One-syllable differences

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What the hell kind of language has a one-syllable difference between "Gracious welcome to our honored guests" and "Your king ingests every possible secretion from all the mammals of our world"?

Seldom in the history of intergalactic travel have there been worse translation screw-ups. But I've been thinking…

People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Is our nose clean? Are distinct meanings in our Earth languages always correlated with readily perceptible phonetic realizations?

What's the worst and most embarrassing one-syllable difference between any two utterances in one language on our own planet? It's a question that almost tempts me to leave an open space below for readers to make suggestions. Perhaps I will. Or will I? I don't know… Aww, what the heck.

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121 Comments »

  1. EndlessWaves said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 5:30 am

    Racked by indecision
    to
    Racked by Inquisition

  2. Margaret S. said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 5:42 am

    Perhaps not the worst, but “quite few” and “quite a few” are nearly opposite.
    Another one is that the pronunciation difference between (for instance) “can tell“ and “can’t tell” is much more in the vowel of “can” than the “t“, which tends to trip up non-native English speakers who haven’t realized that, and make their “can tell” sound like “can’t tell” to native speakers.

  3. Isoraķatheð Zorethan said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 5:46 am

    It reminds me of a Japanese comedy sketch by Jinnai Tonomori that demonstrates that the difference between "Soba ni Iru ne | I'm by Your Side = そばにいるね" (the name of a song) and "I am at the soba store = そば屋にいるね" (which is exactly what it sounds like) is one insertion of "ya 屋|や".

  4. Faldone said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:01 am

    When you toss in pronunciation by a non-native speaker you can get all kinds of good stuff. The outgoing phone message of a Spanish speaking friend sounded like "We can come to the phone right now." Obviously what was intended was "We can't come to the phone right now," but the Spanish tendency to elide final consonants made it sound like they could come to the phone but couldn't be bothered. The other way around, asking someone in Italian how old they are with out the gemination differentiating ani and anni could easily sound like you were asking how many anuses they had.

  5. Doreen said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:02 am

    The inclusion or omission of the single-syllable word not can have a pretty dramatic effect on the meaning of an utterance in English.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_Bible

  6. Nathaniel Mishkin said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    For some reason I often mistype "now" for "not" (or vice versa) in email resulting in some pretty undesirable effects, e.g., "this is now what we need" vs. "this is not what we need".

  7. Andrew said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:31 am

    svieZHO priDaniye, a-VIErittsa s-truDOM ("the story is cool but it's hard to believe", a catchphrase from Griboyedov's WOE FROM WIT) has a three-sound difference from svieZHO piTAniye, a-SIErittsa s-truDOM ("the food is fresh but it's hard to take a crap"). VIErittsa (you can believe) differs from SIErittsa (you feel like doing a crap) in less than one syllable.

  8. Walter said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:56 am

    In Swedish, ordering "pytt i panna" in a restaurant is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Asking for "pitt i panna" is aking for a penis in a pan.

  9. Rod Johnson said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    I think mondegreens make a good case for the importance of zero-syllable differences (viz. "Scuse me while I kiss the sky" vs. "Scuse me while I kiss this guy").

  10. Chris said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:12 am

    I know at least one person who has mistakenly uttered「こわい!」(kowai; "It's scary!") when they meant「かわいい!」(kawaii; "It's cute!").

  11. Janne said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    In Swedish, "Röker du?" means "Do you smoke?" while "Runkar du?" means "Do you masturbate?" (though not nearly so clinical or polite). I was told by a foreign student that this was a very bad question to get wrong on a first date with a native Swedish girl.

  12. Mark Etherton said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    Alphonse Allais' holorimes showed that you don't even need to change one syllable to have different meanings. For example:

    « Par les bois du djinn où s'entasse de l'effroi,
    Parle et bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid. »

    or

    « Alphonse Allais de l'âme erre et se fout à l'eau.
    Ah ! l'fond salé de la mer ! Hé ! Ce fou ! Hallo. »

  13. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    @Faldone – And then there's the tilde-less New Year's greeting in Spanish, which translates to "Happy New Asshole." (Feliz nuevo ano.)

  14. Sili said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:33 am

    There's the racist old joke about the guy who wanna shit in his bed and fuck on his table.

