Archive for Psychology of language

World disfluencies

Disfluency has been in the news recently, for two reasons: the deployment of filled pauses in an automated conversation by Google Duplex, and a cross-linguistic study of "slowing down" in speech production before nouns vs. verbs.

Lance Ulanoff, "Did Google Duplex just pass the Turing Test?", Medium 5/8/2018:

I think it was the first “Um.” That was the moment when I realized I was hearing something extraordinary: A computer carrying out a completely natural and very human-sounding conversation with a real person. And it wasn’t just a random talk. […]

Duplex made the call and, when someone at the salon picked up, the voice AI started the conversation with: “Hi, I’m calling to book a woman’s hair cut appointment for a client, um, I’m looking for something on May third?”

Frank Seifart et al., "Nouns slow down speech: evidence from structurally and culturally diverse languages", PNAS 2018:

When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world. We show a robust tendency for slower speech before nouns as compared with verbs. Even though verbs may be more complex than nouns, nouns thus appear to require more planning, probably due to the new information they usually represent. This finding points to strong universals in how humans process language and manage referential information when communicating linguistically.

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What would Freud say?

At a press conference yesterday, Paul Ryan announced that he won't be running for re-election this fall, explaining that

uh to be clear I am not resigning
I intend to full my serve term as I was elected to do
but I will be retiring in January
leaving this majority in good hands with a-
what I believe is a very bright future

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"This wave in the mind"

Ursula K.Le Guin died a couple of months ago, and since then I've been re-reading some of her works that I've enjoyed over the years. Yesterday I was struck by the epigraph to her 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind, which apparently I missed when I read the book a decade ago.  It's part of a letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, 16 March 1926:

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

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Slips of the finger vs. slips of the tongue

There's an interesting and understudied way that typing errors and speaking errors are different. From Gary Dell, "Speaking and Misspeaking", Ch. 7 in Introduction to Cognitive Science: Language, 1995:

One of the most striking facts about word slips, such as exchanges, anticipations, perseverations, and noncontextual substitutions, is that they obey a syntactic category rule. When one word erroneously replaces another, most of the time the target and substituting word are of the same syntactic category. Nouns slip with nouns, verbs with verbs, and so on.

In other words, we're NOT likely to say something like "When one word erroneously replacement another, …" or "exchanges, anticipation, perseverations, and noncontextual substituted […] obey a syntactic category rule".

But errors of this type are fairly common in typing. They seem to be cases where we've started to type the right thing, but as our attention shifts to the following material, our fingers follow a familiar but incorrect path.

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Ross Macdonald: lexical diversity over the lifespan

This post is an initial progress report on some joint work with Mark Liberman. It's part of a larger effort to replicate and extend Xuan Le, Ian Lancashire, Graeme Hirst, & Regina Jokel, "Longitudinal detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: a case study of three British novelists", Literary and Linguistic Computing 2011. Their abstract:

We present a large-scale longitudinal study of lexical and syntactic changes in language in Alzheimer's disease using complete, fully parsed texts and a large number of measures, using as our subjects the British novelists Iris Murdoch (who died with Alzheimer's), Agatha Christie (who was suspected of it), and P.D. James (who has aged healthily). […] Our results support the hypothesis that signs of dementia can be found in diachronic analyses of patients’ writings, and in addition lead to new understanding of the work of the individual authors whom we studied. In particular, we show that it is probable that Agatha Christie indeed suffered from the onset of Alzheimer's while writing her last novels, and that Iris Murdoch exhibited a ‘trough’ of relatively impoverished vocabulary and syntax in her writing in her late 40s and 50s that presaged her later dementia.

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Ask Language Log: Easy but unused initial clusters?

From Bob Moore:

I have recently become interested in an important Alaska native weaver named Jennie Thlunaut. The linguistic question is about the initial consonant cluster of her last name, "thl". My initial reaction on seeing the name was that this consonant cluster was not phonotactically possible in English, and that it would be hard for me to pronounce. I was surprised to find that it was very easy for me to pronounce, without the perception of a highly reduced vowel separating the initial consonants that I usually experience when trying to pronounce a foreign word containing a consonant cluster not found in English.

I confirmed that "thl" does not seem to be a possible word-initial consonant cluster in English by grepping for all case-insensitive instances of " thl" in the English Gigaword corpus. I found something between 100 and 200 of these, and I examined all of them, finding then all to be either (1) foreign words or names, (2) attempts to represent the pronunciation of foreign words or names, (3) representations of "lisping" in English, or (4) typos.

I am puzzled that there would be an easy-to-pronounce phonological sequence that is completely unused in a language. It seems like coding efficiency would favor using any sequence that is easy to pronounce. Is there a more general phonological principle in English that would block the use of "thl"? Are there other easy-to-pronounce consonant clusters that are not used in English?

