Archive for Psychology of language


The headline above this page at says Warren inches away from Obama. And Bob Ayers, who pointed it out to me, was surprised that anyone would judge Elizabeth Warren to be that close to Obama on the issues, since they disagree quite a bit. I agree with Bob: I also read the sentence that way (the wrong way) at first. But if you read the text you soon see that they must have meant inches as a 3rd-person-singular verb, not a plural noun, and that reverses the key entailment. She isn't a mere few inches away from the president; she is edging away from him.

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More fun with Facebook: THE

The script that I used to make that course assignment about Facebook pronouns ("Sex, age, and pronouns on Facebook", 9/19/2014; "More fun with Facebook pronouns", 9/27/2014) can trivially be focused on any other words — so here's "the":

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Um, there's timing information in Switchboard?

We start with a psycholinguistic controversy. On one side, there's Herbert Clark and Jean Fox Tree, "Using uh and um in spontaneous speaking", Cognition 2002.

The proposal examined here is that speakers use uh and um to announce that they are initiating what they expect to be a minor (uh), or major (um), delay in speaking. Speakers can use these announcements in turn to implicate, for example, that they are searching for a word, are deciding what to say next, want to keep the floor, or want to cede the floor. Evidence for the proposal comes from several large corpora of spontaneous speech. The evidence shows that speakers monitor their speech plans for upcoming delays worthy of comment. When they discover such a delay, they formulate where and how to suspend speaking, which item to produce (uh or um), whether to attach it as a clitic onto the previous word (as in “and-uh”), and whether to prolong it. The argument is that uh and um are conventional English words, and speakers plan for, formulate, and produce them just as they would any word.

And on the other side, there's Daniel C. O'Connell and Sabine Kowal, "Uh and Um Revisited: Are They Interjections for Signaling Delay?", Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 2005:

Clark and Fox Tree (2002) have presented empirical evidence, based primarily on the London–Lund corpus (LL; Svartvik & Quirk, 1980), that the fillers uh and um are conventional English words that signal a speaker’s intention to initiate a minor and a major delay, respectively. We present here empirical analyses of uh and um and of silent pauses (delays) immediately following them in six media interviews of Hillary Clinton. Our evidence indicates that uh and um cannot serve as signals of upcoming delay, let alone signal it differentially: In most cases, both uh and um were not followed by a silent pause, that is, there was no delay at all; the silent pauses that did occur after um were too short to be counted as major delays; finally, the distributions of durations of silent pauses after uh and um were almost entirely overlapping and could therefore not have served as reliable predictors for a listener.  The discrepancies between Clark and Fox Tree’s findings and ours are largely a consequence of the fact that their LL analyses reflect the perceptions of professional coders, whereas our data were analyzed by means of acoustic measurements with the PRAAT software (  [...] Clark and Fox Tree’s analyses were embedded within a theory of ideal delivery that we find inappropriate for the explication of these phenomena.

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This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts.

It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?  The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory claims, 'This course will change your life.'"

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Evaluating terminological oppositions

In "Biomedical nerdview", I noted that the terms "sensitivity" and "specificity" seem to be hard even for biomedical researchers to remember, and also denote concepts that are deeply misleading from the perspective of patients and their physicians. I offered a "flash of insight" about why researchers chose to focus on the concepts — they're relevant to public health concerns, though not to patients — but I confessed to being baffled about the hard-to-remember choice of terminology. Bob Ladd responded by email:

While not wanting to take away anything from your flash of insight, I was wondering if you wanted to write another LL post, not about nerdview, but about inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another. 

Since Bob goes on to suggest an interesting morpho-phonological theory about why some terminological oppositions are so problematic, I got his permission to post his note.

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"Judgement of error"

Sent in by M.C. — Fiona Simpson, "Breast-feeding mother asked to 'cover up' with dirty dishcloth at Bexleyheath pub", News Shopper 9/24/2014:

An outraged mother has organised a 'boob and bottle' protest at a Bexleyheath pub after being 'ordered' to cover her breast-feeding baby with a dirty dishcloth.  

