Saturday, March 9, 2013

The return of Brainiac

Even just the photos of the three stooges distinguished committee members in the post a little below this one should suggest the lively discourse that ensued the other evening, including a number of topics not strictly related to the hash. And so naturally a few small factual disputes arose. Thus it's time again for Brainiac, the fount of all hash knowledge. (But not hash wisdom -- that's the domain of The Cube®.)

First the easy one: what's the population of Malaysia? Softcock said 60 million (pfft!). Egghead countered with 20 million. Beaver, who lives in the big city and has daily access to that wonderful rag The Star, said 30 million. According to the CIA (who else?), the estimate as of July 2012 was 29,179,952. It pays to read The Star!

Now the harder one, for linguistic geeks only. Noticing that Bai Meang's menu spelled phở as "fir", Beaver noted that vowel was actually a schwa. Egghead, our resident IPA nerd, said he recalled some sort of mark after the /ə/, suggesting it was a "long" vowel. Well, yes, said Beaver, long duration. No, said Egghead, a different vowel quality as well. You can see how exciting these conversations can become.

Even Brainiac can't provide a definitive answer for this one. He can tell you that phở is rendered in the IPA as [fəː˧˩˧]. The last symbol just means rising tone, so the vowel is /əː/, i.e. a "long" schwa. But long simply in duration or in vowel height as well? Even the experts can't seem to make up their minds. From the Wikipedia entry on Vietnamese phonology:

/ə/ vs. /əː/: Han (1966) suggests that short /ə/ and long /əː/ differ in both height and length, but that the difference in length is probably the primary distinction. Thompson (1965) seems to suggest that the distinction is due to height (as he does for all Vietnamese vowels), although he also notes the length difference.

Perhaps the more basic problem here is what we mean when we say "schwa". From The Dialect Blog:

As indicated, schwa is traditionally represented by the IPA symbol ə (an upside-down “e”), signifying a vowel pronounced smack dab in the middle of the vowel space. As any English phonetician will tell you, however, this a tad misleading as far as English is concerned. Our particular brand of schwa in fact represents a number of vowels which differ depending on the words they appear in.

The most famous example is the minimal pair roses vs. Rosa's (see this fascinating paper). The latter is a "true" schwa, while the former is generally closer to /ɨ/. Indeed, the Thai vowel เ◌อะ, which is commonly understood to be a schwa (to the point of being represented by ə in most transcription systems), is technically in fact /ɤ/. While many phoneticians will tell you that sound doesn't even exist in English, anybody with an open mind and a good ear can hear it in words such as "probably". But by this point even Brainiac is getting a bit confused. And if you've read this far, you're as big a geek as we are. 


  1. Yes, much too technical for me! I have no idea how the word for those nice noodly things is pronounced, but I think the vowel sound in the English word fir is normally rendered as /ɜ:/ in the IPA, which is a long schwa. /eɪ/ is definitely not a long schwa in the rendition of English as it is one of the dipthongs and is used to represent the double vowel sound in play or maybe afraid. I think the problem is that the IPA is not as international as it purports to be!
    So any one for /nu:dəlz/?

  2. Yes, I had to unplug Brainiac when his frontal cortex began to smoke and emit sparks.

    A final 'r' is always a troublesome transcription because of what Americans do to that sound. I think the safest spelling for a schwa is 'uh', hence 'fuh'.

    Anyhow we can agree that 'pho' is a really dreadful spelling. As usual, the French are to blame.