Ratfcking phonotactics

When I read a recent article by Charles P. Pierce in Esquire about Russian-related dirty tricks in the 2016 US election, something caught my eye: ratfcking and ratfck.

Now, obviously this is ratfucking and ratfuck without the u. I’ve already talked about obscuring of sonority peaks (consonant nuclei) in “Why the f— do we do this and why the —k don’t we do that?” But in this case it’s not ratf*cking or ratf–cking. The vowel isn’t obscured. It’s just pulled out like a card from a deck.

Obviously, Mr. Pierce – should you talk to him in person – might well pronounce the word with the u intact. This ratfcking is likely a delicacy enforced by a nod to decorum in print. But here’s the thing: When I’m talking in a context where I don’t want to be too obtrusively vulgar but I still want to express vehemence (there are a lot of contexts of this sort), I will actually say “fcking,” /fˑkɪŋ/. So I wondered whether this kind of thing is catching on in print.

It’s not, not really. Ratfcking is a rare hit, and not widespread. You can find a few instances of bullsht and cockscker but almost none of motherfcker or just about any other one you can think of. The various corpora turn up no hits at all for most of them. (Those fcking asshles.)

But is ratfcking a possible word in English?

I mean, I can say it. But would trying to make it a thing ratfck the language? Or could our language accommodate it without fcking up our sht entirely?

I’m going to give this an “almost,” or maybe even a “maybe, with the right kind of influence.” The reasons come down to phonotactics (and a bit of orthography).

Phonotactics means how we arrange (and don’t arrange) sounds in speech. So first off, we have to consider that ratfcking must have two syllables, not three. English only allows syllable nuclei with sufficient sonority – basically, you have to be able to sing the heart of a syllable. Theoretically this is limited to vowels, but we all know that’s bullsht. We may write able and button with two vowels each, but in normal speech the second syllable of each is just a sustained consonant, readily singable (even if against classical vocal teaching – look, just listen to Justin Hayward in “Nights in White Satin” sing “letters I’ve writtnnn”). But we don’t allow the nucleus of a syllable to be voiceless (psst – there are odd exceptions, but sshhhh: they don’t act like normal words). So in English we can’t say /ræt fː kɪŋ/. Which means that the f has to go onto the end of one syllable or the beginning of the next.

Now, /s/ is about as sonorous as /f/ (a bit more so), and we can use it in either of those positions: rats, obviously, and sking. (Not scking? We wouldn’t write it that way because ck only stands for a /k/ in a syllable coda without a preceding consonant – in other words, it has to come right after a vowel, except in names like Planck, which isn’t originally English. This isn’t phonotactics, it’s orthography. Writing habits.) Ratsking is a perfectly plausible word, and if you spelled it ratscking people could still say it, though they might hesitate slightly before the ck. And the syllable boundary would be before the s because, given a choice, we stick a sound at the beginning of a syllable rather than at the end of the previous one (although an argument can be made for ambisyllabicity: the /s/ could be right on the pivot between the syllables).

But just because you can do that with /s/ doesn’t mean you can do it with /f/. Don’t look for logic in languages. For instance, we can say buck, puck, muck, tuck, duck, nuck, cuck, and guck, but we can’t say nguck (/ŋʌk/). Well, we can, but a lot of people think they can’t because it’s not allowed in English, even though /ŋ/ is a nasal like /m/ and /n/ and a velar like /g/ and /k/. (Ask anyone named Nguyen how badly most Anglophones butcher their name.) Likewise, we can’t use /f/ everywhere we can use /s/. Hell, we can’t even use /z/ in all analogous locations – go listen to people heading to a Sbarro restaurant: no one would have trouble saying “spar-o” but a lot of them have trouble with “zbar-o.” That’s phonotactics for you: not what we can do but what we’re allowed to do, which for many people means what they think they can do.

Likewise, we can’t say /rætf/ as a syllable. It’s physically possible but to English speakers it’s just wrong and awkward. We don’t allow /f/ at the very end of a word after a less sonoroant consonant. (We do, however, allow it after a more sonorant one, as you can say to yourself if you’re ever in Banff.)

And, supposedly, we can’t say /fkɪŋ/ either. But I’m a little less solid on that. I mean, really, fuck what we’re allowed to do, let’s do what we can. English speakers have demonstrated some ability to pronounce /f/ before a stop as the occasion demands. You may have done so yourself, if for amusement you deliberately misread an old text with long s’s: ſtop ſkipping over the ſpikes! And we know that Monty Python has done it, and thereby gotten millions of nerds to do likewise:

Note that they give the /f/ in F’tang a bit of extra length so that there’s almost a second syllable. Like an unvoiced vowel. Imagine if we said trafficking and dropped the voice out on the i. It’s possible – we just don’t do it. Not officially, anyway. So that’s an option too.

So we can say /ft/ in an onset. We’re just not supposed to do it. Is it a possible evolution of our language? Or is it ratfcking it? (Or both?) Well… Many other languages do it without problem, and one of them it is Russian. Listen, for instance, to the pronunciation of в течение, Russian for during.

There’s no reason to think there’s been any Russian influence on English here, or would be any, but, y’know… ratfcking happens.

6 thoughts on “Ratfcking phonotactics

  1. John Cowan July 4, 2017 / 4:52 pm

    Ask anyone named Nguyen how badly most Anglophones butcher their name.

    The name not only begins with [ŋ], it begins with [ŋw], making it doubly impossible in English. The usual anglicization is to drop the [ŋ] altogether; as one Nguyen (a California politician, I think) has been known to say, it’s just not a nguyen-nguyen situation.

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  2. Rob Steinmetz July 5, 2017 / 1:31 pm

    FOr what it’s worth, in Unix there’s is a command fsck for “File System Check”. It has long been used in some circles as a substitution for fuck as in “The fscking user fscked up the system by ….” As far as I have observed it is never pronounced, only written.

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  3. Charles Sullivan July 5, 2017 / 10:19 pm

    This made me think of the song by The Flight of the Conchords with the lyrics –too many mutha’uckas ‘uckin’ with my shi’–

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  4. Steve Bacher July 6, 2017 / 12:13 am

    In fact, a fellow Unix sysadmin used to speak of needing to “fuck the filesystem.” And then there’s this classic — how to express sex in one Unix command line:

    unzip ; strip ; touch ; finger ; mount ; fsck ; more ; yes ; umount ; sleep

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  5. Leia July 7, 2017 / 10:21 am

    Welsh mutations also allow “ng” as a start of word. “my garden” is “fy ngardd”, “my cat” is fy Nghath”. “In Wales” is “yng Nghymru”

    People do struggle learning it as a standalone sound though – even though they can generally say “sing” “hung”, “long” and so on with no bother whatsoever. In the later example people can general say “yng” (y sounds like English u-as-in-up here) but boggle at the Nghymru…

    Generally “keep everything in your mouth still as you finish saying ‘sing’ then start again” gets the idea over – if leading to some funny faces!

    it’s fascinating which consonants different languages are happy to run together and which cause speakers of other languages to moan about vowel-rationing and cats on keyboards.

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