Plosives take over the New York Times Styles section

« previous post | next post »

Just last week, Caity Weaver was waxing rhapsodic about Kim Cattrall's alveolar plosives in the New York Times Styles section:

When Ms. Cattrall says the word “didn’t,” she respects each and every D and T.

Indeed, it could be said that alveolar plosives — the consonant sounds made by tapping the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge, just behind the teeth, as when hitting one’s D’s and T’s — are some of Ms. Cattrall’s best work. She is a careful enunciator who takes time to pronounce distinctly every element of a consonant cluster. Her diction might be described as intricate.

(More from Mark Liberman here.)

And now the plosives are back, in a Styles article by Jonah Engel Bromwich about IHOP's curious rebranding as "IHOb" (which it turns out has to do with burgers).

P and b are both bilabial plosives, meaning that your mouth does the same thing when you make the sound of both letters. The difference is that “b” is voiced, which for some people, makes it sound funny or strange coming at the end of a word.

It turns out that's actually the third time the Times Styles team has showcased plosives this month. They got mentioned back on June 2 in a roundtable discussion of Samantha Bee's notorious "feckless c*nt" remark about Ivanka Trump. Styles staff editor Bonnie Wertheim had this to say:

Let’s just acknowledge that we’re going to have an entire conversation about a word we’ve been told we cannot print. What is it about this word that so many people — including our bosses — consider unspeakable?

Bonnie Wertheim I try not to use the word, and have at times taken the “See you next Tuesday” approach of Charlotte of “Sex and the City” (and I am definitely not a Charlotte). There’s something about the sound of it that is sonically shocking — the juxtaposition of two harsh plosives in a string of so few letters. But I don’t see the big deal with spelling it out once in print.

This is surely the most pop-cultural attention that plosives have received since Ben Folds and Nick Hornby wrote the song "Saskia Hamilton" for their 2010 album Lonely Avenue and included the line "She's got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives." The following year on Language Log, I wrote about the video for the song (performed by Charlie McDonnell, aka "charlieissocoollike").

If you need a dictionary definition of plosive, it's provided in the video (the same Oxford Dictionaries definition that the Times linked to in its Samantha Bee roundtable).

Update: Via Twitter, Laurel Mackenzie informs us that she taught Caity Weaver about plosives as her TA in Mark Liberman's Intro to Linguistics class in 2007. It all comes full circle!



26 Comments »

  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    Ms. Wertheim's analysis ("the juxtaposition of two harsh plosives in a string of so few letters") is remarkably sophisticated and seems flawed only by its complete failure to explain why the taboo word in question sounds more "sonically shocking" than other words that rhyme with it and would seem to fit the same description, like "punt" or "bunt." Or are the bilabial plosives less "harsh" than the alveolar/velar ones? Well, there are a full half-dozen non-taboo two-plosive monosyllables, covering all phonetic bases, that rhyme with a well-known taboo single-plosive monosyllable, e.g. puck/tuck/cuck/buck/duck/guck*, none of which sound particularly sonically shocking to my perhaps jaded ear.

    *ok, "guck" is comparatively obscure, but it sounds cromulent to me as a dialect word meaning something vaguely unpleasant (but not shocking) in the semantic neighborhood of gunk/junk/muck.

  2. Guy said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

    I’m a little confused by the implication that any word that ends in /b/ (or any voiced consonant?) sounds funny or strange for some people. It’s not particularly unusual. The first few words that come to mind are “lab”, “bib”, “nab”, “rob”, “bob”, and “ebb”. Of course, if we allow any voiced consonant the examples are legion.

    [(myl) Indeed. The version of CMUdict on my laptop has 423 /b/-final words, compared with 1109 /p/-final words, out of 133,737 total words.]

  3. Laura Morland said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

    @Guy —

    To flesh out your list:
    "fob" (that thingamajig on your key chain); and
    "hob," which is not only the electric burner on your stove, but happens to be the very phoneme in question.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

    Final /b g/ are actually pretty rare in English for historical reasons, and are most common in what were once nicknames (frog, dog, likely pig) or still are (Bob, Rob, arguably lab). Pretty much the same holds for all of Germanic except High German.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    "IHOP" may sound less weird than "IHOB" not only because of familiarity but because "hop" is a much more common word in current English than "hob." But "hob-nob" is easy enough to pronounce whereas "hop-nop" sounds a bit weird due to lack of familiarity – and of course "knob" is a common word whereas "knop" is so rare in English as to probably be the subject of heated debates about whether you can use it in scrabble.

  6. Viseguy said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 7:19 pm

    As it happens, "knop" is a valid Scrabble word according to both the internationally used SOWPODS dictionary and the more restrictive TWL (Tournament Word List) used in North America.

  7. phspaelti said,

    June 11, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

    To call "final /b g/" " actually pretty rare in English" is to adopt a very loose definition of "pretty rare". They are less common than there voiceless counterparts, but any native speaker can quickly list dozens of examples.

