The Universal Gap.

Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic on an interesting finding of research on conversation:

When we talk we take turns, where the “right” to speak flips back and forth between partners. This conversational pitter-patter is so familiar and seemingly unremarkable that we rarely remark on it. But consider the timing: On average, each turn lasts for around 2 seconds, and the typical gap between them is just 200 milliseconds—barely enough time to utter a syllable. That figure is nigh-universal. It exists across cultures, with only slight variations. It’s even there in sign-language conversations.

“It’s the minimum human response time to anything,“ says Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. It’s the time that runners take to respond to a starting pistol—and that’s just a simple signal. If you gave them a two-way choice—say, run on green but stay on red—they’d take longer to pick the right response. Conversations have a far greater number of possible responses, which ought to saddle us with lengthy gaps between turns. Those don’t exist because we build our responses during our partner’s turn. We listen to their words while simultaneously crafting our own, so that when our opportunity comes, we seize it as quickly as it’s physically possible to.

“When you take into account the complexity of what’s going into these short turns, you start to realize that this is an elite behavior,” says Levinson. “Dolphins can swim amazingly fast, and eagles can fly as high as a jet, but this is our trick.” […]

The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it. For a short clause, that processing time rises to 1500 milliseconds. This means that we have to start planning our responses in the middle of a partner’s turn, using everything from grammatical cues to changes in pitch. We continuously predict what the rest of a sentence will contain, while similarly building our hypothetical rejoinder, all using largely overlapping neural circuits.

“It’s amazing, like juggling with one hand,” says Levinson. “It’s been completely ignored by the cognitive sciences because traditionally, people who studied language comprehension were different to the ones who studied language production. They never stopped to think that, in conversations, these things are happening at the same time.”

Yong goes into the history of the discovery, how the turn-taking system may have evolved, and how it develops from infancy on. Visit the link and read the whole thing, after which you have 200 milliseconds to respond.

Comments

  1. Link to the original article, which uses the word plethysmography.

  2. I have my doubts about the universality of all this. Is it really the case that in all cultures people take turns in this ping-pong fashion? I suspect WEIRDO sampling at work here. At least anecdotally: In some cultures and subcultures, conversational impasto is the norm; in others, long inter-turn silences are.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The brevity of these silences is doubly astonishing when you consider that it takes at least 600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it.

    I don’t believe it. Is the Atlantic article misquoting “microseconds” as “milliseconds”?

    If it’s really milliseconds, then saying Dolphins can swim amazingly fast, and eagles can fly as high as a jet, but this is our trick would take around 10 seconds, but I can say it a lot faster than that.

  4. “600 milliseconds for us to retrieve a single word from memory and get ready to actually say it”, that’s amazing. I am thinking about that while typing this comment.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    At least anecdotally: In some cultures and subcultures, conversational impasto is the norm; in others, long inter-turn silences are.

    “There is no overlap in Navajo turn-taking strategies, and a long gap between turns. The Navajo interpretation of the typical Standard American ‘no gap, no overlap’ turntaking strategy is that the interlocutors are not listening to each other; they are just planning their own response while the others are speaking.”
    – p. 38 of this PhD thesis about English loanwords in Navajo (PDF, 199 pp.)

  6. @Athel Cornish-Bowden, I assume the 600ms figure is for ‘cold’ retrieval of content words — from seeing a picture of a random object to voice onset. Once you’ve started a sentence that retrieval time will be hidden by ‘pipelining’ — and low entropy words (structure words, modals, frequent words in context) may have more lightweight retrieval strategies.

  7. Re the “at least anecdotally” thing, the article specifically address this, almost in those exact terms:

    There are plenty of anecdotal reports of minute-long pauses in Scandinavian chat, and virtually simultaneous speech among New York Jews and Antiguan villagers. But Stivers and her colleagues saw none of that.

    And the languages sampled were:

    Italian, Dutch, Danish, Japanese, Korean, Lao, ≠Akhoe Hai//om (from Namibia), Yélî-Dnye (from Papua New Guinea), and Tzeltal (a Mayan language from Mexico)

    So they’re at least aware of the WEIRDO issue, and appear to have made a pretty decent effort to sample widely, at least for a first pass at the idea.

  8. My kids should read this article. They never wait the appropriate 200 milliseconds before interrupting someone who hasn’t finished their turn speaking.