Mother-of-four Olivia Pozniak was breast-feeding her 11-week-old son, Louie, at the Furze Wren pub, owned by Wetherspoon, in Market Place on September 21 when she was asked to cover up.

An admirably straightforward apology ensued:

Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon said: "We apologise wholeheartedly to the lady. This should never have happened.

"Our pubs are welcoming to mothers who wish to breastfeed their children.

"The Wetherspoon staff member made a judgement of error in this case.

"There are no excuses and we do not offer one.

"We completely understand that this incident upset the lady in question and hope she accepts our apology."

The point of linguistic interest is the phrase "judgement of error", which M.C. suggests is a sort of phrasal malapropism for "error of judgement".

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"Quasiregularity and its discontents"

Suggestion for your weekend reading: Mark Seidenberg and David Plaut, "Quasiregularity and Its Discontents: The Legacy of the Past Tense Debate", Cognitive Science 2014. The abstract:

Rumelhart and McClelland’s chapter about learning the past tense created a degree of controversy extraordinary even in the adversarial culture of modern science. It also stimulated a vast amount of research that advanced the understanding of the past tense, inflectional morphology in English and other languages, the nature of linguistic representations, relations between language and other phenomena such as reading and object recognition, the properties of artificial neural networks, and other topics. We examine the impact of the Rumelhart and McClelland model with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight. It is not clear who “won” the debate. It is clear, however, that the core ideas that the model instantiated have been assimilated into many areas in the study of language, changing the focus of research from abstract characterizations of linguistic competence to an emphasis on the role of the statistical structure of language in acquisition and processing.

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Can you spell "bus"?

I have commented before on the psycholinguistics of signs painted on roads: in the USA it is apparently assumed that drivers will read the words in the order in which their front wheels reach them, so that what appears to be a display with "ONLY" above "LANE" above "BIKE" is supposed to be read as "BIKE LANE ONLY". In the UK, the opposite assumption is made: that drivers will read the whole display as a text that starts at the top. However, in one startling recent case in Bristol, south-west England, the people who painted the sign on the road warning of a bus stop never read it at all, in either order. They just stencilled "BUP STOP" on the roadway and packed up and left. Photographic evidence supplied herewith, just in case you cannot believe anyone capable of holding down a local government job could be unable to spell "BUS".

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Needs more sexting

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More on UM and UH

A few days ago ("Fillers: Autism, gender, and age" 7/30/2014), I noted an apparent similarity between male/female differences in UM/UH usage, and  an autistic/typical difference reported in a poster by Gorman et al. at the IMFAR 2014 conference.

This morning I thought I'd take a closer look at the patterns in a large published conversational-speech dataset. Executive summary:

  • There is a large sex difference in filled-pause usage, favoring males by about 38%
  • There is an enormous sex difference in UM/UH ratio, favoring females by about 310%
  • These sex differences are mainly driven by the difference in UH usage, which favors males by about 250%
  • Older speakers use UH more and UM less, resulting in a large decrease of UM/UH ratios

The general pattern of gendered filled-pause usage in English has been at least partly replicated in several other datasets, including the spoken part of the British National Corpus, but the details are sometimes quite different.  (See my earlier post, and planned future posts, for some discussion.) But all the important questions remain open, for example:

  • Are the sex effects due to functional, iconic, or physiological differences between UM and UH, or are they arbitrary gender markers?
  • Do the age effects reflect a change in progress, or a life-cycle effect (e.g. due to changes in sex hormone levels)?
  • Are the patterns the same or different across geographical, socio-economic, and ethnic varieties of English?
  • Are there analogous phenomena in other languages?

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Fillers: Autism, gender, and age

K. Gorman et al., "Children's Use of Disfluencies Distinguish ASD and Language Impairment", IMFAR 2014 (emphasis added):

This study compares the relative frequencies of "uh" and "um" in the spontaneous speech of children with ASD (with or without comorbid language impairment) to two control groups. Methods: Participants: 112 children ages 3;10–9;0 participated: ASD (50), Specific Language Impairment (SLI;  18), and Typical Development (TD; 44). All diagnoses were verified by best-estimate clinical consensus. The children with ASD were split into two groups: one group with comorbid language impairment (ALI) as diagnosed by a CELF Core Language Score below 85, and one group with ASD but no clinical language impairment (ALN). All children were high functioning monolingual English speakers. Data collection: a clinician administered the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS; module 2 or 3) to each child. Sessions were recorded and transcribed.

