Archive for Psychology of language


A lovely example of a Fay-Cutler malapropism, i.e. a lexical substitution error:

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More about UM/UH on the Autism Spectrum

At a workshop in June, a group of us will be presenting a report that includes this graph:

The x axis is the relative frequency of "filled pauses" UM and UH, from 0% to 8%, and the y axis is the proportion of filled pauses that are UM, from 0% to 100%. The individual plotting characters represent values from transcripts of 100 children's contributions to Q&A segments of a standard diagnostic interview, where the blue Ts are "typically developing" children, the green Ms are male children with an autism spectrum diagnosis, and the red Fs are female children with an autism spectrum diagnosis.

You can find the details in Julia Parish-Morris, Mark Liberman, Neville Ryant, Christopher Cieri, Leila Bateman, Emily Ferguson, and Robert T. Schultz, "Exploring Autism Spectrum Disorders Using HLT", Computational Linguistics and Clinical Psychology 2016.

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Language and identity

Rebecca Tan, "Accent Adaptation (On sincerity, spontaneity, and the distance between Singlish and English", The Pennsylvania Gazette 2/18/2016:

The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud. […]

Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve taken this whole language situation a tad too personally. Till now, I have kept my Singaporean inflection close at hand, for fear that attempts at Americanisms will be wrong—or, worse, permanent. Yet I am beginning to feel myself grow tired of this stage fright, tired of this senseless preoccupation with the packaging of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Away from all these theatrics, the simple facts are that I am 9,500 miles away from home, and will be for four more years. I came here looking for change, and the words forming in my mouth to accommodate that change are not jokes, lies, or betrayals. They are real, not strange, and they are mine.

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Mark Sanford can't even

From Steve Benen, "Trump question leaves House Republican stumbling", MSNBC 2/11/16, the most spectacularly disfluent interview segment that I've ever heard:

Note to self: avoid trying to use words like "prognosticator" on national television, especially if "procrastinator" and/or "protagonist" are locally primed for some reason. Just stick with easy equivalents: "I like everybody else …"

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Sandals, Sandwiches, Sanders, whatever…

Megyn Kelly, reporting on the New Hampshire primary:

On the Democratic sides, Bernie Sandal- Sanders —
"Sandals", it could catch on —
in the summer months —
he has bested Hillary Clinton …

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Lexical limits?

Earlier today, Victor quotes Jerry Packard quoting C.C. Cheng to the effect that "the human lexicon has a de facto storage limit of 8,000 lexical items" ("Lexical limits", 12/5/2015). Victor is appropriately skeptical, and asks  for "references to any studies that have been done on the limits to (or norms for) the human lexicon".  In fact there's been a lot of quantitative research on this topic, going back at least 75 years, which supports Victor's skepticism, and demonstrates clearly that Cheng's estimate is low by such a large factor that I wonder whether his idea has somehow gotten mangled at some point along the chain of quotation.

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New frontiers in bullshitology

Gordon Pennycook, James Allan CheyneNathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit", Judgment and Decision Making 2015:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

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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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Denying that the earth is not flat

M.S. wrote to contribute an item for our misnegation collection — Liel Leibovitz, "‘The New York Times’ Goes Truther on the Temple Mount", Tablet 10/9/2015 [emphasis added]:

And so, because the paper of record won’t put it clearly, permit me the pleasure: Denying that a Jewish temple stood on the Temple Mount is not a form of historical argument. It is akin to denying that the earth is not flat. Or denying that global warming is real. Or that the evidence of human evolution is widely accepted by scholars.

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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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