Archive for Psychology of language

Hurricane naming policy change

I think it's becoming clear that alternating male and female personal names to individuate Atlantic tropical cyclones is not a good idea. These storms are becoming far too nasty. Calling a storm "Harvey" makes it sound like your friendly uncle who always comes over on the Fourth of July and flirts with your mom. And "Irma" sounds like a dancer that he once knew when he was in Berlin. Science tells us that these devastating meteorological events are probably going to get worse in coming years. (Ann Coulter says that as a potential cause of increased violence in hurricanes, climate change is less plausible than God's anger at Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor; but let's face it, Ann Coulter is a few bricks short of a full intellectual hod.) Hurricanes need uglier names. You can't get Miami to evacuate by telling people that "Irma" is coming.

Accordingly, next year the National Hurricane Center is planning to name tropical cyclonic storms and hurricanes after unpleasant diseases and medical conditions. Think about it. The state governor tells you a hurricane named Dracunculiasis is coming down on you, you're gonna start packing the station wagon. So as the season progresses, the following will be the named storms in 2018.

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Chinese Synesthesia

Xiaoyan (Coco) Li, a native Chinese speaker with synesthesia (self identified, never formally tested), happened to come across this Language Log post:

"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)

She wrote to me saying that she experiences some of what Leo Fransella (quoted in the earlier post) referred to as "'non-trivial' Chinese synaesthesia".  For him "trivial" Chinese synesthesia is associated with or stimulated by the letters of the Pinyin used to spell Chinese words, not from the characters used to write them.

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Who (or what) is allowing whom?

The big news today has been Donald Trump's morning tweetstorm about "low I.Q. crazy Mika" Brzezinski "bleeding badly from a face-lift" at Mar-A-Lago over New Years. Bill Hemmer, interviewing Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Fox News, asked her "What is the White House saying about why that went out?"

Her response:

Look I- I- I don't think that the president's ever been someone who gets attacked and doesn't push back.
Uh there have been
an outrageous number of personal attacks not just to him but to frankly everyone around him.
Uh people on that show have personally attacked me many times.
This is a president who fights fire with fire,
and certainly will not be allowed to be bullied by
liberal media and the liberal elites within the media or hollywood or anywhere else

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It had been very careless in their behavior

Daniel Victor, "What Was Behind Those Befuddling McCain Questions?", NYT 6/8/2017:

Senator John McCain became an unexpected focus of befuddlement and concern on Thursday after a line of questioning that appeared to conflate two separate F.B.I. investigations during James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Here's the start of Senator McCain's questions:

JohnMcCain: In the case of uh
Hillary Clinton,
you made the statement that
there wasn't uh
sufficient evidence to bring a suit
against her, although
it had been very uh
careless in their behavior. But you did reach a conclusion
in that case that it was not uh necessary to
further pursue her.
Yet, at the same time, in the case
of Mister Comey,
said that there was not enough information to make
a conclusion. Tell me the difference between your conclusion as far as
former Secretary Clinton is concerned and-
and Mist- Mister Trump.

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A little sentiment analysis

As I've noted from time to time, speakers' pitch range is affected by many internal and external factors in addition to their anatomy and physiology. External factors include the level of background noise and the distance to the intended hearer(s). Internal factors include the level of physiological arousal. In particular, we expect the emotion of "hot anger" to increase pitch range.

As a recent case in point, here's a plot of Greg Gianforte's pitch range during his 5/25/2017 assault of a Guardian reporter, compared to his pitch range during a 10/4/2016 interview:

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Trends in presidential pitch II

In Trends in presidential pitch (5/19/2017), I observed that the median fundamental frequency (= "pitch") of President Trump's weekly addresses has increased  steadily since January, by about 30%.  As a point of comparison, I did the same calculation for President Obama's first few months of  weekly addresses, from 1/24/2009 to 5/23/2009, in comparison to Trump's weekly addresses from 1/28/2017 to 5/19/2017:

[I've omitted Trump's three addresses from 3/3/2017, 3/25/2017, and 3/31/2017, because of the differences in recording context and production style explained in the earlier post. Because Obama seems not to have recorded any weekly addresses in February of 2009, the time span of the 13 plotted weekly addresses from the two presidencies is very nearly the same. ]

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Trends in presidential pitch

I've been downloading the audio for Donald Trump's Weekly Addresses from, as I did for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And as I did for the previous presidents, I listen to the results and sometimes do simple acoustic-phonetic analyses — see e.g. "Raising his voice", 10/8/2011; "Political sound and silence", 2/8/2016. Recently I thought I noticed a significant change in Mr. Trump's pitch range, and a quick check confirmed this impression.

