Wug’s up?

Wait, you may be asking, what’a wug? The short answer is that a wug’s not a thing. Literally. It was chosen as a good, possible English word that didn’t have a meaning associated with it. The long answer is that a wug’s one of the ways that we know phonology is real.

These are wugs, from Jean Berko Gleason's work on child morphemic acquisition "The acquisition and dissolution of the English inflectional system", published in 1978. Sorry, nothing really funny to say about them. They are pretty cute, though.

Ok, so answer the question in the picture above. If you’re a native speaker of English, you probably said something like “There are two wugz.” Of course, you would write it “wugs”, but you’d say it with a final ‘z’. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating:

In English, there are two ways to make a word plural. You can add -z to the end, and you can add -s to the end. They’re actually very similar sounds, but with a slight difference. When you’re making a -s sound, you don’t vibrate your vocal folds, so there’s no sort of louder buzzing noise (linguists call that voicing), but when you make a -z sound, you do voice it. When that happens is determined by the sound in front of the plural marking. If it’s voiced, the voicing is sort of smeared over into  the -s on the end, mainly because it’s easier to say.

Now, this is a rule that you know and  can apply without even thinking about it. But children have to learn it somehow, and we didn’t really know when this happened developmentally. Which is what the wug test was designed to find out. If children have learned the rule, then they’ll say “wug-z” instead of “wug-s”. It turns out that four- and five-year-olds have usually got this rule down cold. Which tells us something useful about how we acquire language. And, you know, watching four-year-olds trying to stay on task is adorable.

And, as a special bonus, here’s a video interview with Jean Berko Gleason. She’s super awesome and a real live linguist. 🙂

Your ears are lying to you.

So, as a person who looks mainly at the sounds of language, I tend to put a lot of faith in my ability to hear things. And you know what? Sometimes that faith is completely misplaced. My ears lie to me, and yours do too.

Of course your butt looks great in that dress!
 Well, it’s more accurate to say that your brain lies to you. I mean, your ears are simply there to receive the speech signal, like the antennas on an old TV. You still need a tuner to translate those signals into something meaningful, and in this really over-extended metaphor, the tuner is your brain.

And, sometimes, your brain will lie to you. There’s this thing called Phonemic Restoration that’s studied extensively by Makio Kashino, among other people. Basically, what happens is that even when a speech sound is missing you’ll think you heard it. Here, try this:

Isn’t that just the freakiest thing? And it gets even better. Not only can you gain sounds that were never there to begin with at all, you can also lose sounds that should have been perfectly intelligible. I was at a conference this weekend and one of presentations, by Chris Heffner, was on how you adapt to changes in speaking rate. Basically, if you’re listening to a bit of slow speech and then encounter a segment or set of words that’s produced much faster, your brain can’t handle it very well, so it’ll just skip right over parts of it, even if it leaves you with something that’s less than grammatical.

So why does this matter? Well, first off, it’s super cool. Secondly, knowing when and how your brain lies to you can tell us more about how your brain processes language. And, really, that’s not something we know a whole lot about. Linguistics as a field is littered with unsolved problems, like rocks waiting to destroy a perfectly good tiller. By learning more about what goes on between the antenna and the television screen, though, we can keep working to solve those problems.

Flap that!

Imagine you’re walking down a sunny street in Chicago and pass by a construction site. Someone yells out, “Adam, the ladder, pick it up!” Congratulations, you’ve just found the elusive wild flap in its natural environment! And not just once, but three times.  Where was it? “Adam, the ladder, pick it up!” Try saying it aloud. If you’re a native speaker of American English, you’ll say all three of the underlined sounds the same way.

Construction worker at Westlake Center, 1988
Come on, Adam, Lulu's having to pick up your slack!

Unless you’re already pretty familiar with linguistics, you’ve probably never heard of the flap (or tap, as some linguists call it), but that doesn’t mean that you’re not already acquainted. In fact, the flap is one of most common sounds of the English language, especially American English. It’s produced by a very quick movement of the tongue against the little ridge of bone just behind your teeth. This video will give you an idea of just how quick:

It’s a little difficult to see, but did you notice that bit in the middle where the tongue suddenly jumped? That was the flap. It’s so fast that it makes the production of most other sounds seem like the proverbial tortoise. A flap takes an average of 20 milliseconds to produce; by contrast, the schwa vowel (it’s an ‘uh’ sound, the most common in the English Language) lasts an average of 64 milliseconds.  You can see why the flap is such a favorite; it’s a huge time saver.

