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I'm watching a movie at the moment and I came across something that I've always found strange in the English language.

In some questions, mostly something like "What does he look like?", the does is pronounced is, so it sounds like "What is he look like?".

EDIT: The example from the movie Click here

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marked as duplicate by MετάEd, kiamlaluno, Matt Эллен, tchrist, FumbleFingers Apr 24 '13 at 13:07

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3 Answers 3

This is a combination of two phonetic effects. First, final /t/ and initial /d/ often merge into a tap [ɾ] when the second word is unstressed. You probably know this sound from the general American pronunciation of “city” [sɪɾi].

Second, because of the weak vowel merger in many accents, is and does can have the same vowel, freely varying in pronunciation between schwa /ə/ and short I /ɪ/.

The net effect is that “what does” can be pronounced [wʌɾɪz], and be differentiated from “what is” only by context. Luckily, the two phrases are used differently, so in practice it’s easy to know what was meant.

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Also for what has, as in “What’s he done now?” –  tchrist Apr 21 '13 at 18:54
    
Would it be correct to write so too? Use is instead of does? –  camelbrush Apr 22 '13 at 1:12
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@camelbrush You could write it as "what's" in informal register, but not as "what is". –  Zack Apr 22 '13 at 2:14
    
@Zack can you please quote a source/resource that depicts using what's acceptable over what does ? –  camelbrush Apr 22 '13 at 2:22
    
Thank you for your explanation. Yes, I've never found it to be difficult to differentiate between the two meaning, but it was a bit irritating and that's why I asked. Thanks again for this very scientific answer ;) –  Michael Apr 22 '13 at 12:22
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What’s is probably what you heard. This can be short for what is but also for what does.

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There's also a two-syllable variant ['wəɾɨz] that represents *either what is or what does, because the /t/ of what is and the /td/ cluster of what does both reduce to [ɾ] between a stressed and an unstressed vowel, like latter/ladder. Clusters in auxiliary verb trains are almost always reduced, since they're predictable and therefore disposable in speech. –  John Lawler Apr 21 '13 at 18:55
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It does sound like "What is..." when that particular group of words is run together and here is why I think that happens. To pronounce "what does" properly, you would need to open your mouth twice, once for the a in what, again for the o in does. There are also two hard consonants, back-to-back between these two vowels. Native speakers will slur together the two words, avoiding the second hard consonant, skipping directly to the "s" of "does", resulting in something that sounds like waduz - which is probably being heard as "what is". (At least that's what happens when I say "what does" quickly.)

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Kristina, I think you're basically right in your description of how and why this happens, but I also think the resulting word quite often actually is said with an "i" sound, like "wudiz." (I knonw I do this myself.) It's not merely "waduz" being misheard. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 22 '13 at 7:57
    
@JohnM.Landsberg, I can reproduce what the OP reported hearing but my transcription is lacking. It's actually somewhere between a short "u" and a short "i" but I think you're right, too. Someone hearing it and trying to ascribe words to it could easily assume "what is" is what was said. –  Kristina Lopez Apr 22 '13 at 10:52
    
Thank for this explanation. I've uploaded the example from the movie here. You'll notice that the subtitles say What does... while the actress clearly says What is.... I'm pretty sure that's the "sluring together" of the two words. Thanks again. –  Michael Apr 22 '13 at 12:20
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