“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar…”

“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow”

Whenever people end a Facebook post – or a tweet – with “do your own research,” there’s a chance that they’ve done no such thing themselves. Or to be more specific, they’re unlikely to have gone through a set of procedures that are what folks who actually do research for a living would go through. There are hundreds of books out there that explain, in excruciating detail, what “research” is but I’d bet money on the probability that the number of folks who have read ONE book on the research process is significantly lower than the number of people who believe the world is secretly governed by lizard people [1], that aliens regularly visit the earth [2], and that if there is no evidence for X, that in itself is proof that X exists [3].

Research is essentially a tool used by scientists to test the veracity of hypotheses. Or in words of one syllable, a way to find out if what you think is true is, in fact, true. But let’s go down the rabbit hole a little more here and try to avoid the words “true” and “truth” because like “commonsense,” so many people claim to know what it is but often turn out to be as subjective in their thinking as everyone else. For many people, “truth” is simply what they believe to be true and may have zero bearing on any actual, observable, demonstrable, measurable quality. The majority of people reading this will believe in some supernatural deity (or deities) with absolute conviction that this is “true,” yet given the opportunity to provide any supporting evidence that is objective and replicable, they will fail stunningly. Faith is not Truth, and Truth is not Belief. Anyone can have faith in something or someone, and anyone can believe in any ridiculous things they like. As I’ve said for years, the First Amendment of the US constitution pretty much guarantees your right to be a complete idiot, and it’s a testament to its power that so many people are making the most of it.

Deciding that something is “true” turns out to be a devilishly difficult and intellectually irritating thing. Even when Little Orphan Annie sings, “The sun’ll come out, tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun,” the scientist in you should be thinking, “Oh yeah, how do you know that’s true?” Annie is definitely on my list of “irritating imps” from literature, with the number one spot reserved for Dickens’ Tiny Tim, but she can’t be blamed for at least attempting to make a statement that has all the appearance of being unassailably truthful.

To be more accurate, we’d first have to make sure we all shared the same definitions of the hypotheses she’s espousing; that “The sun will come out tomorrow.” In relation to “the sun,” it would be churlish to suggest that someone might interpret what she’s referring to as Canis Major or Corona Borealis but if we want to be as accurate as we can, we’d make explicit that “the sun” is the star closest to Earth some 93 million miles away. Then, by “come out,” we mean that it will take a position in the sky above the horizon, regardless of whether it is obscured by clouds, smoke, overhanging branches, or a roof. That way is someone tries argue that, “I was in my cellar and didn’t see the sun so it didn’t ‘come out'” you can happily sneer and smack them on the head with a large dead cod and remind them of the definition. This also infers that we must have some way of measuring the act of “coming out” that is objective, which means it doesn’t really on belief, opinions, points-of-view, or any other internal mental phenomena), and repeatable by others, which means anyone else could do the same measurement. Finally, “tomorrow” also needs to be defined as being a point 24 hours after an initial point. If it’s 48 hours before it appears again, then that’s not tomorrow but “every two days.”

But it doesn’t stop here, does it? The location in which I take the measure may also affect the truth of the statement. It may work for Annie who’s in New York city but what about Pippi Longstocking on her visit to grandma’s house in Svalbard, Norway. Being inside the Arctic circle means she’s singing, “The sun’ll come out, in April, betcha bottom Krone that in April, they’ll be sun.” Clearly there is still a sense that “the sun will come up” at some point but it’s not as clean cut as it appears in the Tomorrow song.

Now, given that we’re happy with defining our terms and restrict our experiments to places closer to the equator, what happens when we find that we see the sun rise on Jan 1 at 7:20 AM, then again on Jan 2 at 7:21 AM. Can we say, “Yes, it’s true, the sun’ll come out tomorrow?” You could try and maybe many people would believe you. But the problem is that this is based on ONE sample and it’s a very poor piece of research that takes one sample and concludes it’s the truth. That’s like watching one video on YouTube of someone checking ballot papers and then concluding that the entire election was a scam (unless it was a vote for your candidate, in which case it was true!) No, you’d want to take another sample 24 hours later on Jan 3. Then Jan 4. Then Jan 5. And keep doing that until… well, when?

