Archive for Prosody

mmhmm etc.

Kumari Devarajan, "Ready For A Linguistic Controversy? Say 'Mmhmm'", NPR 8/17/20018:

Once upon a time, English speakers didn't say "mmhmm." But Africans did, according to Robert Thompson, an art history professor at Yale University who studies Africa's influence on the Americas.

In a 2008 documentary, Thompson said the word spread from enslaved Africans into Southern black vernacular and from there into Southern white vernacular. He says white Americans used to say "yay" and "yes." […]

Ugo Nwojeki, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, says he "always assumed" that the word was African. Lev Michael, a linguist at the same school, says that "doesn't seem very plausible." Roslyn Burns, a linguist at UCLA, says "it's hard to say."

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Ask Language Log: Prosodic hyphens and italics

From Alex Baumans:

Miss Cayley's Adventures, a delightful novel by Grant Allen from 1899, is about Lois Cayley, who is left penniless after her stepfather dies (actually, she gets tuppence) and sets out to make her way in the world trusting to her wits and luck. She meets an American inventor-entrepeneur who wants her to demonstrate his bicycle in the German military trials.

Why I am sending you this, is the treatment of American English. Grant Allen takes care to give his characters a recognisable voice, with lots of local colour (stereotyping them at the same time, but this is a popular nineteenth-century novel). I am no native speaker nor a specialist in historical dialects of the US, but I can't for the life of me imagine what this is supposed to have sounded like. The hyphens and italics would seem to point towards some peculiar intonation or word-stress. There are 'phonetic' spellings such as 'ketch' or 'jest', and probably some Americanisms, that I no longer recognise as such. It doesn't sound like any variety of American English I'm familiar with. 

So, I thought it might interest you to see what an American sounded like to the British a hundred years ago. Perhaps you have a better idea what this is all about.

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Metered verse in a quiet place

Graeme Orr writes:

In the hit post-apocalyptic movie A Quiet Place there is a touching scene where the mother is home-schooling her son.  He is being drilled in numeracy; but on a whiteboard she has written out the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s "Shall I Compare Thee to A Summer’s Day".  With metrical feet and accents neatly marked.

The entire conceit of the movie is that the world is overrun with bloodthirsty aliens, whose hearing is so acute that to survive one must avoid not only speech but any deliberate noise.  The family has survived, when seemingly no-one else has, because it has an eldest daughter who is deaf.  They not only can communicate (as they must to stand any chance of protection as a group) via sign language, but they are collectively acutely aware of sound, its sources and significance for everyday life.

How, if at all, is it possible to communicate meter in poetry without any sound?  I’m aware there’s an old debate about deaf poets, and the essence of poetry as image rather than music, e.g. John Lee Clark, "Melodies Unheard", 10/30/2005.  In the film, the poem-on-whiteboard is shown twice, in letters so large the audience is deliberately drawn to it.   The tease is surely something more than just ‘Shakespeare, like cockroaches, will survive any apocalypse’.

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PVC 1

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Excessive quadrisyllabicism

Many readers of Language Log will remember the visit of China's former internet censor-in-chief, Lu Wei, to the headquarters of Facebook, Apple, and Amazon in late 2014.  Those were his glory days, but now his star has fallen in a most spectacular fashion:

"China’s ‘tyrannical’ former internet tsar Lu Wei accused of trading power for sex in long list of corruption charges: Lu accused of a range of crimes from abusing power for personal gain to disloyalty", by Frank Tang (SCMP [2/13/18])

"China's former chief of internet regulator expelled from Communist Party" (Reuters [2/13/18)

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Sports chants

There was a big city-wide party last night here in Philadelphia, but the Philadelphia Orchestra, got on board back in early December:

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More on grammar, punctuation, and prosody

From "In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond", 12/17/2017:

We also pay tribute to another tragedy; the murder of John Lennon with jazz covers of several of his tunes.

Prepositional phrases like "with jazz covers of several of his tunes" are multiply ambiguous. Thus with can be comitative ("They rode with Kim") or instrumental ("open the can with a screwdriver") or several other sorts of things; and then there's the question of "attachment", i.e. which part of the preceding material it modifies.

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Recording-stable acoustic proxy measures

Behind yesterday's post about possible cultural differences in conversational loudness ("Ask Language Log: Loud Americans?" 11/25/2017), there's a set of serious issues in an area that's too frequently ignored: the philosophy of phonetics. [This is an unusually wonkish post on an eccentric topic — you have been warned.]

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Teacher is always honest

When I began studying Mandarin over half a century ago, I very quickly developed a pet phrase  (kǒutóuchán 口頭禪 / 口头禅):  lǎoshí shuō 老實說 / 老实说 ("to tell the truth; honestly"), After I married one of the best Mandarin teachers on earth (Chang Li-ching) several years later, she corrected me when I said my favorite phrase.  She told me that I made it sound like lǎoshī shuō 老師說 / 老师说 ("teacher says").

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Record-high operatic pitch?

Zachary Woolfe, "Hyper-High Notes", NYT 11/10/2017:

I wrote this week about the highest note in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, an A above high C currently being sung by Audrey Luna in Thomas Adès’s “The Exterminating Angel.” In my brief rundown of high-note history, I referred to the French soprano Mado Robin “shrilling” up to a high B flat; my infelicitous phrasing got called out by some Mado fans, one of whom was kind enough to send along a couple of her highlights. Recorded live, this is, my reader tells me, a French version of one of the big Miliza Korjus showpieces from the 1938 MGM musical “The Great Waltz.” Its climax takes her up to what I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) is quite a lovely sustained B flat, half a step above Ms. Luna’s achievement.

If the cited youtube clip has not been juiced, Mr. Woolfe is indeed wrong — the note in question is a (quarter tone above) a sustained B6, around 2006 Hz.

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Anaphoric ambiguity of the week

Obeying the sign:

See also "Another step towards gender equality", 8/20/2006, "Dogless in Albion", 9/12/2011, and John Wells on "carrying dogs", 3/15/2013.

[From here via Carmen Fought]

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Pitch contour perception

Listen to this brief four-syllable phrase, and answer a simple question:

once the eggs hatch

Is the end of the last sylllable ("hatch") higher or lower in pitch than the start of the first sylllable ("once")?

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A prosodic difference

In "Political sound and silence II" I noted a large difference in measures of speaking rate across the Weekly Addresses of the past three American presidents:

 N Speech
(sec.)
Silence
(sec.)
Total
(sec.)
Mean
Duration
% Speech Words WPM
(overall)
WPM
(excl. silence)
Bush 2008  48  8262  1976  10237 213  0.807  24483  166.9  206.9
Obama 2010  50  9840  2884  12724 254  0.773  38253  180.4  233.3
Trump 2017  14  2417  480  2898 207  0.834  7131  147.6  177.0

And in "Trends in presidential speaking rate", I showed that

… across the first few months of Weekly Addresses, President Trump is tending to talk somewhat faster as well as using a higher range of pitches.

I wondered about the causes:

This might simply reflect a choice to use more words per pause group — pre-pausal lengthening would thus be amortized over a large number of words, and similarly for phrase-final lowering. Or perhaps the distribution of words per pause group is stable, with the speaking rate and pitch range increasing for phrases of a given length. Or both. I’ll test these hypothesis another morning.

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