Guide dogs = gay dogs?

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Gordon Campbell sent in a pointer to a recent article by Sarah Mennie, "Gay dogs not welcome, diner told", [Adelaide] Sunday Mail, 4/24/2010:

Woodville North man Ian Jolly, 57, was barred from dining at Grange restaurant Thai Spice in May last year after a staff member mistook his guide dog Nudge for a "gay dog", the tribunal heard this week.

A statement given by restaurant owners Hong Hoa Thi To and Anh Hoang Le said one of the waiters had understood Mr Jolly's partner Chris Lawrence "to be saying she wanted to bring a gay dog into the restaurant".

"The staff genuinely believed that Nudge was an ordinary pet dog which had been desexed to become a gay dog," the statement said.

Mr Jolly and Ms Lawrence were refused entry to the restaurant – which displays a "guide dogs welcome" sign – even after providing staff with a guide dogs fact card.

This being Language Log rather than Endocrinology Log, for the most part anyhow, we'll pass over in silence the hormonal misunderstanding, and focus on the phonetic one. And let's grant that in casual speech, the difference between one and two /d/ segments — as in, say, "guide dog" vs. "guy dog" — is likely to fade away. But what about the vowel difference between guide and gay? Shouldn't that have been a clue?

Well, in Adelaide, maybe not so much. Like the vowel in gay, the main-stressed vowel in Australian is a member of the FACE lexical set; and the fact that Australian is jocularly rendered as "Strine" tells you something about the fate of this vowel down under.

For those skilled in the art, a more quantitative version of this story is told by Figure 6 from Felicity Cox, "The acoustic characteristics of /hVd/ vowels in the speech of some Australian teenagers", Australian Journal of Linguistics 2006:

Fig. 6: The time normalised average formant trajectory diagrams for /eɪ/ superimposed onto the monophthong vowel spaces for females and males

What this figure shows is that the vowel in hayed starts right at the bottom of the vowel space, with the most open available vowel sound, and ends with the highest, frontest available vowel sound. For us speakers of American English, in the northern states at least, the "long i" sound of the vowel in hide is the best approximation of this in our normal vowel inventory.

However,  my hide vowel generally starts somewhat backer and ends quite a bit lower — and so, in general, does the Australian variety, according to Cox's Figure 7:

Fig. 7: The time normalised average formant trajectory diagrams for  /aɪ/ superimposed onto the monophthong vowel spaces for females and males.

So for speakers of Australian English, "guide dog" and "gay dog" do have different vowels in the first syllable — lace and lice are not actually homophones — but these two diphthongs are much more similar than they would be in varieties of English where the FACE vowel is pronounced  [ei].

[See  Australian Voices, or Robert Mannell's page "The Vowels of Australian English", for more information. Based on those pages, and on the charts in Jonathan Harrington et al., "An acoustic phonetic study of broad, general, and cultivated Australian English vowels", Australian Journal of Linguistics 1997, I believe that the basic patterns discussed above are fairly general characteristics of Australian English, not limited to the teenagers studied in Cox 2006.]

Given the names of the restaurant owners, it seems possible that the staff involved in this misunderstanding were not native speakers of Australian English, or at least not of the same variety as the affected customers. In particular, the staff may have responded to the local variety of English by systematically collapsing the FACE vowel with the PRICE vowel, so that they have the same phonetic expectations for e.g. raid and ride. For those of us whose FACE and PRICE vowels are very different, this merger is unexpected.  But there's a similar case that's a cross-linguistic stereotype:  many native speakers of languages with simpler vowel inventories tend to collapse the English KIT and FLEECE sets, so that they don't reliably distinguish between (say) hid and heed.


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    There has just got to be a way to spawn a whole series of gay dog jokes out of this. You can just see the beginnings in your mind's eye:

    "You know your puppy's going to grow up to be a gay dog when…"

    "A man and his gay dog walk into a bar…"

    "How does a gay dog…"

    And I guess there should be a joke in which the ending is:

    "Oh! Sorry, I thought you said guide dog!"

    I just can't work out why I'm finding it difficult to put one of these jokes together. Something about this post just seems to me like it ought to be hilarious. Unless you're a blind person trying to go out for Vietnamese food in Adelaide, of course.

  2. Peter Harvey said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    A gay dog was once a man who lived a loose life.

