Archive for Psychology of language

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,
you
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 whitehouse.gov, 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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Mistakes

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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"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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