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Neurosciencestuff hard to understand harder to @wuglife


Hard to Understand, Harder to Remember

Struggling to understand someone else talking can be a taxing mental activity. A wide range of studies have already documented that individuals with hearing loss or who are listening to degraded speech – for example, over a bad phone line or in a loud room – have greater difficulty remembering and processing the spoken information than individuals who heard more clearly.

Now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are investigating the relatively unexplored question of whether listening to accented speech similarly affects the brain’s ability to process and store information. Their preliminary results suggest that foreign-accented speech, even when intelligible, may be slightly more difficult to recall than native speech.

The researchers presented their findings at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held May 18-22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Listening to accented speech is different than other more widely studied forms of “effortful listening” – think loud cocktail parties – because the accented speech itself deviates from listener expectations in (often) systematic ways, said Kristin Van Engen, a post-doctoral research associate in the linguistics program at Washington University in St. Louis.

How the brain processes information delivered in an accent has relevance to real-world settings like schools and hospitals. “If you’re working hard to understand a professor or doctor with a foreign accent, are you going to have more difficulty encoding the information you’re learning in memory?” Van Engen asked. The answer is not really known, and the issue has received relatively little attention in either the scientific literature on foreign accent processing or the literature on effortful listening, she said.

To begin to answer her question, Van Engen and her colleagues tested the ability of young-adult native English speakers to store spoken words in their short-term memory. The test subjects listened to lists of English words, voiced either with a standard American accent or with a pronounced, but still intelligible Korean accent. After a short time the lists would randomly stop and the listeners were asked to recall the last three words they had heard.

All the volunteer listeners selected for the study were unfamiliar with a Korean accent.

The listeners’ rate of recall for the most recently heard words was similarly high with both accents, but Van Engen and her team found that volunteers remembered the third word back only about 70 percent of the time when listening to a Korean accent, compared to about 80 percent when listening to a standard American accent.

All of the words spoken with the accent had been previously tested to ensure that they were understandable before they were used in the experiment, Van Engen said. The difference in recall rates might be due to the brain using some of its executive processing regions, which are generally used to focus attention and integrate and store information, to understand words spoken in an unfamiliar accent, Van Engen said.

The results are preliminary, and Van Engen and her team are working to gather data on larger sets of listeners, as well as to test other brain functions that require processing spoken information, such as listening to a short lecture and later recalling and using the concepts discussed. She said work might also be done to explore whether becoming familiar with a foreign accent would lessen the observed difference in memory functions.

Van Engen hopes the results might help shape strategies for both listeners and foreign accented speakers to better communicate and ensure that the information they discussed is remembered. For example, it might help listeners to use standard strategies such as looking at the person speaking and asking for repetition. Accented speakers might be able to improve communication by talking more slowing or working to match their intonation, rhythm and stress patterns more closely to that of native speakers, Van Engen said.

Superlinguo in an announcement that was @wuglife


In an announcement that was reported without a shred of mirativity, Hillary Clinton threw her hat in the ring for the 2016 USA Presidential race. Her campaign has a strong online presence, and there was a lot of discussion about the announcement.

Much has been made of her campaign logo, with many not taking to the simple colours and H-for-Hillary theme. I think it’s great - not because I’m a US political pundit, or know much about professional branding, but because it elegantly represents a fundamental metaphor in English.

The red arrow points to the right, because we think of future as moving from left to right. This is not the only metaphor we have for time moving through space - we also think of the past as behind and future in front. This is more ubiquitous in our speech - with a whole way of talking about language that’s future forward:

I’ve put that weekend behind me

I’ll get to it tomorrow

I’m looking forward to Christmas

Future as rightwards is less likely to show up in our speech, although it does show up in our gestures, and in this logo. It’s very much influenced by our writing system. These aren’t the only ways to think about time. Chinese speakers also talk about time as a horizontal, but also express time as vertical - with the past above the future below - also modelled on writing system direction. In Game of Thrones the conlang Valyrian talks about time as horizontal with past below and future above.

These metaphors are important because they may actually have an effect on  our cognition. I can’t believe we haven’t talked about it on Superlinguo before, given that we’re massive fans of Lera Boroditsky’s work (she has some good general audience articles on her website as well as her research).

Allthingslinguistic centre embedding new @wuglife


Centre embedding: New speech disorder linguists contracted discovered!

A most troubling article from SpecGram. To assist in understanding the nature of this problem, I have taken the liberty of drawing a simplfied syntax tree of one of the most perplexing sentences: “linguists linguists linguists sent examined are highly contagious”. The non-pathological version would read something like: Linguists sent (other) linguists to examine the infected linguists. Unfortunately, the examining linguists were themselves also highly contagious. 

Centre embedding is an odd phenomenon that is fine with just one level (“new speech disorder linguists contracted discovered”) but gets really hard to understand as soon as you do more of it. So it’s not actually ungrammatical, but it’s really hard to hold a sentence with two or more levels of centre embedding in your memory. On the other hand, we can easily do many many levels of non-central embedding (“I said that Jill heard that Mary saw that Alice went to the store”). 

I used the free basic syntax tree generator phpSyntaxTree to create the diagram, and the input code is as follows: [S  [NP linguists [S [NP linguists [S [NP linguists] [VP sent]]] [VP examined ]]] [VP are highly contagious ]]. If you want to play around with it, see if you can figure out how to add Ns and Vs to the tops of all the nouns and verbs in the tree above. 

Oh my goodness, I love center embedding!

Two more things that are really cool:

Doubly-embedded sentences are typically almost impossible to understand, as mentioned above. But not always! And it varies (very slightly) between languages. In English, this is a REALLY HARD sentence:

(1) The students the teacher Alex knows taught went to the movies last week.

And it means:

(2) Alex knows the teacher taught the students who went to the movies last week.

But this sentence is somewhat okay:

(3) The students that the teacher I know taught went to the movies last week.

They have identical syntactic structure (as far as I’m concerned!) but one sounds better than the other. I won’t say it's easy or even good, but there is definitely a clear benefit of using the pronoun “I” in (3). Why? Well, we don’t really know, but one suggestion is that pronouns (and specifically ones that refer to people who are present in the conversation, like “you” or “I”) are somehow semantically light, or otherwise less costly to store in our memory.

