Annals of homophony

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"Bunny Wailer, Reggae Pioneer With the Wailers, Dies at 73", NYT 3/2/2021:

Bunny Wailer, the last surviving original member of the Wailers, the Jamaican trio that helped establish and popularize reggae music — its other founders were Bob Marley and Peter Tosh — died on Tuesday at a hospital in Kingston, Jamaica. He was 73. […]

Formed in 1963, when its members were still teenagers, the Wailers were among the biggest stars of ska, the upbeat Jamaican style that borrowed from American R&B. On early hits like “Simmer Down” and “Rude Boy,” the three young men — who in those days wore suits and had short-cropped hair — sang in smooth harmony, threading some social commentary in with their onomatopoeic “doo-be doo-be doo-bas.”

I've enjoyed their music over the years — my favorite is probably "One Love". And I think the first time I saw them was in Boston in 1967. But I'm not sure.

My roommate was an early fan of Donovan, and got us tickets to a show on his U.S. tour. The opening act was described on the tickets and on the marquee as "The Whalers". We (and the rest of the audience) were puzzled about what a caribbean band had to do with whaling — John and I reckoned that maybe Jamaica was another source of harpooneers undocumented in Moby Dick? The audience was restless during their set, and it was hard to pay attention, so by the time I learned about the Wailers, I couldn't remember their performance well enough to be sure that that's who they really were. But who else would it have been?

Update — Readers wrapped up in the phonetics and sociolinguistics of aspirated /w/ should check out "Hwæt about WH?, 4/13/2011, and "Historical sociolinguistics in the movies", 1/1/2013.


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 2:15 pm

    I had a similar experience at a Bonnie Raitt concert in 1973, where the opening act was some guy nobody had ever heard of from Asbury Park, NJ. Bruce Something-or-other.

  2. Tim said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 2:49 pm

    I think it was "Springstein".

  3. mg said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 4:02 pm

    Summer of '73, Balboa Park in San Diego, Chicago had this opening act called the Doobie Brothers (no Michael MacDonald yet).

  4. Tim said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 4:35 pm

    Is it strictly homophony if, in one, the "h" is sounded?

  5. Craig said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 4:44 pm

    To me the odd thing about this kind of mistake is that I don't think of "wail" and "whale" as homophones. "Whale" as I learned to say it has a breathiness at the beginning that "wail" doesn't have. Written phonetically, it would be more like "hwail". Is that not how other people say it?

    I had a similar sort of cognitive dissonance recently while reading Prof. Henry Louis Gates's new book "The Black Church". He criticized a white writer for transcribing a rural black woman's speech phonetically (i.e. in dialect), and in particular for writing her pronunciation of "when" as "wen". He claims there's no difference between the two, and therefore the writer must have been motivated by a desire to depict the black woman as backward and inferior. This seemed weird to me because, again, I pronounce "when" with breathiness, literally "hwen", so to me "when" and "wen" are not the same, and so Gates' interpretation seems uncharitable at best.

  6. Q. Pheevr said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 4:48 pm

    I guess 1967 is too early for it to have been the Hartford hockey team.

  7. Craig said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 4:55 pm

    (And yes, I also pronounce "which" differently from "witch" and "white" differently from "Wight".)

  8. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 5:07 pm

    I do pronounce the h in “hwael.” I don’t in “whale.” I know many people do, but I’m surprised that anyone would think everyone does. As far as I’m aware, without the h is the most common pronunciation in the US,

  9. Doug said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 5:09 pm

    It is well known that many modern English speakers, including a majority of the USA, do not make the historical wh/w distinction.

    I am not surprised that some people here do make that distinction, but I am surprised that some of them are unaware that the rest of us do not.

  10. Anthony said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 6:21 pm

    For me, born in the City of New York, all those wh- words sound like their w- brethren. Including whether/weather. Schoolteachers tried to get us to make the distinction, but though I could hear a difference it never stuck.

  11. KevinM said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 6:24 pm

    I guess for one night only they were The Boston Wailers.
    I live in the NYC area, and I don't hear a lot of hw; it's mostly unadorned w.

  12. Stephen Cash said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 7:02 pm

    My father and I were talking to a man from deep rural Texas whose line of business was stock tanks. At one point I remember my dad asking where the water came from. The man's reply was "Wales". That seemed unlikely. It took three attempts to suss out that it was his pronunciation of "wells."

