2942: Fluid Speech

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Fluid Speech
Thank you to linguist Gretchen McCulloch for teaching me about phonetic assimilation, and for teaching me that if you stand around in public reading texts from a linguist and murmuring example phrases to yourself, people will eventually ask if you're okay.
Title text: Thank you to linguist Gretchen McCulloch for teaching me about phonetic assimilation, and for teaching me that if you stand around in public reading texts from a linguist and murmuring example phrases to yourself, people will eventually ask if you're okay.


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Created by sum'un who wud rite like'is all'u time if e'cud gi'away with'd- Title text not adressed. How would the utterance of the fourth panels actually sound? Do NOT delete this tag too soon.
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

This comic is about sandhi.

Randall states that people often unconsciously shorten words in various ways when speaking to optimize the fluidity of speech. He then presents four side-view diagrams of the human mouth and paths depicting how it might conceptually move (it depending a lot on how the individual normally forms even the major phonemes) when saying increasingly fluid versions of "going to."

The first diagram gives the pronunciation /ɡoʊɪŋ tu/ GO-ing TO. This is the version found in dictionaries and used when one is speaking slowly and deliberately. Here, the tongue and lips have to move a lot. The phrase starts at the back of the throat with a velar /g/ and moves into the diphthong OH /oʊ/ and the approximant /w/ to the KIT vowel /ɪ/. (Though it's not in the traditional IPA transcription or the comic, most native accents will insert a [w] between [ʊ] and another vowel.) The tongue then has to move right back to where it started for the "ng" in "going", the velar /ŋ/, followed by an even bigger jump forwards to the alveolar /t/ and back again for the back vowel /u/. Since /t/ is a voiceless consonant, the vocal cords will briefly stop vibrating, interrupting the sound, which the diagram illustrates as a gap in the path.

The second diagram shows a slightly more efficient pronunciation, in which the /ŋ/ is replaced by an /n/ instead since both /n/ and /t/ are alveolar sounds. The final /u/ weakens to the more neutrally positioned /ə/, which is the "default" vowel (aka you should be making this sound if you relax your mouth completely and give a small grunt). (For more about Schwa, see 2907: Schwa.) All doubling back of the tongue is now removed, leaving only a small, nearly closed loop.

The third diagram shows an even more efficient and very common pronunciation of the phrase, /ɡʌnə/ GUN-na. Here rather than optimizing tongue movement hard-to-pronounce sounds are removed or further replaced instead. The /t/ is dropped leaving only /n/, while the vowel(s) of the first syllable go from /o/ to /ʌ/ between which the only difference is the optional rounding, or pursing, of the lips - though more likely given Randall Munroe's prior comics demonstrating a ꜱᴛʀᴜᴛ-coᴍᴍᴀ merger, a supposed /ə/.

The fourth diagram shows the most reduced pronunciation. The /n/ is lost as a consonant in its own right, with only remnants of its existence found by the nasalisation of the preceding vowel where part of the airflow is redirected through the nose. (This is, incidentally, the same manner how French got its famous nasal sounds - sequences of what used to be vowel + /n/ from Latin were reduced.) This way, the only motions one must make is to articulate the /ɡ/, which some would voice by an movement of the rear tongue although parts of the larynx may primarily be employed by others. This pronunciation seems almost unconnected to the original phrase of "going to". However, English speakers will still almost always understand this in context, and likely think they heard "gonna"

In the bottom text, Randall comments on the perception of reduced pronunciations, remarking that while many perceive them as being sloppy, in reality deliberately pronouncing each word with the "supposed" pronunciation in its dictionary form sounds stilted, forced, and unnatural. The final T in the word "hot" is an example of this. Most people when thinking of T think there is only one way to pronounce it - usually the aspirated unvoiced alveolar plosive "tuh" found at the start of syllables - but in reality it varies widely depending on position and accent, most noticeable if one pronounces a word such as "teat". In this context the "t" in "hot" is replaced by a glottal stop; funnily enough, and perhaps ironically, despite being the same sound it is never stigmatized, unlike intervocalic "t"s such as bottle which some speakers, particularly some British ones, also replace with glottal stops (rendered 'humorously' as bo'oh). It you speak English in the British "standard" Received Pronunciation form you may have to put on a fake American accent to understand this joke. It works best if you attempt an outrageous stereotype of a slurred non-English speaker.

