Wednesday, 2 March 2011

funny har-har

Alan Iwi sent me some non-rhotic puns.

First, there’s the British children’s TV character called “Shaun the Sheep”. Would Americans pick up the pun in his name?

Next, a joke suitable for English, Australian etc ten-year-olds. Presumably it wouldn’t work for American fourth-graders.
What do you call a deer with no eyes?
  —No idea.
What do you call a deer with no legs and no eyes?
  —Still no idea.
For that matter, would they think the reason we call diarrhoea (AmE diarrhea) by that name is that it gives you a dire rear?

Then there’s this joke about not wanting to get involved.
People see church like a giant helicopter. They fear getting too close in case they get sucked into the rotas.
The joke wouldn’t work in AmE — not only because of rhoticity (groan) but also because Americans don’t use the word rota.

Alan also draws my attention to a commercial website where we read that Abingdon Eye Centre was “formally” known as Classic Eyes Opticians.

Lastly, there’s a carpet company calling itself "Walter Wall Carpets".

This is noteworthy for two reasons:
(1) the company is located in Exeter, which happens to be one of the rather few urban centres in England that are still largely rhotic; and
(2) Walter Wall is not actually an exact homophone of wall-to-wall even for non-rhotic speakers, because the t in Walter exerts a pre-fortis clipping effect on the preceding ɔːl, while for the t in to this effect is blocked by the internal word boundary. So the two phrases differ rhythmically. (For people who say ˈwɒlt- rather than ˈwɔːlt-, the difference is even greater.)
Nevertheless the pun presumably works well enough to justify its use.

* * *
Those of you living in the UK (or anywhere else where you can access the BBC iPlayer) may be interested in this interview with Peter French on the topic of forensic acoustics. It’s available for a few days only.

47 comments:

  1. When I was young there was a joke that only works if you have intrusive R:

    "Q: What do you call a blind dinosaur? A: A do-you-think-he-saurus."

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  2. Actually, I'm pretty sure I heard the "no idea" joke on "The Prairie Home Companion".

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  3. I understand non-rhotic jokes and puns, if that's what you want to call them, fairly well for being a rhotic speaker, but that's only because I visit this blog.

    @ bulbul: That's interesting, because I think everyone on PHC is a rhotic speaker, including Garrison Keillor. But many of them put on non-rhotic, New Yorkish accents for skits.

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  4. My own attempt at a follow-up rhotic pun here:

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/03/rhoticity

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  5. Umm care to explain the pun in 'Shaun the Sheep' please?

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  6. Thanks for the link to the interview with Peter French on the topic of forensic acoustics. Fascinating.

    John, I'll try to keep this on topic by saying that if I were a forensic linguist, his pronunciation of 'adhesive' without the h in "self-adhesive envelope flaps" at 02.24 minutes into the recording would be hardly any help to me at all. It's an extremely widespread variant, but it's not in LPD3 or any of 45 online dictionaries I checked, including OED and even Wiktionary, which I suppose I ought to add it to. I don't like it, and I guess you don't either, but you could signpost that variant in LPD. I suspect 'adhesive' is a bit more likely to lose the h than 'adhere' itself and its other derivatives, but parallel variants of absolutely all of them are so ubiquitous that it's astonishing they are nowhere recognized. I did check as many of them as I could find.

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  7. Anon @ 12:38: "Shaun" is what you call a sheep that's just been sheahed.

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  8. As a rhotic speaker with historical NURSE subdivisions, a NORTH-FORCE distinction, no L-vocalisation or TH-fronting, and various other phonemic oddities living in a predominantly non-rhotic, pre-R merging, and increasingly L-vocalising and TH-fronting country, I find that a lot of puns in the media and advertising don't work for me. 'Shaun' escaped me entirely to begin with, and as for 'Silly Ewe'... 'Silly Yoe' doesn't quite have the same effect, does it?

