June 10th, 2011
The Swedish short film “Ten Meter Tower” is really simple: what do people look like when they’re facing a high dive for the first time?
The film played at Sundance this year in the Documentary Shorts category, and the NY Times is currently featuring it in its rotating collection of “op-ed videos”. The filmmakers describe the project this way:
Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt. We’ve all seen actors playing doubt in fiction films, but we have few true images of the feeling in documentaries. To make them, we decided to put people in a situation powerful enough not to need any classic narrative framework. A high dive seemed like the perfect scenario…
It’s fun without being entirely frivolous, and dramatic without being distressing. There’s no politics in it and there’s nothing complicated about it. I think it’s well worth 16 minutes of your time!
The blog Language Log has occasionally proffered comment on Wondermark episodes that touch on matters of language.
Normally I don’t have much commentary to add about the content of my comics — nothing kills a joke faster than explaining it to death.
But in this case, I’m both tickled that people are interested enough to try and dissect it, and also I’ve noticed that not everyone gets what’s happening here.
So I thought in this case I’d dig into it a little, and address some of the specific comments people have made about this particular strip.
In the comic, the person at the desk (let’s call him Desmond) asks the soon-to-be-wheelbarrow person (let’s call him Willy) to pick him up “two mini-donuts”.
However, it comes to pass that Willy heard this as “too many donuts”, and instead, fetches Desmond THAT. What a helpful sort! And what a pickle we leave them in!!
In the first frame, it’s contradictory for the donut-fetcher to ask “That gonna be enough?” [Given how he heard it,] Too many must be more than enough.
Willy is playing along, making a joke. Sometimes I just have to trust that sarcasm or figurative language will come through from context, in a way that the rhythm of the dialogue will inform.
Mini and Many don’t overlap for me, especially when I was reading the cartoon. Had to read the explanations to get the joke.
I pride myself on getting most jokes, and I read every Wondermark, but I have to admit that I read and re-read this strip several times in an attempt to understand it. I was frustrated in this until I read the title of this post. But…those words aren’t homophones!
(I’m from New York. Now I am curious to find where David Malki ! is from.)
The crux of the discussion seems to be whether these two phrases are really homophones; and if so, where and in what accent; and if the joke is understandable if one’s own internal accent doesn’t “hear” those two phrases to sound alike.
That is all quite fair! I speak (and often write) with my own particular accent. Here is my personal regional dialect “heat map” from the New York Times’ adaptation of the Harvard Dialect Survey:
That makes sense, as that’s precisely the part of the country in which I was born and raised. Even so, my mom grew up in Washington state, and my wife and her family are from Washington state, so I surely have some influence from them as well.
In fact, as I recall, this particular idea came to me in conversation with my wife. Her and my accent are largely the same but not quite. But either of us could plausibly hear someone make the sounds “Too minny” and know it to mean “Too many”.
I think I’d also stress “two mini-donuts” and “too many donuts” differently (treating “mini-donuts” as a compound with primary stress on “mi”, not an adjective + noun phrase with the stress on “do”), which probably didn’t help.
Which makes me wonder, is there a tendency for people to interpret “mini” as an adjective, rather than a nominal prefix like “micro”? Since it seems to be the former for David Malki and the latter for me.
Like Zeppelin, I can’t shake the internal feeling that “too many donuts” and “two mini-donuts” would be fairly distinct prosodically. I feel like “two mini-donuts” highlights the first syllable of “mini”, and “too many donuts” highlights the first syllable of “donuts”.
The question posed here is whether the mini-donuts in question are “mini donuts” (adjective + noun) or “minidonuts” (compound noun).
I think the hyphen is necessary orthographically, but it doesn’t make it clear whether it’s one or the other — and the commenters here are suggesting that whether it’s one or the other will dictate how it’s prounounced, and therefore how likely the term is to be misinterpreted by Willy.
But context might also affect pronunciation. If everyone else were getting donuts, and Desmond wanted especially small donuts, he might ask for “MINI-donuts”, with stress on “mi”.
If, however, mini-donuts were a relatively common thing on the menu, Desmond might simply emphasize how many he wanted: in this case, “TWO mini-donuts.” That’s how I hear the phrase in my head.
In addition: consider that Desmond is under deadline. He’s got reports due before lunch. He’s got Anderson riding his tail for that expense spreadsheet. He’s not enunciating every word. He’s mumbling that he wants “toominnydonuts”.