The title text is a serious shout-out to linguist Gretchen McCulloch who has been teaching Randall about this stuff, but includes a joke about what happens when he tries these things out in public.


Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
[Above the panel:]
Fun fact: Experienced speakers constantly merge, drop, and alter sounds when talking at normal conversational speed to optimize for efficient mouth movement.
[The panel shows four labeled side profiles of a mouth with paths of sounds made in different parts of the mouth. There is a label "More fluid" with an arrow pointing to the right. From left to right:]
Going to
/ɡoʊɪŋ tu/
[Path:] (G O >> I >> NG >> >> ) ( >> T >> >> O)
Goin' to
/ɡoʊɪn tə/
[Path:] (G O >> I >> N)(T >> >> O)
[Path:] (G O >> NN >> A)
How fluent speakers actually say it when speaking rapidly
[Path:] (G >> >> ə̃)
[Below the panel:]
If you think you don't do this, try to use "hot potato" in a sentence and fully pronounce the first "t" without sounding like an alien impersonating a human.

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I've noticed that this doesn't seem to be the case in all languages. For example, when native Polish speakers talk rapidly (even when speaking English), they enunciate every sound accurately in quick succession while flattening out the tone and rhythm of their speech. I wonder if this is because Polish is an inflected language where the grammar of the sentence is determined by endings of words rather than word order. Does anyone know if there have been any studies on this? 23:12, 5 June 2024 (UTC)

I'm not linguists but based on how many those are, definitely. -- Hkmaly (talk) 00:10, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Russian also has vowel reduction like English and it's a Slavic language like Polish, so I don't think so. Although someone who knows more than me might be able to chip in on whether the effect is stronger in English. 03:24, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Russian vowels are a tangle of reduction indeed. I think they’re much more complicated than English vowels, but I may be biased as a native speaker of Russian who started self-studying phonetics, phonology etc. to improve his English pronunciation and only relatively briefly looked up Russian phonology for fun. But at any rate, Russian vowel reduction happens in slow and fast, formal and colloquial speech alike, pretty much universally except when articulating a word exceedingly clearly when someone can’t hear you well; and Russian consonants are generally unaffected outside of several specific clusters and morphemes, even if you include those that are fully codified in modern language but retain etymological spelling (чувство, счастье, солнце). Chortos-2 (talk) 16:30, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
I know the comic specifies native speakers, but I just asked some of my East Asian friends and they very clearly enunciated the "t" in "hot potato". Tcf (talk) 07:22, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

I've just added a very barebones version of an explanation based on what I could understand from the comic. I can tell that the four diagrams depict that of the human mouth but since I am not a linguist, I lack the knowledge of various terms and thus, can't fully explain the comic. I understand what the comic is trying to convey, I just can't explain it. Looking forward to seeing how this progresses. OmniDoom (talk) 00:22, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

I don't think #4 is a real IPA symbol, but as I am not a linguist, I have no idea. 01:38, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

/ə̃/ is a nasalized schwa -- 08:53, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
A video for demonstrating the sound: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Q2M9ILulTo 17:11, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

The hovertext joke is that every English speaker fully pronounces the first "t" in "Hot Potato". It's at the end of "hot". Nobody says "ha potato". Nitpicking (talk) 03:01, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

