Recently in the Pronunciation Category

Back in December, linguistics grad student Gretchen McCulloch analyzed joke variants on Benedict Cumberbatch's name to see what the underlying patterns are. She gave more statistical detail in a post on her blog.

Interesting and fun discussion, but I found it odd (in the Toast article) that it took her a couple of iterations to come up with initial-syllable stress as a factor; that part seemed obvious to me. But maybe she was guiding readers through a process of figuring it out, rather than describing the actual process she went through.

I also would've liked to've seen some further discussion about whether secondary stress on the final syllable of each word is relevant, but secondary stress is tricky and might've been too much of a digression.

...I also found it interesting that some of the specific examples don't work for me; in particular, I would never have guessed that “Bombadil Rivendell” was a Cumberbatch variation. (At first I thought she was saying it was a non-valid example, but then she says it came from the generator.) I think my own personal rules for what sounds like a variant of his name are stricter than the ones implied by the name generator. Another example: “Beetlejuice Animorph” doesn't sound to me like a joke on “Benedict Cumberbatch” except in the context of discussing Cumberbatchian names.

And I think she may not go far enough in some directions. The PronunciationManual joke pronunciation video for Benedict Cumberbatch opts for “Bucket Crunderdunder,” which isn't a perfect variation but is a funny one. And I think if someone said “I'm a big fan of that actor Bucket Crunderdunder,” I would know who they were talking about. Though in large part that's because (as McCulloch mentions) if one of the names is really obvious, the other one doesn't have to be. In other words, the “Bucket” part is almost useless, but “Crunderdunder” carries the variation almost on its own.

(I think The Cumberbatch Variations would be a good Fake Ludlum Title.)

I'd also have liked to see her try to construct new variations to test her hypotheses. For example, we could start with a pair of three-syllable words with initial stress, like “Higgledy Piggledy,” and see whether transforming them in accordance with her rules produces a valid variation:

Ends in consonant: Higgledip Piggledip.

Begins with B and/or hard C sounds: Biggledip Kiggledip.

Second word ends in preferred consonant: Biggledip Kiggledish.

She said that a good variant should have at least three of the listed factors. I think this one probably works: “I'm a big fan of that actor Biggledip Kiggledish.” Probably close enough. I'll go on to add her other rules:

N or M between first two syllables: Bimmeldip Kinneldish.

Has æ in final syllable: Bimmeldip Kinneldash.

Yep, Bimmeldip Kinneldash is definitely a valid variation. (For best results, I would tweak it a bit to Bunnydip Kenneldash.) But that's also because using all five of her rules transforms any pair of dactylic words into being awfully close to the original name. So I think that part of what's going on with those rules is that they demonstrate the allowable variations for certain phonemes to “sound like” certain other phonemes to English speakers. Nasals sound similar, sibilants sound similar, etc. So if you take a word and replace the sounds in it with other ones that sound similar, then you'll get a word that sounds similar to the original.

To be clear: I'm not trying to disparage her rules! I think they're neat, and it's a good analysis, and the at-least-three part is especially interesting to me. I certainly would never have figured out most of this. So I don't intend this post as criticism; just exploring the ideas.

Bucket of Does


I saw a billboard advertising the new Droid cell phone yesterday. It had a hard-edged and manly sort of high-tech industrial look to it, and it said:


Now, the Droid ad campaign has centered around the idea that there's lots of stuff that the iPhone doesn't do, but that "Droid Does."

So the advertisers can perhaps be forgiven for assuming that everyone would see the word "DOES" as a verb and pronounce it like "duzz."

But for just a moment, as I glanced at the billboard, I saw the word "DOES" as a plural noun, and pronounced it like "doze."

And I wondered: a bare-knuckled bucket full of female deer? Huh?

Indian English

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I continue to be intrigued by the differences between British/American English and Indian English.

I also wonder regularly if some of the grammatical problems I see in submissions written by South Asian writers are merely examples of Indian English. Some day, I should sit down and read more published South Asian writing to try and get a better feel for Indian English.

(I've read a few novels by South Asian authors, but not enough for a representative sample yet.)

See also: the online Dictionary of Indian English; 108 varieties of Indian English; a 2004 paper from Language in India on linguistic majority-minority relations in India; and a page of audio pronunciations of English words in New Delhi.

That last, btw, is from the extremely useful-looking Accents of English from around the world website. I hope to spend some time poking around there and listening to pronunciations in the future.


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On the radio the other day, someone said "Uranus" in such a way that it sounded like an adjective, "urinous." According to Wikipedia, that's actually the earliest of the current common English pronunciations; I had always thought it was a new pronunciation chosen to avoid sounding like "your anus," but Wikipedia says it was the other way around.

