What’s the best way to block the sound of a voice?

Atif asked:

My neighbor talks loudly on the phone and I can’t sleep. What is the best method to block his voice noise?

Great question Atif! There are few things more distracting than hearing someone else’s conversation, and only hearing one side of a phone conversation is even worse. Even if you don’t want it to, your brain is trying to fill in the gaps and that can definitely keep you awake. So what’s the best way to avoid hearing your neighbor? Well, probably the very best way is to try talking to them. Failing that, though, you have three main options: isolation, damping and masking.

Ruído Noise 041113GFDL
So what’s the difference between them and what’s the best option for you? Before we get down to the nitty gritty I think it’s worth a quick reminder of what sound actually is: sound waves are just that–waves. Just like waves in a lake or ocean. Imagine you and a neighbor share a small pond and you like to go swimming every morning. Your neighbor, on the other hand, has a motorboat that they drive around on thier side. The waves the motorboat makes keep hitting you as you try to swim and you want to avoid them.  This is very similar to your situation: your neighbor’s voice is making

Isolation: So one way to avoid feeling the effects of waves in a pond, to use our example, is to build  a wall down the center of the pond. As long as there no holes in the wall for the waves to diffract through, you should be able to avoid feeling the effects of the waves. Noise isolation works much the same way. You can use earplugs that are firmly mounted in your ears to form a seal and that should prevent any sound waves from reaching your eardrums, right? Well, not quite. The wrinkle is that sound can travel through solids as well. It’s like we built our wall in our pond out of something flexible, like rubber, instead of something solid, like brick. As waves hit the wall the wall itself will move with the wave and then transmit it to your side. So you may still end up hearing some noises, even with well-fitted headphones.

Techniques: earplugs/earbuds, noise isolating headphone or earbuds, noise-isolating architecture,

Damping: So in our pond example we might imagine doing something that makes it harder for waves to move through the water. If you replaced all the water with molasses or honey, for example, it would take a lot more energy for the sound waves to move through it and they’d dissipate more quickly.

Techniques: acoustic tiles, covering the intervening wall (with a fabric wall-hanging, foam, empty egg cartons, etc.), covering vents, placing a rolled-up towel under any doors, hanging heavy curtains over windows, putting down carpeting

Masking: Another way to avoid noticing our neighbor’s waves is to start making our own waves. We can either make waves that are exactly the same size as our neighbor’s but out of phase (so we theirs are at their highest peak, ours is at our lowest) so they end up cancelling each other out. That’s basically what noise-cancelling headphones do. Or we can make a lot of own waves that all feel enough like our neighbor’s that when thier wave arrives we don’t even notice it. Of course, if the point it to hear no sound that won’t work quite as well. But if the point is to avoid abrupt, distracting changes in sound then this can work quite nicely.

Techniques: Listening to white noise or music, using noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds


So what would I do? Well, first I’d take as many steps as I could to sound-proof my environment. Try to cover as many of the surfaces in your bedroom as in absorbent, ideally fluffy, surfaces as you can. (If it can absorb water it will probably help absorb sound.) Wall hangings, curtains and a throw rug can all help a great deal.

Then you have a couple options for masking. A fan help to provide both a bit of acoustic masking and a nice breeze. Personally, though, I like a white noise machine that gives you some control over the frequency (how high or low the pitch is) and intensity (loudness) of the sounds it makes. That lets you tailor it so that it best masks the sounds that are bothering you. I also prefer the ones with the fans rather than those that loop recorded sounds, since I often find the loop jarring. If you don’t want to or can’t buy one, though, myNoise has a number of free generators that let you tailor the frequency and intensity of a variety of sounds and don’t have annoying loops. (There are a bunch of additional features available that you can access for a small donation as well.)

If you can wear earbuds in bed, try playing a non-distracting noise at around 200- 1000 hertz, which will cover a lot of the speech sounds you can’t easily dampen. Make sure your earbuds are well-fitted in the ear canal so that as much noise is isolated as possible. In addition, limiting the amount of exposed hard surface on them will also increase noise isolation. You can knit little cozies, try to find earbuds with a nice thick silicon/rubber coating or even try coating your own.

By using as many different strategies you can really reduce unwanted noises. I hope this helps and good luck!

Does reading a story affect the way you talk afterwards? (Or: do linguistic tasks have carryover effects?)

