Friday, October 26, 2007

Getting your turds wisted

Some of the most offensive jokes I know use an implied spoonerism as the punchline. Certain answers to the question 'What's the different between X and Y' easily evoke the same phrase with some inverted onsets. Especially when the words in the punchline aren't too common or are similar to conspicuously offensive words.

And the relative frequency of spoonerisms as a speech error is good evidence that word sounds are organised in a manner that makes onset inversion one of the easier switches.

But similar sounds can easily invert even if one an onset and the other is a coda. Even if the syllable onset is word internal.

In the office the other day Ed our renaissance scholar was admitting the daunting task of submitting writing to our esteemed professors. One professor--last name Ross--is known for speaking his mind and not suffering foolishness. "I definitely feel the presure...pressure with Ross. I do feel the presure."

Buffy looked over at me. I looked up at her. "You're going into his blog" she announced to Ed.

I've chosen "presure" to represent his pronunciation with the alveolar [s] instead of the postalveolar fricative [ʃ]. I was sad to hear that he didn't actually flip the [s] and [ʃ]. He caught himself before he completed the phrase--corrected the pronunciation of pressure--and proceeded to say "Ross" instead of "Rosh" as I was hoping to hear.

But when I told him that he paused and suggested that he might have in fact said "Rosh."

"No" I assured him. "I was hoping you would."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I was disappointed when I heard you pronounce the [s]."

But he did offer another interesting error. When he repeated pressure it flipped back to the alveolar fricative.

That leads me to the following mysteries:

It's not clear that the first [s] was a result of switched segments. He corrected himself and perhaps it was regressive assimilation (over a long distance) from the [s] in Ross. Maybe he was never going to say Rosh. That's not as fun.

The [s] in the last performance of pressure didn't precede an occurrence of Ross--so progressive assimilation from the already pronounced "Ross" is likely. But it's more exciting to think that it was a partially realized inversion--the other half of which was never going to be pronounced. If so then even tho the second "Ross" wasn't going to make it to performance it was still part of the organization and structure of his sentence. And we saw its ghost by the appearance of the coda [s] in the 2nd syllable onset when he said "presure" [pɻɛsɹ̩ ] instead of "pressure" [pɻɛʃɹ̩ ].

An inversion through phonemic haunting perhaps?



  1. "Phonemic haunting?"--are you sure you want that spectacular statistically improbable phrase just hanging around in the public domain for anyone to borrow before you publish an article with that as part of the title?

    The phrase turns up exactly one (1) hit on Google: and that's this blog post.


    Also, I'm really getting comfortable with your scarce commas, and I would consider taking the habit up myself (I like the way it makes me read) but I fear that I would forget the demands of grammarians and editors who might not be ready for such an age-of-Aquarius style.

  2. Isn't this phonemic switcheroo the basis of (at least some) tongue twisters? "She sell seashells by the seashore." Including the spontaneous kind where after someone says something, the remark will be floated "Say that 5 times fast."

    > Some of the most offensive jokes I
    > know use an implied spoonerism as
    > the punchline

    Ha. It's tempting to list some here. "An array of stunning ..." :-)

    -- Mike


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