1697: Intervocalic Fortition

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
Intervocalic Fortition
These pranks happen all the time. English doesn't allow one-syllable words to end in a lax vowel, so writers on The Simpsons decided to mess with future linguists by introducing the word "meh."
Title text: These pranks happen all the time. English doesn't allow one-syllable words to end in a lax vowel, so writers on The Simpsons decided to mess with future linguists by introducing the word "meh."

[edit] Explanation

The linguistic processes of lenition ("weakening") and fortition ("strengthening") refer to a sound becoming, respectively, either more or less vowel-like. Intervocalic means "between two vowels." An unvoiced consonant like f in between two vowels (which are almost always voiced) is more noticeable and takes more effort to pronounce than the voiced version v of the same sound in that position, so a change from v to f in this context would be an example of fortition. As a rule, however, lenition is much more common, and in fact one of the most common regular changes observed across languages is the kind of lenition that is the precise opposite of Cueball's prank: An unvoiced consonant between two vowels comes to be spoken, over time, as a voiced consonant, such as the middle consonant in the word "butter" that in American English is now pronounced as a brief alveolar tap [ɾ] rather than [t]. Observing a pattern of fortition rather than lenition in that position (especially for just one particular consonant) would be a very puzzling phenomenon to future linguists.

Examples for the suggested change are:

  • "Beafer" instead of beaver
  • "Nofember" instead of November
  • "Luffing" instead of loving

In some languages, like German and Dutch, V is often pronounced like F. But it is not always the case.

The title text refers to the fact that English phonotactics tend to discourage final or unstressed /ɛ/. Exceptions tend to be monosyllabic interjections, such as:

  • meh
  • heh
  • eh
  • yeh

The word 'meh', is an interjection used to express boredom or indifference. The suggestion that it was originated by the writers of the animated TV show, The Simpsons, is incorrect. However, its use surged in popularity following its use in various episodes of the show, beginning with the 1994 episode "Sideshow Bob Roberts".

This is the second time in 2016 that Randall tries to spread linguistic misinformation, the first being 1677: Contrails, but since both are in the My Hobby series it is not so strange.

[edit] Transcript

[Cueball holding his hands in front of his mouth is whispering into his Cueball-like friend's ear. The friend turns his head towards Cueball.]
Cueball: Psst - Teach your kids to pronounce V's in the middle of words as F's, but don't write down why you're doing it.
Cueball: Pass it on.
My hobby: Playing pranks on future linguists

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


The idea, stated in the alt-text, that "meh" was created by writers of "The Simpsons", is incorrect. "The Simpsons", however, was responsible for widely popularizing it. See [1] and [2] Dubaaron (talk) 04:31, 22 June 2016 (UTC)

Is it really saying that The Simpsons created the word? All it says is that it introduced the word, which does not seem to imply that it didn't exist before. If I introduce a friend of mine to another person, I most likely did not just create that other person, and there is no reason to believe that it should be any different for words.Mulan15262 (talk) 13:24, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
I don't think that "writers on The Simpsons decided to mess with future linguists" means "writers of The Simpsons introduced the word". 14:25, 22 June 2016 (UTC)

"The" ends in a lax vowel, and it's the most ubiquitous word in the language, so that rule is wrong. 04:45, 22 June 2016 (UTC)