So tomorrow is my generals exam (the title’s a bit misleading: I’m actually going to be presenting research I’ve done so my committee can decide if I’m ready to start work on my dissertation–fingers crossed!). I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the research I’m going to be presenting in a less formal setting first, though. It’s not at the same level of general interest as the Twitter research I discussed a couple weeks ago, but it’s still kind of a cool project. (If I do say so myself.)

Plush bunny with headphones.jpg

Shhhh. I’m listening to linguistic data. “Plush bunny with headphones”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Basically, I wanted to know whether there are carryover effects for some of the mostly commonly-used linguistics tasks. A carryover effect is when you do something and whatever it was you were doing continues to affect you after you’re done. This comes up a lot when you want to test multiple things on the same person.

An example might help here. So let’s say you’re testing two new malaria treatments to see which one works best. You find some malaria patients, they agree to be in your study, and you give them treatment A and record thier results. Afterwards, you give them treatment B and again record their results. But if it turns out that treatment A cures Malaria (yay!) it’s going to look like treatment B isn’t doing anything, even if it is helpful, because everyone’s been cured of Malaria. So thier behavior in the second condition (treatment B) is affected by thier participation in the first condition (treatment A): the effects of treatment A have carried over.

There are a couple of ways around this. The easiest one is to split your group of participants in half and give half of them A first and half of them B first. However, a lot of times when people are using multiple linguistic tasks in the same experiment, then won’t do that. Why? Because one of the things that linguists–especially sociolinguists–want to control for is speech style. And there’s a popular idea in sociolinguistics that you can make someone talk more formally, but it’s really hard to make them talk less formally. So you tend to end up with a fixed task order going from informal tasks to more formal tasks.

So, we have two separate ideas here:

  • The idea that one task can affect the next, and so we need to change task order to control for that
  • The idea that you can only go from less formal speech to more formal speech, so you need to not change task order to control for that

So what’s a poor linguist to do? Balance task order to prevent carryover effects but risk not getting the informal speech they’re interested in? Or keep task order fixed to get informal and formal speech but at the risk of carryover effects? Part of the problem is that, even though they’re really well-studied in other fields like psychology, sociology or medicine, carryover effects haven’t really been studied in linguistics before. As a result, we don’t know how bad they are–or aren’t!

Which is where my research comes in. I wanted to see if there were carryover effects and what they might look like. To do this, I had people come into the lab and do a memory game that involved saying the names of weird-looking things called Fribbles aloud. No, not the milkshakes, one of the little purple guys below (although I could definitely go for a milkshake right now). Then I had them do one linguistic elicitation tasks (reading a passage, doing an interview, reading a list of words or, to control for the effects of just sitting there for a bit, an arithmetic task). Then I had them repeat the Fribble game. Finally, I compared a bunch of measures from speech I recorded during the two Fribble games to see if there was any differences.

Greeble designed by Scott Yu and hosted by the Tarr Lab wiki (click for link).

Greeble designed by Scott Yu and hosted by the Tarr Lab wiki (click for link).

What did I find? Well, first, I found the same thing a lot of other people have found: people tend to talk while doing different things. (If I hadn’t found that, then it would be pretty good evidence that I’d done something wrong when designing my experiment.) But the really exciting thing is that I found, for some specific measures, there weren’t any carryover effects. I didn’t find any carryover effects for speech speed, loudness or any changes in pitch. So if you’re looking at those things you can safely reorder your experiments to help avoid other effects, like fatigue.

But I did find that something a little more interesting was happening with the way people were saying their vowels. I’m not 100% sure what’s going on with that yet. The Fribble names were funny made-up words (like “Kack” and “Dut”) and I’m a little worried that what I’m seeing may be a result of that weirdness… I need to do some more experiments to be sure.

Still, it’s pretty exciting to find that there are some things it looks like you don’t need to worry about carryover effects for. That means that, for those things, you can have a static order to maintain the style continuum and it doesn’t matter. Or, if you’re worried that people might change what they’re doing as they get bored or tired, you can switch the order around to avoid having that affect your data.

Tweeting with an accent

I’m writing this blog post from a cute little tea shop in Victoria, BC. I’m up here to present at the Northwest Linguistics Conference, which is a yearly conference for both Canadian and American linguists (yes, I know Canadians are Americans too, but United Statsian sounds weird), and I thought that my research project may be interesting to non-linguists as well. Basically, I investigated whether it’s possible for Twitter users to “type with an accent”. Can linguists use variant spellings in Twitter data to look at the same sort of sound patterns we see in different speech communities?

