Three-syllable Mom

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Today's Cathy:

A two-syllable "Mom" is commoner, with the parts supporting a downstepped sequence of distinct pitch targets. And of course the same intonation can be used with any other vocative. The extra syllable(s) only arise if the vocative doesn't have at least two syllables to start with: thus "Mo-ther!" can bear exactly the same pattern, without the need to subdivide any syllables.

I've often wondered whether this particular intonational gesture — here expressing exasperation — is the same in all English varieties, including those (for example) where the unmarked intonational pattern is rising rather than falling. (For background discussion, see "Uptalk anxiety", 9/7/2008; "The phonetics of uptalk", 9/13/2008; "Uptalk vs. UNBI again", 11/23/2008.) In Glasgow and Belfast, for example, do daughters produce an exasperated "Mo-ther!" on two rising pitch levels?

And what about other languages, including pitch-accent languages like Japanese, or various types of languages with lexical tone?

Another interesting question is what distinguishes this intonational gesture from the similarly stylized two-step fall used to call to people who are not already in contact (the "vocative chant"). The two gestures are pragmatically and emotionally very different — and are likely to be associated with different facial expressions, voice qualities and so on — but the pitch contours involved seem at least to come from overlapping distributions.

[Update — if commenters will send me audio clips of the patterns that they write about, I'll post them in an accessible form. Any audio format is OK: .wav, .aiff, .mp3, .aav, etc.]


  1. Colin Watson said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    I was born and raised in Belfast, and, while in our house we said "Mum" rather than "Mom" or "Mother", the second syllable of the two-syllable version was always at a lower pitch than the first, although the second syllable would normally have had a slight internal rise. A rising intonation throughout signifies questioning ("Mum, where are you?"), not complaint.

    [(myl) Thanks! Do you otherwise have the "UNB" (Urban North British) intonational pattern, where the default pattern for statements has a final rise (or final high level)? See the second half of this post for some discussion.]

  2. Ryan said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    Yeah, I'm American and I think of the two-syllable exasperation thing as having a rising pitch within the second syllable. The "vocative chant" is much closer to being two pure pitches for me.

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    There's a somewhat similar fall-rise intonation contour in the interjection "Awwwa" discussed by Ben Yagoda in this Slate article. (Neal Whitman noted that this interjection appeared anachronistically in a recent episode of Mad Men.)

  4. Carrie S. said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    My three-syllable "Mum!" has a drop of about a third in the middle syllable, and a return to the original pitch for the final syllable. I've lived in Pittsburgh PA my whole life, except for a brief stint in southern California in my mid-20s.

    The fact that I say "Mum" instead of "Mom" seems to be a family thing; my mother does it too. :)

  5. FM said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    Other languages: Russian (which generally has stronger intonational pitch than English; we view English as pretty monotone) doesn't have this particular pattern. Instead I'm imagining saying "Ну мам!" with the second syllable slightly higher and falling.

  6. Janice Huth Byer said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    In my redneck of Texas, it's "Ma" with exasperation merely lengthening the one syllable – "Maaaaaaaaw!"

    "Dad", in casual discourse, is two syllables – "Day' id" – with exasperation expressed, it seems to my ear, by reduction to one plaintive syllable – "Daaad!"

  7. Terry Collmann said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    In Southern England, at least, "Mu-u-um", with falling central element, and its male equivalent "Da-a-ad" seem to mean "I am about to ask a question/make a request you may not like", while "Mu-um!" and "Da-ad!" do indeed indicate exasperation.

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    I grew up in Hawaii, with west-coast parents. I recall three syllables, on three notes, figuratively C A B.

    The mynah birds outside got the two-note squall form down perfectly, and succeeded in eliciting responses "what?", which they also captured. I recall increasingly insistent choruses of "Mom!", "What?!" coming from the coconut trees in the afternoons.

  9. Sarah C. said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    I grew up in South Carolina, and my recollection is a 3-syllable "Mo-o-om." The 3rd syllable starts slightly below the pitch of the first, but with a pitch rise back to the first-syllable pitch. (If memory serves correctly.)

  10. Mary Kuhner said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    A friend had a dog whose name was Ginger, but who turned out to respond equally well to any two-syllable word pronounced with the down-stepping pitch in question. We amused ourselves by yelling "Dumdum!" and "Eggplant!" and could always get her to come running.

  11. Dennis Brennan said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    A friend from Texas told me that one of the characteristics of the Texas accent was that the word "fire" unambiguously had one syllable, while "shit" had at least two.

  12. Brooke said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    You can hear a genuine three-syllable "Mom" in the opening title sequence of the kids' television show, "Phineas and Ferb." The character Candace says,

    "Mmm-MO-om, Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence!"

    The pitch matches the stress, low-high-low. The first syllable is brief but clearly discernible. I suppose one could argue that it's not a true syllable, since it lacks a vowel, but the word is certainly three distinct beats.

    Note: in the Christmas special episode, a different voice-over is apparently used, and the "Mom" is the usual two-syllable "Mo-om."

    I've thought on it many times, but never thought it would be relevant to a conversation.

  13. Lane said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    I have been wondering how tone languages do intra-word and sentence pitch forEVER. If you get any good material on this I think it's worth a standalone post. The way everyone learns about tones is the four tones on "ma" in Mandarin. Only one means "mother" (the flat tone). In English, if I want to say "Ma" to my mother in exasperation, like "You stuck a DVD in the VCR? Ma…", I'd use a falling tone, but that would mean "scold" in Mandarin. How do Chinese-speakers and other tone-language speakers deal with this? I presume that context picks up a lot of slack, but more detailed description would be fascinating…

    [(myl) You're right that this is a fascinating question. A good place to start is the work of my colleague Jiahong Yuan, e.g. "Comparison of Declarative and Interrogative Intonation in Chinese", Speech Prosody 2002; "Detection of questions in Chinese conversational speech", ASRU 2005; and (at greater length, but more clearly) his 2004 dissertation "Intonation in Mandarin Chinese", which investigates in detail the interaction of speech act type (question vs. statement), focus (in the sense of relative prominence or emphasis), and tone sequence.]

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

    @Brooke: To my ears, in this Youtube clip of the P&F opening, it sounds like Candace's "Mom" covers two beats, not three.

    [(myl) Yes, but it has three notes — see here for details.]

  15. Jim said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    I always heard that you couldn't be a real Texan unless you could put four syllables into the word "shit". (I can only really manage 3 myself, but I'm not Texan by any strrr-ae-eee-itch.)

  16. Diogo said,

    December 30, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    In Portuguese we have the same case for the word 'mãe' /mãj/, we use the rising intonation, besides adding a syllable 'manhê' /mã'ɲe/.

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