This is another feature of research that people can misunderstand; that there is an “end” to research [4]. Their understanding is that “research” and “scientific analysis” provide truth and “an answer” when, in reality, that’s not quite right! Back with the rising sun, if you were to say it’s true that the sun will come up tomorrow, what you’re really saying is “given that we’ve observed a sunrise since records began, and that the laws of physics which apply to the universe and how planets revolve around suns have not changed, there is probability close to one that the sun will come up tomorrow.” Is there a chance that the sun may NOT come up? Could there be an unforeseen cosmic accident (black hole hitting the sun) that may wipe out sun and the Earth during the night? Well, maybe. And that is where all research ends up.

Research is about creating hypotheses – ideas that may or may not be true – and then dreaming up ways to test them. You determine in advance what measurements you consider will support the hypotheses and after testing, see if those measures were achieved. If they were, then you can say, “yeah, the objective measure support my hypothesis and it’s therefore worth considering as ‘useful’ or ‘important.'” The more measures you take and the more support you find, then the more meaningful the results. Better still, if lots of other people do the same measures and get the same results, then your hypothesis becomes tougher, stronger, and develops a bit of a cocky swagger.

But although thousands upon thousands of repeated experiments can support a hypothesis, it only takes ONE discrepancy to shatter it into tiny pieces. This notion is sometimes called the “Black Swan” approach. If you set up the theory that “All swans are white” you can spend years out in the world looking at swans and see that every swan you comes across is white. You can then have hundreds of other bird watchers report back that every swan they’ve seen is white. But as soon as ONE person person provides evidence that they’ve found a black swan, the “All swans are white” is now wrong; it’s downgraded at best to “Not all swans are white” or “Most swan are white” or “All swans in the world, except for in the village of Little Turdington that are black, are white.”

Of course, this also introduces the issue of determining what constitutes valid data. The ornithologist from Little Turdington may have taken a photo of a white swan but, armed with a copy of PaintShop Pro 2021, changed the color to black in an attempt to discredit the original hypothesis. Real researchers wouldn’t take that one photo and accept it as proof but more likely send out lots of other researchers to LIttle Turdington to see if they, too, can observe and measure black swans. As more evidence of black swans appears, then the truth, or veracity, of the original claim is diminished.

Science progresses step by step by step. One hypothesis leads to another and depends on what has gone before. In the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, one of the claims by vaccine-skeptics is that it was developed too quickly and not tested enough, which completely ignores that fact that work on similar vaccines has been going on for years, and that all the work that has gone before always sets the scene for what comes next. Sir Isaac Newton, whose “Theory of Gravity” is still a theory [5], is credited with saying that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” and that’s pretty much what research is all about.

And if you don’t believe me, do your own research 🙂

Notes

[1] According to Wikipedia, the increasingly deranged ex-sports commentator, David Icke in the UK, believes that “tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.” He is, sadly, not alone. Proof, should you need it, includes videos of famous people (the Queen, Hillary Clinton, the Pope) all blinking like lizards, so it must be true.

[2] Given that (a) reports of aliens from outer space visiting earth have been around for as long as folks have been writing and (b) not one has yet gone through the “take me to your leader” process, it makes me wonder just how “alien” their thinking must be. Imagine investing unimaginable amounts of time, money, and energy into building interstellar spaceships that can carry you anywhere in the universe, traveling millions and millions of miles -perhaps over immense periods of time – and then landing in some backwoods to pick up a random person so you can stick an anal probe up their arse before flying back home. Now that IS some alien psychology!

[3] The best conspiracy theories are the ones that evolve in such a way that they become completely impervious to any evidence against them, and where all and any statements are “proof” of the theory. Any “proof” of election fraud in the US 2020 election is seen by conspiracy theorists as “clear evidence” for the stolen election; any absence of evidence of fraud is “proof” that the fraud was effective and therefore also evidence for the stolen election! According to one of my favorite philosophers of science, Karl Popper, this type of thinking is referred to a “metaphysical” because it is incapable – by design – of being tested by any objective measurement and is, ergo, non-scientific. Popper was no fan of Psychoanalysis and always deemed it a metaphysical philosophy rather than a science. Religion, as a phenomenon, is also metaphysical in nature in that there are no measurements we can do to test for the existence of a supernatural entity, or entities (it seems unfair to throw Odin, Thor, and Loki into the “myth basket” while allowing Jehovah and Allah special status as “real”).

