Archive for Intelligibility

Voice-activated lights

I showed this mp4 video to a dozen native speakers of Sinitic languages (mostly Mandarin), but no one could identify, much less understand, what it was:


(from imgur)

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No depth-charge channel is too noisy to be confused by

Yuhan Zhang, Rachel Ryskin & Edward Gibson, "A noisy-channel approach to depth-charge illusions." Cognition, March 2023:

The “depth-charge” sentence, No head injury is too trivial to be ignored, is often interpreted as “no matter how trivial head injuries are, we should not ignore them” while the literal meaning is the opposite – “we should ignore them”. Four decades of research have failed to resolve the source of this entrenched semantic illusion. Here we adopt the noisy-channel framework for language comprehension to provide a potential explanation. We hypothesize that depth-charge sentences result from inferences whereby comprehenders derive the interpretation by weighing the plausibility of possible readings of the depth-charge sentences against the likelihood of plausible sentences being produced with errors. In four experiments, we find that (1) the more plausible the intended meaning of the depth-charge sentence is, the more likely the sentence is to be misinterpreted; and (2) the higher the likelihood of our hypothesized noise operations, the more likely depth-charge sentences are to be misinterpreted. These results suggest that misinterpretation is affected by both world knowledge and the distance between the depth-charge sentence and a plausible alternative, which is consistent with the noisy-channel framework.

Yuhan Zhang discusses the paper in a thread on Twitter.

Speaking of depth, I'm definitely out of mine when it comes to noisy-channel frameworks. But it isn't the case that I'm not so ignorant as to fail to recognize that this paper is not too unimportant for Language Log not to pay no attention to it.

(Hey, ChatGPT — betcha can't make sense out of that!)

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[This is a guest post by Grant Newsham]

My mother was Rusyn. (Carpatho-Rusyn, Ruthenian, Lemko [in Poland]).  Originating in a small village, Volica, up in today's northeast Slovakia — though she grew up in coal country near Pittsburgh.  Her first language was Rusyn — but I don't think she really knew exactly what language it was until much later in life.  They had no real sense of nationhood.  She said she spoke 'Russian' — but referred to it as just 'Kitchen Russian' — or some inferior form of Russian.  I think it did kind of bother her – thinking that she was a hillbilly of sorts and speaking uneducated Russian.

However, the language is basically Ukrainian (with some differences) — so close that the Ukrainians don't consider it, or the Rusyns, as distinct entities.  After the communists were overthrown, the Slovak government allowed Rusyn nationality (and have set up some Rusyn-language schools [a cousin teaches at one]) and you'll see signs in Rusyn, but the Ukrainians still do not.  My grandfather was very clear that they were not Ukrainians.

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Concentric circles of language in Beijing

A lament for the passing of Pekingese (Běijīnghuà 北京话) —  for those who don't understand Mandarin, just listen to a bit of what the presenter is saying for the flavor, then skip down to the explanations below the page break to find out what it's all about:

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Chinese: what do you hear?

[This is a guest post by Jonathan Smith]

Here's an audio passage from a film I've been watching:

If you know Chinese, test yourself to see how much of it you understand.

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Speed vs. efficiency in speech production and reception

An interesting new paper on speech and information rates as determined by neurocognitive capacity appeared a week ago:

Christophe Coupé, Yoon Oh, Dan Dediu, and François Pellegrino, "Different languages, similar encoding efficiency: Comparable information rates across the human communicative niche", Science Advances, 5.9 (2019):  eaaw2594. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2594.

Here's the abstract:

Language is universal, but it has few indisputably universal characteristics, with cross-linguistic variation being the norm. For example, languages differ greatly in the number of syllables they allow, resulting in large variation in the Shannon information per syllable. Nevertheless, all natural languages allow their speakers to efficiently encode and transmit information. We show here, using quantitative methods on a large cross-linguistic corpus of 17 languages, that the coupling between language-level (information per syllable) and speaker-level (speech rate) properties results in languages encoding similar information rates (~39 bits/s) despite wide differences in each property individually: Languages are more similar in information rates than in Shannon information or speech rate. These findings highlight the intimate feedback loops between languages’ structural properties and their speakers’ neurocognition and biology under communicative pressures. Thus, language is the product of a multiscale communicative niche construction process at the intersection of biology, environment, and culture.

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Glasgow Air Traffic Control

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Speaking of Lou Dobbs…

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"and himself jail"

In "More Cohen Businesses Coming to Light," on Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes:

The biggest taxi operator in New York, Evgeny “Gene” Friedman, now manages Cohen’s 30+ NYC medallions or at least did the last time we spoke to him. Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself jail.

The final three words of the boldfaced clause present a weird, and dare I say unusual, case of double ellipsis. The semantic content communicated by those three words (in the context of the sentence) is richer than you'd think could be expressed by only three words, especially given that one of them is merely the conjunction and. That content can be represented as follows, with the struck-through text standing for the content that the reader must infer:

Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself out of jail.

There's nothing unusual about the first omission; I don't see anything wrong with the clause to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and himself out of jail. But the omission of out of strikes me as very strange, and what's even stranger is that to my ear, the clause is worse if to keep is put back:

* Friedman has been struggling for the last year to keep his taxi businesses out of bankruptcy and to keep himself jail.

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Siri can you hear me? has some perfect linguaphile clickbait: “Watch People With Accents Confuse the Hell Out of AI Assistants.”  By “accents” they mean, non-American ones (e.g., Irish English). The AI Assistants were Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Home. I’m curious about how well the voice recognition systems in these devices work with varieties of spoken English, so I clicked. Sucker! Can’t tell anything from the video except that it’s fun to say “Add Worcestershire sauce to my shopping list” to a machine.  This definitely beats asking Siri “What is the meaning of life?”

Mainly I was impressed by how poorly I understood the speakers.  I have a bad time understanding other people’s accents  but that’s only one data point.  How well do people understand speech that is in the same language as their own but spoken with a different accent?

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Siri and flatulence

An acquaintance of mine has a new iPhone, which he carries in a pocket that is (relevantly) below waist level. He has discovered something that dramatically illustrates the difference between (i) responding to speech and (ii) responding to speech as humans do, on the basis of knowing that it is speech.

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He comfortable! He quickly dry!

A neighbor of mine, a respectable woman retired from medical practice, set a number of friends of hers a one-question quiz this week. The puzzle was to identify an item she recently purchased, based solely on what was stated on the tag attached to it. The tag said this (I reproduce it carefully, preserving the strange punctuation, line breaks, capitalization, and grammar, but replacing two searchable proper nouns by xxxxxxxx because they might provide clues):

ABOUT xxxxxxxx
He comfortable
He elastic
He quickly dry
He let you unfettered experience and indulgence. Please! Hurry up
No matter where you are. No matter what you do.
Let xxxxxxxx Change your life,
Become your friends, Partner,
Part of life

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Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

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.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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