A Linguistic Analysis of #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly

One of the really cool things about the internet is that it’s a great medium to observe linguistic innovations. A lot of examples of linguistic play that would  have been pretty ephemeral are now safely recorded and shared. (Can you imagine being able to listen to the first examples of Pig Latin? In addition to being cool, it might have told us even more about syllable structure than the game itself already does.)

One example that I’m pretty excited about is #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly, which is a language game invented by Chaz Smith. Smith is a Viner, Cinema Studies student at the University of Pennsylvania and advocate for sexual assault prevention. But right now, I’m mostly interested in his role as a linguistic innovator. In that role he’s invented a new type of language game, which you can see an example of here:

It’s been picked up by a lot of other viners, as well. You can seem some additional examples here.

So why is this linguistically interesting? Because, like most other language games, it has rules to it. I don’t think Chaz necessarily sat down and came up with them (he could have, but I’d be surprised) but they’re there none the less. This is a great example of one of the big True Things linguists know about language: even in play, it tends to be structured. This particular game has three structures I noticed right away: vowel harmony,re-syllabification and new stress assignment.

Vowel Harmony 

Vowel harmony is where all the vowels in a word tend to sound alike. It’s not really a big thing in English, but you may be familiar with it from the nursery rhyme “I like to eat Apples and Bananas“. Other languages, though, use it all the time: Finnish, Nez Perce, Turkish and Maasai all have vowel harmony.

It’s also part of this language game. For example, “tide” is pronounced so that it rhymes with “speedy” and “tomatoes” rhymes with “toe so toes”. Notice that both words have the same vowel sound throughout. Not all words have the same vowel all the way through, but there’s more vowel harmony in the  #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly words than there are in the original versions.

Re-syllabification 

Syllables are a way of chunking up words–you probably learned about them in school at some point. (If not, I’ve talked about them before.) But languages break words up in different places. And in the game, the boundaries get moved around. We’ve already seen one example: “tide”. It’s usually one chunk, but in the game it gets split in to two: “tee.dee”. (Linguists like to put periods in the middle of words to show where the syllable boundaries are.)

You might have noticed that “tide” is spelled with two  a silent “e” on the end. My strong intuition is that spelling plays a big role in this word game. (Which is pretty cool! Usually language games like this rely on mostly on sounds and not the letters used to write them.) Most words get each of the vowels in thier spelling produced separately, which is where a lot of these resyllabifications come from. Two consonants in a row also tend to each get their syllables. You can see some examples of each below:

  • Hawaiian  -> ha.why.EE.an
  • Mayonnaise -> may.yon.nuh.ASS.ee
  • Skittles -> ski.TI.til.ees

New Stress Assignment

English stress assignment (how we pick which syllables in a word get the most emphasis) is a mess. It depends on, among other things, which language we borrowed the word from (words from Latin and words from Old English work differently), whether you can break the word down into smaller meaning bits (like how “bats” is “bat” + “s”) and what part of speech it is (the “compact” in “powder compact” and “compact car” have stress in different places). People have spent entire careers trying to describe it.

In this word game, however, Smith fixes English stress. After resyllabificaiotn, almost all words with more than one syllable have stress one syllable in from the right edge:

  • suc.CESS -> SUC.cess
  • pe.ROK.side -> pee.rok.SEED.dee
  • col.OGNE -> col.OG.nee
  • HON.ey stays the same

But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that there are some exceptions, like Skittles:

  • Skittles -> ski.TI.til.ees
  • Jalapenos -> djuh.LA.pen.os

Why are these ones different? I think it’s probably because they’re plural, and if the final syllable is plural it doesn’t really count. You can hear some more examples of this in the Vine embedded above:

  • bubbles -> BOO.buh.lees
  • drinks -> duh.RIN.uh.kus
  • bottles -> BOO.teh.less

So what? 

Ok, so why is this important or interesting? Well, for one thing it’s a great example of how humans can’t help but be systematic. This is very informal linguistic play that still manages to be pretty predictable. By investigating this sort of language game we can better characterize what it is to be a human using language.

Secondly, this particular language games shows us some of the pressures on English. While it’s my impression that the introduction of vowel harmony is done to be funny (especially since there are other humorous processes at work here–if a word can be pronounced like “booty” or “ass” is usually is) I’m really interested in the resyllabification and stress assignment–or is that ree.sill.luh.ah.bee.fee.ca.TEE.oin and STUH.rees ass.see.guh.nuh.MEN.tee? The ways they’re done in this game is real improvement over the current way of doing things, at least in terms of being systematic and easy to learn. Who knows? In a couple centuries maybe we’ll all be #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly.

Do sign languages use the feet?

So one of the things that a lot of people who aren’t familiar with sign languages tend to find surprising is that there’s a lot more involved than just the hands. In fact (as I think I’ve mentioned before), fluent signers actually focus on the eyes of the person they’re signing with — not the hands at all. That makes it easier to see things like grammatical facial expressions. But it the use of other body parts doesn’t stop there. In fact, I was recently surprised to learn that several sign languages around the world actually make use of the feet during signing! (If you’d asked me even a couple of months ago, I’d have guessed there weren’t any, and I was super wrong.)

Dancers' feet

Signs Produced on the Feet

So one way in which the feet are used during signing is that some signs are produced with the hands, but on top of or in contact with the feet. Signers aren’t usually bending down to touch their toes in the middle of signing, though. Usually these are languages that are mainly used while sitting cross-legged on the ground. As a result, the feet are easily within the signing space.

Signs Produced With the Feet!

Now these are even more exciting for me. Some languages actually use the feet as active articulators. This was very surprising to me. Why? Well, like I said before, most signers tend to look at other signers’ eyes while they’re communicating. If you’re using your feet during signing, though, your communication partner will need to break eye contact, look down at your feet, and then look all the way back up to your face again. That may not sound like a whole lot of work, but imagine if you were reading this passage and every so often there was a word written on your knee instead of the screen. It would be pretty annoying, and languages tend not to do things that are annoying to their users (because language users stop doing it!).

  • Some sign languages that produce signs with the feet:
    • Walpiri Sign Language (Australia): Signs like RUN and WALK in this language actually involve moving the feet as if running or walking.
    • Central Taurus Sign Language (Turkey): Color signs are produced by using the toe to point to appropriately colored parts of richly colored carpets. (Thanks to Rabia Ergin for the info!)
    • Highland Mayan Sign Language/Meemul Tziij (Guatamala): Signers in this language not only use their feet, but they will actually reach down to the feet while standing. (Which is really interesting–I’d love to see more data on this language.)

So, yes, multiple sign languages do make use of the feet as both places of articulation and active articulators. Interestingly, it seems to be predominantly village sign languages–that is, sign languages used by both deaf and hearing members in small communities with a high incidence of deafness. I don’t know of any Deaf community sign languages–which are used primarily by culturally Deaf individuals who are part of a larger, non-signing society–that make use of the feet. I’d be very interested to hear if anyone knows of any!