Solutions for Act IV Scene 2 - Mouthy

The most approachable part of this puzzle is probably the bottom third, showing many words that look and/or sound similar. It's safe to assume that with the inclusion of a grid and compass elsewhere in the puzzle, we are expected to navigate the chart using the similarity of the words somehow.

The compass's expressions seem to imply different ways of speaking, especially the "when at a library" command which can only really indicate whispering. Promisingly, some of the words in the list below sound like others when whispered - for example "BAD" when whispered becomes "PAT". This observation helps identify the other four compass directions, leading to the assignment:

  • North: "when reprimanded" = "hold your tongue"
  • East: "when at a library" = "whisper"
  • South: "when something's fishy" = "hold your nose"
  • West: "when flippant" = "tongue-in-cheek"

Each of these ways of speaking can convert certain words into others, via a well-defined change in consonant sounds. In particular, whispering turns voiced consonants into voiceless consonants (B→P; D→T; G→K; TH→th; V→F; Z→S; JH→SH), holding one's nose turns nasalised consonants into their un-nasalised equivalents (M→B; N→D; Ng→G), holding one's tongue turns many consonants into their dental or alveolar equivalents (B→D; P→T; M→N; R→L; Y→N; S,SH,F→th; Z,JH,V→TH), and keeping one's tongue in one's cheek turns some consonants into their velar or otherwise retracted equivalents (T→K; D→G; N→Ng; L,R→W; S,Z,SH,JH,TH,th→H).

Using these rules, we can define several paths from each starting point on the grid. For example, from MAN, moving south (holding your nose while saying "MAN") leads to a cell for BAD to occupy. Going east from here then would turn BAD to PAT via whispering, whereas going west would turn BAD to BAG via keeping your tongue lodged in one cheek.

Here is a quick summary of all available word transformations:

  • hold your tongue: BAD → DAD; GUM → GUN; MEET → NEAT; PORK → TORQUE
  • hold your nose: DUMB → DUB; MAN → BAD; MARGE → BARGE; MEET → BEET; MOURN → BOARD; WING → WIG
  • tongue in cheek: BAD → BAG; BOARD → BORG; DUMB → GUM; PORT → PORK; RING → WING

Ultimately the following positions should be determined for each word:

What we have not yet used is the shape of the grid itself. Any budding linguist should have already recognised it, but those who had not likely came across it while researching these sound changes - the grid is mimicking the IPA symbol chart, and the greyed-out sections specifically reference the official chart (notably not always the same as every instance that appears on places like Wikipedia, unfortunately). Superimposed on the grid is a copy of the IPA vowel chart as well, meaning grid cells could be indicating either their corresponding consonant or vowel.

What remains is to use the coloured numbers associated with some of the words we have now placed in the grid. Taking the sound associated with the red 1, then the red 2, and then the red 3 map to the IPA characters ʃaɪ which sound out the word "shy". In almost all cases the cell to extract from houses only one common English consonant/vowel, allowing any ambiguities (namely the BOARD/PORK cell standing for ʃ or ɜ) to be quickly resolved. Following similarly for the colours orange, yellow, green, and blue gives:

  • ʃaɪ = "shy"
  • tʃiz = "cheese"
  • ɒnə = "honour"
  • ɹɔθ = "wrath"
  • eɪdʒ = "age"

The first letter of each word is noticeably different from its first sound as transcribed in IPA, and pleasingly taking these initials together spells schwa, the most common, featureless vowel represented by the IPA as ə.

Design notes:
I had always been interested in writing a linguistic puzzle, but at the same time reluctant to write anything revolving around how people pronounce words considering how much of a minefield such an area can be (it's telling that no matter what the answer, no cryptic clue involving homophone elements will ever avoid the ire of some solver). That each sound-affecting rule could be somewhat rigorously described was at least comforting, but I'm sure many solvers will be disappointed by some of the assumptions made nonetheless. Unfortunately there just wasn't enough time to workshop this puzzle further and ensure the sound changes were as robust as possible.

Speaking of time limitations, the original plan for this puzzle was to have far fewer separate chains of words, and to allow for compound compass directions using alternative rules such as keeping your tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth ("when enjoying peanut butter") or simulating teethlessness. Ultimately these features were deemed too confusing or ill-defined. The words were originally provided as pictures instead, which made the list less boring, but also far more open to interpretation, which was already going to be a problematic factor when it came to pronunciation.

Just before puzzle release, an error was spotted in one of the longer chains which couldn't be resolved, eventuating in the two noticeably shorter RING and MARGE chains. The chain MARGE→(S)→BARGE→(E)→PARCH originally went out as MADGE→(S)→BADGE→(E)→BATCH, when BATCH should have in fact been PATCH under the whispering rule (ironically reproducing the error the original longer chain was replaced for). When a team kindly pointed this out to us, we realised PATCH was then too close to the word PAT to be allowed to appear in the same list, leading to the MARGE/PARCH adjustment.

In the end I'm not convinced this puzzle idea got the best treatment it deserved, but hope people still had fun trying to say everyday words in ridiculous ways even if the unusual mechanics ultimately stumped them.

The answer is: schwa