Scary Pairs

About the danger of even one sound in a word gone wrong

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As far as American English pronunciation goes, there are probably two situations that cause the most problems:

  1. Shifting stress in a word or phrase. “My mother lives in the WHITE House”. No, she does not. She lives in the “white HOUSE” down the street.

  2. Changing a single sound in a word, thus creating another word with the same part of speech. EXAMPLE: “buddy” vs. “body”. One noun, (or verb, or adjective)  transforming into another simply because one sound was changed (the technical term here is “minimal pairs”).

Since we discussed Scenario #1 in a previous blog, let’s investigate Scenario #2.  When it happens, it can be confusing, downright cute, or utterly disastrous.

Here are some case studies (mostly true stories):

Case Study #1. A friend at dinner substitutes “poodle” for “puddle”.  An earnest discussion about rain, and puddles of rain, grows concerning with the statement: “There were poodles all over the street. I kept stepping into those poodles.”

Case Study #2. A stylist working in a hair salon asks her customer, “Are you going to walk?”
Customer: “Yes, I will walk after this haircut. I will walk to the subway.”
Stylist: “No, but are you going to walk?”
Customer: “Yes. Oh. Am I going to work??  Yes, I am.”

Case Study #3. A landlord asks his tenant to confirm his address.
Tenant: “I’m leaving on 500 Riverside Drive”.
Landlord: “You’re leaving 500 Riverside?”
Tenant: “Yes”.
Tenant is subsequently asked to vacate.  He files a lawsuit, as he stated he was “living in”, not “leaving.”

Vowel substitutions are often the culprits (ultimate classics: “beach”, “sheet”).

Sometimes consonants can wreak havoc as well.  Do you remember this video? … (thanks, Berlitz, and no disrespect to the German accent. This happens to be my mother tongue!)


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