WASHINGTON, D.C. — “What?” With this one ironically clear word, the 148th United States Unintelligible Staff Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year (USOTY) Competition effectively came to a close.
The question, asked by Dr. Stuart Kline, this year’s head judge and one of the world’s foremost experts on the USOTY competition, was followed by thunderous applause for the competition’s winner, fan favorite and Caribbean immigrant Chief Petty Officer Guy Prideux.
"Woooooo dasatang! Mwen kantok mehson, nah mee? Sasay ah-we yarr nebbay!" said a smiling Prideux, hoisting the trophy above his head in front of a crowd of his fellow sailors, who glanced around at each other in confusion before shrugging and carrying "Le Chief" off to the club on their shoulders, cheering.
The wildly popular competition is open to all enlisted members of the U.S. military in pay grades of E-6 and above (E-7 and above for the Navy), and recognizes the American staff non-commissioned officer (SNCO) whose speech is the hardest to understand.
The competition originated shortly after the Civil War as the Army's Incomprehensible Sergeant of the Year Award. During the war, many immigrant groups had been drawn into the U.S. military in large numbers for the first time, and original winners were often German, Irish, or Swedish. During the Spanish-American War, future President Theodore Roosevelt witnessed the competition and insisted that it be expanded to include the Navy.
"USOTY represents the intersection of three of the great American experiences," Kline told the Duffel Blog. "Not just defending the nation in the military and rising into the military leadership, but also coming together with fellow Americans over a shared inability to understand someone who can't speak English properly."
"Ogryentastify yinzes fricadan face-ticles tuh dissur fricadan defenestration, RUH?" said and/or asked runner-up Marine Staff Sgt. Nestor Huff of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a low, Cookie Monster growl entirely out of one side of his mouth, pausing periodically to spit into an empty Gatorade bottle.
Huff, a recent arrival from the recruit depot at Parris Island, speaks in a dialect of English unique to the Marine Corps, labeled "Fricadan" by ethnolinguists in 1983, that carried the Corps to numerous USOTY victories in the 80s and early 90s. After some gesturing, it was apparent that Huff wished to demonstrate a blind drill card for media and fans.
The blind drill card is one of the most popular USOTY events, second only to the common names roll call. In it, a platoon is formed, then blindfolded. One of the contenders is then given a card of close order drill commands to call out.
"ah-HROMN hlr-AIIIII-k ... HYAIRS!" Huff shouted. Half of the platoon executed a left face, five a right face, and one an about face. Three saluted, and one stepped off smartly into the rank in front of him, cursing as he crashed down onto the other Marines.
"The command was 'open ranks,'" announced the judge, waving the card triumphantly at the clapping fans.
“It’s hard,” said blind drill platoon member Sgt. Ryan Moss. ”Sometimes 'R' and 'L' sound kind of similar when they’re barking commands, and you can’t just use the number of syllables, because you don’t know if they’re starting by saying ‘platoon’ or just clearing their throat. Who knows how many syllables they'll use anyway?"
Moss continued, "For Marines, 'corporal' can be a two syllable word, 'sergeant' can be one syllable, and we somehow manage to turn ‘left’ into two syllables sometimes. For normal SNCOs, even 'ooh-rah' — which isn't even a fucking word, just a form of grunting — was too long, so they shortened it to 'rah', then they cut THAT down to 'er' half the time."
"Staff Sgt. Huff doesn’t even vocalize it. He just bares his teeth as if he’s making an 'R' sound,” Moss added.
Prideux will now move on to the 93rd International Unintelligible SNCO of the Year competition alongside foreign SNCOs from countries where English is at least one of the official languages, to include French-Canadians, Australians, Irish, Jamaicans, and Filipinos, not to mention two-time champion Colour Sergeant Glyndwr Jones of the United Kingdom's Royal Welsh Regiment.
Though their eligibility to compete was established in 1947, the former British colonies of India and Pakistan consider it a point of pride that they have never sent a single competitor.
Despite being the originators of the competition, the U.S. has failed to capture the international award since the victory of Army Sgt. First Class Nug in 1985. Nug, one of the few Americans to legally hold only a single name, was of indeterminate ancestry. Some believed him to be Micronesian in origin, though Micronesians unanimously declared him unintelligible.
"Nug was incredible," said Kline. "We're still finding things in the footage today. Just last month we learned that Nug's 'F,' the one letter we thought he pronounced properly, wasn't an F at all, but a bilabial fricative, where he held his lips close together and blew through them in a sort of hiss. I'll never forget his performance during the common names roll call event. Nug's pronunciation of Halliway was Koruhvai'i, and his pronunciation of Nguyen had both a click and a whistle. There were immediate accusations of cheating, of course, calling to mind the cotton ball scandal of 1910, but the subsequent inspection found his mouth, nose, and throat to be totally normal."
"Except for the sharpened teeth, which were subsequently banned from competition by 'Nug's Rule,'" Kline added.