Archive for Psychology of language

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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 it — 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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World disfluencies

Disfluency has been in the news recently, for two reasons: the deployment of filled pauses in an automated conversation by Google Duplex, and a cross-linguistic study of "slowing down" in speech production before nouns vs. verbs.

Lance Ulanoff, "Did Google Duplex just pass the Turing Test?", Medium 5/8/2018:

I think it was the first “Um.” That was the moment when I realized I was hearing something extraordinary: A computer carrying out a completely natural and very human-sounding conversation with a real person. And it wasn’t just a random talk. […]

Duplex made the call and, when someone at the salon picked up, the voice AI started the conversation with: “Hi, I’m calling to book a woman’s hair cut appointment for a client, um, I’m looking for something on May third?”

Frank Seifart et al., "Nouns slow down speech: evidence from structurally and culturally diverse languages", PNAS 2018:

When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world. We show a robust tendency for slower speech before nouns as compared with verbs. Even though verbs may be more complex than nouns, nouns thus appear to require more planning, probably due to the new information they usually represent. This finding points to strong universals in how humans process language and manage referential information when communicating linguistically.

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What would Freud say?

At a press conference yesterday, Paul Ryan announced that he won't be running for re-election this fall, explaining that

uh to be clear I am not resigning
I intend to full my serve term as I was elected to do
but I will be retiring in January
leaving this majority in good hands with a-
what I believe is a very bright future

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"This wave in the mind"

Ursula K.Le Guin died a couple of months ago, and since then I've been re-reading some of her works that I've enjoyed over the years. Yesterday I was struck by the epigraph to her 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind, which apparently I missed when I read the book a decade ago.  It's part of a letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, 16 March 1926:

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

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Slips of the finger vs. slips of the tongue

There's an interesting and understudied way that typing errors and speaking errors are different. From Gary Dell, "Speaking and Misspeaking", Ch. 7 in Introduction to Cognitive Science: Language, 1995:

One of the most striking facts about word slips, such as exchanges, anticipations, perseverations, and noncontextual substitutions, is that they obey a syntactic category rule. When one word erroneously replaces another, most of the time the target and substituting word are of the same syntactic category. Nouns slip with nouns, verbs with verbs, and so on.

In other words, we're NOT likely to say something like "When one word erroneously replacement another, …" or "exchanges, anticipation, perseverations, and noncontextual substituted […] obey a syntactic category rule".

But errors of this type are fairly common in typing. They seem to be cases where we've started to type the right thing, but as our attention shifts to the following material, our fingers follow a familiar but incorrect path.

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Ross Macdonald: lexical diversity over the lifespan

This post is an initial progress report on some joint work with Mark Liberman. It's part of a larger effort to replicate and extend Xuan Le, Ian Lancashire, Graeme Hirst, & Regina Jokel, "Longitudinal detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: a case study of three British novelists", Literary and Linguistic Computing 2011. Their abstract:

We present a large-scale longitudinal study of lexical and syntactic changes in language in Alzheimer's disease using complete, fully parsed texts and a large number of measures, using as our subjects the British novelists Iris Murdoch (who died with Alzheimer's), Agatha Christie (who was suspected of it), and P.D. James (who has aged healthily). […] Our results support the hypothesis that signs of dementia can be found in diachronic analyses of patients’ writings, and in addition lead to new understanding of the work of the individual authors whom we studied. In particular, we show that it is probable that Agatha Christie indeed suffered from the onset of Alzheimer's while writing her last novels, and that Iris Murdoch exhibited a ‘trough’ of relatively impoverished vocabulary and syntax in her writing in her late 40s and 50s that presaged her later dementia.

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