Archive for Psychology of language

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".

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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Alien Encounter at Penn

Last week, I posted a few notes about how the alienness of aliens might make it hard to learn to communicate with them ("Alien Encounters", 9/15/2016). To start with, even the basic modes of signal generation and interpretation would probably not fit our biology very well. And the interpretation of signals — biological as well as cultural — might also be outside the range that we expect from experience with our fellow humans.

Some people, including my colleague and friend Victor Mair, nevertheless proposed methods based on those that have been found to work in human contexts. So to clarify the issues I was trying to raise, here's a little Alien Encounter Sketch.

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"Literary" vs. "popular" fiction again

In "Annals of overgeneralization" (10/8/2013), I criticized a paper by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind", Science 10/3/2013. My complaint was that they drew conclusions about the effects of  reading three general categories of texts — "literary fiction", "popular fiction" and non-fiction —  based on experiments involved a small sample from each category, selected by the authors as in their opinion representative of the genre.

But you probably won't be surprised to learn that a replication attempt using exactly the same texts, performed by three separate research groups working in parallel,  failed to replicate Kidd and Castano's results.

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New frontiers in pseudo-Freudian slips

Jan Brewer, the former governor of Arizona, calls in once a week to the Mac & Gaydos radio show on KTAR in Glendale, Arizona. Her call on Tuesday 8/16/2016 featured this epic sequence, explaining why she doesn't think Donald Trump needs to run ads in Arizona:

got a strong message out there
and the people want a fighter
they're tired of the lying killer uh Hillary Clinton
and Bill Clintons of the world
vetted her now for thirty years

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You know, I mean

Almost a decade ago, Matt Hutson asked me whether "there are underlying personality differences between people who punctuate (litter?) their speech with 'you know' versus those who use 'I mean' more frequently" ("I mean, you know", 8/19/2007). I wasn't able to offer any insight into personality associations, but looking in the LDC conversational speech corpus, I did find some associations with age, education, and gender.

Recently I've been transcribing some political speeches and interviews, and I've noticed that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are rather polarized on this dimension.

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Speech errors

There are rumors that Donald Trump's campaign staff is feeling stressed —

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Misnegation correction

Dahlia Lithwick, "The Ideal Allies", Slate 6/27/2016:

Make no mistake, Whole Woman’s Health is a massive win for choice, even though nobody believed that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey wasn't in peril this term.*

*Update, June 27, 2016: This story also originally said nobody believed that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey was in peril this term. The author meant to propose the opposite.

Don Monroe, who sent in this addition to the misnegation files, noted that the revision

is correct but seems to exacerbate rather than reduce the challenge of interpreting it. I would have said “even though nobody doubted that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey was in peril this term.”

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Bob Ladd sent in a link to "Five Questions on Brexit to Jo Shaw", Verfassungsblog 6/24/2016 [emphasis added]:

There’s a possibility for the Article 50 trigger to be delayed, and the UK simply to carry on in membership, and then – once the UK population has had long enough to digest the real implications of Leave […] a second referendum could be held, perhaps this time under better conditions. I’m not sure that this will happen, though, precisely because the issue is complicated by the internal territorial pressures discussed in the next section. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver, so it could be that if he becomes Prime Minister then we will see moves in this direction.

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Singing an escape from Foreign Accent Syndrome

Last weekend's Snap Judgment profiled an interesting case of "Foreign Accent Syndrome", in which Ellen Spencer's speech disorder, caused by a stroke, disappears when she sings — and even to some extent when she thinks about singing:

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Name chains in literature?

Barbara Phillips Long sent in a link to Cari Romm, "Why You Sometimes Mix Up Your Friend’s Name With Your Dog’s Name", New York Magazine 5/19/2016:

Every so often, my mother, in a mental search for my name, will run through what seems like the entire family tree — she’ll say the names of my brother, her sisters, her parents, our family dog, in rapid succession before finally landing on Cari. Most of these names, it may be worth noting, sound nothing alike; also, the dog has been dead for six years.

Romm's article was occasioned by Samantha Deffler et al., "All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals", Memory & Cognition April 2016:

Despite knowing a familiar individual (such as a daughter) well, anecdotal evidence suggests that naming errors can occur among very familiar individuals. Here, we investigate the conditions surrounding these types of errors, or misnamings, in which a person (the misnamer) incorrectly calls a familiar individual (the misnamed) by someone else’s name (the named).

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Too like the gender

Is this the future of English pronouns? Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning takes place in a world where he/she is as quaintly obsolete as thee/thou. From the book's opening:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

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