What’s up with calling a woman “a female”? A look at the parts of speech of “male” and “female” on Twitter .

This is something I’ve written about before, but I’ve recently had several discussions with people who say they don’t find it odd to refer to a women as a female. Personally, I don’t like being called “a female” becuase its a term I to associate strongly with talking about animals. (Plus, it makes you sound like a Ferengi.)  I would also protest men being called males, for the same reason, but my intuition is that that doesn’t happen as often. I’m willing to admit that my intuition may be wrong in this case, though, so I’ve decided to take a more data-driven approach. I had two main questions:

  • Do “male” and “female” get used as nouns at different rates?
  • Does one of these terms get used more often?

Data collection

I used the Twitter public API to collect two thousand English tweets, one thousand each containing the exact string “a male” and “a female”. I looked for these strings to help get as many tweets as possible with “male” or “female” used as a noun. “A” is what linguist call a determiner, and a determiner has to have a noun after it. It doesn’t have to be the very next word, though; you can get an adjective first, like so:

  • A female mathematician proved the theorm.
  • A female proved the theorm.

So this will let me directly compare these words in a situation where we should only be able to see a limited number of possible parts of speech & see if they differ from each other. Rather than tagging two thousand tweets by hand, I used a Twitter specific part-of-speech tagger to tag each set of tweets.

A part of speech tagger is a tool that guesses the part of speech of every word in a text. So if you tag a sentence like “Apples are tasty”, you should get back that “apples” is a plural noun, “are” is a verb and “tasty” is an adjective. You can try one out for yourself on-line here.

Parts of Speech

In line with my predictions, every instance of “male” or “female” was tagged as either a noun, an adjective or a hashtag. (I went through and looked at the hashtags and they were all porn bots. #gross #hazardsOfTwitterData)

However, not every noun was tagged as the same type of noun. I saw three types of tags in my data: NN (regular old noun), NNS (plural noun) and, unexpectedly, NNP (proper noun, singular). (If you’re confused by the weird upper case abbreviations, they’re the tags used in the Penn Treebank, and you can see the full list here.) In case it’s been a while since you studied parts of speech, proper nouns are things like personal or place names. The stuff that tend to get capitalized in English. The examples from the Penn Treebank documentation include “Motown”, “Venneboerger”,  and “Czestochwa”. I wouldn’t consider either “female” or “male” a name, so it’s super weird that they’re getting tagged as proper nouns. What’s even weirder? It’s pretty much only “male” that’s getting tagged as a proper noun, as you can see below:


Number of times each word tagged as each part of speech by the GATE Twitter part-of-speech tagger. NNS is a plural noun, NNP a proper noun, NN a noun and JJ an adjective.

The differences in tagged POS between “male” and “female” was super robust(X2(6, N = 2033) = 1019.2, p <.01.). So what’s happening here?  My first thought was that it might be that, for some reason, “male” is getting capitalized more often and that was confusing the tagger. But when I looked into, there wasn’t a strong difference between the capitalization of “male” and “female”: both were capitalized about 3% of the time. 

My second thought was that it was a weirdness showing up becuase I used a tagger designed for Twitter data. Twitter is notoriously “messy” (in the sense that it can be hard for computers to deal with) so it wouldn’t be surprising if tagging “male” as a proper noun is the result of the tagger being trained on Twitter data. So, to check that, I re-tagged the same data using the Stanford POS tagger. And, sure enough, the weird thing where “male” is overwhelming tagged as a proper noun disappeared.


Number of times each word tagged as each part of speech by the Stanford POS tagger. NNS is a plural noun, NNP a proper noun, NN a noun, JJ an adjective and FW a “foreign word”.

So it looks like “male” being tagged as a proper noun is an artifact of the tagger being trained on Twitter data, and once we use a tagger trained on a different set of texts (in this case the Wall Street Journal) there wasn’t a strong difference in what POS “male” and “female” were tagged as.

Rate of Use

That said, there was a strong difference between “a female” and “a male”: how often they get used. In order to get one thousand tweets with the exact string “a female”, Twitter had to go back an hour and thirty-four minutes. In order to get a thousand tweets with “a male”, however, Twitter had to go back two hours and fifty eight minutes. Based on this sample, “a female” gets said almost twice as often as “a male”.

So what’s the deal?

  • Do “male” and “female” get used as nouns at different rates?  It depends on what tagger you use! In all seriousness, though, I’m not prepared to claim this based on the dataset I’ve collected.
  • Does one of these terms get used more often? Yes! Based on my sample, Twitter users use “a female” about twice as often as “a male”.