Picture of a bird saying

Picture of a bird saying “Let’s Tawk”. Taken from the website of the Center for the Psychology of Women in Seattle. Click for link.

So if you’ve been following the Great Ideas in Linguistics series, you’ll remember that I wrote about sociolinguistic variables a while ago. If you didn’t, sociolinguistic variables are sounds, words or grammatical structures that are used by specific social groups. So, for example, in Southern American English (representing!) the sound in “I” is produced with only one sound, so it’s more like “ah”.

Now, in speech these sociolinguistic variables are very well studied. In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English was just finished in 2013 after over fifty years of work. But in computer mediated communication–which is the fancy term for internet language–they haven’t been really well studied. In fact, some scholars suggested that it might not be possible to study speech sounds using written data. And on the surface of it, that does make sense. Why would you expect to be able to get information about speech sounds from a written medium? I mean, look at my attempt to explain an accent feature in the last paragraph. It would be far easier to get my point across using a sound file. That said, I’d noticed in my own internet usage that people were using variant spellings, like “tawk” for “talk”, and I had a hunch that they were using variant spellings in the same way they use different dialect sounds in speech.

While hunches have their place in science, they do need to be verified empirically before they can be taken seriously. And so before I submitted my abstract, let alone gave my talk, I needed to see if I was right. Were Twitter users using variant spellings in the same way that speakers use different sound patterns? And if they are, does that mean that we can investigate sound  patterns using Twitter data?

Since I’m going to present my findings at a conference and am writing this blog post, you can probably deduce that I was right, and that this is indeed the case. How did I show this? Well, first I picked a really well-studied sociolinguistic variable called the low back merger. If you don’t have the merger (most African American speakers and speakers in the South don’t) then you’ll hear a strong difference between the words “cot” and “caught” or “god” and “gaud”. Or, to use the example above, you might have a difference between the words “talk” and “tock”. “Talk” is little more backed and rounded, so it sounds a little more like “tawk”, which is why it’s sometimes spelled that way. I used the Twitter public API and found a bunch of tweets that used the “aw” spelling of common words and then looked to see if there were other variant spellings in those tweets. And there were. Furthermore, the other variant spellings used in tweets also showed features of Southern American English or African American English. Just to make sure, I then looked to see if people were doing the same thing with variant spellings of sociolinguistic variables associated with Scottish English, and they were. (If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details, my slides are here.)

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns. If you’re a researcher looking at sound patterns, that’s pretty sweet: you can stay home in your jammies and use Twitter data to verify findings from your field work. But what if you’re not a language researcher? Well, if we can identify someone’s dialect features from their Tweets then we can also use those features to make a pretty good guess about their demographic information, which isn’t always available (another problem for sociolinguists working with internet data). And if, say, you’re trying to sell someone hunting rifles, then it’s pretty helpful to know that they live in a place where they aren’t illegal. It’s early days yet, and I’m nowhere near that stage, but it’s pretty exciting to think that it could happen at some point down the line.

So the big take away is that, yes, people can tweet with an accent, and yes, linguists can use Twitter data to investigate speech sounds. Not all of them–a lot of people aren’t aware of many of their dialect features and thus won’t spell them any differently–but it’s certainly an interesting area for further research.

“Men” vs. “Females” and sexist writing

So, I have a confession to make. I actually set out to write a completely different blog post. In searching Wikimedia Commons for a picture, though, I came across something that struck me as odd. I was looking for pictures of people writing, and I noticed that there were two gendered sub-categories, one for men and one for women. Leaving aside the question of having only two genders, what really stuck out to me were the names. The category with pictures of men was called “Men Writing” and the category with pictures of women was called “Females Writing”.

Family 3

According to this sign, the third most common gender is “child”.

So why did that bother me? It is true that male humans are men and that women are female humans. Sure, a writing professor might nag about how the two terms lack parallelism, but does it really matter?

The thing is, it wouldn’t matter if this was just a one-off thing. But it’s not. Let’s look at the Category: Males and Category: Females*. At the top of the category page for men, it states “This category is about males in general. For human males, see Category:Male humans”. And the male humans category is, conveniently, the first subcategory. Which is fine, no problem there. BUT. There is no equivalent disclaimer at the top of Category: Females, and the first subcategory is not female humans but female animals. So even though “Females” is used to refer specifically to female humans when talking about writing, when talking about females in general it looks as if at least one editor has decided that it’s more relevant for referring to female animals. And that also gels with my own intuitions. I’m more like to ask “How many females?” when looking at a bunch of baby chickens than I am when looking at a bunch of baby humans. Assuming the editors responsible for these distinctions are also native English speakers, their intuitions are probably very similar.