  15. Philip Cummings said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    In the Irish language, the introduction of one diacritic mark can make all the difference:
    ar mhuin na muice = on the pig's back; prospering
    ar mhúin na muice = on the pig's urine; not such a good state of affairs

  16. Mar Rojo said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    There a hairdresser's in Spain named "My Cut!", which is a play on the Spanish English speaker's way of saying "My God!". Self-mockery at work.

  17. Philip Cummings said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    Correction:
    the second phrase should be
    ar mhún na muice
    so it is the introduction of one diacritic mark and the deletion of one vowel that makes the difference.

  18. Bluelooom said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:24 am

    @Sili

    Or there's the fine old joke that plays off the Yiddish accent in English:

    "Please hand me a piss of paper." When told that this was open to misinterpretation, it was changed to: "Please hand me a shit of paper."

  19. Hao Xuan said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    How about a difference in tone on one syllable? Mandarin “你脸好像大变” "your face seems to have changed a lot" VS. “你脸好像大便” "Your face really looks like poo."

  20. chris y said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    Back in the day when memos were typed by typists, my father dictated a note suggesting that his organisation could use some new displays in their main window. This duly came back for checking as "We should consider putting some nudist plays in the main window."

  21. Alex said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:52 am

    Speaking of one-syllable differences in meaning that aren't transparent to non-native speakers… What's with "the proceeds" in the second panel? I thought "proceeds" meant profit, while "proceedings" meant activities conducted on a particular occasion.

  22. James said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    "If you can't ask him"

    "F you, c*** a** Kim!"

    I imagine that prosody would generally disambiguate between these alternatives in every day speech.

  23. fred said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    There was a time when the difference between declaring oneself either "homoousian" or "homoiousian" might have been terribly important.

  24. Tomasz said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    In Korean:
    커피 (coffee – pronounced "copy")
    코피 (bloody nose – pronounced "coh-py")

    I taught English in Korea and was trying to learn the language. I didn't appreciate the difference between the phonemes ㅓ ("aw") and ㅗ ("oh") until I tried to describe my breakfast. My coworkers seemed to think I was in the habit of getting into punch-ups before breakfast. 미친 외국인!

  25. K said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    When I lived in Japan, I used to take inordinate pleasure in the confusion that "election" and "erection" could cause.

  26. Will said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    In French the word "plus" can mean "more" or "no more".

    "J'en veux plus" can mean I want more or I don't want amymore depending on whether plus is pronounced plu or pluss.

  27. Giles said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    My teacher at school used to explain the difference between the two "oo" sounds in French by saying that a "coup de grace" was putting someone out of their misery, while a "cul de grace" was a nice backside.

    (PS. for non-French speakers — the last letter of the first word in both cases is ignored so the only difference is in the "oo" sound.)

    (PPS. and of course my classmates maintained that both phrases meant "a lawnmower".)

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    Margaret S.: For almost all Americans and Canadians, I believe, "can" and "can't" have the same vowel, and it's not uncommon to have to ask people which they said.

    The most interesting ones of these are the ones where the meaning of more than one word changes, such as those passed on by Isoraķatheð Zorethan and Mark Etherton.

    My favorite sf story dealing with these issues is "The Translator" by Kim Stanley Robinson. Some of you EXPLOITIVE TERCHEOROSE TERRESTRIAL BIPEDS AGGRESSIVE NONCHERODERMATOID BIPEDS (sorry, something seems to have gone wrong with my keyboard) might enjoy it.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    Footnote before someone corrects me: The comic also reminded me of "Selectra Six-Ten" by Avram Davidson.

  30. Laurence said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    In Spanish, "cajones" = drawers, "cojones" = testicles. Be careful to use the correct one when asking your elderly Spanish mother-in-law which drawers are for the washed cutlery…

  31. D.O. said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    You don't need even difference in one syllable. There is a famous Russian phrase "казнить нельзя помиловать", which which can be interpreted as either "казнить, нельзя помиловать" ("execute, not possible to show mercy") or "казнить нельзя, помиловать" (not possible to execute, show mercy"). The little phrase itself sounds a bit artificial, but it's completely grammatical. I am guessing there should be analogous English example, but if not, English is still quite capable of producing ambiguous noun piles.