  9. I’m with the Navaho. I have long and long thought that people don’t really listen, they are merely interested in belching out their own thoughts. But then, oneupmanship is a factor in many male conversations.
    My comprehension and response times are so slow that I’m usually just an audience.
    Women with multitasking minds create such an overlapping gabble that I usually have trouble following a conversation in English. Recently in Tenerife I had the pleasure of being an audience to a crowd of women and young girls who spoke so fast I couldn’t comprehend anything, but the ensemble of voices was like a chorus of birds singing.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Ed Yong reports

    Oh – reported half a year ago.

  11. Or 1.5 x 10^10 ms.

    EDIT: Apparently, regular HTML superscripts don’t work, which is not too surprising, really. I remember pointing out years ago on Language Log that the New York Times’ Web site did not render superscipts, leading to it rendering 10^500 as “10500” (an estimate of the number of four-dimensional compactification vacua in superstring theory, if anyone’s interested).

  12. Yes, you need to use the Unicode plain-text superscript digits to write 10⁵⁰⁰ correctly.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Probably takes a good many of those there milliseconds just to process and assemble your wonderful Navajo polysynthetic response. “Like tiny Imagist poems” as Sapir says somewhere. Though that may have been Algonquian, come to think of it. Same principle …

    (“Navajo: A verb-centred language in which all the verbs are irregular.”)

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not sure how hard the polysynthesis really is when you’re used to it. It reminds me of several features found in Europe: the rudimentary polysynthesis found in French or southern German, the tense/aspect system of English, the verb prefixes of German or, better yet, Slavic where they’re often stacked (v-s-pro-…) – just all at once, all in the same language, and then some (like the animacy hierarchy). I don’t know how much harder that is in an objective sense than, say, the intricacies of English word order rules, or German word order rules for which word order signifies which precise shade of emphasis.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    With Navajo, I think it’s not so much the poly as the synthesis that makes thinks difficult. Certainly for foreign learners, and presumably there’s a corresponding processing load even if you’re a mother-tongue speaker.

    Admittedly the tendency with polysynthetic languages is toward more lego-like agglutination than in Athapaskan. The human mind cannot bear too much complexity …

  16. Athapascan is proof that humanity can handle far more complicated languages than most of it ever actually has to.

  17. January First-of-May says:

    Admittedly the tendency with polysynthetic languages is toward more lego-like agglutination than in Athapaskan. The human mind cannot bear too much complexity …

    Vladimir Plungyan’s Почему языки такие разные (literally “Why are the languages so different”) – a book I’ve previously discussed in an unrelated thread on Belarussian – mentions that polysynthetic languages are not as simple as “sentence put together in a word”, and that the polysynthetic equivalent to Russian мыли бы вы руки (this means something like “you should wash your hands”, and is apparently not actually mentioned in the text in Russian form) is not the simple вырукомылибы but something structured more like бывылирукомы.
    I think this referred to Eskimo-Aleut, not to Athapaskan, but apparently different editions have a different referent here (which is to say, the speaker of the latter polysynthetic phrase is variously described as эскимос “an Eskimo”, which is the version I recall, or индеец “an [American] Indian”).

  18. I get the impression that there are two main types of languages called polysynthetic, and they are not really the same:

    Eskimo-Aleut is agglutination taken to an extreme, potentially tacking on morphemes at the end of a word endlessly, but it can stop any time it wants to with an appropriate noun or verb ending (and most morphemes have independent citation forms with just an ending). Morphophonemic irregularities rarely extend over more than one morpheme boundary. Like Turkish, but more so.

    Athapaskan on the other hand has one or a few word templates with a finite number of slots, some mandatory, some not. But suppletion and sound laws can potentially have any slot acting on any other, and some morphemes can only occur bound and in certain slots. Like modern French ‘core verb phrases’, but more so.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    On top of this, polysynthesis is apparently always lumped with noun incorporation in popular descriptions. On the one hand, noun incorporation is pervasive in Eskimo-Aleut and Siouan, but not at all in Athabaskan, where nouns tend to stand around isolated like rocks in the sea. On the other, you can have some amount of noun incorporation in languages that aren’t polysynthetic: German is going in that direction by reinterpreting ‘object + infinite verb form’ as ‘verb that only has infinite forms’.

