Praat Tutorial

Since it’s already written, I might as well put it here for more people to use. For now it only covers how to draw nice spectrograms and do custom garnishing. More will probably be added over time.

No prior experience with Praat is needed, although I do assume that the reader has some very basic computer skills (e.g. installing/opening programs).

Get rev. 2 (based on Praat 5.1.29) at:

Whorf Still Haunting Cognitive Linguistics

It’s more than 50 years since Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed that the structure of the language we speak forms our world view — what is today known as linguistic determinism or strong linguistic relativism — and apparently some cognitive scientists are still strong proponents of that idea. The Wall Street Journal recently published a short paper by associate professor in psychology at Stanford University, Lera Boroditsky, claiming to have proven the Whorfian hypothesis (like so many others before her), and at the same time emphasizing why psychologists should always ally themselves with a linguist before putting forward such claims. (I can’t deal with all the ridiculous claims put forward in the article, so I’ve selected a few “highlights”.)

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

Well, yes — or no actually. It might as well be the language that reflects a skill acquired by necessity. There’s no evidence to support the claim that the skill is acquired as a result of how their language is structured. That would indicate that at some point — without any motivating factors — they just constructed a system of absolute spatial terms and afterwards found a use for it. If language structure dictates world view, then they could not have had that particular “world view” before constructing the system in the language. But why construct a linguistic system that you are not going to use? Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987) suggest that basic image-schemata are acquired way before any sort of language mastery, so without language where does this pre-linguistic cognition come from? Some sort of universally inate language structure common to all human beings? And are you sure you really want to be sleeping with Chomsky?

50 years ago we had no need for a specific word refering to the act of searching for something on the internet, but today we google stuff like there was no tomorrow — mind you, even if we don’t use the particular search engine that the verb is derived from. We, the language users, adapt the language to our needs, not the other way around.

[…] my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

Of the Pormpuraawans (pop.: 653), the Thaayorre mainly speak Kuuk Thaayorre (~150 speakers) or a dialect thereof, while the Mungkan speak a variety of Kugu or Wik languages. Looking up these languages on Ethnologue, it’s clear that most (if not all) of these languages are in serious decline and close to extinction. Another thing that immediately springs to mind is the fact that Ethnologue mentions nothing about any of these languages having a writing system. If speakers of English, Chinese, Hebrew, and what have you, think of time in relation to their respective writing-/reading-directions, where does that leave the Pormpuraawans? Well, they could think about time in relation to — dun-dun-duuuun! — time! As the day passes, the most prominent object in the sky, which is incidentally also the object that defines the starting and ending points of a day, moves from the east to the west. In the east-most position you have the beginning, in the west-most position you have the end. The acts of reading and writing are inherently ego-centric, but when you have never done either why would you chose it as the basis for your temporal cognition? That’s right. You wouldn’t! In any case it may be a simple case of cognitively utilizing the strategy most readily at hand, which in this case happens to be the reading-/writing-directions of languages priviledged enough to have such, and the movement of the sun for speakers of languages where the sun’s movement is psychologically more salient. This is not entirely unlike the triad experiment by Kay & Kempton (1984), in which they determined that if speakers had the option of relying on language in color discrimination tests, they would. They dubbed this the naming strategy. Paul Kay eventually teamed up with Terry Regier and others and published some great papers on how relying on language for cognitive categorization is a question about maximization and subconscious choice (Regier, Kay & Khetarpal, 2007). It does not prove anything about language determining world view. Again it might just as well be language reflecting cognition. And once a specific linguistic system is in place in a language it is not easily discarded.

English has gender-specific 3rd person pronouns, so when you use English you have to be aware of that fact. Finnish has no distinction of gender in the 3rd person pronouns, but that does not imply that speakers of Finnish are not able to cognitively distinguish male, female and neuter. Likewise, Danish has four 3rd person pronouns: male (“han”), female (“hende”), common gender (“den”) and neuter (“det”), but the common gender and neuter pronouns are never used about humans, so Danish “lacks” a gender neutral personal pronoun for humans. Some attempts have been made to create such a pronoun (e.g. Hans Arndt’s “høn”), but none have caught on. This could be interpreted as a failed attempt to use language to change the world view of the speakers, not because the speakers do not agree with the proposed world view, but because there is no linguistic need for such a construction. Should the need one day arise, the language users will find a way to satisfy that need and the language will change accordingly.

