Thursday, March 31, 2005

Mmm? Hhmhmhm? Grmrmmm?

The new examples of Simpsons language humor are flowing in — be sure to check the comments section of the original post — as well as these examples from Bridget Samuels at ilani ilani, caelistis at sauvage noble, and my fellow U of A affiliate and Canadian(-raiser) Bob Kennedy, than whom there is no one I'd rather be locked in a room full of English majors with (t), at phonoloblog. Thanks, all! And keep 'em coming.

But I have to clarify something about my little phonetics/phono question at the end of my original post about Marge's annoyed noise, which seems to have become a question about Marge's vocal quality in general, which I didn't originally think it was. My original perplexity was occasioned by running across bits of dialogue transcribed on the web, like the following, excerpted on the www.snpp.com site from Episode 512, 1F11, "Bart Gets Famous":
Lisa: And now you can go back to just being you, instead of a
one-dimensional character with a silly catch-phrase.
Homer: [breaks a lamp] D'oh!
Bart: Ay, caramba!
Marge: Mmm.
Maggie: [sucks her pacifier]
Flanders: Heidely-ho.
Barney: [burps]
Nelson: Ha, ha!
Burns: Ex-cellent!
[Everyone looks at Lisa]
Lisa: [unimpressed] If anyone wants me, I'll be in my room.
Good Simpsons fan that I am, I instantly recognized every single one of these (I could easily replay Maggie's pacifier noise and Barney's burp in my head from these descriptions) — except one: I couldn't think of what "silly catch-phrase" of Marge's could possibly be intended by "Mmm." A second's thought gave it to me — it's the noise she makes when she is annoyed. Now, this is definitely not just [mmm] as said by Julie Kavner. That is, it's not just something about Julie Kavner's voice quality. Heck, I can make that annoyed noise too, distinguishing it from the yummy mmm noise by doing some trick with my pharynx/tongue root/larynx, together with the other normal features associated with bilabial nasals, and I don't have anything at all like Kavner's distinctive vocal apparatus. (Indeed, trying to get this post posted, I find that I've made it several times, since Blogger is acting up.)

No doubt the reason it's a trademark catchphrase is Kavner's vocal quality, but the basic noise is available to anyone's oral tract. Simpsons fans, back me up here! In the context of the hypothetical Simpsons intro linguistics course, I was wondering if the mmmm/Marge's noise distinction might not be a possible segue into the things that can go on back of the teeth.

In any case, I think it's clear that "Mmm" just don't cut it, orthographically speaking. It oughta be spelled something like 'grmm', or 'hmhhmmhm' if it has to be spelled at all!

The question got generalized because Mark speculates that whatever Marge is doing when making her annoyed noise is part of what she does when she's annoyed generally (which might well be true), and Eric extends this to a question about what Marge's voice is generally like, annoyed or not, which is what Bob is replying to. Now, Marge's (Kavner's) voice is certainly one of the most distinctive ones in the world of American animation, but I think the "mmm"/"grmmgrm" distinction transcends her single voice. Not that it's not interesting to wonder what it IS that makes Kavner's voice so distinctive.

But re my original question: I think there might even be, somewhere in the 16 seasons of the Simpsons, a minimal pair — other characters besides Homer sometimes use the 'mmm... X' snowclone, and I think Marge might be one of them. I'll keep my ears open. If there was, one could extract that 'mmm', and contrast it with her annoyed 'grmgrmgrm' noise, and see what's different, if anything. I definitely think that Mark would be justified in purchasing the complete Simpsons DVD collection for his lab in pursuit of this important scientific question.

Update: Check out these spectrograms produced over at A Rogush Chrestomathy by q_pheevr!

Update update: ...and this follow up from Mark at Language Log. Now that he's got his database in hand, no doubt a full analysis is moments away. At one point he mentions a fiberoptic laryngoscope...I'd also been wondering about the possible utility in this matter of my colleague Diana Archangeli's ultrasound machine. Maybe when I get back to AZ in the fall I'll check it out.

13 Comments:

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I've tried to analyze a few tokens of Marge's annoyed noise. I didn't get very far, but here's what I came up with.

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