Archive for Prosody

Jeopardy gossip

The internet has been working hard at providing Deborah Cameron with material for a book she might write on attitudes towards women's voices. (Background: "Un justified", 7/8/2015; "Cameron v. Wolf" 7/27/2015.)

To see what I mean, sample the tweets for  #JeopardyLaura, or read some of the old-media coverage, like "Is this woman the most annoying 'Jeopardy!' contestant ever?", Fox News 11/24/2015:

"Jeopardy!" contestant Laura Ashby is causing quite a stir on social media. The Marietta, Georgia, native isn't getting attention for her two-day winning streak but instead the tone of her voice.  

Ashby first appeared on the competition show on Nov. 6 and when she returned this week the Internet went crazy over her voice.

Several tweeters went out of their way to exemplify Cameron's observation that "This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance":

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"Often more [difficulty] than in this chosen pair"

We've often complained about the ignorant aftermath of E.B. White's ignorant 1959 incitement to which-hunting, which launched the idea that restrictive (or integrated, or defining) relative clauses in English should always and only be introduced by that, while non-restrictive (or supplementary, or non-defining) relative clauses should be introduced by which. (See "Reddit blewit" 12/24/2012 for details and additional links. Note that for simplicity, I'm considering only relative clauses with inanimate/nonhuman heads, though the fundamental point remains the same when we add who to the mix.)

My point today is that the whole distinction is a false one.

More exactly: The traditional restrictive/non-restrictive dichotomy merges distinct morphological, syntactic, semantic, prosodic, rhetorical, and psychological questions; the correlation among these different dimensions is loose at best; several of the relevant distinctions are gradient rather than categorical; and some of the distinctions are sometimes a matter of pragmatic vagueness rather than grammatical ambiguity.

If I'm right, then modern linguists have been committing White's sin in a less extreme form, trying to impose an over-simplified rationalist taxonomy on a more complex linguistic reality.

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Cantonese intonation

On a recent flight across the Atlantic, I watched a Hong Kong movie called Gangster Payday in English, 大茶飯 ("Big Tea Rice"?) in Chinese, directed by Lee Po-Cheung. One of the things that struck me was a particular pattern of pitch and time at the ends of certain phrases, involving elongation of the final syllable, typically on a mid-level pitch. It seems to come in bunches, and to occur on quite different phrase-final syllable sequences, so I'm guessing that it's an intonational pattern rather than a series of lexical tones.

The movie is available on YouTube, so I've pulled out a few examples of this phenomenon, in the hope that someone who knows Cantonese (and perhaps also the speech patterns of Hong Kong gangsters — or at least older Hong Kongers of lower-SES origin?) can explain it.

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Final rises

As Eric Baković recently noted, there's been a lot of buzz about a presentation about "uptalk" by Amanda Ritchart and Amalia Arvaniti at the 2013 Acoustical Society meeting. All we have so far is a sort of press release  ("Do We All Speak Like Valley Girls? Uptalk in Southern Californian English", ASA Lay Language Papers, 12/5/2013), but this is enough to see that Ritchart and Arvaniti have made a valuable contribution.

They based their analysis on systematic analysis of a good-sized recorded dataset (23 "native speakers of SoCal English", who were asked to describe a muted video clip and to participate in a "map task" interaction). They distinguished among different interactional functions ("simple statement", "question", "floor holding", "confirmation request"), they systematically noted aspects of the location and extent of rises, and they based their conclusions on a statistical analysis of the interrelationship of these features.

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Media uptake on uptalk

Yesterday afternoon, UC San Diego Linguistics grad student Amanda Ritchart presented her research (joint with Amalia Arvaniti) on the use and realization of uptalk in Southern California English at the 166th Acoustical Society of America meeting. This work is profiled in the ASA's press room, and has thus far received a fair amount of attention. You can hear and/or read about it on KPBS (San Diego's public radio station), at WBUR's Here & Now, on BBC News, and in the Washington Post. (See also this shout-out on the Linguistic Society of America website.)

Uptalk has been discussed many times here on Language Log, so regular readers are probably not unfamiliar with it. But one of the most recent Language Log posts on the topic ("Uptalk awakening", 9/29/2013) shows how relatively unaware of this long-standing feature of many varieties of English some folks still are. So the media coverage of Ritchart & Arvaniti's work is welcome — and on the whole pretty good, if a little biased toward a "wow, it's spreading to men!" interpretation of the research results, which kinda misses the point. But of course, if you scroll down to the comments (why oh why do I ever scroll down to the comments???), you'll see that many appear to think that the use of rising intonation at the ends of (some!) statements is the clearest evidence we have of the decline of western civilization. Sigh.

Update — more here.


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Perry Link on Chinese "rhythm, metaphor, politics"

One reason that I was so interested in San Duanmu's work on Chinese "elastic words" is that I'm in the middle of reading Perry Link's recent book An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics.