    Standard:
    ich habe mir schon die Haare gewaschen “I’ve already washed my hair”
    ich wasche mir gerade die Haare “I’m washing my hair”

    What I actually say (spelled by Standard means):
    ich habe schon haaregewaschen
    ich tue gerade haarewaschen (note the workaround – normal conjugation is ungrammatical)

  20. John Cowan says:

    Perhaps if this trend continues German will become a do-support language.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    Some definitions of “polysynthesis” (notably Mark Baker’s, which was influentual at one point because it goes a bundle on the Principles and Parameters thing which was at that time mistaken for transcendental Chomskyan Truth) dictate that noun incorporation is a necessary component of polysynthesis, properly so called. In the real world of actual language, matters are (happily) much more complicated. Most languages which have lots of morphemes per word don’t actually do noun incorporation particularly at all (Yimas, Navajo … though some Athapaskan languages, like Slave, do); the Eskimo languages do or don’t rather depending on how you define noun incorporation: you could regard them as just having lots of stackable derivational suffixes to turn nouns into verbs and vice versa at will, rather than “real” noun incorporation, and some people do. At the other extreme, Tongan, nobody’s first nominee for polysynthesis, has perfectly cromulent noun incorporation.

    Fusion – how far morpheme boundaries remain easily identifiable – is a whole other axis, in principle, although languages with lots of morphemes per word tend to go for the easy segmentation route just so our poor monkey brains can cope with all the processing. Some people deny that a case like Tongan is “noun incorporation” at all, and call it things like “noun stripping” instead, but that’s just Fusionist bigotry.

  22. “Pseudo-incorporation” has been used by Massam for Niuean, which is close to Tongan. Recent work by Bickel, Tallman and others has shown how fuzzy the concept of ‘words’ is, and perhaps all these varieties of incorporation will be put together into one happy spectrum.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Perhaps if this trend continues German will become a do-support language.

    For some people it has (part of the time, without known regularities). This is heavily deprecated, and mocked by the saying “tun tut man nicht” (“‘doing’ isn’t the done thing”, “it’s rude to ‘do'”). That, in turn, is mocked by the saying “tun tut man nicht tun”, with self-referential do-support (the finite tut is replaced by tut … tun).

    Word-order shenanigans can enforce the same effect. Consider the banal truth that man muss aufs Klo, “one has to use the toilet (rather than walking into Mordor)”, and turn it into a contrastive topic-and-comment sentence by putting the verb in the first position. But this is a simple declarative sentence, so there has to be a finite verb in the second position. The way to do both at once is the same that’s used to ask yes/no-questions in English: extract the infinitive of the verb, put it in the first position, and host the disembodied inflection on “do”. Voilà, philosophy: Müssen tut man aufs Klo – “the only real obligation is that you have to use the toilet; everything else is really optional, including death and taxes”.

  24. I have encountered do-support occasionally in colloquial German, and it sounds (or looks) just horrible to me. I don’t know whether or not my visceral reaction against it is stronger than that of most German speakers, but it feels to me like an extremely ugly imposition of English grammar onto German.

  25. PlasticPaddy says:

    @brett
    This is quite old in German, e.g.,
    Du sehr verachter Baurenstand,
    bist doch der beste in dem Land.
    Kein Mann dich gnugsam preisen kann,
    wenn er dich nur recht siehet an.
    Du bist du billig hoch zu ehrn,
    weil du uns alle tust ernehrn.
    Natur, die liebt dich selber auch,
    Gott segnet deinen Baurenbrauch!

    Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen
    from Simplicius simplicissimus, Kapitel 3

  26. Voilà, philosophy: Müssen tut man aufs Klo
    An alternative option without do-support is repeating the auxiliary – Müssen muss man aufs Klo.
    When I was in elementary school, eradicating do-support was one of the tasks of the teachers. A mocking saying I remember from that time was tuten tut die Feuerwehr “(only) the fire brigade does toot”.
    I agree with Paddy – do-support in German doesn’t have anything to do with English influence, but is an old feature of the colloquial language that just happens to be deprecated in the standard.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    This is quite old in German

    John McWhorter can explain it all. It’s due to substratum effects from mediaeval Brythonic speakers in Germany.

  28. Lars Mathiesen says:

    FWIW, I can report that tun-support has not spread across the Eider. Possibly because we lost the word somewhere. (Last seen on assorted fibulae and the Gallehus horns).

