What is it you [can’t] face?

The following is a short guest post by David Morris, a teacher of English as a second language in Sydney, Australia. He holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics, and blogs about language at Never Pure and Rarely Simple.

* * *

A few days ago the movie The Sound of Music screened (yet again) on Australian television. One of my Facebook friends alluded to the recurring rumour that in a conversation between Maria and the abbess, the latter doesn’t actually say ‘Maria, what is it you can’t face?’, but rather ‘What is it, you cunt-face?’

A previous time I watched the movie, I listened very carefully during this dialogue and I have just listened again online, and she definitely says /kant/ and not /kʌnt/. Peggy Wood was American, but adopted a very proper English accent to portray a presumably upper-class Austrian nun.

In one episode of Will and Grace, the main characters go off to a singalong Sound of Music, and their evening there turns into a parody of the movie (helped by the fact that everyone is in costume). At one stage one character asks another ‘What is it you can’t face?’ in modern-day US English pronunciation, and there’s a howl of laughter from the studio audience.

* * *

David’s post ends there. Watching the film years ago I never noticed this alternative possibility, but then dialectal norms probably play a role in how misinterpretable the pronunciation is; the vowel sound in can’t is strongly fronted in the west of Ireland.

Here’s the line in all its ambiguous glory, since your curiosity will have been whetted if (like me) you weren’t aware of its reputation before:

Someone else had a little fun with it:

The line’s infamy, at least in the Antipodes, is such that it gave its name to a comedy show by New Zealand broadcaster Alan Brough, the exclamation mark in his What Is it You Can’t Face! suggesting the abusive version.

The Sydney Morning Herald described the show as ‘a Tarantino-esque reworking of the 1960s film, with violence, swearing and sex added’. Not so much Sing-A-Long as Swear-A-Long-A Sound of Music, then, but at least we know just how many fucks Maria von Trapp doesn’t give.

10 thoughts on “What is it you [can’t] face?

  1. astraya April 1, 2015 / 12:20 pm

    The Will and Grace episode is available in full at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjQ9blj_qo0 (poor synchronisation). The relevant part is from 17.40. The pronunciation is complicated by the fact that an actress from California/Oklahoma/New York/Illinois/California is playing a wealthy New York socialite, so who knows what her accent is actually meant to be?

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  2. Stan Carey April 1, 2015 / 12:22 pm

    There are two pleasing coincidences in a book I’m reading today, D.M. Thomas’s first novel Birthstone. The narrator, Jo, is travelling with two American tourists, Lola Bolitho and her middle-aged son Hector. On a walk, Lola ‘sang short gasping spasms of The Sound of Music.’ They visit the Mên-an-Tol stone formation in Cornwall, England:

    And here was this granite ring, sitting quietly in the silence every hour and every minute for the last four thousand years. ‘What was it for?’ I wailed; because I always want to know what things are for. Hector consulted his guidebook again. ‘Sun disc. Or birthstone. And later, people used to crawl through to cure their ills.’

    Mrs Bolitho got up from where she had been resting against one of the posts, and thumped her palm down on the Men-an-Tol. ‘Old stone cunt,’ she said, and chuckled. Swiftly and childishly, she apologized for her bad language. I said, ‘It doesn’t bother me.’ Flushed, Hector started an earnest lecture on Bronze Age astronomy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mr Punch April 1, 2015 / 3:16 pm

    Apart from the “bad language” usage issue, I’d be leery of a British novelist who names an American character “Hector Bolitho.”

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  4. SpankTM April 1, 2015 / 6:11 pm

    That interpretation of the line is also referenced in an Australian film called Welcome To Woop Woop, made in 1997 by Stephan Elliott of Adventures Of Priscilla fame.

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    • Stan Carey April 2, 2015 / 9:47 am

      Spank: That’s brilliant – fun for all the family! I had no idea.

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  5. richardsmyth April 3, 2015 / 11:24 am

    Slightly off-topic, but this has reminded me of a happy memory from university: watching a very posh, earnest and rather precious philosophy undergrad being told by my German friend the proper way to pronounce ‘Kant’. It simply can’t be done in RP without saying That Word. His discomfort was a delight.

    Terrific post, by the way.

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    • Stan Carey April 5, 2015 / 9:13 am

      That’s great, Richard, and very much on topic. It reminds me of the bit in Hedwig and the Angry Inch where our hero says she was kicked out of university for a lecture on “the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock ‘n’ roll, entitled ‘You, Kant, Always Get What You Want'”. The two jokes could be combined without difficulty.

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  6. astraya October 21, 2015 / 11:51 am

    A Facebook friend just referred to this song, with a sideways reference to the line in question. The song doesn’t include this line, but it is interesting in another way linguistically (I won’t spoil), albeit less swearily:

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    • Stan Carey October 21, 2015 / 12:10 pm

      Very clever! And some seriously impressive eyebrow action.

      Like

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