Monday, December 19, 2011

I don't think it's linguists' fault.

Whenever media coverage of a linguistic phenomenon goes as far off the rails as the recent vocal fry fiasco, linguists blame themselves. To quote some commentary that Doug Bigham posted to Facebook:
It's not the journalists' fault; it's ours. We've failed miserably at public outreach because the "leaders of our field" don't believe the public will ever understand what we do and don't care to try and explain it at a level people will understand. [...] The culture of irrelevance we've created for ourselves can't be dismissed with a hand wave...
That's some tough love, but I'm inclined to disagree. Perhaps linguists, like all academics, have some isolationist tendencies. Doug himself had a lot of trouble drumming up contributions to the Popular Linguistics Magazine. But I think a more severe problem is that linguists' point of view is actively unwanted.

To flesh out what I mean, I think it's worth speculating about why this particular piece of research on vocal fry captured the collective media imagination. The research itself was very modest in its scope, and there is a vast universe of research out there that media outlets could have chosen to report on. Putting aside the academic press, you could fill hours of television with just the postings to Science Now, where the vocal fry piece first got some play. So why did this particular piece of research get reported on TV, and all over the internet?

The answer lies, I think, in the supposed culprits: young women. This is a very simple case of language shaming. The Today Show clip described vocal fry as "animal-like," and buffered the piece with iconic images of female frivolity: shopping, gossiping, talking about boys, and watching Sex and the City. The original MSNBC blog post was updated with the "best comment so far" from Facebook, which said
"These girls sound like a bunch of neurotic dolphins who do not make sense."
"Brilliant," says the MSNBC blogger, "can you top that?" Vocal fry has thus been successfully framed as a negative behavior.

Why is vocal fry framed so negatively? Well, it's almost a tautology to say that young women do something, and it is undesirable. Vocal fry is an especially striking case. Before all of this media coverage, no one, except people who work on speech, even knew what it was, or commented on it. Once it was defined and explained, and associated with young women, suddenly it fit snugly into a classic declinism frame, and a linguistic inferiority of women frame.

The supposed motives of young women for doing vocal fry are also a key element in the media coverage. They want to 1) emulate pop artists and 2) fit in with their friends. That is, they are shallow, frivolous, and thoughtless. Really, the tone of the story is only a slightly refined version of this or this.

Perhaps the coverage of vocal fry could be understood as being part of a larger trend of policing the behavior of women. In a lot of ways (dietarily, sexually, physically, professionally, etc.), there is a razor thin range of acceptability for young women, which now apparently includes their pitch contours. If you end your utterances with a final pitch rise, you're doing uptalk (a.k.a. ending all your sentences with question marks), and if you end them with falling pitches, you're doing vocal fry.

So where does the work of a linguist fit in here? Could we have provided higher quality research and better facts, in an equally digestible manner? Probably, but I submit that media interest in vocal fry has nothing to do with facts, or the quality of the research. The commentary of a linguist would not add grist to the mill of female inferiority, and would therefore just be ignored. In fact, that's exactly what happened with Janet Pierrehumbert's contribution to the Today Show story. What she said was completely lucid, and contained no technical mumbo jumbo, but the point of the coverage was not to educate, but to shame.

The problem is that most people want to be able to use language as a device to separate the inferior from the superior. This kind of desire surfaces in almost every conversation I have about language with a non-expert. It becomes amplified in the media, and it operates at all levels of the social hierarchy. There is the denigration of people who speak non-standard Englishes. Then, there is the denigration of women's and youth's speech. At the higher levels of the cultural elite, self-worth can be determined by your choice of octopuses, octopi, octopodes, or by whether you agree that by saying "A whole wheat bagel, please," you should not have to be asked to specify that you don't want cream cheese.

This is the kind of social work that people want to use language for, and it is a frustrating cultural juggernaut to be at cross purposes with. And that is exactly why, in my opinion, most linguistic research does not gain traction in popular discourse. Before we can get to the interesting stuff, we first have to turn everyone's moral universe upside down.

And that kind of task requires something more than just scientists being open to popularizing their research. We really have to be more agressive in a way that other sciences don't have to be. Really, it's necessary to be politicized, and I can fully understand that step being a difficult one to take for a researcher.

I see this tension being the biggest roadblock to developing larger social relevance for linguistics. Are we scientists, or are we politicians? Can we be both, effectively?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Vocal Fry

"Vocal fry" has been a trending topic for about a week now. It began with a Science Now post that starts out ominously
A curious vocal pattern has crept into the speech of young adult women who speak American English...
And then, it exploded. I've seen it posted all over the web, and have largely tried to ignore it. For me, when it comes to reading pieces like these, ignorance is bliss.

But then, Lauren Hall-Lew shared an MSNBC blog post on the topic, entitled "More college women speak in creaks, thanks to pop stars." If I were religious, this would call for the serenity prayer. The post comes along with video from the Today Show, with Matt Lauer discussing the phenomenon.

What is wrong with this video is everything. There is a brief snippet where they interview a real linguist (Janet Pierrehumbert) who says (I paraphrase) "This isn't a new phenomenon, and it's not caused by pop-stars" (see also, the related Language Log post). But see how much air time that gets! The whole premise of the piece is wrong, and she says so, and they power right along like it's irrelevant. If you were to, say, introduce a political figure on air with the incorrect party or state affiliation, you'd have to apologize on air moments later. If you report that the jury found a defendant guilty when they were actually acquitted, you'd be ripped to shreds. You state a bunch of garbage about language, and an expert tells you you've got it all wrong, oh, whatever, it's more fun this way. On this topic, and most others about language, the media coverage is of the same journalistic quality as "Dewey Defeats Truman."

What do I know about vocal fry?

Frankly, I'm not much of an expert on voice quality or register. I'm especially not too familiar with sociolinguistic work on voice quality, and that kind of knowledge seems to be necessary to evaluate the claims of this story.

However, I have had quite a bit of experience dealing with vocal fry. Vowels and their acoustics are my thing, if you didn't know, and a vowel pronounced with vocal fry can be difficult to measure. I've looked at a lot of vowels, which means I've seen a lot of vocal fry, and have my own impressions about where it occurs. Basically, it happens most often when a speaker's pitch drops, like at a phrase boundary, or sometimes when a voiceless consonant follows the vowel.

I'd agree that there is something more than simple mechanics of articulation going on with the use of vocal fry. There is definitely a stylistic component. I'd also agree, impressionistically, that women tend to do a bit more vocal fry than men, or at least it's more noticeable when they do.

But vocal fry is by no means an exclusively female quality. Arguing from anecdotes is poor form, but here is an example of a relatively high profile male doing a lot of vocal fry.

I read the paper.

When watching science reporting like this, there's always the possibility that the researchers' work is being misconstrued, either by the media outlet, or by their institution's press office. So, I made good use of my institutional access to academic journals, and read the original paper (even livetweeted the process) by Wolk, Abdelli-Beruh & Slavin (2011), which was published in the Journal of Voice. Here are the claims that rubbed me so wrong about the Today Show clip.
  • Use of vocal fry is a new phenomenon.
  • Vocal fry is exclusively a female phenomenon.
  • Vocal fry is created and spread by figures in popular media (e.g. Ke$ha, Kim Kardashian).
I read the original paper with the aim of determining whether
  • there is evidence in the paper supporting these claims,
  • the researchers themselves made these claims.
Wolk et al. recorded 34 women between the ages of 18 and 25, both producing a sustained vowel sound, and reading a short passage. Then, three carefully selected sentences from the reading passage were evaluated by trained speech pathologists for whether the speaker was using vocal fry. About 2/3 of the speakers were judged to use vocal fry. They also did some acoustic analysis of the vocal fry.

That is all the evidence that Wolk et al. collected, analyzed, and presented. Needless to say, it provides no support for any of the three points. On the first, they only analyzed one age group, so there is no way to tell if young people do it more or less than older people. Their discussion of background literature actually cites a number of papers from the mid 60s which argue that vocal fry is part of normal speech. So much for it being a new phenomenon. In the discussion, the authors don't outright claim that vocal fry is a new phenomenon, but they do frame the interesting research question as figuring out how much college students do it. They deserve a pass on this point, I think, but they should perhaps consider reframing their research questions as pertaining to a larger cultural pattern.

On vocal fry as an exclusively female phenomenon, I think the structure of this study presupposes that outcome, rather than investigating it. Why study only female college students if you didn't already think that only women did vocal fry? Part of the answer to that seems to be that male subjects are hard to come by for speech pathologists. Wolk et al. cite a previous study of vocal fry that looked at first year speech pathology graduate students. The sample turned out to be 94% female. Abdelli-Beruh, the second author, told the Today Show reporter that 99% of her students are female. Regardless, without a male sample, it's really impossible to draw any hard conclusions about the gender difference. At any rate, Wolk et al. don't outright say that "men don't do it," so I'll give them a pass there.

Now, for the worst part: the all important influence of popular media figures. There is less than zero evidence presented by Wolk et al. for causal influence of any variety. In fact, they cannot even claim that the patterns they found are primarily social rather than being primarily anatomical, or automatic. However, on page 4, they say
It is possible that these college students have either practiced or observed this vocal register and modeled it to match popular figures.
They said it. On the basis of zero evidence, they went ahead and said it. This is not a case of the big bad media twisting an earnest researcher's words. These researchers went ahead and speculated in an unsubstantiated and, I think, irresponsible manner. Claims require evidence, and on this point, they have none.

Vocal Hygiene

This paper also introduced me to a new range of concepts: "vocal abuse," "vocal misuse", "vocal hygiene." I have to admit, this was all news to me. They sound vaguely familiar as something a professional singer or actor worries about.

But in this paper, there was some speculation that the common use of vocal fry might be detrimental to these speakers' vocal health. This aspect was picked up on in the Limericks section of NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
That low crack when I sing is my choice,
but my E.N.T. (Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist) doesn't rejoice.
I end phrases real low,
where my cords shouldn't go.
I'm so cool that I'm hurting my voice.
I'm not a speech pathologist, but I'd be surprised that even speakers who use vocal fry at a high rate could do so to an extent that injures them. Wolk et al. actually don't report how often their speakers used vocal fry, just now many used vocal fry at all (one time out of three sentences). But let's go extreme and say some speakers do it once per sentence with a falling final pitch. This would exclude questions, for instance, or sentences produced with a final rise for some other reason, like uptalk (women just can't win, can they?). That's still not a lot.

I mean, there are languages out there with contrastive creaky voice. That means that in order to say the word you intend to, you have to use vocal fry.

Stay tuned for next time, where I will talk more about the media's coverage, and why I don't think train wrecks like this one are linguists' fault, which I think is a controversial position among linguists.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ignorant Slobs!

Following up on my plurality post, Jon Stevens showed me this video done by Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. Based on the comments, it looks like it's gone a little bit viral.

What is so striking to me is the fictional dialogue she presents at the beginning.
So let's say you're swimming in the ocean, and you see some eight legged cephalopods. You say to your friend, "Hey! I saw a group of octopuses." And your friend says, "Hey! You're an ignorant slob! You saw a group of octopi."
I'm sure that Kory Stamper herself doesn't believe that a person's moral fiber is assayable from how they speak. Instead, I think she is simply, and accurately, representing the attitude of a great many people who some us have to deal with quite regularly.

And, I think that the trigger of the "ignorant slob" judgment here is very telling. We're not talking about a non-standard dialect which may, for instance, employ negative concord (a.k.a. double negatives), or feature different verb agreement patterns. Those people are too far gone to even begin engaging with. We're not even talking about misguided prescriptive proclamations, like "don't end a sentence with a preposition," or "don't use the passive voice." That's high school English class material, unworthy of debate.

No, we are talking about the plural form of octopus.
You are unworthy.
Only performance on a task as esoteric and irrelevant to every day life as forming the plural of octopus is adequate to separate the elect from the damned. Woe unto you who accepts the heresy of octopi. You must accept the Truth of octopodes into your heart if you don't want to sound like a fucking idiot.

On a related note, no matter what their origins were, I suspect prescriptive proclamations like "don't end a sentence in a preposition" and "don't use the passive voice" only continue to be considered virtuous because they are nearly impossible to adhere to. (Hey! A twofer!)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Adventures in Plurality

Update: December 8, 2011
I'm going to use this post as a running list of examples of over-latinate plurals.

Almost everyone is familiar with the uncertainty surrounding the plural words like platypus, octopus, and syllabus. They look kind of Latin, and a lot of high profile words with this kind of shape form their ending by changing the last syllable to "i" (alumni, foci, fungi). But in these uncertain cases, prescriptivists tell us we are hypercorrecting, and engaging in pseudo-Latin.

But, I'm not so sure if this is simply a case where people are well educated enough to know the -us → -i, rule, but not enough to know a Greek word when they see it. For instance, I've seen it overapplied to words which aren't even spelled -us. At 1:10 in this video, John Stewart says
"We cannot allow ourselves, to get complacent, for the face of tyranny has many... orifi."

Ok, clearly this was done for comedic effect, but I think it's only funny because we recognize "orifi" as well formed, but prescriptively incorrect.

Even stranger, I recently had an experience where I wasn't quite sure how to form the plural of danish (as in pastry). I was telling a dinner party that I wasn't very hungry because I'd eaten a few at a coffee shop earlier. I said "I had a few..." and paused, because the first thing that came to my mind was "dani".  Even stranger, my sister, who had seen me eat the offending pastries, offered "Dani?" And we are not alone! check out this Yahoo! Question.
Whats the plural for danish? Like if you have two danish(es?) is it dani? Or just danishes?
So for some people, the semi-productive latinate plural rule doesn't care if it's dealing with s or sh.

In some ways, it makes total sense. I'd argue that the the sequence [ɨsɨs] isn't the greatest one in the world. Once you've got a rule which would let you avoid it, why not use that all the time?

In a note related to irregular plurals, I was once asked in a question period about what kind of "metrices" I use. This is way more interesting than it initially seems. "Oh, that's just analogy from matrix," you say, but it isn't quite. The singular form is just metric. The word doesn't have the appropriate shape to undergo the irregular pluralization until after you've already added the regular plural suffix! So you wind up with metricmetricsmetrices.

UPDATE: December 7, 2011
Hilary Prichard has pointed me to this (rather depressing) example from Donald Trump, discussing his plans on creating a version of the Apprentice for children
“We’re going to be picking 10 young wonderful children, and we’re going to make them apprenti,” Trump said. “We’re going to have a little fun with it.”

UPDATE: December 8, 2011
Jon Stevens pointed me to this segment of Anderson Cooper's show called the RidicuList (originally broadcast December 7, 2011). At 2:35, Cooper says
I did this story three different times six months ago on the RidicuList, and some of the video from the Colbert Report that-- Some of the video they used, came from the Third Eagle's video responses to my RidicuLists. I like to call them Ridiculi, but you get the point.

Disqus for Val Systems