I think the greater rate of use of “a female” that points to the possibility of an interesting underlying difference in how “male” and “female” are used, one that calls for a closer qualitative analysis. Does one term get used to describe animals more often than the other? What sort of topics are people talking about when they say “a male” and “a female”? These questions, however, will have to wait for the next blog post!

In the meantime, I’m interested in getting more opinions on this. How do you feel about using “a male” and “a female” as nouns to talk about humans? Do they sound OK or strike you as odd?

My code and is available on my GitHub.


Preference for wake words varies by user gender

I recently read a very interesting article on the design of aspects of choosing a wake word, the word you use to turn on a voice-activated system. In Star Trek it’s “Computer”, but these days two of the more popular ones are “Alexa” and “OK Google”. The article’s author was a designer and noted that she found “Ok Google” or “Hey Google” to be more pleasant to use than “Alexa”. As I was reading the comments (I know, I know) I noticed that a lot of the people who strongly protested that they preferred “Alexa” had usernames or avatars that I would associate with male users. It struck me that there might be an underlying social pattern here.

So, being the type of nerd I am, I whipped up a quick little survey to look at the interaction between user gender and their preference for wake words. The survey only had two questions:

  • What is your gender?
    • Male
    • Female
    • Other
  • If Google Home and the Echo offered identical performance in all ways except for the wake word (the word or phrase you use to wake the device and begin talking to it), which wake word would you prefer?
    • “Ok Google” or “Hey Google”
    • “Alexa”

I included only those options becuase those are the defaults–I am aware you can choose to change the Echo’s wake word. (And probably should, given recent events.) 67 people responded to my survey. (If you were one of them, thanks!)

So what were the results? They were actually pretty strongly in line with my initial observations: as a group, only men preferred “Alexa” to “Ok Google”. Furthermore, this preference was far weaker than people of other genders’ for “Ok Google”. Women preferred “Ok Google” at a rate of almost two-to-one, and no people of other genders preferred “Alexa”.

I did have a bit of a skewed sample, with more women than men and people of other genders, but the differences between genders were robust enough to be statistically significant (c2(2, N = 67) = 7.25, p = 0.02)).


Women preferred “Ok Google” to “Alexa” 27:11, men preferred “Alexa” to “Ok Google” 14:11, and the four people of other genders in my survey all preferred “Ok Google”.

So what’s the take-away? Well, for one, Johna Paolino (the author of the original article) is by no means alone in her preference for a non-gendered wake word. More broadly, I think that, like the Clippy debacle, this is excellent evidence that there are strong gendered differences in how users’ gender affects their interaction with virtual agents. If you’re working to create virtual agents, it’s important to consider all types of users or you might end up creating something that rubs more than half of your potential customers the wrong way.

My code and data are available here.

Six Linguists of Color (who you can follow on Twitter!)

In the light of some recent white supremacist propaganda showing up on my campus, I’ve decided to spotlight a tiny bit of the amazing work being done around the country by linguists of color. Each of the scholars below is doing interesting, important linguistics research and has a Twitter account that I personally enjoy following. If you’re on this blog, you probably will as well! I’ll give you a quick intro to their research and, if it piques your interest, you can follow them on Twitter for all the latest updates.

(BTW, if you’re wondering why I haven’t included any grad students on this list, it’s becuase we generally don’t have as well developed of a research trajectory and I want this to be a useful resource for at least a few years.)

Anne Charity Hudley

Dr. Charity Hudley is professor at the College of William and Mary (Go Tribe!). Her research focuses on language variation, especially the use of varieties such as African American English, in the classroom. If you know any teachers, they might find her two books on language variation in the classroom a useful resource. She and Christine Mallinson have even released an app to go with them!

Michel DeGraff

Dr. Michel DeGraff is a professor at MIT. His research is on Haitian Creole, and he’s been very active in advocating for the official recognition of Haitian Creole as a distinct language. If you’re not sure what Haitian Creole looks like, go check out his Twitter; many of his tweets are in the language! He’s also done some really cool work on using technology to teach low-resource languages.

Nelson Flores

Dr. Nelson Flores is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on how we create the ideas of race and language, as well as bilingualism/multilingualism and bilingual education. I really enjoy his thought-provoking discussions of recent events on his Twitter account. He also runs a blog, which is a good resource for more in-depth discussion.

Nicole Holliday

Dr. Nicole Holliday is (at the moment) Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Scholar at Pomona College. Her research focuses on language use by biracial speakers. I saw her talk on how speakers use pitch differently depending on who they’re talking to at last year’s LSA meeting and it was fantastic: I’m really looking forwards to seeing her future work! She’s also a contributor to Word., an online journal about African American English.

