Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I stumbled across this comic today, from the creative artist over at XKCD. As I’ve noted in the past, the artist certainly has an eye for language and linguistics humor, and I just wanted to share the latest such comic I’ve stumbled across:

Here’s a link to the full comic.

Perhaps I find this comic so funny because I know people who use the [adjective]-ass [noun] construction pretty frequently (as in “that’s a huge-ass building”). I’ve even been known to do it myself (I feel dirty). I eagerly look forward to mentally switching the hyphen as soon as I next hear the expression, even if it means I start snickering uncontrollably.

The fascinating part is that in speech, the (vast) difference between a “sweet-ass car” and a “sweet ass-car” is only expressed by timing and intonation (varying the pitch of one’s voice). Using Praat to tweak the intonation, you can fairly reliably change one into the other, and alter the meaning completely.

Think about it: at a completely subconscious level, we are able to understand complex changes in meaning expressed solely by a minor variations in the speed of vibration of a speaker’s vocal folds. The complexity, subtlety, and grace of human speech is truly amazing, and this phenomenon provides a wonderful ass-demonstration. Err, that’s not quite right…


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