“Courtney Act” and Non-Rhotic Puns

Courtney Act

Courtney Act (hinnk / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

This season of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured Courtney Act (aka Shane Jenek), a renowned drag performer from Brisbane, Australia. In an early episode, Act/Jenek laments that Americans don’t get the pun in his stage name, which sounds similar to “caught in the act” to Australians (i.e. koːt n̩ i ækt). “Except,” Jenek says (and I’m paraphrasing), “maybe Boston or somewhere.”

I think Jenek’s right, it would take a second or two for most Americans to detect the pun, but not quite for the reason it might seem. Americans generally pronounce the /r/ in “Courtney” where Australians don’t. But the /r/ here occurs before another alveolar consonant, so the difference is hardly as prominent as it would be for Milne’s classic Eeyore pun (made all the more amusing by the vowel lengthening in non-rhotic British “-ore”: eee-aaawww).

The bigger problem is that most Americans use a very different vowel in “caught” than the one they use in “court“, which is different still from the vowel Australians use. The latter tend toward a fairly close “caught” vowel, while the former, especially in the cot-caught merged states, notoriously pronounce the word not dissimilarly from Southeastern British “cart“.

In fact, I think a pun like “cart in the act” would be pretty easily understood by most Americans (and indeed, a Google search produces at least two instances of Americans using just that pun in headlines). The vowel in “-ar” words in my accent is more or less identical to the vowel I use in “-aw” words.1 The bigger issue is that the vowel in “Courtney” and “Caught” are quite different for most of us in the States.

As to Jenek’s comment, I rather disagree that Boston would be the city most likely to grasp the pun. Contemporary non-rhotic Bostonians often make a distinction between the vowels “caught” and “court“, with the former word pronounced with a rather open vowel similar to that of most other American accents. Marked New York City English would probably be a better example, as its speakers tend to use similar vowels for both syllables.

It doesn’t help, of course, that “Courtney Act” is a complex pun that requires an intuitive understanding of English phonetics. To get the joke, you need to know that “in” can be pronounced as a syllabic /n/ and that English speakers sometimes drop “th” after that same /n/. While a pun like “cart in the act” is easy to spot because it resembles the structure of the phrase upon which the pun rests, “Courtney Act” is harder to parse.

1. For phonetics lovers, I generally make only a slight distinction between pairs like “caught” and “cot,” pronouncing the former with something close to Cardinal 5 (ɑ) and the latter with a vowel in between Cardinals 5 and the centralized variant of Cardinal 4.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in Australian English and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to “Courtney Act” and Non-Rhotic Puns

  1. Susan Michaud says:

    Without a doubt, that was my first thought, as well. Having lived in the northeast, and
    being drawn to the nuances of varying accents there, the pronunciations of the words, as
    given, clearly to my ear, reflect a New York or New Yauk, if you will, accent. Don’t get me started on Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Staten Island vs New Jersey. They are different.

    You are clearly way over my head in this department. But I so enjoy reading the input.

  2. Damian says:

    I’m American, and I’m no expert when it comes to Aussie English, but to me my vowel in “court” doesn’t sound that different from the Aussie “court”/”caught” (the vowel I use in “caught”, on the other hand, is very different). The major difference is the R-coloring I have in “court”. If I get rid of that, to me the resulting vowel is pretty close to the Aussie one (and also to that sound in the other “British oriented accents”). But I guess I’d have to ask Aussies how close they thought it was.

    • Susan Michaud says:

      You are clearly from the northeast, America, I presume?

      • Damian says:

        No, I’m from the Midwest. After reading Ben’s post a second time, I don’t think anything I wrote contradicts anything he wrote. He just wrote that the Aussie caught/court vowel was different from the American vowel in court, he didn’t write that they weren’t close to each other (although I’m sure there is variation in the pronunciation of both vowels).

        • Ellen K. says:

          What part of the Midwest? The Northern Cities vowel shift makes “the Midwest” meaningless as far as what kind of American English one speaks.

