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Today's Dumbing of Age:

I recognize the pronunciation represented by "I'unno", I think — it involves lenition of the intervocalic /d/ to the point where there's no actual tongue-to-palate contact, though (at least in my productions) I think there's still a desultory wave of the tongue in the general direction of a consonant. I'unno if there's an appropriate IPA symbol…


  1. S Frankel said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 8:31 am

    Looks like I'unno to me, with a capital I, not a lowercase l. This isn't really clear in the font used in the blog here, but there are clear serifs on the thing.

    (I once convinced a friend that the plural of 'serif' is 'serafim.')

    [(myl) Your comment is puzzling, because all the forms in the post are spelled with upper-case "I" rather than lower-case "l", and always have been. Until reading your comment, it never occurred to me that this could even be an issue. And the character choice is clear in the version that appears in my browser. If things look different to you, this must be because of the font choice in whatever OS/browser combination you're using…]

  2. S Frankel said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 8:33 am

    Oh, maybe you *meant* there was a capital eye and not a lowercase el and I read it wrong.

    We have a typographical problem here.

    [(myl) With respect, I think you're the one with the typographical problem — here's what the post looks like in my browser:


  3. Jason said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 10:09 am

    My OS displays it the same way as Mark's.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    Probably whatever S Frank is using to read this blog doesn't have the font it uses, and so substitutes a different sans serif font. Unfortunately, most sans serif fonts distinguish lower case L and capital I(i) only by height, if at all. (The one used in the box I'm typing in doesn't distinguish them at all. I'd never noticed till now that the blog itself uses a better font.)

  5. Ellen K. said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:12 am

    Oops… S Frankel I mean.

  6. S Frankel said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:20 am

    That's ok, EIIen. (with two capital eyes)

    (In some fonts, that might be vaguely funny, but in the font that my system puts forth here, capital eyes and lowercase ells are identical. )

  7. Schoenike said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    I can even get away with saying "mmmm" with the right intonation and listeners usually have no problem interpreting it as "I don't know"

  8. M.N. said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    I got here from Facebook on mobile, where it did look like an unusual French word.

    In Welsh, one type of negation is dim, which becomes ddim (/ðɪm/) via soft mutation after a nominal. At least in some dialects, the /ð/ is sometimes dropped after certain pronouns (depends on the vowel) when the negation itself is not stressed. I'm not a native speaker, but I've seen things like the following in dialogue in novels, for instance:

    Dwn i'm.
    not-know I not
    `I don't know'

    Dw i'm isio.
    be.1sg I not want
    `I don't want (to)'

    The ’m is all that's left of it. This seems to be productive, in a way that I'm not sure if the process behind I'unno is. I could imagine saying I'unno, but not I'onwanna, I'onthinkso, etc. (Maybe this, too, has something to do with vowel quality, since the "word" dunno has a different vowel than don't.)

  9. S Frankel said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:50 am

    @M.N. – I'm not a native Welsh speaker either, but there's another negative in the sentences above, namely the initial "D" (corresponds to literary "nid"). All the positive forms I know have something else there (Mi wn, Fe wn, Gwn, or just plain Wn).

    It occurs to me, way too late, that the reason I read an initial ell in "l'unno" is because it looks like a definite article (Pizzaria L'Uno) in a position where I'm used to seeing it.

    We need serifs.

  10. Q. Pheevr said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    Assuming that you and Willis and I are all on the same page as to what pronunciation is being represented here, I'd be inclined to transcribe it with something like [ɾ̞]. When I say it, it feels like I'm doing almost the same thing as when I make a tap [ɾ], except that the tip of my tongue doesn't actually hit the alveolar ridge. (I'd be tempted to call it a tapproximant, but "desultory wave" is much more evocative.)

  11. Guy said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    I was once having a conversation with a Spanish speaker (from Mexico) who only knew a smattering of English and I was surprised to hear them use the "I don't know" tone – the tone pattern that usually accompanies "I don't know" but pronounced as an undifferentiated nasal sound, which I think most of us are familiar with. On questioning, they didn't seem to feel or be aware that this tone with this meaning was a loan from English. For those who aren't familiar with Spanish, English trisyllabic "I don't know" translates to Spanish bisyllabic "no sé", so the three-note "I don't know" tone couldn't represent an unarticulated or underarticulated pronunciation of "no sé".

  12. S Frankel said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

    @Q. Pheevr – I don't think that's the pronunciation that's represented. I think it's anything from a y glide to no consonant at all, just vowels in hiatus.