[4] All research article end with “much more research is needed,” which is (a) probably true and (b) setting the scene for the next grant application. If anyone can cite a paper that concludes with “and, ergo, there is no need to look at this topic anymore because we now have all the answers” I’d love a copy.

[5] Just because something is labeled a “theory” doesn’t imply that is is somehow wrong. Both “gravity” and “evolution” are spoken of as “theories” but if you chose to believe gravity isn’t “real,” I suggest throwing yourself off a high building and seeing how well your disbelief stops you from hitting the ground at 150 miles per hour and leaving you intact enough to stand up and say, “See, I told you it was just a theory.” In this case, you’d be well advised to treat the “theory of gravity” as a practical reality.

“‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy!”

Watching the French Open Men’s final last week, I was primarily focused on the action on court between Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas and only half-listening to the commentary. As we all know, “half-listening” can be a very dangerous thing – or on the upside, pretty funny. As the players headed off for a quick rub down with a cold towel, I swear I heard one of the commentators say, “Djokovic was definitely hit in the balls.”

New balls please

This comment instantly turned my semi-attention to full-blown concentration, and I wondered if I’d missed some action on the screen. After all, being smacked in the scrotum by a ball traveling at somewhere in the region of 85-95 miles-an-hour isn’t something you’d fail to notice. At that sort of speed, your meat-and-two-veg are likely to swell up to the size of a melon and a vigorous massage from your physio isn’t going to offer any help whatsoever. So did I really miss one humdinger of a nut nobbling?

It took me maybe a minute to work out that what was actually said was, “Djokovic was definitely hitting the balls.” Clearly I had fallen victim to a spectacular mishearing, or what is commonly called a mondegreen. Given that in spoken language, many of the individual sounds at the beginning and end of words will blend and overlap with others, the phrases “hitting the balls” and “hit in the balls” can be identical.

The process at work here is called phonetic assimilation and it happens all the time. And I mean, all the time. What we think we hear and what actually reaches our brain is often different from what we might believe. In rolling speech, “hit in the balls” will be /’hɪtɪnðəˌbɔlz/ and “hitting the balls” will also be /’hɪtɪnðəˌbɔlz/. That /ŋ/ sound in “hitting” (/’hɪtɪŋ/) becomes an /n/ because it assimilates with the preceding /t/sound, which is made by tongue against the back of the teeth (what we call an alveolar sound) and also with the /ð/ sound that’s also made with tongue between the teeth (or an interdental). The /ŋ/ sound is made at the back of the mouth up towards the soft palate (a velar location) but the process of assimilation in connected speech pulls it forward to become a regular old /n/ sound.

Assimilation is the basis for mondegreens, phrases that are misheard, often to humorous effect but sometimes to the detriment of the listener. The word itself comes from a mishearing of a poem called The Bonny Earl of Murray, which contains the line “They have slain the Earl o’Moray and layd him on the green,” and that in turn was interpreted as, “They have slain the Earl o’Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” It’s a plausible mistake because it’s not impossible that a double murder could have occurred with the Earl and his Lady being the hapless victims. But if we consider the phonetic forms, we can easily see how “laid him on the green” and “Lady Mondegreen” can sound alike:

  • Laid him on the green: /’laɪdɪm’ɔnðəˌgrin/
  • Lady Mondegreen: /’laɪdɪ’mɔndəˌgrin/

The stress in the second syllable changes and the /ð/ becomes a /d/ in the second instance, but what we might consider to be clear, phonetic differences when written down can be much less clear when spoken and heard. Also, the words in spoken language are separated by spaces like they are in text – they simply all run together into one long stream of sound. It’s the listener that has to decide where the “spaces” are, and it’s not uncommon to get that wrong [1].

