Air spelling

Yesterday’s Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer interviewing an Oklahoma teacher on the radio:

Um… misspell?

That’s teechers, dumands, adaquit, witch (for which), texbooks, leek (for leak), hour (for our), dayz. Apparently spelled out in the air, for Mark to see — or maybe he can see the speech balloons in the cartoon he’s in; that’s not an uncommon meta-move in cartooning.

The joke depends on a crucial piece of (widely held) belief about language: that when we speak, we are realizing written language acoustically — reading off pages in our heads, as it were. The idea is breath-takingly wrong, but lots of people take it to be a fundamental fact about the way the world works.

An anecdote from my colleague Chuck Fillmore, many years ago, struggling with a student who was having terrible trouble with the phonetics section of an intro linguistics course at Ohio State (which was required for English Education majors). The point at issue was the point of articulation of the fricative [š] (IPA [ʃ]) (as in ship and mush), as contrasted with [s] (as in sip and muss). (To way get ahead of the story, the answer is: palato-alveolar, or simplifying things, palatal.)

“Say [š] and then right after it, [s]”, Chuck said, “and tell me what your tongue is doing when it goes from the first to the second”.  (The answer: it’s moving forward along the roof of the mouth.)

The student tried this several times, and then the lightbulb came on. “It’s dropping the H!”

[š]  is SH and [s] is S (well, in city, [s] is soft C, and a fair number of students are prepared to explain to you that the consonant at the beginning of sit is different from the one at the beginning of city) — so going from the first to the second is going from SH to S.

Fillmorean facepalm.


The doctrine that speech is writing read out loud is an illusion fostered by widespread literacy and schooling — it lives in the dark underside of writing as a great technological innovation.


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