We Finally Have A Name For Scooby Doo’s Speech Disorder

By Kyle Hill | March 11, 2014 10:30 am

Ruh Roh!When I imagine Scooby-Doo, I can almost hear it. I hear the horn-filled chase theme, the pitter-patter of feet scrambling to get away, and, more than anything, I hear the semi-intelligible dialogue of a canine with a speech disorder. Forty-five years after the first airing of the beloved children’s TV show, I decided I had heard my last “ruh oh.”


Don’t have time to read? Listen to the whole article below!


What speech disorder did Scooby Doo actually have, and why doesn’t anyone have it?

The first time you hear Scooby Doo speak, you immediately know something is off. He adds /r/ to the beginnings of most words, and where that doesn’t work he will try to twist whole words into an /r/-sound—like you trying to imitate the sound of an engine turning over. But is there anything wrong with this? That is to say, is there something diagnosable in the way Scooby speaks?

Medical diagnoses can sometimes be blurry—many have hard definitions but others are more general. A “syndrome,” for example, can be the placeholder for a whole suite of symptoms, none of them necessarily understood or required for diagnosis. To properly diagnose Scooby Doo with a speech impediment then, Scooby needs something more readily definable. To find out, I had to ask a speech pathologist a very odd question.

“If a person walked into my office talking like Scooby there’s no question I would diagnose him with a speech sound disorder,” says Dr. Steven Long, associate professor in Marquette University’s Speech Pathology and Audiology department.

Ruh roh!

Diagnosing The Dog

Human speech is complex, and likewise are the ways it can go wrong. But generally, speech sound disorders are separated into two major groups: phonetic and phonological. People with phonetic disorders have trouble physically articulating words. For example, someone with a lisp tends to distort his or her words, being unable to make the necessary mouth and tongue movements. As weird as Scooby’s speech is, it doesn’t seem like he distorts what he says. He must have a phonological speech disorder.

Dr. Long agreed. He told me in an email: “I would refer to [Scooby’s disorder] as a phonological as opposed to a phonetic disorder in that he shows a pattern of substituting and adding sounds in his speech rather than just distorting sounds.”

So in terms of a diagnosis, Scooby doesn’t distort words, he adds onto them. “Uh oh” becomes “ruh roh” and “apple” becomes “rapple.” The technical term for this, Dr. Long told me, is rhotacization. In linguistics and speech pathology, rhotacization means changing some consonant like /d/ or /l/ to an /r/. Though Scooby definitely adds an /r/ to words that don’t begin with consonants, this complete rhotacization still basically describes his speech.

Giving the honors to Dr. Long, after 45 long years of odd pronunciations, he offered me Scooby’s official diagnosis: “Rhotic Replacement”.

Scooby Doo suffers from a newly minted phonological disorder, known as rhotic replacement, but a question lingers: Did the creators of Scooby Doo simply give the dog a playful speech mannerism, or does this disorder actually exist?

The Scooby Sn-Accent

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I asked Dr. Long whether or not Scooby portrayed a disorder already described in the medical literature. Apparently, the affliction is the exclusive problem of talking dogs. “Scooby’s error pattern doesn’t have a specific name, at least not one that we commonly use in clinical practice,” he told me. Children don’t seem to experience anything like this and adults with speech difficulties don’t develop it, even after something like a stroke. This is because Scooby’s rhotic replacement goes deeper than something like a lisp.

“The significance of the diagnosis is that it suggests disorganization at a cognitive-linguistic level as opposed to a purely phonetic problem in which a speaker is unable to produce certain sounds with the necessary oral motor precision,” Dr. Long explained. Maybe it was the constant terror or something toxic in the Scooby Snacks, but in order to mangle speech like Scooby does, something is wrong with the canine neurologically.

In fact, Dr. Long explained to me that what Scooby does is basically unknown among humans. When something is wrong with our speech, we tend to subtract from the complexity of the sounds we try to make, not add to them. For example, American children speaking General American English tend to derhotacize rather than rhotacize their speech like Scooby does, “…resulting in Elmer Fudd-like pronunciations such as his much quoted phrase ‘wascally wabbit’,” Dr. Long told me.

Rhotic replacement appears to be a fascinating disorder with one known patient. No one else seems to have it because Scooby’s brain is uniquely altered—something you probably expect in a dog that talks.