The other cool thing about center embedding is that in English (but not German), leaving out one of the three verbs in a doubly embedded sentence actually makes it sound better, even though it is then ungrammatical.

(4) The students (that) the teacher (that) Alex knows went to the movies last week.

This sentence actually doesn’t make sentence because it’s missing the verb “taught”. But somehow, English speakers tend to say it makes more sense. This could be because that clause sandwiched between the outer one and the inner one (the teacher … taught) is less salient or important to understanding the sentence as a whole. The students went to the movies, and I know someone, so who cares about the teacher and who that teacher taught?

In any case, center embedded sentences are AWESOME!! Let me know if you have any questions about them!

From grammaticalization theory and data id @wuglife

From: Grammaticalization – Theory and Data

I’d try to translate what all these technical terms mean, but.

Basically, language is so cool that it changes in ways that actually can be pretty similar across languages. And basically, sometimes when we end a sentence with “but” or “and” (or maybe, as I suggest “or”), we’re actually very specifically ending the sentence, even though these words typically indicate the middle of a conjunction. I only have access to the limited google books version, but if you’re interested in getting the whole story, it was published by John Benjamins Publishing this year. There are some other really cool looking chapters, too!

Linguistsagainsthumanity we received the above @wuglife


We received the above submission from t-o-t-o-r-i-a that really made us laugh and inspired us to hold the first ever LAH contest!!

Your challenge is to create the funniest combination of LAH cards.  Take a look through our archive — pick one black card, and then choose the appropriate number of white cards to answer the question or fill in the blanks, just like you’re playing CAH.

To enter, visit our submit page (NOT our ask page) and complete the form as follows:

  1. The words “contest submission” in the title section of the form
  2. YOU MUST BE LOGGED INTO TUMBLR TO ENTER.  Submissions are limited to ONE per person.  This way, we can keep track of usernames/url’s.  We won’t accept your submission if you’re not logged in.
  3. A real working e-mail address so we can contact you if you win (we won’t publish or share it, we promise)
  4. The full text of your chosen black card (e.g., “All linguistics students should learn about ______.”)
  5. The full text of your chosen white card(s).  If your submission involves more than one white card, please put the text of each on separate lines just to help us out.

We will accept submissions starting…. NOW!  Keep ‘em coming until midnight ET on Friday, July 18.  (Seriously, we won’t accept them after that.)  We’ll turn them into images, and post them on the morning of Saturday, July 19.  Voting will run through midnight ET on Tuesday, July 22.  Whichever submission receives the most notes will win!

PRIZES!  Nothing too exciting, since we’re just three broke college kids who run a Tumblr, but here’s what we’ve got:

  • Third prize: we’ll post a link to a (non-political, non-religious) nonprofit/charity of your choice
  • Second prize: third prize PLUS a T-shirt featuring an LAH card of your choice
  • First prize: third prize PLUS second prize PLUS the Chinese edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire signed by the three of us because we like to think we’re celebrities

Good luck!  Can’t wait to see what you guys come up with!

With love,

The LAH Team

Allthingslinguistic distribution of english @wuglife


Distribution of English letters toward beginning, middle, and end of words


Source that actually works

The commentary at the source is really interesting. A few quotes: 

The data is from the entire Brown corpus in the Natural Language Toolkit. It’s a smaller and out-of-date corpus, but it’s open source and easy to obtain. I repeated the analysis with COHA, the Corpus of Historical American English, a well-curated, proprietary data set from Brigham Young University for which I have a license, and the only differences were in rare letters like “z” or “x”.

I used a corpus rather than a dictionary so that the visualization would be weighted towards true usage. In other words, the most common word in English, “the” influences the graphs far more than, for example, “theocratic”. […]

I’ve had many “oh, yeah” moments looking over the graphs. For example, words almost never begin with “x”, but it’s quite common as the second letter. There’s a little hump near the beginning of “u” that’s caused by its proximity to “q”, which is most common at the beginning of a word. When you remove “q” from the dataset, the hump disappears. “F” occurs toward the extremes, especially in prepositions (“for”, “from”, “of”, “off”) but rarely just before the middle. 

A final thought: the most common word in the English language is “the”, which makes up about 6% of most corpuses (sorry, corpora). But according to these graphs, the most representative word is “toe”.

And someone else made a French version in response. I’d love to see a version in IPA for English as well. When I’ve played IPA Scrabble I noticed, for example, that /ʒ/ is most common between vowels. 

Jessehimself what a neat set of maps @wuglife



What a neat set of maps!

Allthingslinguistic the economist has a heavily @wuglife


The Economist has a heavily sarcastic map up pointing out what national boundaries might look like if everyone adopted Putin’s attitude of linguistic imperialism and some of the many reasons why this would be a terrible idea:

WHEN Vladimir Putin justified his annexation of Crimea on the ground that he owed protection to Russian speakers everywhere, this newspaper took a dim view of his line of argument, pointing out that since linguistic borders do not match those of states, it would lead to chaos. We now recognise that this approach to international relations betrayed a deplorable conservatism. Since we pride ourselves on pushing the boundaries in search of a way to clamber out of the box and reach the summit of blue-sky thinking, we reckoned we should grasp the nettle of radical Putinism and run with it. […]

A unified Arabia would stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. There might be the odd squabble between Sunnis, Shias, Christians and adherents of archaic notions of nation; but united by a common tongue, the Arabs would be sure to get along fine, especially if they teamed up to smite the Persian-speakers on the other side of the Gulf. The two Koreas would become one, which might be a good thing—or not, depending on which system prevailed.

Geoff Pullum on Language Log also notes some problems:

Switzerland would have to disappear completely, clearly, but new nations like Basqueland and Kurdistan would obviously have to arise.

The idea is, of course, political lunacy. Whoever started the reunification of India, Pakistan, and Bangla Desh would probably be creating a nuclear war rather than a peaceful Hindi-Urdu-speaking friendship zone. And one by one the speakers of smaller languages (the vast majority of the roughly 7,000 languages on the planet) would start declaring independence or seizing pieces of their neighbours’ land.