All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

No. Just no. I will never understand — nor respect — why people apparently choose to only read litterature/articles that support their view on the subject in question. There is litterally tonnes of articles that disprove these Whorfian “facts” that always seems to be presented without any solid supporting evidence; and almost always by psychologists eager to share their paradigm-shattering linguistic discovery with the world.

That being said, I am not trying to say that the structures of the languages we speak in no ways reflect our world views, I am merely saying that it goes both ways rather than just being a unidirectional highway to the human cognition. It may be time that someone came up with a theory of quantum linguistics, because this whole language <=> cognition debate reminds me a lot of Schrödinger’s Cat . . . or does it?

Bibliography and related articles

Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. (2010). Absolute spatial representations of time in an Aboriginal Australian community. Psychological Science (PDF; requires log-in)

Davidoff, J. (2004). Coloured Thinking. Psychologist 17 pp.570–72

Johnson, M. (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago Press

Kay, P. & Kempton, W. (1984). What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? American Anthropologist 86 pp.65–79

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press

Levinson, S., (1997). Language and Cognition: The Cognitive Consequences of Spatial Description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 7 pp.98–131.

Núñez, R.E. & Sweetser, E. (2005). Aymara, where the future is behind you: Convergent evidence from language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science (PDF)

Regier, T., Kay, P. & Khetarpal, N. (2007). Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space. PNAS 104 pp.1436–41 (PDF)

Roberson, D., Davidoff, J., Davies, I.R.L. & Shapiro, L.R. (2005). Color categories: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology 50 pp.378–411

Whorf, B., (1971). Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Real-time MRI of Vocal Performance

Thanks, Krishna Nayak, for sharing this video.

This video illustrates real-time MRI of vocal performance. It includes examples from a soprano and an emcee/beatboxer. This video was featured at the Sounds and Visions Session, of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) Scientific Sessions, May 2006, Seattle.

the diva and the emcee from Krishna Nayak on Vimeo.

Foredrag: Undervisning af ordblinde i Danmark

Anne Karina Steen fremlægger sit speciale i lingvistik 19. februar kl 13. på Aarhus Universitet i lokale 1412-229. Foredraget holdes på engelsk

Nedenfor står foredragsholderindens eget resume af specialet:

Fokus for specialet er undervisning af ordblinde i Danmark, fordi ordblindhed er et stort problem for individet og dets muligheder for at vælge uddannelse og karriere og for samfundet.
Ordblindhed er et voksende problem for samfundet, fordi personer med ordblindhed og læsevanskeligheder er en voksende gruppe grundet det faktum at man alle steder i samfundet mødes med øgede læsekrav for, at kunne følge med i udviklingen i samfundet. Derudover er ordblindhed en byrde for samfundet i og med, at mange ordblinde ofte ender på pension til deres store ærgrelse. Nogle skøn siger, at mellem 2-10% af befolkningen er ordblinde og det er tydeligt, at det er et problem, hvis 2-10% ikke kan bidrage til samfundet.

Derfor er afhjælpning af ordblindhed så vigtig, for at personer med ordblindhed kan bidrage til samfundet og føle, at der er brug for dem, hvilket vil resultere i en øget følelse af selvværd hos den enkelte. De primære undersøgelsesspørgsmål for specialet er: Hvordan underviser speciallærere og ordblindeundervisere? Hvilke undervisningsstrategier bruges på de forskellige uddannelsesniveauer? Og hvad er undervisernes kvalifikationer for at arbejde med personer med ordblindhed? For at besvare disse spørgsmål, sender jeg spørgeskemaer ud til ordblindeundervisere på forskellige uddannelsesniveauer, dvs. folkeskolelærere, gymnasielærere og undervisere på specialiserede højskoler og aftenskoleundervisere. Endvidere har det været nødvendigt at klassificere de undervisningstilgange, som de danske undervisere bruger, disse tilgange har jeg kategoriseret i tre overordnede tilgange, en lyderingstilgang, en holistisk tilgang og en alternativ tilgang, disse tilgange vil kort blive eksemplificeret ved de tre mest udbredte undervisningsstrategier, som bruges indenfor dansk og engelsk sproget undervisning af ordblinde.

