Friday, May 18, 2007

What is expected

I was surprised to read that when one does not hear a word or phrase the proper response is "What?" and not "Pardon?" This is according to the Los Angeles Times. Staff writer Kim Murphy explains that "'What?' is more posh." If posh is defined as conforming to the standards of royal etiquette.

I remember when my grade school classmate was reprimanded by a substitute teacher for asking "what?" when he didn't understand her. The substitute told him the proper response is "pardon?" or "excuse me?" At the time I thought "what?" made more sense. Why should the student ask forgiveness or excusing? He wanted to know what she said. So "what" made sense to me.

When his name was called and he responded with "what?" he was again lectured. "The proper response is "yes?" I could see "yes" making sense there. It's affirmation that you have heard the call. But I already had the impression that this substitute was too interested in silly manners. She said "about" with the Canadian [ʌʊ] (or perhaps [əʊ]) diphthong ("aboot" in most orthographic representations) so to my 8 year old ears the exotic difference meant that perhaps she belonged to a stodgy and inflexible class. She was after all trusted with the distinctive honour of driving the school bus too. Anyone who could teach and chauffeur the youth of America must be of exalted lineage.


  1. Is there a deep structure for each of the responses? Maybe "What did you say?", "Pardon me for not hearing what you said (paying attention to each syllable uttered from your divine lips), would you please repeat yourself?", and maybe "What is it that you have summoned me for dearest one of exalted lineage?"

  2. I'm not sure what the elided forms are in each case. I'm guessing you're on the right track with "what did you say?" or "what was that (that you said)?"

    Pardon might be "I beg your pardon (for not hearing)" or "(please) pardon me (for not hearing)" or "will you pardon me (for not hearing)?"

  3. Yes, "what?" is just plain bad. I prefer to say, "I'm sorry?" when I fail to hear something someone says to me . . . though now that you mention it, why SHOULD I have to apologize? I think I may have caught myself saying "What's that?" from time to time as well -- maybe that's a bit better . . . more honest than an apology or request for forgiveness, but less abrupt than a "what?"

  4. I just cup my ear and raise my eyebrows and hum, "Hm?"

  5. I think I have intonation issues.

    I use a low-then-high m-hm as indicating yes or something similarly affirmative. But occasionally people respond to it by repeating themselves. I think perhaps my initial m, the low-tone segment comes out too soft while the hm higher-toned segment comes out louder, which makes it sound like 'hm?' which I would never say anyway. Always 'pardon' or 'sorry'. But I do say 'what' around people I know - colloquially.

    Man, I'm inundated with speech impediments! I found out a couple of years ago that I have a slight lisp! No one ever told me!

  6. I probably ask "what?" when I'm at my most relaxed -- "what was that?" when I'm slightly more attentive to tone -- "pardon?" or "excuse me?" or "I'm sorry?" in those very rare instances when I'm hoping to sound polite.

    Why does "I'm sorry?" rise as a question? I know if I'm sorry.

    Jaŋari: did you recognize your lisp when it was pointed out to you? How was it characterized?

  7. I recognised it straight away and even had some retrospective insight into it. My friends pointed it out for some reason, that my 's' is slightly wrong. In articulatory jargon I'd say my coronal alveolar fricative is slightly interdentalised, close to my θ, but not quite enough to sound any less like an 's', just enough to ensure I occasionally eat my words a bit.

    Re: "I'm sorry(?)", I reckon such is the prosodic requirement of the underlying implicature, that no matter what you chose to say, it'd sound like a question.

    Speaker X: I look great in a suit
    Speaker Y: Treble clef?
    Speaker X: I said "I look great in a suit"

    Call it a very weak intuition, but I'm starting to think you could insert any non-sequitur you like, as long as the intonation sounds the way it does with "I'm sorry?".

  8. michael covarrubias23 May, 2007 04:55

    The intonation reminds me of the old joke "Squeeze Me?" "Baking powder?" You're use of "Treble Clef?" works well as an example.

    It seems to me that the intonation isn't identical to other questions. Let's use 'pardon' for the point. Imagine speaker 1 says

    You'll never guess what the governor gave me.

    And speaker B says


    If the question were intended as a leading question -- as if to ask if the governor granted a pardon -- intonation would start lower then rise, but not as high. If the question is intended to ask for repetition the intonation would start higher and rise.

    Or am I just adding contours on my own here?


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