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.

CPT-sound-physical-manifestation
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.

The Motor Theory of Speech Perception

Ok, so like I talked about in my previous two posts, modelling speech perception is an ongoing problem with a lot of hurdles left to jump. But there are potential candidate theories out there, all of which offer good insight into the problem. The first one I’m going to talk about is motor theory.

Clamp-Type 2C1.5-4 Motor
So your tongue is like the motor body and the other person’s ear are like the load cell…
So motor theory has one basic premise and three major claims.  The basic premise is a keen observation: we don’t just perceive speech sounds, we also make them. Whoa, stop the presses. Ok, so maybe it seems really obvious, but motor theory was really the first major attempt to model speech perception that took this into account. Up until it was first posited in the 1960’s , people had pretty much been ignoring that and treating speech perception like the only information listeners had access to was what was in the acoustic speech signal. We’ll discuss that in greater detail, later, but it’s still pretty much the way a lot of people approach the problem. I don’t know of a piece of voice recognition software, for example, that include an anatomical model.

So what’s the fact that listeners are listener/speakers get you? Well, remember how there aren’t really invariant units in the speech signal? Well, if you decide that what people are actually perceiving aren’t actually a collection of acoustic markers that point to one particular language sound but instead the gestures needed to make up that sound, then suddenly that’s much less of a problem. To put it in another way, we’re used to thinking of speech being made up of a bunch of sounds, and that when we’re listening speech we’re deciding what the right sounds are and from there picking the right words. But from a motor theory standpoint, what you’re actually doing when you’re listening to speech is deciding what the speaker’s doing with their mouth and using that information to figure out what words they’re saying. So in the dictionary in your head, you don’t store words as strings of sounds but rather as strings of gestures

If you’re like me when I first encountered this theory, it’s about this time that you’re starting to get pretty skeptical. I mean, I basically just said that what you’re hearing is the actual movement of someone else’s tongue and figuring out what they’re saying by reverse engineering it based on what you know your tongue is doing when you say the same word. (Just FYI, when I say tongue here, I’m referring to the entire vocal tract in its multifaceted glory, but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Pun intended. 😉 ) I mean, yeah, if we accept this it gives us a big advantage when we’re talking about language acquisition–since if you’re listening to gestures, you can learn them just by listening–but still. It’s weird. I’m going to need some convincing.

Well, let’s get back to the those three principles I mentioned earlier, which are taken from Galantucci, Flower and Turvey’s excellent review of motor theory.

  1. Speech is a weird thing to perceive and pretty much does its own thing. I’ve talked about this at length, so let’s just take that as a given for now.
  2. When we’re listening to speech, we’re actually listening to gestures. We talked about that above. 
  3. We use our motor system to help us perceive speech.

Ok, so point three should jump out at you a bit. Why? Of these three points, its the easiest one to test empirically. And since I’m a huge fan of empirically testing things (Science! Data! Statistics!) we can look into the literature and see if there’s anything that supports this. Like, for example, a study that shows that when listening to speech, our motor cortex gets all involved. Well, it turns out that there  are lots of studies that show this. You know that term “active listening”? There’s pretty strong evidence that it’s more than just a metaphor; listening to speech involves our motor system in ways that not all acoustic inputs do.

So point three is pretty well supported. What does that mean for point two? It really depends on who you’re talking to. (Science is all about arguing about things, after all.) Personally, I think motor theory is really interesting and address a lot of the problems we face in trying to model speech perception. But I’m not ready to swallow it hook, line and sinker. I think Robert Remez put it best in the proceedings of Modularity and The Motor Theory of Speech Perception:

I think it is clear that Motor Theory is false. For the other, I think the evidence indicates no less that Motor Theory is essentially, fundamentally, primarily and basically true. (p. 179)

On the one hand, it’s clear that our motor system is involved in speech perception. On the other, I really do think that we use parts of the acoustic signal in and of themselves. But we’ll get into that in more depth next week.

Why speech is different from other types of sounds

Ok, so, a couple weeks ago I talked about why speech perception was hard to  model. Really, though, what I talked about was why building linguistic models is a hard task. There’s a couple other thorny problems that plague people who work with speech perception, and they have to do with the weirdness of the speech signal itself. It’s important to talk about because it’s on account of dealing with these weirdnesses that some theories of speech perception themselves can start to look pretty strange. (Motor theory, in particular, tends to sound pretty messed-up the first time you encounter it.)

