The Internet has been a-twitter this week with news that McDonald’s, that venerable fast-food chain, has been ruining children’s lives. No, this is not about nutrition–what do you think this is, a food blog? No, this is about Minions.
Minions, for those unaware, are the little yellow figures that resemble walking, babbling Advil capsules and which debuted in the movie Despicable Me. They currently have their own movie and consequently their own requisite appearance as the toy of the season in the McDonald’s Happy Meal(TM). The McDonald’s toys babble when you tap them on a hard surface, and here is where the proverbial shit hits the fan: parents are complaining that one of the toys barks “what the fuck.”
Thanks to the glories of the Internet, we can watch any number of videos of the swearing Minion and judge for ourselves:
This has caused quite the uproar, with McDonald’s issuing a swift denial and coming clean with the “Minionese” (yes, really) transcript. The toy in question says three phrases: “para la bukay,” “hahaha” and “eh eh.” Nonetheless, news channels have swooped in to investigate–in an FCC-approved way, of course.
Swearing toys are nothing new. Just about any toy with synthesized speech can be manipulated to swear, as this baby phone that cheerfully bleats “motherfucker” as you mash its buttons demonstrates. More common, however, are the toys which seem to be swearing. These are more interesting cases because in most of them, the profanity is often only in the ear of the listener.
Take the My Little Baby Born Nappy Time doll. The My Little Baby Born Nappy Time doll is a plastic baby doll which will drink from a bottle, wet itself, cry until you change it, and then babble happily when it’s dry. Set aside, for a moment, the Lovecraftian horror that is a plastic baby doll whose sole function is to secrete and cry. Instead, listen to the first ten seconds of this video and focus on her happy babbling:
Do you hear it, do you hear it? Parents claim that the baby is very clearly saying “fuck, fuck it.”
Dolls seem to be very enamored with the word “fuck.” Barbie has said it, Hannah Montana (the doll) has said it, one of the Bratz dolls sings it, and now the Minions. In fact, you could waste hours meandering through YouTube listening to parents try to convince you that their child’s Rockin’ Elmo doll is saying “Elmo loves to fuck.” Manufacturers of each of these dolls have denied secretly programming them to destroy your child’s youth and innocence. Zapf Creation, makers of the Nappy Time doll, bordered on outright disdain in their refutation–their statement read, in part, “With the aim of teaching young children about nappy changing, my little BABY born Nappy Time only makes ‘baby babble’ sounds and does not say any actual words.”
There are a number of reasons why we hear things that aren’t there. In these particular cases, the physical limitations of technology combine with character quirks and the mental mechanisms we use to recognize words to produce a cavalcade of “fucks.”
First, the technology. Any sound nerd will tell you that if you put teeny, tiny cheap speakers in something and demand that they deliver flawless audio at a high enough volume that you can hear it, clear and crisp, through the body of a plushie, you will be foutu, mon ami. Kids’ toys do not generally use the highest quality audio equipment.
Next come character quirks. Not your own–the toy’s. Elmo’s speaking voice is distinctive: high, nasal, swallowed. Even without the speakers, you can barely make out what he’s saying. Hannah Montana and the Bratz doll are both singing; the Minions speak gibberish; Nappy Time baby is a baby, fer chrissake, and so babbles. None of these characters are speaking in a way that isn’t somehow affected.
And finally, our brains. We learn to speak by sorting and playing with the acoustic information that we hear–combinations of nasals, plosives, liquids, vowels, flaps, the whole phonemic megillah. Some of that play (“bababa” “mamama”) gains meaning when we use it and receive positive reinforcement for using it (“That’s right, I’m Mama! Mama! THE BABY SAID MY NAME, YAAAAY!”). That’s a gross oversimplification of a very complex process that we don’t understand well, but the result is that our brains are hardwired to search for lexical pattern-matches in sounds that we think represent speech. This prepares us for part of our job as parents: we listen to the sounds our progeny glub out and, using this mechanism of matching acoustic information to lexical items in our mental dictionaries, we recognize patterns, reinforce them, and help teach our children how to speak.
There are around 40 distinct sound units (or phonemes) in English, give or take, but most linguists agree that a native adult speaker of English knows at least a few thousand English words, if not tens of thousands. That means that lots of words have lots of phonemic overlap, particularly when spoken in a high-pitched, distorted voice which is then blared through a shitty speaker.
Add to this the repetitive nature of most toy-speech. Junior picks up the Bratz doll and presses the button over and over and over again, which means you hear the same sound over and over and over again. Stir in a little fatigue, a brain that wants to find order in acoustic chaos, and the sheer number of monosyllabic English words that have a schwa near the beginning of them and end with some sort of consonantal stop, and it’s a wonder that parents of young children hear anything but the word “fuck.”
Courtesy of Michele Botwin on Twitter, I did find something suspicious about another of the Minion characters: it appears to scream the words “BUNDT CAAAAAAKE!” with regularity. Don’t tell me I’m just hearing things.