Homophonous phrase of the week

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Wondermark for 1/24/2017, In which a Run is made:


  1. Polyspaston said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

    Being British, this took me a while to get.

  2. Vuka said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:36 pm

    Being Australian, I can't help but feel this would've worked a lot better if one of the characters were a Kiwi.

  3. AntC said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    @Polypaston, being British, but living in New Zealand, I got it immediately.

    Though, are there U.S. accents in which those are homophones?

    In the first frame, it's contradictory for the donut-fetcher to ask "That gonna be enough?" Too many must be more than enough.

    [(myl) I don't have the pin/pen merger, but "two mini-donuts" and "too many donuts" overlap in pronunciation for me.]

  4. Mimi said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

    I pride myself on getting most jokes, and I read every Wondermark, but I have to admit that I read and re-read this strip several times in an attempt to understand it. I was frustrated in this until I read the title of this post. But… those words aren't homophones!

    (I'm from New York. Now I am curious to find where David Malki ! is from.)

  5. Christian Weisgerber said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

    Looks like an instance of the pen-pin merger.

  6. Lazar said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

    Most of the South, and some areas outside it, do have the pen-pin merger. But that said, I think an optional reduced form of "many" – [ˈtʰʊuməniˈdoʊnʌts] – would suffice to make the joke work.

    The author appears to be from the LA area (unless he moved there). Most Californians distinguish "pen" and "pin", though some do merge them, especially in the Okie-influenced parts.

  7. Roscoe said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

    From "The Muppets Take Manhattan":

    RIZZO: What's this supposed to be?
    PETE: Is grits! Grits! Hominy grits!
    RIZZO: How should I know how many? Count 'em yourself!

  8. cliff arroyo said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

    As a proud pen-pin merger I remember once in a language class offering then-thin as a minimal pair for voiced and voiceless interdentals (and wondering why so many people were looking at me funny).

  9. Zeppelin said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    I saw this cartoon on Wondermark, was mystified, and assumed it must be some cultural or social reference I didn't understand…then I had to carefully read it again, twice, after receiving this post's hint that it contained a homophonous phrase before I finally spotted the joke.

    The pen-pin merger clearly isn't part of my internal English voice. I think I'd also stress "two mini-donuts" and "too many donuts" differently (treating "mini-donuts" as a compound with primary stress on "mi", not an adjective + noun phrase with the stress on "do"), which probably didn't help.
    Which makes me wonder, is there a tendency for people to interpret "mini" as an adjective, rather than a nominal prefix like "micro"? Since it seems to be the former for David Malki and the latter for me.

  10. Homophonous phrase of the week • Zhi Chinese said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    […] Source: Language Permalink: Homophonous phrase of the week […]

  11. Weltanschauung said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

    Given the clothing, the office equipment, and the wooden wheelbarrow, I find the phrase "mini-donuts" anachronistic.

  12. Lazar said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    They're ˌmini-ˈdonuts for me, with mini acting as an adjective. For me, this varies depending on what's being prefixed: for example, I have ˈminiˌgun and ˈmini-ˌmart. For a more speculative example, I think if I heard ˌmini[ ]ˈplane I'd interpret it as a toy plane (with an orthographic space), whereas if I heard ˈmini[ ]ˌplane I'd imagine some sort of ultralight aircraft (without a space).

  13. David Morris said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

    Vowel merger and word stress apart, surely Grice's maxim of cooperation is going to kick in at some point.

  14. Jon W said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 6:34 pm

    Malki ! indeed says he was born and raised in Southern California. http://wondermark.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/01/illit1.jpg
    I don't have the pen/pin merger either, FWIW, and I got the joke immediately.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

    Mini as an adjective, without contrastive stress on it? That's amazing.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

    …though I can offer an example of a prefix becoming a free adverb very close to home: it happened to ur- in Vienna.

  17. Lazar said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

    He's on YouTube, too. In, for example, "Wondermark's Multi-Purpose, All-Occasion Greeting Cards", he says several "en" words, which sound like they might be intermediate between unmerged "en" and "in". I didn't hear him say any "in" words, though, so I can't be sure.

