Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fail! Dialect dependent puzzle

Who knows why but I've gotten into KenKen ... it started with Sudoku, but they got kind of boring after a while. So, for the first time in decades (since I abandoned crosswords as an undergrad), I'm looking at the puzzles-games page in the local paper. The word games generally strike me as kind of cute but not not really engaging. One, though, bugs me about every time I look at it. Usually it's that I don't find the solution of the puzzle to have any umpf to it or any cleverness. This morning, it was worse:

If you solve it, or look at the solution, you see that the intent is to get you to read "On S - T is the best policy". I'm pretty sure I would never describe the picture that way, even if prompted very directly. I might say that 'best and policy are over S and T' or something. The noun phrase ("the best policy") is impossible for me here, maybe because they don't seem like a unit in any way. That's kind of how this puzzle usually works, though. (For other examples, see here.)

But my real annoyance at this particular one is dialectal: "On S - T" sounds like honesty only if you pronounce on to rhyme with Ron and not like the word own. This holds for a relatively small area of the United States, if a heavily populated one. According to the Atlas of North American English (Map 14.2, p. 189 — if you have a university account, you can probably download a full pdf of it, and access the whole Atlas on-line, with stuff even the printed book doesn't have), a strip from New York City through basically the Northern Cities area and somewhat farther west into Iowa and Minnesota.

We need dialect awareness in the Whatzit!

9 comments:

Ben said...

I'm confused; pronounce "on" (the preposition, I'm assuming) like "own"? Who does that? Or do you mean the first syllable of "honesty"? Like "own"?

Oh wait, I think I get it. You don't mean the word "own;" you mean the "caught" vowel. But again, I can't think of how this would be a problem for very many people; I think only a few folks in SE PA and maybe nearby areas of MD and DE would pronounce "on" and the first syllable of "honest" differently. I, for one, have a healthy cot/caught distinction, but "on" and "honest" both have the vowel of "cot," not "caught." To my ear, "honest" with caught seems like eastern New England, where there is a cot/caught merger anyways, so "on" would have the same vowel regardless.

I think I must be misunderstanding something.

Mr. Verb said...

Joe is the only member of Team Verb who has 'on' and 'own' as homophones, but millions of Americans are like him in that regard. That pattern covers the south and lots of the midlands, at least.

Joe said...

Ben's reaction is the utterly normal one around here ... people think it's some rare form, and given the vowel in question (/o:/) it instantly sounds hypersouthern to them.

Josef said...

I'm with Joe on this one, sort of. For me, Don != Dawn, and on == Dawn. Now, for me, and most others in the Mid-Atlantic, "dawn" sounds similar to the way they would say it in NYC: mid to high back tense vowel with a small schwa glide. In the south, "dawn" is frequently a low back vowel with a /u/ glide. This is kept distinct from "down" because "down" is fronted and raised in the south. I've never heard of "dawn" rhyming with "own" before though.

This is actually one of the clear differences between NYC and Philadelphia. In Philly on == Dawn, and in NYC on == Don. Interestingly, I usually hear this correlated with whether the first syllable of "chocolate" sounds lie "chock" or "chalk." For the most part, I hear northern speakers say on == Don and chocolate == chalk, and I hear Mid-Atlantic and southern speakers say on on == Dawn and chocolate == chock.

Anonymous said...

Pretty crappy little example of a word game, but not hard to solve: "best policy" exists in only one familiar English saying or phrase. Then I had to sort of back process to see how the puzzle was supposed to work.

Stan said...

I call these puzzles Dingbats, after the Ravensburger game. This example is pretty straightforward to me, because I don't pronounce "on" as "awn" or "own", and because, as Anonymous says, there aren't many catchphrases with the words "best policy".

Also, the way "best" sits snugly along the curve of the S, rather than hovering above it, indicates that it's on it rather than over it.

Chris said...

On a different note, it's the conjoined NP that trips me up. While I'll hesitantly except the syntactic fronting, I reject the NP "S T". Imagine I said "On the chair is the sweater shoes." Not so much English.

Ben said...

So for Joe and these other folks, "on" rhymes with "stone"? I've never noticed that (which doesn't mean it isn't true). Even in an unstressed position? Weird.

Joe said...

Yes, for me and many southerners, 'on' rhymes with 'stone'. It can be reduced, certainly, but the normal form in a variety of prosodic and whatever contexts is that -- 'turn the light on', 'it's on the table', 'the train's on time', etc.