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Hurricane naming policy change

I think it's becoming clear that alternating male and female personal names to individuate Atlantic tropical cyclones is not a good idea. These storms are becoming far too nasty. Calling a storm "Harvey" makes it sound like your friendly uncle who always comes over on the Fourth of July and flirts with your mom. And "Irma" sounds like a dancer that he once knew when he was in Berlin. Science tells us that these devastating meteorological events are probably going to get worse in coming years. (Ann Coulter says that as a potential cause of increased violence in hurricanes, climate change is less plausible than God's anger at Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor; but let's face it, Ann Coulter is a few bricks short of a full intellectual hod.) Hurricanes need uglier names. You can't get Miami to evacuate by telling people that "Irma" is coming.

Accordingly, next year the National Hurricane Center is planning to name tropical cyclonic storms and hurricanes after unpleasant diseases and medical conditions. Think about it. The state governor tells you a hurricane named Dracunculiasis is coming down on you, you're gonna start packing the station wagon. So as the season progresses, the following will be the named storms in 2018.

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Chinese Synesthesia

Xiaoyan (Coco) Li, a native Chinese speaker with synesthesia (self identified, never formally tested), happened to come across this Language Log post:

"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)

She wrote to me saying that she experiences some of what Leo Fransella (quoted in the earlier post) referred to as "'non-trivial' Chinese synaesthesia".  For him "trivial" Chinese synesthesia is associated with or stimulated by the letters of the Pinyin used to spell Chinese words, not from the characters used to write them.

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Who (or what) is allowing whom?

The big news today has been Donald Trump's morning tweetstorm about "low I.Q. crazy Mika" Brzezinski "bleeding badly from a face-lift" at Mar-A-Lago over New Years. Bill Hemmer, interviewing Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Fox News, asked her "What is the White House saying about why that went out?"

Her response:

Look I- I- I don't think that the president's ever been someone who gets attacked and doesn't push back.
Uh there have been
an outrageous number of personal attacks not just to him but to frankly everyone around him.
Uh people on that show have personally attacked me many times.
This is a president who fights fire with fire,
and certainly will not be allowed to be bullied by
liberal media and the liberal elites within the media or hollywood or anywhere else

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It had been very careless in their behavior

Daniel Victor, "What Was Behind Those Befuddling McCain Questions?", NYT 6/8/2017:

Senator John McCain became an unexpected focus of befuddlement and concern on Thursday after a line of questioning that appeared to conflate two separate F.B.I. investigations during James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Here's the start of Senator McCain's questions:

JohnMcCain: In the case of uh
Hillary Clinton,
you made the statement that
there wasn't uh
sufficient evidence to bring a suit
against her, although
it had been very uh
careless in their behavior. But you did reach a conclusion
in that case that it was not uh necessary to
further pursue her.
Yet, at the same time, in the case
of Mister Comey,
you
said that there was not enough information to make
a conclusion. Tell me the difference between your conclusion as far as
former Secretary Clinton is concerned and-
and Mist- Mister Trump.

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A little sentiment analysis

As I've noted from time to time, speakers' pitch range is affected by many internal and external factors in addition to their anatomy and physiology. External factors include the level of background noise and the distance to the intended hearer(s). Internal factors include the level of physiological arousal. In particular, we expect the emotion of "hot anger" to increase pitch range.

As a recent case in point, here's a plot of Greg Gianforte's pitch range during his 5/25/2017 assault of a Guardian reporter, compared to his pitch range during a 10/4/2016 interview:

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Trends in presidential pitch II

In Trends in presidential pitch (5/19/2017), I observed that the median fundamental frequency (= "pitch") of President Trump's weekly addresses has increased  steadily since January, by about 30%.  As a point of comparison, I did the same calculation for President Obama's first few months of  weekly addresses, from 1/24/2009 to 5/23/2009, in comparison to Trump's weekly addresses from 1/28/2017 to 5/19/2017:

[I've omitted Trump's three addresses from 3/3/2017, 3/25/2017, and 3/31/2017, because of the differences in recording context and production style explained in the earlier post. Because Obama seems not to have recorded any weekly addresses in February of 2009, the time span of the 13 plotted weekly addresses from the two presidencies is very nearly the same. ]

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Trends in presidential pitch

I've been downloading the audio for Donald Trump's Weekly Addresses from whitehouse.gov, as I did for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And as I did for the previous presidents, I listen to the results and sometimes do simple acoustic-phonetic analyses — see e.g. "Raising his voice", 10/8/2011; "Political sound and silence", 2/8/2016. Recently I thought I noticed a significant change in Mr. Trump's pitch range, and a quick check confirmed this impression.

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