31 October 2007

Benny Lava revisited

thanks to the sleuthing of an anonymous commenter, i've discovered the true identity of the Benny Lava song. it's by the Indian artist Prabhu Deva, and the title of the song is "Kalluri Vaanil." once you know that, it's easy to find the real lyrics, so i had to do a comparison. note the English codeswitches in the original Tamil lyrics, which i've bolded:

Kalluri vaanil kaayndha nilaavo?
My looney bun is fine, Benny Lava!
Maanavar nenjil meyndha nilaavo?
Minor bun engine made Benny Lava!
En madi meedhu saayndha nilaavo?
Anybody need this sign? Benny Lava!
Ennidam vandhu vaayndha nilaavo?
You need a bun to bite Benny Lava!
so we can see the origin of the name Benny Lava. each instance comes from the Tamil string -dha nilaavo. i'd personally expect something like Donny Lavo, or Denny, or Johnny, but we got Benny instead. the change of an accurately heard [la:vo] to Lava is natural, since it's the closest approximation that's actually an English word.

we can also see that the English comes from a mix of logical correlations and total fabrication. (n)enjil --> engine is highly plausible, as is the entire anybody need this sign line. there's also a fairly uniform interpretation of [v] as [b].
Haikuvae haikuvae... high speedil vandhaaye…
Have you been high today? I see the nuns are gay
Eyebrowai male thookki, I love you endraaye…
My brother yelled to me, I love you inside Ed
Buffalax missed a lot of English words here, only matching i love you (as did i on my first listening). haiku, which is well-established in English, is nevertheless a Japanese loan. i think the CV syllable structure of Japanese helps this blend in with the Tamil lyrics. high speed and eyebrow both get Tamil suffixes (huzzah word-internal codeswitching!), which helps to obfuscate them.
Kalluri vaanil kaayndha nilaavo?
My looney bun is fine, Benny Lava!
Maanavar nenjil meyndha nilaavo?
Minor bun engine made Benny Lava!
Haikuvaai haikuvaai… I love you endraale…
I told a high school girl, I love you inside me
essentially the same as above. the hai of haiku makes one appearance as high in each instance.
I'd love to see you pee on us tonight! (x2)
the mystery line. i have no doubt that there is in fact singing going on here. and the transliteration sounds frighteningly accurate. but no version of the original lyrics includes this part of the song. so the humorous interpretation goes unchallenged here.
Male: April May eppodhum
You fill me up with doom
Female: veppaththil veppaththil
Quit looking up at me!
Male: Endraalum ennangal
You got a minute girl?
Female: theppaththil theppaththil
The puppy had a fee
i would have never noticed April May here. the monosyllable [meɪ] could be practically anything. furthermore it's rare to hear the two words back to back in English, except in a serial list of the months of the year.

a bigger problem starts to emerge here. throughout the rest of the song, repeated words often get completely different interpretations. here veppaththil --> quit looking and up at me, which couldn't be much more phonetically different. there also seems to be a trend of transcribing the aspirated dental stop as a labial, usually [p]. we'll see more of this later.
Female: Dolphin gal thullaadhaa...
Don't think I do love her
Male: Ullaththil ullaththil
We're looking in a pill
Male: vellaththil vellaththil
We're looking in a pill
another easy-to-miss English word, this time because the stress is on the wrong syllable. then there's more craziness with inconsistent interpretation. i think we're looking in a pill is one of the worst transcriptions of the entire song. it breaks up a repeated section into two unrelated pieces, then does the opposite by itself repeating when the original is clearly different. in the entire two lines, there is very little phonetic matching at all except for the final syllable.
Female: Pollaadha aadavaa...
All of them like the bun
Male: Naan pooppandhu aadavaa?
Now poop on them, Oliver!
while the peeing line remains shrouded in mystery, the pooping line is one of the most accurate (phonetically speaking) of the whole song.
Female: unnaale imsaigal undaagum podhum podhum
Ooh daddy, just say it, you know the hole to put it
Male: imsaigal ellaamay inbangal thaanammaa…
Just sing it! You love me! Your pundit got armor!
Female: ichchendra saththangal undagak koodum koodum...
You send me...offended...you know the hole to put it!
Male: saththangal ellaamay muththangal thaanammaa…
Just sing it! You love me! Your pundit got armor!
Female: Puppuppu poochendae… puyalil poraadum…
Who put the goat in there? The yellow goat I ate?
it's getting worse from here on out. ellaamay --> you love me is at least creative and somewhat thematically right. i don't particularly like your pundit got armor for two reasons: first, it's not particularly grammatical; second, the stress on armor is wrong. then there's the dissimilatory nightmare of who put the goat in there, in which four [p]s become [h], [p], [θ], and [g], not to mention the vowels.
Male: Kalluri vaanil kaayndha nilaavo?
My loony bun is fine, Benny Lava!
Female: Maanavar nenjil meyndha nilaavo?
Minor bun engine made Benny Lava!

