Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Another frog dissection

Buford, a shy and unpopular man frequents a bar where he tries to meet women with no success. He grows more and more frustrated night after night, but he comes to recognize an average looking fellow who is much more successful. From his barstool the shy man watches as the other guy walks confidently up to many woman, strikes up a conversation and leaves the bar with his arm around her. He must find out the secret.

One night Buford walks up to the man and meekly asks him how he does it. "Simple" says the player. "I just walk right up to her when a loud song is playing and I playfully ask 'tickle your ass with a feather?' If she smiles or laughs I know I'm dealing with a freak and I'm in for a good time. If she looks offended and demands 'What did you say?!' I just say more clearly 'Particularly nasty weather.' She usually assumes she misheard me and we start talking. It can't fail."

"Oh--I don't know if I can do that" says Buford. "I'm so shy."
"You just need to build up your confidence" says the Casanova. "Relax. Have a few drinks. Pick out your target and walk right up to her knowing you're in charge. You'll be fine."

Buford figures he has nothing to lose so he sits at the bar and has a few drinks while waiting for his mark. He gets very nervous when an attractive woman sits down right next to him, so he takes one more drink and feels a surge of adrenaline. He silently goes over the phrase several times in his head just to get the rhythm right "tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather, tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather, tickle-your-ass-with-a-feather..." He takes a deep breath turns to the woman and blurts out "Can I stick a feather in your ass?"

This joke relies on a few variables that are hard to control in writing. Of course there is the pacing. The rhythm and intonation is hard to convey. The mishievous and charming delivery of the 'tickle' line is key. And the personality of each character through stammering, hedging, boasting, chuckling, or even just audible breathing do a lot for the joke.

This brings up of course the phonology. The joke must establish a similar phonetic contour for the two lines delivered by the successful seducer: tickle your ass with a feather and particularly nasty weather. Let's see how they match up.

/tɪkl jɔ:ɹ æs wɪθ ʌ fɛðɹ/
/paɻtɪkjulaɻlɪ næstɪ wɛðɹ/

If we rely on fast speech phonetics we can trim them down to look a little more similar. We move the [ɹ] to the be the onset of the following word (making [jɔ:ɹ] a weakened [jə]) then we rhotacize the penultimate vowel in "particularly" and cut down the first syllable of "particularly" noting that the [aɹ] is almost completely elided and so we are left with a non-standard syllabic [p] in [ptɪkjulɚlɪ]. We can also neutralize the vowel in [kju] which would more likely be pronounced [kjə]. So our respective phrases begin

The syllabic [p] is easily lost in a loud room and now the biggest difference between the phrases so far is the extra [lɪ] syllable. It's a word final syllable and it comes before a stressed ['næs-] so it is also easily lost in a cacophony. So now we have

Then we have the phrases "with a feather" and "-ty weather"
[wɪθ ʌ fɛðɹ]
[-tɪ wɛðɹ]

that unstressed indefinite article is almost inaubible. It's certainly more [ə] than [ʌ]. And the /f/ and /w/ are both labialized which in a raucus room would at least look similar while the listener uses all clues available to make out the phrase. So we'll tag them as "easily confused" phonemes, along with the other similar and even identical phonemes in the following parallel transcription.
tɪ.kl.ɹæs wɪθ ə fɛðɹ
p.tɪ.k.lɚ.lɪ.næstɪ wɛðɹ

We further note that approximant segments at the onset of the the second syllable in [jə.ɹæs] and [lɚ.lɪ] also contribute to the contour confusion.

And the punchline shows a beautiful disregard for the deliberate order of all those carefully chosen sets. And if you know how to slur your speech and sound drunk it really helps the delivery.


  1. Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part 1"

  2. after she slaps you for saying, stick a feather up your ass? you have to say, yeah it's pretty fucking cold out


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