Monday, February 11, 2008

Barnyard humor

I can't believe I sat through an entire 2 hours of The 100 Most Outrageous Moments of All-Time! last night. It was the same battery of TV clips and bloopers that NBC likes to play whenever they don't expect many viewers. Last night it was sort of a ratings tap-out opposite the Grammys.

There's no longer any surprise that the capstone of the show is going to be the witless newlywed's confused response to Bob Eubanks: "In the ass..."

Or at least that's what I figure is being bleeped. The first time I heard about this clip I was in high school and it was in the middle of its urban legendary mutation. It was supposedly a black man who responded quickly (because he was making an obvious joke according to my friend): That'd be up the butt Bob. For some reason Bob always makes it into the legend.

One of the funnier clips is one cameraman's reaction after a Space Shuttle countdown when the boosters aren't igniting and the there's nothing happening on the launchpad. He suddenly swears "Oh @#$% I'm in the wrong place!" and the camera pans frantically over to a shuttle that has already taken off from another launchpad.

And I saw a new one this time. New to me. It has been on YouTube for a while. An announcer calling a horse race almost 20 years ago gives an excited call as the announcers typically do.

But first:

(I don't give away the joke with this preamble. But you can just skip to the video if you don't want the phonological background information.)

There is a phonological rule in English that shortens lengthens a vowel before a voiceless voiced consonant or when word final. So the vowel in sweet is the same as the vowel in Swede -- just shorter. [Update: I absent-mindedly combined this prevoiced/no coda lengthening with the prevoiceless effect of Canadian Raising.]

sweet [swit]
Swede [swiːd]

There are some confusing possibilities. Consider the interaction with a rule that leads to a glottal stop instead of a voiceless alveolar stop at the end of a word. Changing the pronunciation of cute: [kjut] → [kjuʔ].

So let's imagine that Gwyneth Paltrow's little daughter is adorable: we could call her a cute Apple. And 'cute Apple' would likely be pronounced without the [t] sound as a coda. The phrase [kjuʔ.æpl̩] might be confused with 'Cue Apple' a phrase a stage director might say when it's the little darling's turn to make her stage appearance. That possible confusion is because word with a vowel onset will often get a glottal stop onset if the preceding word doesn't end with a consonant: [æpl̩] → [ʔæpl̩]

So how can we tell if the uttered phrase is 'Cute Apple' or 'Cue Apple'? Well that vowel lengthening rule helps. If the vowel is short it would likely be perceived as part of a word with a voiceless stop coda. either [kjut] or [kjuʔ] would be pronounced with a short [u]. But if the vowel is perceptively longer [uː] it would likely be heard as part of a word that has no coda -- just like [kjuː].

So the glottal stop in [kjuʔ.æpl̩] gets syllabified as a coda because of the short vowel -- and in [kjuː.ʔæpl̩] it's syllabified as an onset because of the long vowel (since the syllabification would be in a feeding relationship with the vowel lengthening rule). Now watch this.

The onset [f] makes a clearer onset than does the [h] and might serve as a sort of maximizing segment so [hufˈhaɹɾəd] might give way to [huˈfarɾəd] -- especially when the announcer certainly gets the joke and is willing to play along -- and he really draws out that one [huːː] that sells the resyllabification.

For a pronunciation that is clearly working to avoid the joke just listen to Keith Olbermann's clearly syllabified [ˈhuf . haɹɾəd] here. Notice how short the vowel is in his pronunciation of hoof. And of course the long enough pause completely avoids a mishearing.


  1. That's just so weird to me, because I don't pronounce "hoof" that way. It's the same vowel as in "hook". Which is odd, now I think about it, because "roof" and "aloof" and "goof" and "poof" and "proof" are all with that u ... "woof" can be - warp and woof always, doggy noises usually, but "woof" as an exclamation is not..., it rhymes with "roof".

    You know, when you actually pay attention to how you speak, it's weird, isn't it?

  2. True. I thought I had mentioned that. I notice that you first list 'roof' as a [u] word then you say it rhymes with the exclamation 'woof' which I take it you're saying is a [ʊ] word.

    Have I misread?

    The strangest thing about paying attention to how I speak is that I've gotten confused about so many pronunciations. I'm not sure if I say [huf] or [hʊf].

  3. Actually, I was talking about this with someone yesterday, and I realize that I say roof with [ʊ] usually. Rooftop is [u], strangely. And dogs say woof [ʊ] but I say woof [u] ...

    Jim was "an reconstructed" [ʊ] for roof and poof, too. For me, poof is like woof - a poof [ʊ] of smoke, but poof [u]!

    As you say, it's hard to be sure just exactly how you say things when you start thinking about them.


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