Monthly Archives: October 2011

Lawsuits Over Toyota Mis-Flap

A common phonological rule of North American English is to change /t,d/ to a “flap” transcribed as either /D/ or /ɾ/. In other words, a /t/ in words like atom, writer sounds an awful like like a “d”.

In phonology class, I present cases where a flapped /t,d/ could cause potential ambiguities (see below).

  • Swe[D]ish ‘from Sweden’, swee[D]ish ‘slightly sweet’
  • ri[D]er, wri[D]er

Another ambiguity encountered in real life was Toyota vs. toy Yoda. One of the speakers in this case was British who may not have been used to decoding flaps as /t/ as North Americans are.

Still, I’m not alone because at least two organizations promised what sounded like a “Toyota” as a prize but delivered a “toy Yoda” instead. Sadly the winners, were not amused and pursued legal action.

If a phonologist had been on call, they could have provided the plaintiffs an important tip. The vowel before original (unerlying) /d/ is slightly longer phonetically than original /t/. Thus the vowel of “toy Y[o:D]a” is slightly, but perceptibly longer than “Toy[oD]a” in many dialects of American English. That’s why there isn’t more confusion in conversational English than there is.

The good news is that at least one waitress did win the suit enough to “pick out whatever type of Toyota she wants.” I guess the Force was with her after all.