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01 April 2005 @ 18:00
Marginal phonetics  
Julie Kavner / Marge Simpson

In a post evocatively titled "Mmm? Hhmhmhm? Grmrmmm?", Heidi Harley wonders about the articulatory phonetics of the sound Marge Simpson makes to express some combination of disapproval, annoyance, and frustration. (This is part of Heidi's larger project of designing an introductory linguistics course based entirely on The Simpsons.) At Language Log, Mark Liberman, working from memory, suggests that Marge's annoyed voice (both for this particular interjection and perhaps also more generally) involves a combination of creaky voice and pharyngeal constriction, and points out the pressing need for "a good corpus of annoyed and non-annoyed Marge Simpson vocalizations."

Not having the research budget to invest in a suitable corpus, I turned to FindSounds, searched for "Marge," and got seven results. Six were examples of her trademark annoyed noise; the seventh was more of a skeptical "hmmm," which is subtly different. I picked four that seemed to have relatively little background noise, and made spectrograms of them using Praat:

http://www2.hawaii.edu/~hvan/week08/margegroan.wav http://thefreesimpsons.homestead.com/files/sounds/mmmh.wav
http://students.cec.wustl.edu/~wbk1/Lab11/groan.wav http://webcraft1.com/wavs/gavbit.wav

These don't really tell me a whole lot; I'm used to reading spectrograms of sequences of sounds, but just about everything of interest here is happening simultaneously. There is something interesting that changes near the beginning—I think maybe she starts out in modal voice and switches to creaky voice after the first hundred milliseconds or so, but what with all the frication going on, I find it hard to hear or see the creakiness with any confidence. The pitch definitely drops in that transition, but I'm not sure exactly what else is going on with the vocal folds. I also can't tell exactly where the frication is happening, but since this thing's a nasal, I assume it's either radicopharyngeal [ʕ] or velopharyngeal [ʩ].

Anyway, I'd describe the sound as a possibly creaky-voiced bilabial nasal with a very narrow somethingo-pharyngeal secondary articulation and falling tone. I might be able to figure it out better if I could make the sound reliably myself. Heidi can; she writes:

Heck, I can make that annoyed noise too, distinguishing it from the yummy mmm noise by doing some trick with my pharynx/tongue root/larynx, together with the other normal features associated with bilabial nasals, and I don't have anything at all like Kavner's distinctive vocal apparatus.

But when I try to do it, sometimes it comes out sounding like Marge, but sometimes it sounds more like a wounded muskrat or a sexually frustrated wookiee. I also don't have a readily available corpus of non-annoyed Marge sounds with which to compare the samples above. (Marge Simpson has a rough life, you know; there's a lot for her to be annoyed about.) But perhaps these notes will inspire someone else to improve upon my description.

Update: Mark Liberman has posted a much more informative narrow-band spectrogram, together with his analysis, of which my favourite line is this:

I'd guess that there are several different modes of glottal oscillation going on at once, and the whole system is on the edge of chaos (probably in the technical sense of the word).
acw on 4. April, 2005 15:01 (UTC)
Two surprising facts.

(1) Mazal tov. You are the top Google hit for "sexually frustrated wookiee".

(2) There is another.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 4. April, 2005 16:45 (UTC)

Maybe Google should adjust their ranking algorithm; I think the other page is vastly more likely to be of interest to anyone who types in that search term.

(Anonym) on 4. April, 2005 22:07 (UTC)
Hey q... wow! cool.

When I say I can make the sound myself, I don't mean I can sound like Marge -- I really can't. But I can make an annoyed 'hrmrmmmmm' noise that is the direct analogue (I think) in my own voice... I'll see if I can record some examples to show what I mean sometime soon.

:) hh
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 5. April, 2005 06:48 (UTC)
Re: Grmmm?

Well, I can't even reliably make in my voice the same sound that Julie Kavner makes in Marge's voice (or is it the other way round?)—my own usual "annoyed noise" is just a plain [ʩ]. So if you can produce the your-voice version of the same sound, then you're a lot closer to replicating what Julie Kavner is doing than I am.

(Anonym) on 5. April, 2005 15:31 (UTC)
Hm. They're not as clear as the spectrograms we get in elementary phonetics, are they?

I've never heard The Simpsons, so I don't know what Marge's sound is, but when I follow your directions and add creaky voice then pharyngeal constriction to an [m], lordy lordy, does it sound like a wounded muskrat or a sexually frustrated wookiee -- Not that I've heard either of those either, but I just know that's what they'd sound like.
(Anonym) on 17. Juni, 2008 09:41 (UTC)
Hi all!

Henrytahnan on 6. Marts, 2010 12:58 (UTC)
To follow up on the first comment: the first picture in this post (the small square one of two women, not the blond man in the hat or the spectrograms) is now the seventh result in Google Images, and a sample from image results on the first page of a regular search, when searching for Heidi Harley. Go figure.
Q. Pheevr: Crunchly types a Qq_pheevr on 16. Marts, 2010 03:13 (UTC)

Odd. I would have hoped that the fact that I included an alt attribute identifying the women in the picture as Julie Kavner and Marge Simpson might have helped Google figure it out. On the other hand, this post (like this one by Squires) does at least mention Heidi Harley, which is more than I can say for the various photos of (ostensibly Swiss?) girls on motorcycles that start turning up a couple of pages into that particular Google image search....