Forensic Morphology & Zootopia

One of the motivating factors behind making this blog is that I often have these small observations about linguistic phenomena in song lyrics, movies, whatever, but none of my other social media are really fit for talking about this sort of observation. Twitter is too short to allow me to fully geek out, Tumblr too poorly designed, Facebook too "no one cares." I have no choice but to go Web 1.0 and make... an actual blog.

One of these observations came from the movie "Zootopia," which I may or may not have seen three times.  So our protagonist, the rabbit police officer Judy, sees a fox do something horrible and unbelievable - he walks into an ice cream shop. She gets her little fox pepper spray ready but when she walks in, she sees the fox, named Nick, is actually trying to buy a popsicle for his son but is being refused service by racist (speciesist?) elephants. She buys it for him because she believes she is a paragon of virtue and totally not prejudiced (the racially coded language of Zootopia could be its own post). Later on, she sees him and his "son" melting the red popsicle to make many other smaller popsicles, which he sells to lemming businessmen at a profit. His "son" collects the recycled popsicle sticks and they offer them as lumber to some kind of hamster construction company.

Here's the important part. Since the popsicles were red, the sticks were obviously stained red. The hamster questions this red color. Nick thinks a moment and then claims it's "redwood." A few minutes later, Judy angrily confronts him about his deception and tries to arrest him for health violations. He actually has all his permits in place, so he's done nothing illegal. She then says he committed fraud, by saying he was selling "redwood." He responds "yes, red wood. With a space in the middle. As in 'wood that is red.'" She has no response.

Except if Judy had taken a morphology class, she would've known that he did not, in fact, say "redwood." "Redwood" and "red wood" have different morphological properties which result in their being pronounced differently. "Redwood" is a compound of "red" and "wood." In English, compound words like this are pronounced with just one stress, and here the stress is on redwood. "Red wood," on the other hand, is an adjective modifying a noun. Since they are both independent morphological units, they each get stress. In IPA, we could represent this as ['ɹɛdwʊd] vs ['rɛd 'wʊd]. In other words, Judy was correct that he was committing fraud, and Nick was lying about having said "red wood" as opposed to "redwood."

(Not convinced? Try a different pair, like "blackbird" and "black bird." Notice how in "black bird," bird gets just as much stress as "black" and there's also some sort of prosodic boundary marking that a different word has begun. In "blackbird," "bird" has a lower pitch than "black" and is a bit shorter in duration as well.)

Unfortunately, our heroine does not appear to have ever taken a morphology class, so she can't refute his linguistically unsound argument. A shame, because she even had a pen that can record audio, and she later uses this pen to record his speech and blackmail him into working for her (this time she gets him on tax evasion), so if she had been recording that conversation, this movie could've taken a different turn pretty early. Share Tweet