The oddest thing happened the other day. (Linguistically, that is.) I was at the hairdresser. I’ve been going to the same person for a while now, but she works at a busy salon with lots of stylists in training who often do the pre-cut washing. So, in other words, I was getting my hair washed by someone new. As she started the wash she asked me, in a Scottish accent:
“Is that your natural [kəɾᵊl]?”
And then this inexplicable thing that happened: I heard that word as color. So I said “Yes, it is” because I don’t dye my hair. Then she said something like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, I’ve spent hours trying to get mine to look like that.” And this was confusing, because I have boring black hair. So then I realized, of course, she’s talking about my hair’s curl — just like every single stylist before her, for the last two decades, has always done! (And no, I’m not 20 years old; my hair went curly after puberty.)
So this is what makes this moment of misperception so baffling: I always get comments on my curls and I never get comments on my color. In theory, I could’ve predicted that she’d ask me about my curly hair before even saying anything at all! And prefacing the word with the word “natural” should’ve been absolutely foolproof for accurate perception, because I would bet that 99% of the occurrences of the word “natural” that I’ve encountered while in a hair salon have been collocated with the word “curl.”
Add to this the fact that I’m a linguist, and a sociophonetician at that, and that accents are my object of study, and that I’ve been living in Scotland for over two years now, and so I’ve heard this before (girl, world, swirl), and… This is all very embarrassing.
Linguistically, here’s what I find surprising. First, there’s all sorts of evidence from sentence processing that we do predict a word’s occurrence based on probabilities calculated on the fly from the words that precede it. Given two equally semantically probable options (as in this case), it’s not a far stretch to imagine than an individual’s personal experience would weight these probabilities further (e.g., me versus someone with straight hair who dyes it regularly). Second, I think it’s interesting that syllabicity apparently trumped phone identity. The /l/ precedes the /r/ in the word color but follows it in the word curl. But I was apparently happy to accept this swapping of liquid position because of the strength my mental representation of color as having two syllables and curl only having one. (Perhaps the fact of the /r/ being realized as a tap has something to do with it, but I’m not sure what.)
My analysis: The plural marking on count or mass nouns is often dropped in technical use, like fashionistas who say that like a certain kind of pant or cattle ranchers who talk about a lot of cow. While it may be relatively more colloquial to talk about someone’s curl, I’d still personally refer instead to someone’s curls (or curly hair). My own experience, both in and out of salons, is probably more with the sentence “Are those your natural curls?” than “Is that your natural curl?”. I think that if the initial verb had prepared me for a plural noun then there’s no way I would’ve misperceived the word as color, because my hair has only one color. Similarly, if there had been a final [s] after the word, it would’ve disambiguated the words as well. (And perhaps if I were greying a bit then this misunderstanding wouldn’t have happened, either.)
Another point in my defense, I mean, by way of explanation, is that hair salons are noisy. There was a blow-dryer going at the time just a few feet away, and there’s lots of research that shows that perception is degraded in noisy environments. (So there!)
Socially, what this experience did was reaffirm how relatively low my frequency of interaction is with people whose accents are ‘Scottish enough’ to have pronunciations such as [kəɾᵊl] for curl. I’ve talked about this before, but this was a strong reminder of that (unfortunate) fact.
P.S. I’m happy to receive corrections to my ad hoc transcription attempt (because hey, obviously I can’t hear as well as I’d like to think I can)! Since I have a lack of ‘authentic’ data (and please just accept those scare quotes and don’t get me started on ‘authenticity’), here’s a clip of a voice actor/trainer discussing the Scottish pronunciation of the word girl.
P.P.S. Throughout this post I’ve been self-conscious of my spelling choice for the word color. On Twitter, I always follow Lynne Murphy‘s practice of using a parenthesis around the variant letter, e.g., colo(u)r. But here, I thought that would be distracting. however, I do recogni(s/z)e the irony in using US spelling on a blog called vocalised…