  13. Mary Ellen said,

    March 7, 2021 @ 7:33 pm

    I wonder if there's a generational as well as regional element to whether the "hw" is pronounced?
    I was born at the tail end of WW2 in Minneapolis, and I'm sure my speech patterns are largely the result of my grandparents' and widowed mom's examples — all of them having grown up in eastern North Dakota. My grandmother was from an originally Canadian family who were even more originally from Highland Scotland; grandpa was from old New England English roots. When I was 7, mom married again and she and I moved to northern NJ to joing my new stepdad. I was thoroughly teased by the other kids for my accent; they being basically true Noo Yawkers. When I went to art college in Manhattan, a Brooklyn-born classmate observed one day that I was the only person she had ever heard sound the "h" in who what, where words. I had never noticed it, but once I did I found it kind of fascinating. Wonder if anyone has ever mapped it?


    For more, see "Historical sociolinguistics in the movies", 1/1/2013. ]

  14. Michael Vnuk said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 3:22 am

    Mark refers to ‘harponeers’. I would have expected ‘harpooners’ or possibly ‘harpooneers’, which I seem to remember from reading ‘Moby-Dick’. The URL Mark links to uses ‘harpooneer’, as does the website itself.

    I could find little evidence for the spelling ‘harponeer’ on the internet. ‘Harpooner’ is the usual form in the dictionaries I checked, but some list ‘harpooneer’ as a variant. I then wondered if there was more to the difference between ‘harpooner’ and ‘harpooneer’. My search led me to WikiDiff, which says at ‘harpooner’:

    ‘As nouns the difference between harpooner and harpooneer is that harpooner is a person who uses a harpoon, especially to hunt whales while harpooneer is a harpooner.’ [Better formatting in original.]

    This definition seems to be a roundabout way of saying that the words are the same. Is this a problem with some sort of machine-generated content or is it just poor preparation by a human? I couldn’t find out quickly how WikiDiff is supposed to work.

    [(myl) Should have been "harpooneers" as in Moby Dick, sorry for the typo.]

  15. David Morris said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 4:30 am

    One St David's Day I mentioned to a friend that it was St David's Day and that he was the patron saint of Wales. He looked puzzled and asked "What did he do to deserve that?". I said "He was born there". He said "Oh, Wales! I thought you said 'hwales'!" Either I make a distinction which I'm not aware of, or made it on this one occasion, or I don't make a distinction and he just heard me wrong.

  16. Rachael Churchill said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 5:46 am

    WikiDiff is machine-generated and is usually as useless as Michael describes, in my experience.

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 5:59 am

    Mary Ellen wrote:

    When I went to art college in Manhattan, a Brooklyn-born classmate observed one day that I was the only person she had ever heard sound the "h" in who what, where words.

    I'm puzzled by who. I don't think I've ever heard anyone pronounce the w or not pronounce the h.

  18. David C said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 6:58 am

    There is a long tradition of whaling in the Caribbean, and in fact several islands still have international permission for very limited whale hunts in recognition of that tradition. It has to be in oar-powered boats, and with harpoons wielded by hand. But the tradition seems to be dying out. On the island of Bequia, for example, they have been unable in recent years to find any young men with the skills (and the courage) to go whale hunting.

  19. cliff arroyo said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 7:17 am

    When given as stand alone words I consistently pronounce the h in words like what, when, whale, which, whip, why…. but as part of a sentence it's liable to disappear.

    Also, I was surprised to realize I pronounce which and witch differently because I didn't hear that difference (and only notice it now if I'm consciously listening for it).

  20. Chris Button said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 7:29 am

    In some ways, I've always found the symbol /ʍ/ somewhat a objectionable from a perspective of consistency. Although it's included in the original 1912 IPA handbook for English "wh-" words, Daniel Jones prefers to treat it as /w̥/ with the subscript circle for voicelessness in his "Sechuana Reader" (1916) and specifically notes the use in English. At least the 1916 approach prevents /w/ from receiving any preferential treatment over its other sonorant counterparts, but it still fails to distinguish pre-aspirated /ʰw/ from voiceless /w̥/. Yet it seems there is little attempt to distinguish pre-aspirated sonorants from voiceless sonorants in linguistic literature outside of pieces focusing purely on phonetics. I suppose sometimes we're just dealing with positional variations. However, I also wonder if it results from a difference between glides and other sonorants such that a truly voiceless truly voiceless /n̥/ seems pretty unlikely as an onset relative to /ʰn/ (particularly so if the proto-form was *sn- with the pre-aspiration corresponding to the aspiration in something like /tʰ/ from an earlier *st-)

  21. Cervantes said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    "sang in smooth harmony, threading some social commentary in with their onomatopoeic “doo-be doo-be doo-bas.”

    Surprised I'm the first to notice that the word "onomatopoeic" is misused here. These are nonsense syllables. As for the band name, I expect the pun is intentional.

  22. Rodger C said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 7:47 am

    I pronounce wh as /hw/; in fact, I grew up on the blue dot at the WV-KY-OH juncture. H. L. Gates grew up at exactly the same time at the far opposite end of WV.