The speech signal and the way we deal with it is really strange in two main ways.

  1. The speech signal doesn’t contain invariant units.
  2. We both perceive and produce speech in ways that are surprisingly non-linear.

So what are “invariant units” and why should we expect to have them? Well, pretty much everyone agrees that we store words as larger chunks made up of smaller chunks. Like, you know that the word “beet” is going to be made with the lips together at the beginning for the “b” and your tongue behind your teeth at the end for the “t”. And you also know that it will have certain acoustic properties; a short  break in the signal followed by a small burst of white noise in a certain frequency range (that’s a the “b” again) and then a long steady state for the vowel and then another sudden break in the signal for the “t”. So people make those gestures and you listen for those sounds and everything’s pretty straightforwards  right? Weeellllll… not really.

It turns out that you can’t really be grabbing onto certain types of acoustic queues because they’re not always reliably there. There are a bunch of different ways to produce “t”, for example, that run the gamut from the way you’d say it by itself to something that sound more like a “w” crossed with an “r”. When you’re speaking quickly in an informal setting, there’s no telling where on that continuum you’re going to fall. Even with this huge array of possible ways to produce a sound, however, you still somehow hear is at as “t”.

And even those queues that are almost always reliably there vary drastically from person to person. Just think about it: about half the population has a fundamental frequency, or pitch, that’s pretty radically different from the other half. The old interplay of biological sex and voice quality thing. But you can easily, effortlessly even, correct for the speaker’s gender and understand the speech produced by men and women equally well. And if a man and woman both say “beet”, you have no trouble telling that they’re saying the same word, even though the signal is quite different in both situations. And that’s not a trivial task. Voice recognition technology, for example, which is overwhelmingly trained on male voices, often has a hard time understanding women’s voices. (Not to mention different accents. What that says about regional and sex-based discrimination is a  topic for another time.)

And yet. And yet humans are very, very good a recognizing speech. How? Well linguists have made some striking progress in answering that question, though we haven’t yet arrived at an answer that makes everyone happy. And the variance in the signal isn’t the only hurdle facing humans as the recognize the vocal signal: there’s also the fact that the fact that we are humans has effects on what we can hear.

Akustik db2phon
Ooo, pretty rainbow. Thorny problem, though: this shows how we hear various frequencies better or worse. The sweet spot is right around 300 kHz or so. Which, coincidentally, just so happens to be where we produce most of the noise in the speech signal. But we do still produce information at other frequencies and we do use that in speech perception: particularly for sounds like “s” and “f”.

We can think of the information available in the world as a sheet of cookie dough. This includes things like UV light and sounds below 0 dB in intensity. Now imagine a cookie-cutter. Heck, make it a gingerbread man. The cookie-cutter represents the ways in which the human body limits our access to this information. There are just certain things that even a normal, healthy human isn’t capable of perceiving. We can only hear the information that falls inside the cookie cutter. And the older we get, the smaller the cookie-cutter becomes, as we slowly lose sensitivity in our auditory and visual systems. This makes it even more difficult to perceive speech. Even though it seems likely that we’ve evolved our vocal system to take advantage of the way our perceptual system works, it still makes the task of modelling speech perception even more complex.

Book Review: Punctuation..?

So the good folks over at Userdesign asked me to review their newest volume, Punctuation..? and I was happy to oblige. Linguists rarely study punctuation (it falls under the sub-field orthography, or the study of writing systems) but what we do study is the way that language attitudes and punctuation come together. I’ve written before about language attitudes when it come to grammar instruction and the strong prescriptive attitudes of most grammar instruction books. What makes this book so interesting is that it is partly prescriptive and partly descriptive. Since a descriptive bent in a grammar instruction manual is rare, I thought I’d delve into that a bit.

User_design_Books_Punctuation_w_cover
Image copyright Userdesign, used with permission. (Click for link to site.)

So, first of all, how about a quick review of the difference between a descriptive and prescriptive approach to language?