    One defiinite pen-pin merged Californian that I know of is Kari Byron from Mythbusters, who, according to Wiki, was born and raised in Santa Clara County.

  18. Ellen Kozisek said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

    I'm thinking that even without the pin/pen merger, "many" might get unstressed so that it sounds like "mini". Though since I've lived now more than half my life in a pin/pen merger area, maybe I'm not the best judge.

  19. Rubrick said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 7:16 pm

    It took me a little while when I first encountered it. What I find interesting is that folks (like me) without the pin-pen merger have trouble identifiying the joke, and yet I'm pretty sure (like Mark) that even for those without the merger, the two phrases would be difficult to reliably distinguish in actual speech. That is to say, I think if this were an audible Who's-on-First-style sketch, the ambiguity would work for most people.

    What this suggests, of course, is that when reading we don't fully translate the words into sounds. (No doubt this is a well-studied area of cognitive science.)

  20. Ray said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

    haha am I the only one who expected the guy with the wheelbarrow to show up with munchkins?

  21. Joyce Melton said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

    This is not an example of pin/pen merger (which I do have as default from Arkansas heritage) to me. The vowels are different.

    Many has not the same sound as mini to me, close enough for the pun to work but not really. Do people without the pin/pen merger pronounce many as mehnee? For me the a in many has more of the sound of the a in mat, pat or cat.

  22. The Other Mark P said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 11:46 pm

    Kiwis pronounce "many" as "mini" to some ears, but then we pronounce "mini" as "mni". They aren't homophones to us, as confusing as that might be to those not used to it.

    That is, we don't have a pin/pen merger — we don't get confused what another Kiwi is asking for and go for a pin when they want a pen. It's that we have shifted the vowel sounds to much shorter versions compared to other accents in both cases. They haven't merged at all.

  23. Ellen Kozisek said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

    @Joyce Melton. Wiktionary gives your pronunciation as the Irish pronuciation, while for U.K. and U.S., it has the same vowel as pen.

  24. Tyler W said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:06 am

    @AntC, regarding the donut-fetcher's "That gonna be enough?" reply:
    It's possible that the reply is sarcastic (especially when paired with the HA HA). After Desk-guy doesn't back down on the request, which Donut-fetcher assumes is a joke of some kind, Donut-fetcher decides to take it to the next level with a wheelbarrow full of donuts.

    I especially like how this interpretation of the situation introduces two levels of misunderstanding.

  25. Michael Watts said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:22 am

    Like myl, I don't understand the identification of this similarity with the pen/pin merger. I don't have the pen/pin merger. I do think of "many" and "mini" as sounding similar enough for the joke to work. I would not, if pressed, be willing to identify the first vowel of "many" as either the DRESS vowel or the KIT vowel; I think of it as different. I would be less opposed to calling the vowel a schwa than to identifying it as DRESS or KIT. I think of "then" as having the same unsatisfactorily-characterized vowel as in "many".

    Like Zeppelin, I can't shake the internal feeling that "too many donuts" and "two mini-donuts" would be fairly distinct prosodically. I feel like "two mini-donuts" highlights the first syllable of "mini", and "too many donuts" highlights the first syllable of "donuts". I don't want to specify any particular method for the highlighting, though.

  26. Michael Watts said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:25 am

    A test suite of sorts: of the words "penny", "skinny", "canny", and "money", I do think "skinny" is the best rhyme for "many".

  27. bobbie said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:32 am

    Mini and Many don't overlap for me, especially when I was reading the cartoon. Had to read the explanations to get the joke.

  28. AntC said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:48 am

    @The other Mark P Kiwis pronounce "many" as "mini" to some ears

    (Speaking as a Brit having lived in NZ 20+ years), Kiwis do not pronouce "many" as I pronounce "many", nor as I pronounce "mini". "Mini" they might pronounce more like "mni" in unstressed contexts (although I'm struggling to bring any to the mind's ear).

