Orangutangs and Pengwings
- Published: Monday, 24 August 2015 12:00
By now some of you will undoubtedly have come across references to Benedict Cumberbatch’s wonderful voice-over for the BBC documentary South Pacific, in particular the part where he repeatedly pronounces the word penguin incorrectly. It comes out as something like “pengwing”:
"So why are these woodlands so attracted to pengwings? A fresh water stream through the forest makes a handy highway for a parent pengwing heading home from a fishing trip …".
You can listen to the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GnLDJAgrws
I’m thrilled by this example because it illustrates a rather rare phonological process called “long-distance assimilation”. Ordinary assimilation is commonplace. It’s where sounds change to become more like other sounds close by. Most of us will pronounce pancake as “pangcake” [pæŋkeik], assimilating the [n] to the following velar [k]. (Nasal harmony is very common — like chameleons of the phonological world, nasals are forever altering their appearance and blending into their environment in this way.)
More interesting is when non-contiguous sounds harmonize. The process is more usual in vowels, but in consonants it’s very rare. You might find examples in the speech of young children (dog occasionally becomes “gog” for example), and in random slips of the tongue in adult speech, such as my recent “fearsome phenomenom” when I meant to say fearsome phenomenon (of course it didn’t help that there’s a double whammy of ‘m’s here). Where you are more likely to get long-distance consonant harmony is where syllables are similar and the resulting form is almost a reduplication. Smorgasbord is sometimes heard as “smorgasborg”, and “orangutang” is now probably more usual than original orangutan. And now there’s “pengwing”.
But these remain sporadic changes that that haven’t yet made any long-term systematic impression on the language. Probably none of us is tempted by “wingspang” for wingspan or “hangmang” for hangman. Of course the written word slows down these sorts of changes. But orangutang does seem to have stuck — it’s been recorded since the word first entered the language in the 1600s (originally Malay orang ‘person’ + utan ‘forest’). In fact the example is repeated over and over in linguistics textbooks because long-distance consonant harmony is so rare!
Interestingly, there’s evidence that “pengwings” have been around for a bit too. You’ll find an entry in Urban Dictionary dating from early 2007. But will it endure? Well, it seems we like to turn words into rhymes (“smorgasborgs” and “orangutangs”), and in the case of “pengwing” there’s the added motivation that the remodeled word nicely captures those rather rudimentary little wings so much a feature of the penguin — “penwing” is apt.
And then of course nothing beats celebrity — whether it’s the promotion of products or linguistic forms. No one paid much attention to the verb to twerk until Miley Cyrus “twerked into history”; bootylicious needed Beyoncé’s help to launch it. And now the actor, whose beautiful and authoritative voice The Times once likened to “a jaguar hiding in a cello”, says “pengwing”. What’s more, none of those penguin experts working on the documentary ever challenged him! And in the special way the Internet can make things happen, Cumberbatch’s gaffe has now a worldwide profile. There are even T-shirts to be had.
Things are looking good for “pengwings”.
And just as a final aside, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice that you hear as the undercover wolf Classified in the Madagascar spin-off Penguins — Pengwings of Madagascar?
Kate Burridge for Lingofile