Language Log weighs in on ‘two mini-donuts’

The blog Language Log has occasionally proffered comment on Wondermark episodes that touch on matters of language.

So I was interested to see that a robust discussion emerged around last month’s “In which a Run is made”, posted as Wondermark #1287:

click for a closer look

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!!

Some comments:

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:

I have no word for 'crawdad' as I have never seen one in the wild

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.

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