I’m not sure how anyone can recognize that civil wars and revolutions exist and at the same time think that a common language is a guarantor of harmony (although it’s also a stated goal of Esperanto). Sometimes a common language just makes it really easy to communicate how much you don’t get along. 

Not to mention that Ukrainian was literally banned during the rule of the USSR, so the presence of Russian in Ukraine is part of its oppressive history. Thus, defining the borders of political nations based on language is effectively a feedback loop of oppression or occupation.

Moreover, much of Ukraine does not speak Russian at all. In fact, there are areas of Russian in which the dominant languages aren’t even Indo-European.

(Full disclosure: as a descendant of Russian Jews and Ukrainians, I do not have a fully objective view of the events in Ukraine.)

Sanford sturt 2002 depth of processing in @wuglife

Sanford & Sturt (2002). Depth of processing in language comprehension: not noticing the evidence (pdf). TRENDS in Cognitive Science. Vol 6 (9), 382-386.

I just wanted to share this with you all. If this sounds interesting, the paper is a nice, short read and a good overview of the issues at hand in understanding syntactic and semantic representation during sentence processing.

Basically, this example is really fun. The first sentence is:

  • No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

This typically would mean:

  • All head injuries are non-trivial and should never be ignored.

But looking closely at the grammatical relations between the words, it actually means (for some definitions of “means”):

  • All head injuries are sufficiently trivial to be ignored.

So the argumentation here is that we read the original sentence and only somewhat specify the relations between words. In doing so, we construct a meaning that conforms to what we expect (head injuries are serious business). The way we can do so while ignoring the actually structure of the sentence is to never actually fully construct the sentence’s structure! On closer readings, we may do so, but if we just saw or heard this sentence in passing (like most sentences we encounter), we would be unlikely to get the “technically correct” interpretation right away.

This is an example of the Moses Illusion. In the Moses Illusion, we read or hear a sentence like:

  • Moses brought two of each type of animal on the ark.
    True or false?

And sometimes we think TRUE! before realizing that it was, in fact, Noah with the ark. What seems to be happening in these sentences is that we construct a partial representation of the meanings of the words (Moses is a male biblical figure who had an adventure with lots of scary water), and if some portion of those features match our expectations, we roll with it. (After all, Noah is also a male biblical figure who had an adventure with lots of scary water.) Although plenty of people do detect the error in the Moses Illusion right away, the detection rate isn’t 100%. It gets higher when the mistake (“Moses”) shares fewer features with the “correct” version. So “Adam” has a higher detection rate in this sentence, because his adventures don’t notably include water.

So the moral of the story is that it seems like people are low-accuracy listeners (and readers), because we use the energy to consume large quantities of language. This means that sometimes we save energy by taking short cuts, which can backfire. But that’s just how the cognitive system works, so don’t worry. (Plenty of people “don’t see the gorilla”.)

Allthingslinguistic dustwindbun so hey @wuglife



So hey allthingslinguistic and atheshya the wug lady. I was at Walmart and I found this bandanna that looks like wugs, and I thought you should know about it.

This totally looks like wugs. I need a tablecloth or something made out of this.

Matching varsity jackets!

Fromkin and rodman an introduction to @wuglife

(fromkin and rodman, an introduction to language)

(very VERY large .pdf file of the source text!)

This is a good time to remember that a lot of prescriptive rules aren’t just wrong because language “shouldn’t be prescribed”, but because they are made up, artificial rules devised to separate the socioeconomic classes by white men in the Latin (or sometimes French) fandom. Lowth’s introduction of shibboleths to English grammar was and is a tool of social oppression. Don’t judge people by their grammar!

Superlinguo wnycs excellent on the @wuglife


WNYC’s excellent On the Media program recently posed this very good question:

When you read tweets or Instagram posts, do you say or hear the @ symbol in your head as “at”?

For example, which of these sounds right to you: “an @Guardian article” or “a @Guardian​ article”?

This is truly a question for the modern age. Read On the Media’s response here, including a bunch of thoughts from Twitter users:

For the record, I don’t hear or say the @ symbol when I read tweets, so the use of “an” sounds really strange to me.

Side thought: Maybe we just need a better label for the @ symbol? Lauren lamented English’s lack of this very thing back in 2012 here on the Superlinguo blog.

Maptitude1 this map shows the languages and @wuglife


This map shows the languages and dialects of China.

To those who celebrate it happy easter here are @wuglife

To those who celebrate it, Happy Easter! Here are some etymologies for your Easter basket, from Etymonline.

All languages of europe are represented on this @wuglife

This is a map of European languages, prioritizing minority languages and dialects. The linked site allows you to explore it in a lot more detail!

Heads up tumblinguists who are also redditors @wuglife

Heads up, tumblinguists who are also redditors! Famous sociolinguist Walt Wolfram will be giving an AMA (“ask me anything”) next Wednesday! Spread the word!

Geminator 2048 play 2048 with all your favorite @wuglife

Geminator 2048!

Play 2048 with all your favorite phonemes!

Jazzmoth this is a wug s6da im at a @wuglife


This Is A Wug (s6,dA)

I’m at a conference today, so I will have some cool things to tell you about soon. For now, have a wug!

Fractallogic fishmostly fractallogic @wuglife






Friendly reminder that “panini” is actually plural. What we have here in the picture is one panino. If you say “paninis” I will cry.

But then, this isn’t a panino. It’s a ‘toast’ if anything, or it could be considered a tramezzino, I suppose. A panino is a roll. (JK I don’t care whether people use the correct Italian term for particular types of sarnie.)

PS: OP, in English, “panini” is singular, because it’s been lexicalized to mean a single toasty delicious sandwich, so when people get really pedantic about how something should be, a linguist cries.

Note to self: do not try and share what you learned while living in Italy for 3 years, especially what you picked up from talking to locals.

That, or don’t put things in the “linguistics” tag. Probably both.

