Low vowels

More from the “Metropolitan Diary” in yesterday’s NYT, a letter from Kevin J. Farrelly with a puzzle in the production and perception of vowels:

While in one of the newly renovated Duane Reade stores recently, I decided to look at their food section to get something for lunch. [DR is a drugstore chain that, like most such chains, has branched out into lots of non-drug items.] I selected some sushi.

As the young woman at the register was bagging my items, including the sushi, I remembered to ask her if she had chopsticks. In response, she lifted her arm and, without speaking, pointed in the opposite direction of the food section.

I told her that I did not understand where she was pointing. She then said, “In the bowl over there.”

I thought it odd that a bowl in the cosmetics section would contain chopsticks. When I approached the bowl, I understood why she had sent me there. The bowl was full of ChapSticks. Before then, it had never occurred to me how similar those words were.

Well, the vowel phonemes in question are /a/ in chopstick and /æ/ in ChapStick — both low unrounded vowels, distinguished as more back and more front, respectively.

But the phonetic realizations of each of these phonemes vary widely from speaker to speaker, so without knowing what range of allophones these two speakers produce in the two words and how they perceive other people’s productions, we can’t be entirely sure what was going on in this exchange — though it could be nothing more complex than a mishearing of phonetically similar (though distinct) phonemes, especially if there was noise in the context; /a/ and /æ/ are easily confusable.


4 Responses to “Low vowels”

  1. Greetings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Low vowels […]

  2. Martyn Cornell Says:

    No confusion possible in any variety of British English, I think.

  3. Jan Freeman Says:

    Same vowels (I think), different mystery: My husband and I took the ferry from San Francisco to visit friends in Tiburon recently, and as we were buying coffee on the boat, a young woman came up and asked the coffee lady, “Do you have a mop?” We all looked blank, picturing (we agreed afterward) a spilled drink somewhere on the deck, but by the time she was repeating the request, I had the translation: “Do you have a MAP?”

    No clue what the speaker’s native language might have been, though.

  4. Annals of mishearing « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Low vowels (link): chopsticks heard as […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: