Fluid Speech.

I don’t normally repost stuff from Language Log, but this xkcd is so good I can’t resist. Mark Liberman’s commentary is also important enough to share:

Unfortunately, a plurality of linguists (and the vast majority of psycholinguists) share (at least in their published work) the false belief that an accurate understanding of speech production and perception can be found by using recordings of subjects reading lists of de-contextualized sentences in a laboratory setting. (Though even there, speakers venture far from dictionary pronunciation fields…) Sociolinguists have of course championed the idea that you need to learn from patterns across a variety of speech styles and genres, including especially informal conversation — but the penetration of that idea across sub-disciplines has been surprisingly weak.

And the comments are worth reading; I particularly liked Bob H’s:

A few years ago I was on the line at an ice-cream stand behind an Italian tourist couple, who spoke English fairly well. They placed their order and the vendor asked [zæˈɾɪʔ]. They were completely stumped.

(The vendor was saying “Is that it?”)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    recordings of subjects reading lists of de-contextualized sentences

    Reading even of connected narratives results in unnatural speech, come to that.

    This is, unfortunately, a striking feature of the audio version of the Kusaal New Testament, not helped by the fact that few people have much practice reading Kusaal, and by the fact that Kusaal external sandhi is particularly complex. But the same applies to pretty much any language, to a considerable extent.

    That’s even before you start taking into account the grammatical gulf between even informal writing and natural spontaneous speech.

  2. My fave, always, is English [ɦ̀ɦ́ɦ] / [ɦ̌ɦ] / [ɦ˨˦˧] (according to analysis and taste), for ‘I don’t know’.

  3. On second thought, maybe the [ɦ] is inaccurate. Maybe [ǝ] is better? There’s no IPA symbol specifically for resting tongue position. [m͊] is too clever.

  4. I’d put a [ʔ] at the start
    (At least the way I say it)

  5. It’s not maybe about pronunciation, but something related.

    A friend of mine had a relative visiting from Ireland to California. They went out to a restaurant, and the visitor ordered a salad. The server said “French Thousand or Ranch?”

    Now these are all clearly English words. There is not any doubt about what they are. But the question of why the server would choose to utter this particular sequence of words is what stumped the visitor.

    There’s a certain cultural context surrounding what you say in a particular situation that can be missing when you learn a language. I think that was what the problem with the ice cream stand example. I can see congratulating myself having successfully ordered an ice cream cone in French and then being floored by some offhand comment the ice cream vendor makes. I’m sure “do you want sprinkles?” in French would throw me for a loop, if that’s something they do there.

    I got pulled over by the police driving in France and we had a nice conversation before I realized what they were trying to say to my wife was “That is not the proper way to wear a seatbelt”. Thanks to my flights on Air Canada listening to “bouclez vos ceintures”, I finally caught on.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    why the server would choose to utter this particular sequence of words is what stumped the visitor.

    This was my experience communicating in English when I first arrived in Ghana.

    For about the first month, I had difficulty with the accent. After that, I could work out all the actual words, but often had no idea why anyone would actually say those words in that context at all. (Some of this only became clear when I began learning Kusaal.)

  7. The server said “French Thousand or Ranch?”

    Or did they say “French, Thousand or Ranch?” IOW did it sound like a list of options, as you’d expect in context of ordering — even if you didn’t catch each option cleanly?

    I remember stopping for essence motoring in rural France (somewhere in the Cévennes/following Travels with a Donkey), and offering my (Brit) credit card. “Cést en panne.” (I won’t attempt to transcribe the phonetics: there were a lot of nasals, ending in a typical Languedoc ‘-aŋ-ǝ’)

    I intuited something was wrong. But (mis-)guessed more likely the pump wasn’t working. But then why had she unshipped the nozzle?

    a) This wasn’t a phrase they’d taught me in school.
    b) French rural credit card machines spend most of their time “en Panne”.
    c) Brit tourists rarely carry enough cash to fill up.
    d) House rules: no essence until cash sighted.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    What did you do? Hand them your passport or your wive’s wedding ring, let them fill you up and then retrieve the item with the cash after driving to the bank?

  9. It was a long way to any bank — but then it was a long way to anywhere else likely to have essence. We compromised on just enough essence for all the cash we could scrape together. Then the same rigmarole when we got to the night’s Pension — they didn’t even pretend to take credit cards. Luckily the town just about had a bank.

    This was ~40 years ago; long before the Euro.

  10. A recent difficulty, not restricted to foreigners, is recognising when the retail assistant is asking “Do you have [name of company’s app]?”

  11. The server said “French Thousand or Ranch?”

    No Island? Is such a shortened name common with the kids now-a-days?

  12. David Marjanović says

    There’s no IPA symbol specifically for resting tongue position.


  13. Ah, that’s easy. I have no idea what “is that it?” means. The ice-cream seller is asking if two pronouns (one of them can be translated with either of Russian demonstratives, the other with a demonstrative or third person) refer top the same concept. Why would she do that?

    That’s because I only read and write English and also talk in it to L2 users.

    At least I know why it does not sound as “is that it”. I saw English films.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I have no idea what “is that it?” means

    It means “Do you want anything else?”

    However, if you’re Bob Geldof, it means “I find that Timbuktu does not measure up to my Western fantasies of what it should be like.” This a matter of dialect.

  15. It means “Do you want anything else?”

    Or, more literally, “Is that everything [you want]?” If someone asks “Did you want anything else?” you can respond “No, that’s it.”

  16. An offshoot of OED, P.2.c. that’s it:

    There is no more to it than that; the matter is settled, the job is done.

    1966 We just sat about..doing half-witted things. You only had to find a weak teacher and that was it.
    P. Willmott, Adolescent Boys of East London v. 92

    1968 Really I think the Brummie likes to stay at home. And work. And shop in Birmingham. Holiday in Majorca—and that’s it.
    Listener 31 October 574/3

    1972 To put it briefly, parents are parents and that’s it.
    Observer 13 February (Colour Supplement) 18/1

    2010 That’s it, then. It’s over.
    Observer 3 January (Magazine) 5/1

    Odd that all the cites are UK.

  17. “You need to learn from patterns across a variety of speech styles and genres” sounds obvious but doesn’t get implemented much in real-life language learning. Or it’s just me not paying attention.

    I can’t find the source for this claim but Raymond Queneau was supposedly influenced by a French linguist who insisted (in the 1930s and/or 1920s) that, say, les arbres should be properly parsed lé zarbr. Thence Queneau’s Neo-French project.

  18. [ə̰̃]?

    It’s modal (not creaky), and not nasalized (unless you use an [m]). ǝ as I use it is a central vowel, which is not the same as articulatorily neutral. mine is lower than [ǝ], maybe [ɜ]? It depends on the speaker, I suppose.

  19. @DE, but Timbuktu is a very western city! Of course Takrur is even westerner as we have already determined (cf. “Takruni—applied to indigent Westerner pilgrims”) but it is more than two and a half hours westerner than Moscow (and almost three from Mecca), the oriental city where girls whose looks are full of curiousity wear colourful sarafans.

  20. “sarafans” – and drink tea from samovars. Meanwhiel Westerners (in Morocco) use them (samovars made of gold or silver) as dowry*. That’s the most obvious difference between us and them.
    *I’m not kidding, there is such a (Western:)) tradition.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Accra is almost bang on the Greenwich meridian. Indeed, West Africa as a whole extends less far to the east than Italy does.

    Actually, it tends to be latitude that does my head in. The UK is on much the same latitude as Hudson’s Bay, for example … and while I know that India is entirely in the northern hemisphere, on some level, I still can’t quite believe it …

    It’s modal (not creaky)

    Creaky for those of us who sound like James Bond. (The name’s Eddyshaw. David Eddyshaw.)

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s it

    Not to be confused with “That’s that.”

    [How is it that there are people who don’t subscribe to Construction Grammar?]

  23. I know that India is entirely in the northern hemisphere, …

    What fixed my mental co-ordinates was flying to Singapore in the days planes couldn’t reach direct from Britain. We refueled in the Gulf, flew right across India, and _still_ it was a bloody long way to Singapore; and yet had barely reached the Equator.

    The UK is on much the same latitude as Hudson’s Bay,

    Ah, but Gulf Stream. And in general the Eastern seaboard of a continent (say, Sea of Okhotsk also same latitude) is much colder than the Western at that latitude. The UK’s weather comes mostly from the Caribbean.

    A consensus exists that the climate of Northwest Europe is warmer than other areas of similar latitude at least partially because of the strong North Atlantic Current.[1][2][3] It is part of the North Atlantic Gyre. Its presence has led to the development of strong cyclones of all types, both within the atmosphere and within the ocean.

    Perth same latitude as Sydney. But the effect isn’t so marked in the Southern Hemisphere on account of the lack of continents/the Southern Ocean gyres unimpeded.

  24. Not to be confused with “That’s that.”

    Nor with IT’S IT (speaking of ice-cream vendors), or That’s It. Both San Francisco signifiers.

  25. Curt Ford says

    Worth noting that the example in this XKCD is (for me, at least) restricted to when “going to” expresses a future event (“I’m going to do it later”). When talking about literally going someplace, I’m more likely to reduce “going to” to something like [goɪndǝ] or [gondǝ]. There are more posts on this and related pronuncations of “going to” at the Language Log site.

    Richard Cauldwell has published books on teaching English with a focus on how things are actually pronounced in the stream of speech (https://www.speechinaction.org/), something I think deserves more attention in most language teaching. I remember my distress at realizing Russian кто-нибудь [kto-n’ibut’] can reduce to [kto-n’it’], какой-то [kakoj-tǝ] can become [koj-tǝ], etc.

  26. MMcM: I think the server who said “French Thousand or Ranch?” was probably using kitchen language without thinking about it. For that matter, it’s quite possible that they’d never encountered a variety of salad dressings before going to work there.

  27. It’s not super common, but I have certainly been asked by servers things like: “Italian, Bleu, Ranch, or Honey Mustard?” It doesn’t seem like something somebody with experience ordering salads in American restaurants could be confused by. That is not to say that there was not a certain amount of nerdview in posing the question that way, more like how a server they might call an order in the kitchen than how a customer would place the order. In a similar vein, I remember, why I was about twenty, ordering the house surf and turf at a restaurant in Estes Park, and the waitress said, “We’re eighty-six on that.” I was bewildered, not because I was unfamiliar with “86” to mark something the restaurant was out of, but because it seemed like totally the wrong thing to say to a customer.

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