Deeper into Jeopardy! XXVIII: Linguistics – $800

Jeopardy! category: LINGUISTICS (9-10-2014)

$800 clue: A tripthong isn’t your swimsuit, it’s a group of 3 of these sounds in one syllable

Correct response

The gist: These are some pretty crowded syllables.  A triphthong is is a syllable including three vowel sounds, a rare cousin of the better known diphthong, which boasts just two. Diphthongs are common in English. You can see and hear them in words like “bait” (the “ai” begins with a sound like in “bet” and ends with a sound like in “beet”*), “bite” (first “but,” last “beet”), “bout” (“bat”/”boot”), and “boat” (“bought”/”boot”), and that’s just words that start with ‘b’ and end with ‘t’. If you’re having trouble picking the individual sounds out, concentrate on the changing shape of your mouth as you say the words and you should notice that it shifts from one distinct shape to another as the sound continues.

As for triphthongs, they’re significantly rarer in English, and generally occur only in specific accents and dialects. The examples given by Wikipedia all come from Received Pronunciation, which you might know as the accent most North Americans probably think of when they imagine a standard speaker of British English, particularly the sort from above the lower classes of London. A speaker of that accent pronounces made words with a final ‘r’ as a monosyllabic triphthong – things like “hour” and “fire,” which get that little vowel-y tail on them as the ‘r’ sound is dropped. In many other dialects, particularly rhotic ones, those words are pronounced more unambiguously with two syllables – like “ow-er” for “hour” and “fie-er” for “fire.” Other languages, like Portuguese, Vietnamese, and certain German dialects, also have triphthongs – while some, like Japanese, don’t even use diphthongs.


A very technical, difficult, and boring illustration of Received Pronunciation’s triphthongs. Sorry.

The clue: I’m pretty interested in linguistics, and I’d never heard of a triphthong – but of course, for this clue you don’t need to. You just need to be able to recognize that it’s one more than a diphthong, and by analogy to that know that it must have to do with vowel sounds. Or, you can let an opponent buzz in first and incorrectly guess “consonants.” Either way, let’s just ignore the super lame pun that opens this clue, shall we?

In Jeopardy!: “Vowel” is in too many clues (498) in the J!Archive to work with, so let’s go with diphthongs and tripthongs instead. “Diphthong” is in just five clues, three of which either give an example (like the word “no”) or a definition of the concept and want it as the response, while the other two (including this one) want “vowel” as the correct response. As for “triphthong,” this is its very first clue in the J!Archive, so welcome to it. Neither phonetic concept is hugely important for the show, but as long as you can remember the somewhat strange-looking word for two vowel sounds in one syllable, you’ll be fine.

* Take note that I’m basing all these on my own Torontonian, basically General American accent. Your vowelage may vary.

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