Why it can be hard to wreck a nice beach

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In the course of checking out stimuli for an experiment, I came across an interesting word pronunciation. The speaker is a woman in her mid-20s who has lived all her life in central Ohio. Here's a short version — see if you can guess what the word is:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Note that the preceding clip includes the word in question and also the initial consonant of the following word…

Here's a clip including all of the preceding word and the following word as well:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If you're like me, you probably heard this as something like "the Kerr Center" (or "the cur center", though this seems less plausible). But this earlier use by the same speaker, in a more extended context, may help a bit:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The interviewer asked for clarification and got this response (from which I took the original clip):

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By now you may have guessed that the phrase is "Career Center", referring to this institution or one like it — and that the environment /r__r/, perhaps in combination with the speaker's familiarity with the phrase, has led to a considerable lowering and backing of the (nominal) /i/ vowel.

We've all got speech features like this, which pose potential problems for cross-cultural understanding among humans, much less for automatic speech recognition algorithms.

[This recording comes from the Buckeye Corpus, collected at Ohio State in 2000 or a bit before that.]



49 Comments

  1. Xtopher said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    Also features vocal fry!

  2. Rube said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    I grew up near a southern Ontario vllage called "Cayuga". People who aren't from there pronounce the word with three syllables, but locals only use two. A U.S. Border Agent once was caused some stress because he thought my old man was saying he was from Cuba.

  3. David L said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

    This strikes me as similar to the way that quite a few Americans (maybe predominantly midwesterners, I'm not sure) pronounce the word "mirror" in a way that sounds to me much like "mere."

  4. Ellen K. said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    First clip, it sounds like half the word Christmas. Second one I understood it just fine, "the career center". I find it fascinating that, isolated, I hear it as one syllable, but in context, I hear it as two syllables.

    [(myl) So Christmas is curse-mas for you? I never thought of it that way before — and I think I say [ˈkɹɪs.mɪs] myself — but [ˈkɚs.məs] does sound familiar.]

  5. dw said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    It sounds as if the stress of "career" has been shifted to the first syllable in the underlying representation. Then the second syllable is reduced to almost nothing.

    /kəˈrɪr/ -> /ˈkərɪr/ -> [kɚ]

    [(myl) Her earlier pronunciation sounds more like [kɹɚ], suggesting that the process is deletion of the unstressed vowel and merging of [ɹiɹ] to [ɹɚ] or [ɚ]. ]

  6. Jonathon said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    That reminds me of the episode "The Rural Juror" on 30 Rock.

  7. dw said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    @Ellen K;

    "Christmas", reallly?

    It sounded like "curse" to me.

  8. dw said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    myl: Her earlier pronunciation sounds more like [kɹɚ], suggesting that the process is deletion of the unstressed vowel and merging of [ɹiɹ] to [ɹɚ] or [ɚ].

    What's the phonetic difference between [kɹɚ] and [kɚ]?

  9. D Sky Onosson said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    To my ears it sounds like a sequence of two syllabic [ɹ] in sequence – fascinating! I wouldn't have guessed the word without the full context.

  10. John Lawler said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    I think I say [kʰɚ̘s] as the first syllable. The syllable is all voiceless and all rounded, anticipating /r/, which I round heavily, and lasting into the /s/, which is probably palatalized — it's sort of like a whistled sneeze plus /sməs/.

  11. Sili said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    I've recently seen prescriptivist whining about similar reduction in Danish. "Faktisk" (actually) is often reduced to something like "fars" (ground meat).

    [(myl) But the Danish situation seems to be more systematic and extreme, at least according to the stereotypes...]

  12. David B. said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    What I wonder is, do these types of shifts in regional dialects lead to the language eventually evolving into different distinct languages? I'm thinking of how certain languages are close enough to be mutually intelligible to a greater or lesser degree, but far enough apart to be considered distinct (Spanish and Portugese, for example, or the North Germanic languages). It's interesting to consider English itself as a proto-tongue for future linguistic diversity.

  13. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    She pronounces "police" almost like "place." I wouldn't have gotten that word if she hadn't said "law enforcement" to clarify. I lived in Columbus but didn't remember that people talked like that there.

  14. Adrian said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    I got "curse in her".

    Is she saying "I went there for career center"? Is that a common expression in the US?

  15. Josh Treleaven said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    Wreck Beach? Isn't that UBC's nudist beach?

  16. Ellen K. said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

    No, Christmas isn't Curse-mas for me. It may have to do with how other people, not me, pronounce Chris and Christmas. For whatever reason, my brains attempt to interpret the first soundbite it sound like Chris, except the S doesn't sound like end of a word (which it, of course, isn't.) At another time of year another word starting in kris- might come to mind.

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

    Out of context, I couldn't tell the relative length of the "urr" sound, so at first I was happy with "curse," whatever it meant.

    IN context, and maybe after a few hearings, I do perceive that "urr" is relatively longer than it would be for simple "cur center." I agree, the intermediate vowel is elided, but I think the extension of the "rr" can be heard and understood for what it is.