    OED: a man given to revelling or self-indulgence.

    It then goes to mention a gay Lothario …

  3. Ian Tindale said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    Reminds me of a small video clip from an Oz television show long ago (decades ago), where a news reporter was trying to level some criticism live on camera at a landlord who had placed a classified ad in the paper to rent a house out, stipulating “No Asians” — which would have flown directly in the face of not just Australian Legislation, but their easy going 20th century cosmopolitan nature. The clip went on at length, the reporter pointing out that it is illegal etc, the landlord saying that it is perfectly legal and it’s his right to say that anyway, and on and on and on it went.

    Until the reporter pulled out a copy of the paper itself with the ad on, and the landlord, reading it for the first time, exclaimed, laughing, that he’d actually said on the phone “No Agents”!

  4. Mel Nicholson said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    @GKP: Most misunderstanding-based jokes require a contrast between something that squarely hits a taboo and something obviously neutral, as in the sexual double entendre when a woman shows up on the 4th floor instead of the third and realizing her mistake, tells the man there "I should be on the floor beneath you."

    The social difficulty in this post isn't just with the appropriate accommodation of the blind, but also the polemics around the status of homosexual exclusion. I suspect the difficulty in creating the humor here is that you are treading from one taboo to another and therefore lack the relief and/or contrast provided by neutral territory.

    [Yes, I think that's exactly right (to the extent that I can understand this rather erudite comment): there's blind people and the exclusion problems of those with physical disabilities; there's gay people and the problems of their social exclusion by straight bigots; there's animals and their rights; there's Vietnamese and the problems of their full integration into Australian society… It's all loaded with sensitive topics, but the result is a sort of wasteland, a veritable graveyard for humor. Though I must say the majority of the comments above and below this are mist pleasingly silly. I did want some silliness in my day, and once again Language Log has delighted me. Thank you, commenters. I've had some giggles. —GKP]

  5. Michael Paul Goldenberg said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    Well, sometimes mishearing isn't the issue:

    An evangelist was checking into a hotel in New York City for the evening when he turned to the desk clerk and said, "I trust the porn channel is disabled."

    "No," said the clerk, "It's normal, you sick bastard."

  6. NW said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    In an Australian accent a guide dog would be a goy dog.

  7. Adrian Morgan said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    As an Adelaide local, I can tell you that I quite often hear a more [ei]-like FACE vowel from young women, and have been noticing this trend for over a decade now. I don't know whether it's part of a local or nation-wide phenomenon.

  8. Acilius said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    @NW: I'd say "goy dog" has vastly more comic potential than "gay dog." It really is not funny that gays, four-legged or two-legged, are excluded from certain restaurants. But if we were to come up with a joke about somebody who only went to temple on the High Holy Days being forbidden to bring a "goy dog," that might be really funny.

  9. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    @Acilius, perhaps something about poor goy dogs having to go to the vet, when Jewish dogs only have to go to the mohel??

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    GKP: "You know your puppy's going to grow up to be a gay dog when…"

    … The Wizard of Oz is on, he likes it in toto?
    … he chases the male man?

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Reader YM sent in this item, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 15, 1993, in Leah Garchik's "Personals" column. As YM explained, "The confusion in question isn't rare, but the dramatic presentation is very special"

    "How long would it take a sheep to sink?" was a question posed to East Bay librarians. According to a story by Elaine Marshall in Diablo magazine, the librarians couldn't come up with an answer.

    Personals consulted experts at UC Davis Veterinary Extension. Dr. Ben Norman said that sheep "do very well" in the water. `They have a rumen, a big gas bag stomach, that keeps them from sinking. They float high and swim well."

    Cows have a similar stomach structure to sheep, said Norman. As soon as the rumen develops, the animal is kept afloat by its natural life preserver. At least half the cows stranded on an offshore island in Hurricane Carla 30 years ago were able to survive by swimming three to seven miles to the shore, said the veterinarian.

    Dr. John Glenn was a little less enthusiastic. "The only times they ever get into the water is when they cross steams. . . . They float but they are not Olympic swimmers." Wet fleece is not an important factor, said Glenn. "I have never heard of a sheep drowning unless it was trapped under water upside down."

    How long would it take a sheep to sink? Glenn's official answer: "A long time."