  8. Daniel Barkalow said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 12:39 am

    I can't help but notice that there's a common, inoffensive, and unsurprising English word with the exact same collection of consonants in the same order as in the word Bonnie Wertheim finds so sonically shocking. On the other hand, I'd believe that the plosives give you more opportunity to have sudden volume changes around the word if you want.

  9. poftim said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 12:45 am

    phspaelti,

    Yes, there are quite a few common final /b/ and /g/ words. Multisyllable examples really are rare though, especially if you exclude compound words like "doorknob" and "handbag".

  10. cameron said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 12:52 am

    What Bonnie Wertheim meant to say was that the word in question is a "dreadful tinny sort of word".

  11. Chris.D said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 5:40 am

    WRT the rarity / oddity of final voiced plosives, is it possible that the oddity arises from the appearance of voiced plosive on an unstressed syllable? All the counter examples have stress, I think.

  12. David Lindley said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 7:05 am

    With regard to stress pattern, I happened to see a story in the NYT about the baobab trees of Africa, which I pronounce with three syllables, stress on the first. It doesn't seem all that hard to say, unlike IHOB, which is a very silly word indeed. On purely sonic qualities, I would place it closer to the woody end of the wood-tin spectrum, however.

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 7:31 am

    Chris D.
    Rhubarb has unstressed final ‘b’ (at least for me).

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 8:39 am

    Today's Wall St. Journal has an interesting (paywalled alas) story headlined "Some People Don't Know What the P Means in IHOP, Let Alone the I, H and O," which is news to me because I (and perhaps corporate management!) had assumed it was a fairly transparent initialism. But I'm not sure how semantic transparency does or doesn't relate to how "natural" the pronunciation of either IHOP or the temporary IHOB variant (which, per another WSJ story, has apparently caused an increase in the stock price of the parent corporation) seems to an Anglophone ear.

  15. Anthony said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    Rehab (a shortening of a longer word of course)

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 9:20 am

    I have absolutely no idea what either IHOP or IHOB mean. And I very much suspect that I am not alone.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 11:41 am

    OK, the update in the original post really needs to be highlighted rather than left to the end, because "N.Y. Times employs writer who actually took at least one real linguistics class while in college" seems like the man-bites-dog story here. (Also, I don't know how it works or worked at Penn, but when I was in college, only classes above a certain enrollment threshold had TA's in addition to the professor and while I'm not sure exactly what the magic number was at that university in those days, it was definitely more than any linguistics dep't classes, including the basic intro one, ever achieved. So if I'm correctly inferring that now-Dr. McKenzie got the gig as Mark Liberman's TA because he managed to attract a considerable number of interested undergrads to the class, congratulations all around!)

  18. cervantes said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

    Interestingly, "conyo" which is synonymous with the dread C word, is only a fairly mild oath in Puerto Rico, whereas carajo, which literally means crows nest but is a euphemism for hell, is rather strong. In English, calling somebody a dick or a prick (or in Yiddish a schmuck or a putz) is rude but not appalling. When we would call somebody an asshole, Spanish speakers will say "pendejo" which means pubic hair, which would seem odd as an insult in English but not really vulgar. But none of this has anything to do with prosody, I'm quite sure.

  19. Robot Therapist said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

    Final "b" as funny: see for example Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder saying "Bob".

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOdfNwD9cEA

  20. Robert Davis said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    As for words that rhyme with " a well known mono-syllable plosive " comedian Don Rickles turned " you hockey puck" into an insult.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

    I was perhaps unconsciously parochial and Northamericacentric in my earlier comment on the WSJ article. I do not find it surprising that folks like Philip Taylor, who seems to reside in Cornwall, would be generally unfamiliar with IHOP; what was surprising to me (and was covered by the article) was AmEng speakers who were familiar with, and indeed actual customers of, the chain in question but didn't know what the initialism represented. A press release last year indicated that IHOP was considering expanding into the UK, but as of right now I suspect their closest location to Cornwall is still probably in Nova Scotia.

  22. Dave said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

    Forsooth, cervantes, these country matters seem much ado about nothing.

  23. Troy S. said,

    June 12, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

    IHOB just sounds like you're trying to say IHOP with a stuffy nose.
    "I'm sick. Let's go get some bancakes at the IHOB."

  24. Dougal Stanton said,

    June 13, 2018 @ 5:32 am

    @Dave, country matters … like Kent?

  25. David Marjanović said,

    June 17, 2018 @ 6:17 am

    I didn't know it either, but of course Wikipedia has an article on the Supposedly International House of Pancakes. IHOb is explained in the "Marketing" section as having graphically flipped the pancakes over!

  26. SP Sharma said,

    June 18, 2018 @ 7:06 am

    Thanks David Marjanović & Ben Zimmer, After reading this article, Also read IHOP wiki.

    SP Sharma
    From India
    Master (MCA) from JNTUH
    Work for https://www.sitaphal.com/about-us

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment