Archive for Prosody

When Uptalk Went Viral

This is a guest post by Cynthia McLemore, following up on Ben Zimmer's post on "'Uptalk' in the OED", 9/12/2016.


Twenty three years after James Gorman coined a word for “those rises” in the New York Times and unleashed a viral phenomenon associated with my name, and on the occasion of the OED's latest entries, Language Log has invited me to take stock of my experiences and offer some comments.

First, some background. In the late 1980s I started working to construct a theory of intonational meaning in English from the ground up. My aim was to gather facts about the intonational system as they occurred in natural settings in order to understand the role of culture and context in meaning-forming processes. I chose a sorority as the community to study because it had features of a natural speech “lab”: a social hierarchy, age stratification, recurrent contexts with consistent roles and expectations, homogeneity in ethnicity, gender, age, social class, religion, and regional affiliation, and pressure on speakers to conform to norms. In other words, identifiable socio-cultural parameters and reduced sources of variation.

One of the recurrent intonational forms I recorded and analyzed was a phrase-final rise used to introduce certain types of monologues in meetings and structure certain narratives. My Linguistics 101 students told me they heard it around campus and associated it with sororities. But while I was holed up in the lab scrutinizing pitchtracks of the sorority speech data, a broader use of those same phrase-final rises was spreading through American culture more generally. By 1991, when I started presenting my research on the more particular uses I’d found in the sorority — and the more abstract meanings I proposed for the intonational forms themselves — I was overwhelmed with invitations from various academic departments around the country, in addition to conferences, and gave over forty talks in little more than a year. Wherever I went, cab drivers, colleagues, friends and fellow travelers gave me their observations and opinions about “those rises.” Media interest was gaining in 1992 and 1993, but went right off the charts in August 1993 when the NYT published Gorman’s piece.

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"Uptalk" in the OED

The latest quarterly update to the online Oxford English Dictionary includes a metalinguistic term all too familiar to Language Log readers: uptalk, defined as "a manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end, a type of intonation more typically associated with questions." It's high time that the OED created an entry for the word, given that it has had a significant media presence (for better or for worse) ever since it burst on the scene in 1993.

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The narrow end of the funnel

The big political story of the past 24 hours: Stephen K. Bannon, formerly the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, has taken over as "chief executive" of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

The big linguistic story of the past 24 hours, at least here at Language Log: an exchange between Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum about the rhetorical style of spontaneous speech, as it applies to the linguistic analysis of Donald Trump's rallies.

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Internecine strife at Language Log?

Are we seeing the first signs of discord at Language Log Plaza? Mark Liberman seems to be flatly rebutting Geoff Pullum's "no structure at all" remark about what he calls "Trump's aphasia." Mark maintains that Trump's speaking style is no different in kind from any other human's spontaneous speech, even crediting him with "eloquence." Geoff, by contrast, seems to regard Trump as barely capable of expressing himself in human language. This looks like the beginnings of a proper scholarly punch-up. Is Liberman pro-Trump and Pullum anti? Have Mark and Geoff fallen out?

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The rhetorical style of spontaneous speech

I want to follow up on my post about Daniel Libit's presentation of reporters' and transcriptionists' complaints about Donald Trump's speaking style ("The em-dash candidate", 8/15/2016). Libit uses words like "unintelligible", "jumble", "inarticulate", and he is far from the first person to offer a characterization along these lines. A year ago, Geoff Pullum used words and phrases like "aphasia", "no structure at all", "barely a coherent thought" ("Trump's aphasia", 8/5/2015).

I've argued in response that these observers have been misled by "the apparent incoherence of much transcribed extemporized speech, even when the same material is completely comprehensible and even eloquent in audio or audio-visual form" ("Trump's eloquence", 8/5/2015).

In order to underline this point, I thought I'd exhibit a randomly-selected passage from another unscripted spoken-word performance by someone who doesn't speak in paragraphs. That description generally applies to the rhetorical tradition of stand-up comedy, I think.