Rupal Patel

Dr. Rupal Patel is a professor at Northeastern University, and also the founder and CEO of VocaliD. Her research focuses on the speech of speakers with developmental  disabilities, and how technology can ease communication for them. One really cool project she’s working on that you can get involved with is The Human Voicebank. This is collection of voices from all over the world that is used to make custom synthetic voices for those who need them for day-to-day communication. If you’ve got a microphone and a quiet room you can help out by recording and donating your voice.

John R. Rickford

Last, but definitely not least, is Dr. John Rickford, a professor at Stanford. If you’ve taken any linguistics courses, you’re probably already familiar with his work. He’s one of the leading scholars working on African American English and was crucial in bringing a research-based evidence to bare on the Ebonics controversy. If you’re interested, he’s also written a non-academic book on African American English that I would really highly recommend; it even won the American Book Award!

Google’s speech recognition has a gender bias

In my last post, I looked at how Google’s automatic speech recognition worked with different dialects. To get this data, I hand-checked annotations  more than 1500 words from fifty different accent tag videos .

Now, because I’m a sociolinguist and I know that it’s important to stratify your samples, I made sure I had an equal number of male and female speakers for each dialect. And when I compared performance on male and female talkers, I found something deeply disturbing: YouTube’s auto captions consistently performed better on male voices than female voice (t(47) = -2.7, p < 0.01.) . (You can see my data and analysis here.)


On average, for each female speaker less than half (47%) her words were captioned correctly. The average male speaker, on the other hand, was captioned correctly 60% of the time.

It’s not that there’s a consistent but small effect size, either, 13% is a pretty big effect. The Cohen’s d was 0.7 which means, in non-math-speak, that if you pick a random man and random woman from my sample, there’s an almost 70% chance the transcriptions will be more accurate for the man. That’s pretty striking.

What it is not, unfortunately, is shocking. There’s a long history of speech recognition technology performing better for men than women:

This is a real problem with real impacts on people’s lives. Sure, a few incorrect Youtube captions aren’t a matter of life and death. But some of these applications have a lot higher stakes. Take the medical dictation software study. The fact that men enjoy better performance than women with these technologies means that it’s harder for women to do their jobs. Even if it only takes a second to correct an error, those seconds add up over the days and weeks to a major time sink, time your male colleagues aren’t wasting messing with technology. And that’s not even touching on the safety implications of voice recognition in cars.


So where is this imbalance coming from? First, let me make one thing clear: the problem is not with how women talk. The suggestion that, for example, “women could be taught to speak louder, and direct their voices towards the microphone” is ridiculous. In fact, women use speech strategies that should make it easier for voice recognition technology to work on women’s voices.  Women tend to be more intelligible (for people without high-frequency hearing loss), and to talk slightly more slowly. In general, women also favor more standard forms and make less use of stigmatized variants. Women’s vowels, in particular, lend themselves to classification: women produce longer vowels which are more distinct from each other than men’s are. (Edit 7/28/2016: I have since found two papers by Sharon Goldwater, Dan Jurafsky and Christopher D. Manning where they found better performance for women than men–due to the above factors and different rates of filler words like “um” and “uh”.) One thing that may be making a difference is that women also tend not to be as loud, partly as a function of just being smaller, and cepstrals (the fancy math thing what’s under the hood of most automatic voice recognition) are sensitive to differences in intensity. This all doesn’t mean that women’s voices are more difficult; I’ve trained classifiers on speech data from women and they worked just fine, thank you very much. What it does mean is that women’s voices are different from men’s voices, though, so a system designed around men’s voices just won’t work as well for women’s.

Which leads right into where I think this bias is coming from: unbalanced training sets. Like car crash dummies, voice recognition systems were designed for (and largely by) men. Over two thirds of the authors in the  Association for Computational Linguistics Anthology Network are male, for example. Which is not to say that there aren’t truly excellent female researchers working in speech technology (Mari Ostendorf and Gina-Anne Levow here at the UW and Karen Livescu at TTI-Chicago spring immediately to mind) but they’re outnumbered. And that unbalance seems to extend to the training sets, the annotated speech that’s used to teach automatic speech recognition systems what things should sound like. Voxforge, for example, is a popular open source speech dataset that “suffers from major gender and per speaker duration imbalances.” I had to get that info from another paper, since Voxforge doesn’t have speaker demographics available on their website. And it’s not the only popular corpus that doesn’t include speaker demographics: neither does the AMI meeting corpus, nor the Numbers corpus.  And when I could find the numbers, they weren’t balanced for gender. TIMIT, which is the single most popular speech corpus in the Linguistic Data Consortium, is just over 69% male. I don’t know what speech database the Google speech recognizer is trained on, but based on the speech recognition rates by gender I’m willing to bet that it’s not balanced for gender either.

