Archive for Psychology of language

What the fingers want

Whole-word substitutions are a common type of speech error: "Italy" for "Israel", "competent" for "confident", "restaurant" for "rhapsody", "drink" for "breathe". The substituted word is often associated with the target word or with its context, often starts with sounds similar to the target word, and often has similar syllable counts and stress patterns. An even stronger regularity is the syntactic category rule — the substituted word is almost always the same part of speech as the target word. Thus in the speech-error corpus examined by David Fay and Anne Cutler in their 1977 work "Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon", this syntactic category rule held for 95% of all word-substitution errors.

Therefore substitutions like "They provider very good care" for "They provide very good care", or "He resignation yesterday" for "He resigned yesterday", are quite unlikely — in speech. In typing, in contrast, such slips of the finger are very common. I make errors like this all the time, with -ing or -ed or -s or -er or nothing appearing where one of the other choices would be correct. I haven't counted, but I think that my lapsus digitorum of this kind are an order of magnitude more common than the confident-for-competent variety.

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McDonald's Minionese: WTF?

As a tie-in with Minions the movie, McDonald's is giving out a dozen different Minions toys with Happy Meals. Like the Minions in the movie, the toys speak the invented language "Minionese" — though you have to bump or hit the toys to get them to respond. The response to this marketing initiative has been dominated by the fact that one of them, the caveman Minion, seems to many people to be saying "What the fuck" and "Well I'll be damned":

(Audio from here.)

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Word aversion science

Paul Thibodeau et al., "An Exploratory Investigation of Word Aversion", COGSCI 2014:

Why do people self-report an aversion to words like “moist”? The present study represents an initial scientific exploration into the phenomenon of word aversion by investigating its prevalence and cause. We find that as many as 20% of the population equates hearing the word “moist” to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard. This population often speculates that phonological properties of the word are the cause of their displeasure. One tantalizing possibility is that words like “moist” are aversive because speaking them engages facial muscles that correspond to expressions of disgust. However, three experiments suggest that semantic features of the word – namely, associations with disgusting bodily functions – underlie peoples’ unpleasant experience. This finding broadens our understanding of language and contributes to a growing literature on the cognitive processes relating to highly valenced and arousing words.

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Malapropism of the week

[h/t David Donnell]

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Early Alzheimer's signs in Reagan's speech

Lawrence Altman, "Parsing Ronald Reagan’s Words for Early Signs of Alzheimer’s", NYT 3/30/2015:

Even before Ronald Reagan became the oldest elected president, his mental state was a political issue. His adversaries often suggested his penchant for contradictory statements, forgetting names and seeming absent-mindedness could be linked to dementia.  

In 1980, Mr. Reagan told me that he would resign the presidency if White House doctors found him mentally unfit. Years later, those doctors and key aides told me they had not detected any changes in his mental abilities while in office.  

Now a clever new analysis has found that during his two terms in office, subtle changes in Mr. Reagan’s speaking patterns linked to the onset of dementia were apparent years before doctors diagnosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.

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Could this really be the end?

..of the nonsense about narcissism and pronoun counts? Probably not, but it should be.

I'm talking about Angela L. Carey,  Melanie S. Brucks, Albrecht CP Küfner, Nicholas S. Holtzman, Mitja D. Back, M. Brent Donnellan, James W. Pennebaker, and Matthias R. Mehl, "Narcissism and the use of personal pronouns revisited", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3/30/2015:

Among both laypersons and researchers, extensive use of first-person singular pronouns (i.e., I-talk) is considered a face-valid linguistic marker of narcissism. However, the assumed relation between narcissism and I-talk has yet to be subjected to a strong empirical test. Accordingly, we conducted a large-scale (N = 4,811), multisite (5 labs), multimeasure (5 narcissism measures) and dual-language (English and German) investigation to quantify how strongly narcissism is related to using more first-person singular pronouns across different theoretically relevant communication contexts (identity-related, personal, impersonal, private, public, and stream-of-consciousness tasks). Overall (r = .02, 95% CI [−.02, .04]) and within the sampled contexts, narcissism was unrelated to use of first-person singular pronouns (total, subjective, objective, and possessive). This consistent near-zero effect has important implications for making inferences about narcissism from pronoun use and prompts questions about why I-talk tends to be strongly perceived as an indicator of narcissism in the absence of an underlying actual association between the 2 variables.