The internet is full of examples of misheard lyrics for songs that have become almost classic example of mondegreens. In Jimmy Hendrick’s Purple Haze, “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” gets heard as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”; George Michael’s I Want Your Sex includes “Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should,” which turns into, “Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, not everybody should”; Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer has “Doesn’t make a difference in we make it or not” that sounds like “Doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not”; and even I thought for years that when Dobie Gray sang Drift Away, the chorus was “Gimme the Beach Boys and free my soul…” instead of “Gimme the beat boys and free my soul…”

In his classic book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud called such errors “verhören,” which is German for mishearing [2]. His focus wasn’t on the underlying linguistic errors based on the misinterpretation of assimilation processes but on the words actually misheard and what that might say about the individuals underlying psyche. What he’d make of a patient hearing “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” hardly takes six years of Psychoanalytical training to work out but if you’re hearing Abba sing “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen” or Queen sing, “You got mud on your face, big disgrace, kicking your cat all over the place,” then maybe Dr. Freud needs paging after all!

Notes

[1] Although I’m no fan of Donald Trump and take pleasure in hearing and seeing his gaffs, it would be uncharitable of me not to come to his defense in relation to his much ridiculed use of the word “bigly.” What really happened is that he said the phrase “big league” with a weaker stress on the second element “league,” which was in turn misheard by reporters as “bigly.” If you’re not convinced, just try yourself to say “big league” but let that final /g/ sound weaken slightly and you’ll hear that it easily becomes “bigly.” From /’bɪglig/ to /’bɪgli/ is a dropped final consonant away, a process that is stunningly common in connected speech. And as a bonus, I can tell you that “bigly” is a real word that dates from the 15th century and, as an adverb, means “With great forced, firmly, violently; or loudly, boastfully, proudly, haughtily, pompously.” As an adjective, it means “habitable, fit to live in,” and was used in Scotland until it became obsolete in the early 19th century.

[2] Freud introduced a number of such errors, or what he labeled parapraxes (German Fehlleistungen), that begin with “ver-“: Versprechen (slips of the tongue); Verschreiben (slips of the pen); Verlesen (misreading); Verhoren (mishearing); Vergessen (forgetting of names or intentions); and Verlegen (the misplacing of things). When folks talk about someone making a “Freudian Slip” it’s usually a spoken error – a Versprechen – but as you can see, Freud had a much more extensive classification set to errors. Many of these errors are nowadays analyzed as linguistic phenomena rather than psychoanalytical – but it’s fun to try!

As a side note to the side note, if you intend reading just one of Freud’s books in your life, although The Interpretation of Dreams is typically considered his magnum opus, I highly recommend The Psychology of Everyday Life as an alternative. Along with Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he builds on many of the themes that he wrote about in The Interpretation of Dreams and applies them to non-pathological areas of life.

How Many Books Can You Read in a Year?

Since 2010, I’ve recorded the title of every book I’ve read. I appreciate that sounds oddly obsessive but what’s life without some quirky behavior. For the semi-curious, here’s a chart that illustrates the numbers:

As the data shows, the best I’ve managed to do is 56 way back in 2012 and the worst was 22 in 2017. I suspect part of that can be explained by the little known fact that I went through a period of clinical depression, and that might mark a low point prior to my actually admitting there was a issue and doing something about it. But now I’m back up to 52 in 2020, which by my math works out at one per week.

The problem comes when I try to compare those figures with others available on the interwebs. Now I’m fully aware that the concepts of “peer-reviewed content” and “objective data” don’t apply to the virtual world so anything you read has to be taken not only with a grain of salt but a bushel of the stuff. So if the question is, “How many books does the average person read in a year?” then I shouldn’t be surprised to find that the numbers run from zero to 200. One of the more irritating numbers comes from the world of management “science”[1] that states the average CEO reads 60 books per year, which in turn is usually followed by some pabulum about how anyone who wants to be a CEO should do the same, and that this is why “good” CEOs are so smart and successful. Of course, none of these articles citing the “60 Books” tell you anything about those CEOs who read that many yet totally fail and go out of business. Nor do they offer any guidance as to why 60 is the magic number? In fact, they don’t even tell you which books to read – except the one written by whoever is promoting the “60 Book” theory.

More irritating is that nobody seems to have any links to peer-reviewed studies that support the 60 Book hypothesis, yet it pops up over and over with disturbing regularity. Go ahead, open up a search engine and type in “CEOs books per year” and see what I mean. You’ll find yourself in a morass of blog posts, magazine articles, Reddit discussions, and yet there’s no solid evidence to support the 60 Books other than the assumption that “someone” has done the research.