  • Descriptive: This is what linguists do. We don’t make value or moral judgments about languages or language use, we just say what’s going on as best we can. You can think of it like an anthropological ethnography: we just describe what’s going on. 
  • Prescriptive: This is what people who write letters to the Times do. They have a very clear idea of what’s “right” and “wrong” with regards to language use and are all to happy to tell you about it. You can think of this like a manner book: it tells you what the author thinks you should be doing. 

As a linguist, my relationship with language is mainly scientific, so I have a clear preference for a descriptive stance. An ichthyologist doesn’t tell octopi, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong!” after all. At the same time, I live in a culture which has very rigid expectations for how an educated individual should write and sound, and if I want to be seen as an educated individual (and be considered for the types of jobs only open to educated individuals) you better believe I’m going to adhere to those societal standards. The problem comes when people have a purely prescriptive idea of what grammar is and what it should be. That can lead to nasty things like linguistic discrimination. I.e., language B (and thus all those individuals who speak language B) is clearly inferior to language A because they don’t do things properly. Since I think we can all agree that unfounded discrimination of this type is bad, you can see why linguists try their hardest to avoid value judgments of languages.

As I mentioned before, this book is a fascinating mix of prescriptive and descriptive snippets. For example, the author says this about exclamation points: “In everyday writing, the exclamation mark is often overused in the belief that it adds drama and excitement. It is, perhaps  the punctuation mark that should be used with the most restraint” (p 19). Did you notice that “should'”? Classic marker of a prescriptivist claiming their territory. But then you have this about Guillements: “Guillements are used in several languages to indicate passages of speech in the same way that single and double quotation marks (” “”) are used in the English language” (p. 22). (Guillements look like this, since I know you were wondering;  « and ». ) See, that’s a classical description of what a language does, along with parallels drawn to another, related, languages. It may not seem like much, but try to find a comparably descriptive stance in pretty much any widely-distributed grammar manual. And if you do, let me know so that I can go buy a copy of it. It’s change, and it’s positive change, and I’m a fan of it. Is this an indication of a sea-change in grammar manuals? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

Over all, I found this book fascinating (though not, perhaps, for the reasons the author intended!). Particularly because it seems to stand in contrast to the division that I just spent this whole post building up. It’s always interesting to see the ways that stances towards language can bleed and melt together, for all that linguists (and I include myself here) try to show that there’s a nice, neat dividing line between the evil, scheming prescriptivists and the descriptivists in their shining armor here to bring a veneer of scientific detachment to our relationship with language. Those attitudes can and do co-exist. Data is messy.  Language is complex. Simple stories (no matter how pretty we might think them) are suspicious. But these distinctions can be useful, and I’m willing to stand by the descriptivist/prescriptivist, even if it’s harder than you might think to put people in one camp or the others.

But beyond being an interesting study in language attitdues, it was a fun read. I learned lots of neat little factoids, which is always a source of pure joy for me. (Did you know that this symbol:  is called a Pilcrow? I know right? I had no idea either; I always just called it the paragraph mark.)

Why is it hard to model speech perception?

So this is a kick-off post for a series of posts about various speech perception models. Speech perception models, you ask? Like, attractive people who are good at listening?

Romantic fashion model
Not only can she discriminate velar, uvular and pharyngeal fricatives with 100% accuracy, but she can also do it in heels.
No, not really. (I wish that was a job…) I’m talking about a scientific model of how humans perceive speech sounds. If you’ve ever taken an introductory science class, you already have some experience with scientific models. All of Newton’s equations are just a way of generalizing general principals generally across many observed cases. A good model has both explanatory and predictive power. So if I say, for example, that force equals mass times acceleration, then that should fit with any data I’ve already observed as well as accurately describe new observations. Yeah, yeah, you’re saying to yourself, I learned all this in elementary school. Why are you still going on about it? Because I really want you to appreciate how complex this problem is.

Let’s take an example from an easier field, say, classical mechanics. (No offense physicists, but y’all know it’s true.) Imagine we want to model something relatively simple. Perhaps we want to know whether a squirrel who’s jumping from one tree to another is going to make. What do we need to know? And none of that “assume the squirrel is a sphere and there’s no air resistance” stuff, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. We need to know the force and direction of the jump, the locations of the trees, how close the squirrel needs to get to be able to hold on, what the wind’s doing, air resistance and how that will interplay with the shape of the squirrel, the effects of gravity… am I missing anything? I feel like I might be, but that’s most of it.

