Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Talkative women, taciturn men

Yesterday's Arlo and Janis cartoon is a timely embodiment of the stereotypes that Mark Lieberman's been debunking pseudoscience about (e), over at Language Log lately:

The thing about the pseudoscience in question is, people think it's giving them objective confimation of something they are inclined to believe anyway, but which is mildly un-PC to discuss. This makes it a) very easy to believe and b) both interesting and safe to repeat, since any skeptical or disapproving raised eyebrows can be referred to the supposed(ly) scientific experimental results.

Maybe people experience women as being more talky than men not because they actually are that much more talky (Mark shows that they're not), but rather because people are less patient with women than with men. That is, a speech segment of length X might be perceived as being longer or shorter depending on the sex of the speaker. The idea would be that because women are generally lower-status community members than men, people are less inclined to invest a lot of time in listening to them. (Quiet and respectful attention is something accorded to higher-status people more than to lower-status people, after all.) Consequently, if a lower-status person talks the same amount as a higher-status person does, an interlocutor will perceive that person (negatively) as too talkative, that is, as talking more than their relative status 'should' warrant. If women are, on average, lower-status individuals than men, and if they, on average, talk more or less the same amount as men do, then they'll be perceived as 'talkative'

This would be very easy to test experimentally -- take the same speech segment, say 30 seconds worth; manipulate the pitch to create two copies of the recording identical in all respects except that one sounds like it's spoken by a female and one by a male, and play each to different randomly selected group of subjects. Ask the subjects to estimate the length of the recording (and perhaps for estimates of other factors too: e.g. is the rate of speech above or below average?) Analyze the estimates to discover if subjects tend to estimate that the 'female' speaker talked longer than the 'male' speaker, or vice versa, or neither.

That much would test whether people do in fact perceive women as more talkative than men. Assuming a positive result, the next step would be to test the conjecture that this experiential effect is correlated with social status, perhaps more than with gender. To do this, one would run the same experiment again with just a single recording (either male or female), but giving the subjects one of two short descriptions of the 'speaker' before they listen to it. Half the subjects would hear a description consistent with a high-status individual as the speaker, half would hear a description of a low-status individual. After listening to the stimulus, they'd be asked to estimate the talkiness of the speaker, exactly as in the previous experiment.

Perhaps such work has already been done? Anybody know of any?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

As slippery as an eel

So on to the promised language-oriented thing:

I've been interested in idioms for a long time but like many researchers, have never had a really solid criterion, or even a semi-solid criterion, for drawing a boundary line between an idiom and a metaphor. Some things are clearly idioms ('bell the cat'), some clearly metaphors ('All the world's a stage'), but for many expressions, it's quite unclear whether to locate them in one box or ther other. In the course of a lecture in Stuttgart, a student was asking about an expression in Japanese, 'make X dance', meaning to control someone as a puppet, pull their strings, so to speak (there's another one!). We were trying to decide whether that was a real idiom or not...

...and Michal Starke suggested that one possible way to distinguish might be to ask whether the interpretation is available after literal translation from the language under investigation into some other language. That seemed to draw some clear distinctions—'X kick the bucket' doesn't translate, 'fear gripped X' does translate; we decided the 'make X dance' expression also translates.

This is clearly not going to make things black and white -- metaphors can depend on culture-specific entities (like stages or puppets) for which literal translation equivalents might not be findable in the target language because of cultual differences. Furthermore, closely related cultures/languages, in contact for one reason or another, might borrow idioms--I recently learned that the British English idiom 'pull the chestnuts from the fire', meaning to solve the problems or save the situation, also exists in Italian, which seems like a possible candidate for a borrowed idiom. But nonetheless, it seems like a possible start.

Aside: Did you notice that in that story about the 3.3 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis infant fossil, they found a hyoid bone, to which tongue and throat muscles attach? The bone differs significantly between apes and humans, and the differences may be related to the language adaptations of the human vocal tract. The little female's hyoid looked more apelike than humanlike, although she walked upright. So did her arms and shoulders.
Update: Ah, of course the Language Loggers noticed. Hey, could one call the Language Loggers 'Language Lumberjacks'? That'd make a fun Ling 201 constitent-structure bonus question.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Stuttgart souvenirs

Well, it's been forever since I posted. Arriving in Tucson after having had a great time at the GLOW/DGfS Summer School in Stuttgart, I landed in the middle of a semester that had already been underway for 2 weeks, and have been scrambling to get on top of it ever since (with no real prospect for a letup, sadly). But thanks to extremely generous colleagues without whose assistance my students would have been sitting looking at an empty whiteboard two weeks in a row, classes are progressing appropriately (I hope) and other things are settling down to a dull roar.

Stuttgart was really a blast -- we went biking, visited the wonderful Wilhelma botanical gardens/zoo, went to the farmer's market, ate spaetzle and maultaschen until we got fairly pasta-like ourselves--the beer probably didn't help with that--went to an amazing fireworks festival (aside: Fireworks usually don't do too much for me, but the stuff we saw at this event finally made me feel like I had some sense of what Gandalf's fireworks were supposed to be like, in Tolkein's description in The Fellowship of the Ring. They were synchronized with a very loud musical score, which helped a lot. On the last night, a part of the display was synchroanized with the Moonlight Sonata: just a very simple visual evocation of the keyboard of a piano playing the melody line -- flashes coordinated with the notes at a location along the horizon that was consistent with the relative position of the keys on a giant invisible keyboard. SO cool...); we went to the Limes ('limits'), the German equivalent of Hadrian's wall, the northernmost frontier of the Roman empire, marching impossibly straight across the landscape; and also to the Maulbronn monastery, a very beautiful monastery complex that shows the whole evolution of (Cistercian) monastic life and ideals from the 12th century to the Reformation (and where maultaschen are supposed to have been invented)—both the Limes and the Maulbronn monastery are UNESCO world heritage sites, which I've decided are going to be my personal touristic goals in life; more on this in furture posts, I imagine; we walked and biked in the woods at the top of a hill next to a tall TV tower, the first of its kind in Germany, and then went up in the tower and looked at the whole Neckar valley; went to the flea market, visited several museums my favorite of which was the anthropological one, free on Wed. afternoons, saw the Schiller Oak, walked on the Konigstr., went to the wine festival and the German Open Latin/Ballroom competition ... and we still missed a lot in the area -- Ludwigsburg, the Black Forest, the Tee House, the mineral baths... Anyway, Stuttgart was fun. We discovered that you can get hefeweizen mixed with banana juice. Nowhere else in the world, we thought, would you find 'bananenweizen' on the menu of any restaurant, nor would it occur to anyone else that that might be a good mix. (Probably not to a lot of Germans either, but Art says it's good, especially with Thai food, and he knows about these things. Googling it, I see that there's a pretty popular open source software developer with that handle...)

And of course there was really excellent linguistics too. This post is prompted because today I had occasion to remember one of the most interesting linguistic things I heard, which I want to post about, but felt like I had to give Stuttgart its review first, to set the stage. Coming up next: something language oriented.