Striking an AW into the beholders


Today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro (Wayno’s title “Pupper Love”) shows a teacup chihuahua deployed in a routine medical checkup:

(#2) Doctors ask you to say ah / ahh / aah so that you’ll open your mouth fully and they can then examine the back of the mouth, including the soft palate and the tonsils (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

We will then be taken into the world of exclamations, lexical ones (like hi and yikes) and paralinguistic ones (like uh-huh and unh-unh), and the sociophonetics of ah – aw — which happens to be a familiar topic in English dialectology, thanks to the cot–caught merger, also known as the low back merger or the LOT–THOUGHT merger.

Both of these topics are complex, much more complex than I can do justice to here. But they’re relevant to #2, as you will see when I tell you that there are many Americans who pronounce Shah and Shaw identically, with the low, open, unrounded vowel of Shah — that’s the cot–caught merger — but who nevertheless marvel at cuteness (as in teacup chihuahuas) with a mid, closed, rounded vowel, like the one other Americans (I am one) have in Shaw, but longer and with more pronounced lip-rounding, a sort of super-[ɔ:]. This despite the fact that if you ask these people to repeat Shaw [šɔ:] after you, they’ll produce [ša:] (and they’ll fail to perceive your distinction between Shah and Shaw, which will just baffle them).

(Irrelevant notes on #1: I admire the patient’s boxer shorts, but I have no idea whether they signify anything. And no, I don’t know if the doctor character is modeled on any real person, or just happens to be a grizzled black man.)

On the dogs. From Wikipedia:

(#3) A teacup chihuahua, in situ

The Chihuahua … is a Mexican breed of toy dog. It is named for the Mexican state of Chihuahua and is among the smallest of all dog breeds. It is usually kept as a companion animal or for showing.

[Note: dog people are accustomed to capitalizing the names of dog breeds, as if these labels were proper names and not the names of (cultural) categories. This is their harmless local custom, but it doesn’t conform to everyday usage and is not followed in dictionary entries — in NOAD, you find a chihuahua entry, a dachshund entry, a German shepherd entry, etc. (compare zinnia, dahlia, lilac, etc.).]

… Both British and American breed standards state that a Chihuahua must not weigh more than 5.9 lb (2.7 kg) [for showing].

… Pet Chihuahuas (those bred or purchased as companions rather than as show dogs) often range above these weights, even above 10 lb (4.5 kg), if they have large bone structures or are allowed to become overweight. This does not mean that they are not purebred Chihuahuas; they just do not meet the requirements to enter a conformation show. … Chihuahuas do not breed true for size, and puppies from the same litter can mature in drastically different sizes from one another.

… Many breeders try to breed Chihuahuas to be as small as possible, because those marketed as “teacup” or “tiny teacup” [no more than 3 lbs. in weight] demand higher prices.

Two kinds of exclamations. Both conventionalized, and so subject to variation between languages and between varieties of a language. On the one hand, some exclamations are clearly words of a language, though with (various kinds of) special syntax and prosody: ouch, hi, bye, ok, nope, oy vey, oh my god, eek, yikes, oops, oink.

One indicator of their lexical status is that the phonological material in them participates in the phonetic variation of the speaker’s variety. If you’re a Southern American speaker who monophthongizes the [aj] of high and by to [a:], then you have the same variant in the exclamations hi and bye. If you’re one of the many American and British speakers with a fronted variant of [o] in [oʊ], in words like roseoak, and the letter name O, then you have the same variant in the exclamations oh and ok. And so on.

In contrast, there are paralinguistic exclamations that come with their own phonetics, often quite different from the material in straightforward lexical items. Consider, in this light, the agreement / disagreement exclamations yes vs. no, which are ordinary lexical items, in contrast to their paralinguistic counterparts:

uh-huh, that is, ùh-húnh [ʔ] — ending in a glottal stop, with uh representing [ǝ] and unh representing its nasalized counterpart — (roughly) ‘yes’; vs. unh-unh, that is, únh [ʔ] -ùnh — with a glottal stop in the middle — (roughly) ‘no’

It’s something of a puzzle how to spell these things in ordinary English orthography. My own practice, above, is uh-huh vs. unh-unh. You would not expect such items to be listed in dictionaries, but since there are customs for their spelling, both NOAD and AHD5 give them entries anyway; their preferred spelling is uh-huh (with accent on the 2nd syllable) vs. uh-uh  (with accent on the 1st syllable). But it should be clear that this is a very different world from yes vs. no.

On to ah and aw. The short story, from NOAD:

exclamation ah: used to express a range of emotions including surprise, pleasure, sympathy, and realization: ah, there you are! | ah, this is the life. [attested since Middle English] [no mention of the medical use, which now looks paralinguistic; note in particular that the ah of “say ah” is often extra-long (indicated by the common spellings aah and ahh) and more open than the ah of ah, there you are!]

exclamation aw (also aww). 1 used to express mild protest, entreaty, or sympathy: aw, come on, Andy | aww, you poor thing. 2 used to express mild disappointment or self-deprecation: aw, it’s a shame I can’t make it | aww, thanks for the nice comments. 3 used to express pleasure, delight, or affection, especially in response to something regarded as sweet or endearing: aww, the kitten is too cute! | aww, are you guys an item? [first recorded in American English in the mid 19th century.]

The alternative spelling aww (indicating extra length and tenser, more protruding lip-rounding) is a tip-off that this aw might be paralinguistic. And then there’s supporting evidence for this analysis from the facts of dialect variation, introduced above.

For background, see the Page on this blog on cot-caught. The key fact here is that General American speakers have a phonemic distinction between /a/ (something in the region of [a:]) in cot and /ɔ/ [ɔ:] in caught; American speakers who level the distinction most commonly do it in favor of /a/, so that Shaw is pronounced like Shah.

But these levelers — who apparently cannot cope with the [ɔ:] of Shaw in either production or perception nevertheless have it just fine in affectional aww. Because things are different in Paralinguistic World.

Bonus from the backfiles. An earlier cartoon play on medical “say ah”, from my 5/18/14 posting “… plus four”:

(#4) A Benjamin Schwartz New Yorker cartoon, with a play on Canadian eh (you have to recognize the RCMP uniform to get the joke; information on Canadian eh in my 2014 posting)

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