Everything is Simple

Wheel of Misfortune

(Let me nerd out real quick.)

I recently came across an article on Huffington Post called 'Wheel of Fortune' Maybe Screws Over Contestant on 'Seven Swans A Swimming' Answer.

But, there is no "maybe" about it.

Here’s the situation: One contestant pleaded her opportunity to solve the puzzle, saying, “Seven Swans A-Swimmin’” — an answer host Pat Sajak deemed incorrect. Moments later, another contestant claimed the solution to the puzzle was “Seven Swans A-Swimming” — an answer which satisfied the TV show host.

Sajak continued to clarify this weird and uncomfortable situation to the contestants by noting one contestant “left out the ‘G’ in ‘Seven Swans A-Swimmin.’”

Here’s the problem with this. Even Sajak didn’t produce the “G” in “Seven Swans A-Swimming” when he approached with an explanation.

You see, words are made up of phonemes. The “G” sound understood by all students of phonetics sounds like what you could expect it to sound like: the “G sound” in “GaGa” or “GoGo” or “Git-R-Done!” The phoneme /g/ is a voiced velar stop, which means that the manner of articulation required to produce the “G” involves the back of the tongue touching the velum (soft-palate) and blocking airflow.

But, when we look at “-ing,” we are typically looking at a very different sound. The form of “swimming” Pat Sajak produced did not actually feature a “G” sound at the end. Rather, it’s what is called an “eng” or an “engma” and is an altogether different phoneme: /ŋ/.

The engma, like the “G sound” also involves the velum for production. However, it is a velar nasal sound — which means that airflow is not blocked; rather, it is cycled through the nasal passage (like other nasals /m/ and /n/). If you don’t believe me hold an “M sound,” put your finger under your nose and feel the air emission. You can do the same when holding the engma at the end of “swimming.” Good luck holding a “G sound,” like at the end of dog.

Now, here’s the other thing.

Sajak mentioned leaving off the “G sound” in the “vernacular.”

What Sajak meant to say was that the contestant did not use the appropriate articulation he deemed fit. You see, the “American vernacular” (if that’s what we want to call it) is made up of dialectical differences across many cultural, socioeconomic, and regional boundaries. There are words that may be used in the South that aren’t in the North, the East that aren’t in the West, and vice versa.

Just Google “Dialects in the United States” and you might be surprised how many legitimate and accepted dialects can be found in the US.

Look, no one likes to admit their faults or that they may have messed up — but this seemed like a clear over-stepping of academic authority. And, really, I usually don’t care about the goings on on game shows, but this was uninformed pickiness and it would behoove anyone interested in preserving the intellectual sanctity of the show to issue an apology.

(Also, I study this stuff and I couldn’t resist.)