  29. @DE: if one wants to blame the Celts, on some maps I’ve seen all of Germany south of what is now Schleswig-Holstein is supposed to have been Celtic before the expansion of the Germanic people started. That would also explain why the Danes don’t do do-support – no Celtic substrate. But IIRC, there is no evidence for do-support being a feature of Celtic as a family.
    @Lars: you Danes ought to be more careful. You lose words, you lose your consonants, at the end you’ll be left without any language at all 🙂

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    Do-support is, of course, a prominent feature of later Egyptian. Those Brythonic substrates turn up everywhere, once you know what to look for.

  31. Lars Mathiesen says:

    We are on a quest to prove that one vowel is enough, and no consonants. The mere fact of speaking will imply all that is needed.

    Also Nynorsk seems to have but with quite different meaning.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    The mere fact of speaking will imply all that is needed.

    Ūber-Gricean Ūbermenschen!

  33. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Just Übermenschen, please. We’re a modest people.

  34. Also Nynorsk seems to have tæ but with quite different meaning.
    I overlooked that – with their initial [t], Norwegian and Gallehus tawido must be a different verb than do / tun.

  35. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Ah, right. It’s MHG zouwen, E taw. And Danish still has tov = ‘rope’ to the root. I always though tawido was the do-verb, for so long that I don’t know if I read it somewhere or jumped to the conclusion on my own.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Do is good old Indo-European *dʰeh₁- “put”, as in thesis, and indeed it can still mean “put” with appropriate prefixes in German. And somehow it was lost without a known trace in North and East Germanic.

    It’s due to substratum effects from mediaeval Brythonic speakers in Germany.

    German – the Higher, the merrier – does have a few Celticisms scattered across its vocabulary and grammar, and I suspect more remain to be found.

    An alternative option without do-support is repeating the auxiliary – Müssen muss man aufs Klo.

    Huh. Completely ungrammatical where I come from.

    tuten tut die Feuerwehr

    Oh yeah.

  37. indeed it can still mean “put” with appropriate prefixes in German.
    Or with any indication of place; tu das auf den Tisch “put that on the table” is perfectly cromulent, if colloquial, at least in Northern Germany.

  38. Stu Clayton says:

    Tu das weg ! Tu mir bitte Feuer ! Tu mir den Gefallen ! Tu nicht so !

    Tu of those four sentences are pretty much colloquial-only. Your Verbrauch may abweichen.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Or with any indication of place

    Yes. And Stu’s examples are perfectly cromulent as well, except I hadn’t encountered tu mir Feuer.

  40. @Stu: jemandem einen Gefallen tun is also quite normal in the written Standard; of course, one can always be more pretentious and use erweisen.

  41. Stu Clayton says:

    The imperative form “tu mir den Gefallen!”, used sometimes in a tone of mild exasperation (“do me the favor ok?”), is heard around here.

    Only yesterday a harmless old guy who suns his Zimmer frame in the dog park said to me “tu mir bitte Feuer!” He’s never addressed me before. I was wandering with Sparky in a cloud of Advanced Thinking, so I had to switch mental gear fast and responded graciously with “evve klar doch!”

  42. 🙂

  43. I take it “evve” = aber?

  44. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hat, stu
    I thought evve is “eben” with a meaning of “now” (like “even kijken” in Dutch). Do people from Köln say awwer for aber or is that somewhere else?

  45. The word Stu uses is the equivalent of Standard aber “but”. Its usual spelling (e.g. in transcripts of Carnival songs and skits) is ävver. The “r” is not normally pronounced, as you can hear in this song (if you don’t want to listen to all that sentimentality, skip to 1:11).

  46. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s true, now I think about it: ävve indicates the pronunciation more accurately. I just don’t pay that much attention to the exact niceties of vowels, postulated ferris wheels etc when people speak. Neither when I hear them nor (as a consequence) when I try to indicate them in writing.

    On the contrary, I try to hear past all that phenomenal doo-doo so as to understand what they’re saying. As Lars wrote, it should suffice that people speak at all.

    I do still have a mild interest in improving my vowels etc, despite the letdown from those two accent coach ladies. If I succeed, it will be by imitation and practice. Analysis be damned, I’ve got too many other things on my mind which I am paid to analyze.

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