Tag Archives: language

Visualizing Spectral Change

What does a monophthongal vowel look like versus a diphthongal vowel in F1/F2 space? Well, I guarantee you, the difference is not as easy to interpret if you only have 2 or 3 measurements per vowel as is the norm. The two graphics I have inserted below (created using R) are what they look like when you take 21-time normalized measurements across the duration of the vowel.

First is a Loess curve created from several hundred BAT tokens extracted from sociolinguistic interviews with 18 African American speakers:


And here is the front lax vowel system (again several hundred tokens for each class) extracted from sociolinguistic interviews with 5 Southern white speakers:


I don’t know about you, but I find this particularly cool! Note that the space between nodes represents rate of spectral change. For African Americans it appears there is a definable steady state but the same isn’t true for Southern white speakers (at least for BET and BAT).

Finally, here are the front lax vowels for both speaker groups (African Americans in green and Southern whites in blue). This is the exact same data presented in the above two graphics except I used a generalized additive model. Monophthongized African American front lax vowels are characterized by parallel F1/F2 movement. Click on the image for a bigger graphic.


This is just a tiny sample of what I’m currently working on; I’m so fascinated by it I couldn’t help but share. Enjoy!

I have a lot of tweaking I plan to do to this methodology (including anchoring the onset/offset to better account for effects of neighboring phonetic environments), but I’m seeing it headed cool places even now.

ETA: This is completely something I’m experimenting with, if I hadn’t made that clear. Comments/suggestions/emails are especially welcome for this reason!

Megan L. Risdal


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Don’t You Hate it When…

You can’t seem to stop using the same word or phrase repeatedly in your writing? I understand the impossibility of trying to write a statement of purpose without using the words research, experience, background, goal, interest, etc. But it drives me insane nonetheless to use these words over & over. Anyway, it made me think about how funny I find it when I’m reading someone else’s writing & I’m impressed with their deft word choice. Then I read more of their writing & notice that they recycle the same words until they’re hackneyed, stale, & sort of annoying. Paradigm this, amenable that. At the same time I suppose it can be endearing in a way — a sort of stylistic quirk.

I even notice it with certain authors. There’s a chapter in Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth in which he uses the word invaginate far too many times. I appreciate its technicality &, considering the topic, appropriateness. But at the same time, fold could have sufficed at least once, right? I wonder what my “token” words are & if they’ve come out through the writing in my blog. I think everyone has their “token” words. I’ll have to reflect on it for a few days. Okay, I’ll admit I overuse some words & phrases & I know it, but I guess I’m talking about polished writing.

I’ll leave you with this amusing video — even musicians do it in their songwriting.

Dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream, dream…

P.S. I came up with this idea while I was working & wrote myself a note at my desk that read: “don’t you hate it when… dream dream dream dream.” Hope no one saw that.

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Quotables & Linkables

Sometimes great quotes don’t fit the 140 character limit of Twitter, so I’ve compiled a list for you here, friends. Find also links to some articles on language that I enjoyed reading.

If native speakers of a language — including many people who obviously read and write just fine — need schooling to learn a feature of their native grammar, that feature of the grammar is on artificial life support.

Preach on, Mike of Mike’s Web Log. This is a reference to “moribund whom.”

Matching Brain Activity to Words & Thoughts

Using fMRIs, scientists show activity in the brain associated with words/thoughts & which words/thoughts share associated brain activity. Pretty cool!

Falser Words were Never Spoken

An article that questions what it means when we tweak the wording of quotes to make them more digestible, or in other words, more suitable for a bumper sticker. Is the message the same?

What Chatbots Talk about When Humans Aren’t Around

This is kind of fun. It’s two chat robots having a conversation together. One figures out that they other is a robot, then claims to be a unicorn himself. Then they discuss the existence of God.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Hopefully I can finish moving into my new apartment in Eau Claire, Wisconsin this weekend so that I can get more blog posts for you readers! 🙂

Megan L. Risdal

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Words — How do They Work?

After being a human & watching humans for over twenty-three years & also studying them during my time at college, I’ve come to realize that humans love to split hairs over trivial matters. Even though it may not say so on all of our Facebook profiles, it’s definitely one of our most favorite pastimes. And it’s not just an idle craft, the equivalent to crocheting while watching soaps; it’s serious business. I’d even venture to say that it approaches obsessive preoccupation for many people – at least for the vocal ones with Internet access.

With that established, one thing many people (especially ones with Internet ones & blogs like mine) fight about & lose sleep over is language. Our alien observers must know that it’s a big deal to us, language. There are people who really, I mean really, care about grammar & usage & are mortally offended when someone dares to type your when they really mean to say you’re. Oh, & you better be using Oxford commas, you imbecile! And there are those who don’t shut up about the mutable, ever-shifting linguistic sands, & language is in the mouth of its beholders, etc.

There is a never-ending laundry list of language-use issues that people bring up repeatedly with seemingly ever-increasing fervor as people embrace the Internet as the place to go to vent their thoughts (guilty). If you misuse their, there, & they’re you couldn’t be stupider. You must be uneducated if you pronounce so & so a word differently from me. Or is it I? Crap. Send me back to university if I can’t recite Strunk & White verbatim! The worst part is that these arguments are often hateful.

