Phun with phonetics: the Name Game
In January 1965, American singer Shirley Ellis reached #3 in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart with a tongue-twisting novelty song, The Name Game.
Remarkably popular, the Name Game continues to pop up in various guises on a range of television programmes, including American Horror Story (season 2, episode 10) and The Big Bang Theory (season 9, episode 21).
The rules of the game are very straightforward, as Shirley sings:
Come on everybody, I say now let’s play a game
I bet you I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name
The first letter of the name, I treat it like it wasn’t there
But a ‘b’ or an ‘f’ or an ‘m’ will appear.
Taking ‘Lenny’ as an example, the basic structure is as follows:
Lenny, Lenny, bo-benny
If a name starts with b, f, or m, it is simply not repeated in that line:
Bella, Bella, bo-ella
Word games have been cited as a source of evidence in phonology (the study of speech sound contrasts and patterns) for over 80 years, and The Name Game made it into a couple of articles in the 1990s. The studies were interested in what happens to names that begin with consonant clusters, such as Stanley and Chloe. Such names didn’t appear in the original version of the song and the game is now played by many people who have never heard the original.
Investigating this, Michael Hammond reports the results of an informal 15-participant survey showing different versions being played. Every speaker treated Steve the same way: the whole /st/ consonant cluster was swapped:
Steve, Steve, bo-beve
In other types of clusters, where the second consonant is an ‘approximant’ sound (one of /l/, /r/, /w/, or /j/), two versions exist. Some players just swapped the first sound (so Drew would be bo-brew), but others swapped the whole cluster like this (spelling changed to reflect the pronunciation):
Drew, Drew, bo-boo
A subsequent article co-authored by Hammond and Stuart Davis considers the /j/ in words such as beautiful (the ‘y’ sound after the ‘b’) and whether it is treated the same as similar sounds in that position. They described a difference in the way the names Gwen and Beula are treated by speakers who cluster-swap. Gwen is treated like Drew above:
Gwen, Gwen, bo-ben
But, again adjusting the spelling to reflect the pronunciation, only the first consonant of Beula was changed (the version they described did not have the rule that applied to Bella above):
Beula, Beula, bo-byoola
The /j/ sound is retained, as if it is part of the vowel rather than a consonant cluster (phonologists would say it seems part of the syllable ‘nucleus’ rather than the syllable ‘onset’). /j/ and /w/ are similar in several ways and are likely to be treated the same in this game when on their own at the starts of names (such as Walter and Yan), but they are treated differently when they are part of consonant clusters. So we would expect the name Stuart to be played this way:
Stuart, Stuart, bo-byooart
The /j/ in words and names like these is very highly variable depending on accent and for many speakers, words such as beautiful and news would never have one! I teach at the University of East Anglia, and we know from dialect surveys that East Anglian speakers are historically some of the least (if not the least) likely to use /j/ in these words. It’s a wonderfully variable little sound with a wonderful history – but that’s a story for another day. Of course, there’s no reason to stick to just names for this game – we can use pretty much any word with a suitable stress pattern:
Rabbit, rabbit, bo-babbit
And we can delve into the Oxford Dictionaries and pick some of your favourite words from there to try and make the best tongue-twister! You could try it with some of our lexicographer’s favourites such as spleuchan or sooterkin, or even with the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016, post-truth:
Post-truth, post-truth, bo-bost-truth
For one final round, I’ll sign off with how Shirley Ellis would play with my own name:
Matthew, Matthew, bo-batthew