  32. Bob Ladd said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    The current KLM airline magazine has a reminiscence by a Scottish staff writer about adapting to life in the Netherlands. He reports going into a shop for strawberries and instead of asking the shopkeeper Heeft U aardbeien? ('Have you got strawberries?') he said Heeft U aambeien? ('Have you got haemorrhoids?'). This clearly meets GKP's one-syllable criterion.

  33. JC said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    "This coffee is shit." – This is the worst coffee ever.
    "This coffee is the shit." – This is the best coffee ever.

  34. flow said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:44 am

    in german:

    extasy (the drug) vs ex-stasi (former member of east german national security agency).

  35. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:46 am

    I read a short story not so long ago (I can't remember the details) with a space pilot arriving on a planet known for its eager inhabitants. He requests a "hot steak"… only to be burned at the stake by the eager to help, but orthographically inept locals.

  36. Christian F. said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:07 am

    Not an extra syllable but a shift in context: there's a Demetri Martin joke that goes, "'I'm sorry' and 'I apologize' mean the same thing, except at a funeral."

  37. Alyssa P said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    I've heard plenty of non-native English speakers (mostly French, though that's just because those are whom I've most often spoken to) refer to "penis cartoons." What they mean, of course, is "Peanuts cartoons."

  38. Steve said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    There's the joke about the very religious, Catholic woman who oversleeps one Sunday, rushes to church, and trips, leading to a violent spill. She asks a nearby boy, "Is Mass out?" He replies, "No, but your hat is on crooked."

  39. KathrynM said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    And then there are the many English words which have distinct, opposite, meanings, so that "His conduct was sanctioned" can mean either that it was tolerated or that it resulted in a penalty, and "She enjoined his attendance" could mean either that she insisted he attend, or that she insisted he stay away.

  40. PaulH said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:44 am

    My wife once told me "The spread has whey in it," which I misheard as "This bread has whey in it." I've heard that this sort of thing is much more common in French than in English.

  41. lee said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:55 am

    Not a problem in speaking, but the ever present fear of typing "regards" as "retards" has me ending all formal emails with "sincerely".

  42. Clark said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    Be careful when ordering anything mango-flavored in Japanese. (make sure that "g" is well-voiced and doesn't become a "k")

    "Mango aisu ni shimasu" – "I'll have the mango ice cream"
    "Manko aisu ni shimasu" – "I'll have vagina ice cream"

  43. Elise said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

    There's the very slight difference between "the murmuring of innumerable bees" and "the murdering of innumerable beeves."

  44. andrew said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

    The beginning of Pindar's first Olympian Ode: ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ. "Water is best" if you pronounce the first vowel short; "water is breakfast" if long.

  45. David said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

    Finnish!
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/naida#Finnish

    Nain eilen Annan.
    I married Anna yesterday.

    Nain eilen Annaa.
    I fucked Anna yesterday.

  46. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    The American cyclist Nancy Neiman Baranet went to France to race in the mid-1950s, when there were no other American cylists on the international racing scene. She kept trying to tell French cyclists that she was the American champion, but she thought "champignon" was the French for "champion." After a while, she discovered that she had been introducing herself as the American mushroom.

  47. tuncay said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    In Turkish, you can create examples where you don't even need to change a syllable, possibly not even the intonation during daily speech.

    Anana saldırdım = I assaulted your mother.
    Ananas aldırdım = I made someone buy pineapples.

    is a popular example among primary school kids.

    I think other languages that display vowel harmony must have examples like this.

  48. Aaron Toivo said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    @tuncay, I think of all the examples thus far, yours fits best with the original comic – because the two sentences are not just opposites or distortions of each other, but almost wholly unrelated in meaning and even structure.

    It appears quite similar in nature to the classic "Mairzy dotes and dozey dotes …" in English, except that instead of nonsense the transformation produces a valid sentence that someone could conceivably actually say. I quite like that.

  49. David Morris said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

    @ D.O. – I have read the Russian example translated as: 'Pardon impossible; to be sent to Siberia' and 'Pardon; impossible to be sent to Siberia'.

    As well as the complete change of meaning brought about by 'not' there is also the option of using the word 'now' in the same place of the sentence.

  50. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    One time at a workplace shared by myself, another person from Ireland, and a Jewish New Yorker, the latter, having waited a long time, finally asked us how the phrase "fair Jews" had made its way into acceptable Irish English usage.