Den teoretiske basis for at forstå ordblindhed kræver en forståelse af læseindlæringen hos normalt udviklede børn, til dette formål bruger jeg Coltheart & Harris’ fire faser teori til og en forståelse af læseprocessen hos normalt læsende voksne, hvilket forklares vha. dual-route modellen. Ud fra de spørgeskemaer jeg allerede har fået retur er det tydeligt, at de fleste ordblindeundervisere bruger mange forskellige undervisningsstrategier, som de forsøger at tilpasse til den enkelte elev. Dog lader det til at de færreste af disse undervisere holder sig stringent til én undervisningstilgang eller i det hele taget er bevidste om, hvilken tilgang de vælger.

Et førstehåndsindtryk af de indkomne svar angående lærernes kvalifikationer viser, at størstedelen af underviserne har været på flere kurser omkring læseindlæring og ordblindhed. Det er dog en mulighed, at disse data er upræcise af den grund, at mange, specielt folkeskolelærere, undlader at besvare spørgeskemaet, og at dem der gjorde, muligvis har været dem der har de bedste kvalifikationer og uddannelse indenfor undersøgelsens område. Dette er et problem, som kræver nærmere undersøgelse.

Ceiling Cat Maek Awl teh Stuffz

(Kitteh speek vershun iz bilow! / Kitteh Pidgin version below.)

Some of us have kept a keen eye on Kitteh Pidgin since its very beginning. (Well, at least 2 of us have.) Since Happy Cat asked, “I can has cheezburger?” a lot has happened. The language has gained popularity over the internet (and spawned LOLCode and lolSQL among other things) and now Kitteh Pidgin has its very own bible (original LOLCat Bible online) — even a preacher (see video below).

Does this mean that Kitteh Pidgin can soon claim status as a living, spoken language?

Sum ov uz has keen ai on teh kitteh speek sins it happen n wus liek “OHAI!”! (Srsly, leest 2 uv uz has!) Lot iz happen sinz Happy Cat wus liek, “I can has cheezburger?“. Awl’z liek “DO WANT KITTEH SPEEK!!11” on teh intarwebz (fer exampul LOLCode an lolSQL happen) an nao kitteh speek can has baibul (iz on intarwebs tu!) n preechur (let me show u him in videow abuv)!

Kitteh speek nao can has rekugnishun as reel speek? Kthxbai!

A diplomatic bridge between universalism and relativism

Currently there’s a conference called Language in Cognition – Cognition in Language going on here in Århus and I had the privilege to hear Paul Kay and Terry Regier speak about the laterelization of categorical perception. In itself a topic that has had my interest for a couple of years now, but the talk Kay and Regier gave was nothing but amazing. I was, at more than one point, tempted to jump up and yell “woohoo!” and start dancing a little happy celebratory dance.

The main point was, of course, about categorical perception, but the talk also delivered a very diplomatic and compelling point about the whole universalist/relativist discussion, that’s been going on ever since the 1950’s or so, namely that both may co-exist – even peacefully – and be perfectly compatible. In itself not a new idea, but Regier’s points about optimal partitioning of the color space, which seems to be near-universal, and the possibility for language specific deviations were really exciting and they definitely support the claim that there’s no ultimate universal or relativist truth within the domain of categorical perception.

Kay’s points about lateralization of categorical perception seem to support my feeling on the subject, namely that if you ask people to categorize something, they’ll do it by the means readily available. So when language already has color categories set up, why not use them when asked to categorize colors? Kay’s data seems to support this idea, which I’m absolutely thrilled about, since until recently I’ve had close to nothing to back up my feeling, but since Mr. Color Categorization himself seems to be on my side, I haven’t got the slightest reason to worry.

Should you want to check out Kay and Regier’s claims, read:

  • Regier, T., Kay, P. & Khetarpal, N. (2007), Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space, PNAS 2007 104: 1436–1441 (PDF)
  • Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P. & Ivry, R.B. (2006), Whorf hypethesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left, PNAS 2006 103: 489–494 (PDF)