Phonology Matters in a Frosted Flakes Joke

September 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

On Reddit a while back I saw a (re)post of a picture of an off-brand box of Frosted Flakes, complete with off-brand Antonio the Tiger, with the title “Theyyyyyyy’re acceptable!”. Several years before this when I was in college, one of the writers on the humor magazine made the same joke about rejected cereal slogans, except his version was “Theyyyyyyy’re adequate!”

Let me break down why my colleague’s version is better. It all comes down to phonemes. If you get the sound of your words wrong — if you use the wrong rhythm, emphasis, timing, or timbre — then naturally you kill the humor.

See, “acceptable” has its emphasis on the second syllable, so the crescendo coming off of “Theyyyyyyy’re” dies quickly on “acc”, but then strangely picks up again on “cept”. That weird up-and-down, that hiccup, totally kills the flow and momentum of the slogan. That’s why the original slogan uses the one-syllable punch of “great” to punctuate the crescendo of “Theyyyyyyy’re”. (Though they drag it out a little bit for “grrr”.) By contrast, “adequate” has its emphasis on the first syllable then quickly dies off with two syllables that make it feel like you’re trailing off. The word has an anti-climactic tumbling sound, like it trips over itself and falls off a cliff. “Acceptable” is too much rhythmic work, poorly distributed, and so it kills the joke.

“Acceptable” also has the wrong vowel and consonant sounds. Again, the emphasis is on the second syllable, but “cept” starts with a hissing sound, which is a total mismatch for its rhythmic peak. When you say “Theyyyyyyy’re acceptable!” you have to clamber a little through a noisy by-product to hit that emphasis on “cept”. Whereas “adequate” starts with a nice open “a” and closes up quickly with “d”. It works as anti-climax that the word buttons up so quickly.

My point must be obvious. Details matter, and sound matters, and when people talk about the relationship between sound and sense, they aren’t kidding. Hodgepodge that it is, language is still a tactile and musical medium.

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