When a phoneme matters!

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Earlier this month, Pope Francis was delivering his weekly Sunday blessing from the Vatican, when people listening in St Peter’s Square and around the world were taken by surprise.

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!

686px-It_came_up_from_the_mud_(323809965)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:

http://www.theguardian.com/media/audio/2009/jun/25/bbc-glastonbury-weather-report

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s