  18. maidhc said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    I think of pronouncing "mirror" as "mere" as a regionalism. But isn't pronouncing "caramel" as "carmel" almost universal in the US?

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    I'm from Central Ohio. Listening to the first clip alone, in complete isolation, I heard "curse".

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    Nope. Even being adequately familiar with US English, and being given the explanation, I can't hear it as "career centre". It's like someone in UK English saying they went to the "jossener" (for "Job Centre"). Is it regional?

  21. Martin J Ball said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

    Similar to the 'mirror – mere' "merger", I recall attending a conference on phonological acquisition in Vancouver BC some years ago. One speaker (who shall remain nameless ;) ) was talking about 'error driven' learning. I was sitting next to a couple of Scandinavian colleagues who asked me about this new theory of "air driven" learning ….

  22. svanduym said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    @Ellen K
    My partner heard the first half of Christmas too.

  23. Mark Mandel said,

    December 16, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    But still the sunken stars appear
    In dark and windless Mirrormere;
    There lies his crown in water deep,
    Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

  24. Nick said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 12:11 am

    In the first snip I also hear "curse", but in the larger phrase it sounds normal. Could you post a spectrogram of her "career center". I love massive reduction.

    [(myl) Below are a spectrogram and waveform of "The Career Center", with the word "Career" indicated by the span of the red arrow:

    ]

  25. Urs said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 2:44 am

    There is a joke in French which goes something like this: What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? The answer is: there is none, "c'est carréement la même chose", carréement is then pronounced like caïman.

  26. Adam N. said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    Funny you should bring this up. When I was really little, I understood that my dad was the head of the "kerr development" program at our local college. It wasn't until a grown-up asked me what my dad did that I realized I was a little off…the lady responded, "You mean career development?" Both my dad and I have lived in/near San Francisco all our lives.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 6:17 am

    From E. Bruce Brooks:

    You will recall the remark of Columbus speaker James Thurber. A lip reader once told him, You pronounce all words as though you were saying "king." That is, with almost no lip movement, and all the consonants tucked in back.

    Apart from pronunciations, there are unique South Ohio words, like "tody-baby," the specific term for the child in a family who is spaced much later then the cluster of earlier children (reflecting a late flicker of fertility in a woman otherwise nearing menopause). My family is like that. The years separating the four children in my family are 2, 3, and 9.

  28. Faldone said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 6:58 am

    She also says something that sounds to me like "toely ow the queshn."

    Interviewees on the radio will often mention Present Obama or Present Bush.

  29. Karl Weber said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    The "mirror" = "mere" link reminds me that I once heard a Miss America contestant–from Texas I think–recounting an anecdote on TV about being caught by a photographer just after waking up, without makeup etc., saying what sounded like, "I looked like a whore!" After recovering from my shock, I realized that "whore" was really "horror" . . .

  30. dw said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    I may be stating the obvious, but the difference between this case and the mirror-mere "merger" is that here it is the _stressed_ syllable that is reduced.

    This is so unexpected to me that I wonder whether it is restricted to the specific collocation "career center", perhaps because there is pressure for the rhythmic pattern ˘ ¯ ¯ ˘ to regularize to ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘

    Would the speaker say the word "career" like "cur" in other contexts? Would she pronounce "arrears" like "Erse"? Perhaps there is evidence on other parts of the recording.

  31. lukys said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    Reminiscent of the "purdy" pronunciation of "pretty".

  32. Mary Bull said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    @ Ellen K. I heard the first snip as "crust" — which would fit well with "Christmas," with the first vowel shifted in the manner of so many speakers in the U.S. South.

    Adding to the long chain of anecdotes in these comments, once when I was living in Kentucky a neighbor who was helping her child with his social studies homework called me to ask whether I knew who the "Sinner from Kentucky" was.

  33. Eric P Smith said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    It is sometimes said that speakers of Scottish Standard English (SSE) take more care with the phoneme /r/ than any other speakers of English world-wide. As a child in the 1950s I was well aware of this care. My family spoke SSE but we were surrounded by non-standard Scottish dialects. I had picked up 'arm' as the non-standard local [ˈa.rʌm] and was corrected to [ɑːɹm]. Then we went on vacation to the Scottish island of Arran, and my [ɑːɹn] was corrected to [ˈa.rʌn]. It is a favourite Scottish pastime to ridicule the /r/s of speakers of other British dialects (especially Southern British).

    With that background I think I am less well equipped to interpret these clips than almost any other listener. The speaker merges two /r/s into one, while in my dialect the two /r/s are not merely distinct instances: they are different allophones and they are separated by a vowel that is long and stressed: [kəˈriːɹ]. I couldn’t have heard [kɜ˞] as 'career' in a hundred years!

  34. Weathering said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    What's particularly interesting, at least to me, is how often these kind of r-r reductions lead to confusion between speakers of the same dialect. In high school I had a lengthy conversation with a friend where she was telling me about the movie "Pay It Forward". I spent most of the conversation mystified about what the movie had to do with the Ford Motor Company.