So we have Grammar Nazis & … uhh, enlightened language-hippies? Prescriptivists & descriptivists. Those who seek to draft maps of how language should (logically) work & those who are content to navigate its tangled, uncharted rivers. Okay, maybe my biased language is beginning to show & you’ve figured out that I place myself comfortably within the second camp – the descriptivists, the linguistically enlightened.

Here’s the part where I get really biased & push my side.

I would love to hear less noise about how we should be saying “I’m well” in place of “I’m good.” Largely because those people are, well, more wrong than not. But also because it’s OUR language, not the language of some grammar collecting dust in your university’s library. There are so many people who just have the wrong idea about things. Most dictionary-makers aren’t prescriptivists, yet their words are taken to be the law of the linguistic land by some. It’s as if it’s been forgotten or ignored that the words in the dictionary came from our mouths first & it was those oral actions that gave birth to their more-or-less agreed upon definitions.

There’s way too much hateful attention being paid to language as written, I believe, when it comes to how we speak on the Internet (i.e., informal language). Is it truly that offensive if a person fails to apostrophize contraction it’s, effectively rendering it a possessive its? The horror. I’m almost, almost positive you wouldn’t notice their flub had they been speaking, not writing. And chances are, they can handle it in formal writing. If not, then it’s likely a failure of our education system to teach (note the emphasis on teach) prescriptive rules which oftentimes run contrary to our intuitions about language. In any case, there’s no need for name-calling.

We need more noise from people embracing language’s natural tendencies, OUR natural tendencies – especially from non-linguists. Get the word out! It’s great to me that so many people are indeed enthusiastic about language & how we use it, but not that it means in many cases that such passion is manifested as disgust for fellow humans. We’re all culpable of committing grammatical crimes. And I’ve seen how people hate to be labeled as hypocrites.

At the same time, as someone who has studied evolutionary psychology, I am driven to understand where this behavior comes from. This is just my guess, but I’d venture to say that dialect differences in particular could mark in- versus out-group membership. You don’t speak like me? You can’t be my friend. Furthermore, it’s not impossible that individual differences in language use could serve as markers for intelligence. There’s a reason why you’re asked to know loads of esoteric vocabulary for the GRE.

I don’t want to venture too far down this path because I recognize that evolutionary psychology can be at times a controversial field of study, but I did also want to get those thoughts, however brief, out there for you to mull over. I do invite those who have studied in-/out-group behavior & the relationship between intelligence & linguistic prowess to speak their minds. Though I have a B.A. in psychology & am indeed very interested in human behavior, I consider myself a linguist first & foremost.

As you can tell, this issue of linguistic receptivity is dear to my heart. I don’t just think it’s an interesting measure of individual differences to study – I think it has real-world applicability & must be studied if we are to shed our ignorance about language & encourage diversity & understanding. So everyone go out & learn about language!

Megan L. Risdal

NOTE: For you nerds, this is where the title of this post comes from. I eliminated the obscenity to be nice.


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Is the Internet Thinking What I’m Thinking?

Are you there, Internet? It’s me, Megan.

Like a lot of people right now I’m reading articles about Steve Jobs’ resignation from his CEO position at Apple. And you know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he had died. Every article I’ve taken glanced at reads like an obituary. Anyway, being that I’m a nerd, I decided to see if the Internet had similar sentiments. So what did I do? I searched “obituaries” & “obituary” on Twitter & here are some of the results:

“All these Steve Jobs Resigns news stories look like obituaries. Guys, both Jobs and Apple are still alive.”

“All the Job retrospectives going out tonite are written like obituaries. He’s still alive & bet he’ll keep kicking.”

“Guys, Jobs is alive and still at Apple. It is not time to write obituaries, and some of tweets look like that.”

And this one written by @justwright is my favorite because it coins a fantastic portmanteau:

“Jobituary (noun) an obituary-like article, published upon resignation, in which your job and life are equivalent.”

I hope it’s okay that I only credited the Tweet actually worth crediting because I don’t really know etiquette for Tweet-attribution on blogs by amateur linguists. But first of all, I think it’s great that I can see who’s thinking what I’m thinking by using Twitter. I can’t quite describe why it gives me such delight, but it does. Second, I really hope that Steve Jobs doesn’t die soon (an unfortunate, but not impossible event) because, well… would Reuters just re-publish this same article with only minor adjustments? I’m not sure how tasteful that would be. I even wonder if news sources drew upon their prefabricated obituary in reporting his resignation?

In short, I think that these articles that were written to sound like obituaries (detailing his battle with cancer, his medical leaves, trumpeting his achievements, etc.) are bad news. I have no familiarity with journalistic writing, so I couldn’t really begin to tell you how they could have been written to make him seem less moribund if not already dead. But someone better figure out something with a little more tact to prepare for the event that he actually does pass away while his resignation & the reports of it are still alive in our minds.

However, not every report has been so bleak. In fact, here’s an essay that cheerfully reminds you that it’s NOT an obituary.

Anyway, this is only tangentially related to language, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead! I do hope that Steve Jobs doesn’t read too many of his jobituaries — they would certainly depress me!

Megan L. Risdal

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