Know how I know that’s true? Because if that wasn’t how it happened, Willy probably wouldn’t have misheard him! You gotta work backwards from the facts we know.
The question, then, perhaps shouldn’t be “Would Willy really have misheard him?”, but rather, “Given that he did mishear him (it’s right there in the fourth panel), what does that imply about Willy, Desmond, or the situation overall?”
True comics fans know how to read forensically. It really clues you in to a much richer level of character development.
It took me a little while when I first encountered it. What I find interesting is that folks (like me) without the pin-pen merger have trouble identifying the joke, and yet I’m pretty sure (like Mark) that even for those without the merger, the two phrases would be difficult to reliably distinguish in actual speech. That is to say, I think if this were an audible Who’s-on-First-style sketch, the ambiguity would work for most people.
What this suggests, of course, is that when reading we don’t fully translate the words into sounds. (No doubt this is a well-studied area of cognitive science.)
I had no idea what this cartoon meant. Although I do not have the pin/pen merger, I also do not think this cartoon is about that merger. Instead, it is about another pronunciation anomaly I have often wondered about, namely how we came to pronounce the words many and any with the meh vowel (or conversely, why we spell them with an a).
The pin/pen merger mentioned here is common in dialect of the American south. It describes one trait of an accent in which the vowels in pin and pen sound the same.
But as the commenters above mention, I think the words any and many stand outside that particular trait. I pronounce pin and pen differently, but if I listen to myself say many, depending on how fast I’m talking and the surrounding sounds it can vary from “minny” to “menny” to “munny” to “m’ny”. The phrase how many comes out like a single word, “howminy”.
The important thing, though, isn’t really how I hear the words. It’s how Willy, the character in the comic, hears the words. I have no idea where he may be from or what sorts of ulterior motives he may be nursing.
Maybe it was a willful misunderstanding! Maybe this was the grand gesture he finally needed to spark a conversation with Desmond! Maybe they’ll both laugh about it on their twentieth wedding anniversary!!
I saw the joke coming a mile off.
Regarding the donut-fetcher’s “That gonna be enough?” reply:
It’s possible that the reply is sarcastic (especially when paired with the HA HA). After Desk-guy doesn’t back down on the request, which Donut-fetcher assumes is a joke of some kind, Donut-fetcher decides to take it to the next level with a wheelbarrow full of donuts.
I especially like how this interpretation of the situation introduces two levels of misunderstanding.
I’m a native Californian and do not have a pin-pen merger , but i do pronounce “many” more or less like “mini.” It certainly does not rhyme with “penny,” the way i say it.
Thanks. Glad to see y’all get it.
Given the clothing, the office equipment, and the wooden wheelbarrow, I find the phrase “mini-donuts” anachronistic.
Welcome to Wondermark!
I took this (only slightly staged) picture of my desk in the process of packing up the VERY LAST outstanding Wondermark calendar order. All orders placed in December have now gone out the door!
Due to overprinting by the printer, I still have a handful of calendars left, and I’ll keep the product page active until they’re all spoken for.
I am down to just a few of the special Deluxe Edition stands in particular, so that particular product may go out of stock before the “classic” stand or the refill-only calendar cards.
Now that the Kickstarter has ended, I will no longer be enclosing Kickstarter-exclusive Cast Cards — although if this’ll be your fifth calendar or more, go ahead and tell me so at checkout, and I’ll still send you the Calendar Ace card. YOU DESERVE IT.
I’ve heard from several people who missed the Kickstarter and have been happy there was still time to snag a copy!
This won’t always be the case every year, but as of right now, extra copies do me no good sitting on my desk. I would rather you have them! Order now, and your calendar will ship ASAP.
(It’s also not too early to order Valentine cards! I will have no new designs this season, but there are plenty from previous years available still.)
The reason I posted the above photo isn’t just to make you jealous with how cool my desk is. (I made it out of a tabletop I found in an alley! Story for another day.)
If you’ve been following my work for a while, you probably know that I like to tinker. I like to make things!
I have a workshop, and things like the calendar and its stand, or my new wooden magnets, or the various one-off special projects I’ve made over the years, all came about because I learned some new tool or technique, and pushed myself right to the bleeding edge of making something interesting with it.
In fact, here’s something I made this week for a calendar order going to Brazil…
I have had, shall we say, less than perfect success with mailing merchandise to Brazil in the past, so I asked this recipient if he had any tips for getting the package safely through customs.
