An amateur gets it right

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We not infrequently point out the gaffes of non-linguists who misuse linguistic terminology and concepts, so I'm pleased for once to have an example of the opposite type, an instance in which a non-linguist has correctly used a technical term from linguistics. In his novel Bad Business at p. 302, Robert B. Parker writes:

"You fucking prick," Lance said to O'Mara. He managed to make the words hiss without any sibilants.

Many people know sibilant in its non-technical sense of "making a hissing sound", but here Parker is clearly using the term in its technical, linguistic sense, in which it refers to a class of consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow passage resulting in a hissing sound. Parker's sentence would be a contradiction if sibilant were meant in the non-technical sense, but is perfectly sensible if sibilant has its technical sense: he is asserting that Lance's utterance "you fucking prick" contains no consonants like [s] and [z], which is correct, but that it nonetheless gave the auditory impression of hissing. Congratulations to Robert Parker.



10 Comments

  1. Ray Girvan said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    The SF newsletter Ansible has a running moan about instances of unhissable hissing – although they do mention a possible get-out in the Oxford American Dictionary, which defines one sense of "hiss" as "to whisper something in an urgent or angry way".

  2. rone said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 1:51 am

    A similar passage can be found near the end of Steven Brust's "Taltos".

  3. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 2:08 am

    Both the /f/ and the /r/ can be pronounced in a way that give the auditory impression of sibilance, though neither is a sibilant as such. Trying hissing "pea ball" and see how far you get.

  4. Mercedes Polledo said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 6:39 am

    P. G. Wodehouse writes in a hilarious preface to Joy in the Morning:

    "The world of which I have been writing ever since I was so high . . . is non-existent. . . . This is pointed to me every time a new book of mine dealing with the Drones Club of Jeeves and Bertie is published in England. 'Edwardian!' the critics hiss at me. (It is not easy to hiss the word Edwardian, containing as it does no sibilant, but they manage it.)"

    The preface has no date in my edition. The book was published in 1946 in the US and in 1947 in Great Britain.

  5. Breffni said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 7:17 am

    The SF newsletter Ansible has a running moan about instances of unhissable hissing – although they do mention a possible get-out in the Oxford American Dictionary, which defines one sense of "hiss" as "to whisper something in an urgent or angry way"

    That doesn't seem like a "get-out" to me, it's the only plausible interpretation of quotative "hiss". Otherwise, are we supposed to assume that only the sibilants (and voiceless fricatives) get hissed? Hardly noteworthy. Or that they get especially hissed? Take one of the OED quotes, "'You shall yet repent this', he hissed" – could the author really have meant us to read it as "You sssshhhhhhall yet repent thissssssss?" No. Quotative "hiss" refers to voice quality. Everything is hissable.

  6. Scall said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 7:41 am

    Strictly speaking, Parker is a non-linguist. However, he also has a PhD in English Lit from BU and taught at Northeastern until the success of his deservedly popular detective novels about Spenser (who introduces himself as "Spenser. With an 'S,' like the poet.") made him a very wealthy man.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    Breffni > That doesn't seem like a "get-out" to me, it's the only plausible interpretation of quotative "hiss".

    Well, get-out in the sense that the writers almost certainly had nothing as justifiable in mind. The Ansible collection is in the context of Thog's Masterclass, regular examples from authors apparently blind to the literal meaning of what appears on the page.

  8. Peter Smith said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Thank-you, Ms. Polledo, for leaping forward with the observation that shot to top-of-mind for many a reader of the Log, I am sure – Pelham G. used the "absence of sibilants" gag on more than one occasion, each time far more elegantly and amusingly than in the example earning here plaudits for the plagiant Parker. Congratulations, forsooth…

  9. john riemann soong said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

    So what did Lance do to his sentence anyway? Did he employ stronger-than-normal aspiration? Use the harsh voice?

  10. Edward Carney said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    Plum was not above recycling gags. He "flattered himself" sincerely and repeatedly. But he always managed to tweak it neatly to make it seem slightly less used. Here are two more examples from short stories. There are at least two other occurrences in the Jeeves novels.

    "He ought to be taken down a peg or two," hissed the Snake-Killer. It is not easy to hiss a sentence without a single "s" in it, and the fact that he succeeded in doing so shows what a pitch of emotion the man had been goaded by Ferdinand's maddening air of superiority.From "Heart of a Goof"in UK: Heart of a Goof (1926)in US: Title: Divots (1927)

    "You!" said Sir Roderick finally. And in this connection I want to state that it's all rot to say that you can't hiss a word that hasn't an "s" in it. The way he pushed out that "You!" sounded like an angry cobra, and I am betraying no secrets when I mention that it did me no good whatsoever.From "Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit"UK/US: Very Good, Jeeves (1930)

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