  51. Yakusa Cobb said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    Er, Geoff: I think you ought to close close comments now. Unless your real aim was to examine how unfunny 'linguistic' jokes can be…

  52. Adrian said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    The first thing this reminded me of the unfortunate confusion between "as f*ck" and "assf*ck" http://idlish.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/stupid-asfck.html

  53. Tom said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

    A recent example:

    http://hypervocal.com/politics/2013/pfeiffer-racist-typo/

  54. Ellen K. said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

    Jerry Friedman, I'm American with a reasonably standard dialect, and I agree with Margaret S.

    "Can" and "can't" do have the same vowel when pronounced alone (citation form) or when emphasized. But they do not in standard usage. "Can" has a reduced vowel, whereas "can't" does not have a reduced vowel and retains the æ.

    Wiktionary also agrees. It shows /kən/, /kn̩/, /kɪn/ for unstressed "can". /kæn/ is only for stressed usage.

  55. Ben K said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    My cousin visited Germany after a few years of high school German. Her pronunciation of "hänchen" (chicken)—something she regularly wanted to have for dinner—was often mistaken for "hündchen" (puppies).

  56. Brett said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

    I recall a French class where we were learning body parts, trips to the pharmacy, etc. One young woman elicited giggles when instead of saying

    "J'ai mal au cou" (I have a sore throat)

    she produced
    "J'ai mal au cul" (I have a sore arse)

  57. David Morris said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

    One student's cluster reduction turned 'I ate McDonald's for breakfast' into 'I ate Madonna for breakfast'.

  58. markonsea said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

    All those comments, and no one has mentioned schwul/schwül in German!

    Berlin war heute schwül wie noch nie – Berlin was more muggy/sultry/sticky/close today than ever

    Berlin war heute schwul wie noch nie – Berlin was gayer today than ever (that's in the modern-day sense of the word "gay")

    English-speakers, esepcially, have great difficulty in not pronouncing an "ü" as an "u" …

  59. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

    Brett: "J'ai mal au cou" (I have a sore throat)

    Just to be picky since it does not affect your story:

    The French sentence means 'I have a sore neck' or 'My neck aches'.

    'I have a sore throat' is J'ai mal à la gorge.

  60. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

    chris y: new displays = nudist plays

    This misunderstanding could occur with a difference of dialect. North Americans pronounce new and nu- the same way, like "noo". I am not sure of the British pronunciation of nudist, but British new has a diphthong as in "nyoo". Was this a case of an American boss dictating to a British (or at least not North American) typist?

  61. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

    All these years and I did not know there was actually any phonological distinction between schwul and schwül (I think I thought the sexual sense also had an umlaut). But their etymologies do seem to be historically muddled together and I had always had the impression that the sexual sense was merely an extended sense of "humid" (maybe "sultry" sounds better?) which is neither a more or less plausible metaphor than that embedded in the extended sense of "gay" in English.

  62. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    Giles: a "coup de grace" was putting someone out of their misery, while a "cul de grace" was a nice backside.

    I wouldn't advise anyone to use the second phrase in speaking French, whatever the circumstances. It doesn't sound like a French phrase at all, only an attempt by the English teacher to make students aware of the importance of distinguishing French ou and u.

    The last word in both cases is grâce, although some speakers no longer make a distinction between a and â. As pronounced traditionally (by me for instance), the French word sounds very similar to British grass.

  63. Janne said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    If we get into jokes, how about the sad story of the dyslectic devil-worshipper that sold his soul to Santa?

  64. William Steed said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

    One I've experienced (which is a UK/Australian English thing, not US) is the difference between "No, you can't", and "No, you c**t" (even with the same intonation). Essentially, they're the same message, but with a very large difference in tone and severity.

    I think it's harder to come up with examples where a single segment's change changes the interpretation of more than one word. English and Mandarin Chinese both have several very awkward minimal pairs based on suprasegmental qualities (e.g. vowel quantity or tone), but they do not necessarily change the structure and meaning of a whole sentence.

  65. Matt said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    Will Ferguson had a nice anecdote about how he terrified some primary school children in Japan by accidentally telling them that he loved snacking on raw humans (ningen 人間), meaning of course carrots (ninjin 人参).