Why does this matter? It matters because there are systematic differences between men’s and women’s speech. (I’m not going to touch on the speech of other genders here, since that’s a very young research area. If you’re interested, the Journal of Language and Sexuality is a good jumping-off point.) And machine learning works by making computers really good at dealing with things they’ve already seen a lot of. If they get a lot of speech from men, they’ll be really good at identifying speech from men. If they don’t get a lot of speech from women, they won’t be that good at identifying speech from women. And it looks like that’s the case. Based on my data from fifty different speakers, Google’s speech recognition (which, if you remember, is probably the best-performing proprietary automatic speech recognition system on the market) just doesn’t work as well for women as it does for men.

Do you tweet the way you speak?

So one of my side projects is looking at what people are doing when they choose to spell something differently–what sort of knowledge about language are we encoding when we decide to spell “talk” like “tawk”, or “playing” like “pleying”? Some of these variant spelling probably don’t have anything to do with pronunciation, like “gawd” or “dawg”, which I think are more about establishing a playful, informal tone. But I think that some variant spellings absolutely are encoding specific pronunciation. Take a look at this tweet, for example (bolding mine):

There are three different spelling here, two which look like th-stopping (where the “th” sound as in “that” is produced as a “d” sound instead) and one that looks like r-lessness (where someone doesn’t produce the r sound in some words). But unfortunately I don’t have a recording of the person who wrote this tweet; there’s no way I can know if they produce these words in the same way in their speech as they do when typing.

Fortunately, I was able to find someone who 1) uses variant spellings in their Twitter and 2) I could get a recording of:

This let me directly compare how this particular speaker tweets to how they speak. So what did I find? Do they tweet the same way they speak? It turns out that that actually depends.

  • Yes! For some things (like the th-stopping and r-lessness like I mentioned above) this person does tweet and speak in pretty much the same way. They won’t use an “r” in spelling where they wouldn’t say an “r” sound and vice versa.
  • No! But for other things (like saying “ing” words “in” or saying words like “coffin” and “coughing” with a different vowel in the first syllable) while this person does them a lot in thier speech, they aren’t using variant spellings at the same level in thier tweets. So they’ll say “runnin” 80% of the time, for example, but type it as “running” 60% of the time (rather than 20%, which is what we’d expect if the Twitter and speech data were showing the same thing).

So what’s going on? Why are only some things being used in the same way on Twitter and in speech? To answer that we’ll need to dig a little deeper into the way these things in speech.

  • How are th-stopping and r-lessness being used in speech? So when you compare the video above to one of the sports radio announcer that’s being parodied (try this one) you’ll find that they’re actually used more in the video above than they are in the speech that’s being parodied. This is pretty common in situations where someone’s really laying on a particular accent (even one they speak natively), which sociolinguists call a performance register.
  • What about the other things? The things that aren’t being used as often Twitter as they are on speech, on the other hand, actually show up at the same levels in speech, both for the parody and the original. This speaker isn’t overshooting thier use of these features; instead they’re just using them in the way that another native speaker of a dialect would.

So there’s a pretty robust pattern showing up here. This person is only tweeting the way they speak for a very small set of things: those things that are really strongly associated with this dialect and that they’re really playing up in thier speech. In other words, they tend to use the things that they’re paying a lot of attention to in the same way both in speech and on Twitter. That makes sense. If you’re very careful to do something when you’re talking–not splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, maybe–you’re probably not going to do it when you’re talking. But if there’s something that you do all the time when you’re talking and aren’t really aware of then it probably show up in your writing. For example, there are lots of little phrases I’ll use in my speech (like “no worries”, for example) that I don’t think I’ve ever written down, even in really informal contexts. (Except for here, obviously.)

So the answer to whether tweets and speech act the same way is… is depends. Which is actually really useful! Since it looks like it’s only the things that people are paying a lot of attention to that get overshot in speech and Twitter, this can help us figure out what things people think are really important by looking at how they use them on Twitter. And that can help us understand what it is that makes a dialect sound different, which is useful for things like dialect coaching, language teaching and even helping computers understand multiple dialects well.

(BTW, If you’re interested in more details on this project, you can see my poster, which I’ll be presenting at NWAV44 this weekend, here.)

