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.

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Language Games*

A lot of the games that we play as kids help us learn important life skills. “I spy”? Color recognition. “Peekaboo”? Object permanence. But what about language games? In English, you’ve got games like pig Latin, which has several versions. Most involve moving syllables or consonants from the front of a word to the end, and then adding “-ay”. It’s such a prevalent phenomena that there’s even a Google search in pig Latin.

And English isn’t alone in having language games like this. In fact, every language I’ve studied, including Nepali and Esperanto, has had some form of similar language game.

Codex Manesse 262v Herr Goeli
“Ekchay Atemay!”
“Roland, please stop being so infantile. This is backgammon and I know perfectly well you’re fluent in Liturgical Latin.”
The weird thing, though, is that it kinda looks like the only people that language games are really useful for is linguists.

Let’s look at syllables. If you’re a normal person, you only think about them when you’re forced to write a haiku for some reason. (Pro tip: In Japanese, it’s not the syllables that you count but the moras.) If you’re a linguist, though, you think about them all the time, and spend time arguing about whether or not they actually exist. One of the best arguments for syllables existing is that people can move them around relatively intuitively without even having a university degree in linguistics when language games require it. (I know, shocking, isn’t it?)

And you can use the existence of language games to argue that there’s a viable speaker community of any given language, a sort of measure of language health, like mayflies in streams; that’s a valuable indicator, since language death is a serious problem. Or you can even use them to argue that a language is alive in the first place.

The main use of language games for language users, however, seems to be the creation of smaller speech communities within larger communities.  But then, as a linguist, you probably already knew that. Keep an ear out for them in everyday life, however, and you might be surprised how often they tend to crop up–like the use of -izz  in early hip hop parlance.

*If you thought I was going to bring up Wittgenstein in a blog post meant for people with little to no background in linguistics you are a very silly person. Oh, alright, here. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

Why are tongue twisters tricky? (Part 1)

For me, the best part of the 2009 Star Trek movie was the scene where Kirk tries to pick up Uhara in a bar. After she  says he probably doesn’t know what Xenolinguistics is, he replies:

The study of alien languages. Morphology, phonology, syntax. Means you’ve got a talented tongue.

Well. Four out of five isn’t bad. Linguists know about language, not the languages themselves–so tongue talents are a skill that linguists only develop tangentially. (Although, of course, a lot of linguists do end up learning the languages they work on.) But knowing about tongues is still pretty useful. For example, it helps explain why tongue twisters are so hard.

Rolled tongue flikr
Tongue rolling is actually probably not controlled genetically. That’s right, your introductory biology textbook lied to you.
Basically, your tongue is a muscle like any other muscle, and it has certain limits. For example, there’s just a certain upper limit to how fast you can type, knit or eat, you can only produce recognizable words so fast. In addition to speed, however, there are certain motions that are difficult to make. Linguists often refer to correctly producing a given sound as “hitting an articulatory target”, and that’s a useful metaphor. For each sound in your repertoire, your tongue (and other parts of your articulatory system) have to be in certain positions.

Exercise time! Try saying “s sh s sh s sh” and “t k t k t k”. In the first, the tip of your tongue should move from that little ridge in your mouth (just behind your front teeth) to behind that ridge. In the second, the “t” sound should be made with the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and the “k” with the very back of your tongue. (I’m assuming that you have the “sh” sound in your native language, otherwise this exercise might have been a little fruitless for you. Sorry.)

You might have noticed that it was a little easier to make the “t k” sound than it was the “s sh” sound. That’s because you’re using two different parts of your tongue to make the “t k” pair, so while one is making a sound, the other is preparing to and vice versa. On the other hand, if your only using the very tip of your tongue, you have to finish one task before you can move onto the next, so your rate of making sounds is much lower. It’s the same reason that assembly lines are so much faster–you don’t have the additional time it takes to switch tasks. (BTW, that’s why, if you play a wind instrument, you can tongue faster with “t k t k” than “t t t t”.)

Ok, so we have two pressures working against your ability to produce tongue twisters. The first is that your tongue can only move so fast. You can train it to move faster, but eventually you will (barring cybernetic implants) reach the limits of the human body. Secondly, you have limited resources to make sounds, and when sounds that draw on the same resources are produced too close together, they both become more difficult to produce, and the speed at which you can produce them is reduced even further.

And that wraps it up for tongues, because the dirty secret of tongue twisters is that they’re mainly actually brain twisters. But I’ll cover that in part two. That’s right: brraaaaaaains.