Signs I Don’t Understand [OT]


“Give Your Daughters Difficult Names” was spelled out in lights on the underside of the canopy covering the stairs leading up to Manhattan’s High Line. In other words, this took some serious work.

Nobody, though, was entirely sure what it meant (though it did serve as a conversation-starter among strangers, which if nothing else is a good thing).


  1. @WW: that’s a very interesting proposition you bring up! It’s basically saying that the “deafness” to certain phonemes as you developmentally target in on one particular language ALSO happens as you target in on one particular dialect. I’ve never considered that before. And I’ve also always implicitly assumed that you can reproduce (and hear) differently produced phonemes in dialects of your native language — but what if you can’t? Fascinating.

    To illustrate my implicit assumptions, when I was teaching English as a foreign language to Brazilians in Brazil, one of their difficulties was the “r” sound in English, because in Portuguese, “r” is either trilled/rolled, or aspirated like an “h” or even like “ch” in German. However, in rural dialects, that everyone loves to imitate and make fun of, the “r” sounds exactly like the American “r”. So they can hear and produce the sound — they just feel it must be “wrong” to produce it in this clearly inferior way, but there is no real barrier (unlike say the difference between “sheep” and “ship” and “beach” and a female dog, which they really can’t hear the difference to). (Similarly, Germans speaking English often bizarrely (to my mind) pronounce “v” like “w” , even though they have the “v” sound in German (as their “w”), and don’t have a “w” sound! “Th” is an interesting case — they don’t have it, but does that mean they can’t hear it? I think they do have it and can hear it, because almost everyone can imitate and make fun of a lisp — they just can’t believe that that is really the correct, serious sound in English…)

    Specifically to “Shibboleth”, Portuguese has that difference, though only at the syllable end, not the beginning; people from Rio (cariocas) produce syllable final “s”s as “sh”, and are universally teased by other dialects for doing so — every other dialect can imitate it (as far as I know!). But I’ve never considered if a carioca really understands what everyone else is teasing him/her about, and whether they can produce a syllable final “s” as “s”…

    Wow, something new to think about and observe…

  2. I remember calling my friend to tell him our son was born, and after his wife picked up trying to convince her his name was Aaron, not Allen. Finally I said “Have Barry call me when he gets home.”

    Let’s not discuss how she refers to Barry.

    Then years later, I ran into a woman who introduced herself as “Aaron’s mother” and got increasingly upset when I didn’t know who that was (I’m thinking “I’m pretty sure I know who Aaron’s mother is, lady.”). Turns out she was the mother of my younger son’s girlfriend Erin.

    The point being you don’t have to have a very complicated name — go more than half a mile from home — to hit a problem.

  3. “Chowdah” could be a modern shibboleth.
    “Say chowder.”
    “Begone, Yankee liberal.”

    I’m not originally from Boston so I say “chowder”, “park my car in Harvard Yard”, “scarf” etc. I was in a clothing store near Boston and said I was looking for a scarf.
    “A scaff? A scaff? Oh, you mean a muffla!”
    “Yes, a muffla,” I said.
    It cost foah dollas and ninety-five cents.

  4. I was in a military tech school class with a guy with an impenetrable Boston accent, along with a full-blooded Hawaiian. I learned a lot about people from different regions. The only one who fit the stereotype was the Texan.

  5. ‘Those Ephraimites aren’t very bright, are they? Unless it really was that they “could not pronounce it right”’

    Some people say *and hear* the same vowel for all of the words in “Merrily Mary married Murray”. I know someone who worked at a firm whose name had one of those vowels. It took a long time of practice to say the company name correctly, and *still* can’t hear the difference.

    So, yes, it’s quite reasonable to assume that without training they truly couldn’t say it “correctly”.

  6. Professional actors learn to affect dialectical speech patterns. It takes a LOT of practice to do well. Some of them do not or cannot, and take roles in which their natural speech cadences and intonations will not be a distraction. Some can even learn well enough to fool native speakers.

    But to affect an accent “on the spot” with no practice or preparation? To do it well enough to fool a native speaker, on the first try? Nah. Not believing it.

    The one that’s interesting to me is Craig Ferguson. Craigyferg was, of course, a Scotsman who resettled in the United States. There’s no mistaking his natural speaking voice for an American accent… except, according to Mr. F, when he returns to Scotland, and they complain about how American he sounds.

  7. There are some British actors who do such convincing American accents in American roles that I didn’t pick up on their original nationality until seeing them in a behind-the-scenes clip or another production where they are not putting on the American.
    I never questioned Dominic West as a Baltimore cop in The Wire; perhaps he was less convincing for a viewer more familiar with what Baltimore sounds like, but to me he was perfect with General American. Then I saw him in The Hour as the perfectly fatuous senior newscaster and his origins were revealed. (Or perhaps he was doing a different accent than his native one?)

