Archive for Prosody

The poetics of translation and the synesthesia of appreciation

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-forty-seventh issue:

"Metric Montage in Chinese Poetry," by Conal Boyce.

Keywords: Chinese poetry; metric montage; Shěn Zhōu; Lǐ Bái; Lǐ Hè; Frodsham

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LÀ encore…

Continuing my anecdotal exploration of "focus"-like phenomena in French, I dove into a random point in the middle of a random Radio France podcast ("Libre Pensée – L’Europe, l’Union européenne et les élections européennes", 4/14/2024). And within a few seconds, I heard this, where the apparent "focus" on caught my attention:

Euh mais pour bien comprendre il faut là encore revenir à l'histoire —
décidément nous faisons un peu un cours d'histoire aujourd'hui

(Google translation for those who need it…)

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Victor Hugo, hélas

Focus is perhaps the single most perniciously ambiguous word in the field of linguistics. In Beth Ann Hockey's 1998 dissertation, "The interpretation and realization of focus: an experimental investigation of focus in English and Hungarian", she wrote:

Linguists have associated the word “focus” with a wide variety of phenomena. In addition a wealth of other terms including “new,” “emphasis,” “stress,” “rheme,” “comment,” “accented,” “prominent,” “informative” and “contrast” have been attached singly or in combination to phenomena that seem to be the same as, similar to or overlapping with those that have been called focus.

Beth Ann quotes a few relevant passages from Lewis Carroll, including

‘That's a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

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Fast talking

The topic of this post is one that deeply fascinates me personally, but also has a bearing on many of the main concerns of the denizens of Language Log:  information, efficiency, density, complexity, meaning, pronunciation, prosody, speed, gender….

It was prompted by this new article:

What’s the Fastest Language in the World?
Theansweriscomplicated. [sic]
by Dan Nosowitz, Atlas Obscura (April 2, 2024)

The article is based upon the work of François Pellegrino a senior researcher in linguistics and cognitive science at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris and Université Lumière Lyon II, France.

Francois Pellegrino is mostly a quantitative linguist, meaning his work often includes measuring differences among languages and hunting for explanations behind those differences. He’s worked on language speed a few times, including on one study that compared 17 different languages in a variety of metrics.

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Bad AI performance

It's clear that text-to-speech programs have gotten better and better over the past 60 years, technical details aside. The best current systems rarely make phrasing or letter-to-sound mistakes, and generally produce speech that sounds pretty natural on a phrase-by-phrase basis. (Though there's a lot of variation in quality, with some shockingly bad systems in common use.)

But even the best current systems still act like they don't get George Carlin's point about "Rhetoric as music". Their problem is not that they can't produce verbal "music", but that they don't (even try to) understand the rhetorical structure of the text.  The biggest pain point is thus what linguists these days call "information structure", related also to what the Prague School linguistics called "communicative dynamism".

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Rhetoric as music

From Jon Stewart's 1997 interview with George Carlin (starting at about 1:17.6):

well- well uh to- to go backward with the question,
don't forget, what we do is oratory.
It's rhetoric.
It's not just comedy, it's a form of rhetoric
and- and with rhetoric, you- you look and you listen for rhythms,
you- you look for ways
to sing at the same time you're talking, and to go
[skat-like phrases, based on rhythmic patterns of /d/-initial syllables…]

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A Remembrance of Anne Cutler

The following is a guest post by Martin Ho Kwan Ip,  who is now a postdoc at Penn. See "Anne Cutler 1945-2022", 6/8/2022, for some background and links.

I am one of Anne's most recent students (her 44th student from the MARCS Institute in Australia). I met Anne for the first time in 2014 when she was invited to give a talk at the University of Queensland (we had been corresponding by email but had never met until then). Although I was fascinated with languages, I was still an undergraduate student in psychology and foreign languages; I knew next to nothing about speech and was totally unfamiliar with many of the concepts and jargon in linguistics. But her talk was like a story and it was so memorable – she showed us some of the different mental challenges associated with listening (like when she used speech waveforms to show us how gaps between words are not as clear as we think), why different languages are needed to better understand how the mind works when we listen, how infants’ early segmentation abilities influence later vocabulary growth – this was the first language-related talk I had attended and I was just so, so intrigued. 

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Chinese parallelism in an English-language scientific paper

I received the following letter and observations from the editor of a science journal:

We will be rejecting the paper because it is outside the range of topics the
journal handles. But it also has a writing style that I'd like to warn the
authors to avoid. Here is a sample (from the usual "review of previous work"):

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Meter, Feelings, Knowing: An Interview with Nigel Fabb

This guest post by Mark Dow is an excerpt from an interview conducted via email in May/June 2021. The complete interview appears in PN Review #263 (Jan./Feb. 2022).

 Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His books include What is Poetry: Language and Memory in the Poems of the World (Cambridge 2015); with Morris Halle, Meter in Poetry: a New Theory (Cambridge 2008); Language and literary structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative (Cambridge 2002); and Linguistics and Literature (Blackwell 1997). In 2022 he will have two new books, Thrills, epiphany, sublime: how literature surprises us. (Anthem) and with Venla Sykäri (eds.) Rhyme and Rhyming in Verbal Art, Song and Language (Studia Fennica Folkloristica).

Mark Dow is author of Plain Talk Rising (poems) and American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (California).

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Good translation is an art: Bēowulf

As a published translator myself, I certainly strive to make my translations worthy of being considered as art.  But it isn't always an easy task.  Witness "The Tricky Art of Translation and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Modern Beowulf", CD Covington, (Mon Feb 7, 2022):

It’s not very often that a thousand-year-old poem has a new translation that gets people hyped up, at least in the Anglophone world, but Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent Hugo Award-winning translation of Beowulf stirred up a lot of interest—there’s even a video series of writers and entertainers reading it out loud. (Alan Cumming’s section is excellent—he really knows his way around alliterative verse.)

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More "I don't know"

We're following up on "Dinosaur Intonation" (8/28/2021) and "Hummed 'I don't know'" (8/29/2021). And today's installment starts with a distinction. There are two largely separate issues:

  1. Intonational choices (for performances of "I don't know" or any other phrase).
  2. Various types of articulatory reduction or replacement,
    from crisp hyper-articulated performances,
    through progressively slurred versions,
    to hums, grunts, or even whistled or instrumental imitations.

Homer Simpson's version, from this YouTube clip, lenites the consonants pretty much to extinction, and reduces the second ("don't") vowel as well, going beyond Michael Watt's comment about a friend who spelled it "iono":

[The numbers in black are f0 estimates in Hertz (cycles per second)]

But today we're going to focus on the intonational choices, rather than the words-to-hum continuum. And the method will be socratic — we'll give examples, and ask questions. The answers will emerge in later installments, or perhaps in the comments.

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Vulgar village vernacular

This Chinese article is about a man who has made a living by painting slogans and ads on village walls for thirty years. Some of the slogans are rather bizarre, as may be seen by looking at the many photographs in the article.

The article says it is such a well-paying job that the man was able to buy 6 apartments in his hometown with his earnings. Painting on walls is one of the major ways to advertise or propagate goods and ideas in the countryside.

There are many examples of such signs in the article, but I couldn't understand all of them upon first glance, so I wondered if the country folk would be able to read the signs. I asked a number of my graduate students from China, and they all said, yes, the country folk not only would be able to read them, but would enjoy them and would be motivated to buy the products and services promoted by the signs.

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Intonation in "human emulation mode"

Dave Itzkoff, "Elon Musk Hosts a Mother’s Day Episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’", NYT 5/9/2012 ("The much-discussed Tesla and SpaceX executive took a self-deprecating approach, telling viewers, 'I’m pretty good at running human in emulation mode.'"):

Musk, the billionaire chief executive of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, appeared in several “S.N.L.” sketches this weekend, playing characters that included a doctor at a hospital that caters to Generation Z patients, the producer of an Icelandic TV talk show and the video game villain Wario.

He used his opening monologue to share some personal details about himself, introducing viewers to his mother and discussing his diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome —  […]

Musk took a self-deprecating tone in his “S.N.L.” monologue, telling the audience: “Sometimes, after I say something, I have to say, ‘I mean that,’ so people really know that I mean it. That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak. Which I’m told makes for great comedy.”

The question of intonational variation in the speech of people on the autism spectrum is an interesting one. In the literature and in clinical presentations, I've seen phrases like "As is well known, autistic individuals have monotone intonation", and also "As is well known, autistic individuals have singsong intonation".

This apparently reflects the fact that most observers of intonation only notice differences between what they expect and how people talk. So depending on  their relationship to the speakers and the contents and contexts of interaction, they might perceive the same speakers' intonation as inappropriately monotone or inappropriately varied. There may also be relevant subgroups within the large and extremely varied space of people "on the spectrum" — autism is one of the many DSM-defined behavioral categories that are "phenotypically diverse", which a clinician friend explains is the Greek translation of "We have no f-ing clue"…

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