Monday, September 24, 2007

Dialectal equality in jeopardy on Jeopardy!

One of Friday's Jeopardy! categories comprised pieces of advice to future contestants. Every clue/question pair offered a little detail that would make the difference between a correct response and an incorrect response.

One of the Jeopardy! policies is that an incorrect spelling of a word doesn't count against you unless it changes the pronunciation. So "Sally Feeld" would be acceptable but not "Sally Fields". (The common but incorrect final S in her name was mentioned in one of the clues.)

A later clue read: "Please please please put the Y before the N when we ask for this site of the vocal chords cords." (tho "chords" would be acceptable on Jeopardy!--unless the question was asking for the correct spelling.)note below

Accepted response: What is the larynx?

Adding a short comment on the correct answer Alex Trebeck specified the 'mistaken' form: "not the 'larnyx'" he said.

Now because the clue mentions Y I might guess that they're talking about spelling and not pronunciation. But you never know with Jeopardy! questions. Every once in a while their premise or claim deserves a buzzer.

And this clue is problematic. It shows a clear intolerance for metathesis in the common pronunciation: [laɹnɪks]--vowing to accept nothing but the slightly more common [læɹɪŋks]. (Vowels may be disputed but the relevant segments here are the [n~ŋ] and the [ɪ].) By this standard would they accept a spoken [ʤuləɹi]--a common pronunciation for jewelry? Would they penalize someone who wrote 'nucular'?

The problem here as I see is that the speakers who say 'larnyx' are not unaware of the other form nor are they mistakenly pronouncing it because of an error. Many people have learned the word this way because the pronunciation is an establish variant. They have probably been told by some ninny that they're saying it incorrectly. But they keep their pronunciation which is a witting choice--even if at a low-level.

We can get into the argument of standard and non-standard forms. But that's only going to get the Jeopardy! judges as far as an elitist and ignorant view of language variation can go. Right into the tar pit of...well--elitist ignorance.

I would understand if metathesis in 'earlobe' leading to 'eelrobe' was not accepted. That's a speech error. And it's not an attested learned/established variant.

I wonder how long ago Alex started accepting 'wasp' as an acceptable variant of 'wæps'.


*[Update: So perhaps the judges would now have to accept "chords" as a variant spelling. As OUP's Ben Zimmer assures us they are in fact both common enough to be attested standard--or at least widely accepted--spellings.]


  1. Was it actually spelled "vocal _chords_"? Not "cords"? I see the former spelling a lot and assume it's an error: vocal cords are ropy, indeed cordlike, whereas chords--formed from two or more musical notes--are sung in a chorus. Or are the two spellings now interchangeable?

  2. They're not interchangeable as far as I know. The typo is mine.


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