So, do you notice something that all of these things we need to know the values of have in common? Yeah, that’s right, they’re easy to measure directly. Need to know what the wind’s doing? Grab your anemometer. Gravity? To the accelerometer closet! How far apart the trees are? It’s yardstick time. We need a value , we measure a value, we develop a model with good predictive and explanatory power (You’ll need to wait for your simulations to run on your department’s cluster. But here’s one I made earlier so you can see what it looks like. Mmmm, delicious!) and you clean up playing the numbers on the professional squirrel-jumping circuit.

Let’s take a similarly simple problem from the field of linguistics. You take a person, sit them down in a nice anechoic chamber*, plop some high quality earphones on them and play a word that could be “bite” and could be “bike” and ask them to tell you what they heard. What do you need to know to decide which way they’ll go? Well, assuming that your stimuli is actually 100% ambiguous (which is a little unlikely) there a ton of factors you’ll need to take into account. Like, how recently and often has the subject heard each of the words before? (Priming and frequency effects.) Are there any social factors which might affect their choice? (Maybe one of the participant’s friends has a severe overbite, so they just avoid the word “bite” all together.) Are they hungry? (If so, they’ll probably go for “bite” over “bike”.) And all of that assumes that they’re a native English speaker with no hearing loss or speech pathologies and that the person’s voice is the same as theirs in terms of dialect, because all of that’ll bias the  listener as well.

The best part? All of this is incredibly hard to measure. In a lot of ways, human language processing is a black box. We can’t mess with the system too much and taking it apart to see how it works, in addition to being deeply unethical, breaks the system. The best we can do is tap a hammer lightly against the side and use the sounds of the echos to guess what’s inside. And, no, brain imaging is not a magic bullet for this.  It’s certainly a valuable tool that has led to a lot of insights, but in addition to being incredibly expensive (MRI is easily more than a grand per participant and no one has ever accused linguistics of being a field that rolls around in money like a dog in fresh-cut grass) we really need to resist the urge to rely too heavily on brain imaging studies, as a certain dead salmon taught us.

But! Even though it is deeply difficult to model, there has been a lot of really good work done on towards a theory of speech perception. I’m going to introduce you to some of the main players, including:

  • Motor theory
  • Acoustic/auditory theory
  • Double-weak theory
  • Episodic theories (including Exemplar theory!)

Don’t worry if those all look like menu options in an Ethiopian restaurant (and you with your Amharic phrasebook at home, drat it all); we’ll work through them together.  Get ready for some mind-bending, cutting-edge stuff in the coming weeks. It’s going to be [fʌn] and [fʌnetɪk]. 😀

*Anechoic chambers are the real chambers of secrets.

Why do I really, really love West African languages?

So I found a wonderful free app that lets you learn Yoruba, or at least Yoruba words,  and posted about it on Google plus. Someone asked a very good question: why am I interested in Yoruba? Well, I’m not interested just in Yoruba. In fact, I would love to learn pretty much any western African language or, to be a little more precise, any Niger-Congo language.

Niger-Congo-en
This map’s color choices make it look like a chocolate-covered ice cream cone.
Why? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve got a huge language crush on them. Whoa there, you might be thinking, you’re a linguist. You’re not supposed to make value judgments on languages. Isn’t there like a linguist code of ethics or something? Well, not really, but you are right. Linguists don’t usually make value judgments on languages. That doesn’t mean we can’t play favorites!  And West African languages are my favorites. Why? Because they’re really phonologically and phonetically interesting. I find the sounds and sound systems of these languages rich and full of fascinating effects and processes. Since that’s what I study within linguistics, it makes sense that that’s a quality I really admire in a language.

What are a few examples of Niger-Congo sound systems that are just mind blowing? I’m glad you asked.