    (After spending countless hours researching ovine aquatic capabilities, Personals was struck by a blinding revelation: The caller probably wanted to know, "How long does it take a ship to sink?")

    This is one of those stories that's too good to check.]

  12. Słowosław said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    The comments remind me of this sketch:

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I particularly like the offerings from Messrs. Tindale & Goldenberg, but I have a more boring issue, namely that I don't seem to have the FACE vowel anywhere in "Australian" in my variety of AmE (and I think if I heard it it would sound a little "foreign" regardless of exactly how the FACE vowel was realized). I instead have the DRESS vowel in what I take it is the syllable being referenced (after str-).

  14. Dan T. said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    The way I would pronounce "Australian", the stressed vowel seems to be the same as the way I pronounce "Mary", which in my own dialect is not merged with "merry" or "marry" or "Murray".

  15. Dan T. said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    …but tying that in with some other topics here, one could, I suppose, make a joke about a court clerk in a state without same sex marriage but with a merging of those names in pronunciation refusing to issue a marriage license to "Mary and Murray" because he hears it as "Mary and Merry".

  16. uberVU - social comments said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Guide dogs = gay dogs?

  17. Paul Kay said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    Many years ago when I lived in Massachusetts, a local friend pointed out to me a classified ad that read, "Volkswagen common gear." What the person who placed the ad probably intended to convey over the phone was, "Volkswagen Karmen Ghia." (Anyone remember those sporty little VWs?) But who knows what was actually pronounced and how it was heard? The confusion seemed to depend on both the absence of r after vowels in traditional U.S. dialects stretching from parts of New England to Louisiana and the more regionally restricted "epenthetic" r, inserted after a word ending with a vowel before a word beginning with a vowel, which gave rise notoriously to John F. Kennedy's pronunciation in sentences like, " … a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba-r-is being initiated…" and more common Bostonese locutions like, "I saw-r-'im yesterday."

  18. Fernando Colina said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    @Mel Nicholson:

    All those problems are forgiven if the joke is told by a Vietnamese blind gay dog.

  19. Philip said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    This is no doubt apocryphal, but local (San Diego) beach lore has it that one summer afternoon at a well-known rowdy bar with a notoriously dumb bartender, a blind man accompanied by his guide dog sat down for a beer.

    One patron said, "Watch this" and called the bartender over.

    "That guy over there has a dog with him. Dogs can't come into bars. You're gonna get in trouble."

    The bartender told the blind man he'd have to leave because dogs were not permitted inside.

    "But it's a guide dog!"

    "Guy dog, girl dog, I don't care. Get the hell out of here."

  20. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    I once got a press release from the Australian embassy in Washington about a display of "the lightest in satellite radio receivers."

  21. Claire said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    Another Australian here who has these two vowels pretty distinct; even at my most ocka, it's [gaj] and [gɒj] (guide) – the diphthong in guide is backed but the one in gay isn't.

  22. Gordon Campbell said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    As a speaker of Strine, my observations agree with Mark Liberman and the studies he cites (& Claire): these vowels (day, gay vs die, guy) are closer in Aust Eng than they are in most other dialects, but they are still distinct.

    Treating them as identical is typical of someone trying (but failing) to impersonate an Aust accent — e.g. “G’die Mite” – or Meryl Streep in that movie about the dingo and the baby.

  23. blahedo said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    Although, even if the shop owners were native speakers of English, but a different dialect, that could still cause problems—if my ear is linguistically tuned I can certainly hear the difference between [aj] and [ɒj], but where the former is the AusE realisation of the FACE vowel, it is precisely my realisation of the PRICE vowel. Such overlaps can make for much hypercorrection and confusion….

  24. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:26 am

    It's not just the vowels. Consider the consonants.

    My father, who spoke English with a strong Maltese accent until his dying day, never grasped double consonants in English. Somewhere along the line he had been taught that English, unlike Italian, doesn't pronounce double consonants as double. The Italians say (e.g.) "Bel-la", dwelling on the double L; English speakers say "Bella". Similarly, in English there's a difference in the pronunciations of the Ns between "pen knife" and "penny".

    In just the same way I think there's a difference in the pronunciation of the Ds of "guide dog" and "guy dog", though my father would have pronounced them the same.

    So, sorry to be a spoilsport, but I think the joke doesn't work.

