Archive for Prosody

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

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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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Chat with #JeopardyLaura

Thanks to Bob Kennedy, I was able to find the full Jeopardy shows from November 23-24, and pull out the segments where the hosts "chats" with contestant Laura Ashby, whose in-game response's prosody ate the internet for a couple of days just before Thanksgiving ("Jeopardy gossip", 11/25/2015).

Here they are:


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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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