And to keep my irritation level high, after working hard to hit my 52 books in a year target and thinking I’d “done good,” a Facebook friends posts that she’s “already read 20 books in January” so is well on her way to her target of 100 in a year. 20 in a month? She apparently has a job but still gets 20? Folks, sitting next to my chair is a copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that’s about 1000 pages long and written in Middle English; dare I say that the chance of me reading that in a day or two is slimmer than the chance of Donald Trump saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” And on deck is the one-volume version of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, which clocks in at over 750 pages. Sure, I can balance this out with the relatively slim Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics written in 1948 by Leo Spitzer, but with chapter titles such as “The Style of Diderot” and “Linguistic Perspectivism in Don Quixote,” I’m guessing it ain’t going to be a breezy read.

Of course, no-one reads such heavy duty stuff all the time, and last year’s readings included classic Sci-Fi from Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Bob Shaw, along with thrillers from Jonathan Kellerman and Lee Childs, and those are books you can read in a couple of days if you switch off the TV or stay up late. It’s pretty obvious that the notion of “how many books can you read” has more variables involved than just number of pages.

And that’s precisely why it’s so hard to accept that blanket statement of “60 Books” because there is no real data out there that looks at how you measure it. Heck, what does it even mean to “read” a book, because some of the “How to be a better manager” or “Be a CEO” books out there seem to think that skimming is reading – which it’s not. What I want is some good, decent, peer-reviewed research and I can’t find it.

So over to you, my friends. Does anyone have some good, solid references to support the “60 Books” claim, or can you let me into the secret of how to hit that magic number? Maybe my inability to do it is why I’m not a successful CEO!

Notes

[1] To paraphrase an old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t become management consultants.” And in the world of management consultancy, there are so many books that I’m actually surprised they have time to consult. Or perhaps the reason there are so many books is that’s all they are doing. As you might guess, I have little love for management consultants – but then again I’m something of a cantankerous, old, misanthrope and wish H.L. Mencken were still writing.

There’s a Word for That? Seriously?

The Speech Dudes are nothing if not quirky when it comes to content for a blog post. You might think that being Speechies working in the field of AAC we’d be keen and eager to write endless articles about how to best serve the population who would benefit from being provided with aided solutions to help communication. And yes, we do that from time to time because we really do want to share any thoughts and ideas we might have that have some value. But our interests extend outside of our careers into other aspects of life. And for Dude One (Russell) a more general fascination with language as a cultural phenomenon means that the very stuff of communication as a whole provide an endless source of spell-binding interest.

Which is why the discovery of a new word can be so exciting and mind-boggling that I’m finding it hard not to share. It’s not that the new word is one that I’m likely to use in everyday conversation but the more enchanting question is why the word exists in the first place.

The word is aproctous, and means “without an anus.” And if you’re now thinking, “Dude, why would you ever need to use that?” then you’re exactly in the place I am. It comes from the Greek meaning “without” and πρωκτός meaning “anus.” It’s such an odd word that it’s not even an official Scrabble word, which is a shame because that’s possibly the only situation in which I might actually use it.

To check how folks might be using it I turned to the iWeb Corpus, a web-based collection of over 14 billion words from 22 million web pages. Surprisingly, there is not ONE single example of aproctous to be found, and includes any posts like this one talking about how aproctous isn’t used!

Of the instances where it appears, the primary use is in zoology to describe two sub-branches of the class of animals called Brachiopodia called Rhynchonellidae and Terebratuladae, which, bizarre as it may sound, don’t have an ass. Of course, I’m sure they have some other way of expelling waste as an alternative but quite frankly I don’t have the time nor inclination to spend time finding out. Suffice to say that in relation to the word itself, its use in biology is fairly narrow.

There was also a Death Metal band from 1991 called Aproctous who appear to have had a stunningly unsuccessful career, probably not as a result of their choice of band name. But other than those references, there are no other significant example of the word being used.

I’m great believer in giving rare and obscure words their moments in the sun. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to say something like “We enjoyed the brastling campfire” [1] or “It was so cold that Dan was left with a nirled scrotum” [2] or perhaps “I bought my oranges from the local oporopolist” [3], all of which contain words that are stunningly rare but, to my ears, really do deserve to be aired at least once per decade.