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  9. @Warren Maguire: It sounds like you're from the west of Northern Ireland (or possibly Donegal) and living in England - either London or Manchester.

    Am I close?

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  10. Adding, I suspect the typical rhotic AmE speaker's difficulty with Shaun the Sheep may also be due to our lack of ready sheep-husbandry vocabulary.

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  11. In BrE Shaun sounds like shorn, which is an alternative past participle of shear.

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  12. I've seen 'formerly' spelt 'formally' too many times! In fact, when you type in 'formally known as' into google, it asks you, 'Did you mean: "formerly known as" '

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  13. @Howard:

    I supposed 'Shaun the Sheep' sounded like 'shorn the sheep'

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  14. Huh, I had no idea Shaun the Sheep was supposed to be a pun. Not only do I speak a rhotic dialect, but the vowels sound nothing alike for me!

    However, I do often see "formerly" misspelled as "formally" even in the U.S. I think this is due to the r-dissimilation that's common in rhotic U.S. dialects, where coda /r/s in unstressed syllables are deleted if there's another /r/ present: gove(r)nor, ape(r)ture, etc.

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  15. The "No idea" example reminds me of an instance of Anglo-American incomprehension on my own part. I once met a young Englishman who, when I asked him his name, uttered a monosyllable that I was completely unable to match with any sound that I might utter. I asked him to repeat it, and only after a second or two did I realize that he had said the name "Ian." It had never occurred to me at that time (many years ago) that the name "Ian" could be anything but a disyllable, [i.ən], as that is how it is pronounced in GenAm. My interlocutor had said [ɪən]. To me this sounded like nothing in my experience but a Southern (American) pronunciation of the word "in" (or "inn"). It was only because it seemed to me unlikely that an Englishman would be called "In" or "Inn" that I did not come away with the idea that that my interlocutor's name was [ɪn], but kept thinking about it until I figured it out.

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  16. "In BrE Shaun sounds like shorn"

    No. BrE is not an accent. As Prof W points out, many British accents are rhotic, just as many American accents are non-rhotic.

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  17. Can 'Ian' be ɪːn for anyone at all? Even for people who have ɪː for ɪə? I feel that would be too wɪːd. Perhaps it really is two syllables, and that's why reduction can't go beyond ɪən.

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  18. BTW I do agree with MKR that Brits may say ɪən. I say it myself.

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  19. Thankfully, some of these puns don't slip past me as they would other Americans. I've been working on a British accent for the last few years (it's coming in rather handy for my university's stage production of My Fair Lady!) and in doing so, I've studied BrE in some respect. In addition, my parents, keen and clever of wit, explained the pun with Shaun the sheep when I was young.

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  20. There must be a lot of people who have never seen A Close Shave, the movie in which Shaun first appears and gets his name. Wallace bestows it on him after he (the sheep) has accidentally gone through the knitting machine.

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  21. Warren Maguire2 March 2011 at 20:55

    @Pete: Indeed, Tyrone.

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  22. @mallamb "Can 'Ian' be ɪːn for anyone at all?"

    In Ireland it can be iːn. I've seen "Brian" misspelled "Brine".

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  23. In the US we do have the cat food brand Whiskas; I've heard anecdotally that some Americans don't get the connection to "whiskers" at all.

    A somewhat trivial case that comes to mind is the mascot of the Boston Red Sox: Wally, a green monster, named after the Green Monster, a wall. Strictly speaking, this pun fails in both RP (with /ˈwɒli/ and /ˈwɔːl/ and "orthodox" GA (with /ˈwɑːli/ and /ˈwɒːl/), but it succeeds in:

    a) cot-caught merged Eastern New England, with /ˈwɒːli/ and /ˈwɒːl/,

    b) low-back unmerged GA with rounding after /w/, yielding /ˈwɒːli/ and /ˈwɒːl/, and

    c) low-back merged GA, and CanEng, with /ˈwɑːli/ and /ˈwɑːl/, or /ˈwɒːli/ and /ˈwɒːl/.

