Archive for Psychology of language

"Dick voice": Annoying voices and gender stereotypes

During the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a lot of negative commentary about Hillary Clinton's voice. Some examples from across the political spectrum are compiled and discussed here, and even-the-liberal-The-Atlantic published on "The Science Behind Hating Hillary's Voice".  Since Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump pretty much got a pass for vocal characteristics analogous to Hillary's, it was suggested more than once that the criticism was sexist, most creatively in this reprise of Shout by Dominique Salerno and Laura Hankin.

In fact, considering how many people have criticized aspects of Donald Trump's speaking style, it's striking that there's been so little discussion of his tone of voice as opposed to his rhetorical style and content. But this balance is distinctly different for his senior advisor Stephen Miller — see Kali Holloway, "What makes Trump advisor Stephen Miller so unlikeable?", Salon 2/15/2017. That article leads with a collection of video clips from Miller's recent interviews — here's the audio track:

Holloway's evaluation of those clips is strongly negative, and also distinctly gendered:

If you caught any of those appearances, you may have noticed a few Miller trademark gestures. Empty, reptilian eyes scanning left to right over cue cards. A pouty mouth delivering each insane untruth. And a voice that sounds like every hyper-unlikable, pompous, joyless, self-important authority-on-everything you’ve ever met. Or as Katie McDonough of Fusion puts it, “he has the voice of someone who is a dick.”

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Morphosyntactic innovation in the White House?

From the "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/14/2017, #12" (starting at 15:23 of the ABC News video):

JONATHAN KARL:  Back in January, the President said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period — well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did fee- he did speak with the ambassador —


JONATHAN KARL: I’m talking about during the campaign.


MR. SPICER: I don’t have any- I- there’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

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Language for the people!

4 speakers

Four sure-to-be-amazing talks on language are coming to central Texas on January 8 and all are invited!

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Bus sign nerdview in Sydney

It's good to find a prominently displayed list of local bus routes that you can Find your way consult when you arrive at the train station in a big city that perhaps you do not know.

And Sydney Central station in New South Wales, Australia, has exactly that. There is a big board headed "Find your way" at the station. But let's take a closer look at it. See if you can spot the nerdview (pointed out to me by Language Log reader Geoff Dawson).

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Trent Reznor Award nomination

It's been a while since we posted a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding — I believe that the most recent nomination was in April of 2012.  But here's a worthy suggestion from Laura Bailey:

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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".
"WORLD LANGUAGES HAVE A COMMON ANCESTOR".

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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