Profanity at family game night — a case study in coarticulation

(This post contains a touch of profanity and potty humour… FYI.)

When we pronounce words, the individual sounds are not actually produced in isolation. Speech sounds, or phonemes, run together and can influence each other significantly.  For example, the a in cat versus can.  The a takes on a nasal sound when it precedes the n, whereas there is no whiff of a nasal sound in most people’s productions of cat (notable exception: Fran Drescher, who absolutely owns her unique hypernasal voice).  All of the complex articulatory movements required for speech must be coordinated and executed extremely quickly, and so we have to anticipate the next movement before the current one is done, resulting in this blurring of sounds.  This is called coarticulation

Coarticulation also makes it tricky for children to hear the individual sounds when they are trying to spell words, and some sounds are more coarticulated than others.  For example, many children go through a stage where they will insist that train starts with ch and dress starts with j.  This is because of the way t+r and d+r are coarticulated.  When you think about it, they do sound a lot like chr and jr.  But, as a literate grown-up, you likely really DO have to think about it, and that’s just an example of how learning to read influences our perception of speech.  You’ve seen those words written that way so many times that you may have a hard time imagining how a kid can possibly think tr sounds like chr. 

The extent to which your t+r and d+r sound like chr and jr depends on your dialect, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with pronouncing those words as chrain and jress. There’s also shtrawberry for strawberry and dijou eat? for did you eat? When these pronunciations are reflected in young children’s spelling errors, they should be corrected by pointing out how these words can be segmenting using the “conventional” sounds, as in “t…r…ai…n” and “d…i…d… y…ou,” even though they sound a little different when we say the whole word. It can be very helpful to analyze kids’ spelling and figure out if they are making errors due to coarticulation affecting their perception of the sounds in words.

Nothing profane to see here so far.

So, one day recently, I was learning how to play Battleship (seriously, I didn’t know how), being taught by my 6-year-old.  Unfortunately, his grasp of the rules was a little shaky.  It turns out that you have to mark your hits and misses AND your opponent’s hits so that you can tell them when they’ve sunk your ships.  We had missed that last detail.  So after a confusing start, my husband, apparently an expert in the game, came to the rescue.  My son and I teamed up against daddy, and we started over.

And then, as sometimes happens at family game night, one player (or in this case, one team) began ruthlessly hammering the other.  We were getting hit after hit, and poor old daddy couldn’t get a hit to save his life.  My son and I found this hilarious and really played it up.  And then, as sometimes happens at family game night, the turns started to take too long, the game lost steam, and someone got noticeably irritated.  My husband said:

“Come on you guys, stop celebrating each hit.”

Excuse me???  What did you just say???

Here’s a hint if you need it: coarticulation works across word boundaries, too.

My misinterpretation is not related only to the overlapping speech sounds (he meant ch+h, I heard t+sh), but also to the sentence structure, or the syntax.  He had intended to give one instruction (an imperative phrase), I heard two.  Now, normally you would also use the rhythm and intonation of your speech (the prosody) to mark a slight pause between two imperative phrases, or you would combine the phrases with and, as in “come here and brush your teeth.”  To be fair, he didn’t make a pause and he didn’t say and.  And this is not to mention the social communication norms.  Did I seriously think daddy would tell us to… eat poo?

So there you have it, the power of coarticulation.  I somehow managed to override what the syntactic/prosodic cues, and certainly the social cues were telling me about daddy’s statement.  Then, after a good double-take, we had a good laugh and got on with sinking every single one of his ships.  Honestly, I’m still laughing over here.

4 thoughts on “Profanity at family game night — a case study in coarticulation

  1. I love this post, especially because I know all the actors well. My story is different but connected. Robin has loved vacuums since he was a toddler, but due do his severe language impairment had a very difficult time articulating the word for many years. When he was 7-8, I received a message from his school explaining that he was repeatedly using a very profane expression. His pronunciation of vacuum sounded exactly like f$&# you! I am happy to report that he know says vacuum very clearly and has never used the alternative pronunciation (as far as I know).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol! But it’s true, I’ve heard him say vacuum and it sounds pretty great! It’s a good thing, because “F$&@ You Man” would be a less appropriate moniker…


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