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.

New series: 50 Great Ideas in Linguistics

As I’ve been teaching this summer (And failing to blog on a semi-regular basis like a loser. Mea culpa.) I’ll occasionally find that my students aren’t familiar with something I’d assumed they’d covered at some point already. I’ve also found that there are relatively few resources for looking up linguistic ideas that don’t require a good deal of specialized knowledge going in. SIL’s glossary of linguistic terms is good but pretty jargon-y, and the various handbooks tend not to have on-line versions. And even with a concerted effort by linguists to make Wikipedia a good resource, I’m still not 100% comfortable with recommending that my students use it.

Therefore! I’ve decided to make my own list of Things That Linguistic-Type People Should Know and then slowly work on expounding on them. I have something to point my students to and it’s a nice bite-sized way to talk about things; perfect for a blog.

Here, in no particular order, are 50ish Great Ideas of Linguistics sorted by sub-discipline. (You may notice a slightly sub-disciplinary bias.) I might change my mind on some of these–and feel free to jump in with suggestions–but it’s a start. Look out for more posts on them.

  • Sociolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistic variables
    • Social class and language
    • Social networks
    • Accommodation
    • Style
    • Language change
    • Linguistic security
    • Linguistic awareness
    • Covert and overt prestige
  • Phonetics
    • Places of articulation
    • Manners of articulation
    • Voicing
    • Vowels and consonants
    • Categorical perception
    • “Ease”
    • Modality
  • Phonology
    • Rules
    • Assimilation and dissimilation
    • Splits and mergers
    • Phonological change
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
    • Pragmatics
    • Truth values
    • Scope
    • Lexical semantics
    • Compositional semantics
  • Computational linguistics
    • Classifiers
    • Natural Language Processing
    • Speech recognition
    • Speech synthesis
    • Automata
  • Documentation/Revitalization
    • Language death
    • Self-determination
  • Psycholinguistics

The Acoustic Theory of Speech Perception

So, quick review: understanding speech is hard to model and the first model we discussed, motor theory, while it does address some problems, leaves something to be desired. The big one is that it doesn’t suggest that the main fodder for perception is the acoustic speech signal. And that strikes me as odd. I mean, we’re really used to thinking about hearing speech as a audio-only thing. Telephones and radios work perfectly well, after all, and the information you’re getting there is completely audio. That’s not to say that we don’t use visual, or, heck, even tactile data in speech perception. The McGurk effect, where a voice saying “ba” dubbed over someone saying “ga” will be perceived as “da” or “tha”, is strong evidence that we can and do use our eyes during speech perception. And there’s even evidence that a puff of air on the skin will change our perception of speech sounds. But we seem to be able to get along perfectly well without these extra sensory inputs, relying on acoustic data alone.


This theory sounds good to me. Sorry, I’ll stop.

Ok, so… how do we extract information from acoustic data? Well, like I’ve said a couple time before, it’s actually a pretty complex problem. There’s no such thing as “invariance” in the speech signal and that makes speech recognition monumentally hard. We tend not to think about it because humans are really, really good at figuring out what people are saying, but it’s really very, very complex.

You can think about it like this: imagine that you’re looking for information online about platypuses. Except, for some reason, there is no standard spelling of platypus. People spell it “platipus”, “pladdypuss”, “plaidypus”, “plaeddypus” or any of thirty or forty other variations. Even worse, one person will use many different spellings and may never spell it precisely the same way twice. Now, a search engine that worked like our speech recognition works would not only find every instance of the word platypus–regardless of how it was spelled–but would also recognize that every spelling referred to the same animal. Pretty impressive, huh? Now imagine that every word have a very variable spelling, oh, and there are no spaces between words–everythingisjustruntogetherlikethisinonelongspeechstream. Still not difficult enough for you? Well, there is also the fact that there are ambiguities. The search algorithm would need to treat “pladypuss” (in the sense of  a plaid-patterned cat) and “palattypus” (in the sense of the venomous monotreme) as separate things. Ok, ok, you’re right, it still seems pretty solvable. So let’s add the stipulation that the program needs to be self-training and have an accuracy rate that’s incredibly close to 100%. If you can build a program to these specifications, congratulations: you’ve just revolutionized speech recognition technology. But we already have a working example of a system that looks a heck of a lot like this: the human brain.

