Solution: Phone Booth

Written by aki

In this puzzle, we are presented with a video, each segment of which consists of a question being asked, an image and an enumeration for a two-word phrase. Further, we notice that the words “shaken” and “phone” in the flavortext could clue us to rearrangements of phonemes. There are a couple ins to the phrases, such as QUEEN'S CUISINE and STAY LACED, but eventually we notice that for every punny phrase, the second word is made up of a rearrangement of the phonemes in the first word, with an additional phoneme.

Question Enum Image Phrase Word 1 IPA Word 2 IPA Extra phoneme
What type of mollusk is farmed from an area of poverty? (4 6) Farmed mussels SLUM MUSSEL /slʌm/ /mʌsəl/ ə
What happens when a fraction is put together into base 10? (7 9) Long division from a fraction, arrow pointing to the number DECIMAL ASSEMBLED /desəməl/ /əsembəld/ b
What do you hope your shoes will do while running? (4 5) Running shoes with laces STAY LACED /steɪ/ /leɪst/ l
What boring thing would you delete immediately? (4 5) "Move to trash" button image LAME EMAIL /leɪm/ /imeɪl/ i
What type of fiasco can be heard? (7 7) Fiasco with people shouting AUDIBLE DEBACLE /ɑdɪbəl/ /dɪbɑkəl/ k
What is a photon? (7 8) Light beam with a photon inside the beam OPTICAL PARTICLE /ɑptɪkəl/ /pɑɹtɪkəl/ ɹ
What type of food is fit for royalty? (5'1 7) Queen Elizabeth eating QUEEN'S CUISINE /kwinz/ /kwɪzin/ ɪ
What feeling do you get when waiting to hear the result of a demographic poll? (6 8) Anxious crowd CENSUS SUSPENSE /sensəs/ /səspens/ p
What would a story of hardship endured by a fish be called? (4'1 7) John Dory DORY'S ORDEALS /dɔɹiz/ /ɔɹdilz/ l
What would a new form of an element discovered by a bard be called? (4'1 7) Atom on an old scroll POET'S ISOTOPE /poʊəts/ /aɪsətoʊp/
What do you call a weather event with clever questions falling from the sky? (6 7) Question marks falling down from above RIDDLE DRIZZLE /ɹɪdəl/ /dɹɪzəl/ z

Putting the phonemes together, we obtain /əblik ɹɪplaɪz/, which is the pronounciation for the answer, OBLIQUE REPLIES, which is also what solvers had to give to answer the strange questions asked in the video!

Author's Notes

My favorite punny answers from this puzzle are probably OPTICAL PARTICLE and RIDDLE DRIZZLE. Between the surveys and what we've read, there didn't seem to be a clear winner for which punny answer was the favorite – let us know which yours was!

I learned a lot from trying to write a phonetics-related puzzle. For anyone interested, here my “dear diary” of writing this puzzle. (Warning: short essay incoming.)

  1. Writing an uncheesable phonetics puzzle is really hard, because English is itself a phonetic language! An initial version of this puzzle had solvers fill in phonetic symbols into a web, but it had to be scrapped because solvers could easily fill in letters or letter pairs into each cell, which would skip over the entire point of the puzzle.
  2. One major difference between puzzles that use spelling versus pronounciation is that phonetics puzzles tend to be marred by consistency issues with various dialects and countries. Unlike spelling for which there is a standard spelling of every word (given that most hunts use US spelling as a convention), there is no universal pronounciation of words. In fact, people pronounce words differently even within the US! Heck, even the various online dictionaries (I referenced Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary) do not agree between themselves on the US pronounciations for some of these words!
  3. Related to the previous point, I do not believe consonants actually vary that much over pronounciations across the world. The key issue is with vowel sounds. Generally, some liberties can be taken with the height or depth of vowel sounds used in the pronounciation of words, which I did use in constructing this puzzle. This made clues that extracted to consonant sounds much easier to write as compared to vowel sounds, as a missing consonant is much more obvious to spot than a specific missing vowel sound. However, this also meant that a lot more attention had to be paid to clues that extract to vowels, so that the vowels used in those word pairs were distinct enough that the correct additional vowel was extracted. I also tried think of the sounds in relation to each other (say, whether the “O” in “OBLIQUE” would be pronounced the same way as the “E” in “MUSSEL”, regardless of the actual phoneme they use). That also turned out to be... hard to guess.
  4. I started off by using the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary, which was used in the construction of Phone Lines (from GPH 2019). While it is great to use as a baseline reference to computationally look through the pronounciation of word pairs to find what you want, it is limited in that it does not use all of the ARPABET phonemes. For instance, AX is not used, and thus all the /ə/ sounds were denoted as AA /ɑ/ or AE /æ/ sounds instead, which sometimes is clearly incorrect. Thus, some sanity-checking is in order when using this database.
  5. Finally, there is a design choice to be made when using IPA regarding whether to treat dipthongs as a single phoneme or not (for instance, /oʊ/ and /aɪ/ for vowels, and /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ for consonants). In this puzzle, I opted to treat them as a single phoneme, for consistency with solvers that may have tried to use ARPABET. However, I don't think there is a true “correct answer”.

Barring points 1 and 2, I do agree with what the author of Phone Lines wrote in their notes –

Given the ease that letter-based wordplay mechanics can be adapted to work on phonemes, I think this kind of puzzle type has a huge amount of relatively unexplored potential.