Archive for Psychology of language

The literary Turing Test

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"The midtowm and midtern year"

At the beginning of Donald Trump's press conference yesterday about the results of the midterm elections, he said something psycholinguistically interesting:

it was a big day yesterday, an incredible day
and last night the republican party defied history
to expand our senate majority
while significantly beating expectations in the house
for the midtowm
and midtern year

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Writing characters and writing letters

A few days ago, I wrote the following titles on the blackboard in my "Poetry and Prose" class:

Dà Táng Sānzàng qǔjīng shīhuà 大唐三藏取經詩話 (Poetic Tale of Tripitaka of the Great Tang Fetching Scriptures)

Yóuxiān kū 遊仙窟 (The Grotto of Playful Transcendants)

Guānshìyīn yìngyàn jì 觀世音應驗記 (Records of the Verifications of Responses by Avalokiteśvara)

As I was rapidly writing the strokes of the characters — click click click tick tick tack tack click clack tick tack — I suddenly became aware of how different the writing sounded from when I write something in Roman letters.  Not only did writing characters sound very different from the way writing letters sounds, the two types of script have a very different kinetic feel to them.

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Lexical orientation

In "Lexico-Cultural Decay", 10/9/2018, I examined Jonathan Merritt's Google-ngram-based argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018). Today, as promised in that post, I'm returning to his neo-Whorfian conclusion:

Now, words have fallen out of usage at every point in history. Language is always changing, and humans keep marching on. Does this trend matter?

Actually, yes. An emerging body of research now reveals that the languages we hear and speak also influence our worldviews, memories, perceptions, and behaviors more than scientists once realized. Children who grow up speaking the same words tend to think in similar ways. Our minds don't just shape our words. Our words shape our minds, too.

A linguist named Lera Boroditsky once asked an audience of celebrated scholars at Harvard University to close their eyes and point north. Hands shot up around the auditorium like roman candles, aimed in all possible directions. She repeated the experiment at Princeton and Stanford, as well as in Moscow, London, and Beijing. The result was the same — an array of hands aimed at each of the four major directions and every point in between.

But when Boroditsky traveled to a community on the western shores of Australia's Cape York, she discovered that children as young as 5 can point north at all times with absolute precision.

Why the difference? The answer, as it turns out, is words.

Or maybe the answer is walls.

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"Project Talent" adds to long-range dementia predictions

Tara Bahrampour, "In 1960, about a half-million teens took a test. Now it could predict the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.", WaPo 9/21/2018:

In 1960, Joan Levin, 15, took a test that turned out to be the largest survey of American teenagers ever conducted. It took two-and-a-half days to administer and included 440,000 students from 1,353 public, private and parochial high schools across the country — including Parkville Senior High School in Parkville, Md., where she was a student. […]

Fifty-eight years later, the answers she and her peers gave are still being used by researchers — most recently in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. A study released this month found that subjects who did well on test questions as teenagers had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and related dementias in their 60s and 70s than those who scored poorly.

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Cookie theft renewal

One piece of the "Boston diagnostic aphasia examination" is a picture description task, for which a standard stimulus is the line drawing shown below on the left:

For one example of how such descriptions can be used, see Naomi Nevler et al., "Automatic measurement of prosody in behavioral variant FTD", 2017. Because it's a standard part of a standard examination, there's been a good reason to continue to use this drawing — but I've often joked that if I were the examination subject, I'd probably spend half of my description time commenting about the picture's 1955-era vibe.

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Anonymous in Montana

There's been a certain amount of media coverage of President Trump's difficulties in pronouncing the word "anonymous" at a rally on Friday in Billings, Montana:

But this was the only example of a similarly extreme tongue-tangle in this speech, which lasted over an hour — so I feel that the attempts to depict this in clinical terms (e.g.Jack Holmes, "The President's Broken Brain Was on Full Display in Montana", Esquire 9/7/2018) are unwarranted.

Then why did the phrase "an anonymous coward" hit Trump like a tongue twister? Try saying "an anonymous" three times fast, and I think you'll start to understand.