In all honestly though I should have specified that this rule applies to traditional (that’s probably not the right word) Italian, not the bastardized English version.

It’s perfectly good Italian! And it’s actually a really neat example of a linguistic phenomenon, where borrowed words tend to get regular inflections (so to an English speaker who doesn’t know Italian, panini the sandwich becomes paninis when you order one for yourself and one for your friend).

Even in Spanish, you have a word like tamal that gets borrowed into English in the plural (tamales), because who can have just one, and then we use a process called back-formation to get tamale as the English-ized singular, instead of the so-called “proper” Spanish singular tamal.

But yeah, we figure that anything in the linguistics tag is up for analysis by, you know, linguists. Especially when we sense a teachable moment. :)

Pleaseeatmylunchtoo thrifted this little gem @wuglife


Thrifted this little gem. Maybe useful if I meet someone both Korean and deaf. Korean sign language is a bit different than ASL. Besides having signs for specifics like 오빠 언니 형 and 누나 the signs are different. Culturally giving the finger isn’t going to go over well in America.

Jazzmoth party chomsky s6da shirts @wuglife


Party Chomsky (s6,dA)

Shirts, prints, mugs, clocks, bags, etc, available on society6!

Princenjack im so glad for my linguistics @wuglife


I’m so glad for my linguistics society. :’)

Neuromorphogenesis human brain reacts to @wuglife


Human brain reacts to emoticons as real faces

Humans have developed to read :-) in the same way as a human face, but do not have the same connection with (-:

Emoticons such as :-) have become so important to how we communicate online that they are changing the way that our brains work.

They are used to provide clues to the tone of SMS, emails and tweets that can be hard to succinctly describe in words alone. But Dr Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, has found that they have become so important that we now react to them in the same way as we would to a real human face.

When we see a face there is a very specific reaction in certain parts of the brain such as the occipitotemporal cortex. When that image of a face is inverted there is another very specific reaction. This can be tracked using advanced brain scanning techniques.

Churches found that the same reaction occurred when 20 participants in a study were shown emoticons, but only when they were viewed in the traditional, left-to-right format. When they were “inverted”, or flipped to be read right-to-left, the expected reaction was not found.

This showed that humans have now developed to read :-) in the same way as a human face, but do not have the same connection with (-:. The study, published in the Social Neuroscience journal, also included participants being shown real faces and meaningless strings of characters as controls.

Badass bharat deafmuslim artista hand talk or @wuglife


“Hand talk” or “sign talk,” as shown in this still image from a 1930s video, has been used by both deaf and hearing Indians from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for at least 200 years, possibly much longer.

Hand Talk: Preserving a Legacy:

James Woodenlegs first learned to communicate using Plains Indians Sign Language from his family, when he was growing up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. Known as “hand talk” or “sign talk,” the language has been used by both deaf and hearing Indians from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for at least 200 years, possibly much longer.

“I went to the Montana School for the Deaf, and American Sign Language was used there,” says Woodenlegs. “But, Indian Sign Language is such a part of who I am, my culture, and I really wanted to keep that going.”

Woodenlegs is working with sign language scholars Jeffrey Davis and Melanie McKay-Cody to document and preserve hand talk, one of thousands of the world’s endangered languages.

With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), they are conducting field research to find current users of hand talk and compile a dictionary. The three are videotaping interviews with Northern Cheyenne, Assiniboine, Sioux, Crow, and several other tribes.

“I think linguistics can tell us not only about cognition and culture but also our history,” explains Davis, an associate professor of sign language linguistics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “We’re identifying the nouns and the verbs and other linguistic features and discovering how these form grammar.”

McKay-Cody, an assistant professor of sign language at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., is a Chickamauga Cherokee/Choctaw. She is the first deaf researcher to specialize in North American Indian Sign Language, and has worked closely with American Indian/Alaska Native/First Nation deaf and hard of hearing people to promote Deaf Native Studies.

“We are collecting these videos and not just leaving them on a shelf to collect dust. We are annotating, captioning and sharing them,” explains McKay-Cody. “Our goal is to use these for education and to raise awareness about this language, to use it in teaching—that’s my goal, to educate others.”

A chance discovery at the National Archives and Records Administration led Davis to a treasure trove of historical films documenting the early uses of hand talk by dozens of tribes spread across North America.

In the early 1990s, Davis struck up a conversation with some folks looking at old films and photos for a Ken Burns documentary on baseball.

“We got stranded at the National Archives during a blizzard,” recalls Davis. “And the people working on that project said, ‘Well, you know, there is a collection of old films with Indians signing back there, have you seen those?’ I couldn’t believe that these films existed!”

The old films were created as a labor of love by retired Army General Hugh Scott, who not only studied the language, but learned it. He also arranged for chiefs and tribal elders to gather in Montana in 1930 to share their stories and histories.

While some of the films were funded by the Department of the Interior during the Great Depression, Scott used his own money to continue chronicling this signed lingua franca.

The University of Tennessee funded the digitization of the old films, and these long-forgotten images are now on a website supported by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and NSF.

McKay-Cody and Woodenlegs recently visited the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville to introduce students to this expressive and elegant sign language.

It was traditionally used for storytelling, rituals and in stealthy situations, such as battle and hunting.

“I like to hunt with my people,” says Woodenlegs. “I would sign to somebody else behind another tree and we would sign to each other, ‘Go to this tree.’ If we were to yell to each other, or call out to each other, the animals would run, so sign language is great for hunting.”

Davis says there is an extreme urgency in studying the world’s 6,000 distinct human languages, among them at least a few hundred sign languages.

“It’s estimated that at least half of these languages are in danger. Languages die every year for different reasons,” explains Davis. “A tsunami can destroy an entire village, and a language can be lost. In Africa, there is an adage, ‘When an elder dies, it’s like losing a library.’”

James Woodenlegs stressed the need for keeping history alive as he bid farewell to the students at the School for the Deaf. “All of these good stories have been passed down. Remember them, and use them, don’t just ignore them. Remember and use the stories, the things that your teachers tell you. Be grateful all of the time, to your teachers, to other children, to your parents. Gratitude is so important.”