So how does the brain deal with the “different spellings” when we say words? Well, it turns out that there are certain parts of a word that are pretty static, even if a lot of other things move around. It’s like a superhero reboot: Spiderman is still going to be Peter Parker and get bitten by a spider at some point and then get all moody and whine for a while. A lot of other things might change, but if you’re only looking for those criteria to figure out whether or not you’re reading a Spiderman comic you have a pretty good chance of getting it right. Those parts that are relatively stable and easy to look for we call “cues”. Since they’re cues in the acoustic signal, we can be even more specific and call them “acoustic cues”.

If you think of words (or maybe sounds, it’s a point of some contention) as being made up of certain cues, then it’s basically like a list of things a house-buyer is looking for in a house. If a house has all, or at least most, of the things they’re looking for, than it’s probably the right house and they’ll select that one. In the same way, having a lot of cues pointing towards a specific word makes it really likely that that word is going to be selected. When I say “selected”, I mean that the brain will connect the acoustic signal it just heard to the knowledge you have about a specific thing or concept in your head. We can think of a “word” as both this knowledge and the acoustic representation. So in the “platypuss” example above, all the spellings started with “p” and had an “l” no more than one letter away. That looks like a  pretty robust cue. And all of the words had a second “p” in them and ended with one or two tokens of “s”. So that also looks like a pretty robust queue. Add to that the fact that all the spellings had at least one of either a “d” or “t” in between the first and second “p” and you have a pretty strong template that would help you to correctly identify all those spellings as being the same word.

Which all seems to be well and good and fits pretty well with our intuitions (or mine at any rate). But that leaves us with a bit of a problem: those pesky parts of Motor Theory that are really strongly experimentally supported. And this model works just as well for motor theory too, just replace  the “letters” with specific gestures rather than acoustic cues. There seems to be more to the story than either the acoustic model or the motor theory model can offer us, though both have led to useful insights.

Meme Grammar

So the goal of linguistics is to find and describe the systematic ways in which humans use language. And boy howdy do we humans love using language systematically. A great example of this is internet memes.

What are internet memes? Well, let’s start with the idea of a “meme”. “Memes” were posited by Richard Dawkin in his book The Selfish Gene. He used the term to describe cultural ideas that are transmitted from individual to individual much like a virus or bacteria. The science mystique I’ve written about is a great example of a meme of this type. If you have fifteen minutes, I suggest Dan Dennett’s TED talk on the subject of memes as a much more thorough introduction.

So what about the internet part? Well, internet memes tend to be a bit narrower in their scope. Viral videos, for example, seem to be a separate category from intent memes even though they clearly fit into Dawkin’s idea of what a meme is. Generally, “internet meme” refers to a specific image and text that is associated with that image. These are generally called image macros. (For a through analysis of emerging and successful internet memes, as well as an excellent object lesson in why you shouldn’t scroll down to read the comments, I suggest Know Your Meme.) It’s the text that I’m particularly interested in here.

Memes which involve language require that it be used in a very specific way, and failure to obey these rules results in social consequences. In order to keep this post a manageable size, I’m just going to look at the use of language in the two most popular image memes, as ranked by memegenerator.net, though there is a lot more to study here. (I think a study of the differing uses of the initialisms MRW [my reaction when]  and MFW [my face when] on imgur and 4chan would show some very interesting patterns in the construction of identity in the two communities. Particularly since the 4chan community is made up of anonymous individuals and the imgur community is made up of named individuals who are attempting to gain status through points. But that’s a discussion for another day…)

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site.

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site. If you don’t recognize all of these characters, congratulations on not spending all your free time on the internet.

Without further ado, let’s get to the grammar. (I know y’all are excited.)

Y U No

This meme is particularly interesting because its page on Meme Generator already has a grammatical description.

The Y U No meme actually began as Y U No Guy but eventually evolved into simply Y U No, the phrase being generally followed by some often ridiculous suggestion. Originally, the face of Y U No guy was taken from Japanese cartoon Gantz’ Chapter 55: Naked King, edited, and placed on a pink wallpaper. The text for the item reads “I TXT U … Y U NO TXTBAK?!” It appeared as a Tumblr file, garnering over 10,000 likes and reblogs.

It went totally viral, and has morphed into hundreds of different forms with a similar theme. When it was uploaded to MemeGenerator in a format that was editable, it really took off. The formula used was : “(X, subject noun), [WH]Y [YO]U NO (Y, verb)?”[Bold mine.]