(i like to swim in it)
(i like to swim in it)
(i like to swim in his beejay)
this interlude is somewhat interesting, since there isn't any actual singing going on, but the tones of the instruments do evoke the spoken word. someone who knows more about acoustics than i do could speak to this better.
Female: pennoda pulse enna?
A nerd to punk a nerd
Male: paarththene paarththene…
I'm bleeding, fucking A!
Female: stethoscope vaikkaamal...
That stuff is pink colored
Male: solvaenae solvaenae…
Some day I sell DNA

Male: sevvaazhai maynikkul
This boar ain't very cool
Female: ennaiyaa ennaiyaa?
You need a Hindi yew
Male: scanning naan seyyaamal
Got into Seattle
Female: sollaiyaa sollaiyaa
I'll lay a friend of yours
Male: naan paarththaal paavamaa?
I fought a barber man
Female: naal paarththu paarkka vaa...
We know what's in butter rum
this section reveals that in some cases where there are doubled words, the vowel quality does sound at least a little different, which i think is mostly due to the stress and pitch changes dictated by the melody. the English words are easy to miss, unless you know that this song is about medical students (in love. with dance troupes. in a field. it's a little pragmatically strained, no?)
Male: urgent aa operation seygindra case um undu
A jet pack operation...send him the crazy Hindu
Female: anbay dhaan naan seyyum operation case alla…
Whatever, my sadist, all baked and cooked alive
Male: Ellaikkul nil endraal en nenjam meerum indru
I lick you, belinda...the ninja made a movement
Female: Kannaalaa nam kaadhal Kargil war por alla
Tell Donna...no collar...i'll do what body loves
Male: tha tha tha thallaadhay… ilamai yerkaadhae…
I put papaya there...you love me inside there
the first time operation is said, it comes through clear as day. the second time is definitely trickier to hear, as it's a bit more condensed. i'm still a little confused about the phrase operation case, because it would rarely come up in English, unless you were talking about a medical malpractice lawsuit or something. i don't know what the common local name for the Kargil war is, so this might not be much of a codeswitch. Wikipedia is no help here, because all of the native articles on the topic are in character sets i don't have installed on my computer, and couldn't read if i did.

i mentioned before the [tʰ] --> [p] change. put papaya is the most salient instance of this.
Male: Kalluri vaanil kaayndha nilaavo?
My looney bun is fine, Benny Lava!
Female: Maanavar nenjil meyndha nilaavo?
Minor bun engine made Benny Lava!
Male: En madi meedhu saayndha nilaavo?
Anybody need this sign? Benny Lava!
Female: Unnidam vandhu vaayndha nilaavo?
You need a bun to bite Benny Lava!
Male: Haikuvae haikuvae…
Have you been high today?
Female: I love you endraayae…
I love you inside me
so there it is, the amazing behind the scenes story of Benny Lava. a couple more youtube links just to wrap it up. first, there is a video with an actual English translation of the Tamil, although it unfortunately doesn't match up with the music. second, there is a similar video which takes the same song and does transliterated lyrics in Portuguese, which actually appeared on the web over a year before the English one.

now, after all that analysis and repeated watching and listening, i'm off to do something else, singing to myself Tamil that i don't understand.