It’s a little difficult to spot a flap  within specialized training because it doesn’t have its own letter, or make any minimal pairs. (A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ by only one sound, like “cat” and “cap”. Because you need to be able to tell the sounds apart in order to tell the words apart, you’re really good at distinguishing the sounds that make minimal pairs, at least in your native language[s]). Usually, it replaces the ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound in the middle of a word, but when you start speaking more quickly, more and more of your ‘t’s and ‘d’s end up coming out as flaps. And that makes sense. When you’re speaking more quickly, you want to be understood, but you just  don’t have as much time to articulate quickly. Since most people will hear the flap as a ‘t’ or a ‘d’, switching one for the other is just easier for everyone.

So that’s the flap, a shy, unassuming sound that you often mistake for one of its more glamorous siblings. Now that you’ve been introduced, though, try to keep an eye out for the little guy. You just might be surprised how often it pops up!

What words are easy to say?

Ok, so in the last couple posts I’ve been throwing around terms like “easy to say” without giving a whole lot of explanation. And that’s a pity, because the study of what words are “easy” and what words are “hard” is, in my opinion, one of the greatest sub-disciplines in linguistics: phonotactics.

Imperial Russian soldier with phone
No, that's phone tactics, not phonotactics. They're completely different.
Phonotactics is like your great-aunt who always arranges the seating at family reunions becuase she remembers who fought with whom twenty years ago and knows not to sit them together. Basically, some sounds really like to be next to others. Like vowels. Vowels like to be next to everyone. In Japanese, for example, with a couple of exceptions, most syllables have to be made of a consonant plus a vowel. (In ling speak, this is known as “CV”. C for consonant, V for vowel. Yeah, unlike physicists, we like to keep things simple.) What’s even more amazing is that within six months of birth, Japanese infants prefer sounds that are CVCV to those that are CVCCV or CVCVC.

Polish, on the other hand, notoriously plays fast and loose with syllable structure. You can have consonant clusters up to five sounds long in Polish that, most weirdly, don’t follow the same sorts of rules that other languages do. Like English. English can have pretty big consonant clusters… but they’ll only get really big if the first or last sound in the word is ‘s’. (Protip: That’s why ‘s’ is such a great letter in scrabble; there’s a bunch of things you can slap it on to piggyback of someone else’s word, even outside of its morpheme status.) If you’ve ever stumbled over a Polish last name, there’s a sound linguistic reason you found it hard.

Why is this useful? Well, besides its obvious use in language teaching and being great cocktail party conversation material,  if you want to make a plausibly difficult-to-pronounce alien language, screw up your phonotactics and you’ll leave audio book readers in tears.

Laziness vs. Niceness

So, I like to say that there are two forces at work in linguistics change: laziness and niceness. Well, that’s a little vague. When I say linguistic change, I really mean phonological change. Phonological change is whenever one sound or set of sounds is replaced by another, and it happens all the time.

1544 Championship 40
The guy with his legs in the air is laziness, the guy bending over backwards is niceness and the stamp is, uh, your mouth.
Let’s take an example. How about the glottal stop in English? Here, read this and then come back. I’ll wait.

We splash glottal stops around in our speech because they’re easy and quick to say. So that’s laziness; it doesn’t hurt anyone, it just makes the speaker’s life a little easier. But wait! Let’s say that you move to Egypt and start using Egyptian Arabic. In fact, let’s say that a whole bunch of English speakers move to Egypt, so many that there starts to be a really large native English speaker population in Cairo… but a population that still has to learn and use Egyptian Arabic just to get around during the day.

Now, in Egyptian Arabic, if you slosh glottal stops around like mop water on a dirty floor, you’re going to run into problems. Why? Because the glottal stop is a separate sound. It would be like if I used “b” and “p” interchangeably. There’s a big different between “Hand me the robe” and “Hand me the rope” (particularly if you’re a cultist). It’s confusing. And confusing people isn’t nice.

So, if you’re nice, you’ll use glottal stops only when you’re supposed to in English and Arabic, and use the other sounds where they belong. The downside? It’s more work for a speaker to make a full k-sound than just a glottal stop.

So you’ve got this tension between laziness and niceness, and in different languages and different situations, a different pressure will win out. Or,  you know, at least be something that you worry about more.