    But I think in "mini-donuts" you would stress the "mini", to be clear you don't want regular donuts. (I could be persuaded otherwise: perhaps the guy-at-desk usually asks for mini-donuts; so it would be expected; so he wouldn't stress "mini".)

    To my mind's ear, I think the homophone does work with a kiwi accent. (And so does @Vuka in the 2nd comment.) Kiwis might not think they're homophones: a) because of the different spelling; b) because they're not in RP British English — which is still something of a prestige accent in NZ. But I think Kiwis are fooling themselves.

    we don't get confused what another Kiwi is asking for and go for a pin when they want a pen. Sure. Neither do they in regions with the pin/pen merger. That can be put down to Gricean cooperation, per @David Morris.

  29. John Swindle said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:50 am

    Larry Shue's 1983 play "The Foreigner," set in rural Georgia, does a quick bit on hominy/how many. Charlie, the ostensible foreigner, has been advised that if there are lots of them you can just say "a zillion."

    BETTY. (Serving them.) Hominy grits!
    CHARLIE. A zeelion.

  30. tangent said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 2:20 am

    Well today I've learned more than I ever expected about pronunciation of the word "many". With the CAT vowel, really!

    Now I have to listen for people who use a different vowel than they do for DRESS.

  31. mollymooly said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 3:37 am

    In Ireland, "many" and "any" are often pronounced with TRAP rather than DRESS; this is a matter of lexicon rather than accent. Unrelatedly, the pin-pen merger is also found in parts of Ireland, but more stigmatized.

  32. Keith said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 4:09 am

    I saw the joke coming a mile off.
    I don't have the pen – pin merger in my speech, but I was sensitized to it a few years ago. My daughter had an South African as her English teacher for a year in primary school. At the start-of-year parent and staff meeting, this teacher talked about how the kids would write a first draft and then "take out their green pins and mark up their tixts"…

  33. Julie said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 5:23 am

    I'm a native Californian and do not have a pin-pen merger , but i do pronounce "many" more or less like "mini." It certainly does not rhyme with "penny," the way i say it.

  34. Rose Eneri said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    I had no idea what this cartoon meant. Although I do not have the pin/pen merger, I also do not think this cartoon is about that merger. Instead, it is about another pronunciation anomaly I have often wondered about, namely how we came to pronounce the words many and any with the meh vowel (or conversely, why we spell them with an a).

  35. Christian Weisgerber said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 8:27 am


    "take out their green pins and mark up their tixts"

    That is not an example of the pen-pin merger, which refers to the lack of distinction of the KIT and DRESS vowels specifically before n, m, ng, so it would never affect the word "text". Rather, South African English like New Zealand English has a raised DRESS vowel such that to speakers of other dialects it often sounds like KIT. The two vowels remain distinct in SA/NZ English, though.

    The humorous HBO television show Flight of the Concords about two hapless New Zealanders in New York had a skit about the confusion of "dead" and "did".

  36. Michael Watts said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    On a somewhat related note, I pronounce "milk" with a DRESS vowel; a lot of people seem to find this odd or humorous.

  37. MattF said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

    Speaking of webcomics, today's SMBC featured a link with a linguistically significant hypothesis:


  38. Paul Kay said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

    "we don't get confused what another Kiwi is asking for and go for a pin when they want a pen. Sure. Neither do they in regions with the pin/pen merger. That can be put down to Gricean cooperation, per @David Morris."

    Well, I more than once heard my late wife's Laurel Mississippi relatives ask one another what sounded to me like, "Do you mean a pin to write with or a pin to stick in your clothes?" Are there readers from merger country who have heard or said that themselves?

  39. Rodger C said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

    @Paul Kay: Around here, the one to write with is almost invariably an "ink-pin." The other is a "straight-pin."

  40. John Roth said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 2:09 pm

    It took me several tries to get it. I suspect that part of it is that the interpretation as "too many" is patently ridiculous – I'd have asked "too many for what?"

    There is also, as a couple of commenters have noted, a pacing difference between "too many donuts" and "two mini-donuts." Even if I'd have mis-heard mini as many, my first reaction would have been: "what's a many-donut?"

