Archive for Psychology of language

The accommodation

Yesterday in phonetics class we were discussing accommodation — the way that people adapt the way they talk depending on who they're talking with — and I noted that broadcast interview programs are a natural source of evidence, since the same host speaks at length with many different guests. Previous posts have looked at accommodation in a couple of features on the Philadelphia-based broadcast interview program Fresh Air ("UM/UH accommodation", 11/24/2015; "Like thanks", 11/26/2015). During yesterday's class, it occurred to me that it would make sense to look at accommodation in the use of the definite article the, since the is one of the commonest words in English, and yet the rates vary surprisingly widely across time, registers, genders, moods, and individuals.

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If we have learned nothing in this election

From Allison Stanger, "Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion", NYT 3/13/2017 [emphasis added]:

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury.

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Fluent disfluency

A couple of days ago, in "Mistakes", I noted that

verbatim transcripts of spontaneous speech are often full of filled pauses, self-corrections, and other things that must be edited out in order to create what that commenter would count as a "coherent sentence". And this is true even for people who have risen far in the world on the basis of their ability to impress others in spontaneous verbal interaction.

In the comments, David L suggested that we should

Listen to sports commentators, for instance. The best of them of them can keep talking (and talking and talking…) with little hesitation or stumbling.

So I took two random segments featuring a local sports-radio talk show personality, Howard Eskin. These were literally random segments, in the sense that I picked two random spots in the time line of the first hour of the podcast of Eskin's March 4 show, and selected a coherent segment of monologue around each point.

Eskin is certainly known for his ability to "keep talking (and talking and talking…) with little hesitation". But what I found in those two passages was the typical pattern of "fluent disfluency": filled pauses and self-corrections are roughly as common as the commonest "real words".

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Synesthesia and Chinese characters

Leo Fransella asks:

I'm curious to know whether, in your years studying and teaching written Chinese, you've ever come across synaesthesia as applied to Chinese characters (zi) or words (ci)?

The most common form of synaesthesia (~1% of people, I think) involves the systematic assignment of colours to letters, numbers or (sometimes) whole words. I have this 'grapheme-colour' quite strongly: when I hear a phone number or see a number written on a page, for example, I automatically sense it as bands of colour. Much the same for words: it literally bothers me when I don't know how to spell someone's name, as their associated colours can be so different (Catherine is bluey-green with a dash of red; Kathryn is green-yellow). Sounds a bit loopy to people who don't do this, but it's a very useful mnemonic trick when learning French vocab or Latin verb conjugations and noun declensions.

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Mistakes

Yesterday's post "A stick with which to beat other women with" discussed the duplication of prepositions in the title phrase, and a commenter complained that

The woman interviewed has a pretty mediocre command of English (she doesn't pronounce a single coherent sentence and keeps stuttering) although she is an actress speaking in her native language. That she would make mistakes in her own language is thus regrettable but not especially surprising. I am not unaware that the concept "mistake" does not enjoy stellar prestige among linguists, but why is that particular error worthy of a blog entry?

As another commenter observed, my original post used the phrase "performance error" to describe the possibility that Emma Watson's preposition doubling was a mistake rather than a bona fide syntactic variant.

But my point today is that verbatim transcripts of spontaneous speech are often full of filled pauses, self-corrections, and other things that must be edited out in order to create what that commenter would count as a "coherent sentence". And this is true even for people who have risen far in the world on the basis of their ability to impress others in spontaneous verbal interaction.

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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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Morphosyntactic innovation in the White House?

From the "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/14/2017, #12" (starting at 15:23 of the ABC News video):

JONATHAN KARL:  Back in January, the President said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period — well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did fee- he did speak with the ambassador —


JONATHAN KARL: I’m talking about during the campaign.


MR. SPICER: I don’t have any- I- there’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

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Language for the people!

4 speakers

Four sure-to-be-amazing talks on language are coming to central Texas on January 8 and all are invited!

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Bus sign nerdview in Sydney

It's good to find a prominently displayed list of local bus routes that you can Find your way consult when you arrive at the train station in a big city that perhaps you do not know.

And Sydney Central station in New South Wales, Australia, has exactly that. There is a big board headed "Find your way" at the station. But let's take a closer look at it. See if you can spot the nerdview (pointed out to me by Language Log reader Geoff Dawson).

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Trent Reznor Award nomination

It's been a while since we posted a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding — I believe that the most recent nomination was in April of 2012.  But here's a worthy suggestion from Laura Bailey:

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Oliver Darcy, "REBELLION: RNC staffers 'defying orders' to keep working for Trump, source says", Business Insider 10/8/2016.

So how are those staffers defying orders? Are they ceasing to work for Trump despite orders to continue? In that case, it's "orders to keep working for Trump" that they're defying. Or are they defying instructions (to stop), (in order) to keep working for Trump?

Aaron Dinkin points out that the headline is perfectly ambiguous in this respect. And interestingly, both meanings are consistent with what we know about disagreement and confusion within the Republican party.

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Close verbal shadowing

Rhett & Link:

"They're so close they can finish each other's sentences."

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Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

"Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’".
"The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory" ("In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages").
"Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning" ("A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages").
"In world's languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning" ("Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds").
"Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds" ("After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds").
"Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds".
"Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings".
"WORLD LANGUAGES HAVE A COMMON ANCESTOR".

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one "discovered a universal human language" or "overturned years of linguistic theory" or showed that "world languages have a common ancestor" or demonstrated that "the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings". And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: "biology could play a role in the invention of human language", "words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds", etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven't found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it's not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there's little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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