What Happens If You Say, 'Ice Bank Mice Elf' Really Quickly?

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Robin Burden Profile
Robin Burden answered
If you say the phrase 'Ice Bank Mice Elf' repeatedly, you will end up sounding as if you are saying the phrase, 'I spank myself'.

Whilst this may seem like childish word play, there are actually a number of interesting linguistic reasons why this joke works.

Here's a quick summary:

Why does, 'Ice Bank Mice Elf'' sound like, 'I spank myself'?
The first mechanism that makes this joke work is the production and perception of pauses.

When you're reading words from a page, it's easy to 'see' where the white space between words are, but in spoken language, differentiation can be difficult.

When we talk, our speech is not broken down into rigid structures (even though that's the way it might seem in our head). What we actually do when we're talking is to produce continuous sound, only stopping to breathe.

Because of this, the onset and coda of individual syllables become blurred, similar sounds become amalgamated or indistinguishable, and consonant release and duration can be affected.

All these factors are multiplied during repetition - as the brain becomes more familiar with the sounds of a phrase.

It's a bit like driving a car round the same track over and over: The first time you go round a course you're more likely to pay attention to the twists and turns but, as the route becomes more familiar, you can begin to predict and pre-empt the pattern of the course.

Word play in 'Ice Bank Mice ELf'
The 'ice' in 'ice bank myself' can easily be mistaken for the first syllable in 'I spank', because they are effectively the same sound.

Both are written as /aɪs/ in phonetic transcription.

To add to the confusion, similar sounds also become indistinguishable when you are saying them quickly.

Both /b/ and /p/ are bi-labial plosives, and the only difference between them is that /b/ is voiced.

However, because the /p/ in 'spank' is followed by a (voiced) vowel, it would be difficult to distinguish where the voicing starts at speed.

When phrases sound very similar, our brain often uses pragmatics (or context) to decipher exactly what is being said.

In the example, 'Ice Bank Mice Elf', the four words make no sense joined up together.

If someone were to repeat the phrase to you, your brain would automatically try to 'hear' the words in a different way, to make more sense of them.

This is why you only need to say the phrase, 'Ice Bank Mice Elf' a few times before the joke becomes obvious.

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