocked listeners to BBC Radio 4 this morning heard the presenters read this story out while collapsing with laughter. Language Log is not amused. If there was ever a more serious confluence of issues in speech technology, the Chinese language, freedom of speech, taboo language, and the protection of children, I don't know when.
Which variety of Chinese it was that had this problem with "jingle bells" we do not yet know. But if somehow the combination of Chinese phonology and cheap sound reproduction (the toy costs about $4.90) has turned "jing-le bells" into "pe-do-phile", Language Log is going to find out how. Even as I write this, Chinese specialist Victor Mair and acoustic phonetics expert Mark Liberman are packing their equipment and preparing to fly to China from Language Log headquarters in Philadelphia.