30 October 2007

foreign grass

this past weekend i watched some of the NFL's first regular season game held overseas (yes, when i'm not actively being a linguist i'm frequently watching sports). the game was at the new Wembley Stadium in London. during the pregame, Fox's announcing crew was getting disproportionately excited about the whole event, as i'm sure their producers and the NFL instructed them to do. the strangest part of their reporting came when Tony Siragusa, the sideline reporter, gave an update on the playing conditions.

now i don't have an audio or video recording of exactly what it said, so i hope i'm not embellishing too much, but he said something along the lines of:

now this isn't a field, it's what they call a pitch...
something in the way he said it just made it sound like "see this rectangular expanse of grass? well this is no American grass. this is crazy British grass, which is so different that they have to call it something else." to be fair, he did go on and explain the difference in the types of grass seed used and the cut and drainage of the field—and these differences did play a factor, as the Giants and Dolphins churned up the ground into little more than mud during the course of the game. it was just the way that a simple lexical choice was preyed upon to create such drama, throwing arbitrariness of the sign out the window. i could imagine him standing next to the back end of a car in London reporting "now this car doesn't have a trunk, it's got what they call a boot! what will they think of next?"

in any event, it bugged me. i'm sure most American viewers barely noticed, and i'm not even sure if the game was broadcast in England. if it was, they were all probably watching Liverpool - Arsenal anyway.

29 October 2007

eggcorn alert: "intelligible"

i was just reading an interview with Erin Andrews (like you do) at a sports blog that i was previously unfamiliar with, One More Dying Quail. nothing out of the ordinary, except a couple places where OMDQ couldn't quite make out what was being said on the recording, and transcribed the following:

...to be honest with you, I have never played a sport, I obviously (intelligible) at all...
I’m just some (intelligible) who goes to coaches meetings and reads a lot of articles and talks to players...
clearly, if the recording was indeed intelligible he wouldn't have bothered writing "intelligible", he'd just say it. of course it should say "unintelligible." it looks very much like an eggcorn to me, with a reanalysis along the lines of in+telligible, mistaking the word-initial in- for the latinate negating prefix. if that were a good faith analysis, then a "double-marked" un+in+telligible would indeed look very strange.

26 October 2007

who is Benny Lava?

apparently this video has been around on the web for a couple months now. in short, it's an indian music video with english subtitles approximating the sounds of the actual lyrics. you can go ahead and watch it now, or just read on and see what my experience was after multiple viewings and listenings and then devise your own experiment.

so i watched it and was absolutely amazed that over 4 minutes of audio could produce that much semi-coherent english (although admittedly some lines are a little more of a stretch than others, and i know some were optimized for their comedic effect). my original thought was to post here and ask whether somebody who was actually familiar with the language that this song is written in could tell me whether there's any codeswitching to english in the song, as i know that's pretty common in the region that this video purportedly comes from.

then i realized i'd been pretty well duped. i gave the song another listen, this time not watching the video or subtitles. surely, if there were sections that were actually in english, as a native speaker i should be able to pick up on them pretty easily. only two snippets stood out at all to my ear: i love you, which i think is a genuine codeswitch, and operation, which i think is just coincidence.

i'm sure someone who has done more study in the cognitive science of language and literacy would have a better analysis than me, but in short i fell victim to the power of suggestion. by reading along with the grammatical (if nonsensical) english subtitles, i genuinely believed in most cases that what i was hearing was very close to what i was reading. but without the words in front of me, all the humorous lyrics were entirely gone, even though i had just read them all less than an hour before. even the assumed protagonist of the song, Benny Lava, almost entirely disappeared. the final vowel in what was transcribed as "Lava" sounds much more like [o] to me during an objective listening.

therefore i can only conclude that Benny Lava doesn't exist...but if he did, he'd say some pretty funny things.