Still, if you can find a way to slip aproctous into a conversation, by all means do so – and make sure you let us know how it went.

Notes

[1] brastle (v.): To crackle, clatter, and roar as a fire. Old English “brastlian.”

[2] nirled (adj.): Shriveled, shrunken, stunted, frozen. Middle English “knurre.”

[3] oporologist (n.): A fruit seller. Greek ὀπώρα meaning “late summer, fruit time” + πώλης meaning “seller.”

Parsing Does Matter

One of the things we like to promote as the Speech Dudes is that the skills and knowledge that Speech Pathologists/Therapists learn can be put to use outside the field of Speech Pathology in general. To our way of thinking, that serves to encourage the rest of the world to recognize that SLPs are not just “twin-set and pearls” ladies who help people “speak correctly” but also talented individuals whose years of training and experience can be used to comment on and critique the broader topic of “human communication.”

Which brings me to the following sign and the Case of the Unauthorized U-turn.

Emergency and Authorized Vehicles Only

As my wife and I were heading for dinner at a local brew pub, she noticed a car making a U-turn on a divided highway at a gap where this sign was present. “Oh,” she said, “Look at that. He’s not allowed to make a turn there.” At this point, the SLP in me kicked into gear.

“Well,” I replied, “that’s not necessarily true because the sign is lexically ambiguous.” Before you worry too much, we’ve been married for close on 35 years so she’s completely unsurprised when I use phrases like “lexically ambiguous” in a casual conversation. So when she asked “What do you mean,” it wasn’t for a definition of lexical ambiguity but for an explanation of the nature of the ambiguity.

I think the intent of the sign is to use the phrase “emergency and authorized” as an adjectival pre-modifier for vehicles with the and working simply as a coordinating conjunction along the lines of:

NOUN PHRASE [(ADJ <emergency + <and> + authorized>) + (NOUN <vehicle + s>)]

So the whole thing is a single noun phrase consisting of an adjective, a noun and an adverb. Fair enough.

However, you can also interpret it as TWO sentences [1], where the first uses the word emergency as a noun, which is then yoked by and to the second sentence, which is about “authorized vehicles.”

NOUN PHRASE [(NOUN <emergency>) + CONJ (and) + NOUN PHRASE [(ADJ + (NOUN )]

The adverbial element of only doesn’t really help because whether you choose the single- or two-sentence interpretation makes no difference. That’s why I have conveniently left it out of the analysis [2].

What makes it more ambiguous is that there is, in fact, an implied rather than actual subject to the sign, along the lines of “This gap in the road can be used for…” and so both the following interpretations would be fair game:

“This gap in the road can be used for an emergency” and;

“This gap can be used for authorized vehicles.”

In the event that the offender was stopped by the police, I would think that a smart lawyer could argue that is he/she was making a U-turn because there was a definable emergency (“I just got a call from my wife telling me she thought someone was skulking around in the yard”) and if that is true, then it was a legitimate maneuver.

The fundamental ambiguity stems from the fact that the word emergency can used both as a noun and an adjective but authorized can only be an adjective or a verb. So you can have both “an emergency situation” and “an authorized situation” but although you can have “I had an emergency” you can’t have *”I had an authorized.” On the other hand, you can have “The vehicle was authorized” but not *”The vehicle was emergency.”

Of course, one option is simply to use the following sign instead:

A No U-turn sign

You’re welcome, Ohio Department of Transportation.

Notes
[1] I know I’m running a little fast and loose with the term sentence here but hopefully you understand the basic idea. For the purpose of the article, I’m adopting the fairly liberal definition of a sentence as “a group of words that express a single idea.”

[2] One of the challenges – for me – with a blog post is that for every sentence I write or word I use, I feel like I could write a separate paragraph on each. This is especially true when I make a statement that I think someone might want me to support by evidence. That’s not, in of itself, a bad thing because as a Speech Therapist I would want to be able to use a evidence-based approach to my practice. But the danger is that you get stuck in the infinite regression of “prove it” for everything you say. In fact, in the world of politics. that’s an actual tool you can use to prolong discussions to the point that nothing gets done. So you can say things like, “Despite what people believe, the average US citizen is 407,000 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than at the hands of a terrorist; or 6 times more likely to be killed by a shark” to which a supporter of travel bans from predominantly Muslim countries will respond, “And where did you get those figures?” So if you then say, “The National Safety Council and the National Center for Health Statistics report for 2013,” the next response is “How did they arrive at those numbers?” At this point, you begin to see where this is going and with each supporting statement and new “appeal to your sources” will be made. If you keep this up long enough, nothing changes.

