November 18, 2007

Grunt Glossary

This morning's Zits provides a "Glossary of Grunts", subtitled as a "public service guide to interpreting the language of the teenage species":

Based on my recent experience of middle-schoolers, this seems accurate if incomplete.

I don't think that the inventory of such sounds is much different now from what it was like when I was 12, except for Homer Simpson's "d'oh" (which is really Dan Castellaneta's "d'oh"). But I believe that the frequency of grunts relative to other forms of communication may well be higher. On the other hand, maybe it's just that grunts are more salient when you're the audience and an adolescent is the author, as opposed to the other way around.

I don't know any real "glossary of grunts", e.g. a transcription standard with examples and guidelines for distinguishing one kind from another, and perhaps a scheme for quantifying relevantly graded properties. If you know of any candidates, please tell me.

[Update -- Gwillim Law writes:

If you go to the Turner Classic Movies website (, click on November 14 to bring up Matt Groening, and then click on Video Interview, about halfway through the film clip you will hear MG say that Dan Castellaneta credited James Finlayson, in the Laurel and Hardy movie "Way Out West", as the prototype for his "D'oh" rendition.

I'm very glad to learn this, both for the value of the particular piece of information, and as an example of paralinguistic antedating. I hope that my colleagues at the Oxford English Dictionary are paying attention.

...And Ben Zimmer quickly points out

Not to worry-- the OED entry for "d'oh" already recognizes Castellaneta's explanation...

Popularized by the American actor Dan Castellaneta who provides the voice for the character Homer Simpson in the U.S. cartoon series The Simpsons. The quotation below is his own description of its origin: 1998 Daily Variety (Nexis) 28 Apr., The D'oh came from character actor James Finlayson's "Do-o-o-o" in Laurel & Hardy pictures. You can tell it was intended as a euphemism for "Damn". I just speeded it up. Although the word appears (in the form D'oh) in numerous publications based on The Simpsons, the scripts themselves simply specify annoyed grunt (as did the very earliest). Unofficial transcripts of the programme suggest the first spoken use was in a short episode, Punching Bag, broadcast on 27 Nov. 1988 as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. Its earliest occurrence in the full-length series was in the first episode Simpsons roasting on an Open Fire, broadcast on 17 Dec. 1989.

I should have checked! ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 18, 2007 04:41 PM