  66. David Morris said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

    There's a recurring story about the Mother Abbess's pronunciation in The Sound of Music, that instead of asking Maria 'What is it you can't face?, she (deliberately or accidentally) says 'What is it, you c***-face?'. The last time it was on Australian tv I listened very carefully. The abbess is played by a very proper English actress, who very distinctly says 'can't face' (with an English 'ah' sound for 'can't'.).
    But there was an episode of Will and Grace where they go off to a 'Singalong Sound of Music' and when someone says that line (in an American accent) the audience laughed heartily.

  67. TR said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    P.G. Wodehouse wrote a poem about the opposite error to Nathaniel Mishkin's above.

  68. Eric P Smith said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

    @marie-lucie: 'nudist' is /ˈnjuːdɪst/ throughout the UK.

  69. marie-lucie said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    Thanks Eric. My tentative explanation doesn't stand then.

  70. Lazar said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

    @Ellen K.: Yeah, in regular speech "can" usually has a schwa or syllabic [n], rather than the full vowel of "can't". But nonetheless it can be confusing when "can" is emphasized, especially given the North American tendency to reduce [nt] before a vowel. In my own speech, I can conceive of "I *can* accomplish it!" and "I can't accopmlish it" sounding borderline identical.

  71. Lazar said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

    Oh, and another can of worms is the fact that when Ancient Greek takes a modern pronunciation, "ἡμεῖς" ("we") and "ὑμεῖς" ("you" pl.) and their respective forms become identical. I've often been tempted to learn modern-accented Classical Greek ("I won't have to bother with all that troublesome Attic phonology!") but when I think of those pronouns I just can't justify it to myself.

  72. PeterL said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 1:47 am

    Various examples of adding/removing a comma (I suppose a pause is a kind of syllable) at http://www.snopes.com/language/mistakes/noprice.asp

  73. Matt_M said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 1:53 am

    @Marie-lucie and Eric:

    In Australian English, "new" is /nju:/ but "nudist" is usually /ˈnu:dəst/. So maybe the typist was Australian?

  74. Adam Funk said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 3:32 am

    Mark Etherton's French holorimes reminded me of this anecdote.

    Supposedly a UN interpreter once rendered "L'Afrique n'érige plus des autels aux dieux" (Africa no longer builds altars to the gods) as "Africa no longer builds horrible hotels" (des hôtels odieux).

  75. the other Mark P said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 3:41 am

    When introducing the aliens, a confusion between:

    Let the aliens eat, Grandma!

    and

    Let the aliens eat Grandma!

    could cause a bit of a stink.

  76. Peter Harvey said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 3:51 am

    “Ducking for apples – change one letter and it's the story of my life.”

    Dorothy Parker

  77. Roderick said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 4:02 am

    This reminds me of a line in the old Peter Sellers and Goldie Hall film "There's a Girl in my Soup." The newly-weds are checking into a French hotel, and when the desk clerk hands over the room-key he declares: "I wish you a penis!" (I wish you 'appiness!)

  78. Tim Silverman said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 4:30 am

    The Two Ronnies' Four Candles sketch seems relevant to the thread.

  79. chris y said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 5:26 am

    Marie-lucie, Eric, Matt: it was a British boss dictating to (I think) an East African Asian (Indian) typist. She would have had a strong accent, but wouldn't have spoken full-on Indlish, which hadn't yet finished emerging.

  80. Bjorn said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    One of my all-time favourites: a French-Canadian friend (Jean-Luc), at a dinner where he was introduced to his Brazilian fiancée's family, was talking about himself to his fiancée's grandmother, and wanted to express that he's a sober, responsible person who doesn't waste money. Wanting also to show off his knowledge of idiom, he decided to say "Eu sou pão duro," lit. "I am hard bread," but idiomatically "I'm frugal".

    Instead, he said "Eu sou pau duro," lit. "I am hard wood," but idiomatically "I am hard cock."

    The grandmother patted him on the arm and said, "That's nice, dear, that's very important," and the whole table erupted in laughter, while Jean-Luc sat there extremely confused until someone let him in on the joke.

  81. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 8:35 am

    1° Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard.
    2° Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard.

    The first is supposed to mean "The letters written in white on the sides of the old billiard table." The second is "the letters (missives) written by a white man about the gangs of an old pillager." From a novel by Raymond Roussel.

  82. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    Ellen K.: You're right—I should have restricted my comment to situations where "can" is emphasized. But Lazar is right to say that "can" is sometimes emphasized in ordinary speech. I've definitely asked people and heard people ask whether the word just spoken was "can" or "can't".

