Archive for Psychology of language

Too few words to describe emotions

At about 22:45 of the BBC discussion program The Moral MazeNatasha Devon  asserts

Well it- I- again, one of the problems is language, actually, because in English, we have a very limited emotional vocabulary. When you look at other languages, they- they have a much broader amount of words that they can use to describe their emotions and their mental health. So, if I say to you ‘I’m feeling anxious’, that could be anything from common or garden anxiety right through to an anxiety disorder. And one is a medical issue and the other is not.

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Reading problems?

Or maybe writing problems? Donald Trump's recent speech announcing the end of the government shutdown was read (I presume from a teleprompter), but the reading was awkward in at least two ways: the president often pronounced unstressed function words in a full and unreduced form, and his phrasing was odd, sometimes to the point of obscuring the meaning.

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Making our familiars listener with the Brefit rexerendum

"Senate Finds Russian Bots, Bucks Helped Push Brexit Vote Through", NPR Weekend Edition 1/19/2019:

A recent report on Russian influence operations overseas detailed large amounts of money and effort spent to influence the referendum. Scott Simon talks with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer.

Uncharacteristically for a professional speaker, Scott Simon commits two interesting speech errors in his short parts of this short (3:44) interview.

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Which what?

Presumably this is elliptical for something like

We lose 300 Americans a week to drugs, 90% of which comes through the Southern Border.

Some might object to the singular agreement of "comes", but intuitions and behavior are likely to be variable on this point, especially because the antecedent is omitted :-)…

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Another slur-or-not

Ryan Miller, "Jeremy Kappell apologizes in Facebook video, promises he did not use racial slur on TV", Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 1/7/2019:

Meteorologist Jeremy Kappell promised that he did not use a racial slur in reference to Martin Luther King Jr. and issued an apology to anyone who may have been hurt by his slip-up during a television broadcast last week.

WHEC-TV (Channel 10) fired Kappell on Monday, three days after he appeared to refer to a Rochester park as "Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Park" in a live shot on a newscast. Kappell said that he jumbled his words by mistake during a four-minute Facebook video that he posted on Monday evening.

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Grover's F-bomb

An audio ambiguity was recently posted on YouTube, like Yanny v. Laurel but more socially evocative. What Grover actually said was presumably

Move the camera! Yes, yes, that sounds like an excellent idea!

But you can also hear it as

Move the camera! Yes, yes, that's a fucking excellent idea!

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Orientation-dependent ambiguity

A striking example of orientation-dependent visual ambiguity:

Since speech is effectively one-dimensional, the only direct forms of orientation-dependent speech perception are time-reversal and spectral inversion, which require technological intervention.

But in writing, orientation-dependent perception is easy to arrange, and has a name, namely ambigrams. I don't recall every having seen an accidental ambigram, that is, a piece of text that reads differently upside down without the creator being aware of it. At least, not one where the ambiguity depends on properties of the font or script design.

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Life, death, whatever

David Brooks, "It’s Not the Economy, Stupid: How to conduct economic policy in an age of social collapse", NYT 11/29/2018:

People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.

And they are dying. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives.

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A better way to calculate pitch range

Today's topic is a simple solution to a complicated problem. The complicated problem is how to estimate "pitch range" in recordings of human speakers. As for the simple solution — wait and see.

You might think that the many differences between the perceptual variable of pitch and the physical variable of fundamental frequency ("f0") arise because perception is complicated and physics is simple. But if so, you'd be mostly wrong. The biggest problem is that physical f0 is a complex and often fundamentally incoherent concept. And even in the areas where f0 is well defined, f0 estimation (usually called "pitch tracking") is prone to errors.

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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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