With those words of wisdom, he taught the students the hand talk sign for “See you later!”

Davis is optimistic about preserving hand talk on video, but more importantly in Indian communities where sign language once thrived. “You see the elders still teaching it to their grandchildren. Native community members still know the language, and that’s what makes it so exciting. People are still motivated to learn and use it,” says Davis.

German lang dialect maps to start your day play @wuglife

German lang dialect maps to start your day (play football)

Dr. Mercedes Durham shared this image on twitter the other day and it made me so happy! It’s from the Atlas of Everyday German (Atlas zur deutschen Alltagssprache), based at the University of Salzburg. Similar to that US dialect survey made famous by Joshua Katz’s statistical analysis maps, this survey looks at common and colloquial features of German that vary across the country. Although we know that languages are not monolithic entities (if you even think that “languages” exist), it’s good to be reminded that every language has internal variation, and the style taught in the classroom may not be the same as the style you’ll hear on the streets. (Nor will the style you hear on the streets of one city necessarily be the same as the next!)

Lesserjoke clark kent and superman are @wuglife


Clark Kent and Superman are allophones of a common phoneme we’ll call Kal-El. This Kryptonian appears alternately as Clark and Supes, depending on the environment where he is situated. Underlyingly, both surface manifestations are Kal-El. You won’t typically find one where you’ll find the other, but if you did swap one for the other, you wouldn’t really have changed which Kryptonian was there.

Neurosciencestuff ucsf team reveals how the @wuglife


UCSF Team Reveals How the Brain Recognizes Speech Sounds

UC San Francisco researchers are reporting a detailed account of how speech sounds are identified by the human brain, offering an unprecedented insight into the basis of human language.

The finding, they said, may add to our understanding of language disorders, including dyslexia.

Scientists have known for some time the location in the brain where speech sounds are interpreted, but little has been discovered about how this process works.

Now, in the Jan. 30 edition of Science Express, the fast-tracked online version of the journal Science, the UCSF team reports that the brain does not respond to the individual sound segments known as phonemes – such as the b sound in “boy” – but is instead exquisitely tuned to detect simpler elements, which are known to linguists as “features.”

This organization may give listeners an important advantage in interpreting speech, the researchers said, since the articulation of phonemes varies considerably across speakers, and even in individual speakers over time.

Read more

Although linguists may talk about phonemes and speech perception a lot, how do we go from hearing acoustic input (especially in noisy conditions) to hearing speech? Linguistics is such a young field – we have theories and hypotheses, but finding physical correlates is a huge step toward understanding what language is and what the nature of the language organ is.

Allthingslinguistic grammargirl update @wuglife



UPDATE: Sadly, I have been informed that the screenshot is from a satirical piece in a 1978 math journal. Here’s the debunking.


The next time someone complains that internet speak, text speak, or typing is ruining language, think about this.

Not to mention the first known use of OMG was in 1917, in a letter to Winston Churchill:

And TTFN (the precursor to TTYL) was popularized by a 1940’s radio broadcast.

Even in a more internet-savvy age, BRB was used as early as 1989:

So if the advent of paper in schools didn’t ruin us, and abbreviations and early internet chats didn’t ruin English, then I think we’re okay.


Even if that quote was originally satirical, there was a fair bit of controversy in Ancient Greece about the transition from a primarily oral culture to a written one. This is from Nicholas Carr, quoting Plato:

 Should the Egyptians learn to write, Thamus goes on, “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” The written word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance.”

This criticism looks a lot like people these days who worry that we’ll lose our memory by depending on smartphones or the internet. I still think we’ll be okay. 

Oh, well. But, as AllThingsLinguistic points out, the original post still holds, even if the image is satirical.

Science junkie neuromorphogenesis an aging @wuglife



An Aging Brain Is Still Pretty Smart

A few years ago, Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany, came across a paper saying that cognitive decline starts as early as age 45. He was 45 himself and felt he hadn’t yet peaked. He remembers thinking: “That doesn’t make sense to me; 99 percent of the people I look up to intellectually, who keep me on my mettle, are older than I am.”

The paper concluded that a person’s vocabulary declines after age 45, and that finding really made no sense to him. The researchers were trying to measure how quickly people remembered words, he says, without even considering the quantity of words they had stored in memory.

Ramscar began to wonder who has the better memory: the young person who knows a little and remembers all of it, or the older person who has learned a lot and forgets a little of it?

Read More

R colored i just read a paper on quantifier @wuglife


I just read a paper on quantifier expressions and this is a perfect example of isomorphic and non-isomorphic interpretations of an ambiguous sentence containing negation and a numerically quantified object. LINGUISTICS WITH BEYONCÉ AKA MY DREAM COURSE AKA WHAT I WISH FOR EVERY WAKING HOUR OF MY LIFE

In simpler terms, Beyoncé is making use of a scalar implicature. Typically, by saying “not one”, this implicates “not more than one” as well. This sort of implication is determined by the pragmatics of a language. Just like you might say on a 60˚F day in the winter “It’s really warm today” because it’s typically much colder in the winter, you might say “It’s pretty cool out today” if that same weather were in the middle of the summer. So here, Beyoncé is saying that “they” were being negative about her album, “not [even] one hit”. But, since she didn’t say “even” (which would disambiguate the meaning), she could cancel the implicature by giving a larger number: 5.

So: the first panel implicates fewer than one hits, but does not require that to be the case. The last panel cancels that implicature (since five isn’t one). The third panel, however, is really telling because it shows us that in order to cancel the implicature without sounding like she misunderstood the intentions of the original remark, Beyoncé recognizes that this is only “kinda” the right interpretation of the original remark. That kinda tells us that Beyoncé is very well aware that she is flouting some Gricean maxim. (But that’s another story for another time.)

Dr martina wiltschko a professor at ubc @wuglife

Dr. Martina Wiltschko, a professor at UBC, studies confirmationals.

My new SSHRC funded project is on the syntax-discourse interface. It is aiming to develop a formal typology of confirmationals. Confirmationals are discourse markers used to establish common ground. A prominent Canadian example is “eh?”, but these markers are ubiquitous in the languages of the world. here are the ppt slides from a presentation I gave at ZAS (Berlin) on November 11th 2013.