A Year of Core Words With Unity® 2.0

If I haven’t mentioned it before, the reason I left the UK and moved to the US some 22 years ago was to take over the lead in the long-term development of the Unity® vocabulary program that is available on all Prentke Romich Company (PRC) devices. We actually started working on the Unity system in 1993, and at that time I would visit the US every two months for a one-week period. When the offer to take over the running of the project came up in 1995, my wife and I decided to sell up, ship out, and join the ranks of the “Ex-Pat” communities of English folks scattered across the world.

22 years later, after several iterations of devices and software, PRC have now released what’s called Unity 2.0, a newer version of the original that beefs up on the number of vocabulary items that are pre-stored and adds a slew of new icons, which should appeal to those folks who think that “more is better” when it comes to pictures. I’m not actually of that school, and at some point I’ll put together a few blog posts to explain why. As I’m no longer the head of the Unity project (I have other fascinating projects to work on) and so my role in the current iteration has been more consultative than directive. But what I can do in my spare time is create materials to support the teaching of the system.

Unity 2.0 vocabulary system

In my previous post, I mentioned the recently released Unidad® Spanish bilingual program and provided a link to a set of free resources for using it along with Carole Zangari’s popular A Year of Core Vocabulary Words program. I’m now adding the same resources for the 60-, 84-, and 144-key versions of Unity 2.0. They are stored as zip files at the Speech Dudes’ Box account and here’s what each packet contains:

  • A Year of Core Words Unity 60/84/144: A PDF manual with each page containing a different month and the icon sequences used for the words to be taught.
  • Cheat Sheets folder: A set of 12 documents that simply list alphabetically the words and icons on a month-by-month basis.
  • Word Lists folder: A set of 12 text files that can be imported into a PRC device for use with the Vocabulary Builder feature. Once you’ve imported the lists, just (a) choose list of the month and (b) turn ON the Vocabulary Builder and all you’ll see are your target words.
  • Read Me First: A single-page document with information about the packet.

For those of you familiar with the PRC device feature called embellished icons [1], the resources have been created to be used with embellished icons turned OFF. The biggest advantage of this is that there are fewer actual icons to learn than you would with the feature turned ON, and as a “less is better” proponent, I’d recommend you teach the core vocabulary in that way. Should anyone be inclined to create a set where embellished icons are turned on, let me know and I’ll add those to our Box account.

Click below to download the materials.

DOWNLOAD: Unity 60

DOWNLOAD: Unity 84

DOWNLOAD: Unity 144

Feel free to share these materials with other folks using Unity and as before, all we ask is that you occasionally mention the Dudes 😉

Notes
[1] This is a feature unique to PRC devices where you can choose to have two different sets of icons available to you. Turning embellished icons off gives you a smaller icons set than having embellished icons on. If you want some numbers, you have to learn 87 different pictures to be able to use the 144 words in A Year of Core Vocabulary if embellished icons are off; if  you turn them on, you have 178 different pictures to learn. Your choice.

A Year of Core Words with Unidad® 36- and 84-locations

Way back on the 8th January, 2013 – a date I remember because it’s my birthday, along with Stephen Hawking and Kim Jong-un, and the late David Bowie and Elvis – Carole Zangari from the College of Health Care Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Florida posted her influential and very prAACtical “A Year of Core Vocabulary Words.” Clipped directly from the site itself;

…we created 12 grids of core vocabulary words – one for each month of the year. Each grid has 12 cells labeled with core words. Plug in the AAC symbols that your client uses (e.g., PCS, SymbolStix, Unity, Pixons, etc), print, laminate, and keep them handy.

