Indiscreet Words

All right, first I’d like to apologize for the title. The opposite of discrete is not indiscreet, but continuous, and continuous is what language, especially speech, is. By continuous, I mean that it doesn’t come out in separable chunks; it’s more like a stream of water than a stream of ice cubes. In fact, English itself discriminates between things that are discrete and continuous; discrete things are called count nouns because (gasp!) you can count them, and continuous things are called mass nouns. You can count ice cubes and words, but you can’t count water or language unless you assign them units.

“But wait,” I can hear you protest. “Language is discrete.  I’m speaking in sentences, that are made up of words that are made up of letters.” And you’re right. For you, your language is made up of units that are psychologically real to you. Somewhere between the speaker vocalizing the words and you parsing them, you segment them using the rules that you’ve mastered. It’s a deeply complex process and one that we still don’t completely understand. If we did, we’d be able to write speech recognition programs that wouldn’t give us errors like “the wells were gathered and planning” for “the walls were dark and clammy”. (True life. I got that very error not that long ago.)

Here, let’s look at some data. Here’s the waveform that shows the wave intensity, or loudness, of a native speaker of English saying “I am an elephant.”

Can you pick out the part of the speech signal for each of the words? Here, let me help you.

So… if speech really is discrete, wouldn’t expect four separate bumps in loudness for the words, with silence in between? (Maybe with a couple extra bumps on the end for the laugher.)

Instead, what we get is pretty much a constant rush of noise that you rely on the vast amount of knowledge you have about your language to decode accurately. Take out that knowledge and you get something completely incomprehensible. And there’s a really easy way to show this, just listen to someone speaking a language you aren’t familiar with.

That’s Finnish and if you speak it well enough to understand everything he just said, I’d like to extend some mad props unto you; Finno-Ugric languages are as hard as ice-cream from a deep freezer. But to get back to the point, what observations can you make about what you just heard?

  • The speaker was speaking super-quickly.
  • There didn’t seem to be any pauses between words
  • Basically, it was like standing in front of a language fire hose.

For people who don’t speak your native language, you sound very similar. They’re not speaking any more quickly in Hindi or Mandarin or Swahili or German than you are in English, you just don’t have a metalinguistic framework to help you cut the sound-stream into words, slap it up on a syntactic framework and yank meaning out of it.


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