So what? Well, it makes me uncomfortable to be referred to with a term that is primarily used for non-human animals while men are referred to with a term that I associate with humans. (Or, perhaps, women are being referred to as “female men”, but that’s equally odd and exclusionary.)

It took me a while to come to that conclusion. I felt that there was something off about the terminology, but I had to turn and talk it over with my officemate for a couple minutes before finally getting at the kernel of the problem. And I don’t think it’s a concious choice on the part of the editors–it’s probably something they don’t even realize they’re doing. But I definitely do think that it’s related to the gender imbalance of the editors of Wikimedia. According to recent statistics, over ninety percent (!) of Wikipedia editors are male. And this type of sexist language use probably perpetuates that imbalance. If I feel, even if it’s for reasons that I have a hard time articulating, that I’m not welcome in a community then I’m less likely to join it. And that’s not just me. Students who are presented with job descriptions in language that doesn’t match thier gender are less likely to be interested in those jobs. Women are less likely to respond to job postings if “he” is used to refer to both men and women. I could go on citing other studies, but we could end up being here all day.

My point is this: sexist language affects the behaviour and choices of those who hear it. And in this case, it makes me less likely to participate in this on-line community because I don’t feel as if I would be welcomed and respected there. It’s not only Wikipedia/Wikimedia, either. This particular usage pattern is also something I associate with Reddit (a good discussion here). The gender breakdown of Reddit? About 70% male.

For some reason, the idea that we should avoid sexist language usage seems to really bother people. I was once a TA for a large lecture class where, in the middle of discussions of the effects of sexist language, a male student interrupted the professor to say that he didn’t think it was a problem. I’ve since thought about it quite a bit (it was pretty jarring) and I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason the student felt that way is that, for him, it really wasn’t a problem. Since sexist language is almost always exclusionary to women, and he was not a women, he had not felt that moment of discomfort before.

Further, I think he may have felt that, because this type of language tends to benefit men, he felt that we were blaming him. I want to be clear here: I’m not blaming anyone for thier unconscious biases. And I’m  not saying that only men use sexist language. The Wikimedia editors who made this choice may very well have been women. What I am saying is that we need to be aware of these biases and strive to correct them. It’s hard, and it takes constant vigilance, but it’s an important and relatively simple step that we can all take in order to help eliminate sexism.

*As they were on Wednesday, April 8 2015. If they’ve been changed, I’d recommend the Way Back Machine.

What affects tongue length?

People tend to be surprised when they learn that there is a lot of variation in the vocal tract (all those parts of your head and neck that you use to produce speech sounds). For example, the epiglottis, that little flap that keeps you from swallowing your food into your lungs, has between five and six completely different shapes. It can be thin and flat, with serrated edges, thick with rounded edges, or a mixture of the two. If looking at it didn’t involve sticking cameras down the throat via the mouth or nose, it would actually be pretty useful for biometrics.

The tongue doesn’t have quite as much variation in shape as the epiglottis, but there is one bit of variation that seems to get quite a bit of interest: tongue length.

Gray1019.png

Now hold that while I get a measuring tape.

So what can affect tongue length? Well, the biggest factor is probably how you measure it. The Guinness Book of  World Records, for example, measures the length of the tongue from the tip of the extended tongue to the middle of the top lip. (The current record holder, Nick Stoeberl, can extended his tongue almost four inches past his top lip.) But, as you’ll notice looking at the diagram above, the amount of the tongue that can stick out past your lips is actually pretty limited. The tongue itself goes all the way down to the hyoid bone, in your throat. So if you want to accurately measure the entire tongue, probably the most accurate way is to measure from the tongue tip to the epiglottis (down in the throat) while the tongue is at rest. The downside to this, of course, is that it will trigger gagging and it’s hard to see what you’re doing at the back of someone’s throat. Plus it has the definite potential to block the airways. As a result, tongue measurement of this type tend to be done on cadavers. There are also some imaging techniques like x-rayultrasound or MRI. But let’s assume that you don’t have a couple hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment or a medical cadaver just lying around and just focus on that first measurement–although be warned that it doesn’t have very strong inter-rater reliability.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can get down to business: what affects how far you can stick your tongue out? There are actually a lot of factors at work here:

