Archive for Phonetics and phonology

Attribution of the WannaCry ransomware to Chinese speakers

The notorious WannaCry malware infestation began on Friday, May 12, 2017 and spread rapidly throughout the world, infecting hundreds of thousands of computers and causing major damage.  Speculation concerning the identity of the perpetrators focused on North Korea, but the supposed connection was never convincingly demonstrated, and there were no other serious suspects.

Yesterday, Jon Condra, John Costello, and Sherman Chu published a stunning report which suggests that the authors of WannaCry — or someone they hired — spoke fluent Chinese:

Linguistic Analysis of WannaCry Ransomware Messages Suggests Chinese-Speaking Authors” (Flashpoint [5/25/17])

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Whistled language

In “Transcendent Tonality” (11/5/15), we examined this topic a couple of years ago.  That post focused more on the philosophical and ethereal aspects of this type of communication, although it also introduced some of the basics of interhuman whistling and its congruence with melodic musicality.

Additional research takes us further toward understanding the linguistic, neuroscientific, and evolutionary biological dimensions of articulate whistling, as reported in this BBC article:

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds:  Their unusual whistled speech may reveal what humanity’s first words sounded like. (David Robson, 5/25/17)

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Funerarily lost

BIYI has written a very clever article titled “The Culture of sàng: a Generation Lying-down?” in China Buzz Report (Elephant Room, 5/7/17).  It begins with a little Mandarin lesson:

The character 丧 is a polyphone in mandarin Chinese. When it is pronounced sāng, it loosely translates to funeral or mourning. When as sàng, it could be referring to either losing certain things or people (“丧失”), or a conglomeration of negative emotions such as feeling depressed, angry, disappointed and vexed.

And the sàng culture we are talking about here really takes both meanings: it is, very vaguely, the idea that you’ve lost something and are feeling horrible about it.

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[t]-less -ists

Following up on “Weak t“, 4/6/2017, I wouldn’t want you to think that Donald Trump’s pronunciation of “scientists” is unusually under-articulated. Here’s Barack Obama from his 5/2/2009 Weekly Radio Address:

Just the “-tists” syllable:

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Theodore Kushner’s Chinese blocks

From Ivanka Trump’s Instagram account:

The best moment of the day!

A post shared by Ivanka Trump (@ivankatrump) on

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Weak t

Yesterday I claimed that “if you examine a random stretch of English speech closely, within 10 seconds (of speech time, not your analysis time) you’ll notice an instance of an interesting general pattern that has never been systematically studied in the linguistic literature.” And I promised to test that claim on a clip from the S-Town podcast, which I happened to have at hand because I was adding it to a portfolio of English intonational examples. (To make it a fair test — though of course this is an illustration of my claim, not a proof — I’m looking for an “interesting general pattern” that’s not in the area of intonation.)

But first, let’s take a look at another sample from the intonation portfolio, President Donald Trump’s weekly address for 3/10/2017. Mr. Trump starts this way:

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The over/under on linguistic discovery

Geoff Pullum, “The world’s greatest grammarian“, Chronicle of Higher Education 4/3/2017 [emphasis added]:

We mostly did 11-hour days, starting as soon after 7 a.m. as we could and working till 6 p.m., breaking for a short lunch at 1 p.m. to discuss the morning’s work. Virtually every day we would find over our sandwiches that we had discovered something new about English syntax that no one had never known before. Far from being a period of tedious recording of well-documented facts about the world’s best-documented language, it was actually the most exciting research period of my life.

In a comment on a post yesterday (“Blasphemous“, 4/4/2017), someone remarked:

At the risk of being blasphemous myself, isn’t this a misnegation from Geoff Pullum in his Lingua Franca submission today about Rodney Huddleston?

I suspect that it’s a typographical or editing error, unless it’s an example of Geoff’s often-subtle humor.

But my reaction to that passage was to be surprised that it took them until lunch time to come across something new in English syntax. In examining an arbitrary spoken passage, even in well-studied languages like English, the over/under for observing a new (and interesting) linguistic phenomenon is about 10 seconds. Or so I commonly assert to students.