      • Damian says:

        AFAICT, the vowel in “court” is pretty much the same throughout the entire Midwest. It may vary more in other parts of the country though. I personally don’t think the NCVS makes saying “Midwest” completely meaningless when talking about what accent one has. The accents of the gigantic region have some general similarities with each other.

        • Ellen K. says:

          It’s a pretty significant language change that affects part of, but not all of, the Midwest.

    • Dave says:

      Australians use the same sound in court and caught as they would at the beginning of the word “awning” or in the word “lawn” (and it probably sounds closer to that sound in many US dialects aswell). If it still sounds similar then maybe you are on the right track.

  3. Patrick says:

    I didn’t get the pun at all, and I’m a native Londoner who pronounces “caught” and “court” identically. The reduction of “in the” to “ney” was a step to far, I think even if I was speaking very quickly I wouldn’t lose the syllable and “th”. I’d be interested to hear whether other caught-court merged Brits got it.

    I’ve often heard it said that the Aussies, more than anyone else, lose syllables and merge words together. I once heard an Aussie say: “In America, ‘Australia’ has 5 or 6 syllables: ‘Aus-a-ta-ra-li-a’ In Australia, it has only one: ‘Straya’ “

  4. Deborah says:

    Eeyore is a pun? As an American, I would have never guessed that.

    Can you explain a bit more? The Wikipedia entry you link to doesn’t mention the pun, unless I missed it somehow.

  5. Dianne says:

    Eeyore is the sound a donkey makes, “Eeee-awwww.”

    • Deborah says:

      Dianne, that’s what I suspected, but I couldn’t quite believe it. The sounds are just so vastly different than my pronunciation of the name Eeyore (apart from the Eeee part, of course).

      Since I’ve started reading language and dialect blogs, I’ve just been really overwhelmed all over again by the differences between rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciation. I mean, it’s obvious, and yet I feel like our brains compensate for it, translating from the pronunciation we’re not accustomed to to the one we are when we encounter a speaker across the rhotic/non-rhotic divide. Like I’ve started to realize that when I sing along to music by British singers, I pronounce the words rhotically automatically, even though I’m trying to match other details of cadence and accent automatically. It’s like I’m seeing the words spelled out and pronouncing them accordingly, and not even conscious of the vast difference between my pronunciation and the singers.

      An example of something similar: I was in a packed, slow-moving elevator yesterday and an old man, American, started chatting with a little boy and his mother, who I’d guess were Australian. He asked, “What’s your name?” The mother replied something I’d transliterate as /kew-pah/ to my ears (sorry I can’t write that in IPA). The guy didn’t miss a beat, but said, “Hi, Cooper” (pronouncing the r). I was just amazed at his ability to hear /kew-pah/, run through the database of possible names in his mind through nearly instantaneous data mining and pattern recognition, and translate the ah to an errr, and figure out the little kid’s name. And the kid, hearing his Mom say /kew-pah/ and this man say /ku-per/ recognized both as his name.

      I realize these things are totally obvious to linguists, but to a non-linguist like me who’s interested in the imponderabilia of everyday life, it’s really striking.

      • Moonfriend says:

        As an Australian, let me explain please why Cooper instantly understood the rhotic accent in the lift.

        Australian television and pop culture are so awash with rhotic US accents that it would be inconceivable that a young kid could NOT instantly understand a rhotic accent. In fact, when kids try to imitate TV accents, they over-compensate by adding Rs to words that end in vowels, like /pander/ for panda.

  6. Tony says:

    I have a friend called Anne Dew (really!). Would an American realise why we find her name hilarious?

    • Graham says:

      Most of us would call her “Anne Doo” (which some might also find funny), which doesn’t sound like “and you?”, if that’s the joke. Or is the joke that her name sounds exactly like “Jew”? Either way I don’t think most Americans would get it.

  7. Pingback: Australian Broad-A | Dialect Blog