19 October 2007

The Office on whomever

thanks to the magic of the dvr, i just finished watching last night's episode of The Office. there was a brilliantly written scene in which Ryan's usage of whomever sets off a raging grammar debate. since the writers weren't actually taking sides on the issue, but instead doing their best to represent its contentiousness, they were able to successfully portray several points of view and the way that such debates inevitably degrade into snarkiness. even better, they were able to go beyond the he-said-she-said type of argument and really develop some interesting sociolinguistic points. here's the clip if you haven't seen it:

let's break down how this argument goes:

Michael: No, whomever is never actually right.
amazingly we start off the whole debate with what could only be characterized as antihypercorrection (or maybe hyperanticorrection). usually whomever, the form that gets all the attention, gets overused in positions that wouldn't usually get accusative case in English, such as subject of a matrix clause. Michael, true to his character if you're familiar with the show, takes the high road on that and goes to the opposite end of the spectrum. personally, i'm not really picky on the who/whom issue but i do prefer whom-forms when they're the complement of a preposition or the complementizer for.
Creed: ...it's a made-up word used to trick students.
Creed, being the most cynical of the bunch, offers this gem. it's a good, succinct commentary on how absurd the teaching of so-called grammar in school is. although he, like Michael, goes to the extreme with a "deny everything" mentality, anyone who is a linguist and has looked back on the prescriptive drivel that was fed to them in their early years realizes that a good bit of it was, in fact, totally unfounded.
Andy: Actually, whomever is the formal version of the word.
by far the best line of the whole piece. the writer is language-savvy enough to know about registers of speech and furthermore the fact that hypercorrections (like using whomever to the exclusion of whoever) are often believed by speakers and listeners alike to denote some kind of higher social level.
Oscar: Obviously it's a real word, but I don't know when to use it correctly.
Michael: Not a native speaker.
finally some honesty from a character. since nobody actually receives accurate grammatical training unless they take linguistics courses in college, few people know if what they are saying is proper, improper, grammatical, or ungrammatical (of course there is overlap among these categories). there is a running joke of Michael considering Oscar as foreign because he is hispanic, so he calls him a non-native speaker. this couldn't be further from the truth. what is true is that so many native speakers of a language really have no clue how their grammar works.
Kevin: I know what's right, but I'm not gonna say...
Ryan: Do you really know which one is correct?
Kevin: I don't know.
ah, the disgruntled prescriptivist, caught in his own lies.

then a great debate about subjects, direct objects, and indirect objects ensues. no one is really sure what they are (our English teachers at work, once again), until Toby correctly analyzes that whomever in Ryan's original sentence was the indirect object. then he blows it, saying that's "the correct usage of the word." this, of course, is too limiting an interpretation of where whomever is allowed in English, which is basically anywhere that it doesn't receive nominative case. but we couldn't just leave it at that, an inaccurate conclusion. people gotta get angry over grammar!
Michael: No one, uh, asked you anything ever, so, whomever's name is Toby, why don't you take a letter opener and stick it in your skull.
and of course the writers saved the one, truly incorrect use of whomever for Michael, who utters it as a parting blow.

so there you have it. file The Office along with The Simpsons and Family Guy under "linguistic instruction fodder."

08 October 2007


under the category of "you gotta be kidding me i hope this was an innocent brain fart," today courtesy of Deadspin:

It was only a matter of time, really, until the adjective "to Vick" became an acceptable taunt between rival college football fans.
a commenter gets it pretty right:
"to Vick" is the most adjective verb ever
c'mon guys. even if you were taught by a misguided middle school English teacher who has no idea whatsoever what the term lexical category means, much less the fact that it is related but not equivalent to the common notion of parts of speech, you should know that "to X" is not ever ever ever an adjectival form.

geek linguist note: it should, however, be duly noted that in the [±N] / [±V] system of organizing lexical categories, adjectives are [+V]. that doesn't make verbs adjectives though.