  • Frenulum: The lingual frenulum, that is. This is the little bit of tissue that connects the bottom of your tongue to the floor of you mouth. For most people this actually won’t affect tongue extension, but for some people it’s a big problem. Have you ever heard the expression “tongue tied”? This actually refers to a lingual frenulum that’s too short and extends too far towards the tip of the tongue. This condition, which is called ankyloglossia, is especially problematic when trying to produce speech sounds or for babies who are trying to nurse. In some cases, doctors may actually cut the lingual frenulum in order to free the tongue. For most people, though, cutting the frenulum would not increase freedom of movement or length of extension in the tongue. Plus, the risks associated with oral surgery are substantial.
  • Bone structure and tooth placement: Bone structure and tooth placement can also affect how far the tongue can be extended. People with short face syndrome–yes, that’s a real medical diagnosis–and overjet tend to have smaller tongues. Other factors such as incisor position and whether a line drawn between the upper and lower sets of teeth tilts or not also co-vary with tongue length.
  • Age: One obvious factor that affects tongue size is age. Adults’ tongues are approximately twice the size of infants’. This is surprising, given that the infant’s skull makes up 1/4 of its height where as for adults that figure is only 1/7. As a result, an adult skull is only roughly 1.75 times as large as an infant skull.
  • Biological sex. Finally, there is a slight affect of biological sex. During puberty, high levels of testosterone and human growth hormone trigger growth, especially in the jaw and chin, and this effect is more pronounced in individuals with testes. As a result, their tongues tend to be longer. Too much human growth hormone–acromegaly–can cause growth to continue well past the point of comfort. It also causes the tongue to enlarge and shift forwards in the mouth.

You may notice all these factors have one thing in common: they’re not something you can change. Like your height or body-shape, tongue length isn’t really something you can really change about yourself. The good news, though, is that you can produce speech perfectly well with pretty much any length of tongue.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Sociolinguistic Variables

I’ve already covered what Sociolinguistics is in a earlier GIiL post. But what I didn’t really talk about are sociolinguistic variables, the specific things in that language that co-vary with some sociological factor.

Komaravolu Chandrasekharan MFO 1987

Man, these sociolinguistic variables are really hard to isolate. Maybe combinatorics isn’t the right approach here…  Photo:  Konrad Jacobs

So that’s the dictionary definition, but what makes something a sociolinguistic variable? Let’s start off with some examples. Sociolinguistic variables exist at all levels of the grammar. Here are some examples from African American English, the systematic, rule-governed variety of English used predominantly by African Americans:

Ok, so that means that pretty much anything can be a sociolinguistic variable, right? Not exactly. So these are all variables that are associated African American English (AAE), but there are some things that almost all speakers of African American English do that aren’t dialect markers. For example, almost all speakers of AAE will flap. But the same thing is true of pretty much every other speaker of English in America. So if you were looking at speakers of AAE you wouldn’t find that their use of flapping was different from the surrounding linguistic communities.

To be a sociolinguistic variable, something has to vary along with social categories. So something linguistic that men do more than women–such as interrupting–would be a gendered sociolinguistic variable, but something that men and women do equally wouldn’t be.

How do you find a sociolinguistic variable? Well, like most science, it starts with a general observation. After that, you need to carefully collect linguistic samples containing places where you think the variable should show up from people who are part of the group you’re interested in. If it’s well-studied, you can then use other people’s data for comparison with different populations. If it’s something new, though, you’ll need to collect your own comparison data. Then, a careful analysis will show you whether or not the thing you noticed is something that varies systematically along with your social variable of interest. If it does, congratulations: you’ve found a sociolinguistic variable!

There, their and they’re: linguistics style!

The most frustrating homophone triplet in English is there, their and they’re, which are all said [ðɛr]. They’re a pain, and one that I’ve found that even really smart adults struggle with. And, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re not usually taught in a very linguistically sophisticated way. Luckily for y’all, “linguistic sophistication” is my middle name*. And, like all good linguists I’ve got some tests to help you figure out which [ðɛr] you need.

googleChart

If tests aren’t your style and you just want to play the odds, though, guess “their”, “there” and “they’re” in that order. According to Google’s n-gram viewer (click the chart to go play around with it) “their” is the most common [ðɛr] in writing, followed by “there” and then “they’re”.

