I've recently been working with Naomi Nevler and others from Penn's Frontotemporal Degeneration Center on quantifying the diverse effects in speech and language of various neurodegenerative conditions. As part of an effort to establish baselines, I turned to the English-language part of the "Fisher" datasets of conversational telephone speech (LDC2004S13, LDC2004T19, LDC2005S13, LDC2005T19), where we have basic demographic information for 11,971 speakers, including age and sex. These datasets comprise 11,699 short telephone conversations between strangers on assigned topics, or 23,398 conversational sides, with a total duration of 1,958.5 hours. The calls were recorded in 2003.
For this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I took a look at age-related changes in pitch range, as quantified by quantiles of fundamental frequency (f0) estimates. We have time-aligned transcripts, so after pitch-tracking everything, I can extract the f0 estimates for each speaker, combine them across calls if the speaker was involved in more than one call, and calculate various simple statistics. Here are the median values for the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentile of f0 estimates by decade of age from 20s to 70s. Values for female speakers are in red, and for male speakers in blue:
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.
In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.
The news these days, I find, seldom merits a smile. But at one news story I heard at lunchtime today I actually laughed out loud, alone in my kitchen. Michel Barnier, charged with heading the EU side in the complex forthcoming negotiations that will set the terms for the UK's exit from the European Union, has found a way to hurt the British more deeply, and put them more at a disadvantage, than I ever would have thought possible. It is so fiendish it ought to be illegal, yet it violates no law or basic principle of human rights. It is simply wonderful in its passive-aggressive hostility. I take my hat off to him. He has announced that he wants all the negotiations with the British team to be conducted in French.
For three years, NYU linguistics professor emeritus John Victor Singler, along with researchers Nathan LaFave and Allison Shapp, pored over hours of audio of Ginsburg’s remarks at the Supreme Court. They used computer programs to analyze thousands of vowel and consonant utterances during her time arguing cases in the 1970s, and then from the early ’90s onward, after she returned to the court in robes. While one can hear flecks of classic New York features in Lawyer Ginsburg’s remarks—like the pursed, closed-mouthed vowels—her Brooklyn roots are more obvious in the speech of Justice Ginsburg, they found.
Their theory, reported here for the first time, is that “conscious or not,” the lawyer was doing something everyone does, what is known in linguistics as accommodation: adapting our ways of communicating depending on who we’re talking to. Accommodating can be done through word choice, pronunciation, even gestures. A common example would be when someone returns to the town where they grew up and their accent comes roaring back as they talk to friends and family who sound that way, too.
This is the first time that I can recall having seen embedded Soundcloud audio clips in a publication of this kind.
Please, talk to each other. It's important to linguists that there should be plenty of chat. We need language live, on the hoof. Millions of spoken word tokens everywhere, so that we can (for example) compare Donald Trump's amazingly high proportion of first-person singular pronouns to the average for non-narcissists like typical Language Log readers.
However, beware of engaging in chat to strangers on the subway if you are in London. A new campaign for people to wear a "Tube chat?" button when traveling on London Underground trains, intended to provoke random conversation with other passengers, has been met with horror and disdain by the misanthropic curmudgeons who use the services in question. No chat please; we're Londoners.
[Comments are turned off out of respect for readers in London.]
According to Philly native Mary Seaborough, who works at Cook-Wissahickon elementary, where my kids attend school, "It really can mean anything you want it to mean." Seaborough grew up in South Philly. She uses "jawn," and she helped me understand the word's versatility. It is used mainly to refer to places and things, but it can even be a person, specifically a pretty woman. "A guy might say, 'Man, did you see that jawn over there?'" Seaborough said.
“Creed might be the movie that introduces jawn to the rest of America,” said Taylor Jones, a linguistics graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who uses social media to study how words, and slang, change. In the film, “Jawn” is introduced by actress Tessa Thompson, who plays the Philly-born female love interest opposite Michael B. Jordan, who plays the film’s title character, Adonis Creed. She drops the j-word, while ordering a cheesesteak — “put some peppers on that jawn.”
I recently heard some grumbling at the local pub over the new Star Trek's "Scotty" referring to Lt Uhura as "lass" or "lassy". Have the writers of the most recent iteration of the ST franchise created a sexist or dismissive Scotty …or just a Scottish one?
I haven't seen the movie, and am not competent in contemporary Scottish sociolinguistics, much less those of the 23rd century. So I'll leave this one for the commenters.
In order to pass the time on the long flight back from Paris, I downloaded a set of classic Margery Allingham mysteries. And in reading them, I was struck now and again by interesting and unexpected linguistic trivia. Thus in Look to the Lady, 1931 [emphasis added]:
Mr Campion was introduced, and there was a momentary awkward pause. A quick comprehending glance passed between him and the elder girl, a silent flicker of recognition, but neither spoke. Penny sensed the general embarrassment and came to the rescue, chattering on breathlessly with youthful exuberance.
'I forgot you didn't know Beth,' she said. 'She came just after you left. She and her people have taken Tye Hall. They're American, you know. It's glorious having neighbours again – or it would be if Aunt Di hadn't behaved so disgustingly. My dear, if Beth and I hadn't conducted ourselves like respectable human beings there'd be a feud.'
Beth laughed. 'Lady Pethwick doesn't like strangers,' she said, revealing a soft unexpectedly deep voice with just a trace of a wholly delightful New England accent.
The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud. […]
Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve taken this whole language situation a tad too personally. Till now, I have kept my Singaporean inflection close at hand, for fear that attempts at Americanisms will be wrong—or, worse, permanent. Yet I am beginning to feel myself grow tired of this stage fright, tired of this senseless preoccupation with the packaging of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Away from all these theatrics, the simple facts are that I am 9,500 miles away from home, and will be for four more years. I came here looking for change, and the words forming in my mouth to accommodate that change are not jokes, lies, or betrayals. They are real, not strange, and they are mine.