    You don't even need any articulated sounds to get the sentence across – it can be done with intonation alone (low-high-low, for the three original nuclei, and a constant resonant either [m] or a nasalized [ʌ])

  13. Stephen Hart said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    I see the same thing in Safari 9.1, with no user stylesheet in use. Uppercase I has no serifs. (It's not identical to lowercase L though.)
    I had no problem reading the post as intended, perhaps because I heard this construction and others like it among my children's friends, sometimes more like "ahnuhno."

  14. Mike said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 12:30 pm

    +1 Stephen. I've seen this rendered as "aono"

  15. M.N. said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

    @S Frankel: Sure does. What I meant was that d(d)im is capable of contracting with a pronoun like i, which you can see in both these cases despite the puzzling double exponence of negation with that particular verb.

  16. Jay Sekora said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this spelled “Iono” in a webcomic somewhere, and and had a terrible time figuring out what was intended because of the lack of serifs.

    M.N., for me, d-dropping in these kinds of phrases is definitely productive /ɑɪ.o'wɑnə/, /'ɑ.ʊ,noʊ/, etc.

  17. S Frankel said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    @ M.N. – Oh, you're right, and I didn't notice your example which started "Dw i'm" 'i am not," where there would, or at least could, be an initial 'd' for the positive as well as the negative.

    Worth pointing out, though, that function words in Welsh are subject to a high degree of contraction, and that the negative particle 'ddim' in particular can contract in several contexts, for ex. ddim + o .('not' + 'of') > mo.

  18. Charles Antaki said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

    When I come across it on US TV shows, to my British RP ears there's a ghostly r between the first two vowels – a rhotic iron-oh – perhaps affected by the surrounding American English accent.

  19. Guy said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

    @Charles Antaki

    That's probably a consequence of something like the phoneme replacement effect on your part. You're not used to hearing vowels in hiatus very often, and when they are they are in full alternation with an intrusive r, so you interpret what you're hearing as an r. If there were an r when people with rhotic accents say it one would it expect it to be more obvious to rhotic speakers than non-rhotic speakers, since the distinction is of phonemic significance. Also, non-rhotic speakers would be more likely than rhotic speakers to insert an [ɹ] since that's a feature of most non-rhotic accents, whereas rhotic accents wouldn't usually encourage the insertion of new phonemes like that.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

    Someone I communicate with textually frequently produced this, spelled "Iono".

  21. Carl said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 8:15 pm

    I’m surprised this is surprising. I’ve used “iunno" in texts for years. Urban Dictionary has a definition from 2003, which I assume is around when UD was created. It’s as unremarkable as “I dunno” itself is to me at this point.

  22. Will M said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 11:18 pm

    xkcd had an amusing strip last year evaluating potential names for car models based on letter frequency distributions. The strip included in a list of fictitious "car names to avoid" the Chrysler Uh Iono. Presumably this was the pronunciation intended. (Among the "potential hits": Hyundai Climax, Lincoln Marxism.)

  23. John said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    It pleases me that the completely delexicalised (is that the right word?) version of this — the nasal low-high-low-tone grunt — seems like a phonetic representation of a shrug, with vocal frequency mapped to shoulder altitude.

    As for the version that uses actual phonemes, I don't notice any consonant between the first two vowels when I say it. If anything the "I" doesn't even get completely pronounced; it's more like "Ah-un-no".

  24. Viseguy said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    In my Linguistics 101 class 45 years ago, Bill Labov used to talk about how some French speakers compress Je ne sais pas into something sounding like "Shpo".

  25. Rubrick said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

    @Schoenike: "I can even get away with saying "mmmm" with the right intonation and listeners usually have no problem interpreting it as "I don't know"

    That's actually very interesting (and it's not just you; everyone does that, usually accompanied by a shoulder-shrug). I'm now curious whether there's been linguistic study of that and other phrases that are so canonical that one can substitute an inarticulate sound with a matching pitch contour.

    I suspect "Mm-hm" and "Mm-mm" (for "yep" and "nope") were originally in the same category, but I don't know what the original spoken phrases might have been.

    (This may all be well known stuff; I'd certainly be surprised if no one had studied "mm-hm".)

  26. David Fried said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    What you're hearing in Spanish is probably an indistinct pronunciation of "no lo se"–I don't know [it].

  27. Scott Underwood said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

    In 1968, William Steig wrote the terrific "children's" book "CDB," in which all the dialog is rendered in single letters. As I remember, one panel shows a boy asking a crying girl Y R U Y-N-N? (Why are you whining?), and the answer is I N O.

  28. David Morris said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 4:03 am

    Since reading this post I have been on a 'Dumbing of Age' binge. David Willis uses the same spelling for a very different character (http://www.dumbingofage.com/2015/comic/book-5/03-the-butterflies-fly-away/dinosaurs/)

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