  23. John Swindle said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 9:51 am

    @Stephen Cash: I can hear in my mind's ear how Texan "wells" could sound like "Wales," but I wonder whether they don't nonetheless distinguish the two phonetically somehow.

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 10:31 am

    I wonder how many people here are convinced, introspectively, that they distinguish the w in "wails" and "whales," but empirically don't. Those sociolinguistic maps are based on self-reports too, but people are just bad at that sort of judgment. I did some work on intervocalic flapping/tapping long ago and most people were convinced that they did no such thing in words like "latter." Even in the face of spectrographic evidence, they could not be persuaded otherwise.

  25. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 11:13 am

    Back in college the local hippie coffee house had an Irish band that I heard was good, so I swung by but the place was packed so I skipped seeing The Chieftains. In retrospect, I should have gotten there early.

  26. KevinM said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 1:49 pm

    @Cervantes- In any other context (like Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night") you'd have to call these nonsense syllables. But given these performers' fondness for doobies . . .

  27. mae said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 3:03 pm

    Example of pronouncing the H in "who" — Flanders and Swann:

    I'm a g-nu, I'm a g-nu,
    The g-nicest work of g-nature in the zoo.
    I'm a g-nu, how d'you do?
    You really ought to k-now W-hoo's W-hoo!

  28. Cervantes said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 3:32 pm

    @KevinM: It's still not onomatopoeia. Doobies don't actually make that sound, and anyway in Jamaica they're called splifs.

  29. Amanda Adams said,

    March 8, 2021 @ 4:07 pm

    I want a blue dot in Seattle.

  30. karven said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 1:49 am

    We (and the rest of the audience) were puzzled about what a caribbean band had to do with whaling

  31. Paul Vlachos said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 1:55 am

    You probably did see a band called “The Whalers,” as the actual Wailers with Bunny (Whaler) never performed outside of the island of Jamaica until 1974.

  32. David Morris said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 6:56 am

    One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing Orlando Gibbons' setting of Walter Raleigh's poem What is our life? I found myself starting with 'hw', and after a few starts, the conductor asked us all to use 'hw'.

  33. Rodger C said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    I can hear in my mind's ear how Texan "wells" could sound like "Wales," but I wonder whether they don't nonetheless distinguish the two phonetically somehow.

    I'll bet the country is Wiles.

  34. Scott P. said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 10:03 am

    "Whale" as I learned to say it has a breathiness at the beginning that "wail" doesn't have. Written phonetically, it would be more like "hwail". Is that not how other people say it?

    Obligatory link:

  35. John Swindle said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    @Rodger C: Maybe so. With a glide in the middle of each of those.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 10:53 am

    The hockey-playing Hartford Whalers decamped for the Sunbelt in the late 1990's, but the internet tells me that central Connecticut more recently acquired a team in a different sport (roller derby) known as the Hartford Wailers. Not immediately clear whether they found it necessary or advisable for trademark purposes to get a license from whoever owns the NHL team's legacy intellectual property.

  37. Paul Mulshine said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 10:56 am

    When I was as a beach town in Oaxaca some years ago I was walking along when I met a guy from Texas walking toward me with his girlfriend. He said what I took to be "Did you see a whale down there?"
    I replied, "No, just some dolphins."

    He said. "Not that kind of a whale. A water whale."

    I honestly didn't know what he was talking about. All whales live in water.

    Finally I deduced he was talking about a "well." There wasn't one.

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 10:57 am

    And no disrespect intended to the late Bunny Wailer (who had to overcome the handicap of having been named "Neville" by his parents), but from a strictly musical-historical basis it might have been cooler if the young myl had seen a performance by the *other* Wailers/Whalers, who came not from the Caribbean but the shores of Puget Sound.

  39. Steven Grady said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 11:38 am

    Apparently Groucho Max didn't make the distinction, as suggested from this scene in _The Cocoanuts_, in which he is insulting (as usual) Margaret Dumont:

    "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales? I don't mean the present Prince of Wales; one of the old Wales. And believe me, when I say Wales, I mean whales. I know a whale when I see one."

  40. Roscoe said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 4:36 pm

    @Paul Mulshine: Sounds like the old joke about the Southern belle who meets a New England gentleman:

    "Where did y'all go to college?"

  41. Rodger C said,

    March 10, 2021 @ 7:52 am

    @Roscoe: Who was the other person she was addressing? ;)

  42. Alexander Browne said,

    March 11, 2021 @ 11:52 am

    @Rod Johnson: That's how I am for caught/cot. When I say those two, or other minimal pairs, the vowels feel different, especially the lip rounding, but I can't see any lip rounding in a mirror, and I bet they sound the same to anyone else.

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