Archive for Psychology of language

Oral vs. written rhetoric

Megan McArdle ("Four things Democrats need to understand about beating Trump", WaPo 1/31/2020) has something important to say about the style of Donald Trump's extemporized speeches:

Trump is a good public speaker. "Nails on a chalkboard" doesn't quite capture how educated urbanites feel about Trump's speaking style. A closer analogy would be having your teeth drilled — without Novocain.

His fragmented sentences, simplistic formulae (see those insults above) and rambling style would drive them wild even if the content and partisan ID were more to their taste. They like "polished" candidates who speak in complete sentences that read well when written down.

Trump, by contrast, sounds like … well, actually, he sounds a lot closer to how most people talk than a "good" public speaker. He speaks in short sentences and uses a small vocabulary. He makes up names for stuff to aid listener memory. He repeats himself. He digresses at random.

Trump talks, in short, the way people talk when they aren't expecting their words to be written down. This informal approach horrifies those of us who love reading enough to do it on weekends. But one way to think about this is that it is not so much the difference between good and bad; it is the difference between an oral culture and a written one.

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"Lawyer lawsuits"?

If you listened to the U.S. Senate proceedings yesterday, you may have been puzzled — as I was — by Jay Sekulow's discussion of "lawyer lawsuits":

And by the way,
lawyer lawsuits?
lawyer lawsuits?
We're talking about the impeachment of a president of the United States,
duly elected.
And the members,
the managers,
are complaining about
lawyer lawsuits?
The consitution allows
lawyer lawsuits.
It's disrespecting the constitution of the United States
to even say that in this chamber —
lawyer lawsuits!

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A different perspective on family name distributions

Michael Ramscar, "The empirical structure of word frequency distributions", arXiv 1/9/2020:

The frequencies at which individual words occur across languages follow power law distributions, a pattern of findings known as Zipf's law. A vast literature argues over whether this serves to optimize the efficiency of human communication, however this claim is necessarily post hoc, and it has been suggested that Zipf's law may in fact describe mixtures of other distributions. From this perspective, recent findings that Sinosphere first (family) names are geometrically distributed are notable, because this is actually consistent with information theoretic predictions regarding optimal coding. First names form natural communicative distributions in most languages, and I show that when analyzed in relation to the communities in which they are used, first name distributions across a diverse set of languages are both geometric and, historically, remarkably similar, with power law distributions only emerging when empirical distributions are aggregated. I then show this pattern of findings replicates in communicative distributions of English nouns and verbs. These results indicate that if lexical distributions support efficient communication, they do so because their functional structures directly satisfy the constraints described by information theory, and not because of Zipf's law. Understanding the function of these information structures is likely to be key to explaining humankind's remarkable communicative capacities.

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Canoe schemata nama gary anaconda

Following up on recent posts suggesting that speech-to-text is not yet a solved problem ("Shelties On Alki Story Forest", "The right boot of the warner of the baron", "AI is brittle"), here's a YouTube link to a lecture given in July of 2018 by Michael Picheny, "Speech Recognition: What's Left?" The whole thing is worth following, but I particularly draw your attention to the section starting around 50:06, where he reviews the state of human and machine performance with respect to "noise, speaking style, accent, domain robustness, and language learning capabilities", with the goal to "make the case that we have a long way to go in [automatic] speech recognition".

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Communicative disfluencies interpolations

In the past few days, I've encountered some nice examples of the communicative interpretation of what I've suggested we ought to call "interpolations" rather than "disfluencies".

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Word rage and word aversion on Subtitle

The latest episode of the new podcast Subtitle is about "Words we love to hate". Full disclosure: Kavita Pillay interviewed me for the program, and so you can hear my voice from time to time.

More later — I'm off to Washington DC for a workshop on "Digital Cognitive and Functional Biomarkers" organized by the Alzheimer's Association.

Meanwhile, you can find links to some Language Log posts on word aversion in "Word aversion science", 6/24/2015, and posts about word rage in "Annals of word rage", 5/2/2009.

 

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Annals of stacked negation

Garrett Wollman writes:

Not sure if this really belongs in LL's misnegation files, but I found this sentence hard enough to parse (despite knowing exactly what the author meant) that I stumbled over it on a re-read:

"The really troubling thing," Zora says to the rain, "is that I can't convince myself I'm not in a life where knowing someone who can do that isn't purely a good thing."

Graydon Saunders, A SUCCESSION OF BAD DAYS

The context here is that one of the other characters makes a rather creepy magical barrier around the people in the scene while waiting for medical attention after a disease outbreak.  So what the character is (I believe intended to be) saying is that they think it's entirely good to know someone who can do that, but they are troubled by the thought. 

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Moist! Chuckle! Slacks! Dollop!

Below is a guest post from Kavita Pillay, co-host of the new Subtitle podcast.