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Linguistic synchrony

Bruce Doré and Robert Morris, "Linguistic Synchrony Predicts the Immediate and Lasting Impact of Text-Based Emotional Support", Psychological Science 2018:

Emotional support is critical to well-being, but the factors that determine whether support attempts succeed or fail are incompletely understood. Using data from more than 1 million support interactions enacted within an online environment, we showed that emotional-support attempts are more effective when there is synchrony in the behavior of support providers and recipients reflective of shared psychological understanding. Benefits of synchrony in language used and semantic content conveyed were apparent in immediate measures of support impact (recipient ratings of support effectiveness and expressions of gratitude), as well as delayed measures of lasting change in the emotional impact of stressful life situations (recipient ratings of emotional recovery made at a 1-hr delay). These findings identify linguistic synchrony as a process underlying successful emotional support and provide direction for future work investigating support processes enacted via linguistic behaviors.

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More people have thought about this than I have

Alexis Wellwood et al., "The Anatomy of a Comparative Illusion", Journal of Semantics 8/3/2018:

Comparative constructions like More people have been to Russia than I have are reported to be acceptable and meaningful by native speakers of English; yet, upon closer reflection, they are judged to be incoherent. This mismatch between initial perception and more considered judgment challenges the idea that we perceive sentences veridically, and interpret them fully; it is thus potentially revealing about the relationship between grammar and language processing. This paper presents the results of the first detailed investigation of these so-called ‘comparative illusions’. We test four hypotheses about their source: a shallow syntactic parser, some type of repair by ellipsis, an incorrectly-resolved lexical ambiguity, or a persistent event comparison interpretation. Two formal acceptability studies show that speakers are most prone to the illusion when the matrix clause supports an event comparison reading. A verbatim recall task tests and finds evidence for such construals in speakers’ recollections of the sentences. We suggest that this reflects speakers’ entertaining an interpretation that is initially consistent with the sentence, but failing to notice when this interpretation becomes unavailable at the than-clause. In particular, semantic knowledge blinds people to an illicit operator-variable configuration in the syntax. Rather than illustrating processing in the absence of grammatical analysis, comparative illusions thus underscore the importance of syntactic and semantic rules in sentence processing.

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"I love you too"

Dave Holmes, "To Whom Did Donald Trump Say 'I Love You, Too' During Wednesday's Cabinet Meeting?", Esquire 7/18/2018:

Listen: the crazy bullshit is coming fast and furious these days. Weird moments that would have permanently stained whole careers only years ago are allowed to sail right past, because we lack the mental bandwidth to really process them. […]

I bring this up because on Wednesday, a gorgeously awkward moment unfolded in front of us, and it would be a crime on the level of treason if I didn’t allow you to savor it the way I have. It was from Wednesday afternoon’s cabinet meeting, after our president was asked whether Russia was still targeting the United States, as our country’s entire intelligence apparatus has concluded that it is, and he replied “No.” […]

The weird thing happens right when he starts talking about how well we are doing with Russia: both very well and very well, probably as well as anyone has ever done, […]

You guys, just after disavowing the findings of his own government’s intelligence community, the President of the United States says, to nobody in particular, “I love you, too.” Seriously.

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"I could no longer deny that we were not …"

Many times over the years we've noted cases where piled-up modals and negations  leave writers (and readers) uncertain about whether a sentence might not turn out to mean the opposite of what it was meant to. Here's another example, contributed by GD — John Albrecht, "One year on", 12/31/2017:

At about this time one year ago “the penny dropped” for me as an auctioneer and I could no longer deny that auctioneers who dealt in ivory were not significantly contributing to maintaining value in this material and consequently, the ongoing slaughter of endangered species.

In this case, the tally seems clearly to come out wrong — to convince yourself, try replacing "deny" with "maintain the view", or replacing "were not significantly contributing" with "were significantly contributing".

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"Evil being protesting"

Mark Meckes asks:

Is there a name for the mistake of substituting one kind of participle for another? I feel like I've seen a number of examples of this lately, most recently in Ross Douthat's current NYT column
("The Red Hen and the Resistance", 6/27/2018):

"But to mitigate the effects of backlash, an effective protest politics also needs to make sure the acts of protest are clearly linked to the evil being protesting, and that they set up scenarios where the person being protested, not the protester, comes out looking
bad."

If there's a name for this type of typing error, I don't know what it is — but it's something that I find myself doing frequently. (Along with other cases where my fingers follow a common but contextually incorrect path, like typing "frequency" for "frequently" at the end of the previous sentence — which I just did.)

And I call it a "typing error" because this particular type of mistake is rare or non-existent in speech, since it violates the lexical category rule governing speech errors.

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Dangerous speech

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