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

"Congressional Republicans want to fight on, but the White House says Obamacare repeal is dead", Vox 3/26/2017:

But Mulvaney’s remarks raise a question: If “fixing the system” is a major legislative priority, why is Trump leaving it unfinished? Mulvaney’s answer — that Trump “is not willing to do what other politicians would do” — in that context actually sounds like a damning critique of the president who, it’s worth noting, went on his 13th golf outing since taking office on Sunday.

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The accommodation

Yesterday in phonetics class we were discussing accommodation — the way that people adapt the way they talk depending on who they're talking with — and I noted that broadcast interview programs are a natural source of evidence, since the same host speaks at length with many different guests. Previous posts have looked at accommodation in a couple of features on the Philadelphia-based broadcast interview program Fresh Air ("UM/UH accommodation", 11/24/2015; "Like thanks", 11/26/2015). During yesterday's class, it occurred to me that it would make sense to look at accommodation in the use of the definite article the, since the is one of the commonest words in English, and yet the rates vary surprisingly widely across time, registers, genders, moods, and individuals.

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If we have learned nothing in this election

From Allison Stanger, "Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion", NYT 3/13/2017 [emphasis added]:

Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury.

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Fluent disfluency

A couple of days ago, in "Mistakes", I noted that

verbatim transcripts of spontaneous speech are often full of filled pauses, self-corrections, and other things that must be edited out in order to create what that commenter would count as a "coherent sentence". And this is true even for people who have risen far in the world on the basis of their ability to impress others in spontaneous verbal interaction.

In the comments, David L suggested that we should

Listen to sports commentators, for instance. The best of them of them can keep talking (and talking and talking…) with little hesitation or stumbling.

So I took two random segments featuring a local sports-radio talk show personality, Howard Eskin. These were literally random segments, in the sense that I picked two random spots in the time line of the first hour of the podcast of Eskin's March 4 show, and selected a coherent segment of monologue around each point.

Eskin is certainly known for his ability to "keep talking (and talking and talking…) with little hesitation". But what I found in those two passages was the typical pattern of "fluent disfluency": filled pauses and self-corrections are roughly as common as the commonest "real words".

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Synesthesia and Chinese characters

Leo Fransella asks:

I'm curious to know whether, in your years studying and teaching written Chinese, you've ever come across synaesthesia as applied to Chinese characters (zi) or words (ci)?

The most common form of synaesthesia (~1% of people, I think) involves the systematic assignment of colours to letters, numbers or (sometimes) whole words. I have this 'grapheme-colour' quite strongly: when I hear a phone number or see a number written on a page, for example, I automatically sense it as bands of colour. Much the same for words: it literally bothers me when I don't know how to spell someone's name, as their associated colours can be so different (Catherine is bluey-green with a dash of red; Kathryn is green-yellow). Sounds a bit loopy to people who don't do this, but it's a very useful mnemonic trick when learning French vocab or Latin verb conjugations and noun declensions.

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Yesterday's post "A stick with which to beat other women with" discussed the duplication of prepositions in the title phrase, and a commenter complained that

The woman interviewed has a pretty mediocre command of English (she doesn't pronounce a single coherent sentence and keeps stuttering) although she is an actress speaking in her native language. That she would make mistakes in her own language is thus regrettable but not especially surprising. I am not unaware that the concept "mistake" does not enjoy stellar prestige among linguists, but why is that particular error worthy of a blog entry?

As another commenter observed, my original post used the phrase "performance error" to describe the possibility that Emma Watson's preposition doubling was a mistake rather than a bona fide syntactic variant.

But my point today is that verbatim transcripts of spontaneous speech are often full of filled pauses, self-corrections, and other things that must be edited out in order to create what that commenter would count as a "coherent sentence". And this is true even for people who have risen far in the world on the basis of their ability to impress others in spontaneous verbal interaction.

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