I've always seen "lax vowel" referring to full (unreduced) vowels. When unstressed, the vowel in "the" is reduced (/ðə/), and when stressed it's tense (/ði:/). 05:08, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
Furthermore, the lax vowel is only used if 'the' is followed by another syllable, and so the utterance will not be lax-vowel-final. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
How does that matter? The rule as stated was about the ending of words, not of utterances. Huttarl (talk) 19:21, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
Rules exists in reality, not as statements made by mathematicians or Randall. The actual rule is English doesn't allow utterances to end in a lax vowel. 22:55, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
But isn't "meh" an utterance in and of itself, and therefore a violation of that rule anyway? 07:45, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
Truth is, as a general rule in most languages phonotactic constraints don't apply to exclamations and onomatopoeia. The lax vowel constraint however has a historical reason (mostly lengthening of vowels in word final position) but makes very little sense synchronically now that (historical) "long" and "short" vowels are very different from each other, so it may be the case that the language is evolving to allow lax vowels in final position. By the way, if we express this rule using the term "lax vowels" then yes, we have to exclude /ə/ from lax vowels because it actually appears quite often in final position (even more so in non-rhotic varieties) in words such as coda, comma, Buddha, etc. 09:42, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
What the? That can't be right... (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Schwa doesn't distribute as a lax vowel in English. Consider, for example, that there are both tense and lax vowels (and even diphthongs) that can be reduced to schwa. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Questions. Is this happening in (American) English? is "adverb" becoming /adferb/. Any other examples?Zeimusu (talk) 05:55, 22 June 2016 (UTC)

I scanned some 'v' words and didn't see much. A plural of dwarf discussion; similarly wharf splits into both wharfs and wharves. 'Halving' might benefit in the sense that the 'l' is silent so it sounds like 'having' and might be more clear as 'halfing'. I've also noticed a smattering of YouTubers writing "could of/should of" instead of contracting 'have', i.e, "could've/should've". Elvenivle (talk) 06:50, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
The pronunciation of both of and ’ve is /əv/. 13:35, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
No, I don't think this is really happening. 11:22, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
"Adverb" doesn't have an intervocalic "v". 14:21, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
No, but the prank as stated in the comic "V's in the middle of words" applies to "adverb". 15:34, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
Yes, absolutely. 19:38, 22 June 2016 (UTC)
Thanks, have added the comic you referenced, 1677: Contrails to the explanation. :-) --Kynde (talk) 07:46, 23 June 2016 (UTC)

It's quite surprising to see Randall misusing apostrophes to form plurals (i.e. V's and F's instead of the correct Vs and Fs).  – 19:36, 22 June 2016 (UTC)

That's one of those gray/grey areas where the "rules" for apostrophes aren't firmly in place. Typographically, the apostrophe is (often) used to form plurals of lower case letters ("i's" and "m's" for clarity over "is" and "ms") and this exception tends to get carried over to capital letters, numbers, and symbols though the need for insuring clarity is reduced. It becomes a matter for style manuals rather than grammar manuals: do you follow the exception -- or the exception to the exception? 21:07, 22 June 2016 (UTC)

If they can't see through such transparent trickery, they must not be very cunning linguists. 02:49, 23 June 2016 (UTC)

If one applies this pronunciation to the title of comic, it becomes "Interfocalic fortition". Could this have any real meaning in optics, between lenses and their foci? 03:30, 23 June 2016 (UTC)

Maybe the mock German accent angle should be mentioned? EHusmark (talk) 07:34, 23 June 2016 (UTC)