Wikipedia also mentions a third pronunciation that looks like it would sound more or less like "you ran us," which avoids both of the off-color homonyms. Fair enough.

But I would like to propose yet another pronunciation, to both avoid the homonyms and make clear how silly the whole thing is: oo-RAAAAHN-oos. (In ASCII IPA: /u 'rAA nus/.)

It's important to hold that second syllable, making the whole thing sound sort of like a war cry. In fact, ideally the word would be sort of half-sung while charging into battle.

novice and eiderdown


At WorldCon, I ran into a couple of reading pronunciations I hadn't heard before.

A reading pronunciation happens when you learn a word by reading it rather than hearing it pronounced, and you guess how it's pronounced, and you guess wrong. I know reading pronunciations are common among sf readers (and presumably among people who were heavy readers in childhood in general), but I hadn't heard any lately, so these two stood out.

I don't know if I have any of my own left, but I've certainly had plenty in my time. A particularly embarrassing one for me was that I always pronounced "valise" as /'v&l Is/ (see ASCII IPA for pronunciation key); I said the word while reading a story aloud at some point in college, and everyone in the room thought I'd said "phallus." They eventually explained to me that it's actually pronounced /v@ 'lis/, rhyming with "police." (That one's also funny 'cause I know I had previously heard and liked the English version of the Jacques Brel song "Timid Frieda," which includes the line "There she goes with her valises held so tightly in her hands." But somehow even hearing that hadn't changed the pronunciation in my head.)

Anyway, at WorldCon I heard one person pronounce "novice" as /'noU vIs/ (first syllable like the word "no") instead of the standard /'nA vIs/ (first syllable like the word "nah"). I think when I first encountered that word I may've pronounced it like the phrase "no vice." Later in the weekend, I heard another person pronounce "eiderdown" as /'i dR dAUn/ (first syllable rhyming with "bee") rather than the standard /'aI dR dAUn/ (first syllable rhyming with "buy").

I don't remember who said these; if it was any of you, sorry for posting this publicly rather than taking you aside and telling you in private. I don't mean to embarrass anyone; just thought these were interesting.

Regarding "eider" and "eiderdown," perhaps it's worth mentioning a rule for German pronunciation that my parents taught me when I was a kid: in German, the "ei" spelling is pronounced like "eye," while the "ie" spelling is prounced like "ee." Or to put it another way, to pronounce "ie" or "ei" in German words, you look at the second letter rather than the first. I don't know enough German to know whether that's always true or only mostly, but it's certainly a good rule of thumb. Useful in reverse, too, for figuring out whether i comes before e or after in a German word that you know how to pronounce.

googly-eyed ogle


There's been some discussion on a mailing list lately about pronunciation of "ogle."

I've always pronounced "ogle" to rhyme with "mogul," and it bugs me every time I hear it pronounced to rhyme with "toggle." I intellectually understand that it's a perfectly valid and fairly widespread pronunciation, but it still sounds Wrong to me. This probably has something to do with my putting way too much weight on the usual ways that English spelling corresponds with pronunciation.

And I know some people pronounce it to rhyme with "Google." (About 19% of respondents to the dialect survey consider that pronunciation valid! That's a lot.) But that sounds even wronger to me.

MW10 and MW11 list /'oU g@l/, with /'A g@l/ as an alternate pronunciation, but they don't list /'u g@l/. (See ASCII IPA pronunciation key.)

In the mailing-list discussion, someone mentioned "googly eyes" (those little toy eyes). I'm not sure how those eyes came to be called that, but MW11 says "googly-eyed" (first printed citation 1926) derives by alteration from "goggle-eyed," which dates back to 1711 and means "having bulging or rolling eyes." "Goggle" as an adjective ("protuberant, staring") dates back to 1540. The word "goggles" first appeared in print in 1715. These all appear to come from Middle English gogelen, "to squint."

I've also heard "making googly eyes" at someone to mean something like flirting--which I suddenly suspect comes from a combination of "make eyes at" and the /'u g@l/ pronunciation of "ogle." Or possibly I've got cause and effect reversed; maybe "make eyes at" plus "googly-eyed" became "make googly eyes at", and since "ogle" is a synonym for "make googly eyes at," people may've started pronouncing "ogle" to rhyme with "google."

But I'm just guessing.

Added later: Arthur C points out that "making goo-goo eyes" is something else again: Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines "goo-goo eyes" as "foolishly amorous glances." So now I'm thinking that's probably mixed in too.

And although this is probably irrelevant, MW11 notes that "goo-goos" were, in 1912, advocates of a political reform movement; derived from the phrase "good government."

P.S.: turns out "mogul" derives eventually from the Mongolian word "mongγol," meaning "Mongol."

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