September 06, 2005

Call me... unpronounceable

Having come across the books Watch Your F*cking Language and English as a Second F*cking Language, Geoff Pullum takes another look at expressions 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 earlier posting, the film titles I <heart> Huckabees (where "<heart>" stands for a heart symbol, one that doesn't appear properly on all browsers) and What the #$*! Do We Know!?, it's the "<heart>" and the "#$*!", 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., Nev., 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 pronounceable.

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 would be pronounced like "I love Weimaraners".  The <heart> would be much like & read as "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 of California.)

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 to use.

On to <expletive suppressed>.  Here the problem is not that 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 movie.

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 suffix n't (can't), in reduced auxiliaries (it's), in proper names (D'Angelo, M'shelle N'degeocello), and 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 and Kim 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), following the number word with the numeral representation it precedes.

The period is especially versatile.  Sometimes it's read as "dot", as in "Amazon dot 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 Mr.), 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., versus Mr).  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 like "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), hyphen (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