Wug’s up?

Wait, you may be asking, what’a wug? The short answer is that a wug’s not a thing. Literally. It was chosen as a good, possible English word that didn’t have a meaning associated with it. The long answer is that a wug’s one of the ways that we know phonology is real.

These are wugs, from Jean Berko Gleason's work on child morphemic acquisition "The acquisition and dissolution of the English inflectional system", published in 1978. Sorry, nothing really funny to say about them. They are pretty cute, though.

Ok, so answer the question in the picture above. If you’re a native speaker of English, you probably said something like “There are two wugz.” Of course, you would write it “wugs”, but you’d say it with a final ‘z’. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating:

In English, there are two ways to make a word plural. You can add -z to the end, and you can add -s to the end. They’re actually very similar sounds, but with a slight difference. When you’re making a -s sound, you don’t vibrate your vocal folds, so there’s no sort of louder buzzing noise (linguists call that voicing), but when you make a -z sound, you do voice it. When that happens is determined by the sound in front of the plural marking. If it’s voiced, the voicing is sort of smeared over into  the -s on the end, mainly because it’s easier to say.

Now, this is a rule that you know and  can apply without even thinking about it. But children have to learn it somehow, and we didn’t really know when this happened developmentally. Which is what the wug test was designed to find out. If children have learned the rule, then they’ll say “wug-z” instead of “wug-s”. It turns out that four- and five-year-olds have usually got this rule down cold. Which tells us something useful about how we acquire language. And, you know, watching four-year-olds trying to stay on task is adorable.

And, as a special bonus, here’s a video interview with Jean Berko Gleason. She’s super awesome and a real live linguist. 🙂

Your ears are lying to you.

So, as a person who looks mainly at the sounds of language, I tend to put a lot of faith in my ability to hear things. And you know what? Sometimes that faith is completely misplaced. My ears lie to me, and yours do too.

Of course your butt looks great in that dress!
 Well, it’s more accurate to say that your brain lies to you. I mean, your ears are simply there to receive the speech signal, like the antennas on an old TV. You still need a tuner to translate those signals into something meaningful, and in this really over-extended metaphor, the tuner is your brain.

And, sometimes, your brain will lie to you. There’s this thing called Phonemic Restoration that’s studied extensively by Makio Kashino, among other people. Basically, what happens is that even when a speech sound is missing you’ll think you heard it. Here, try this:

Isn’t that just the freakiest thing? And it gets even better. Not only can you gain sounds that were never there to begin with at all, you can also lose sounds that should have been perfectly intelligible. I was at a conference this weekend and one of presentations, by Chris Heffner, was on how you adapt to changes in speaking rate. Basically, if you’re listening to a bit of slow speech and then encounter a segment or set of words that’s produced much faster, your brain can’t handle it very well, so it’ll just skip right over parts of it, even if it leaves you with something that’s less than grammatical.

So why does this matter? Well, first off, it’s super cool. Secondly, knowing when and how your brain lies to you can tell us more about how your brain processes language. And, really, that’s not something we know a whole lot about. Linguistics as a field is littered with unsolved problems, like rocks waiting to destroy a perfectly good tiller. By learning more about what goes on between the antenna and the television screen, though, we can keep working to solve those problems.

Phrenology != Phonology

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

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

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

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