    Of course, even in the failing cases, the vowels are still close, so it works as a near-pun.

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  24. That most internationally well-known English expression OK is derived from a misspelling that betrays non-rhoticity (orl korrect).

    To me, "uh" suggests the briefest of noises, and its spelling suggests /ʌ/. It was a while before I learnt (from a linguistics forum) that "uh" might be used for an extended noise indicating hestitation... if the writer is a rhotic American. As a Briton I'm used to seeing errr or urrr (number of r's variable!).

    Re Whiskas: the UK company Sainsbury's used to have a hypermarket chain called SavaCentre.

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  25. Shaun/shorn is one of these slightly uncomfortable slightly off puns unless you have a NORTH/FORCE merger.

    As an aside, my two-year old son asks for it as ˈtkətəkəːː - the opening credits start with a cock-a-doodle-doo - or as ʃip. (The vowel will get its proper length when I don't oblige at once. Also, the issue of the NORTH/FORCE merger comes up after the end of the episode: mɔ(ə) ʃip.)

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  26. molly,
    I'll be on the listen-out for iːn. It shouldn’t surprise me, given oːn for the cognate 'Owen', but I always unthinkingly put that down to the influence of Gaelic 'Eoin'. I regret to see LPD3 doesn’t give oːn for that, only listing ˈəʊ ɪn -ən ǁ ˈoʊ ən and jəʊn ǁ joʊn. 'Owen' is definitely ˈəʊɪn for me, and I should think jəʊn ǁ joʊn is some kind of spelling pronunciation, but it sort of resuscitates the link with Ian, doesn’t it?

    Can even 'Iain' be iːn?

    Lazar,
    Do these Americans who don't get the connection to "whiskers" at all pronounce it ˈwɪskæs or something? It's a bit hard to imagine that they don't get the connection to "whiskers" unless they misinterpret the spelling completely, and never hear ˈwɪskəz.

    Richard,
    We're not only used to seeing errr or urrr; we're used to hearing it, with the linking r.

    Lipman,
    He's apparently watching it in English. Perhaps that's what children everywhere are supposed to do. Is there no mischmasch component? Does mɔ(ə) include mɔɐ̯ or anything?

    There could be hidden depths. In the High Culture of my son's mischmasch days, mɔː was Mozart (or of course any music), but also English 'more' and Japanese mɔː, which inscrutably has a range of meanings from past to future: (1) already; anymore; (2) soon; shortly; (3) more; further; other; again; (4) Enough, already! The syntax was more to the Japanese end of the spectrum, so he did say mɔː mɔː, but it was not parallel to mɔ(ə) ʃip. It was \mɔː \mɔː, as in kɯˈɺispɯsɯ mɔː (more crisps – note that thanks to Japanese syllabification krɪsps is all there, at an age when most kids were saying kɪp). When the music finished, we got a fed-up mɔː ˈnai. I never did know whether that was "there's no music" or "all gone", as with food and sparklers etc.

    Pun-wise and distribution-wise, it's a good job they didn't call the sheep Seán, isn't it?

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  27. mallamb,

    the series doesn't use actual language, with very few slurred exceptions. They found quite a good way of using fake language, based on English intonation etc., that reminds of bleaking, barking or whatever the animal is. The title song's in English, but if he'd taken it from there, he'd say ʃəjp rather than ʃip.

    (Sorry, off-topic.)

    mɔɐ̯ - no, too fine a distinction yet, and the locals are rhotic. Interestingly, for aqua, he has English ˈwɔːtɛ or ˈwɔːd̥ɛ and German ˈvasa (European as).

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  28. Well at least he's aware of the difference between E and Ger -er, rhotic or no, and that's why it's mɔ(ə), for ʃɔ(ə).

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  29. Come to think of it, my son had ˈdiːnɛ for a playgroup friend Deena (family being of Leeds provenance probably relevant though) and ˈɺoːɡaː for my German doctoral student Roger.