A pretty good try, but it can definitely be improved upon. There are always two distinct groupings of text in this meme, always in impact font, white with a black border and in all caps. This is pretty consistent across all image macros. In order to indicate the break between the two text chunks, I will use — throughout this post. The chunk of text that appears above the image is a noun phrase that directly addresses someone or something, often a famous individual or corporation. The bottom text starts with “Y U NO” and finishes with a verb phrase. The verb phrase is an activity or action that the addressee from the first block of text could or should have done, and that the meme creator considers positive. It is also inflected as if “Y U NO” were structurally equivalent to “Why didn’t you”. So, since you would ask Steve Jobs “Why didn’t you donate more money to charity?”, a grammatical meme to that effect would be “STEVE JOBS — Y U NO DONATE MORE MONEY TO CHARITY”. In effect, this meme questions someone or thing who had the agency to do something positive why they chose not to do that thing. While this certainly has the potential to be a vehicle for social commentary, like most memes it’s mostly used for comedic effect. Finally, there is some variation in the punctuation of this meme. While no punctuation is the most common, an exclamation points, a question mark or both are all used. I would hypothesize that the the use of punctuation varies between internet communities… but I don’t really have the time or space to get into that here.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above.

Futurama Fry

This meme also has a brief grammatical analysis

The text surrounding the meme picture, as with other memes, follows a set formula. This phrasal template goes as follows: “Not sure if (insert thing)”, with the bottom line then reading “or just (other thing)”. It was first utilized in another meme entitled “I see what you did there”, where Fry is shown in two panels, with the first one with him in a wide-eyed expression of surprise, and the second one with the familiar half-lidded expression.

As an example of the phrasal template, Futurama Fry can be seen saying: “Not sure if just smart …. Or British”. Another example would be “Not sure if highbeams … or just bright headlights”. The main form of the meme seems to be with the text “Not sure if trolling or just stupid”.

This meme is particularly interesting because there seems to an extremely rigid syntactic structure. The phrase follow the form “NOT SURE IF _____ — OR _____”. The first blank can either be filled by a complete sentence or a subject complement while the second blank must be filled by a subject complement. Subject complements, also called predicates (But only by linguists; if you learned about predicates in school it’s probably something different. A subject complement is more like a predicate adjective or predicate noun.), are everything that can come after a form of the verb “to be” in a sentence. So, in a sentence like “It is raining”, “raining” is the subject complement. So, for the Futurama Fry meme, if you wanted to indicate that you were uncertain whther it was raining or sleeting, both of these forms would be correct:


Note that, if a complete sentence is used and abbreviation is possible, it must be abbreviated. Thus the following sentence is not a good Futurama Fry sentence:


This is particularly interesting  because the “phrasal template” description does not include this distinction, but it is quite robust. This is a great example of how humans notice and perpetuate linguistic patterns that they aren’t necessarily aware of.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above. If you’re not sure whether it’s phonetics or phonology, may I recommend this post as a quick refresher?

So this is obviously very interesting to a linguist, since we’re really interested in extracting and distilling those patterns. But why is this useful/interesting to those of you who aren’t linguists? A couple of reasons.

  1. I hope you find it at least a little interesting and that it helps to enrich your knowledge of your experience as a human. Our capacity for patterning is so robust that it affects almost every aspect of our existence and yet it’s easy to forget that, to let our awareness of that slip our of our conscious minds. Some patterns deserve to be examined and criticized, though, and  linguistics provides an excellent low-risk training ground for that kind of analysis.
  2. If you are involved in internet communities I hope you can use this new knowledge to avoid the social consequences of violating meme grammars. These consequences can range from a gentle reprimand to mockery and scorn The gatekeepers of internet culture are many, vigilant and vicious.
  3. As with much linguistic inquiry, accurately noting and describing these patterns is the first step towards being able to use them in a useful way. I can think of many uses, for example, of a program that did large-scale sentiment analyses of image macros but was able to determine which were grammatical (and therefore more likely to be accepted and propagated by internet communities) and which were not.

Why is it so hard for computers to recognize speech?

This is a problem that’s plagued me for quite a while. I’m not a computational linguist  myself, but one of the reasons that theoretical linguistics is important is that it allows us to create robust concpetional models of language… which is basically what voice recognition (or synthesis) programs are. But, you may say to yourself, if it’s your job to create and test robust models, you’re clearly not doing very well. I mean, just listen to this guy. Or this guy. Or this person, whose patience in detailing errors borders on obsession. Or, heck, this person, who isn’t so sure that voice recognition is even a thing we need.

Electronic eye

You mean you wouldn’t want to be able to have pleasant little chats with your computer? I mean, how could that possibly go wrong?