  • Yoruba: Yoruba has twelve vowels. Seven of them are pretty common (we have all but one in American English) but if you say four of them nasally, they’re different vowels. And if you say a nasal vowel when you’re not supposed to, it’ll change the entire meaning of a word. Plus? They don’t have a ‘p’ or an ‘n’ sound. That is crazy sauce! Those are some of the most widely-used sounds in human language. And Yoruba has a complex tone system as well. You probably have some idea of the level of complexity that can add to a sound system if you’ve ever studied Mandarin, or another East Asian language. Seriously, their sound system makes English look childishly simplistic.
  • Akan: There are several different dialects of Akan, so I’ll just stick to talking about Asante, which is the one used in universities and for official business. It’s got a crazy consonant system. Remember how  Yoruba didn’t have an “n” sound? Yeah, in Akan they have nine. To an English speaker they all  pretty much sound the same, but if you grew up speaking Akan you’d be able to tell the difference easily. Plus, most sounds other than “p”, “b”, “f” or “m” can be made while rounding the lips (linguists call this “labialized” and are completely different sounds). They’ve also got a vowel harmony system, which means you can’t have vowels later in a word that are completely different from vowels earlier in the word. Oh, yeah, and tones and a vowel nasalization distinction and some really cool tone terracing. I know, right? It’s like being a kid in a candy store.

But how did these language get so cool? Well, there’s some evidence that these languages have really robust and complex sound systems because the people speaking them never underwent large-scale migration to another Continent. (Obviously, I can’t ignore the effects of colonialism or the slave trade, but it’s still pretty robust.) Which is not to say that, say, Native American languages don’t have awesome sound systems; just just tend to be slightly smaller on average.

Now that you know how kick-ass these languages, I’m sure you’re chomping at the bit to hear some of them. Your wish is my command; here’s a song in Twi (a dialect of Akan) from one of my all-time-favorite musicians: Sarkodie. (He’s making fun of Ghanaian emigrants who forget their roots. Does it get any better than biting social commentary set to a sick beat?)

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:

  • NOT SURE IF IT’S RAINING — OR SLEETING
  • NOT SURE IF RAINING — OR SLEETING

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:

  • *NOT SURE IF IT IS RAINING — OR SLEETING

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.

What’s the best way to teach grammar?

The night before last I had the good fortune to see Goeff Pullum, noted linguist and linguistics blogger, give a talk entitled: The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it. It was an engaging talk and clearly showed that the basis for many of the “grammar rules” that are taught in English language and composition courses have little to no bearing on how the English language is actually used. Some of the bogeyman rules (his term) that he lambasted included the interdiction against ending a sentence in a preposition, the notion that “since” can only to refer to the passage of time and not causality and the claim that only “which” can begin a restrictive clause. Counterexamples for all of these “grammar rules” are easy to find, both in written and spoken language. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out Geoff Pullum on Language Log.)

Evaluarán las distintas estrategias para enseñar a leer en los establecimientos subvencionados chilenos
“And then they python ate little Johnny because he had the gall to cheekily split his infinitives.”
So there’s a clear problem here. Rules that have no bearing on linguistic reality are being used as the backbone of grammar instruction, just as they have for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, the investigation of human language has advanced considerably. We know much more about the structure of language now than we did when E. B. White was writing his grammar guide. It’s linguistic inquiry that has lead to better speech therapy, speech recognition and synthesis programs and better foreign language teaching. Grammar, on the other hand, has led to little more than frustration and an unsettling elitism. (We all know at least one person who uses their “knowledge” of “correct” usage as a weapon.) So what can be done about it? Well, I propose that instead of traditional “grammar”, we teach “grammar” as linguists understand it. What’s the difference?

Traditional grammar: A variety of usage and style rules that are based on social norms and a series of historic accidents.

Linguistic grammar: The set of rules which can accurately discribe a native speaker’s knowaldge of their language.

I’m not the first person to suggest a linguistics education as a valuable addition to the pre-higher educational experience. You can read proposals and arguments from others herehere, and here, and an argument for more linguistics in higher education here.

So, why would you want to teach linguistic grammar? After all, by the time you’re five or six, you already have a pretty good grasp of your language. (Not a perfect one, as it turns out; things like the role of stress in determining the relationship between words in a phrase tend to come in pretty late in life.) Well, there are lots of reasons.

