Grover's F-bomb

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An audio ambiguity was recently posted on YouTube, like Yanny v. Laurel but more socially evocative. What Grover actually said was presumably

Move the camera! Yes, yes, that sounds like an excellent idea!

But you can also hear it as

Move the camera! Yes, yes, that's a fucking excellent idea!

Phonetics homework problem: Create phonetic transcriptions for the two versions aligned with the waveform and spectrogram for the segment "yes, that sounds like an"/"yes, that's a fucking", as shown below. Explain why both transcriptions are plausible.

Here's a larger audio context, FWIW.



25 Comments

  1. Sergey said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

    That's even better than Yanni/Laurel! The weird effect is that in this record I hear "f..ing" if I listen casually, and start hearing "sounds like an" if I listen attentively. Relax a little, and it comes back to "f..ing". Perhaps with the causual listening the brain doesn't pick up the details of the very fast speech and reverts to the nearest match?

  2. NSBK said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

    I'll ignore the "yes" on the front and start with "that('s)":

    … that sounds like an …
    /ðætsaʊndzl/

    … that's a fuckin' …

  3. NSBK said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 5:46 pm

    [[I hit submit earlier than I meant to]]

    I'll ignore the "yes" on the front and start with "that('s)":

    … that sounds like an …
    /'ðætsaʊndzlaɪkən/
    /'ðætsəfəkɪn/
    … that's a fuckin' …

    This segment of the sentence is grouped together by Grover('s voice actor) such that there is only really one stressed syllable in the front (the æsh in "that"). So in true English style, all of the other vowels have reduced distinguishability.

    The main thing I think is ehat's going on within the consonant cluster /ndzl/ from the intended pronunciation. I think that the /z/ is overpowering everything else there (in terms of length and amplitude), and that /z/ for some reason is sounding like /f/.
    I can't for the life of me hear it with an /s/ (as though the /z/ were undervoiced) so I my next guess there is that maybe the /z/ sounds more like a /v/?

    In any case, the transcript " fucking " should really be " fuckin' " with a so-called dropped g. I don't hear a "ng" sound at all there.

  4. Viseguy said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 6:14 pm

    That's a doozy. I can "will" myself to hear it either way, or even both at the same time, something I could not do with Yanny/Laurel.

  5. Ross Presser said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    When I listened on my Android smartphone, I could only hear the nonprofane version.
    When I listen on my desktop computer with better speakers, I can hear either version at will.

  6. Martha said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

    I can hear them either way at will, but I heard the real thing the first few times.

    Can I make a suggestion for the next post about an audio ambiguity? Put the video before any explanation. A while back there was a post about a Taylor Swift song (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16169) that I hadn't heard before, which I heard correctly after reading the lyrics. Much like my hearing of Grover, I can't be sure I would have heard Taylor correctly if I hadn't already been given the "answer."

  7. Rick Rubenstein said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 9:45 pm

    I think we all pretty much knew Grover had a bit of a potty-mouth off-camera, right? It was bound to slip through sooner or later.

  8. Mark P said,

    December 28, 2018 @ 11:19 pm

    I listened multiple times on my iPhone and could hear only the profane version. If I tried really hard I might convince myself that I heard something really slurred that wasn't "fucking" but sounded essentially just like it.

  9. Leonid Broukhis said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 1:00 am

    At the regular speed, I can switch between the two versions at will, "fucking" being the default if I don't make a mental effort. At the 0.75x speed, I can only hear "sounds like", and I cannot switch to "fucking" no matter how hard I try.
    Was the clip deliberately sped up to create the illusion?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 4:29 am

    I have not yet listened to the recording. What fascinated me, though, was Mark's use of "Grover" without any surrouinding context. I assume that Grover is the cartoon character pictured in the poster frame of the video, but (a) who is he, and (b) is he really so widely known that one can speak of "Grover" as one might speak of (e.g.,) Nelson Mandela and assume that one's entire audience would be immediately aware of whom one was speaking ?

  11. Hans Adler said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 5:03 am

    @Philip Taylor: It seems you managed to grow up without exposure to Sesame Street. The English name is immediately recognisable to me without context – even though I am way more familiar with the German version, which translated his name as "Grobi".

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 5:27 am

    Well, yes, "Sesame Street" (of which I was until now unaware, but which I have just researched using Google) did indeed fail to impinge on my stream of consciousness during my formative years. The Magic Roundabout, on the other hand, left a deep and lasting impression, as did the 1972 series "Kung Fu" starring David Carradine, which (as it happens) my wife and I are watching at this very moment … "Horses for courses", I suppose.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    Philip Taylor: The Magic Roundabout, on the other hand, left a deep and lasting impression

    Just seeing a picture of it left a lasting impression on me. In my driving in western England a few years ago, I was exceedingly careful to avoid Swindon.