    For the last several years he is back in American character in The Affair and again pretty much undetectable as far as I am concerned. I would say the same about co-star Ruth Wilson, except that I had already gotten used to her as English in Luther.

    Matthew Goode was convincing as American in The Good Wife, but then was exposed in Downton Abbey and more recently The Crown.

    I must have seen previews or promotional materials for The Americans before that great, and recently completed, series was even started, so I knew Matthew Rhys was British (and from the name I would guess Welsh), but in the performance he was convincing as … well niot actually a native speaker of American English, come to think of it, but convincing as his character was supposed to be convincing too.

  8. @Arthur: I quibble with your statement that the company worker couldn’t say the name of the company “correctly”, but your point is well taken; I now realize that despite my protestations in my previous post, I am aware of English Shibboleths that I personally can’t hear the difference in. Aside from your example, for which I’ve never encountered much passion one way or the other, there is the “nuclear” shibboleth, which raises such passion in those who claim others are not pronouncing it “correctly”! I seem to fall into the wrong socio-economic camp with this one; I am disparaged, and, more importantly, I feel that the self-appointed “correct” group is just making sh!t up, because I can’t hear what they’re on about! So I guess if you lined me up and told me to say “nuclear”, even with George W. Bush right in front of me in line, I would still be shunted with his ilk to be slaughtered…

  9. Re: Craig Ferguson.

    It always seemed a bit odd when he’d say that, until the time he had his sister on as a guest. Then you could tell what he meant. He had an accent. She had an ACCENT.

  10. larK: I find it difficult to understand how someone can claim that one of two alternate pronunciations is “the” correct one, let alone passionately. I had a lot of criticisms of George W. Bush, but that one always seemed silly. (OTOH, I have trouble even understanding claims that a prescriptivist grammar rule, such as “less” vs “fewer”, is “correct.”)

    However, are you saying that you can’t even hear the difference between the two nuclears? That seems surprising. To be clear, the two “nuclears” are nü-klē-ər and nyü-kyə-lər, right? Bush inserted a vowel between the “k” and “l” sounds, typical American news reporters don’t. I would have thought that a vowel insertion would be a clearly detectable difference to a speaker of any language? (I’m not criticizing, just curious if I’m understanding you correctly.)

  11. When I first started working at Megacorp, they issued* us a dictionary, American Heritage, as I recall. One of the features was a “usage panel” that would discuss some words and usage. Things like singular “data”. Those often (or always) had statements like, “70% of the panel found this usage acceptable.”

    * With dire warnings that when you left the company, you had to turn in the dictionary or be charged for it. I don’t know if anyone was. By the time I left 36.75 year later, Megacorp had merged with another Megacorp and had stopped issuing dictionaries many years before. No one asked about the dictionary on the way out.

  12. I find it believeable. Language processing can be divided between conscious and subconscious (“hearing” vs. “listening”). We know that human listening is subject to spurious transcription errors, as the brain tries to match up what is actually being said to patterns of speech that are expected (think of “telephone” game, or mondegreens/misheard song lyrics (did Mr. Hendrix really just say “‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy”???)

    If part of the brain hears pronunciation A, finds it an acceptable pronunciation of the word, and substitutes whatever symbol the word represents at a subconscious level, it might well be that it also does so for pronunciation B, and since both connect to the same internal representation, they are the same. Kind of like the reaction you might get insisting that “two” and “2” are completely different. Most people will see the distinction, but some might say “what? Two=2. They’re the same number. What difference are you talking about?”

  13. @Winter Wallaby: Yeah, I’m actually claiming the strong, latter case, and yeah, I’m actually as surprised about it as you.

    To be clear, when written out phonetically and emphasized exclusively, I suppose I can be made to hear a difference. But left to my own devices, and without focusing in on it, I would never by myself come upon the idea that there was a difference in pronunciation between what the news anchor said, and what Dubya said, other than of course, the news anchor said it like he has a stick up his ass, and Dubya said it like he’s a moron, but that’s true for all the words either one said; I would never have homed in on “nuclear”. And people berated me for my pronunciation, sometimes thinking I was doing it on purpose to be “ironic” (sure, whatever), and other times expressing incredulity that I was using such a base and wrong pronunciation. And I honestly had (and mostly have) no idea what they are talking about. I feel like I’m the victim of an agreed upon joke where everyone pretends to get something where there is nothing to get (no soap, radio!). I am only guessing which pronunciation I must have based on reactions of others and having a clear good side / bad side, with my purported pronunciation falling on the bad side.

