My instinct is to assume Help me understand the pronounced phrase? must be Off Topic (it's about a movie clip where the OP can't discern what's being said at a certain point).

If it's On Topic, what's to stop ELU being swamped with similar questions from non-native speakers? Or anyone who can't make out the words in an old movie without subtitles?

I haven't Close-Voted, because I don't know what reason to cite. Is there one, or am I just wrong?


I cannot see any way in which it could possibly fall within the site's current purview to act as a transcription service for random video clips, so I voted to close and put in a custom "we are not a transcription service" reason.

The question is supposedly about pronunciation, but it's not about what variations of pronunciation are available or how have the pronunciations developed and shifted over time or some other aspect. Basically, to my mind, the topic of "pronunciation" is about "How do you say"; "What did he say?" doesn't make the cut.

Also, the question is completely unhelpful to any other person besides the original asker. (Unless there's some sort of video-clip-search capability that I'm unaware of, and even then I don't see it getting any traffic here.)

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    I certainly don't disagree with any of this. I cite similar user-defined CV reasons myself, but sometimes someone will question whether my reason is valid. But so far as I know the FAQ says nothing about ELU not being a transcription service, and I'm far from convinced every such question has always been closed. – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 17:22
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    @FumbleFingers, the short answer, apropros of ongoing discussions here on Meta, is it is a very basic question from a non-fluent user which is quite likely to be uninteresting to "English linguists, etymologists, and serious enthusiasts". It should be closed for that reason, even if there isn't a specific resource in our "General Reference" catalog which would answer the question directly (which there simply can't be, almost by definition). In other words, the question, if it belongs on SE at all, belongs on ELL. Please note: all that said I actually did answer it, in a comment – Dan Bron Nov 19 '14 at 17:31
  • @Dan: I was obviously still listening to the clip while you were transcribing it in a comment, otherwise I'd have done the same myself. But I'm not even a linguist in any meaningful sense of the word, and I certainly don't know enough about other languages to know why certain non-native speakers might have extreme difficulty "decoding" certain sounds (esp., in certain combinations). So I'm not qualified to say which if any such sounds/combinations might be of interest to them. And people will definitely complain if I CV because a question isn't interesting to me personally. – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 18:27
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    @FumbleFingers Please multiple the number of YouTube videos in English by the number of human beings learning English, and then explain why ELU should service all those requests. It would be ruinous and stupid. Just as we are not a translation service, we are not a transcription service. – tchrist Nov 19 '14 at 23:35
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    @tchrist: I effectively said as much in the question itself. I'm prepared to be overruled as regards my "instinct to assume such questions are OT", but I'd rather be given an unassailable justification here on meta (or failing that, perhaps we could campaign for the FAQ to be amended to explicitly debar "I can't hear the words" questions). It seems like a bit of a cop-out to just say "ELU is not a [whatever] service", since that's clearly not true for some values of [whatever]. – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 23:43

This post was recently referred to in a comment on a similar kind of question, and since I hadn't answered then, I thought I would do so now.

The trouble with posted audio or video clips is that asking "What is this person saying?" is unlikely to be helpful to future visitors. Even if it were, it would be nearly impossible for future visitors to find. Also, asking what word a person is saying is not really to do with English Language & Usage so much as it is to do with listening comprehension, which could apply to any language.

I agree with phenry that our guidelines could be altered to make this clearer. I also think

  1. it is acceptable to post links in our chat room asking for help hearing words in context.
  2. it is acceptable to ask a question on Main about particular pronunciations and dialects (for instance) and to include audio/video links as appropriate for support.

I would have picked the "too localized" reason for this, but... it seems like it no longer exists. StackOverflow replaced it with more specific reasons to make the close reasons more useful, but I think in principle it's still a valid reason to close questions.

If this happens often enough, I suppose we could add a "we are not a transcription/translation service" to the close vote reasons. In the mean time, I would use "other".

Either way, it seems far afield from things that would be of interest to "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts" so I would have no compunctions about closing it. We could update the FAQ, but really - that's not meant to be all-inclusive about what you can and can't ask, is it?


This is why I get irked at the backasswards approach toward statutory interpretation that people have around here.

