Phonology in the comics

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Today's Frazz deals with the phenomenon of flapping/voicing in American English:

There's a small problem of how the jokes might be put across in speech rather than writing, but whatever…

Today's strip was prepared by yesterday's:


  1. Guy said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    Am I reading too much into it, or does this joke seem to assume that "farted" is usually pronounced as something other than [fɑɹɾəd] in most accents? Or is the teacher not American?

  2. Michael Carasik said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 11:46 am

    "Fard" — "to put on makeup."
    "Frazz" is a surprisingly intellectual comic strip.

    [(myl) Good catch.]

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

    Michael Carasik: Thanks, now I get it.

  4. Guy said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

    @Michael Carasik

    Now it makes sense! But I'm disappointed to see that "splentid" doesn't appear in the OED.

  5. Rubrick said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    Kindasorta related: Yesterday I was temporarily confused by an NPR segment about how Israel has a curriculum for teaching (I thought) "foreign five-year-olds" about the Holocaust.

  6. WindowlessMonad said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    Who would such fardels bear?

  7. Viseguy said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 9:12 pm

    To summarize using Perl-compatible regular expressions:(?i)far(d|t).*splen(t|d)id

    Go ahead, call me an old far(t|d).

  8. 화장: makeup, cremation | Never Pure and Rarely Simple said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 11:40 pm

    […] 7 May: Courtesy of this Language Log post, I have just discovered that 'fard' is an old word for 'makeup', so […]

  9. AntC said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 12:09 am

    sorry to ask a dumb q, but in the yesterday's strip (last panel), what is shoot, … doing?

    For me it doesn't work as a euphemistic expletive. "Shoot no!, …" might just.

    [(myl) It's a euphemism for "shit" that's common in the U.S., maybe especially in the south and among people influenced by southern norms. My paternal grandmother (from Missouri) used to say it all the time. Here's a typical example from Eudora Welty's story Petrified Man:


  10. Michael Watts said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 4:03 am

    Caulfield's shoot is idiomatic. Other words that see the same use are "shucks" (I think), "heck", and "hell". "Hell" is, of course, not euphemized (that would be "heck").

    I think the sense of the construction is to emphasize that the extent of some phenomenon is much more or much less than suggested. As here, where Frazz suggests that extra vocabulary might come in useful more than a decade from now, and Caulfield responds that it will only take a day.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 4:07 am

    I don't really get the "splentid" — it's hard for me to imagine pronunciations of "splendid" and "splentid" that might be confused for one another. :/

    [(myl) Try recording yourself using "plenty" in a sentence (say "We've got plenty of time"), and listen to or look at how you pronounce the /t/. If you're an American and talk like most of us, that consonant will in fact be very short (i.e. "flapped") and voiced throughout — in other words, it'll be like a [d] would be in the same context.

    Here's me, saying "We've got plenty of time" in a careful way:

    (In normal speech, I'd probably say what we might write as "plenny" in eye dialect.)

    Here's a waveform and spectrogram of the whole thing, with the /t/ segment marked:

    And here's a waveform of the word "plenty", with the closure and release of the segment marked:

    You may think that you say latter and ladder differently, but you probably don't (again, if you're like most Americans). And the same goes for shanty and shandy — and for splentid and splendid, if only splentid were a word.

    (But you could get a close approximation by using the preterite form "splinted"…)]

  12. Michael Watts said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 4:08 am

    Maybe if you pronounced them with a reduced vowel in the second syllable?

  13. richardelguru said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 7:36 am

    And there I was thinking that it was all about Islamic religious duties.
    My first wife was a school teacher (American), and after years of listening to her talk about her work, I (British, RP speaker) finally discovered that there wasn't a drug called *Riddalin.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 8:23 am

    MYL, I agree as to latter/ladder, but not as to shanty/shandy. In fact, the relatively common word/name "sandy" does not (I believe, strongly enough that I'm not going to write it off as mistaken introspection) display the sort of reduction that "shanty" does. "Candy" behaves much like "sandy".

    I don't think latter / latter / plenty / shanty are equivalent to sandy / candy / splendid in this regard.

    I recorded myself producing several sentences:

    This is me saying "a long and winding road".
    This is me saying "that beach is too sandy for me".
    This is me saying "she sings shanties by the seashore".
    This is me saying "we've got plenty of time".
    And this is me saying "we've got plenty of time" again, consciously trying to imitate the prosody of yours.

    It seemed pretty easy to distinguish the "nd" in "sandy" from the "nt" in "shanties" by eyeballling the waveform, and "winding" looked similar to "sandy". Here are pictures I made with praat5416_win64:

    Here I've highlighted my estimate of the /d/ in "winding". As a disclaimer, all of my highlighting is done by eyeballing based on essentially no experience.
    Here I've highlighted my estimate of the /nd/ in "winding".
    Here I've highlighted my estimate of the /d/ in "sandy".
    Here I've highlighted my estimate of the /nd/ in "sandy".

