The khan con

The One Big Happy strip from 7/15, in which the Library Lady reads from the children’s book The Magic Cowlick, about Aziza, whose father was a powerful khan, and asks about the infrequent lexical item khan, which Ruthie takes to be the (to her) more familiar slang noun con (< confidence man), homophonous with khan for most Americans:

(#1) But then we have some vowel issues; compare the Library Lady’s pronunciation of khan in the first panel with her pronunciation of con in the last panel

If you’re a typical British speaker, the strip works just fine: your pronunciations of the two words differ, but only in some phonetic features of the vowels, so khan and con are half-rhymes, and make an imperfect pun. Assuming that LL has made the same distinction you do, you might disregard the difference, and just appreciate the near-match; you might not have caught it, in the noise of actual conversation or through your inattention; but things are cool.

Ruthie, on the other hand, is certainly American . She would not make this distinction in her speech and she would not be accustomed to detecting it in other people’s speech, so whatever LL said, khan and con are the same for Ruthie, and she opts for the more likely interpretation, con. As above.

(Yes, some serious phonology and phonetics is on its way, very soon.)

But what about LL? No problem if she’s British, but that seems unlikely, given the solidly American setting of the strip. So her pronunciations of khan and con are identical. Call that pronunciation A. Then in panel 1, she says A (for khan), and then in the panel 4 she says A again (for con). But in panel 4 she’s correcting Ruthie’s understanding, asserting that what she produces in panel 1 (A) is not what Ruthie produces in panel 3 and LL repeats in panel 4 (but that’s A again). She’s saying, in effect, “the word is (pronounced) A, not A”. That would be paradoxical.

An analogy, using a pun joke (from a collection of pun sites):

Jokester: Smaller babies may be delivered by stork but the heavier ones need a crane.

Puzzled foil: Why use another bird?

Jokester: No, a crane, not a crane!

We continue to puzzle. One crane is pronounced just like the other. (In real life, the jokester would have to add clarifying context: “No, a machine crane, not a bird crane!” Or mimic a piece of machinery in operation and a bird in flight.)

We can only go on what the other person says: we can’t tell what’s in their head.

We also can’t tell how they would spell what they say; speech doesn’t come with subtitles or supertitles, or speech balloons, for that matter.

So I’m inclined to say that the problematic actor in #1 is the cartoonist, Rick Detorie, for thinking that his characters can, in effect, hear what’s printed in their speech balloons.

It can be fixed, by adding clarifying context: “No, a K-H-A-N khan, not a C-O-N con”.

The lexical items in question, from NOAD:

noun khan-1: [a] a title given to rulers and officials in central Asia, Afghanistan, and certain other Muslim countries. [b] any of the successors of Genghis Khan, supreme rulers of the Turkish, Tartar, and Mongol peoples and emperors of China in the Middle Ages. [Genghis Khan will put in a brief reappearance later]

noun con-1: informal an instance of deceiving or tricking someone: [as modifier]: a con artist | when depositors, realizing that the whole thing is a con, demand repayment.

Phonology and phonetics: lexical sets, accents, and vowels. Background from Wikipedia:

The Standard Lexical Sets for English introduced by John C. Wells in Accents of English are in wide usage. Wells defined each lexical set on the basis of the pronunciation of words in two reference accents, which he calls RP and GenAm.

— “RP” refers to Received Pronunciation, the traditionally prestigious accent in England.

— “GenAm” refers to an accent of the General American type, which is associated with a geographically “neutral” or widespread sound system throughout the US.

Wells classifies English words into 24 lexical sets on the basis of the pronunciation of the vowel of their stressed syllable in the two reference accents. Typed in small caps, each lexical set is named after a representative keyword

The lexical sets for khan (keyword PALM) and con (keyword LOT), plus a related third (keyword CLOTH):

keyword – RP –  GenAm – examples


(Note: it’s the IPA symbols, which stand for a well-defined range of articulations, that are crucial here; idiosyncrasies of varieties other than RP and GenAm mean that the examples are only imperfect guides.)

And the points of articulation together with lip-rounding, assembled into a vowel chart (diacritic symbols indicate other phonetic dimensions: length, nasalization, tone, voicing, etc.)

(#5) (American linguists are inclined to name the Close – Mid – Open dimension as High – Mid – Low)

The vowels in #2-4:

ɑ low back unrounded (ɑ: long version of this)
ɒ low back rounded
ɔ low-mid back rounded

(These descriptions are recipes for pronouncing the vowels in question; to know how they sound, you’ll have to learn how to follow the recipes yourself or consult standardized recordings.)

GenAm merges the PALM and the LOT vowels (as ɑ); khan and con are homophonous there, but distinct in RP. Meanwhile, RP merges the LOT and the CLOTH vowels (as ɒ), while GenAm distinguishes them.

The Magic Cowlick. As far as I can tell, the things that LL reads from in OBH are never real children’s books but are always evocative of existing books, maybe pastiches of them, or just funny inventions that occurred to Rick Detorie. This time I thought, “Magic cowlick? That’s just a Detorie joke”.

But maybe not.

I offer you Eleanor’s Magical Cowlick by Lily Cox & Emily Spencer (AuthorHouse, 2015). I would feel completely assured in saying that this children’s book was an influence on Detorie, except for the fact that it’s self-published and I don’t know how widely it’s known. Maybe cowlicks were somehow in the air.

(Incidentally, I was convinced that I’d already posted about cowlicks, so I could insert a link to that posting, but apparently not. Unfortunately, I’m way jammed up with things to post about, so cowlicks are probably not in this blog’s future.)

The book LL is reading from has a Princess Aziza, whose father is or was a powerful khan. There have been various Princess Azizas in the Muslim world, but none connected to a powerful khan, so far as I can see, but it’s a possible allusion. And then there’s Genghis, the most powerful Khan of all time, who seems to be Azizaless, but again a possible allusion.