  41. Levantine said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

    Rodger C, would anyone actually write "ink-pin" thinking that it was a synonym of the standard "pen"? After all, pens do look pin-like. I'm curious to know whether those who have the merger recognise it purely as a spoken phenomenon.

  42. ohwilleke said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    Count me as another who totally didn't get it until reading it like a dozen times over almost five minutes.

    Reminds me of elementary school where I was totally baffled and frustrated by the notion that "hour" (two syllables pronounced "ow-er") and "our" (which sounds exactly like "are" and has one syllable) were supposed to sound alike which they totally didn't in my greater Cincinnati, Ohio dialect.

  43. John Swindle said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

    Write "pin" for "pen"? Nah. They're homonyms, not synonyms. But what about mistakenly writing "then" for "than"? Isn't that done everywhere, and doesn't it represent the same vowel as merged pin/pen and today's mini/many?

  44. Graeme said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

    Mr Logic says the mistake is forgveable. Even if the listener isn't antipodean.
    No rational consumer orders two mini anythings when one regular one is cheaper!

  45. Sevly said,

    February 20, 2017 @ 5:59 pm

    Took a while to get this, too. I do agree that, even without the pen/pin merger, there's little difference in the initial vowels of "many" and "mini" when both are reduced. But I also agree entirely with Zeppelin and David Marjanović—the stress pattern is what breaks this for me. Especially because the comic writes it with the hyphen: I could buy "too many donuts" and "two mini donuts" as both having primary stress on their second-last syllable, even if I still wouldn't say the latter like that myself, but surely using the hyphen removes all doubt of it and "two mini-donuts" has primary stress on its second syllable instead, no? And well, if you try to read it as both being stressed on the second syllable, then that's when the unreduced vowel qualities come back in and the pen/pin merger becomes more important.

  46. David Malki ! said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 2:59 am

    As the author of this comic, I'm quite charmed by the discussion, and appreciate everyone's thoughts and the close reading. I've posted some clarifying remarks of my own over on Wondermark:


  47. Rodger C said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 7:59 am

    @Levantine: My students never write "ink-pin," but they frequently write "ink-pen." They recognize the orthographic distinction, but they've never actually heard "pen" as a stand-alone noun.

  48. Chuck Pergiel said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

    I didn't get the mini-many confusion. I took it that wheelbarrow Willy understood the phrase 'two mini donuts' to be short hand for a whole bunch of donuts, but we say 'two' to keep the food Nazis pacified. I mean, it's okay to eat two mini donuts, but no more than that. Whereas for a person who likes to eat donuts, two mini donuts in not enough to even get a real taste. Therefor 'two mini donuts' means enough donuts to satisfy my donut cravings, which are no doubt similar to yours, for who doesn't like donuts? (Food Nazis will deny liking donuts, but they hide behind things like health and safety regulations).

  49. Jim said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 3:14 pm

    My issue with this — I don't believe it — isn't in pronouncing "mini" and "many" the same, but in the "word spacing" (I'm sure there's a different term for it). "Too many donuts" should get about the same "space" (pause) between each word, but "two mini-donuts" gets a shorter pause (or none at all) in the hyphenated word.

    Unless spoken by an automatron, this confusion shouldn't occur.

  50. Mark said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

    I think Rubrick is right. I have the pen-pin merger, and I think I would pronounce "mini donuts" the same as "many donuts", but I didn't get the joke at first. I clearly didn't translate the written word into spoken language, or, at least if I did, it carried enough meta-data to know the difference.

  51. Mark said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

    I forgot to change the Name field to Mark P, to distinguish myself from the other Mark P.

  52. Amy Whitson said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

    A few people have commented that they would distinguish "too many donuts" and "two mini donuts" prosodically. I can imagine some kind of contrastive accent or pausing, but I am pretty sure that unless I had a reason to try to do so, I would say these phrases almost completely identically. I might stress "too/two" or "many/mini," but I don't see that reliably distinguishing between the two phrases.

  53. Amy Whitson said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    I should have specified that my accent is Missouri Ozarks.