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Siri and flatulence

An acquaintance of mine has a new iPhone, which he carries in a pocket that is (relevantly) below waist level. He has discovered something that dramatically illustrates the difference between (i) responding to speech and (ii) responding to speech as humans do, on the basis of knowing that it is speech.

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“Dick voice”: Annoying voices and gender stereotypes

During the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a lot of negative commentary about Hillary Clinton’s voice. Some examples from across the political spectrum are compiled and discussed here, and even-the-liberal-The-Atlantic published on “The Science Behind Hating Hillary’s Voice“.  Since Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump pretty much got a pass for vocal characteristics analogous to Hillary’s, it was suggested more than once that the criticism was sexist, most creatively in this reprise of Shout by Dominique Salerno and Laura Hankin.

In fact, considering how many people have criticized aspects of Donald Trump’s speaking style, it’s striking that there’s been so little discussion of his tone of voice as opposed to his rhetorical style and content. But this balance is distinctly different for his senior advisor Stephen Miller — see Kali Holloway, “What makes Trump advisor Stephen Miller so unlikeable?“, Salon 2/15/2017. That article leads with a collection of video clips from Miller’s recent interviews — here’s the audio track:

Holloway’s evaluation of those clips is strongly negative, and also distinctly gendered:

If you caught any of those appearances, you may have noticed a few Miller trademark gestures. Empty, reptilian eyes scanning left to right over cue cards. A pouty mouth delivering each insane untruth. And a voice that sounds like every hyper-unlikable, pompous, joyless, self-important authority-on-everything you’ve ever met. Or as Katie McDonough of Fusion puts it, “he has the voice of someone who is a dick.”

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Ask Language Log: Turnbull, Trumble, ?

Graeme Orr asks:

This relates to US-Australian relations, thrown into mirth if not disarray by a now infamous phone call.

Afterwards, Mr Spicer mistook our PM’s surname twice in a press conference.

Australian social media heard Spicer as calling our PM Turnbull ‘Trumble’. But I distinctly hear it as ‘Trunbull’, a simple transposition error of a name Spicer probably only has seen not heard. ‘Turnbull’ is Anglo/Saxon, ‘Trumble’ is Scottish and there have been several famous Australian ‘Trumbles’, so Australians would be primed to hear the misspeaking that way.

Can your software parse the mispronunciation?

Already local journalists are stirring the PM by calling him ‘Trumble’ to his face.

Which is more than a tease. E.g. that 60 Minutes interviewer is the doyen of our press gallery and believes the Trump phone insults should be a trigger for Australia to free itself from our role as ‘Deputy US Sheriff’ in the Pacific.

P.S. We are used to this in a way – Jimmy Carter once stood beside PM Malcolm Fraser and welcomed him as ‘My good friend John Fraser’. John was merely Fraser’s formal first birth name.

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Inaugural addresses: SAD.

A few days ago, I posted some f0-difference dipole plots to visualize the contrast between Barack Obama’s syllable-level pitch dynamics and Donald Trump’s (“Tunes, political and geographical“, 2/2/2017):

Obama 2009 Inaugural Address Trump 2017 Inaugural Address

For another take on the same contrast in political prosody, I ran a “Speech Activity Detector” (SAD) on the recordings of the same two speeches, and used the results to create density plots of the relationship between speech-segment durations and immediately following silence-segment durations:

Obama 2009 Inaugural Address Trump 2017 Inaugural Address

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n’t is the new not

[h/t Larry Horn]

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MLK day: Pitch range

In honor of MLK day, I’ve replicated something that Corey Miller did for a term paper in an introductory phonetics course in the early 1990s. The point of the exercise is that any given speaker can exhibit a wide variety of different pitch ranges. 25 years ago this was a somewhat complicated business, involving digitization of tape recordings, use of expensive high-end computer workstations and so on. Today the whole process from start to end took me less than half an hour, leaving out the time required to write this post. I’ve put links to the relevant scripts at the end of the post — six lines of shell commands and a dozen lines of R.

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