Julie Sedivy

Website: http://www.juliesedivy.com/

I'm a cognitive scientist and writer, entirely smitten with language. I hold an adjunct appointment in Psychology and in Linguistics, Languages & Cultures at the University of Calgary, where I can be found teaching the occasional course. I'm the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and have recently published a psycholinguistics textbook titled Language in Mind. I sporadically spend time on Twitter as @soldonlanguage.

Posts by Julie Sedivy:

    Bathroom ambiguity

    Any self-respecting copywriter has a decent mastery of ambiguity. It’s a staple of advertising, but it takes some skill. It’s not that ambiguous language is difficult to find or construct—on the contrary, it would be no easy task to avoid using language that contains potential ambiguity. The trick is to use ambiguous language in such a way that a) the audience becomes aware of the ambiguity, perhaps at a specific, crucial moment in viewing the ad, and b) the two meanings rub against each other in a stimulating manner.

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    I've forgotten more Czech than Barbara Partee has learned

    One of the most memorable trips of my life took place in 1994 and involved traveling as a graduate student to Prague in the company of some of the most formidable linguists of North America and Europe. It was my first return to the country of my birth since I’d left Czechoslovakia as a small child in 1969—given that my family had emigrated illegally, virtually Sound of Music style, a visit back wasn’t possible until after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

    Barbara Partee, who had spent a good deal of time in Prague, served as our tour guide. I was impressed with her fluency in Czech and charmed by her accent. I’d never heard Czech spoken with an American accent before, but it sounded exactly as I would have imagined it. My own Czech was in ruins. Like many immigrants, I’d learned my heritage language as a child within rather constrained domestic spheres and had never used it to negotiate cab fare or discuss existential concerns, let alone describe my professional activities. But the first time I shyly dusted it off and uttered a few sentences, protesting that I had forgotten the entire language, Barbara turned to me with perhaps a tinge of envy and exclaimed, “You’ve probably forgotten more Czech than I’ve spent years learning! And, there’s still a lot left.”

    As it turns out, a language is rarely truly forgotten, merely submerged.

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    So much to read, so little time

    This ubiquitous regret has long provided fodder for commercial exploitation—since the 1960s, speed reading courses have been marketed with promises to double or quadruple the rates at which text can be absorbed and understood. More recently, a number of speed reading apps for mobile devices have been released (e.g. Velocity, QuickReader, Acceleread), promising “superhuman” reading speeds that will “accelerate your learning potential” and help you “keep up with the web, blogs, twitter and e-mail.” (Now, if they could only invent an app for quadrupling the speed of answering e-mails, or writing Language Log posts, or thinking about what I’ve just read, that would truly increase my productivity.)

    Of all these apps, the recently launched product Spritz offers the most specific pseudo-scientific hype as part of its marketing (their website offers a page soberly titled “The Science”). Since the stated rationalization for the app sounds plausible, at least to the point of managing to impress a number of smart, generally skeptical people who’ve sent me queries about it, it’s worth subjecting it to some psycholinguistic scrutiny.

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    Torrential language politics in the forecast for Quebec

    In Canada, an early election can be called by the leader of the ruling party, and naturally, this power is often wielded for strategic purposes. And so, Quebec premier Pauline Marois, elected to office a mere eighteen months ago, has called for a general election to be held on April 7. Marois leads the Parti Quebecois, which took power in September 2012 with a minority government, and is now gunning for a majority. This would allow the PQ to pass several controversial pieces of legislation that have met resistance by the opposition parties. One of these is Bill 14, which proposes additional restrictions on English-language education and the use of English in the workplace. Language politics are sure to be in the foreground during the election campaign, and if the PQ is re-elected with a majority, for the foreseeable future.

