May 04, 2004

Get your boyfriend to move it: a speech perception story

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Santa Cruz-resident phonetician and speech scientist Caroline Henton told me this true story with much glee. A woman living in house near the beach in Santa Cruz County recently called the animal rescue service to explain that there was a dead sea lion under her house that was beginning to rot and it was going to have to be removed. The voice on the other end of the line was apparently unmoved by a few hundred pounds of decomposing blubber:

"Don't you have a boyfriend who could move it for you?"

The caller, somewhat dumbfounded both by the sexism and the lack of concern for her plight, explained that she was between boyfriends at the moment.

"Well couldn't your father do it for you?"

The stunned caller said: "Umm, my father?"

"Look, all he's got to do is put it in a cardboard box," the stubbornly reluctant animal rescue operative insisted.

"Er... I don't think a cardboard box any smaller than a full-size refrigerator carton would accommodate it, and even then, I don't see how you could drag it out from under there... I mean, the thing probably weighs three or four hundred pounds."

It was the turn of the animal rescue service for a moment of stunned, uncomprehending silence.

"Three or four hundred pounds?"

"Yes," said the increasingly annoyed caller; "It's a full-grown sea lion, it's enormous."

And then at last, despite all the obstacles natural language and telephony could interpose, communication started to occur:

"Oh, a sea lion! I thought you said a dead feline."

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 4, 2004 03:16 PM