  83. Peter Taylor said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    @marie-lucie, there are two British pronunciations of grass due to the trap-bath split. The one which sounds like grâce is the northern one.

  84. RP said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    @Peter Taylor, If you are right that "grâce" has the "a" of northern British "grass" then I am confused as to why Marie-Lucie referred to the British pronunciation at all, since northern British "grass" is pronounced more or less like General American "grass" (with the "a" of "cat"), whereas it is southern British "grass" that is pronounced distinctively (with the "a" of "father").

  85. AndrewM said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    Methods of payment:

    per annum
    per anum

  86. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    Classic Hungarian example:

    "Egészségedre!" "Cheers"
    "Egészseggedre!" "To your whole arse!"

  87. Milan said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

    This can be done fairly with the help of addresses in English (and German, and probably most other languages that lack a proper vocative) In writing, those difference come down punctuation and in speech to prosody:
    "Come on, let's eat, Grandpa!" versus "Come on, let's eat Grandpa!"

  88. Ken Brown said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

    Last night a BBC TV presenter told me that "all workers" in Algeria were attacked last year. It took me a few seconds to process that as "oil workers".

    The mishearing might have been a plausible meaning from, say, a trade unionist.

  89. glenf said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

    Finnish again, but this time the noun cases match:

    Minä tapan sinut huomenna = I will kill you tomorrow
    Minä tapaan sinut huomenna = I will meet you tomorrow

  90. Chris said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    I heard one about a guy in Japan who got slapped for making a comment about a girl's ass (ketsu) when he meant to comment on her shoes (kutsu).

    There's also the one all first year students are warned about: the difference between byôin (hospital) and biyôin (beauty parlor).

  91. Nicholas FitzGerald said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    Reminds me of this great news clip of an Australian man who's rental ad was mistakenly transcribed as "No Asians", when he had really said "No Agents": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YM9Ereg2Zo

  92. Lazar said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

    @Peter Taylor, RP: There are two ways to pronounce "grâce" in French, depending on whether you distinguish /ɑ/ from /a/. The merged pronunciation sounds like NBE "grass"; the distinguishing pronunciation (which Marie-Lucie was talking about) sounds like SBE "grass".

    (Also, NBE and AmEng "grass" don't sound the same. They use the same phoneme, but the NBE realization is central, and the AmEng one is usually front.)

  93. marie-lucie said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

    Peter Taylor, RP: "British" grass: I first learned English in its British variety but do not often hear it nowadays (I live in Eastern Canada). I was not aware that there was a difference between Northern and Southern British English in the pronunciation of grass. but you two do not seem to agree about which one is which. I meant the pronunciation that is unlike the North American one.

    Adam Funk: … des autels aux dieux" (altars to the gods) as "… horrible hotels" (des hôtels odieux).

    In Standard French aux dieux has a higher vowel [o] in aux than the in first o in odieux. In my own pronunciation, the vowel of the latter is not quite as high, although not as low as [ᴐ], but an intermediate vowel. Another difference is that there could be a liaison between hôtels and odieux, giving the sentence a formal tome, while a liaison between autels and aux dieux would sound unnecessarily and even hypercorrectively pedantic.

    Odieux is 'hateful' rather than 'horrible', which would refer mostly or only to the physical appearance of the hotels. Instead, it refers mostly to the feelings aroused in the inhabitants from seeing those large, alien stuctures, catering to rich foreigners, being built on their soil and along their shores.

  94. Ken said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    Most of the comments usenear-homophones, but I didn't read the cartoon as requiring that. "Thank you" and "F*ck you" are only one syllable apart.

  95. Mark Mandel said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    Well, this is fun! Doubly so because I know Rob Balder: he's a filker as well as being the creator of PartiallyClips. I've posted a link to this page as a comment on this strip.

    @Alex, a reader at the website caught that ("proceed*(ing)s"), and Rob is embarrassed and says he'll fix it.

    But, ¡Geoff! A pair of alveolar affricative clicks and a slap on the wrist to you for not linking to the source of that comic! It's at http://partiallyclips.com/2013/10/07/space-construction/.

  96. bob said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 12:01 am

    Swahili
    Naomba bahasha = I would like an envelope.
    Naomba basha = I would like someone to sodomize me.