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    One fracking word or another

    I live in Alberta, where the oil and gas industry takes up a good chunk of daily media coverage. Since I sometimes get asked to comment on the persuasive effects of various wording choices by politicians or companies, I was especially interested to come across claims of evidence that public opposition to the method of natural gas extraction known as fracking might be bolstered by its problematic name. (Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, and the process involves injecting a highly pressurized fluid underground to create fractures in rock layers to release gas.) The finding originates from a survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, which, as stated in the report, was designed to investigate the following:

    It was hypothesized by the Public Policy Research Lab that the actual word "Fracking" may have a negative connotation that is separate from the environmental concerns that often accompany discussions of the process. Due to the harsh consonant sounds in the word itself, and an undeniable similarity to a certain other four letter word starting with the letter "F", it seemed plausible that some of the negative public sentiment about "Fracking" may result from how unpleasant the word itself sounds.

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    Much ado about Montreal greetings

    I spent much of the past couple of weeks back in my childhood city of Montreal. It was an eventful time. Thousands of student demonstrators marched past the restaurant where I was having dinner, banging on pots and pans. The partial remains of a dismembered Chinese student were found not far from where my brother now lives. And scores of shopkeepers in downtown Montreal greeted their customers like this: "Bonjour, Hi."

    This last development was reported by the Office Québécois de la langue française—this is the body charged with overseeing Quebec's language laws, not-so-affectionately referred to by many English Canadians as the "language gestapo". In a study released on June 1, the OQLF noted that while compliance with signage laws have increased over the past two years, there were concerns about how customers were being greeted. Evidently, in downtown Montreal, unilingual French greetings are in decline, from 89% in 2010 to 74% in 2012. More shopkeepers are initiating an exchange in English only, up from 10% to 13%. And bilingual greetings—"bonjour/hi"—have risen quite sharply, up from 1% to 13%.

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    Coolly rational in a second language

    Boaz Keysar, Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An published an intriguing paper last month in Psychological Science in which they found that several different groups of bilinguals were more immune to common cognitive biases when making decisions in their second languages than in their native tongues. The paper has received a fair bit of attention in blogs and the media. I've added my own commentary in this post over at Discover Magazine, expanding on two plausible explanations for the effect that are alluded to in the original paper. Feel free to toss your comments in the hat over there, but I'll keep the comments open here as well for those who are in the mood for a more Language Loggy discussion.

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    Shades of gray of shocking lingo

    I'm glad I'm not in the business of setting rules for the use of taboo language in film or broadcasting. I'd be tearing out my bleeping hair trying to articulate some non-abitrary, empirically defensible set of standards.

    The difficulties are highlighted in a blog post for The Telegraph by Brendan O'Neill (5/25/2012). Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t. O'Neill writes:

    If, as in Ken Loach's new movie The Angels' Share, the characters in a film say that word in an "aggressive" fashion, then the film will be stamped with an 18 certificate. But if they were to utter the c-word in a "non-aggressive" fashion, then the film could be granted a more lenient, box office-friendly 15 certificate. So Loach, whose new film is based in Glasgow, where the c-word abounds, has been forced to excise the more aggressive uses of the word in order for his film to be a 15. He is rightly annoyed that he has effectively been forced to censor "a word that goes back to Chaucer's time".

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    Once a blind activist, always a blind activist

    Alan Greenblatt of NPR wonders why news outlets insist on continuing to draw attention to the blindness of Chen Guangchen, the Chinese activist who recently escaped house arrest and who has been at the center of international attention this past week.

    Greenblatt writes (NPR online; 5/4/2012):

    Chen has been repeatedly referred to as "the blind activist" or "the blind activist lawyer" by news outlets such as The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Washington Post. The Economist's current cover story is headlined "Blind Justice."

    On Wednesday, NPR decided not to label Chen a "blind activist"….

    Descriptions of Chen as blind may have stuck in part because of the way he burst into broad Western consciousness last week—not through his longstanding campaign against China's one-child policy, but by escaping house arrest and trekking 300 miles to Beijing. The fact that he is blind made the story that much more dramatic.

    "We're sticking with 'blind' because Chen's name might not be familiar to readers, but they may be aware that there's a 'blind activist' in trouble," says Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy.

    But it doesn't seem like a useful shorthand to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, and regular contributor to NPR's Fresh Air.