Do you hate a seemingly normal word for reasons that you can't quite pinpoint?

Or, are there words that you love to say out loud?

If so, the Subtitle podcast (more on us below) wants to hear from you!

On Nov. 19th, we're airing an episode on words we love…and love to hate. From reading the comments section of Language Log, we've noticed that Language Log fans and readers have very well articulated opinions when it comes to word aversion, word rage, and word affinity. Now you can share those opinions with the world.

Here's what to do:

  1. Open the voice memos app on your phone
  2. Record a 30 second (or so) message about a word (or words) you love or loath
  3. Feel free to include your name if you feel comfortable doing so, and / or a brief explanation about how the word(s) in question make you feel.
  4. Once you complete the recording, email it to subtitlepod@gmail.com, and we may use it in our upcoming episode on word affinity / word aversion

DEADLINE: Monday, Nov. 11th

Feel free to share this request with others. We'd especially love to hear from people for whom English is not their native language. And if you are completely perplexed as to why anyone would love or hate a normal word, then that's all the more reason to tune into our Nov. 19th episode.

A little about us: Subtitle is a podcast about languages and the people who speak them, co-hosted by Patrick Cox and Kavita Pillay. It's the successor podcast to The World in Words, which previously aired on PRI's The World. Funding for Subtitle comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and excerpts from every episode will begin airing this fall on NPR's Here & Now.

Many thanks, and we look forward to your voice memos!

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"The travesty that is taking fold"

Representative Mo Brooks on Fox News, commenting on the proposed impeachment-inquiry resolution:

I've yet to see the resolution, ((from)) I understand we probably won't see it until
uh later this week,
but if substantively it opens the doors
so that the American people can see the travesty that is taking fold,
then that's a good thing for the American people.

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Trent Reznor Prize nominee: Jamie Salter

From Ben Zimmer, a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding.

The nominee: Jamie Salter,  CEO of Authentic Brands Group.

The source: Jacob Bogage and Ben Strauss, "Sports Illustrated shaken by major layoffs and massive reorganization", WaPo 10/3/2019 —

Reached by phone Thursday and asked about the turmoil at SI, ABG chief executive Jamie Salter described the situation at the magazine as "awesome."

"I can only tell you that we buy troubled companies that we think there's enormous amount of value in the intellectual property in," he said.

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Conservation of orthographic gemination, again

Earlier today, BBC News wrote about the latest #sharpiegate development: "Trump Dorian tweets: Weather staff 'faced sacking threat' over Alabama", 9/10/2019:

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire senior staff at the federal weather agency unless they backed President Donald Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, the New York Times reports.

It says this led to last week's statement by the agency, disavowing an earlier position by a regional office that the US state was not at risk.

The acronym NOAA (for "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration") occurs six times in the article. But there's one apparent slip of the fingers resulting in "NAOO":

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Up or down the garden path?

Recently a friend sent me this example of a hard-to-parse sentence (source here):

What have you been surprised men you've been seeing expect without doing the work to show they deserve it?

This is not exactly a "garden path" sentence, which  Wikipedia tells us

[…] is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or yields a clearly unintended meaning. "Garden path" refers to the saying "to be led down [or up] the garden path", meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler describes such sentences as unwittingly laying a "false scent".

The parse we start out with is the correct one — it's just that it runs into a wall when it gets to the sequence "men you've been seeing". If we persist, that original parse eventually recovers.  We need to figure out that "men (that) you've been seeing expect _ without doing the work to show they deserve it" is the complement of be surprised (that); and what has been painfully extracted from the object position of expect in that clause.

But this analysis left me with several questions: Is there a metaphorical name for that kind of sentence, assuming that "garden path "is not appropriate? And what's the history of the "garden path" phrase, in general and as applied to sentence processing?

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Inconvenience now

In "Which justifies what?" (7/3/2019) and "Thematic spoonerisms" (7/14/2019), we noted cases where writers exchanged noun phrases so as to produce literally nonsensical propositions: the inconvenience didn't justify the cause instead of the cause didn't justify the inconvenience, and ampicillin is resistant to multiple strains of U.T.I.s instead of multiple strains of U.T.I.s are resistant to ampicillin.

In this morning's email, Bob Ladd point out a letter referencing the story where the inconvenience didn't justify the cause, not to complain about the swap but to repeat it — "Have your inconvenience now and avoid it later", The New Scientist 7/17/2019:

Chelsea Whyte mentions that many people resented the disruption that the Extinction Rebellion protests created because they "felt the inconvenience didn't justify the cause" (22 June, p 20). I think this sums up the global attitude to action on climate change.

Maybe people need to be reminded of the inconveniences that global warming will cause. Instead of stopping trains, perhaps future protests should cordon off low-lying coastal areas and hand out flippers and snorkels to those who want to enter?

Any complaints can be met with a polite reminder that this will soon become a permanent inconvenience.

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