I wonder how the magic cowlick gets into it.


6 Responses to “The khan con”

  1. John Baker Says:

    My take is that Library Lady doesn’t realize that she is pronouncing “khan” and “con” identically. I know that I myself have not realized, until it was pointed out, that I am pronouncing two words the same, when they gave different spellings.

    I tend to prefer it when strips have specific, concrete settings, and One Big Happy is set in Baltimore.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I don’t suppose there’s any possibility that LL is slightly aspirating the h in “khan”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The initial /k/ of both khan and con is realized by an aspirated variant [kh] (that h is supposed to print as a raised, superscript, symbol) in almost all varieties of English. (There is similar aspiration for the initial /p/ of pot and the initial /t/ of top.)

      • Mitch4 Says:

        I guess aspiration is not going to be the feature that works in this explanation. But I would still urge Robert Coren’s suggestion that a difference could be found in the initial consonant sounds. I certainly *can* pronounce them differently, when purposely exaggerating to foreground a distinction. I make the Kh- of Khan very rough, and pull it back some.
        No, that’s not how I say Khan in running informal speech. But does the exaggerated difference in pseudo-citation pronunciation suggest some underlying difference in how I represent it internally? (Please let me know the more modern way of talking about lexical entries 🙂

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        Reply to Mitch4 on “khan” vs. “con”.

        The original issue was about how the words are pronounced in ordinary speech, in running conversational speech or even in citing words (if the speaker is merely asked to read a printed word, in a list of words). In these circumstances, “khan” and “con” are homophonous, period.

        You’ll see different behavior when a speaker is asked to read a pair of printed words, like “khan … con” or “con … khan”. In these circumstances, speakers are inclined to try to *make* a distinction between the words, using phonetic properties that are paralinguistic, not distinctive, in the language in question (in this case, English): prosodic properties (loudness, length, rhythm / tempo, pitch, intonation); properties of vocal quality / phonation type (whisper, breathy voice / murmur, creaky voice, falsetto); or secondary articulations (labialization, palatalization, labio-palatalization, velarization, pharyngealization, glottalization). When speakers do this, they are using those properties metalinguistically, essentially to comment on the nature of the two words.

        Other metalinguistic strategies for distinguishing words are mentioned in my posting: adding disambiguating modifiers or contentful gestures. Or, for orthographically distinct words, reading the letters out, or using “mixed” pronunciations in which the letters are separately pronounced, like [kǝhán] for “khan” but [kán] for ‘con’. (Thus mimicking the hyperarticulated pronunciations of actual initial consonant clusters, as in hyperarticulated [kǝrézi] for [krézi] “crazy”.)

        Many of those paralinguistic properties can also be used for emphasis on a word in speech: greater loudness, greater length, higher pitch, creaky voice, falsetto, glottalization or pharyngealization of an initial consonant, and more. Emphasis can also be achieved by various sorts of hyperarticulation, exaggerating the phonetic characteristics of the emphasized word: releasing and aspirating a final voiceless stop (aspirated stops being significantly more audible than plain stops), or (relevant in the case at hand) producing more forceful aspiration of an initial voiceless stop).

        Emphasis is relevant to distinguishing “khan” /and “con” phonetically because speakers can try to make the two words distinct by emphasizing one of them over the other: in this case, emphasizing “khan” because it’s rarer than “con” or because its spelling has more letters. The jury is still out on whether the emphasis strategy for disambiguating homophones ever works for communicating word differences in connected speech or even for words in lists, despite the fact that many speakers seem to think it does; it’s certainly not very effective.

        So the state of the art seems to be you *can* pronounce “khan” and “con” differently, but it’s not clear that you can use that difference to convey which one you have in mind. I mean, you could also distinguish the words by squinting your eyes when you say one of them and not when you say the other, but that won’t work to convey which is which to someone who doesn’t know your private code.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    A follow-up to John Baker’s comment, above, in e-mail from me to John Wells (we are old friends and now we are both old men who have served as Publicly Gay Linguists for decades — John in his reserved British fashion, me in my more showy and confrontational American fashion; this is incidentally relevant in our e-mail exchange). It begins with my sending John the link to the khan/con posting, with this note:

    AZ > JW 8/11:

    I’m interested in John Baker’s comment, which suggests that we’re seeing an “illusion of difference” here — a perceptual illusion in which a speaker believes that they have different pronunciations for homophones that are spelled differently. There might even be people who (at least sometimes) believe that they have different pronunciations for homophonous lexemes that are grossly different in meaning, like bird “crane” and machine “crane” in my posting, or riparian “bank” and financial “bank”.

    I’m wondering if you know of any actual literature on these illusions — studies beyond the occasional anecdote. It’s the sort of topic you might have come across in teaching phonetics to a wide variety of audiences.

    JW > AZ 8/11:

    No, I don’t know of any actual literature on the topic.

    We Brits etc never get the point of American jokes about “hairy Harry” and the like, since it would never occur to us that “hairy” and “Harry” might be homophones for some people. [referring to the famous-in-linguistics “Mary” – “merry” – “marry” variation, covered in a previous posting of mine but not in the posting above]

    Similarly, and LGBT-related, I don’t suppose Americans would understand why people from the north of England sometimes refer to a gay man as a “puff”. This slur is pronounced [pʊf] by everyone, but our northerners don’t have the ʊ/ʌ distinction. (On the other hand, the OED thinks that the etymology of “poof” may be “puff”.) [some readers might be more familiar with the extended form “poofter”, from its use in Monty Python’s Flying Circus]

    Back to khan/con: we *did* get the joke about “Hello, Dali” years ago.

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