Yes, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned that in German and dutch the V is always pronounced as F. And the V sound only comes into these languages trough W, which is not called double U but double V. Since I'm not from either country I would prefer someone with more knowledge about this to make the note. But it seems relevant for the explanation to me... --Kynde (talk) 07:36, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
I personally don't think it's really relevant, also given that it's not entirely true that "German and dutch the V is always pronounced as F". As for German, orthographical <v> is almost always pronounced [f] at the beginning of a word, but there are many loanwords that are exceptional in this respect, and in the middle of the word it is most often pronounced "v". As for Dutch, while many varieties have merged <v> and <f> into [f], standard Dutch has three distinct pronunciations for <f>, <v> and <w>. The last two in particular are both pronounced as "v-like" consonants: <v> is pronounced [v] and <w> is pronounced [ʋ], a sound which is kind of between English V and W, think of the way some people with a speech impediment or children may pronounce R in English. 09:42, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
Thanks for the explanation, I still think it is relevant, as the idea of pronouncing V as F is not taken out of thin air by Randall, but an actual practice in more than one language. I have mentioned it, but noted that it is not always the case that V=F in those languages. --Kynde (talk) 13:22, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
Now that I re-read myself I notice I got lost in my babbles and didn't actually explain why I didn't think it was relevant: it's not so much that "V = F" may be an oversimplified statement for these languages, as you had already pointed out, but rather that when this occurs in English because of an accent it has more to do with "spelling pronunciation" using the speaker's native language's reading rules than a synchronic fortition of /v/, so to me it is a completely different process. A speaker with a Spanish accent may substitute /s/ for /z/ everywhere because Spanish simply doesn't have a voiced sibilant, that may approximately be considered as an instance of fortition, although I doubt most speakers with this substitution would be aware of the existence of these two different phonemes in English; but a speaker with a German accent would easily be able to differentiate between /v/ and /f/ (except in word-final position, where devoicing collapses the two), they just don't know that the word is supposed to have that sound and assume it should follow similar reading/spelling rules to their native language. Although now that I think about it, this is a bit of speculation about what a German learner would think, based on the phases of "phonemic awareness" I experienced in learning English (Italian is my mother tongue).
That said, if you thought about German accents when reading, it is at least possible that a native English speaker such as Randall might make that connection, so it might be worth a note. I also apologise, because I seem to have read your remark—out of my own fantasy, I'll admit—as though you somehow implied that this is a process akin to what goes on in those accents, while it appears you were only talking about citing the fact that mock and possibly actual German and Dutch accents result in a similar pronunciation of V-words, which is true and might constitute at least an interesting piece of trivia if not the source of Randall's idea, at least concerning the choice of sound to "fortite".
Now, I would write the note myself but, to be honest, I'm lazy and I haven't read up on writing and formatting practices in this Wiki and I don't really want to start at present, so I'd rather leave it to the "professionals" 14:49, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
(TL;DR: you're right, a note should probably be added, I'd rather not do it myself because I don't know how) 14:49, 23 June 2016 (UTC).

Someone has written as an example: "Luffing" instead of loving where it would be more correct to write lofing according to the rule of the comic... Any reason for this "error" or should it just be corrected? --Kynde (talk) 07:36, 23 June 2016 (UTC)

It's a (pseudo)phonemic transcription of how the word "loving" would be pronounced if the "v" were replaced by "f" in pronunciation. "loving" has a (relatively) idiosyncratic spelling, but it is actually pronounced as "luvving" /ˈlʌvɪŋ/, replacing the V with F in writing would produce a word that would be likely to be pronounced rather like "loafing" /ˈləʊfɪŋ/. 09:42, 23 June 2016 (UTC)
Why not use ( pronounced
"yews") fortition on eferything in an interfocalic context, not just 'V's?

I.e. 'Z' becomes 'Ss' and that wierd French-sounding G sound (as in Jean luc) I can never remember the name of becomes 'sh'.

I.e. cifilissation. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Worth noting inherent irony

Comic mentions to pass on the idea but not write it down, but the comic itself is written down, meaning that by sharing the joke on future linguists in the comic, the joke on future linguists is spoiled. 00:02, 24 June 2016 (UTC)

I think that the text about the simpsons is a joke. The word ending in a lax vowel that the Simpsons created is "doh". "Doh" is substituted by "meh" in order to spread even more linguistic disinformation to future linguists that stumble upon this comic. 16:26, 27 June 2016 (UTC) 16:26, 27 June 2016 (UTC)

Personal tools


It seems you are using noscript, which is stopping our project wonderful ads from working. Explain xkcd uses ads to pay for bandwidth, and we manually approve all our advertisers, and our ads are restricted to unobtrusive images and slow animated GIFs. If you found this site helpful, please consider whitelisting us.

Want to advertise with us, or donate to us with Paypal?