    "It was relevant, obviously, in reference to his escape," Nunberg says, "but the continued use implies a relevance that just isn't there. I don't think it's a 'PC' thing – the point would be the same if he were, for example, 6′7″."

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    Alberta politics and the language of consensus

    Elections in the Canadian province of Alberta where I live don't usually get much attention outside of its borders—or within, for that matter. As political pundits are often fond of saying, Albertans don't so much elect parties as anoint political dynasties: prior to last week's election, for example, the Progressive Conservative Party had ruled the province for 41 years, unmolested by much in the way of formal opposition or civic dissent. Where other regions tend to see a back-and-forth tug of war between parties, the pattern in Alberta has been to let a ruling party hunker down for decades, and topple it periodically in a mass voter stampede to a new, untested party which is then allowed to sit in power for another few decades.

    But last week's election attracted a great deal of attention across Canada because it looked as if it would provoke one of those rare topplings of an Albertan dynasty. The challenger was the young Wildrose Party, whose meteoric rise on the political scene could be attributed to its charismatic leader Danielle Smith, to general disgruntlement over the PC Party's handling of health care and various ethical issues, and to the Wildrose's having poached several members of the governing party.

    As always during an election, I keep an ear out for how language is being used. In this one, it turned out that the tussle over political rhetoric was as interesting as the struggle over the levers of power.

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    Words that blow your legs off

    We've had discussions here lately about whether certain bits of sound coming out of Rick Santorum's mouth are to be taken as evidence of his bigotry ("Blah people", 1/6/12; "The return of 'Blah people'"?, 3/30/12). Santorum's position has been that certain racially-loaded gaffes were merely inadvertent slips of the tongue that reveal nothing about what he intended to communicate. Whenever there's a debate like this, in which the speaker disavows intent for certain utterances, two questions come up:

    1) Did the speaker really intend to say what he said, and is only now back-pedaling to avoid the consequences?
    2) Even if he didn't intend it, does the slip say something meaningful about his inner thoughts and attitudes?

    Many people believe that unintended slips do reveal something about a person's hidden beliefs, taking a Freudian view of speech errors, though there's actually no evidence that this is true. I've used Santorum's most recent slip (in which he uttered the syllable "nig" while launching into criticisms of Barack Obama) as an opportunity to give a short lesson on speech errors over at Discover Magazine's blog, The Crux.

    But the discussions here on Language Log have mostly dealt with Question 1, the issue of intent. So I'd like to say something more about that.

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    Death by Balzac

    Last week, I came across what I thought was an artful headline in my local paper (Calgary Herald; 03/21/1012):

    Police looking into death by Balzac

    What reader wouldn't be lured into dipping further into this article, into wondering what human tragedy or comedy awaits in the finer print? Are we to be treated to the investigation of a lurid, long-unsolved murder committed by one of the fathers of literary realism? A horrible accident involving a tome flung from a high-rise balcony? Someone suffering an asthma attack after reading a suffocating passage of nineteenth-century French prose?

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    Replication Rumble

    In other non-replication news lately: There's been a pretty kerfuffle this month in social psychology and science blogging corners over a recent failure to replicate a classic 1996 study of automatic priming by John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows. The non-replication drew the attention of science writer Ed Yong who blogged about it over at Discover, and naturally, of John Bargh, who elected to write a detailed and distinctly piqued rebuttal at Psychology Today.

    The original paper reported three experiments; the one that's the target of controversy used a task in which subjects unscramble lists of words and isolate one word in the list that doesn't fit into the resulting sentence. The Bargh et al. study showed that when the experimental materials contained words that were associated with stereotypes of the elderly (e.g. Floridabingograycautious), subjects walked more slowly down the hall upon leaving the lab compared to subjects who saw only neutral words. The result has been energetically cited, and has played no small role in spawning a swarm of experiments documenting various ways in which behavior can be impacted by situational or subliminal primes. The authors explained their findings by suggesting that when the concept of a social stereotype is activated (e.g. via word primes), this can prompt behaviors that are associated with that stereotype (e.g. slow walking).

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