    Basha is slang for the giver in a male homosexual encounter.

  97. Matt Pearson said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 12:51 am

    "They are still clinging to long-standing fallacies."
    "They are still clinging to long-standing phalluses."

  98. Jane C said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 3:17 am

    It's worth repeating that most of these differences are very easily disambiguated with prosody. Sounds aren't produced in a vacuum.

  99. DEP said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    Big headline in our local paper after a fire killed 6,040 chickens.
    The reality was six sows and 40 chickens.

  100. RP said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    @Eric P Smith, How can you feel confident than "nudist" has /j/ throughout the UK? http://orb.essex.ac.uk/lg/lg232/CockneyVsEstEng.htm mentions that /j/ is often dropped by Cockneys in words such as "new" (and I have sometimes heard this).

  101. jan said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Easily confused words:
    http://www.rinkworks.com/words/confused.shtml

    Words which serve as their own antonyms:
    http://www.rinkworks.com/words/contronyms.shtml

    Heteronyms;
    http://www.rinkworks.com/words/heteronyms.shtml

    When did people start using "okay" to mean ten different things? It can mean either, yes, maybe, no, later, etc.

  102. Lars Clausen said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    My only remnant of 6 weeks of Japanese 101 is this pun, which seems to fit the original intent better than most comments:

    If you say "Ima nanji des ka", you're asking what time it is. But swap two vowels and you get "Ima ninja des ka" — 'Am I a ninja right now?'

  103. John Ch said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

    Another Finnish example I've heard is an old joke about a waitress telling the guy in the kitchen "Some tourists want an order of hedgehog", and they guy saying "We're out of hedgehog. Give them some herring; they won't know the difference. Sometimes the joke is continued: she does, and they don't.

    This is based on a common mispronunciation – especially by English speakers – of "silli" (herring), lengthening the stressed first syllable and ignoring the length of the /l/, giving "siili" (hedgehog).

    Dunno whether this is a 1- or 2-syllable example.

  104. Stephen Self said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    I once made this mistake in Finnish: kuusi=six; kusi=shit. Oops!

  105. Gene in L.A. said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    Jan, when does "okay" mean "no"? While I can see the context possibly giving "okay" those other meanings, I can't imagine anyone saying it to mean "no."

  106. Q. Pheevr said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

    I agree with Aaron Toivo that tuncay's example comes closest to the spirit of the comic in the degree of dissimilarity between the two meanings.

    Of course, it's possible to play up the dissimilarity in translation or paraphrase by explicitly filling in things that might be pragmatically implicit in the original. If I say that I know a language where there's a very small phonetic difference between "Yes, let's assassinate the King of the Eggs!" and "What an awful thought," that sounds pretty impressive. But if it turns out that I'm just talking about the rather fragmentary utterances egg regicide—yeah and egregious idea, that's kind of disappointing. So it would be interesting (in the sense of "would completely destroy the joke through overanalysis") to know what the actual Gleegian utterances at issue are.

  107. jan said,

    October 11, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    Gene in L.A. :

    High School:
    Would you like to go to the dance with me?
    No, that's okay.
    or,
    That's okay, somebody else already asked me.

    Rite Aid:
    Customer: I'm paying with a credit card."
    Cashier: Would you like Rite Aid's discount card?
    Customer: That's okay, we don't have a Rite Aid near where I live.

    A restaurant:
    Waitress: More coffee?
    Customer: That's okay, I've had enough.

  108. Q. Pheevr said,

    October 11, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    Jan: I don't think I would describe that as using okay to mean 'no'. In the examples you give, it's the whole "that's okay" that means something like 'no, thank you' (specifically in declining an offer).* Other expressions with approximately the same literal meaning as "that's okay" can be substituted here (e.g., "it's all right"), but I don't think it's possible to omit the that's and still have the okay by itself mean 'no':

    Q: Would you like a Rite Aid discount card?
    A: #Okay, we don't have a Rite Aid near where I live.

    *In fact, the high-school dance example sounds very odd to me unless I imagine a context in which the invitation is understood by both parties to be being extended as a favour rather than as a request.

  109. michael said,

    October 11, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    As my teen aged son in America explains, "Okay" is yes, and "It's Okay" means no.