Results: For all group pairs, diagnosis was uncorrelated with overall (i.e., "uh" + "um") rate of filled pause use. FP choice was analyzed for each comparison set using mixed effects logistic regression, with chronological age, FSIQ, ADOS "activity", and utterance position (utterance-initial vs. non-initial) as covariates. Diagnosis was a significant predictor for ALN/TD (p = .001) and ALI/SLI (p = .038); in both comparisons the ASD group used fewer instances of "um". Diagnosis was non-significant for TD/SLI (p = .888) and ALI/ALN (p = .814). ALI and ALN groups both used "uh" and "um" at an approximately 1:1 ratio, whereas TD and SLI groups used "um" 2 to 3 times more often than "uh". ADOS "activity" and utterance position were also significant predictors of FP choice; remaining covariates were non-significant.

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Want to get ahead as a woman in tech?
Learn to interrupt.

Below is a guest post by Kieran Snyder.

This week’s earlier posting on interruptions, in which I presented data to suggest that men interrupt more than women in the tech workplace, and that women are interrupted all the time by everyone, has easily been the most viewed, discussed, tweeted, and shared jenga post so far. This is due in no small part to the cross-posting picked up by Language Log, so many thanks to Mark Liberman for sharing it and to my linguist friends who suggested it. You can take the girl out of linguistics, but it’s hard to take linguistics out of the girl.

In case you missed the first post, a quick recap. In this totally observational and directional study, separate from any other factors, men interrupt women about three times as often as they interrupt other men. In a climate where interruptions happen on average once every two minutes and fifty-one seconds, there is less than one instance per hour of a woman interrupting a man for any reason. You get the idea: big tech is not an equitable environment as far as interruptions are concerned. This makes sense, since it is not a particularly equitable environment in terms of hiring and promotions either.

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Ur-etyma: how many are there?

This is another one of those posts that I started writing long ago (in this case back in January of 2012), but then set aside for one reason or another.  However, such drafts and research notes usually reemerge on my radar screen sooner or later, especially if they are of compelling interest and potential significance.  Now that it is summer time and I have a little bit of leisure to do what I like, I'm happy to return to this topic and finish it up.

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Vocal fry probably doesn't harm your career prospects

. . . but not being yourself just might.

There's been a lot of media interest recently in a new study of "vocal fry", sparked in part by an unusually detailed magazine article — Olga Khazan, "Vocal Fry May Hurt Women's Job Prospects", The Atlantic 5/29/2014. Other coverage: Gail Sullivan, "Study: Women with creaky voices — also known as ‘vocal fry’ — deemed less hireable", Washington Post 6/2/2014; "Is vocal fry hurting women's job prospects?", NPR Marketplace 6/5/2014; Maya Rhodan, "3 Speech Habits That Are Worse Than Vocal Fry in Job Interviews", Time Magazine 6/4/2014; and so on.

The original study is  Rindy C. Anderson et al., "Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market", PLOSOne 5/28/2014. Below is a guest post by Christian DiCanio, offering a more skeptical take.

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Random letter-partition advantages in baby names

Commenting on "QWERTY again", 5/14/2014, Rubrick suggested that

It seems like an extremely simple way to check the validity of this theory would be to repeat the analysis, but with the letters grouped into two random subsets, rather than right-left subsets. In fact, I'd think the original authors should have done this as a control. If this new grouping yields a graph with any meaningful-looking trends whatsoever (or if multiple repeats of the analysis with different random subsets yield such trends a significant percentage of the time), it would pretty soundly deflate the idea that the original trends are the result of "right-hand favoritism".

Steve Kass followed up on this suggestion, providing five examples, and commenting that

The graphs don't all look the same, but they all look interesting, and several of them practically beckon the storyteller. There's something interesting about this general kind of data and "advantage function" analysis worth discovering, I think.

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