  35. marie-lucie said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    Urs: "c'est carréement la même chose", carréement is then pronounced like caïman.

    As a French speaker I was very surprised by this example. I tried to say it fast and indeed "carrément" can be made to sound very much like "caïman", although the two words pronounced deliberately sound very different. The key is to pronounce the uvular /r/ with only very very light contact

  36. Leslie said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    I watched a television show recently on cable which demonstrated an interesting phenomenon. They asked viewers to close their eyes and listen. What I heard (and accordiing to the narration, my experience was common) was a woman repeatedly saying the word "Gee" repeatedly.

    Then the narrator instructed viewers to watch the woman and it seemed like she was saying "Bee" repeatedly.

    It was revealed that they video taped the woman saying "Bee" but removed and replaced her voice with a recording of her saying "Gee". The point being that we also hear with our eyes. If you only heard her, you heard her correctly. If you saw her, you saw her saying "Bee" and it sounded like Bee even thought it was "Gee".

    [(myl) This is called the "McGurk Effect",originally documented in H. McGurk and J MacDonald, "Hearing lips and seeing voices", Nature 1976. For a relatively recent survey of the state of knowledge on this subject, see Jeremy Skipper et al., "Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices: How Cortical Areas Supporting Speech Production Mediate Audiovisual Speech Perception", Cerebral Cortex 2007.]

  37. mgh said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

    I'm afraid I'm not getting the "wreck a nice beach" joke – help?

  38. Rube said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    @mgh I'm assuming that "Why it can be hard to wreck a nice beach" = "Why it can be hard to recognize speech".

    (Run it around your mind a couple times.) ;)

  39. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 17, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

    @Sili:

    Danish phonology has been changing rapidly over the last century or so, at least if we go by the changes documented in Brink & Lund 1975. I'm particularly fond of the vocalized dental approximants, caused by the assimilation of original dental fricatives to neighboring vowels. E.g. "røde" = "red", which is underlyingly something like /ʁøð̞ə/, but which is now pronounced something like [ʁøːᶞ].

  40. Victor Mair said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    From Carol Conti-Entin, originally from Lon Gisland (whose husband, Jon, I believe, is also from those parts), but who for years has been living in the Cleveland area:

    ======

    Another thing unusual about many natives of this area is where the accents are placed:

    UMbrella

    INsurance

    PLAIN Dealer

    To Jon's annoyance, during the time that I worked in Oberlin, I picked up the habit.

  41. Kirk Hazen said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    For what it's worth, there is similar process for some speakers in neighboring Appalachia where the vowels of words like "bear" [bɛɹ] and "far" [faɹ] are completely swallowed by the following R, being rendered more like "burr" [bɹ] and "fur" [fɹ] (with syllabic bunched Rs I suspect).

    It seems to have been more common for older speakers, but some younger speakers continue with these pronunciations. It has been socially noticed for a few decades now in most areas of West Virginia, but if a word is pronounced that way for an entire community, no one internal to the community will notice it.

    [(myl) Modifications and mergers of vowels before /r/ and /l/ are common across varieties of English -- everyone does it, just in different ways and to different degrees.]

  42. mike said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    I hear "horror" pronounced this way too, a sort of HORROR-HOAR merger.

  43. Andrew Filer said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    @Rube, I recently discovered that Cayuga, North Dakota is pronounced the same way. I suspect that pronunciation may have been imported, though, as Cayuga isn't far from Brampton, ND and Guelph, ND. (Regarding its sounding like "Cuba", oddly enough, Havana, North Dakota is only two towns over.)

  44. Elizabeth Andrews said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

    In every one of the Republican debates we've heard the curtailing of a longer word, "Prezunitedstates"…. But "Career" poses an additional challenge to speakers of American English: the rolled "r" in the middle of the word followed almost immediately by another "r". In British English this is not a problem: it's much easier to say "Careah."

  45. Elizabeth Andrews said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    "Mirror" and "Horror," cited in earlier posts, are examples of the same phenomenon.

  46. Rube said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

    @Andrew Filcher:

    You know, I've got to wonder if there's a story there. Thanks.

  47. Keith said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    @Urs

    The version that I heard of this French joke is:
    "C'est quoi, la différence entre un alligator et un crocodile?"what's the difference between an alligator and a crocodile
    "j'sais pas"dunno
    "Y en a caïman pas"practically nothing

    This hinges on the pronunciation of "quasiment" where for some speakers the /s/ becomes a kind of a breathy Y-like sound.

    K.

  48. Boris said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    Funnily enough, I may produce something like this myself (though it would be closer to "crr center", the first reduced vowel can can vary) , but I absolutely couldn't get what she was saying. My guesses were "cure center" or "care center"

  49. Ellen K. said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    @Elizabeth Andrews, there are no rolled Rs in American English. Unless you mean something different by rolled Rs than I understand the term. My understanding is that only Scottish English has rolled or tapped Rs, at least as far as native speakers.

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