Call me... unpronounceable
Having come across the books Watch
Your F*cking Language
as a Second F*cking Language
, Geoff Pullum takes another look at
that are "unspeakable"
because their orthographic representations
have "no possible out-loud reading", "no phonetic counterpart".
In these cases, it's the asterisk that is the source of the
problem. In the cases that Geoff looked at in an
, the film titles I
(where "<heart>" stands for a
heart symbol, one that doesn't appear properly on all browsers) and What the #$*! Do We Know!?
the "<heart>" and the "#$*!", respectively.
At the risk of telling Geoff things that he already knows, I'm going to
argue that the asterisk is by no means unpronounceable, and that the
<heart> and <expletive suppressed> probably aren't
either. The crucial observation is that it's not the
pronounceability of particular individual symbols that is at issue, but
the existence of conventions linking orthographic representations to
pronunciations, conventions that can be quite complex and
abstract. A close analogue to the representational scheme using
the asterisk for a suppressed letter (as in f*cking
and in the title of a Gregg
Araki film, Totally F***ed Up
is the representational scheme using the period as a sign of suppressed
letters (as in Ariz.
, Mr. Majestyk
, and Mrs. Doubtfire
). The motives
for suppression are different in the two schemes -- modesty and
brevity, respectively -- but in both some character, which has no
pronunciation on its own, serves as an instruction to the reader to
supply some letter or letters, after which the whole expression will be
I'll start with the <heart> and <expletive suppressed>
cases. The <heart> began, I believe, on bumperstickers like
I <heart> Weimaraners
and similar (printed) public expressions of opinions and
sentiments. In this context, the symbol was intended to stand for
the word love
, so that I <heart> Weimaraners
be pronounced like "I love Weimaraners". The <heart> would
be much like &
"and", in, say, Pullum & Zwicky
It's a bit more abstract than &
though, since the <heart> is read as "loves" in the appropriate
context, as on the license plate of a colleague of mine: JRR <heart> AER
, which is to
be read as "[someone whose initials are] JRR loves [someone whose
initials are] AER". (The <heart> is one of the
non-alphanumeric characters you can get on vanity plates in the state
This isn't especially complex, but the <heart> soon took on a
life of its own. People began pronouncing it like "heart" (or
"hearts", in the appropriate context), as Geoff noted in his first
posting on unspeakability. There now appears to be a new verb heart
. In fact, the IMDB
(Internet Movie Data Base) lists the movie I <heart> Huckabees
as I Heart Huckabees
. But the
title is pronounceable, either as "I Love Huckabees" or as "I Heart
Huckabees", depending on which convention for pronunciation you happen
On to <expletive suppressed>. Here the problem is not that
(and its kin) can't
be realized in a pronunciation, but that it can't be uniquely
realized; there are so many
different expletives you could supply. So people came up with a
small set of conventional euphemistic readings for <expletive
suppressed>: "bleep", "bleeping", "bleepity-bleep",
"blankety-blank", and so on. Of these, "bleep" seems to have
pretty much won out, as (again) Geoff noted in his first posting.
And, indeed, the IMDB lists the movie What the #$*! Do We Know!?
as What the Bleep Do We Know!?
So there now is a conventional way for pronouncing the name of the
Once you start looking at characters that are, on their own,
unpronounceable, you begin to realize how many of them there are.
There's the apostrophe, for instance -- in the negative inflectional
), in reduced auxiliaries (it's
), in proper names (D'Angelo
, M'shelle N'degeocello
elsewhere. The main convention for the apostrophe is that,
whatever other work it might be doing, it is ignored
in pronunciation. Then
there are quotation marks, as in Jake
"The Bronx Bull" LaMotta
cried out, "Help me!"
, which are either ignored in pronunciation
or serve as signs of a special prosody. And asterisks used for
emphasis in writing on the net -- Well,
that's *your* opinion
-- where the convention is that the
material surrounded by a pair of asterisks is to be pronounced with a
special prosody. And, of course, commas, question marks,
exclamation marks, and sentence-final periods. And numerals used
in representations of number words, as in the title of the movie '10'
(yes, the single quotation
marks are part of the title) -- a movie that is alphabetized in data
bases under the letter T, for "ten" (which is, after all, how the title
is pronounced). And the dollar sign, read as "dollar" ($1
) or "dollars" ($10
the number word with the
numeral representation it precedes.
The period is especially versatile. Sometimes it's read as "dot",
as in amazon.com
com". Sometimes it serves as a sign that material is to be
treated as an initialism, as in N.F.L.
"en eff ell", in which case it has no pronunciation on its own.
Then there's the abbreviatory use of the period, to indicate that some
letters have been suppressed in the orthographic representation that
precedes it. [There are, alas, two different conventions here, a
mostly American one that uses a period across the board in
abbreviations (as in both Ariz.
, and a mostly European one that
uses a final period only when letters have been suppressed at the end
of the orthographic word, as in Ariz.
). I'll be sticking
to the first system here.] The reader supplies the needed
letters, and then pronounces the result. But the period itself
has no pronunciation; it's only an instruction to retrieve the rest of
an orthographic word.
At its outer edges, the system of abbreviations becomes grotesquely
complex, with things like Mrs.
read as "Missus" (though this spelling is virtually never used), lb.
read as "pound", No.
read as "number", exx.
read as "examples", and Ms.
read as /mIz/ (or some close
variant), a pronunciation for which there is no conventional
spelling. And much more.
Within limits, such abbreviations are treated as if they were spelled
out. So, in Halliwell's Film
and Video Guide 2002
(I'm a few years behind on the editions), Mr. Majestyk
is alphabetized like
"Mister", Mrs. Doubtfire
"Missus", and Dr. Doolittle
like "Doctor". I haven't been able to find out what Halliwell's
does with Abel
Ferrara's 1980 film, Ms. 45
Finally, back to the asterisk of avoidance (f***ed
), and its variants, like the
elliptical period (f...ed
), and underscore (f_ _ _ ed
). These are
actually a good bit more straightforward than the abbreviatory
period. Each avoidance character stands for only one letter, in
its normal place in the orthographic word. All the reader has to
do is fill in the blanks and pronounce the result. That's the
convention for relating orthographic form and pronunciation. Like
the abbreviatory period, the avoidance characters have no pronunciation
on their own, but do have one in context.
Because of their taboo status, the orthographic words that avoidance
characters conceal are rarely spelled out. Totally F***ed Up
is the listing in
the IMDB, but it presumably would be alphabetized in between films
titled Totally Folded Up
and Totally Fussed Up
, were there any
such -- just where Totally Fucked Up
would be. Which is how the title of the film is pronounced.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 6, 2005 06:05 PM