Why can you mumble “good morning” and still be understood?

I got an interesting question on Facebook a while ago and though it might be a good topic for a blog post:

I say “good morning” to nearly everyone I see while I’m out running. But I don’t actually say “good”, do I? It’s more like “g’ morning” or “uh morning”. Never just morning by itself, and never a fully articulated good. Is there a name for this grunt that replaces a word? Is this behavior common among English speakers, only southeastern speakers, or only pre-coffee speakers?

This sort of thing is actually very common in speech, especially in conversation. (Or “in the wild” as us laboratory types like to call it.) The fancy-pants name for it is “hypoarticulation”. That’s less (hypo) speech-producing movements of the mouth and throat (articulation). On the other end of the spectrum you have “hyperarticulation” where you very. carefully. produce. each. individual. sound.

Ok, so you can change how much effort you put into producing speech sounds, fair enough. But why? Why don’t we just sort of find a happy medium and hang out there? Two reasons:

  1. Humans are fundamentally lazy. To clarify: articulation costs energy, and energy is a limited resource. More careful articulation also takes more time, which, again, is a limited resource. So the most efficient speech will be very fast and made with very small articulator movements. Reducing the word “good” to just “g” or “uh” is a great example of this type of reduction.
  2. On the other hand, we do want to communicate clearly. As my advisor’s fond of saying, we need exactly enough pointers to get people to the same word we have in mind. So if you point behind someone and say “er!” and it could be either a tiger or a bear, that’s not very helpful. And we’re very aware of this in production: there’s evidence that we’re more likely to hyperarticulate words that are harder to understand.

So we want to communicate clearly and unambiguously, but with as little effort as possible. But how does that tie in with this example? “G” could be “great” or “grass” or “génial “, and “uh” could be any number of things. For this we need to look outside the linguistic system.

The thing is, language is a social activity and when we’re using language we’re almost always doing so with other people. And whenever we interact with other people, we’re always trying to guess what they know. If we’re pretty sure someone can get to the word we mean with less information, for example if we’ve already said it once in the conversation, then we will expend less effort in producing the word. These contexts where things are really easily guessable are called “low entropy“. And in a social context like jogging past someone in the morning, phrases liked “good morning” have very low entropy. Much lower than, for example “Could you hand me that pickle?”–if you jogged past someone  and said that you’d be very likely to hyperarticulate to make sure they understood.

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.

Why are tongue twisters tricky? (Part 1)

For me, the best part of the 2009 Star Trek movie was the scene where Kirk tries to pick up Uhara in a bar. After she  says he probably doesn’t know what Xenolinguistics is, he replies:

The study of alien languages. Morphology, phonology, syntax. Means you’ve got a talented tongue.

Well. Four out of five isn’t bad. Linguists know about language, not the languages themselves–so tongue talents are a skill that linguists only develop tangentially. (Although, of course, a lot of linguists do end up learning the languages they work on.) But knowing about tongues is still pretty useful. For example, it helps explain why tongue twisters are so hard.

Rolled tongue flikr
Tongue rolling is actually probably not controlled genetically. That’s right, your introductory biology textbook lied to you.
Basically, your tongue is a muscle like any other muscle, and it has certain limits. For example, there’s just a certain upper limit to how fast you can type, knit or eat, you can only produce recognizable words so fast. In addition to speed, however, there are certain motions that are difficult to make. Linguists often refer to correctly producing a given sound as “hitting an articulatory target”, and that’s a useful metaphor. For each sound in your repertoire, your tongue (and other parts of your articulatory system) have to be in certain positions.

Exercise time! Try saying “s sh s sh s sh” and “t k t k t k”. In the first, the tip of your tongue should move from that little ridge in your mouth (just behind your front teeth) to behind that ridge. In the second, the “t” sound should be made with the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and the “k” with the very back of your tongue. (I’m assuming that you have the “sh” sound in your native language, otherwise this exercise might have been a little fruitless for you. Sorry.)

You might have noticed that it was a little easier to make the “t k” sound than it was the “s sh” sound. That’s because you’re using two different parts of your tongue to make the “t k” pair, so while one is making a sound, the other is preparing to and vice versa. On the other hand, if your only using the very tip of your tongue, you have to finish one task before you can move onto the next, so your rate of making sounds is much lower. It’s the same reason that assembly lines are so much faster–you don’t have the additional time it takes to switch tasks. (BTW, that’s why, if you play a wind instrument, you can tongue faster with “t k t k” than “t t t t”.)

Ok, so we have two pressures working against your ability to produce tongue twisters. The first is that your tongue can only move so fast. You can train it to move faster, but eventually you will (barring cybernetic implants) reach the limits of the human body. Secondly, you have limited resources to make sounds, and when sounds that draw on the same resources are produced too close together, they both become more difficult to produce, and the speed at which you can produce them is reduced even further.

And that wraps it up for tongues, because the dirty secret of tongue twisters is that they’re mainly actually brain twisters. But I’ll cover that in part two. That’s right: brraaaaaaains.