Now, to be fair to linguists, we’ve kinda been out of the loop for a while. Fred Jelinek, a very famous researcher in speech recognition, once said “Every time we fire a phonetician/linguist, the performance of our system goes up”. Oof, right in the career prospects. There was, however, a very good reason for that, and it had to do with the pressures on computer scientists and linguists respectively. (Also a bunch of historical stuff that we’re not going to get into.)

Basically, in the past (and currently to a certain extent) there was this divide in linguistics. Linguists wanted to model speaker’s competence, not their performance. Basically, there’s this idea that there is some sort of place in your brain where you knew all the rules of language and  have them all perfectly mapped out and described. Not in a consious way, but there nonetheless. But somewhere between the magical garden of language and your mouth and/or ears you trip up and mistakes happen. You say a word wrong or mishear it or switch bits around… all sorts of things can go wrong. Plus, of course, even if we don’t make a recognizable mistake, there’s a incredible amount of variation that we can decipher without a problem. That got pushed over to the performance side, though, and wasn’t looked at as much. Linguistics was all about what was happening in the language mind-garden (the competence) and not the messy sorts of things you say in everyday life (the performance). You can also think of it like what celebrities actually say in an interview vs. what gets into the newspaper; all the “um”s and “uh”s are taken out, little stutters or repetitions are erased and if the sentence structure came out a little wonky the reporter pats it back into shape. It was pretty clear what they meant to say, after all.

So you’ve got linguists with their competence models explaining them to the computer folks and computer folks being all clever and mathy and coming up with algorithms that seem to accurately model our knowledge of human linguistic competency… and getting terrible results. Everyone’s working hard and doing their best and it’s just not working.

I think you can probably figure out why: if you’re a computer and just sitting there with very little knowledge of language (consider that this was before any of the big corpora were published, so there wasn’t a whole lot of raw data) and someone hands you a model that’s supposed to handle only perfect data and also actual speech data, which even under ideal conditions is far from perfect, you’re going to spit out spaghetti and call it a day. It’s a bit like telling someone to make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and just expecting them to do it. Which is fine if they already know what peanut butter and jelly are, and where you keep the bread, and how to open jars, and that food is something humans eat, so you shouldn’t rub it on anything too covered with bacteria or they’ll get sick and die. Probably not the best way to go about it.

So the linguists got the boot and they and the computational people pretty much did their own things for a bit. The model that most speech recognition programs use today is mostly statistical, based on things like how often a word shows up in whichever corpus they’re using currently. Which works pretty well. In a quiet room. When you speak clearly. And slowly. And don’t use any super-exotic words. And aren’t having a conversation. And have trained the system on your voice. And have enough processing power in whatever device you’re using. And don’t get all wild and crazy with your intonation. See the problem?

Language is incredibly complex and speech recognition technology, particularly when it’s based on a purely statistical model, is not terrific at dealing with all that complexity. Which is not to say that I’m knocking statistical models! Statistical phonology is mind-blowing and I think we in linguistics will get a lot of mileage from it. But there’s a difference. We’re not looking to conserve processing power: we’re looking to model what humans are actually doing. There’s been a shift away from the competency/performance divide (though it does still exist) and more interest in modelling the messy stuff that we actually see: conversational speech, connected speech, variation within speakers. And the models that we come up with are complex. Really complex. People working in Exemplar Theory, for example, have found quite a bit of evidence that you remember everything you’ve ever heard and use all of it to help parse incoming signals. Yeah, it’s crazy. And it’s not something that our current computers can do. Which is fine; it give linguists time to further refine our models. When computers are ready, we will be too, and in the meantime computer people and linguistic people are showing more and more overlap again, and using each other’s work more and more. And, you know, singing Kumbayah and roasting marshmallows together. It’s pretty friendly.

So what’s the take-away? Well, at least for the moment, in order to get speech recognition to a better place than it is now, we need  to build models that work for a system that is less complex than the human brain. Linguistics research, particularly into statistical models, is helping with this. For the future? We need to build systems that are as complex at the human brain. (Bonus: we’ll finally be able to test models of child language acquisition without doing deeply unethical things! Not that we would do deeply unethical things.) Overall, I’m very optimistic that computers will eventually be able to recognize speech as well as humans can.

TL;DR version:

  • Speech recognition has been light on linguists because they weren’t modeling what was useful for computational tasks.
  • Now linguists are building and testing useful models. Yay!
  • Language is super complex and treating it like it’s not will get you hit in the face with an error-ridden fish.
  • Linguists know language is complex and are working diligently at accurately describing how and why. Yay!
  • In order to get perfect speech recognition down, we’re going to need to have computers that are similar to our brains.
  • I’m pretty optimistic that this will happen.