Diagnosing perhaps the most famous dog in history put a bookend on my childhood love for the show, and literally made me say “zoinks!” to myself more than once. Now when I imagine the sounds of Scooby Doo, I hear this: “Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you? You have an appointment with the speech pathologist.”

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Image Credit: Scooby Doo by spadge6868 on Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Rus Archer

    layne staley had the same speech impediment

    • earthtone55

      Bite your tongue. Staley had a lot of problems, but difficulty in pronunciation pretty clearly wasn’t one of them.

      • Rus Archer

        aw
        hearing disorders
        and humor disorders
        byproducts of staley fandom?

    • A Smith

      “Rey come to ruff the rooster”

  • epobirs

    I always thought the formal name should be Latin that translates as ‘being a dog.’ That he speaks at all should be remarkable.

    • righteousreverenddynamite

      Vococanisy?

  • stevedodge833

    In his particular universe where dog-like sentient beings consort with human-like beings have also evolved from lower forms along with apes, Scooby speaks normally. it’s their own reality.

    Dogs normally only went “ruff ruff” in their world long ago as their vocal organs and mouth muscles had evolved to only produce such simple sounds. Later, the “Canite” race evolved further to modern sentient form and learned verbal language for communication, but it turns out that they simply and physically cannot orally produce English words as humans do, every word getting a ruff-ly /rrrr/ sound at the beginning. “Rits rot ran risorder”.

    Ro-kay?

    P.S….Apparently this is also the universe where criminals NEVER win, but might have “if it weren’t for those meddling kids!”…

    • Odin Matanguihan

      But Scrappy doesn’t seem to have the any speech problem.

      • Brian Thomas

        The problem may be related to the size of Scooby and Astro’s dulaps, in which case Scrappy may “grow into” the problem. If, indeed, he grows any – Scooby is the same apparent age he was in 1969.

      • stevedodge833

        I think Scrappy, due to his size, is an experimental Scooby clone that went astray, just like Dr. Evil’s “Mini-Me” (who, by the way, also seems to have speech issues).

  • Freddie

    I don’t think the term “Rhotic Replacement” for what Scooby does is accurate. In fact, he’s not REPLACING the sound; he’s ADDING to it. “Wascally Wabbit” is a true replacement where the correct R sound is replaced by the W. I think a better term for what Scooby does would be “Rhotic Addition”.

    Personal anecdote: though it was many years ago now and the “rhotic replacer” has long since grown out of his early speech disorder, I’ve never forgotten my cousin’s old phone number (or at least the last 4 digits, which was all that mattered in those days on a rural party line). His three-year-old son knew their number off by heart. It was your-your-nine-yix (4496). :)

  • CaptainNed

    We’re really discussing why Scooby couldn’t talk straight?

    Why were he & Shaggy always so damn hungry and why do they now live in Colorado?

  • http://batman-news.com Jim_S

    I always assumed it was because, as a dog, Scooby starts every utterance as if he is going to bark, “ruff!”, and then at the last instant veers off into the word he’s trying to say.

  • disqus_eric

    Could it have anything to do with the shape of his snout?

    And why am I even asking this?

  • W_T_P

    Yeah, well Scooby wasn’t alone. Their dog Astro had a similar impediment. Surely there were others.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcM4sOaXgmI

  • Slumdog Squarepants

    I used to know calculus. It has been replaced with this. I’m cool with that, I suppose. I wasn’t using the calculus anyway and I’ll definitely mention this elsewhere.

  • fidel305

    I thought it was just called Eugene Robinson disease, after the WAPO MSNBC “talking” head

  • Culthbert

    First of all, Scooby is not the sole known example of rhotic replacement. Astro, from the Jetsons, also suffered from this.

    Secondly, I never thought of it as a speech impediment, because dogs aren’t supposed to talk in the first place! Instead of looking at his speech and saying he has a problem, we should be looking at his speech and saying “that’s amazing!”

    • Walker

      Astro and Scooby Doo voiced by the same guy – Don Messick. Too bad we can’t ask him how he came up with the rhotic replacement. He died in 1997…Rooby Roo indeed.

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It has been said that you should try to make a problem as simple as possible, but not simpler. Here, that problem is finding the real science behind pop culture. But Not Simpler is a place where you can ask the questions you thought were too nerdy for real answers. The physics of video games? Sure! The chemistry of dragon breath? Why not? When you can find the realities behind your favorite fiction, and seriously nerd-out in the process, everyone wins. Simple.

About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile Email him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.

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