Pronunciation questions are explicitly on topic here. They are. They just are. Nowhere in the Help Center do we say that that does not include requests for help interpreting a word in an audio or video clip. A user could read every word of every help page—could do every single thing we ask new users to do—and see no indication anywhere that questions about identifying words in audio clips are off topic here. The very least we should do is give good-faith users who read the rules and make every effort to conscientiously follow them a fighting chance to get it right.

If someone wants to modify the guidelines to specify that questions about interpreting audio are off-topic, they'll have my support. Really! I have no great love for such questions, and they're much closer to ELL's core competencies than they are to ours. Let's do it today! But to ex post facto close-vote a question as "off-topic" just because one doesn't happen to "like" it, when the question itself clearly falls within the published guidelines, is not only wrong, it is rude, unhelpful to both new and longtime users, and, in my opinion, profoundly unethical.

FumbleFingers, this rant is not directed at you. Raising this question at Meta is absolutely the right way to handle this, and I applaud you for doing it. I'm just a bit on edge this week about the arbitrary and capricious way we apply our own guidelines. It's not fair, it makes it utterly impossible for even experienced users to figure out just what the hell they're supposed to be doing here, and—when aimed at non-fluent speakers of English, as it so often is—it can come really uncomfortably close to being racist. And I'm goddamned sick of it.

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    Actually, what's on-topic is: " Pronunciation (phonetics and phonology, dialectology)", which looks to me like those three branches specifically are okay, and other things are suspect at best. And I don't see how "what did he say?" fits into any of those. (I'm happy to agree that we could be a bit more clear and explicit about what's on- or off-topic, though.) – Hellion Nov 19 '14 at 19:33
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    I do, however, find @Fumblefingers' implied question ("why do some non-native speakers have extreme difficulty 'decoding' certain sounds (esp., in certain combinations?") to be interesting and quite possibly a good topic either here or at linguistics. – Hellion Nov 19 '14 at 19:35
  • @Hellion: I think that perspective has come up a few times on English Language Learners. For reasons I can't precisely articulate, as yet I've no problem with audio clips being the basis of questions on ELL. I don't understand the downvote here (not yours, I assume), but I do think we're exposed to the danger of seeming "racist" when people ask things here that should more properly be asked on ELL. – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 19:40
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    Sure, pronunciation is on topic: how one pronounces a certain word in a given dialect (the standard version is genref). But that's a generic question. Asking what someone else's utterance transcribes to is way too localized. We'd be here all day explaining things to the hard of hearing and learners. – Mitch Nov 19 '14 at 19:57
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    +1 for "modify the guidelines." I think the guideline "Criticism, discussion, and analysis of English literature [are off-topic]" could be modified to include transcription and the spoken word (like lyrics). – user39720 Nov 19 '14 at 22:05
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    @phenry, I added this bit to my answer: Basically, to my mind, the topic of "pronunciation" is about "How do you say"; "What did he say?" doesn't make the cut. – Hellion Nov 19 '14 at 23:23
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    (And I really don't see how that makes me unethical or racist.) – Hellion Nov 19 '14 at 23:24
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    Once again we have a case where there could be INFINITELY MANY “hey, I couldn’t understand this clip, what did it say?” questions. This is a recipe for site-destruction, because it helps no one else in the future. It is completely too localized. – tchrist Nov 19 '14 at 23:34
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    @tchrist: Personally, I'd like to see "Too Localised" revived here on ELU - but I assume TPTB had their reasons for killing it off, so I doubt we'd have much luck there. Besides, no matter how "localised" a question is, there always seem to be people who disagree with the categorization in any specific case. – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 23:50
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    @FumbleFingers - "Too localized" was always a stupid name for it anyway. If it had been called "too narrow" it might still be with us. – phenry Nov 20 '14 at 0:04
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    Deciphering an audio recording is just another form of proofreading. "Please tell me if these sentences are correct?" vs "Please tell me what the person is saying." It's not really pronunciation, is it. Very often it's a learner not being able to understand connected speech. – Mari-Lou A Nov 20 '14 at 0:04
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    @Mari-LouA I agree. But then some are allowed, provided they're specific or short. Here, OP wants to know the rest of Alarick's thought in a given clip, which is short enough to be answered in a comment and almost specific (OP didn't give guess). If audio proofreading is different than textual, it's good to say so in FAQ. – user39720 Nov 20 '14 at 0:43

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