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Prosody and "elastic words" in Chinese

During my recent visit to Michigan, San Duanmu told me about some really neat work that he published last year as "Word-length preferences in Chinese: a corpus study", Journal of East Asian Linguistics 21.1: 89-114, 2012.

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Versus vs. Verses: Results

Following up on "Versing" (6/19/2012)  and "Vers(e|u)s" (6/20/2012), here are the perception-test results from the 56 people who sent me their answers before I posted the answer key.

Some overall statistics follow.

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Political voices

Like other regular readers of Andrew Sullivan's web log, I was not surprised that he was happy about Sarah Palin's decision not to run for U.S. president in 2012. However, one aspect of his commentary ("Rejoice!", 10/5/2011) did surprise me. The puzzle is in the second sentence:

Our Three Year National Nightmare Is Over!

Palin talks to Mark Levin here (her voice is the deeper one).

Mark Levin is a radio talk show host, and Sullivan's link goes to a page on Levin's web site that includes not only the text of Palin's statement, but also accesses an mp3 file of a 15-minute segment of his show. My interest here, of course, is not in the politics but in the phonetics. Is it really true that Sarah Palin's voice is deeper (i.e. lower in pitch) than Mark Levin's?

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Dogless in Albion

Whenever I visit England, I'm struck by the fact that escalators, moving walkways, and other public conveyances commonly have signs requiring users to carry dogs. I also always remember Martin Kay's observation that phrasal stress on the subject ("DOGS must be carried") suggests the absurd interpretation that "you can't use this facility unless you are carrying a dog", whereas stress on the verb remains consistent with the intended meaning "if you have a dog, you must carry it rather than have it go on its own feet".

There are several linguistic puzzles here. The first one is how to represent and explain the ambiguity in interpretation. One possibility is that there's an implicit universally quantified agent, "Dogs must be carried [by everyone]", which in any case needs to be contextually limited to "everyone using this facility", and then may or may not be further restricted to "everyone using this facility who is accompanied by a dog". And those skilled in the art will be able to think of several other semantic or pragmatic treatments, for instance involving the nature and scope of the deontic modal "must".

A second puzzle is why a difference in phrasal stress should apparently affect this ambiguity.

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Janáček's "nápěvky mluvy"

Jonathan Secora Pearl, "Eavesdropping with a Master: Leoš Janáček and the Music of Speech", Empirical Musicology Review 2006:

The composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) has been noted for his interest in speech melodies. Little discussion has focused however on the field methods that he used in gathering them, nor on the products themselves. Janáček spent more than three decades, transcribing thousands of what he termed nápěvky mluvy [tunelets of speech] in standard musical notation. The record that remains of these efforts is impressive both for its volume and its quality, as well as for its potential to reveal aspects of the perceptual overlap between music and language.

Here's an edited and typeset example of one of his "tunelets":

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"There is no Communist Party, there is no New China"

Kira Simon-Kennedy wrote to me from Beijing that she is chaperoning 30 French high school students on their first trip to China to learn Mandarin.

Yesterday afternoon, the French students were trying to decipher the following banner at a bus stop:  "没有共产党, 没有新中国."  Most of the students have already taken a couple years of lessons, so they could be classed as having reached intermediate level.  They got as far in their interpretation of the sign on the banner as "There is no collective __, there is no new China."  Not bad for intermediate level learners, but the banner remained a mystery to them, if only at the lexical level because they didn't know what 共产党 meant.  However, when Kira told the students that 共产党 meant Communist Party, they were all the more puzzled.  "Are they allowed to say that ('there is no Communist Party')?" one student asked.  "Isn't that really dangerous to deny the existence of the Party in public?"

The students thought that someone had the nerve to buy a public ad to tell the world:  "There is no Communist Party, there is no New China" — superficially that's what the sign on the banner seemed to be saying.  The close grammatical parallelism of the two clauses only made such an interpretation seem all the more certain.

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Wow, patterns!

In "Wow…?", 7/17/2011, I presented 10 isolated examples of "wow" or "oh wow" from published telephone conversations, and invited readers to judge the intensity and valence of each of the ten items (where "valence" is taken to mean the speaker's apparent negative or positive evaluation of the situation under discussion). There were 56 usable responses — I discarded another 5 or 6 because of  problems like 9 or 11 judgments instead of 10. I've done some simple analysis, described below.

The 56 sets of usable responses were well differentiated and fairly consistent: people evaluated these utterances in a lawful way. This kind of survey has promise as a source of input for efforts to learn the mapping between acoustic properties and human responses.

There's no obvious independent check on the "intensity" judgments, so the main question was how consistent they would be. In the case of the "valence" judgments, we can also look at the context to see how the speakers seems to be evaluating the state of affairs that they're responding to.

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