Unless you mean "the glottal stop should be considered an allophone of <t> at the end of syllables" then yes they do. It's /hoʔ/, not /hotʰ/. 03:24, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
(Edit conflicted with 162, above, so this is my own reply...) I thought it was that it isn't "ho T'p otato", with the "teh-peh" awkwardness. For me, the natural way to say it is to glottalstop the first T for more "ho'potato" (the other Ts, there I find awkward not to get the "t>s<" out of, the ">s<"-tail being what makes a full-T not a lazy one). But clearly a different accent involved, as "ha" doesn't work at all for me unless I try to use some sort of (probably awful) Goodfellas-type accent. And my native accent is notoriously good at glottlestopped Ts (that most people misinpersonate badly, by attaching them to the wrong adjacent syllable).
As for "going to", experimentally holding my finger over the length of my tongue, it seems it barely has to move at all in "going" (the whole tongue wants to rise on the "i", but I can suppress that and do the tone-change from further back, if not straight from the vocal chords). Though continuing through to the "to", with my finger in there, it's no better than "going ku" as I prevent the tongue-tip doing the necessary small movement to fulfil any form of T. I can do better through basic gastromancy, but behind my unmoving jaw and lips (without the finger almost down my throat, of course), I can feel the tongue tip doing it's small but vital "crossing the T" work. 03:53, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
For me, it's more like "hobuh-deh-duh" - so none of the t's get pronounced properly. And I'd drop the n in 'going to' before I dropped the t. 08:22, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Wunber dayder, doober dayder, freeber dayder for. (But then, oddly, uh baguv tayterz.) 13:18, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

Unless someone's willing to start an "explain explain xkcd", I think this explanation still needs a lot of work to be intelligible to non-linguists (myself included). That aside, I do appreciate whoever took the time to type all that up. 03:31, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

The current explain reads, to me at least, more like a 102 lecture than an explanation of the comic. I of course have no idea what is in a 101 first week lecture so shrug. (Aside, wth? This keyboard doesn't have a tilda. Copy and paste ftw) 05:51, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Meta-response about the tilde: at the top of this editing window is a bar of formatting buttons (which I mostly just try to avoid accidentally clicking when I touchscreen-scroll). The second from the right gives --~~~~, having a depiction of a signature. (The "--" is not necessary, nor does anything with actual formatting/markup, but comes from quite old text communications standards.) Personally, in this current situation of using an onscreen keyboard, my configurstion hides the tilde behind the "?123" then "=\<" change-keyboard buttons.
(Ironically, all three of "=", "\" and "<" are already available as long-presses of the primary keyboard layout. But the much more useful "/" is hidden behind the "?123" press, except when it explicitly detects that I'm in a browser address field. Some UI designers have strange ideas that definitely mis-mesh with my usage!)
That's where I usually go, to sign-off. But on physical keyboards, depending upon internationalisation options, it might be either off the top-left (left of "1" key) 'triple-key, perhaps needing Shift or AltGr fingering (from experience of US (mis)configuring), or the key in the "hook" of the <Enter> key (all my physical UK keyboards, even the most squished-up laptop ones, have that as #~). If you're neither in US nor UK (and your device knows this), then where it gets shuffled out of the way of any ß, ē or ø type stuff, I wouldn't know for sure, but using the AltGr (right-Alt) might reveal characters you never ever knew you had... ;)
Copypasting out of the "Please sign your posts with ~~~~" Infobox or any residual from the {{unsigned}} templates is, of course, also a valid option. ;) 10:18, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Re: Tilde, depends what keyboard you're using, :) On a FULL standard keyboard (so, not a laptop keyboard) the standard is top left, Shift-Backward Apostrophe (Shift-`), left of the 1, under the Esc (standard, but far from universal). On my iPad (so, probably all iOS devices) tap the ".?123" button to get to the first symbols keyboard, then "#+=" for the second symbols keyboard (ironically, all three of those are on the FIRST keyboard). It's the same button as C on the QWERTY alphabetical keyboard. On my ancient Android phone, it's ALSO the second symbol keyboard, pretty much dead center. NiceGuy1 (talk) 05:27, 15 June 2024 (UTC)
Most of that is covered, above... I know you replied elsewhere first, maybe you didn't read that comment... 11:06, 15 June 2024 (UTC)
I think it's fine if you can read/interpret the IPA. If you don't it's utterly incomprehensible. I think we need some examples here as to how the sounds written here are pronounced. Like "sound <x> as in <word>" Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 06:52, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Yeah, except 2819 08:30, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

>Alien impersonating a human

Sounds like a normal Runglish to me, just like the one you can hear in this clip: [1]