  • Linguistic grammar is the result of scientific inquiry and is empirically verifiable. This means that lessons on linguistic grammar can take the form of experiments and labs rather than memorizing random rules.
  • Linguistic grammar is systematic. This can appeal to students who are gifted at math and science but find studying language more difficult.
  • Linguistic grammar is a good way to gently introduce higher level mathematics. Semantics, for example, is a good way to introduce set theory or lambda calculus.
  • Linguistic grammar is immediately applicable for students. While it’s difficult to find applications for oceanology for students who live in Kansas, everyone uses language every day, giving students a multitude of opportunities to apply and observe what they’re learned.
  • Linguistic grammar shows that variation between different languages and dialects is systematic, logical and natural. This can help reduce the linguistic prejudice that speakers of certain languages or dialects face.
  • Linguistic grammar helps students in learning foreign languages.  For example, by increasing students’ phonetic awareness (that’s their awareness of language sounds) and teaching them how to accurately describe and produce sounds, we can avoid the frustration of not knowing what sound they’re attempting to produce and its relation to sounds they already know.
  • Knowledge of linguistic grammar, unlike traditional grammar, is relatively simple to evaluate. Since much of introductory linguistics consists of looking at data sets and constructing rules that would generate that data set, and these rules are either correct or not, it is easier to determine whether or not the student has mastered the concepts.

I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. The main point is this: teaching linguistics is a viable and valuable way to replace traditional grammar education. What needs to happen for linguistic grammar to supplant traditional grammar? That’s a little thornier. At the very least, teachers need to receive linguistic training and course materials appropriate  for various ages need to be developed. A bigger problem, though, is a general lack of public knowledge about linguistics. That’s part of why I write this blog; to let you know about what’s going on in a small but very productive field. Linguistics has a lot to offer, and I hope that in the future more and more people will take us up on it.

 

Ask vs. Aks: Let me axe you a question

Do you know which one of these forms is the correct one? You sure about that?

Four things are inevitable: death, taxes, the eventual heat-death of the universe, and language change. All (living) languages are constantly in a state of flux, at all levels of the linguistic system. Meanings change, new structures come into being and old ones die out, words are born and die and pronunciations change. And no one, it seems, is happy about it. New linguistic forms tend to be the source of endless vitriol and argument, and language users love constructing rules that have more to do with social norms than linguistic reality. Rules that linguists create, which attempt to model the way language is used, are called “descriptive”, while rules that non-linguists create, which attempt to suggest how they believe language should be used, are called “prescriptive”. I’m not going to talk that much more about it here; if you’re interested, Language Log and Language Hippie both discuss the issue at length. The reason that I bring this up is that prescriptive rules tend to favor older forms. (An occasionally forms from other languages. That whole “don’t split an infinitive” thing? Based on Latin. English speakers have been happily splitting infinitives since the 13th century, and I imagine we’ll continue to boldly split them for centuries to come.) There is, however, one glaring exception: the whole [ask] vs. [aks] debate.

Axt zum spalten
In a way, it’s kinda like Theseus’ paradox or Abe Lincoln’s axe. If you replace all the sounds in a word one by one, it is the same word at the end of the process as it was in the beginning?
Historically, it’s [aks], the homophone of the chopping tool pictured above, that has precedence. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on the history of the word, shall we?

The original long á gave regularly the Middle English (Kentish) ōxi ; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving Middle English a , and, in some dialects, e . The result of these vowel changes, and of the Old English metathesis asc- , acs- , was that Middle English had the types ōx , ax , ex , ask , esk , ash , esh , ass , ess . The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash , esh , also written esse (compare æsce ash n.1, wæsc(e)an wash n.), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived inax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and southern dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th cent. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, past tense ast, still current dialectally.*

So, [aks] was the regular literary form (i.e. the one you would have been taught to say in school if you were lucky enough to have gone to school) until the 1600 or so? Ok, so, if older forms are better, than that should be the “right” one. Right? Well, let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say on the matter, since that tends to be a  pretty good litmus test of language attitudes.

“What retards say when they don’t know how to pronounce the word ask.” — User marcotte on Urban Dictionary, top definition

Oh. Sorry, Chaucer, but I’m going to have to inform you that you were a retard who didn’t know how to pronounce the word ask. Let’s unpack what’s going on here a little bit, shall we? There’s clearly a disconnect between the linguistic facts and language attitudes.

  • Facts: these two forms have both existed for centuries, and [aks] was considered the “correct” form for much of that time.
  • Language attitude: [aks] is not only “wrong”, it reflects negatively on those people who use it, making them sound less intelligent and less educated.

