Saturday, September 10, 2005


The accidental poetry of being a bad listener at meetings

At Thursday's meeting, the organizer was making a point about some very knowledgeable potential collaborators. I thought I heard her say:
They know where the fresh berries are.
What a great metaphor! It's like "they know where the bodies are buried," only so upbeat. They know where the fresh berries are!

It turns out what she really said was:
They know where the barriers are.
I'm not sure where I got "fresh."

Ahhh, hearing the vowel of 'bet' when the speaker was saying the vowel of 'bat'. This has gotten to be a really common pattern of misunderstanding across American dialects. In the extreme cases, you can hear the vowel of 'bit' when the speaker is saying the vowel of 'bat' -- so that 'Ann' sounds like 'Ian'. Now, knowing where you grew up and where you've lived, you should be susceptible to this pattern as a listener (as am I). The typical speaker who would trigger this misunderstanding would be from the stretch of cities running from Madison, Wisc. (maybe ideally Chicago) east to Buffalo along the southern edge of the Great Lakes.

Many Wisconsinites do this just before 'g', so that 'bag' sounds like 'beg' or even the first syllable of 'bagel', but that's another kettle of vowel changes.

Just remember: You think Americans don't understand each other today, just wait a couple generations.

-Mr. Verb
You must have been channeling your inner Bear. They know where the fresh berries are.
Mr. Verb,

What are you saying -- that the speaker doesn't make the sound that particular way, but I hear the sound? Isn't that a kind of phonic relativism? Even nihilism?
Hmmm, smart way of thinking about it, if somewhat disturbing. I guess it is relativism of a very specific sort: Our dialects and languages do shape how we hear and don't hear sounds. As a southerner, even as a linguist after many years in the north and working hard on it, I have to concentrate to hear the difference between 'pin' and 'pen' or 'gem' and 'Jim', whereas northerners almost all hear them as screamingly different sounds. I lack this distinction in my own native speech and don't automatically calculate it in when I listen to others.

Vowels, in particular, are produced on a continuum. So, you can easily start out saying the vowel in 'bat' and change it gradually into 'bit' by raising your jaw. Different languages and dialects break up that continuum differently. (In fact, most languages -- like Yiddish, Spanish, Russian -- lack that 'bat' vowel altogether, and a lot don't have anything along that continuum except the 'bit' vowel.) Especially if it's a language we know, like in your example, when we hear stuff, we work hard to fit it into known categories. (I think that's probably what happened with getting the 'fresh' in before the 'berries' -- you were trying to build a sentence from what you'd heard that fit with the 'berries' part -- although I don't know much about 'slips of the ear', a very cool area of linguistics.)

But it's a very limited relativism: These patterns of mishearing are tightly constrained along various parameters ... it's usually pretty easy to figure out where people will misperceive a particular sound and how.

More importantly, has anybody ever built a blogging career off of just commenting on a particularly rich blog?

--Mr. Verb
Ah, Mr. Verb has explained it all. You see, when the gulf coast officials were screaming "help" the east coast politicians were hearing "hello, how are you?" (the hello coming from "help" and the "how are you" part of the same process that led to adding "fresh" in Oscar's example). or maybe it was the vowel sounds? "help" became "halt," which is why bush et al now say it was blanco's fault that the military sat around for three days before thinking to airdrop rations and supplies over the flooded portions of the city?
I'm putting that line on my C.V.

"I know where the fresh berries are."
somehow, all this talk of berries made me think of a poem i heard quoted in a movie. and it kinda goes along with oscar's recent midlife crisis riffs...

ripe plums are falling
now there are only five
may a fine lover come for me
while there is still time

ripe plums are falling
now there are only three
may a fine lover come for me
while there is still time

ripe plums are falling
i gather them in a shallow basket
may a fine lover come for me
tell me his name

Chinese Book of Songs
Quoted in "Crossing Delancey"
"... Crossing Delancey," where she ends up withe the pickle man, as I recall.
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