So I picked a comedian and a performance at random — the start of a performances at Beacon Theater in 2013 (?) by the comedian Louis CK. And you'll see that the clip has many of the same characteristics as Trump's spontaneous performances — repetitions, incomplete phrases, digressions, …

In fact Louis CK is much less fluent than Trump in certain ways, such as a much higher rate of UM/UH usage and of fluent-self-corrections. But otherwise, the similarity is remarkable.

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Prosody posts

In the context of the current political season, I've started taking a look at rhetorical styles, including the aspects of rhythm, pitch, and voice quality for which linguists generally use the cover term "prosody". Our enormously over-long list of topic categories didn't include "prosody", so I've added it — and in the process of labeling relevant posts, I made a (probably still incomplete) list of linked titles and dates, which is reproduced below.

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Trump's prosody

Yesterday I showed a pitch contour from one of Hillary Clinton's speeches ("Political /t/ lenition", 8/7/2016), and promised to take a broader look at her characteristic prosodic styles. But today I'm going to feature one of Donald's prosodic stylings. From the Trump/Pence rally in Des Moines, Iowa, 8/5/2016:

We're gonna use great business leaders
___to work with our generals —
we're gonna make great trade deals
___where we're getting absolutely killed —
with China
___and other countries —

Donald Trump deploys this pattern rarely but effectively — and I'd be surprised to hear it from Hillary Clinton.

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"Believe me": Prosodic differences

Following up on Tim Kaine's mocking imitation of Donald Trump's phrase "believe me", CNN put up a comparison:

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Some phonetic dimensions of speech style

My posts have been thin recently, mostly because over the past ten days or so I've been involved in the preparation and submission of five conference papers, on top of my usual commitments to teaching and meetings and visitors. Nobody's fault but mine, of course. Anyhow, this gives me some raw material that I'll try to present in a way that's comprehensible and interesting to non-specialists.

One of the papers, with Neville Ryant as first author, was an attempt to take advantage of a large collection of audiobook recordings to explore some dimensions of speaking style. The paper is still under review, so I'll wait to post a copy until its fate is decided — but there are some interesting ideas and suggestive results that I can share. And to motivate you to read the somewhat wonkish explanation that follows, I'll start off with a picture:

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Poetic sound and silence

Following up on "Political sound and silence", 2/8/2016, here's a level plot of speech segment durations and immediately-following silence segment durations from William Carlos Williams' poetry reading at the Library of Congress in May of 1945:


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Political sound and silence

As part of an exercise/demonstration for a course, last night I ran Neville Ryant's second-best speech activity detector (SAD) on Barack Obama's Weekly Radio Addresses for 2010 (50 of them), and George W. Bush's Weekly Radio Addresses for 2008 (48 of them). The distributions of speech and silence durations, via R's kernel density estimation function, look like this:

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Solaar pleure carrément?

In my limited experience of French hiphop, I've gotten the impression that it's rhythmically rather "square", in the sense that the syncopations or polyrhythms that are common in the corresponding American genres are relatively rare. As a first tentative step in evaluating this (perhaps quite wrong) idea, I analyzed the word-to-beat alignments of MC Solaar's popular 2001 piece Solaar Pleure. Here's the official video on YouTube:

And there's a set of annotated lyrics at genius.com.

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Diminutives and reduplicatives in Chinese

It would seem natural that all languages have diminutives, but how diminutives are formed in different languages must vary considerably.  In most cases that I'm aware of in Indo-European languages, the addition of a special suffix denoting smallness or connoting endearment is typical, but in other cases there are more complicated mechanisms at play.  The most elaborate system of diminutives I know of is Russian, where common given names are not only made into diminutives in irregular ways, they are then profusely elaborated (with some forms indicating doubled diminutiveness):  thus, Aleksander –> Sasha, Sashka, Sashen'ka, Sashechka, Sanya, Shura, Sashok.  Keeping track of all these variants was always one of the biggest challenges I faced in reading Russian novels.

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