Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

In light of the recent American push for gun control, I’ve been curious about the mindset and reasoning of the pro-gun, concealed-carry crowd, and reading posts on their forums.

One particular post on Reddit’s /r/ccw concealed weapons board jumped out at me. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to save a link and haven’t been able to find it, but it said something along these lines:

My concealed weapons instructor told us that if we’re ever in a situation where we have to draw our weapons, we should shout “Police drop your weapon!”. I know that it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, but here’s the kicker: If you’re ever on trial, you can claim that what you actually said was “Please drop your weapon!”, which is totally OK, and the other witnesses won’t be able to contradict it.

The person who proposed this was immediately jumped on by other members of the board and it was almost universally agreed to be a bad idea, but it is phonetically fascinating.

Police, Please

At the core of the suggestion is the phonetic similarity between “police” and “please”, but interestingly, they’re not always similar. The slow-speech forms, in my dialect of American English, would be transcribed into the IPA as below:

Please - /ˈpliz/

Police - /pəˈlis/ (“puh-LEESE”)

In this phrasing, “Please” and “Police” aren’t terribly similar. But if you speed up the pronunciation of “Police” just a bit, merging the two syllables into one, you can get, narrowly:

Police (fast speech form) - [ˈpʰl̥is] (Sounds like “Pleese”)

Please (fast speech form) - [ˈpʰl̥iz] (Doesn’t change)

Although there’s often just the tiniest hint of schwa following the /p/ in fast speech forms of “police”, with this pronunciation, the only difference between the two is the voicing of the final fricative (/s/ vs. /z/). Given that English word-final voiced fricatives are often pretty voiceless (think how often you hear “Expensif” instead of “Expensive” in casual speech), the police/please ambiguity in quick speech is very real.

Mind you there’s also a very strong alternate pronunciation (often used by actual police officers, and prominently featured on “The Wire”) which uses initial stress on the word “PO-lice”, giving us /ˈpowlis/. If you live in an area where that’s common, or if you’re dumb enough to shout “PO-lice, drop the weapon”, the ambiguity is gone and you’re just impersonating an officer. And of course, the whole thing still does hinge on a jury believing that while somebody was threatening your life, you were still polite enough to preface your command with a “Please”.

So, the ambiguity is real in some cases, and anything is possible with an expensive enough lawyer, but from a linguistic standpoint, well, I wouldn’t bet my freedom on this cute little trick.

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