  54. Mark P said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

    I also should have mentioned that I'm from northwest Georgia, deep in the heart of the pen-pin merger. We also pronounce penny as pinny.

    Levantine, the pen-pin merger is strictly spoken. There is no confusion that I'm aware of in the written language.

  55. Amy Whitson said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 10:24 pm

    "Levantine, the pen-pin merger is strictly spoken. There is no confusion that I'm aware of in the written language."
    Mark P,
    Well, I've certainly seen the kind of spelling errors that you would expect from a merger–usually in the direction of changing E to I. For example, I've seen "prencess" for "princess." I think for pen-pin merged folks, the "en" pronunciation is interpreted as the fancy way of saying it, so it contributes to some hypercorrections.

  56. mg said,

    February 21, 2017 @ 10:26 pm

    I'm not from pin/pen merger land but have friends who are. So when I was in DC for a meeting and my skirt elastic broke, I went to the hotel lobby and carefully asked the concierge if there were any safety pins available, foolishly thinking that would disambiguate things. Nope – 10 minutes later, a worker showed up with a handful of pens and I ended up trying to make do with a binder clip (which, in case anyone's wondering, is not an adequate substitute).

  57. messed a spot said,

    February 22, 2017 @ 12:22 am

    It seems to me that the confusion is doubled by the homonyms
    too/two, and I agree that wheelbarrow Willy deliberately misinterpreted
    the (only potentially ambiguous) bakery order to humorous effect.

  58. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 22, 2017 @ 1:36 am

    Meanwhile, I am trying to remember how long it has been since I saw the word doughnut spelled the traditional way — probably the last time was when I looked at a recipe card at Christmas. Dunkin' Donuts seems to have lost a trademark spelling to the masses.

  59. RP said,

    February 22, 2017 @ 3:22 am

    M-W has "doughnut or less commonly donut". (Could be out of date!) Oxford Dictionaries Online (US version) has "doughnut (also donut)".

    Oxford Dictionaries Online (UK version) has "doughnut (US donut)", which gives the reader the impression that "donut" is the sole or at least primary US spelling. "Doughnut (US also donut)" would be a more sensible way of presenting the information, unless (unlike the US version of the same dictionary) they now regard "donut" as the main US spelling.

    As a Brit, I wasn't aware that "donut" was a trademark (or is it just "Dunkin' Donuts" that's the trademark?). I just thought of it as the American way of writing "doughnut".

  60. Johan P said,

    February 22, 2017 @ 5:14 am

    I know pitch accent is not meant to be a feature in English, but as a second language speaker with a first language (Swedish) which distinguishes between compound words and non-compound noun phrases using pitch accents, I'm wondering if that's not part of what people are hearing as the difference between the two phrases.

    I hear "two mini-donuts" as "a abá ába" and "too many donuts" as "a ába ába", but again, I'm a second language speaker, so take it with a pinch of salt.

  61. Ellen K. said,

    February 22, 2017 @ 10:29 am

    There are plenty of companies besides Dunkin' Donuts who use the Donuts spelling. So it doesn't seen to be a trademark for anyone. (In the U.S.; The Wikipedia page for Dunkin' Donuts indicates "Donuts" is trademarked by another company in Spain.)

  62. Guy said,

    February 22, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

    @Johan P

    Pitch is one of the features of stress, so it's not surprising that you would hear variations in stress as pitch accent.

  63. George said,

    February 23, 2017 @ 7:49 am

    MollyMooly wrote that the pin-pen merger is also found in parts of Ireland, but more stigmatized. It is quite common to hear our (for now) Taoiseach / Prime Minister referred to mockingly as Inda Kinny, as he's from a part of the country (Mayo, in the West) where that happens, although he doesn't actually do it himself.

  64. philip said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 4:54 am

    Has the Scottish joke been mentioned yet?

    A little boy in a bakery in Glasgow points at one of the buns in the display and asks, 'Is that a doughnut or a meringue?'
    The baker replies, 'No, you're right son, it's a doughnut.'

    I'l get my coat …

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