What happened? Well, a slip of the tongue …
And within minutes it was being reported on Italian media and had been posted on YouTube.
So what was all the fuss about? A single phoneme!
Intending to say caso, the Pope accidentally said cazzo. The voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ was replaced by a voiced alveolar fricative /z/. Apparently, an easy slip for native Spanish speakers to make when speaking Italian.
The problem was that the apparently insignificant change of sound – so easy to do unintentionally in connected speech – had a rather significant semantic impact. The noun caso means ‘example, instance, case’, but cazzo is used as an expletive and a vulgar term. Calmly self-corrected, this epic moment has added to Pope Francis’ reputation as a man of the people.
Change a phoneme and you change the meaning … ‘bin’, ‘sin’, ‘pin’ (initial phoneme) … ‘bet’, ‘bat’, ‘bit’ (medial phoneme) … ‘sit‘, ‘sip‘, ‘sir ‘ (final phoneme). Usually, we take these sound changes for granted because they are central to the construction of meaning, but the results can be humorous!
In June 2009, the BBC weather forecaster Tomasz Shafernaker had to contain his amusement after accidentally replacing the alveolar fricative /s/ with palato-alveolar fricative /∫/ – the ‘muddy site’ he was predicting for the Glastonbury festival became something rather less formal!
If you’d like to hear the slip for yourself, follow the link: