The dynamics of lexical competition in spoken word recognition

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Today's Cathy addresses the topic of ambiguity resolution in speech:


A survey of recent research on the dynamics of lexical competition in spoken word recognition suggests that this strip is right to suggest that a common word ("chew") will compete well against a rare one ("eschew"), but perhaps less plausible in suggesting strong priming for a candidate that doesn't start until the second syllable of the (relevant part of the) input.

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  1. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    I notice that the woman on the right is asking for a classy pretzel. :)

  2. Monte Davis said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    Is there syntactical competition as well? I've recently started DVD-watching the UK crime series Trial and Retribution. In recommending it to friends I keep fumbling for the title. Could that be because it's tangling with the much more familiar pairs "law and order" and "crime and punishment"..?

  3. comwave said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    @Skullturf Q. Beavispants:
    I notice that the woman on the right is asking for a classy pretzel. :)

    Seconded, only if she is a classy lady. :)

  4. comwave said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Situational factors might play a role in this case. E.g. it's lunch hour and the audience were standing. The syllable "chew" may look responsible for moving the shoppers, but if it were after lunch and they were seated, the result can be different, i.e. victory to "eschew."

  5. sam said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Almost everybody I know pronounces it [e∫:uw]. Is it pronounced [est∫uw] other places (not in the NE USA?)

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    sam: Is it pronounced [est∫uw] other places (not in the NE USA?)

    The OED has [ɛsˈtʃuː] as the only pronunciation; AHD and Encarta are the same, modulo their idiosyncratic pronunciation-symbolism systems; M-W has \e-ˈshü, i-; es-ˈchü, is-; also e-ˈskyü\.

    So I think the answer to your question is "yes".

  7. Haamu said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    A current car commercial (I think it's for Mercedes; sorry, I looked in vain for a link to the video online) begins with the narrator saying, "A traction control system…"

    It doesn't seem to matter how many times I see the commercial, but my brain hears "attraction control" until the word "system" or something a bit later in the sentence (not sure if it's a semantic or syntactic cue) forces me to reevaluate.

    In my example, unlike "eschew," the erroneous candidate starts earlier in the lexical stream than the correct one. Perhaps that's why my brain favors it. Or perhaps it's because "attraction" is a more common word in my everyday experience than "traction" — especially in the sequence "a traction …."

  8. Andrew Carnie said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    I'm with Sam, it's definitely [ɛʃuw] for me. [ɛstʃuw] just sounds silly to me. (in fact, I came to the comment page to indicate that I thought that the joke only worked in print and not when spoken aloud).

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    It's [ɛstʃuw] for me, but this is likely influenced by the fact that it's one of those words that I read much more often than I say. In fact, I'm not sure how confidently I could tell you what the majority pronunciation is in either the region I grew up or the region I currently live.

  10. Lazar said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    I'm from Massachusetts and I pronounce it /ɛsˈtʃuː/, although I couldn't reliably tell you how how other people around me pronounce it, because it's used so rarely. /ɛˈʃuː/ strikes me as a spelling pronunciation and bugs me a little.

  11. Craig said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    I grew up in Delaware, and I also pronounce it /ɛsˈtʃuː/.

  12. mollymooly said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    "conch" is another word with variable "ch".

  13. mollymooly said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    I wonder how "eschew" correlates with "schedule".

  14. Isa said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Well, i've never had a clue how to pronounce it, so thanks for letting me know what the options are.

  15. Rolig said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    I think this must be one of the few English words that can be reasonably pronounced using a sound very much like the Russian voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative /ɕɕ/, usually spelt щ and transliterated shch or šč ("shcha").

  16. Craig Daniel said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    I'm among those with an affricate.

    …also do you guys really pronounce it with a /uː/ diphthong in there?

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Some outfit used to market a small sign saying "Eschew obfuscation." I had one on my office wall for years.

    Aw, I just Googled it and got 66,300 hits. So much for originality.

  18. Stephen Jones said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    A current car commercial (I think it's for Mercedes; sorry, I looked in vain for a link to the video online) begins with the narrator saying, "A traction control system…"

    It doesn't seem to matter how many times I see the commercial, but my brain hears "attraction control" until the word "system" or something a bit later in the sentence (not sure if it's a semantic or syntactic cue) forces me to reevaluate.

    I rather suspect that is what the people who wrote the advert wanted you to do.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

    Lazzar wrote: /ɛˈʃuː/ strikes me as a spelling pronunciation and bugs me a little.

    The interesting thing is, either way one pronounces it, one could think of the other pronunciation is a spelling pronunciation. And probably both sometimes are. I do now see that my eh-shoe pronunication (in my head, because it's not a word I use) is not how it's commonly pronounced, though I'm glad to see others here also thought of it as pronounced that way.

  20. Bloix said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    Eschew is one of those words that no one ever actually says. Other examples: Albeit. Belie. Jejune. My own personal style book contains this rule: "If you've never heard anyone say it, think twice about writing it."

  21. Paul Wilkins said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    I thought it was a visual joke, but what do I know…

  22. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    @Craig Daniel: Look closer. That's not an "aye" in /uː/, it's a triangular colon (i.e., the long vowel indicator).

  23. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    @ Bloix. I have heard /ɛsˈtʃuː/ so pronounced on New Zealand radio by our former prime minister, Helen Clark. And I've also heard the words "albeit", "belie", and "jejune" spoken, but I can't remember where or when. I see no reason to refrain from saying or writing any of these words. As for the vowel in the second syllable, /u:/, it's just long, it ain't a diphthong.

  24. Bloix said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    Well, I admit, Simon, I am sharing my prejudices here. I've never seen an eschew that couldn't have been an avoid, or an albeit that couldn't have been an although, or a jejune that couldn't have been an immature. But belied, perhaps, has a genuinely useful meaning.

    But really, do you pronounce eschew to rhyme with achoo and skiddoo? If you do say it, doesn't it rhyme with renew and flew?

  25. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    The list of synonyms for "avoid" in my Roget's Thesaurus (Penguin, 2004) runs to 27 lines, and "eschew" is just one of them. I'm tempted to quote Mao: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend."
    Likewise "albeit" and "jejune" have their uses, and shouldn't be chucked out of our vocabulary just because you can think of some more ordinary words as near-synonyms.
    It's the same with hats. I have six or seven hats and choose whichever one is most fitting for the outing and the season: a straw hat for the beach in summer, a kangaroo-leather hat with a wide brim if it's raining, etc.
    And, yes, I do pronounce "eschew" with [u:], but I wouldn't raise my eyebrows if someone pronounced it with [ju:] in my hearing.

  26. Don Campbell said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    I'm in the "incorrect" es-shoe camp but I have eventually found the source of my pronunciation: Choral singing.

    Pastime with Good Company is an English choral song written by Henry VIII. It contains the line "The best ensue, the worst eschew". Every time I have heard this performed, eschew is "es-shoe" to rhyme properly with ensue.

    This could be a special singing pronunciation, but at least it explains my inconsistency with the OED.

  27. Carl said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 12:59 am

    I'm e-ˈskyü\. I also thought that the gag doesn't work except visually. Grew up in South Carolina with Yankee parents, FWIW.

  28. Tadeusz said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    John Wells, the British phonetician, in his pronunciation dictionary recommends this pronunciation: /ɪs ˈtʃuː/. The recommendation is primarily for non-native speakers of English, and is supposed to be the most "neutral" one. He also lists the following variants. /es-, əs-; i ˈʃuː, ə-/ but does not indicate whether any of them has regional distribution.

  29. Tadeusz said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 4:31 am

    sorry, there is also 'skju.

  30. Cecily said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 5:11 am

    @ Bloix said, March 30, 2009 @ 7:04 pm
    "Eschew is one of those words that no one ever actually says. Other examples: Albeit. Belie. Jejune. "

    I often say and write albeit and I quite often use belie. Perhaps I shouldn't – though I'm unlikely to change my style now.

    Jejune suffers from potential pronunciation problems, rather like eschew, exacerbated by the fact that people often spell it jejeune.

  31. Cecily said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    @ Bloix said, March 30, 2009 @ 9:58 pm
    "I've never seen an eschew that couldn't have been an avoid, or an albeit that couldn't have been an although, or a jejune that couldn't have been an immature."

    That's a very reductionist view. Where would poetry and great literature be without a wide palette of near synonyms to choose from? Jejune means so much more (and less?) than "immature". Indeed, science often needs accuracy of meaning too.

  32. felix said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    @cecily, March 31, 2009 @ 5:16 am:
    Where would poetry and great literature be without a wide palette of near synonyms to choose from?

    On the bestsellers list, with all the other media that can be understood.

  33. Andrew said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    I'm feeling rather confused by some of these claims about rhyme. To me, however one pronounces it, the final vowel sound is the same, and so it rhymes with the same words. It makes no difference whether one says 'es-chew', 'eshew', or 'eskew', or whether one treats the 'ew' as equivalent to 'oo' or to 'yoo'.

    Cecily: what would you say 'jejune' does mean? The traditional meaning, I believe, was nothing like 'immature', but more like 'meagre', so prescriptivists sometimes say it shouldn't be used to mean 'immature'. In its normal modern use it clearly does mean something like 'immature', but I don't think it's precisely equivalent; however, I've never been able to work out just what the difference is.

  34. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    Jejune comes from Latin jejunus, meaning fasting, barren, meagre. The verb jejunare meant to fast. So the verb *disjejunare meant to break one's fast, and that became *disjunare and eventually (in French) diner and (in English, from the French) dine. I guess French déjeuner must be a later derivation from the same Latin word.
    Perhaps the "immature" meaning comes from confusion with the unrelated French word "jeune" (young).
    The meanings for "jejune" given in my New Oxford Dictionary of English are "1. naive, simplistic, and superficial: _their entirely predictable and usually jejune opinions_; 2. (of ideas or writings) dry and uninteresting: _the poem seems to me rather jejune_."
    I like that phrase "their entirely predictable and usually jejune opinions"; it's one to be memorised and trotted out some time.

  35. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    Incidentally, "jejune" is another one of those words I know from reading more than from speech, so I'm not really sure how I pronounce it.

  36. Breffni said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Simon Cauchi: 'Perhaps the "immature" meaning comes from confusion with the unrelated French word "jeune"'

    Kingsley Amis and the OED are with you on this. The OED's note on its sense 3b ("Puerile, childish; also, naïve") says "This use may owe its origin to the mistaken belief that the word is connected with L. juvenis young (comp. junior), or F. jeune young". In The King's English, Amis has a funny, sarcastic reconstruction of jejune's "progress to enormity" that culminates like this:

    "Having [French] 'jeune' in their heads, people who have never seen the word in print start pronouncing 'jejune' not 'djiJOON' but 'zherZHERN', in the apparent belief that French people always give a tiny stutter when they say 'jeune'. … Finally C takes the inevitable step of writing jejeune (I have seen several examples), or even, just that much better: 'Although the actual arguments are a little jéjeune, the staging of the mass scenes are [sic] impressive.' Italics in original! — which with the acute accent in place set the seal on the deportation of an English word into French, surely a unique event."

    I'm pretty sure I misspelled it, mispronounced it, misidentified it as French and used it with the "wrong" meaning until I read the Amis entry – or would have if I had ever had cause to use it, which I didn't.

    Incidentally, the OED's first cite for the "puerile" sense is Shaw in Arms and the Man (1898).

  37. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    Using zh as a substitute for the IPA symbol meaning the voiced fricative, it's

    dzhI'dzhu:n

    (Imagine the cap I is a small cap.)

  38. Aaron Davies said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    there was a joke in calvin & hobbes once about "eschewing gum", iirc

  39. Liz T. said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    When I go to watch my local football team I sit opposite an advertising hoarding which periodically flashes up the text "Barclays Ticket Office". Despite knowing perfectly well what it's saying I always interpret it mentally as "Barclays Sticky Toffee".

  40. Bloix said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Don Campbell- in the link you've provided, Henry's original lyrics are printed alongside a modernized version. Here's how those lines look in the original:

    Companye ys gude or yll,
    But ev'ry man hath hys frewylle.
    The best ensyue,
    The worst eschew, …

  41. Kate said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    It's not all that implausible to have later priming (assuming the right pronunciation); Allopenna, Magnuson, and Tanenhaus (1998) found that rhyme candidates such as beaker/speaker can be activated at the point of the second syllable, where it becomes clear that there's a rhyme. Chew/eschew would definitely be predicted to show that pattern, I imagine.

    Article:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WK4-45M7TH7-4&_user=458507&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000022002&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=458507&md5=6b66f016a39d18411401668245e5ebe4

  42. Rick S said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    @Simon Cauchi: Aha! Thank you for providing the etymological root of Spanish desayunar(se) "to eat breakfast". I'd always wondered where it came from, since I never recognized any cognates in other modern languages, but it doesn't it seem like an Arabic loanword either.

  43. Brandon said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    "I'm with Sam, it's definitely [ɛʃuw] for me. [ɛstʃuw] just sounds silly to me. (in fact, I came to the comment page to indicate that I thought that the joke only worked in print and not when spoken aloud)."

    I did this same thing.

  44. Terry Collmann said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    … do you pronounce eschew to rhyme with achoo and skiddoo? If you do say it, doesn't it rhyme with renew and flew?

    Errr … in my idiolect (South East England/West London), skiddoo and renew DO rhyme …

    Incidentally, I wouldn't have a clue how to pronounce Bloix.

  45. Cecily said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Andrew, March 31, 2009 @ 9:23 am asked how I would define jejune, but Simon Cauchi, March 31, 2009 @ 10:33 am did it for me – thanks.

    I think the upshot is that, like decimate, it's a risky word to use since you don't know how the listener or reader will interpret it.

    felix said, March 31, 2009 @ 9:08 am in answer to "Where would poetry and great literature be without a wide palette of near synonyms to choose from?" that it would be "On the bestsellers list, with all the other media that can be understood."
    Exactly! Which is why we need a wide and subtle vocabulary.

  46. Rolig said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    What is the problem with pronouncing "jejune"? It's pronounced just the way you would expect: je-JUNE, where the "j" is the normal English "j" as in "June".

    And what's the problem with using it? It basically means "empty, vapid, not-thought-out, superficial, hollow." It's an excellent word and should be used more often.

  47. Breffni said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Rolig, the logic of your comment seems to be "I have no doubts about how to say this word, I have no doubts about what it means, therefore it is inexplicable that anyone has any doubts." Do I have that right?

  48. Kerry said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    I've never considered "eschew" a particularly exotic word; it's been a part of my reading and writing vocabulary for a long time, though, admittedly, I've not heard or said it aloud very frequently. I've felt the need to look it up in a dictionary, either, since it's meaning was transparent on my first encounter.

    So I was rather surprised and a little embarassed that the pronunciation I use is virtually unattested: /ɛˈʃjuː/
    /ɛˈʃuː/ would also sound normal to me, but if I heard /ɛsˈtʃuː/ I would have thought it a very odd quirk. Turns out I'm the quirky one.

  49. Bev Rowe said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    I thought I knew how to pronounce eschew (Londoner, me) but now I'm confused.

    (On the subthread of never-spoken words, do US transport operators have the same love of 'alight' as their English coubnterparts?. We are often told what to do when alighting but I have never heard the word used by real people.)