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Your tension has been exterminated

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Linguistic dominance in House of Cards

You may have seen "The Ascent: Political Destiny and the Makings of a First Couple", now featured on the e-front-cover of The Atlantic magazine:

If you click on the link, the top left of the resulting page bears a little tag telling you that you're reading "sponsored content" — and if you mouseover that tag, you'll learn that

This content was created by Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic's creative marketing group, and made possible by our Sponsor. It does not necessarily reflect the views of The Atlantic's editorial staff.

One piece of that "The Ascent" page, down at the bottom under the heading "Frank and Claire: Patterns of Power", presents a bit of computational psycholinguistics:

We can tell a lot about ourselves by the words we use. But not the big words. The small ones: you, we, I, me, can’t, don’t, won’t. In fact, if we pan back far enough, we can see broader traits, like dominance and submissiveness. Which is exactly what we did by analyzing all of Frank and Claire Underwood’s private dialogue throughout House of Cards Seasons 2-3, using a special language-processing software. The results were fascinating.

This post gives a bit of the background of that segment, including my own small role in its genesis. The main point is to prepare the ground for a discussion of the ideas involved, which I think are interesting and important; but maybe a description of the process will also be interesting.

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Effects of vocal fry on pitch perception

Earlier today, Jianjing Kuang pointed out to me something interesting and unexpected about the sounds in a LLOG post from last month, "Vocal creak and fry, exemplified", 2/7/2015.

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Boko Haram, Boca Raton, whatever

We were recently treated to lovely example of a "Fay-Cutler malapropism", that is, a speech-production error in which the speaker intends to say word X but actually comes out with word Y, where Y is typically similar to X in number of syllables, shares some sounds and even whole syllables, is the same part of speech, and so on.

Tracy Walsh, "GOP Congressman Mixes Up Boko Haram And Boca Raton", TPM 2/13/2015:

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) confused the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram with a mid-sized Florida city during an appearance Tuesday on CNN, the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida reported Wednesday.  

Gosar said that if the U.S. were to pay ransom to terrorists, then "every American citizen traveling abroad becomes a subject in regard for kidnapping and then the plight of how much money has been captivated in the Boca Raton group." 

On Friday, his office issued a news release making light of the gaffe, saying that the congressman "had been awake for almost 24 hours and had given many interviews that day."

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Mistress of orthodoxy

Nicole Perlroth, "New Study May Add to Skepticism Among Security Experts That North Korea Was Behind Sony Hack", NYT 12/24/2014:

It is also worth noting that other private security researchers say their own research backs up the government’s claims. CrowdStrike, a California security firm that has been tracking the same group that attacked Sony since 2006, believes they are located in North Korea and have been hacking targets in South Korea for years.  

But without more proof, skeptics are unlikely to simply demur to F.B.I. claims. “In the post-Watergate post-Snowden world, the USG can no longer simply say ‘trust us’,” Paul Rosenzweig, the Department of Homeland Security’s former deputy assistant secretary for policy, wrote on the Lawfare blog Wednesday. “Not with the U.S. public and not with other countries. Though the skepticism may not be warranted, it is real.”

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That mystery language was…

Last night's "Mystery Language" post has gotten 43 interesting and insightful comments.

The answer, revealed by Doug Marmion, of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies:

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Teenager found bed

Stan Carey writes "Here's a headline for you!":

"Mentally ill teenager held in police cell is found bed", BBC News Devon, 11/29/2014.

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