There was a New York Times article going around recently about the universality of the word “huh”. A lot of the reactions to this article were “duh”. But how obvious is it really? What is the function of “huh” and why would we expect it to be universal? The text in the image above is from Dr. Wiltschko’s slides, which it also links to. In these slides, she explains and demonstrates how confirmationals like huheh, and right work.

The next time someone complains that internet @wuglife

The next time someone complains that internet speak, text speak, or typing is ruining language, think about this.

Not to mention the first known use of OMG was in 1917, in a letter to Winston Churchill:

And TTFN (the precursor to TTYL) was popularized by a 1940’s radio broadcast.

Even in a more internet-savvy age, BRB was used as early as 1989:

So if the advent of paper in schools didn’t ruin us, and abbreviations and early internet chats didn’t ruin English, then I think we’re okay.

Neuromusic why kerning matters kerning the @wuglife


Why kerning matters

Kerning: the spacing, or the action of adjusting the spacing, between letters in a proportional font.

The psycholinguistic mechanism for recognizing letters and retrieving the words they spell is easily fooled by marginal cases of letters. What this means is that we can easily be confused when letters aren’t in their canonical forms or are between two potential forms. Just like you might mishear a word that is said in a noisy room, you can misread words in “noisy” situations. Here, you’d be more likely to see “fuck” instead of “flick” because the spacing between the LI is very small, creating a U-like shape. Moreover, there’s a good chance the word “flick…” is less common in your daily experiences than the word “fuck…” (especially if you’re on tumblr), so the word “fuck” is already more activated in your lexicon and easier to retrieve. Combined with the poorly kerned letters, these 10 fuckering lights are a great Christmas surprise.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Axonsandsynapses yuletidekarkat @wuglife





the speech impediment of the 21st century (by Marc Johns)

I’ll fuck you up buddy this is not a speech impediment it’s linguistic evolution!! the existence of the phrase “Aisha was like” allows the speaker to convey whatever Aisha said without making the listener assume they’re quoting Aisha directly while still maintaining the FEELING of what Aisha said.

ie, Aisha said she didn’t want to go out with me VERSUS Aisha was like, “I’d rather kiss a Wookie”.

the addition of “XYZ was like” lets the speaker be more expressive and efficient and it is a totally valid method of communicating information!!

With the way language has evolved, this is one of the few ways I can even think of to express in casual conversation what someone said. 

“So I said to Aisha,” is certainly used, but if you remove the “so,” which implies casual tone (“and” can be used in the same way), you get

“I said to Aisha,” which is really formal in most English dialects/variations. I don’t know about all, but in New England dialects, you sound like you’re reading aloud from a novel.

“I told Aisha,” is really only used when you continue to describe, not tell, what you told her. Ex: “I told Aisha that James was too punk for her” works while, “I told Aisha, ‘James is too punk for you’” crosses the line back into formalness of the “I said.”

Things like “I asked” or “I answered [with]” are similar levels of casual and efficient to the “So, I said [or say, as many conversations about the past take place in present tense anyway, as if the speaker is giving a play-by-play in the moment]” but are specific to only certain situations. 

“I was like, ‘Marc Johns, what is your obsession with restoring archaic speech patterns and interfering with the natural progression of English from complex to efficient?’” envelopes all of these easily and is accessible and crisp, and allows for more variations on inflection than the others.

Of course, James is probably like, “I already fucking said that.” But eh, I tried adding on.

#linguistics #a.k.a. how I learned to stop worrying and love the evolution of the English language without being a discriminatory elitist jerk (via crystalandrock)

Philadelphia language in motion josef fruehwald @wuglife

Philadelphia Language in Motion  –Josef Fruehwald

Clicking the picture above will take you to a set of interactive graphs showing how vowels have changed in Philadelphia over the past 100+ years. The sociophonetics (phonetics + sociolinguistics) of Philadelphia is particularly interesting because it is so well-documented. The detail with which we can explore the sound change of the area allows us to see how trends change over time, and how the Philly “accent” has evolved.

Over 250 people’s voices have gone into making this visualization! While that’s hardly fully representative of all the nuances and changes in past 100 years, it does allow us to see a fairly smooth transition between expanding and contracting vowel spaces and how some vowels (e.g., “ay0”) have dramatically shifted, while others (e.g., “i”, “ae”) have remained almost completely motionless.

Take some time to explore the graphs. You can view the data as a scatterplot / vowel space, like above, or in two other ways: a bar chart (with vowel as the x-axis and either F1 or F2 as the y-axis), or a line graph (with time as the x-axis and F1 or F2 as the y-axis).

For clarity’s sake, F1 and F2 are two characteristics of vowels that linguists often use as defining traits. They correlate to location of tightest constriction in the mouth (for mathematical reasons), and they’re plotted in “vowel spaces” like below.


Although we have this neat diagram for a generic vowel space, what Dr. Fruehwald’s visualizations show is that the acoustic location of these vowels shifts, sometimes dramatically. Although the conventional diagram is very useful, you should keep in mind that the acoustic values used to define the vowels are gradient and ever-changing.

Great news language lovers today schwa fire was @wuglife

Great news, language lovers! Today, Schwa Fire was officially funded on Kickstarter!

There’s been a lot of buzz around this project for the last month, so you’ve probably heard of it by now. In any case, it’s a long-form magazine venture, akin to Sports Illustrated, but for linguistics, language, and communication. I can’t wait to see what it’ll bring us! I’ll be sure to tell you about neat things it brings us, the tumblinguistics community.

Lingsamplesentences borgesian submitted @wuglife


borgesian submitted:

From Bach, Emmon (1986). “The Algebra of Events”. Linguistics and Philosophy 9. p5-16.