This is probably (at least in America) tangled in with the fact that [aks] is a marker of African American English. Even within the African American community, the form is stigmatized. Oprah, for example, who often uses markers of African American English (especially when speaking with other African Americans) almost never uses [aks] for [ask]. So the idea that [aks] is the wrong form and that [ask] is correct is based on a social construction of how an intelligent, educated individual should speak. It has nothing to do with the linguistic qualities of the word itself. (For a really interesting discussion of how knowledge of linguistic forms is acquired by children and the relationship between that and animated films, see Lippi-Green’s chapter “Teaching children to discriminate” from English with an Accent: Language  ideology and discrimination in the United States here.)

Now, the interesting thing about these forms is that they both have phonological pressures pushing English speakers towards using them. That’s because [s] has a special place in English phonotactics. In general, you want the sounds that are the most sonorant nearer the center of a syllable. And [s] is more sonorant than [k], so it seems like [ask] should be the favored form. But, like I said, [s] is special. In “special”, for example, it comes at the very beginning of the word, before the less-sonorant [p]. And all the really long syllables in English, like “strengths”, have [s] on the end. So the special status of [s] seems to favor [aks]. The fact that each form can be modeled perfectly well based on our knowledge of the way English words are formed helps to explain why both forms continue to be actively used, even centuries after they emerged. And, who knows? We might decide that [aks] is the “correct” form again in another hundred years or so. Try and keep that in mind the next time you talk about the right and wrong ways to say something.

* “ask, v.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/Entry/11507&gt;.

Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke … Which is right?

Short answer: they’re all correct (at least in the United States) but some are more common in certain dialectal areas. Here’s a handy-dandy map, in case you were wondering:

Maps! Language! Still one of my favorite combinations. This particular map, and the data collection it’s based on is courtesy of popvssoda.com. Click picture for link and all the lovely statistics. (You do like statistics, right?)

Long answer: I’m going to sort this into reactions I tend to get after answering questions like this one.

What  do you mean they’re all correct? Coke/Soda/Pop is clearly wrong. Ok, I’ll admit, there are certain situations when you might need to choose to use one over the other. Say, if you’re writing for a newspaper with a very strict style guide. But otherwise, I’m sticking by my guns here: they’re all correct. How do I know? Because each of them in is current usage, and there is a dialectal group where it is the preferred term. Linguistics (at least the type of linguistics that studies dialectal variation) is all about describing what people actually say and people actually say all three.

But why doesn’t everyone just say the same thing? Wouldn’t that be easier? Easier to understand? Probably, yes. But people use different words for the same thing for the same reasons that they speak different languages. In a very, very simplified way, it kinda works like this:

  • You tend to speak like the people that you spend time with. That makes it easier for you to understand each other and lets other people in your social group know that you’re all members of the same group. Like team jerseys.
  • Over time, your group will introduce or adopt new linguistic makers that aren’t necessarily used by the whole population. Maybe a person you know refers to sodas as “phosphates” because his grandfather was a sodajerk and that form really catches on among your friends.
  • As your group keeps using and adopting new words (or sounds, or grammatical markers or any other facet of language)  that are different from other groups their language slowly begins to drift away from the language used by other groups.
  • Eventually, in extreme cases, you end up with separate languages. (Like what happened with Latin: different speech communities ended up speaking French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and the other Romance languages rather than the Latin they’d shared under Roman rule.)

This is the process by which languages or dialectal communities tend to diverge. Divergence isn’t the only pressure on speakers, however. Particularly since we can now talk to and listen to people from basically anywhere (Yay internet! Yay TV! Yay radio!) your speech community could look like mine does: split between people from the Pacific Northwest and the South. My personal language use is slowly drifting from mostly Southern to a mix of Southern and Pacific Northwestern. This is called dialect leveling and it’s part of the reason why American dialectal regions tend include hundreds or thousands of miles instead of two or three.

Dialect leveling: Where two or more groups of people start out talking differently and end up talking alike. Schools tend to be a huge factor in this.

So, on the one hand, there is pressure to start all talking alike. On the other hand, however, I still want to sound like I belong with my Southern friends and have them understand me easily (and not be made fun of for sounding strange, let’s be honest) so when I’m talking to them I don’t retain very many markers of the Pacific Northwest. That’s pressure that’s keeping the dialect areas separate and the reason why I still say “soda”, even though I live in a “pop” region.

Huh. That’s pretty cool. Yep. Yep, it sure is.