LINGUIST List 11.303

Sun Feb 13 2000

Sum: Speaking without teeth

Editor for this issue: James Yuells <>


  1. Mai Kuha, Speaking without teeth

Message 1: Speaking without teeth

Date: Sat, 12 Feb 2000 10:55:45 -0500 (EST)
From: Mai Kuha <>
Subject: Speaking without teeth

re: LINGUIST 11.207

Dear colleagues,

A week or two ago, I asked whether an articulatory problem was presented
accurately in a cartoon, and asked for other examples from pop culture
that might be discussed in introductory classes. A summary follows. I
received helpful comments from:

Karen H. Baumer
Peter T. Daniels
Georgia Green
William Morris
Chad D. Nilep
I.R. Warner
Caroline Wiltshire

Part I.

My question:
I have a cartoon that shows a man at a cinema holding in his hand his
false teeth, which are stuck together with candy. He is saying to a
companion: "Yesh, yesh, sho jujubeesh were a loushy choish."

I'm wondering whether I can have my intro to linguistics students discuss
the cartoonist's assumptions about how consonants are articulated. They
can probably notice that the interdental fricative in "the" is correctly
portrayed as being problematic, and question why alveolar fricatives are
rendered as palatals. If the effect of teeth on speech sounds is much more
complex than this, though, maybe I shouldn't bring this up in class. Could
anyone enlighten me?


Baumer, Daniels, Morris, and Nilep point out that "sho" was probably
intended to be "so", not "the", the intended utterance being "Yes, yes, so
jujubees were a lousy choice". This means the cartoonist is consistent in
portraying all alveolar fricatives as getting mispronounced. Sadly,
voiced and voiceless alveolars are not distinguished.

To what extent is the cartoonist accurate in portraying alveolars, but not
other sounds, as being influenced by the absence of teeth? No clear answer
to this question emerged yet.

All things considered, I might as well use some of the other ideas (see
below) in my class. One reason I'd rather not use the cartoon is that some
students (perhaps especially the nontraditional ones) might be offended--
loss of teeth is probably not the best thing to joke about.

Part II

My question:
I would also be interested in hearing about other portrayals of
articulatory phonetics in pop culture that could be critiqued by beginning
students. For instance, Bill Cosby has a routine about excessive
anesthesia at a visit to the dentist, in which he complains (I think) "My
libidib is in my labadap". It might be instructive and fun to consider
whether numbness could really have this effect on bilabials.


Georgia Green has her students find linguistic problems in Samuel Delany's
sci-fi novel Babel-17. For example, some characters "have mouth structures
that prevent them from making a bilabial closure. So they can't make [b]
and [p], and their absence is represented by an apostrophe. But they can
pronounce [m] with no difficulty!"

Caroline Wiltshire has a similar exercise: "In The World According to
Garp, by John Irving, there is a group of women who have had the front
part of their tongue cut out (to make a political point), and they are 
fond of chanting the slogan "Fucking Pigs". Irving transcribes it,
however, as "ucking igs". I ask the students to give me three reasons why
this is inaccurate, and some come up with more."

I.R. Warner mentions a cartoon by Knife & Packer, "set in a pretentious
cafe in North London in which a typically trendy customer orders from the
waiter, "PLISH CANNI ASH A CHACHUCHINO" and is congratulated on impressive
progress in his Catalan lessons. His companion explains it isn't Catalan,
it's that his tongue-stud has gone septic." 

Chad Nilep provides the following examples: 

In the first season of "The Drew Carey Show", the mouth movements of the
cartoon face singing the theme song did not match the words: for example,
"the teeth are clearly visible while apparently articulating the onset of

"Systematic violation of phonological rules was used to humourous effect
in Saturday Night Live's (NBC [USA] television program, c. 1985-1990) 
"Super Fans." Characters meant to parody Chicago sports fans
systematically devoice the plural morpheme /z/ to produce [dbers] "the
Bears," [dbUls] "the Bulls," etc." 

"A less contemporary example can be found in Mummer's plays such as "Punch
and Judy." Punch was traditionally portrayed by a pupeteer using a
"swazzle," a silver instrument worn inside the mouth to give the typical
"squeaky" voice. Punch's speech removes consonant clusters in onsets,
some inflectional morphemes, etc." Reference: Green, Thomas A. (1989) 
'Linguistic Manipulation in the Punch and Judy Script.' *Lore and
Language* 8(2), 33-41

On a related note, Nilep also points out some sources for portrayals of
speech errors, such as spoonerisms:

Lederer, Richard (1987) *Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental
Assaults upon Our Language.* New York: Laurel/Dell. 

Nilsen, Don L.F. and Alleen Pace Nilsen (1994) 'The Appeal of Bloopers:
A Reader-Response Interpretation.' *Humor* 7(2), 127-137.

Mai Kuha 
Department of English 	(765) 285-8410 
Ball State University

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