[much doge, very linguistics]

More doge info:

What’s particularly interesting about the example sentence is that the starred example (1b) is now acceptable under certain circumstances. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the doge meme has fundamentally changed how English treats countable and uncountable(mass) nouns and the many-much distinction, but I do suggest that the use (or misuse) of many-much now has a particular socio-pragmatic meaning. Instead of the phrase “much dog” being viewed as incorrect or unacceptable as an English phrase, it is now recognized as being acceptable in a particular memetic context. We identify this construction not as a mistake but as a particular joke, referring to that ubiquitous shiba inu.

One way to test how this change is and isn’t affecting English is to consider this hypothetical situation. If you are approached by someone you are CERTAIN has not been on the internet or heard of this meme, how would you react to their utterance “Much dog”? I suspect that your first reaction would be that this person has made a mistake, and meant “many dogs”. The sociolinguistic context excludes the use of the meme, so you take the person’s utterance seriously – you assume they are using English in the way it is used when not referring to this meme.

What this might demonstrate is that the meme is not changing English, but rather adding to the memetic jokes available. That is, the much-many distinction is still as strong as ever, but we use the misuse of that distinction to directly evoke a certain cultural in-joke.

Neuromorphogenesis feel like a fraud you might @wuglife


Feel like a fraud? You might have Impostor Syndrome.

Ever feel like you’re faking it, in spite of your successes, and that you’re on the verge of being outed as a phony, undeserving of praise, promotion or recognition? Sounds like you might be suffering from a case of Impostor Syndrome. Here’s why you should ignore that voice of doubt inside your head.

To many people, actress Emma Watson has it all. Talent, beauty, brains, and major acting roles at a young age. Yet Emma – like many people, be they in the world of acting, academia, health or sport – has admitted to feeling like a fraud despite her success.

In an interview with Rookie magazine, Watson said: “It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved’.”

This is an example of an interesting phenomenon called imposter syndrome – where people are seen as successful by outside external measures but internally they feel themselves to be frauds, undeserving of their success and in danger at any moment of being exposed.

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re in over your head? That you’ve had many successes but somehow you feel you don’t deserve them? There’s been some mistake. You were just lucky that time, the right questions came up in the exam or the interview. And despite all evidence to the contrary, that nagging feeling persists that, at any moment, someone will tap you on the shoulder and say: “You shouldn’t be here.”

Most of us have these feelings from time to time. They are called imposter feelings: feeling that you have misrepresented yourself despite all objective evidence to the contrary. A 1985 article in Time suggested that up to 70% of people will have imposter feelings at some time. It’s normal, and usually, with a bit of perspective and time, people let them pass.

‘Real’ imposters

However, for some people the imposter feelings don’t pass and an entire syndrome develops where the person believes they truly are an imposter. They go on to develop behaviours and thinking patterns based on this belief.

The phenomenon was originally described in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two researchers at Georgia State University in the US, based on their work with groups of high achieving women.

Much of the early literature suggested it applied mainly to women but since then, there have been studies showing that many men are also affected. One study suggested that while women worked and competed harder to prove themselves when anxiety was high, men tended to avoid situations where weaknesses could be exposed.

And the imposter syndrome is most obvious in situations where people are measured or evaluated in some way. So it is very common in education systems where people are regularly tested, graded and often ranked. It’s also common in competitive sport, or when you stand up to give a presentation, when you apply for a new job and in many creative fields. At these moments you start to worry that everybody will find out your little secret.

It’s a secret

One of the characteristics of the imposter syndrome is that you can never admit it. Because, of course, if you put your hand up and say “I feel like a fraud”, then there’s the possibility that someone will say “ah yes, we were wondering about that, could you please leave now.” So it’s safer to say nothing. But the doubts remain. Even if others are suffering too.

A second characteristic is that the imposter syndrome is impervious to evidence. The person has objective evidence that they are not a fraud. They have passed exams, have certificates, achieved sales targets, made a good presentation. Despite this evidence, the feeling lingers. And people play tricky mind games to discount or ignore the evidence. It was just luck, it was easy, someone helped. The next time will be harder. I fooled them – they just haven’t found me out yet.

For some people, the more successful they become, the worse the imposter syndrome is. After all, there’s more to be exposed now. All that happens is that expectations are raised even higher.

Look at it objectively

So what can you do? Well, you need to force yourself to look at the evidence objectively. One of the great contributions of psychology is to help people realise that feelings are not facts. You can feel like an imposter but that doesn’t make you one. Is it likely that you have fooled everyone? Did you tell lies at the interview? Was it just luck or did you actually work hard on that report?

There’s no simple answer to treating the syndrome but looking at the evidence using CBT and self-awareness can help, as can mindfulness. Learn not to fear success and enjoy it, even if this is easier said than done. Finding a way to channel pressure. This may not rid you of imposter syndrome but it will certainly help you to manage it.

Photo by LiebeGaby

It’s getting down to crunch time for a lot of you. Remember to acknowledge your successes, even when they’re small.

Mylittlesuperninjagofalls jazzmoth your @wuglife



Your move, tumblr.


Relevant to previous post.

Johannweyer emmilions @wuglife




I just bought the best book money can buy. 

oh my god this is so perfect it’s so hard to explain how disconnected the grammar is between asl and English NO ONE UNDERSTANDS WELL THIS. THIS IS IT

My anus is bleeding! HOORAY!


It is offensive and demeaning to the speakers of ASL and the deaf community. In fact, this makes my original message all the more important. A book like this written in good faith would be useful for people interested in ASL and ASL culture. This, however, is not that book.

Many people don’t think about ASL or any signed language being a “real language” because it’s in a different modality than spoken language. This makes the realization that sign language can have poetry and dirty language and expressions of love, sexuality, and frustration very curious. But in reality, anything that spoken language does, signed languages do. You can shout or whisper (in a manner of speaking), you can talk about dildos and sex acts, and you can curse like a (signing) sailor.

But you guys knew that already. :)

Also, like any other language, these translations are not one-to-one to English. In particular, word order is obviously different. But also, things like “I’m a bad ass motherfucker” particularly demonstrate that each and every language has a different way of expressing abstract concepts. A formal(me) fancy motherfucker seems quite dapper in English, but really means “badass” motherfucker.

Though I don’t know ASL, I speculate that the same machismo connotations apply, rather than as “dapper” imagery in the English words “formal” and “fancy” might suggest.