    I saw no distinction between a putative /n/ and /t/ or any other dental stop in the "nt" examples:

    Here I've highlighted my estimate of the "nt" in "shanties".
    Here I've highlighted my estimate of the "nt" in "plenty", when I produced it according to my own whim.
    And here I've highlighted my estimate of the "nt" in "plenty" when I was trying to mimic your sentence.

    The way it looks to me is that /n/ and /t/ have collapsed into a single sound in "plenty" (both versions), but remain distinct in "sandy" and "winding". Do you think I'm misanalyzing the waveforms (I wouldn't be able to contradict you) or that I've produced unnatural overenunciations of "sandy" and "winding"? (I'd be slightly put out if you believe the second; I'm trying to do this in good faith — but I can't exactly blind myself to the experiment.)

  15. Michael Watts said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    Apologies, I seem to have bungled the last two links. This is the "nt" of "plenty" when produced according to my own whim, and this is the "nt" of "plenty" when imitating your sentence.

    [(myl) Your analysis makes sense: the /n/ in /'Vnt/ generally has a very short nasal murmur in American English, or even is entirely reduced to nasalization of the vowel; so that the /nt/ in /'VntV/ may become just a short nasal tap, given that the /t/ is voiced and very short. And /'VndV/ sequences will generally have a longer nasal murmur, as you find in these examples. But the whole gesture sequences will become shorter and more overlapped in rapid spontaneous speech. so I would expect to find that the distributions of realizations of the two types of forms still do overlap.

    One trouble is a shortage of good minimal pairs — the few examples I've been able to think of tend to differ in frequency, in part of speech, etc. ]

  16. Thomas Shaw said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 9:42 am

    I think in my (casual) speech 'farded' and 'farted' have the same pronunciation, but 'splendid' would come with a longer /n/ than 'splentid' (the /t/ and /d/ would both be flaps again). Same for 'shanty'/'shandy'. I think of myself as speaking like most Americans – is this "normal"?'

    [(myl) I think you're right, at least about careful speech. And the /t/ in /'VntV/ sequences is by no means always devoiced and flapped. But I suspect that the distributions of implementation types, and of /n/ durations in /'VntV/ and /'VndV/ sequences, overlap enough that many individual instances are perceptually ambiguous, especially out of context.]

  17. Ken Miner said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    North American flapping was of course cleverly made use of for entertainment purposes as early as 1943:

    Mares eat oats and does eat oats
    And little lambs eat ivy,
    A kid'll eat ivy too, wouldn't you?

    This may be even earlier than the term "flapping" but I was unable to find out when the latter came into phonetics.

  18. David Morris said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

    The Korean word for bathroom is 화장실 (hwa-jang-shil), which literally means 'make-up room' (used for the men's as well as the women's). Two weeks ago a student wrote the memorable sentence 'I used to be cremated'. It turns out that 화장 is also 'cremation', but is unrelated because has different Chinese characters. She'd obviously typed 화장 into a electronic dictionary/translator and found 'cremation, make-up' (?in alphabetical order). I don't know why a Korean female university student did not know 'make-up' as the loan word 메이크업 (me-i-keu-eop) is widely used in Korea (alongside 화장 and other native words).

  19. AntC said,

    May 7, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

    @myl that [shoot] is a euphemism for "shit" I know perfectly well. Which is why I said it didn't work as such for me [although I am BrE].

    Is it in Caulfield's idiom so bleached of offence, it merely means "shucks", "heck" [per @Michael Watts]?

    As in: "Ha! Never mind waiting 'til college; blow that!, …". Is shoot really that mild?
    Would your grandmother never have said "shit" — even when the grandkids were out of earshot?

  20. Michael Watts said,

    May 8, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    One minimal pair that comes to mind as a comparison to splendid/splentid is "send it" / "sent it"; send and sent are the same part of speech and probably track each other in frequency pretty closely. They're also quite likely to be followed by "it". All the same points apply to bend/bent. It's true, though, that this isn't a particularly fertile field for true minimal pairs.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 1:31 am

    AntC, I don't think there's any context in which "shoot" would be offensive. That's kind of the point of minced oaths. I would rate it as a zero on the scale of offensiveness, comparable to or even less offensive than "heck". (I'm not sure I've ever heard someone use "shucks".) "Hell" is a little more offensive than that, and there certainly exist contexts where you shouldn't use it, but for some significant part of the US it is almost entirely bleached as well. Other US cultures may hold a different view.

    How would you know what your grandmother was and wasn't willing to say only when you weren't around?

  22. AntC said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

    @Michael W: by waiting 20 years then asking my grandfather ;-)

  23. Alyssa said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 2:15 am

    I've been mulling it over, and I'm still convinced Michael Watts is right about "nt" vs "nd".

    As for minimal pairs, how about "Andy" and "Auntie" for those of us who rhyme the two?

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