Fun with ambiguity!

Ambiguity is fun. For example, yesterday my friends and I were talking about my uncle, who repairs robots.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Yeah, he’s a robot repair man. It’s a pretty good job.

Friend 1: How does one become a robot repair man?

Friend 2: Yeah, how did he become a robot?

Oh, clearly you meant a robotic man who repairs things, not a man who repairs robots.
Now, because I’m not a normal person, I jotted down a note of this interesting ambiguity. You’ve probably noticed lots of instances like this, where a word can be interpreted in more than one way. But did you ever wonder about ambiguity in language? (A little note here: There is ambiguity on the word level and ambiguity on the sentence level. I’m talking about ambiguious words here, though I might come back and do phrases later on.)

Think about it this way: language’s primary  purpose is to assist in communication. You would think that anything that got in the way of that purpose would be weeded out. I mean, yeah, languages evolve, but they evolve with conscious input from humans, so you’d think that we’d try to cut down on things that make communication harder. I mean, if you were designing a human, would you include the appendix? Ok, maybe you would. But my point is, ambiguity isn’t really helpful in communication. So why do we continue to use it?

Funnily enough, I’m not the first person to ask this question; it’s one that’s troubled linguistics for a while. And there was a theory proposed in a  recent article that I find particularly interesting. The authors argued that words that have more than one meaning (like how chips can be delicious and ruin your computer, or taste terrible and make your computer run) are generally words that are really easy to say.

You can think of different words as having different shapes, and that you have to trace these shapes to say the word. A word that’s really easy to say, like mom, would be a circle. A word that’s harder to say, like Cryptonomicon, is going to be more like five-pointed star. (A word that’s impossible to say, like lpdkn, would be like trying to draw a scale model of Mount Fuji in two dimensions: you can kind of get the general idea across, but you can’t produce it fully because it violates the rules of physics. Metaphorically.) When you’re just talking to friends, you want to use as many circles as possible. Because of that pressure, you’re going to use circles to represent tires and oranges and the sun, and trust that your friends can use context clues to figure out that you didn’t have tire juice for breakfast.

I tend to like this argument, because I’m of the opinion that laziness is one of the driving factors in language–I’m not so sure of another argument that they make, which is that the primary purpose of language is not  communication, but basically to organize our thoughts, but more on that later. The main point is that ambiguity is an essential part of language and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

The Brothers Grimm and Their Phonology Habit

You’ve probably heard of the Brothers Grimm in conjunction with fairy tales. They were four-handedly responsible for popularizing most of the ones we know and love today. Well, popularizing them for those of us who live outside of the German countryside. If you’ve ever read or watched Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel or Rumpelstiltskin, you’ve got them to thank.

Walter Crane12
Oh, you're a prince? Sorry, I'm holding out for a linguist.
But this is a linguistics blog, not a folklore blog, so why am I going on and on about these guys? Because they were also pretty awesome linguists. They were like the Galileo of linguistics, way ahead of their time and brilliant. They were so brilliant, they discovered something called Grimm’s law. Well, really it was Jacob who discovered it (hence the apostrophe placement) and it wasn’t called Grimm’s law at the time. It was just something that no one had ever thought to look for.

What was it?

Grimm’s law is the very first time we see a set of rules governing linguistic change. And that may sound kind of boring, but it was just as monumental as the discovery of calculus. (Was calculus more of a discovery or a development? Mhh, whatever.) It fundamentally changed the way that linguistics was done.

Basically, Jacob determined that, historically, certain sounds in Germanic languages (including German and English) had changed. And they hadn’t changed randomly. A had changed to B had changed to C across a set of languages, and all across the language. It would be like if three or four different countries, without talking about it, decide that purple was better color for stop signs than red or bright green, and changed out all their stop signs. And then, when they were done, they decided that they really liked pink better and all changed to that.

Why was this exciting? Well, unlike theories like “This word is fun to say becuase I think it is“, Grimm’s law is testable. You can go out and take a picture of some non-pink stop signs and use that evidence to argue against a law that ends with all stop signs being now pink. We have a theory (and phonological theory!) that we can use empirical data to prove or disprove. It obviously took some time to be accepted as the standard practice, and for a long time, all anybody wanted to talk about was historical sound change and written texts. But, hey, once phonology was born, it was only a matter of time before it started saving the world.