  • There. So the confusing thing here is that there are really *two* there’s in English and they play really different roles.
    • Pleonastic there. So in English we really need subjects, even when we don’t. Some sentences like “It’s raining” and “There’s no more ice-cream” don’t actually need a subject to convey what we’re getting at. There’s no thing, “it”, up in the sky that is doing the raining like there’s a person throwing a ball in “They threw the ball”. We just stick it up in there to fill out our sentence.
      • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “it”? If so, it’s probably “there”.
      • Test: If the sentence has “[ðɛr] was/were/is/are/will” it will almost always be “there”.
    • Locative there. So “locative” is just a fancy word for “relating to a place”. Are you talking about a place? If so, then you probably need “there”.
      • Test: Is [ðɛr] referring to a place? If so, it’s probably “there”.
  • Their. So people tend to use a semantic definition for this one; does it belong to someone? It’s way easier to figure it out with part of speech, though. “Their” is part of a pretty small class of words called “determiners”– you may also have heard  “articles”. One good way to test if a word belongs to the same part of speech as another is to replace it in the sentence. You know “snake” and “pudding” are both nouns because you say either “My snake fell off the shelf” or “My pudding fell off the shelf”. So all you have to do is swap it out with one of the other English Determiners and see if it works.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with words like “my”, “our”, “the” or “some”? If so, it’s “their”.
  • They’re. This is probably the easiest one. They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are”. If you can uncontract them and the sentence still works, you’re golden.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “they are”? If so, it’s probably “they’re”.

Try out these tests next time you’re not sure which [ðɛr] is the right one and you should figure it out pretty quickly. Of course, there are some marginal cases (like when you’re talking about the words themselves) that may throw you off, but these guidelines should pull you through 99% of the time.

* Not actually my middle name.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Consonants and Vowels

Consonants and vowels are one of the handful of linguistics terms that have managed to escape the cage of academic discourse to make their nest in the popular conciousness. Everyone knows what the difference between a vowel and a consonant is, right? Let’s check super quick. Pick the option below that best describes a vowel:

  • Easy! It’s A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.
  • A speech sound produced without constriction of the vocal tract above the glottis.

Everyone got the second one, right? No? Huh, maybe we’re not  on the same page after all.

There’s two problems with the “andsometimesY” definition of vowels. The first is that it’s based on the alphabet and, as I’ve discussed before, English has a serious problem when it comes to mapping sounds onto letters in a predictable way. (It gives you the very false impression that English has six-ish vowels when it really has twice that many.) The second is that isn’t really a good way of modelling what a vowel actually is. If we got a new letter in the alphabet tomorrow, zborp, we’d have no principled way of determining whether it was a vowel or not.

Letter dice d6.JPG

Ah, a new letter is it? Time to get out the old vowelizing dice and re-roll.  “Letter dice d6″. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the linguistic definition captures some other useful qualities of vowels as well. Since vowels don’t have a sharp constriction, you get acoustic energy pretty much throughout the entire spectrum. Not all frequencies are created equal, however. In vowels, the shape of the vocal tract creates pockets of more concentrated acoustic energy. We call these “formants” and they’re so stable between repetitions of vowels that they can be used to identify which vowel it is. In fact, that’s what you’re using to distinguish “beat” from “bet” from “bit” when you hear them aloud. They’re also easy to measure, which means that speech technologies rely really heavily on them.

Another quality of vowels is that, since the whole vocal tract has to unkink itself (more or less) they tend to take a while to produce. And that same openness means that not much of the energy produced at the vocal folds is absorbed. In simple terms, this means that vowels tend to be longer and louder than other sounds, i.e. consonants. This creates a neat little one-two where vowels are both easier to produce and hear. As a result, languages tend to prefer to have quite a lot of vowels, and to tack consonants on to them. This tendency shakes out create a robust pattern across languages where you’ll get one or two consonants, then a vowel, then a couple consonants, then a vowel, etc. You’ve probably run across the term linguists use for those little vowel-nuggets: we call them syllables.