I hate that he pointed this out, because I'm going to start pronouncing things the way they're supposed to sound and everyone will think I'm weirder. Psychoticpotato (talk) 12:37, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

How are you pronouncing 'Psychoticpotato'? 13:10, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
Think of the words "psychotic" and "potato". Psychoticpotato (talk) 15:35, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

I added a bit more detail to the first diagram, but I agree it's not really plain English right now. btw, maybe it's pedantic of me, but diphthongs such as /oʊ/ are one vowel, and the whole word /ɡoʊ.ɪŋ/ only has two vowels

As for "hot potato", the post-vocalic T *is* pronounced, it's pronounced as a glottal stop. T is simply pronounced differently in different positions, it's how the letter works. Randall's probably referring to the alveolar plosive /t/, which most people think of as "the T sound" and would make you sound like an alien. SMBC made the point better: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-05-08 FrustratedPhonetics (talk) 13:57, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

Unless, like me, you just elide straight into the following consonant. Hock ross buns, hock ross buns, wunner penee tooer penee, hock ross buns. 14:19, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
This causes me physical discomfort. Psychoticpotato (talk) 15:41, 6 June 2024 (UTC)
I find I say 'hod p'tato' but the 'd' only the precursor to 'd' that's never 'plosived': my tongue forming a tube with the roof of my mouth, closed just behind my teeth, so I don't think that's glottal. 10:21, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

Not exactly original, "hopotado": that's just how French works. Consonants at the end of a word are only pronounced if the following word starts on a vowel. In which case the two are drawn into one word. The cool thing about French is that knowing this little rule, you can read out a text alound and others understand even if you don't. :D -- 21:38, 6 June 2024 (UTC)

A very small proportion of people can read and understand the IPA, and the explanation depends on knowledge of it currently. So it's a terrible explanation which needs to be written without phonetician jargon. 05:16, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

The UK "bo'le" - I find I still say the 't' but with the sides of my tongue instead of the tip. 10:21, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

If you don't fully touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth when you say "hot", it sounds normal while also having the "t" sound. I learned this by saying the phrase multiple times in class and having people look at me strangely. Psychoticpotato (talk) 12:36, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

It's infuriating - as a linguist who specialised in English phonology and has since spent years writing voiceover scripts, so is acutely aware of pronunciation - trying to explain these phenomena to people who say "No, but I do pronounce the [x] whenever I say [y]. Listen..."
"No,that's not an actual "tuh" sound though you're making there though, is it? It's more like..." Yorkshire Pudding (talk) 17:56, 7 June 2024 (UTC)


Now I want someone to name their kid Sandhi, pronounced [säní]. ProphetZarquon (talk) 14:17, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

Poor kid. Every substitute teacher they had would pronounce it wrong. Psychoticpotato (talk) 15:42, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

Found while reading Buttercup Festival[edit]

Grade A gray day! caption -- Psychoticpotato (talk) 16:07, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

so he reveals he doesnt know what a fully pronounced t sounds like. Because I have never heard anybody not fully pronounce the t in hot, not even when saying hot potato. That is not an optimization, that is how t's sound. 17:50, 7 June 2024 (UTC)

As if you don't say it hoppa taydo when you're not focusing LOL -- 21:26, 14 June 2024 (UTC)
You probably have ONLY heard the lazy pronunciation. :) There really IS a difference, you just haven't noticed because all of this feels SO subtle (I didn't notice any of this until reading this comic). I'm no linguist or know the jargon, so all I can do is try to explain my findings in layman-speak. It's natural and usual to slip through the "T" (I'm noticing even without "potato") unless you want to emphasis it: "It's a cold potato?" "It's a HOT potato!". When fully pronouncing the T, the T sound is more like "Te". When I fully pronounce the T, I'm noticing my tongue snaps off the roof of my mouth, while when saying it normally, like in "hot potato", my tongue barely touches the roof, it speeds through it in preparation for the P. Verbally like the difference between a full stop at a stop sign or a rolling stop. NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:56, 15 June 2024 (UTC)