    I too find it preposterous that I can’t hear when an extra syllable is inserted (or left out), but then I think about one of the most wondrous little factoids I once learned: The word “petal”, pronounced in an American accent (and a two syllable word) is indistinguishable phonetically from the word “pearl” (a one syllable word) pronounced in a Scotch accent…

  14. I was watching some British panel show shortly after the death of David Bowie, and was paying attention, because British people seem to pronounce his name differently from what I thought it was (B-ow-ee vs. B-oh-ee), but then, within the show, various people said it in various ways, with no one mentioning the differences, and in the end, I clocked at least one instance of the same speaker having said it in two ways, such that I was forced to conclude that they simply don’t hear a difference!

  15. larK: The difference doesn’t really jump out at me either. When this first came up with Bush, I had to do a double take and triple take to hear what people were complaining about. But I can definitely hear the difference if I make an effort. (And I’m pretty sure I could insert the vowel properly, if necessary to avoid being killed by a Gileadite.)

    My wife was recently the only American-born guest at a birthday party where all the other guests were Indians. The child, Rahul, was complaining that the kids at school kept calling him “Rahul.” All the parents thought that was really funny, and said, oh, and do they also sometimes call you “Rahul”? There were some jokes in this vein, none of which my wife got, because as far as she could tell all three pronunciations were identical.

  16. larK say, ” I quibble with your statement that the company worker couldn’t say the name of the company “correctly”, but your point is well taken”

    Unlike descriptivist language, a company (or a person) can determine how their name is pronounced. A company has a fair amount of control of its employees, and if it wants its name pronounced a certain way, the employees have a lot of incentive to get it “right”.

  17. “Unlike descriptivist language, a company (or a person) can determine how their name is pronounced.”

    Maybe. Or maybe you embrace the people who won’t or don’t call you by the correct name. See, e.g., commercials for “Chevy”, “Mickey D’s”, or “Bud”.
    And back in the 80’s, Isuzu ran an ad campaign about how hard it was to say “Isuzu”, with actors mangling it in fun, creative ways. EEsibooboo! At the end, an extremely Asian “engineer” comes out and says “It’s OK. I can’t say Shibooray, either.” Then they hired David Leisure to be “Joe Isuzu” and ran with that for a while. And then they… disappeared? I must’ve stopped paying attention. Anyway, you can try to control how people say your name, but if you’re not this guy, good luck.

  18. “Or maybe you embrace the people who won’t or don’t call you by the correct name.” Or even the ones who do, but who feel a little funny about it. “When your jam is called Schmucker’s, you know it HAS to be good” (or something like that).

    A thought I’ve sometimes kicked around: if there is a definable “very best” pronounciation (or spelling) for a given word, should there not logically also be a definable “very worst”? I would think for instance that the very worst pronunciation for the word “no” would be “yes.”

  19. @Arthur: well, maybe; was the name with sound in question a proper name, or a common word used in the name of the company? If a proper name, I guess I’ll grant you that the company can be the arbiter of the “correct” pronunciation. However, if it’s a common word (say, Nuclear Engineering International), then I would take umbrage with the company proscribing how I am to say “nuclear”.
    How about Volkswagen? This is a different case, because it is a foreign word, so I can insist that you are not saying correctly if you don’t speak German, but should they insist on “Folksvahgen”?
    My father (German immigrant to the US) insisted on correcting every damn server or vendor as to the “proper” pronunciation of the beers they had on offer, which I guess technically might be OK for Löwenbräu back when the Bavarian brewer licensed some swill to be branded here under that name, but not for Budweiser, which actually was in no way affiliated with the real Budweiser sold in Germany, until they way later acquired one of the two Czech brewers who had been using the name since the beginning and had actually imported to the US under that name before them as an end run around the one whose name they appropriated and they know it, but I digress.

  20. “was the name with sound in question a proper name, or a common word used in the name of the company?”

    It was a proper name, probably the last name of the founder (but I’m not sure about that bit). It is certainly a not-rare last name.

    Details are being withheld to protect the guilty, the innocent, and me.

  21. Bill – was my post not allowed? I remember posting about my name and hating it, and I keep a list of the comics I posted on to check back the following week – and I don’t see it. Or did my computer eat my “homework”? (Robert is pushing very hard for me to get a new laptop as he listens to me complain about this one and its peculiarities. )

  22. Boy, I am a mess with this strip – ignore my comment about not finding my post(s) as I found out afterwards that there is “a page” of prior posts.

    Winter Wallaby, Thank you. I had mostly heard of it in the the West Wing episode and “the President” talks of whether or not one knows what it means being the test. I wonder what happened to people with a lisp?

    Olivier – Darn ! I had never heard of Anne de Montmorency, he’s before “my time” – the 1700s. I guess I need to go with Mrs. When we did our recent under the occupation (of the British army) event, we had to carry passes and permission to travel papers (or get hasseled by the “soldiers”). When our company clerk wrote them out for us at our meeting in advance of the event (with quill and ink) after I had mine written up as Anne Everyman, I realized that I would not same on official documents,but Mrs. Alexander Everyman. If we get new papers written up next year (instead of reusing the ones we have) I will have it written that way.

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