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  30. (Not really off-topic, as it suggests these kids are onto rhoticity issues that early.)

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  31. Also no doubt relevant that Deena's father was an Arab, who would probably say hɛː hɛː for the title of this blog entry.

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  32. Oh dear. I meant the Arab would probably say hɛː hɛː for 'ha ha'. For the title of this blog entry he would probably say hɑːr hɑːr.

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  33. Getting back to Shaun the Sheep. This semi-r-less New Yorker didn't realize that Eeyore's name in Winnie the Pooh was onomatopoetic until I was in my thirties.

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  34. The shaun/shorn pun is also a bit off for those Americans who have a Back Shift Before /r/. ʃɔːn and ʃuːrn

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  35. In an online presentation (made in New York) I participated in for my job a few days ago, there was the warning that if we didn't follow the proper sequence of events our software would give "an arrow message" [error message]. This implies that in some non-rhotic New York dialects 'error' and 'arrow' are homophones.

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  36. OMG. It must be that not only can 'error' and 'arrow' be homophones, but 'arrow' is a hypercorrection, like "It's verra window ('window' is 'windae') today" in Edinburgh. For Cockney, 'cock-sparrer' etc must surely be immune from that.

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  37. @mallamb "given oːn for the cognate 'Owen', but I always unthinkingly put that down to the influence of Gaelic 'Eoin'"

    Interference from Irish is always a good bet. "Owen" in Ireland may represent "Eoin", cognate of John, or "Eoghan", cognate of Eugene. I'd hazard a guess that the latter is more likely to map to oːn in English.

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  38. The shaun/shorn pun is also a bit off for those Americans who have a Back Shift Before /r/. ʃɔːn and ʃuːrn

    Who does that?

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  39. @VP,
    People in what the Labov et. al's *Atlas of North American English* refers to as Southeastern superregion (Chs. 17-19). I'm right outside of Philadelphia, where the shift is pretty much across age and social groups. "More" and "moor" (or Moore, if we want a more common word) for instance, are pretty much merged for everyone I know.

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  40. If you want to hear Peter French say the word "adhesive" and have no access to BBC iPlayer, you can go to http://matters-phonetic.blogspot.com/2011/03/police-send-please.html, where I've put the phrase online.

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  41. Mollymooly: Éoghan isn't actually cognate to Eugene. Rather, Eugenius (from Greek Ευγένιος 'well-born') was used as a Latin name by those who bore the native name Éoghan, which means 'born from the yew'. The root in Éoghan is the same as in Maigh Éo 'land of the yew', anglicized Mayo.

    (My grandfather of the same name came from Mayo, and wrote his name John Coen — notwithstanding which the first syllable of my surname is homophonous with cow.)

         —Éoghan Mac Éoghain

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  42. @Eóghan Mac Eóghain. Yes. The síneadh fada would only ever have been on the o, not the e. I don't think "éo" is a possible sequence in Irish. Interference from Old English, or Middle Earth.

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  43. And one from a TV advert for car insurance, so annoying that I can't bring myself to quote the name of the company. It has subtitles, which make the joke even more obscure if watching with the sound down:
    It's where you go to /'gəʊ tə/
    Insure your motor /'məʊtə/

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  44. Funnily enough, Irish tabloid headlines frequently make puns that only work for non-rhotic speakers.

    I suppose this is because Irish people all have a good awareness of non-rhoticity, so you can get the joke without having to pronounce the words.

    Mind you, I spent most of my life selling Whiskas cat food and Beta dog food without ever copping the puns.

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  45. I certainly didn't match "Shaun" and "shorn" until you told me it was a pun. Not just because of my rhotic accent, but because of my caught/cot merger.

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  46. What about the security device used on many web-pages to prevent the use of 'robot' software, called 'captcha'?

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  47. Actually, I had to use it to publish my comment.

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