A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Call An [y] An [u] - The Phonetic Smeerp Effect

            The English language has a lot of sounds. Far more than the 26 letters we are taught as children, the noises we make span quite far. However, there are far more sounds that one language doesn’t have. And what I want to muse about a little today is how we try to put the sounds we don’t recognize into terms of sounds we do.
            Here’s the mandatory story that inspired this: Somehow having gotten on the topic of color names in languages other than English with a friend in a conversation, I mentioned the Hungarian word for “gray” – “szürke”, pronounced [syrke]. He looked confused, and asked for confirmation.
            “[suɻke]?” He pronounced it.
            It wasn’t simply bad hearing on his part. He heard the word, but the problem was that he also heard unfamiliar sounds. In English, we don’t have the [y] sound. The rolled [r] was also unfamiliar, but since we hear it in Spanish I don’t think it was as foreign as the vowel.
            When repeating the word back, he dealt with the unfamiliar sounds by morphing them until the resembled sounds he used every day. There is probably a name for this phenomenon, but I can’t find it and so I’m going to be lazy and not look harder. Sue me.
            Once I noticed that, I’m seeing myself do it all the time. Hearing [n] instead of [ŋ] when listening to a song, as we aren’t really ever taught about the velar nasal sound in school. Accidentally slipping up and aspirated my “t”s when practicing speaking in Finnish, because I always spoke aspirated before. Accidentally saying “ö” instead of “ő”, as I had learned French sounds before I learned Hungarian sounds.
            This got me thinking, and I scrambled back to that fun site I mentioned earlier: tvtropes.org. There’s an article there titled “Call A Smeerp A Rabbit”. The trope in question refers to when either an author or a character in fiction refers to an magical animal (for which we don’t have a name), by the name of a (different) animal we do have a name for. For example, there’s an animal with four legs, purple scales, antennae, and a vaguely lizard-like shape standing in front of you. And it can talk. You would probably call it a lizard, right? Because we don’t have a name for this animal, we find the familiar animal that’s closest to it to us (in this case, a lizard) and refer to this unfamiliar animal by that name. After all, otherwise you have no name for it. (Well, without making one up, but that’s another discussion.)
            That’s exactly what my friend did when repeating back “szürke”. He took the unfamiliar sounds and, so he could understand them, called the phonetic Smeerps some Rabbits. So, until I can find the actual name for this habit, I’m shall call it the Phonetic Smeerp Effect.
            Note: I apologize for the need to use a different font for the IPA. My computer doesn’t have most of the characters, so some copying-and-pasting was needed.

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