  110. Michael Briggs said,

    October 11, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

    In the dialect of my home county (Norfolk) both 'new' and 'nudist' are yod-less.

  111. John Chew said,

    October 11, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    My linguist dad fondly remembers the worst student to study Japanese at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo under his watch as being the one who never got the hang of pitch or vowel length, and therefore persisted in introducing himself as マッカーサー元帥の肛門 rather than マッカーサー元帥の顧問. Not "Gen. MacArthur's advisor" but "Gen. MacArthur's anus". "komon" with high initial pitch and short initial vowel: advisor; with flat pitch and long initial vowel: advisor (or school entrance, depending on context).

  112. tuncay said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 4:26 am

    @Aaron Toivo, @Q. Pheevr : not to blow my own horn here, but I did expect examples from other languages in this spirit as well but none are to be found yet. It must be easy to find similar sounding but irrelevant things in any language, after all our voice box is only so capable; so I wasn't intrigued by all these examples.

    In an unrelated but similar flavor of this problem, the Turkish dotless-i (ı) is normally approximated with i in a Western keyboard, which results in things like:
    - sıkıldım (I am bored)
    - sikildim (I was f$!#ed)

    Hopefully one can tell the correct meaning from context.

  113. reader_not_academe said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 4:35 am

    i just misheard this in a janet yellen speech. i wonder if this counts as a one-syllable difference, what with the different intonation pattern involved.

    numerical / new miracle

    too bad. i suddenly got terribly excited to learn about the central bank's new miracle values.

  114. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    I once left a pair of gloves in a Bucharest internet cafe, came back and instead of saying

    Mi-am pierdut două mănuși negre

    said

    Mi-am pierdut două mătuși negre

    …which means 'I have lost my two black aunts'. The staff watched me in some bemusement as I then got on my knees and crawled round looking under tables.

  115. Adam Trotter said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

    On a tour of France many years ago, I wanted to buy my parents a book showing the glories of the local cathedral. But my French 'r's were not so good. I meant to say to the very nice old ladies in the bookstore:
    "Je voudrais un livre de Chartres." [I'd like a book about Chartres.]
    but I said:
    "Je voudrais un livre de chattes." [I'd like a book of pussy.]
    They tried their best, with some sexy photography books, but I think they nearly fainted when I said "Non, chattes! L'eglise!" If they'd had a book of nun-porn, I'm sure they would have brought it to me.

  116. TonyK said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    That'll teach you to open comments, Geoffrey!

  117. Mark Stephenson said,

    October 12, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

    I've sometimes wondered how French speech conveys enough information for comprehension, given the multiple homophones:

    sens, sent, cent, sans, sang(?)
    ver, vers (towards or worms), vert, verre

  118. jan said,

    October 14, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    Retail customers do use "okay", "that's okay", "It's okay", to mean either yes or no. And it was annoying in high school, too.

    Okay can also mean several other things, like giving up, exasperation, acceptance.

    "Rita isn't coming in to work today. Her horoscope said she should stay in bed."
    "Okay, she's fired."

    "Rita isn't coming in to work today, she's a Leo and Mars is in conjunction."
    "Okay, we'll have Pat take care of her work today."

    During a lengthy political argument:
    "No, no, you misunderstand–I don't approve of Hitler. He should have resigned and let HImmler take over!"
    "Okaaaaaaaaay, I've heard enough." (walks quickly away.)

  119. Lektu said,

    October 14, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    http://torontojungle.com/forum/showthread.php/54407-iqaluit-not-iqualuit

    «A news release Monday outlined Prime Minister Stephen Harper's itinerary as he began a five-day Arctic tour.

    The release repeatedly spelled the capital of Nunavut as Iqualuit – rather than Iqaluit, which means "many fish" in the Inuktitut language.

    The extra "u" makes a big difference.

    "It means people with unwiped bums," said Sandra Inutiq of the office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut.

    "It's not exactly a nice term."»

  120. danny said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 3:41 am

    Spanish has loads. my favourite is probably

    "de puta madre" – excellent, fantastic
    "tu puta madre" – your mother is a whore

  121. sreadystare said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    In Urdu,the pronounciation of "mahabat"(awe-inspiring) and "mohabbat"(love) are quite similar.There's a mosque named "Mahabat Khan Masjid" in my locality,and I wondered at the name until I read it.

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