  25. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    In my previous post please read "But" for "Similarly", and "Simiilarly" for "In just the same way".

  26. MIchael C. Dunn said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 2:21 am

    A friend I knew some 20 years back, an Aussie who'd never visited the US until, in his late 50s, relocated here, told this story on himself:

    On the flight over, the stewardess (presumably American, so I guess he wasn't flying Qantas), asks, "Sir, would you like something to drink?"

    "Yes," he says, "I'll have a Kyke."

    "A cake?," says the stewardess. "I was asking about a drink."

    "Yes," he replies. "I'd like a Kyke. A Kyka-Cyla."

    As I say, he told it on himself, and he may have been having fun.

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 5:14 am

    Reminds me of the Lord Dunsany story Avenger of Perdondaris, where the protagonist goes to far-future London (all that's left is the worn-down remnant of one of the Trafalgar Square lions) and is baffled by a animal-skin-clad stallholder saying what sounds like "Everkike". He then realises that it's a still-persisting Cockney accent, and the man said, "'Ave a cake."

  28. chris said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    @Dan T.: Or you could make merry about a minister who refuses to marry Mary and Murray.

  29. Jim said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    For me the joke works because of the "social difficulty"/sterotype it doesn't use. No mention of cooking the dog.

  30. KevinM said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    How about those signs outside post offices stating that no dogs are allowed inside, except for guide dogs? Just who is supposed to be reading the guide-dog exception?

  31. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    @KevinM: Other dog owners who might see a guide dog in the post office and think, "Ah, fine, dogs are allowed here".

  32. IrrationalPoint said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    GKP and Mel Nicholson:

    It's all loaded with sensitive topics, but the result is a sort of wasteland, a veritable graveyard for humor.

    I don't know — there's plenty of sensitive stuff I'd giggle with among friends. The issue for me is not that one should avoid joking about sensitive things (quite often those are the things I most need to joke about, for my own peace of mind), it's making sure that the joke in question isn't one that furthers harm/stigma/marginalisation. The reason "among friends" is important (for me) is that it makes it easier to ensure that we're all working off the same premises about what's acceptable and what isn't, what could be harmful, and what could be reclamatory.


    Not all people who are visually impaired or use service dogs are completely blind — many *are* able to read such a sign. Plus, increasingly, service dogs are being used for people with conditions other than visual impairments, so some people with service animals are not visually impaired at all. Additionally, people who use service animals usually know that their right to take one into shops etc is protected by law (in countries where such signs are posted). So the sign also does the work of informing non-blind people that they may not bring non-guide dogs into the shop. It's not totally pointless.


  33. dazeystarr said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    Did you know that dogs are just gay wolves?

  34. Mel Nicholson said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    @IrrationalPoint: My point wasn't whether the taboo is sensitive/offensive. My point is that the joke format requires a contrast between taboo/okay, not between taboo/other taboo.

  35. Brn said,

    April 28, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    Here is the video that Ian Tindale was referring to.

  36. IrrationalPoint said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 6:21 am

    Mel Nicholson: I got that. I was suggesting that there are some situations where contrast between taboo/other taboo does work, and language of the "reclamatory" type tends to rely on this, to some extent. But it also relies to some extent on an in-group context.


  37. Graeme said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    It's an Aussie Thai restaurant run by Vietnamese. Anything could happen; but the dog would probably not have enjoyed the spices.

  38. Sean said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    In some strange way, perhaps, I wonder if the waiter may have heard only what he or she wanted to hear. People can be so whimsical with the misinterpretations.

  39. John Swindle said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    The Goodwill Store (thrift store, part of a nonprofit worker rehabilitation program) in Kailua, Hawaii, used to have a sign in the window: "Please No Animals Allowed! Except C.I. Dogs". No, wait, that's not relevant.

  40. David said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 2:13 am

    I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the South Park episode about gay fish which is the first thing I thought of when I read this story.

    Kanye West is the only one who doesn't get the joke. The joke teller asks, "Do you like fishsticks?" If the answer is yes, then the joke teller responds with "You're a gay fish."
    (fishsticks = fish dicks)

  41. Ngamudji said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    An Australian doctor told me of an incident when she was working in an American hospital. There was a complaint against her for upsetting a patient. The patient had simply misheard her. All she had said was: "Good news, you're going home today".

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