If you stick with the “andsometimesY” definition, though, you lose out on including those useful qualities. It may be easier to teach to five-year-olds, but it doesn’t really capture the essential vowelyness of vowels. Fortunately, the linguistics definition does.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgements

Today’s Great Idea in Linguistics comes to use from syntax. One interesting difference between syntax and other fields of linguistics is what is considered compelling evidence for a theory in syntax. The aim of transformational syntax is to produce a set of rules (originally phrase structure rules) that will let you produce all the grammatical sentences in a language and none of the ungrammatical ones.  So, if you’re proposing a new rule you need to show that the sentences it outputs are grammatical… but how do you do that?

Wessel smedbager04.jpg

I sentence you to ten hours of community service for ungrammatical utterances!

One way to test whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone’s said it before. Back in the day, before you had things like large searchable corpora–or, heck even the internet–this was  difficult, so say the least. Especially since the really interesting syntactic phenomena tend to be pretty rare. Lots of sentences have a subject and an object, but a lot fewer have things like wh-islands.

Another way is to see if someone will say it. This is a methodology that is often used in sociolinguistics research. The linguist interviews someone using questions that are specifically designed to elicit certain linguistic forms, like certain words or sounds. However, this methodology is chancy at best. Often times the person won’t produce whatever it is you’re looking for. Also it can be very hard to make questions or prompts to access very rare forms.

Another way to see whether something is grammatical is to see whether someone would say it. This is the type of evidence that has, historically, been used most often in syntax research. The concept is straightforward. You present a speaker of a language with a possible sentence and  they use thier intuition as a native speaker to determine whether it’s good (“grammatical”) or not (“ungrammatical”). These sentences are often outputs of a proposed structure and used to argue either for or against it.

However, in practice grammaticality judgements can occasionally be a bit more difficult. Think about the following sentences:

  • I ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This sounds pretty good to me. I’d say it’s “grammatical”.
  • *I did ate the carrot yesterday.
    • I put a star (*) in front of this sentence because it sounds bad to me, and I don’t think anyone would say it. I’d say it’s “ungrammatical”.
  • ? I done ate the carrot yesterday.
    • This one is a little more borderline. It’s actually something I might say, but only in a very informal context and I realize that not everyone would say it.

So if you were a syntactician working on these sentences, you’d have to decide whether your model should account for the last sentence or not. One way to get around this is by building probability into the syntactic structure. So I’m more likely to use a structure that produces the first example but there’s a small probability I might use the structure in the third example. To know what those probabilities are, however, you need to figure out how likely people are to use each of the competing structures (and whether there are other factors at play, like dialect) and for that you need either lots and lots of grammaticality judgements. It’s a new use of a traditional tool that’s helping to expand our understanding of language.

Great Ideas in Linguistics: Paradigm Levelling

One of the great things about being human is our ability to figure patterns and then apply them in new situations. In fact, that pretty much describes the vast bulk of scientific inquiry– someone notices a thing, notices other things like it, figures that they must be motivated by some underlying process and then tries to figure it out. From gravity to DNA to the fact that maybe DDT wasn’t such a panacea after all, all important scientific discoveries have sprung from that same general process of recognizing patterns.

And that process is at work in language as well. Let’s take a look at the following way of conjugating English verbs.


I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walks                    They walk


Now, if you’re the noticing type of person you might find that there’ s a glaring problem that’s messing up an otherwise nice, predictable pattern: that odd out-of-place “s” in “She walks.” Why, it’s downright irksome. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to get rid of it entirely and have a nice, lovely, completely predictable conjugation like this one:


I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walk                   They walk


Of course it would. And in fact, there are some speakers of English who do just that. Dropping the third person singular “s”, as it turns out, is a common feature of African American English. And if similar processes in other languages, such as Latin, are any guide, we may all one day adopt this entirely sensible practice, which is commonly referred to as “paradigm levelling”.

In fact, English has already undergone a massive process of morphological simplification, including a lot of paradigm levelling, once before. During the transition from Old English to Middle English, we lost a whole bucketful of cases and person markings. This was partly due to language contact in the Danelaw, where Viking settlers interacted and intermarried with the local English-speaking population. Being no-nonsense second language learners, they did away with a lot of the odder patterns and left us with something that much more closely resembled the comparatively morphologically streamlined English of today.

And the same process has occurred over and over again the world’s languages.  People notice that something isn’t what you’d expect, given the pattern in place, and choose to follow the pattern rather than historical precedent, tidying away some of the messiness that inevitably creeps into languages over time. Paradigm levelling is a powerful force for linguistic change and a useful theoretical tool in historical linguistics.