    What? Oh. Never mind.

    Seriously, I wonder whether there's public information about how widely various TV shows, fictional characters, etc., are known.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 11:48 am

    Come come, Sir, you surely mean "Slough", not "Swindon". "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! / It isn't fit for humans now, / There isn't grass to graze a cow. / Swarm over, Death!"

    Sir John Betjeman, 1908–1984, Poet-Laureate 1972++. Probably the finest Poet-Laureate we have ever had (or ever will have), and certainly the most accessible.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

    I take it, Sir, that you merely feign not to know to which Magic Roundabout I made reference but a moment past.

    Since I've already furthered the hijacking of the thread once, I'll leave Betjeman alone.

  16. Mark P said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

    When I played this for my wife, and had to turn it up for her, I heard the non-profane version every time.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 7:36 am

    I can also hear it both ways, but my perception is definitely affected by whether I'm looking at the image or not. The putative sequence /fʌ/ of the F-bomb version coincides nicely with Grover's mouth going from an apparent labial closure to an apparent low vowel, which – if I'm looking at the image while I listen – seems to elicit some sort of McGurk effect . If I listen with my eyes closed, I have to work a little harder to get the F-bomb percept.

    Anyone else have the same reaction?

  18. Christian DiCanio said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 9:06 am

    I can also hear it both ways and my reaction matches what Bob Ladd said above – I find it harder to hear the [f] when I'm not looking at the video. (Though, Grover has rather stiff articulators, so I don't know why this is.) I think that the vowels are rather reduced here too and this contributes to the percept. I've written up a summary of my thoughts on this here:

    https://christiandicanio.blogspot.com/2018/12/is-grover-swearing-no-its-in-your-ears.html

  19. Roscoe said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

    I find it highly unlikely that Grover would ever say "that's a fucking excellent idea."

    After all, it's been established from the earliest episodes of "Sesame Street" that he never uses contractions.

  20. Brettb said,

    December 30, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

    I can usually chose which way I want to hear these ambiguous phrases with relative ease. However, this time it took quite a few attempts before I could hear the incorrect version with "fucking."

  21. Kris said,

    December 31, 2018 @ 8:35 am

    I can only hear the profane version, and it sounds incredibly clear. I expected it to be somewhat difficult to distinguish or sound not exactly like either option, but it sounds to me unambiguously like "like a f**king…"

  22. Kris said,

    December 31, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    And then on listening again, I decided to try my hardest to hear "sounds like an" and after about four tries I was able to hear "sounds like an" very very clearly, but it took an unnatural level of focus. Once I dropped my focus, it took about two more times to go back to "fucking" and that version started to be unambiguously the winner again.

    Wow.

  23. Steven Gross said,

    December 31, 2018 @ 11:45 am

    I can make it switch by mouthing along with it the sound I want to hear.

  24. Neal Whitman said,

    January 2, 2019 @ 1:49 am

    Challenge accepted: https://literalminded.wordpress.com/2019/01/02/grover-and-the-excellent-idea/

  25. Jen Sheffield said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 10:54 am

    Strange — my first hearing went right to the profane, so that I wondered how it would parse without, and then when the loop replayed, I could only hear "sounds like," very clearly, in succeeding times.

    Also, kudos to Roscoe for pointing out the contractions!

    @Philip Taylor: In case your questions weren't fully answered in your search…
    First a point of clarification: The creatures here are not considered cartoon characters but instead Muppets, which are a kind of puppet designed by Jim Henson and the Children's Television Workshop. They come in various kinds: frogs, monsters, humans, bears, etc., and they interact with the actual human actors on the show.
    1) So Grover is a muppet; more particularly he is a monster, a self-described "cute, furry monster," and he has been part of Sesame Street for its entire run. He tends to be charming and sweet and a little on the bumbling side.
    2) I suspect pretty strongly that for Americans, Grover is actually more recognizable by name than Nelson Mandela. Sesame Street will be 50 years old this year, and there have been numerous runs of toys and other things to bring the characters to those who didn't watch public television as kids. Perhaps more importantly, the name "Grover" has not been in common usage. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I really only heard the name (aside from Sesame Street) in relation to Grover Cleveland and Grover Washington, Jr. So unlike, say, the human character Susan, who would have to be referred to as "Susan from Sesame Street" (or perhaps "Susan of Susan and Gordon," since they're pretty iconic as a couple), Grover as a name has relatively few referents, and almost none who'd be first-name-only.

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