“Books usually make it OK,” he said. So, I made his calendar into a book, using an old Yellow Pages:
First, I carved out a calendar-shaped hole.
A little white glue stiffens the cut edges so it doesn’t all fall apart into confetti.
As a container for a calendar, it could now technically work as-is… But I don’t like things to look messy, so I covered the unsightly opening with kraft paper, the same way I do with potholes on my street.
The industrial chopper makes short work of any ragged edges caused by the pages getting rustled around in the carving and gluing steps.
It’ll need hard covers of chipboard so it doesn’t bend in the middle, where big chunks of paper are missing. Here I measure and make the hardcover assembly, or “case.”
Gluing the textblock into the case is called “casing in.”
Eventually the phone book covers found themselves glued into the case to serve as endpapers. The kraft paper serves as Page 1.
And I wrapped the whole thing with a book cover I designed years ago for an entirely different project.
I’m not sure if I succeeded in making the package any less conspicuous — I could have chosen a different title, perhaps…
There are also a lot of great jokes on the back cover that you’ll just have to imagine!
This is the sort of thing I love doing. Not because this customer ordered a jacked-up phone book, but because it was the most fun way to solve the problem.
With this year’s calendar, the tenth anniversary and the abilities of my new workshop coincided in the creation of the Deluxe Edition stand…
You’ve heard me describe it previously at length; I’ll spare the details.
It’s way more complicated than the previous version stand, because it requires assembly and it requires a bunch of pieces made out of all different materials, which is a many-step process.
It wasn’t until I’d committed to packing up 300 calendars that I realized that somehow, I’d created a product and a task for myself in which EVERY SINGLE PIECE that went into an order required an absurd multi-step process to create.
So once I could catch my breath after all the packing and shipping, I sat back and took stock. The picture at the top of the post is an ENTIRELY TYPICAL example of a calendar order for some person. It includes:
Significant to note is that not only did the calendar, the ostensible purpose of the order, require creative development – all the other things in this order did too, and they required assembly as well.
When I actually counted how many discrete steps went into putting together all the pieces for this one order, it was over 50.
(Click on this image, or open it in a new tab, for a closer look.)
The calendar required being signed, numbered, collated, and packaged.
The stand required being assembled along with its component pieces into a sort of mailing frame, which itself had to be designed and manufactured.
Same with the Cast Cards, in a parallel but entirely separate process.
The magnet set, which isn’t part of the calendar itself but was included here as a premium with the Kickstarter order, had its own production and assembly chain, both for the magnets themselves and the little packet I designed so they could ship flat. (Otherwise they stick to one another in a clump.)
Even the box they all ship in requires a few steps of taping and trimming that’s above and beyond what you might normally do for a mailing box. (To keep weight down for international orders, for example, I trim off any unnecessary extra length in the cardboard flaps.)
I don’t list it all out here to brag, that’s not at all what I’m getting at — rather, I’m trying to reckon with myself; trying to examine how the simple process of making a calendar evolved into something this baroque.
I’ve somehow fallen into a gravity well whereby everything I do has to be elaborate.
The only answer I have is that it’s… fun?
I mean, I get a lot of satisfaction out of laser-cutting a jig out of cardboard so that I can send something flat as a USPS Large Envelope, rather than all jumbled together in a bubble mailer as a Package.
It’s not just about spending an afternoon to save a dollar…It’s about feeling like I did my best, like I brought all my cleverness and creativity and resources to bear, and in doing so ended up with the best product I could make.
(True story: For the aforementioned jigs, I actually cut up and used the cardboard from the boxes USPS themselves used to send me an order of bubble mailers. You can’t buy the satisfaction that comes with that stupid little accomplishment.)
I am happy to have done the Deluxe Edition stands this year, although I’m also now happy to be done with them.
I am continuing to send out unique Cast Cards every month to Patreon subscribers (this last month’s featured the Phryday creature from the culmination of the Eternal Monday saga — a 5-part storyline which started here.)
I have other cool things in the planning stages too!
And although it might seem like I’m not learning my lesson, continuing down this path, I do indeed learn something new with each new project, something I can build on for the next one.
To those of you who have little pieces of my dumb ideas littering your home, I hope they bring you a tiny bit as much joy in the using as they have me, in the creating.
Grab one of my last few calendars! Take them off my desk, so I can start the next project…