How much do you talk?

You talk a lot. No, seriously. Even if you’re not a chatty person. You, as a human being who has not taken a vow of silence, transmit a lot of information.

Let me break it down for you. I recently did a large chunk of transcription, looking at speech data from four different people. I took a random two minute sample from each of those transcriptions, and they spoke 282,  257, 386 and 357 words in that time, for an average of around 160 words per minute. None of the people were talking faster than what I consider a normal rate, and I live in the South, where speaking rates are lower then they are in, say, California. But let’s pretend that this is your normal speaking rate.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Say you’re one of those brave souls who does NaNoWriMo, and you try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. If you were writing your novel as fast as you speak, you’d finish in a little over five hours. That’s right. Every five hours you speak, you produce enough words to fill a book. Of course, you don’t spend five hours a day talking at full tilt, but even so, most people speak around 16,000 words a day. (The link is a Scientific American summing up of the paper in question.)

If you’re a hacker, you might be a little confused at the “words per minute” figure. (In other languages and for other purposes linguists tend to use morphemes, syllables, or phonemes, and measure them by the minute, second, or even hour.) The unit milliLampson sometimes pops up:

milliLampson /mil’*-lamp`sn/ /n./ A unit of talking speed, abbreviated mL. Most people run about 200 milliLampsons. The eponymous Butler Lampson [link mine] (a CS theorist and systems implementor highly regarded among hackers) goes at 1000. A few people speak faster. This unit is sometimes used to compare the (sometimes widely disparate) rates at which people can generate ideas and actually emit them in speech. For example, noted computer architect C. Gordon Bell (designer of the PDP-11) is said, with some awe, to think at about 1200 mL but only talk at about 300; he is frequently reduced to fragments of sentences as his mouth tries to keep up with his speeding brain.

Yeah… it’s cute, but you’re not really going to see it cropping up in linguistics literature. My guess would be, based on the speaking rate, that a milliLampson is loosely based on words per minute, probably based on Californian speakers (maybe even from, gasp! UC Berkeley), and then inflated by folkloric proportions. But that’s a great example of the type of misinformation that’s out there. Take this for example:

I love infographics. I do not love misinformation.
Image taken from infographic by Medical Billing and Coding (which can be found at for educational purposes. Don't you feel educated? Always hunt down the citations for these random numbers the people vomit at you.

The fine folks at Medical Billing and Coding may have listed their sources, but I’m afraid one of their sources were wrong. Let take a look at this 73 million figure. I will even do all the arithmetic for you. I know, I know, I’m a peach.

Ok, so, let’s assume that their 18,140 figure is right, and that our 160 words/minute figure is right. In that case, we’ve got 18,140 hours per life x 60 minutes per hour  x 160 words per minute and do the multiplication and cancel out all the units super nicely, and we come up with 174,144,000 words per life. That’s almost 2.5 times as many as they predicted. Or, hey, since a little more math can’t hurt, let’s assume 75 speaking years per life x 365 days per year x 16,000 words per day and we come up with 438,000,000 words per life. And since I’m far more likely to trust the data from the article published in Science than my own little two-bit estimation, it looks like this infographic is wrong by a factor of 6.

What’s even more amazing, though, is that if you wrote down every single one of those words, it would be as long as 402.5 editions of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the longest novel ever writtenLike I said, you talk a lot.


Phrenology != Phonology

This is not linguistics. It is, however, pretty cool. Photo taken by Flickr user Uncle Catherine, and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Linguistics is a huge field. It includes everything from the algorithms behind Siri to preserving endangered languages like flies in amber to reconstructing dead languages. (Unlike biologists, we don’t have to worry about an undead T-Rex wandering around if things go terribly, terribly wrong.) Since it’s just one intrepid girl linguist here at Making Noise and Hearing Things, I’m going to have to restrict myself to just a single set of sub-disciplines. These are:

      • Psycholinguistics: Like a zombie valiantly  trying to overcome his crippling aphasia, psycholinguistics all about language and brains. Since I’m all about sound, you’ll probably be getting a lot of stuff about brains and sound.
      • Phonology: Often confused with  phrenology (no, seriously, this happens to me all the time) it’s the study of the systems of rules languages apply to their sounds. Here’s a quick example: say “dogs” and “cats”. Is the “s” on the end of both of those words the same? Try saying it again with your hand right above your Adam’s apple or where your Adam’s apple would be. When you say the “s” on “dogs” you should feel a slight buzzing, like you’ve swallowed a bee. The “s” on “cats”, though, doesn’t have it. Whether or not the final “s” has buzzing in it (linguists call it “voicing”) is determined by a simple rule in English: you get vibration on the final “s” if the sound before it had it. The “g” sound in “dog” has vibration; the “t” sound in “cat” doesn’t.
      • Phonetics: This is the study of sounds themselves. Phonology is all like, “Oh, yeah, that was voicing.” Phonetics is all like, “Sure, but how much voicing? How long did it last? How much air came out?” Phonetics wants to know all the dirty details. Phonetics takes videos like this one, where you can see the vocal folds vibrating in slow motion. [[WARNING: If you are prone to nightmares of terrors from beyond space, you might want to skip this one. Just saying.]]

But, yeah, those are the biggies. I can’t promise I won’t be branching out from these sub-disciplines, but I can promise an extremely low frequency of syntax posts. (Low frequency! Get it? Because… sound… um. Never mind.)

You Are a Linguist

Unless you have a degree in linguistics or are working as a translator (not the same thing, but I’ll get to that later) you probably read the title of this post and immediately thought “No, I’m not.” Trust me, you are. How do I know? Well, a linguist is someone who does two things:

  1. Makes claims about language
  2. Attempts to either verify or disprove these claims (whether they made them or someone else did).

That’s it. There’s no secret cabal of linguists you have to join, you don’t have to speak thirty languages, and you certainly don’t have to have a PhD. I think if you start paying attention, you’ll notice that you do this all the time. Have you ever had a conversation like this?

Lulu: She talks slow.

Max: Really? I’ve never noticed it.

Or maybe one like this:

Lulu: We go to the zoo.

Max: Don’t you mean we’re going to the zoo?

Lulu: No, we go to the zoo all the time.

Max: But we’re going today, so you could have said that “we’re going”.

Lulu: Yeah, but that’s not what I meant.

Bam. You’re a linguist; go you! “But wait a minute,” you say, “I know for a fact that translators are called linguists. Are you saying that just speaking another language doesn’t make you a linguist? Because that’s what I’ve always heard.”

Man, you’ve got the linguistics bug bad. Look at you, bringing up fine semantic distinctions! (Semantics is the study of how words map onto meaning, BTW.) And you’re absolutely right, a linguist can also be someone who speaks more than one language. The Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete record of the English language, defines a linguist as, first:

“One who is skilled in the use of languages; one who is master of other tongues besides his own. (Often with adj. indicating the degree or extent of the person’s skill.)”

And only later as:

A student of language; a philologist.”

Philology is what the very beginnings of the modern study of language were called. These days, most people prefer the term “linguistics”, and only use philology for a certain field of study within linguistics. For the purposes of this blog and most academic settings, a linguist is not someone who knows languages, but someone who knows about languages. And since knowing a language also automatically means you know about a language–if you’re a native English speaker, you can easily identify where people are from based on their accent, for example–you, sir or madam or other, are a linguist.