  50. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    The only context in which I ever encounter the word "urn" is in probability textbooks when examples involve people drawing balls of different colors out of an urn.

  51. Rolig said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 7:18 am

    Breffni wrote: Rolig, the logic of your comment seems to be "I have no doubts about how to say this word, I have no doubts about what it means, therefore it is inexplicable that anyone has any doubts." Do I have that right?

    You have part of it right. The reason why I have no doubts about how to say this word is because it's pronunciation corresponds to its spelling, at least according to the rules I learned in an elementary school in Baltimore in the 1960s. So I don't see what's unusual or difficult about its pronunciation. Is it that people think it may be a recent borrowing from French and so want to pronounce the j's as /ʒ/? A little learning can indeed be a dangerous thing.

    As to its meaning, of course people may have doubts, because some, perhaps again influenced by the French word jeun, use it to mean "immature". If I have no doubts today, that's because I looked it up, and it saddens me a little when people who have questions about words don't seek help in dictionaries.

    Perhaps you think my faith in dictionaries is misplaced. Words do change meaning over time, of course, and perhaps the meaning "immature" may be gaining ground with jejune. But if I was copy-editing a scholarly article in which "jejune" was being used to mean simply "immature" without any sense of "empty, superficial, naive", I would probably change it, because it is clear that the author does not understand the fuller meaning of the word. In this case, the competing meanings are rather close ("vapid" vs. "immature"), so if you want to say that something is "immature" but do not want to imply that it is also "vapid", you should not use "jejune".

    But uncertainty in some dictionary-shy speakers does not mean that good writers should avoid such an excellent word.

    I should confess, however, that in my distant youth a certain confusion about this word arose from the presence in my neighborhood movie theater (remember those?) of big boxes of candy labeled JUBYFRUITS, which to this day I want to call JEJUBYFRUITS. (Perhaps deservedly, with respect to their nutritional content.)

  52. Rolig said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    Sorry, that should have been JUJYFRUITS.

  53. Robert said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    >> The only context in which I ever encounter the word "urn" is in probability textbooks when examples involve people drawing balls of different colors out of an urn.

    The word urn is used to refer to a container for the ashes of a dead body that's been cremated. It's also part of that alleged "joke", "What's a Grecian urn?" that was discussed on this very blog. However, I wonder how often the word urn co-occurs with Polya.

  54. Robert said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    >> "conch" is another word with variable "ch".

    But isn't that kɒntʃ vs kɒŋk? Perhaps kɒnx? I don't think I've heard kɒnʃ.

  55. Breffni said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    Rolig,

    So I don't see what's unusual or difficult about its pronunciation. Is it that people think it may be a recent borrowing from French and so want to pronounce the j's as /ʒ/?

    Largely, yes, that seems to be the problem – that and the related fact that the spelling jejeune has become widespread. It's been discussed above.

    If I have no doubts today, that's because I looked it up, and it saddens me a little when people who have questions about words don't seek help in dictionaries.

    Well, two things. First, "doubts" wasn't the right word for me to use. People don't always know that they don't know the "right" meaning, or pronunciation, or spelling, so why would they turn to a dictionary? Arnold Zwicky's recent post on "private meanings" is relevant. (A lot of the people around here don't take much prompting to reach for a dictionary, but that's a specialised interest that I don't expect others to share.) Second…

    Perhaps you think my faith in dictionaries is misplaced.

    …I don't know what dictionaries you have access to, but both Merriam Webster Online and the OED entries include the "puerile" sense of jejune, essentially without health warnings. The OED does attribute its origin to a "mistaken belief" about its etymology, but it doesn't suggest that there's any current stigma attaching to it.

    I'm not sure I'd counsel total abstinence, but it is one of those words whose meaning is unstable, currently at least. To some readers it will mean "immature", to others "insubstantial". Writers have to decide for themselves whether they can live with that.

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