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.
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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.
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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.