(Can anyone confirm or deny this?)

Signal boost for linguisticats its getting to @wuglife

Signal Boost For Linguisticats!

It’s getting to be holiday season in many countries, which means visiting family, friends, and time spent at home. If you are a linguist, protolinguist, or just like linguistics AND HAVE PICTURES OF A CATFRIEND… share them with the cat-loving linguists of tumblr!

(All the cats featured on this blog are own by, cohabit with, or are friends of linguists. Cats like linguistics, from what I can tell.)

Kadrey sign language rings convert gestures to @wuglife


Sign Language Rings Convert Gestures To Speech

“Here’s how the rings work, in a nutshell. There are three detatchable rings that are worn on the the thumb and first two fingers of each hand, as well as a bracelet. As the user signs out whatever they want to say, the translation is then spoken through a digitized voice that comes from the bracelet. I’m not sure if it works real time or not, but that’s still some pretty amazing stuff. And that’s not all…

"The gesture-to-speak aspect works fine when the hearing-impaired person wants to talk to someone else, but what about vice versa? The bracelet carries the double duty of turning sound into text that runs across an LED display. It seems like the only thing these guys have left to do is actually make people hear again…”

Speech-to-speech translation is gaining a lot of popularity, and for good reasons. Reading is an ancillary linguistic skill, so you don’t need to be literate to be a fluent user of a language. That means that when you can speak (or sign) in your native language and have it translated to someone else’s native language, the communication is much more direct.

On the other hand, machine translation is still hugely flawed, and may always be. But from the level of technology we have now, a translation tool like these rings gets us significantly closer to a universal translation device – a common trope in science fiction. Still, there are a lot of obstacles ahead for automated translators like this. I’d be interested to see how it works and how accurately it picks up nuances in speech patterns of the signer.

Anekie i was doing some reading for my applied @wuglife


I was doing some reading for my applied linguistics essay….

Moreover, the English meaning can change depending on where the adverb is located:

  • Honestly, to speak up would be a mistake.
  • To honestly speak up would be a mistake.
  • To speak up honestly would be a mistake.
  • To speak up would honestly be a mistake.
  • To speak up would be a mistake, honestly.

Some of these sentences have a more subtle distinction, but nevertheless, each one conveys a slightly different meaning. The scope of the adverb (what set of words it most closely relates to) is determined by where it falls in the sentence. To honestly speak up might mean that the action of speaking was in earnest, where as to speak up honestly might mean that the content of what is said is honest. In this way, we can see that the “split infinitive” rule cannot apply to English without excluding some sentences that are clearly real (and acceptable) sentences of English.

Hyperboreanhapocanthosaurus gifmethat so @wuglife



So you know what I don’t get? Why people repeat words. (x)

Grammar time: it’s called “contrastive reduplication,” and it’s a form of intensification that is relatively common. Finnish does a very similar thing, and others use near-reduplication (rhyme-based) to intensify, like Hungarian (pici ‘tiny’, ici-pici ‘very tiny’).

Even the typologically-distant group of Bantu languages utilize reduplication in a strikingly similar fashion with nouns: Kinande oku-gulu ‘leg’, oku-gulu-gulu ‘a REAL leg’ (Downing 2001, includes more with verbal reduplication as well).

I suppose the difficult aspect of English reduplication is not through this particular type, but the fact that it utilizes many other types of reduplication: baby talk (choo-choo, no-no), rhyming (teeny-weeny, super-duper), and the ever-famous “shm” reduplication: fancy-schmancy (a way of denying the claim that something is fancy).

screams my professor was trying to find an example of reduplication so the next class he came back and said “I FOUND REDUPLICATION IN ENGLISH” and then he said “Milk milk” and everyone was just “what?” and he said “you know when you go to a coffee shop and they ask if you want soy milk and you say ‘no i want milk milk’” and everyone just had this collective sigh of understanding.

Reduplication in English is thought to indicate a contrast between something that is a marginal case of the category and something that is a canonical case of the category.

  1. soy milk (not real milk)
    milk milk (definitely real milk)
  2. does he like me (the type of “like” that is more general/variable)
    does he like like me (the specific type of “like” as in crush)
  3. spicy (something that has some small amount of spice)
    spicy spicy (something I particularly would think was spicy hot)
  4. fancy (a general type of not-casual)
    fancy fancy (something particularly fancy, possible an extreme case)

This is a fairly well documented feature of English, with a familiar example being the contrast between fruit salad and caesar salad:

  • should i bring a salad (including fruit salad, egg salad…)
  • or a salad salad (caesar salad, mixed leafy greens…)

Not all languages that use reduplication use it for this type of contrast, though. Some use it as verbal inflection (to change the tense, mood, or aspect), and some use it for pluralization. Even others use it for more esoteric purposes, such as Marshallese, which uses partial reduplication of a noun to mean “to wear X” (where X is that noun). Reduplication is just really awesome, I guess!

Where did the word welp come from some people @wuglife

Where did the word “Welp” come from?

Some people claim that it originated from a line in Dumb and Dumber, but since it’s an articulatory phenomenon rather than slang, it’s been in use since at least 1934 (as seen in Brier’s Reach For The Moon). The articulatory aspect that turns “well” into “wellp” (or welp, well’p, wel’p, whelp (sic), etc) is the bilabial closure. That means your lips close entirely after (or during) the “l” part of well. Since this is the way the “p” sound is formed, it sounds like there’s a “p” at the end of the word.

So when do your lips close while you’re still pronouncing “well”? Possibly when you’re demonstrating some finality to your utterance. I also personally use it a lot with a shrug, even if I keep speaking afterwards. I consider this to fall into the same “finality” category, however, since the word occurs as more of an expletive or exclamation, rather than as part of a constituent in a larger phrase.

  • #welp i tried
  • #welp that’s me
  • #welp alright
  • #welp sorry

All of these are popular tags on tumblr, and they demonstrate that “welp” occurs as a sort of verbal shrug. Even though it’s not the final word, the pronunciation is encoded in the spelling as having that finality or closure.