Archive for Psychology of language

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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Bilingual road signs

…in New Zealand. Phil Pennington, "Analysis: National opposed bilingual road signs, so what does the evidence say?", RNZ 62/2023:

Analysis – Bilingual road signs send a signal – that the country values te reo Māori. But going bilingual was confusing and National would not support it, National's Simeon Brown told voters in blue-ribbon Tauranga recently.

Accusations of racism and a walkback by the party leaders followed. But what evidence is the choice to go bilingual based on?

Helpfully, finding the answer to that is easy. The answer Waka Kotahi is relying on is in a 39-page "research note" into international experiences and outcomes.

However, a quick scan reveals the answer itself is not as straightforward as some of the commentary on the debate has suggested – that it is a straw man.

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"Quid pro crow"

In Maria Bartiromo's recent interview with James Comer (R-KY), there's an interesting speech error — "quid pro crow" for "quid pro quo":

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Speech error of the week

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Taylor Swift fanilect

By now I must have listened to Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" a hundred times.  The first fifty times I heard a crucial line in it as "Got only Starbucks lovers" or "Not only Starbucks lovers", and it was driving me crazy because I couldn't make sense of it.  Sometimes I forced myself to believe that she was saying "Got only starcrossed lovers", but that didn't make sense either.  Then, on December 4, 2014, I read Mark Liberman's "All the lonely Starbucks lovers" on Language Log, and I learned — much to my astonishment — that, according to the lyrics, she was supposedly saying — repeatedly in the song — "Got a long list of ex-lovers".  Still today, after listening to the song and watching the video countless more times, plus reading the printed lyrics, I hear her sing "Got / Not only Starbucks lovers", never "Got a long list of ex-lovers".

Thus I am simultaneously assailed by multiple Taylor Swift mondegreens and polyphonic earworms ("trouble, trouble, trouble; shake, shake, shake it off").

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Fluent "disfluencies" again

One conventional view of "disfluencies" in speech is that they're the result of confusions and errors, such as difficulties in deciding what to say or how to say it, or changing ideas about what to say or how to say it, or slips of the tongue that need to be corrected. Another idea is that such interpolations can serve to "hold the floor" across a phrase boundary, or to warn listeners that a pause is coming.

These views are supported by the fact that fluent reading lacks filled pauses, restarts, repeated words, and non-speech vocalizations. And as a result, (human) transcripts of interviews, conversations, narratives, and speeches generally edit out all such interpolations, yielding a text that's more like writing, and is easier to read than an accurate transcript would be. Automated speech-to-text systems also generally omit (or falsely transcribe) such things.

The result is a good choice if the goal is readability, but not if the goal is to analyze the dynamics of speech production, speech perception, and conversational interaction. And in fact, even a brief examination of such interpolations in spontaneous speech is enough to tell us that the conventional views are incomplete at best.

I've noticed recently that automated transcripts from do a good job of transcribing ums and uhs in English, though repeated words are still omitted. And in the other direction, I've noticed that the transcripts on the site of the U.S. Department of Defense include (some of the) repeated words, but not the filled pauses.  It's interesting to compare those transcripts to the audio (where available) — I offer a sample below.

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Elicit → illicit

Ruth Blau sent a link to a law firm's page on the "Difference Between Judges and Magistrates", which was probably created in response to the role of a magistrate in the recent FBI search of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.

The linguistically relevant bit is the substitution of "illicit" for "elicit":

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Bringing churches

I was puzzled for a while by a interesting error in yesterday's The Hill. A story by Jared Gans, under the headline "What Weisselberg’s guilty plea means for Trump", ended like this:

Weissmann said defense counsels requesting coverage in a plea agreement for other crimes that may have been committed is “standard,” so someone knows “there’s nothing waiting in the wings.”

He said its exclusion from the agreement is “striking” and makes him believe Bragg more when he said the investigation is ongoing.

“That made me think that we all need to sort of take a deep breath and wait to see what happens after the Trump Organization trial, and so whether other churches get brought,” Weissmann said.

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Gender polarization or accommodation in conversational pitch

It's been a while since my last Breakfast Experiment™, but a conversation yesterday spurred me to run a simple data-analysis script with interesting results, presented below. The script and the results are simple, but the issues are complicated — consider yourself warned.

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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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"We apologize for your patience"

S.I. reports:

In a message from my building management:

Dear Valued Residents
A note to let you know that the water is back on. We apologize for your patience.

…and asks:

Is there a name for this kind of error?


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"Anti-sink missile"

Julie Coleman, "Shocking video shows Ukrainian drone destroying 2 Russian patrol boats", Insider 5/4/2022:

Ukraine said on Monday its drones sank two Russian ships in the Black Sea near Snake Island, which the Russians had captured the day the war broke out on February 24.

Snake Island has also become a legendary symbol of resistance for Ukraine, as military defending the island refused to surrender to Russian forces on February 24, radioing "Russian warship go screw yourself," when the Russian flagship cruiser Moskva approached.


The patrol boat losses add to the mounting toll for the Russian Navy. In April, the Moskva sank after being hit with at least one Neptune anti-sink missile, the Pentagon confirmed.

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Strain Tation

From, 4/10/022:

I joined a Facebook group for former employees of the Columbus Dispatch. This photo was shared today:

The copy desk was outsourced to some other place – maybe Texas – a while back, and I guess the workload is starting to strain capacity, eh? Either that, or someone started the Saturday-night party a bit early.

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