One of the great things about the “Year for Core” is that it’s a gift that keeps on giving! You can start using it at anytime you like and over a span of 12 months you can teach 144 really useful words regardless of the medium you use. As the author of Unity® 84, I wanted to make sure people who were using Carole’s vocabulary had some supports available, so I created a set of Cheat Sheets, text files that could be imported in a PRC device to use with Vocabulary Builder, and a single document in the “page-per-month” style Carole had original developed with all the symbols, as she suggested, already “plugged in.”

Printed sheets for teaching a year of core words

Now here we are in April 2017 and PRC has launched a new Spanish bilingual program called Unidad® in both 36- and 84-key versions. For folks who want to follow the “Year of Core Words” approach, I’ve put together a new set of support materials that you can download and print out. Here’s what the pack includes:

  • A Year of Core Words Unidad English 36/84: A PDF manual with each page containing a different month and the icon sequences used for the words to be taught.
  • Smart Charts folder: A set of 12 documents that simply list alphabetically the words and icons on a month-by-month basis.
  • Word Lists folder: A set of 12 text files that can be imported into a PRC device for use with the Vocabulary Builder feature. Once you’ve imported the lists, just (a) choose list of the month and (b) turn ON the Vocabulary Builder and all you’ll see are your target words.

The 36-location version might seem simpler/easier (36 is less that 48, yes?) but I recommend that unless there are physical or visual reasons against it, always go for the 84. In fact, always go for the most keys you can in general.It might seem counter-intuitive but more keys can be easier than less. It’s just basic mathematics. If I have a vocabulary of 500 words and a keyboard of 8 buttons, then I can only have 7 single-hit words represented before having to use the 8th key to go to another page, and that means the next set of words are 2-hits. To encode 500 words you’re going to have to use sequences of up to 4 buttons, and as the vocabulary increases, so will the sequences. With 84 buttons, you can get over 700 words without having to press more than 2-keys per word. Hence, more keys is more efficient.

Anyways, click below to download the materials.

DOWNLOAD: Unidad English 84

DOWNLOAD: Unidad English 36

Feel free to share these materials with other folks using Unidad. All we ask is that you occasionally mention the Dudes 😉

Articles and Abstracts: Free Stuff from the Dudes

Articles and Abstracts

It’s not unusual for me to get an email from someone asking things like, “Do you have any references that support the idea that using AAC will stop a child from talking?” or “Can you point me to some articles that provide information on Core vocabulary?” As a member of the “Not Dead Yet” club of AAC practitioners [1], over the years I’ve collected a few useful papers that I can refer to, and continue to collect new ones whenever I can force myself to do some journal reading.

So to make life easier, I’ve created a suite of PDF files is a series I call “Articles and Abstracts,” with each file providing a selection of articles along with the abstracts. I can’t provide the actual articles without having to get lots and lots of permissions, and frankly I don’t have the time for that, but given the citations and the abstracts, folks can at least decide if they want to go track them down – and sometimes a starting point is really useful.

I’ve broken the series down into the following topic areas:

There’s no magic formula to explain why I chose this grouping, just that they are areas of research that impinge on the field of AAC and language. And I don’t claim to have anything close to a comprehensive listing of articles, just some key ones that are, in my opinion, useful and relevant. If anyone has any suggestions for additional papers, just let me know – I can’t read every journal that’s out there!

I update on an irregular basis, by which I mean that if a new article that I find interesting comes my way, I’ll update the particular file there and then. So I already some 2017 papers cited – and you can have the excitement of finding out which they are when you download the series 🙂

From our blog home page, select the FREEBIES menu and then down to Article and Abstracts for the list. Or just use the bulleted list above. Feel free to share the information – it’s all publicly available in peer-reviewed journals – but we’d be grateful if you’d mention the Speech Dudes as your source now and again.

Notes
[1] In a field where the turnover of practitioners is relatively high, one of the easiest ways to become known is simply to avoid dying. If you can also add “getting around a bit,” then your stock can rise without you having to do much more than that! Of course, if you want to reach the level of AAC Superstar or AAC Luminary, you do, in truth, have to put a little more work into it than I have, and the Superstars and Luminaries deserve their status. All I’m sharing is that even if you don’t aspire to professional sainthood, staying alive is a really, really good idea 😉 And as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be immortal through my work; I want to be immortal through not dying.”

Peppa Pig: Go Ahead and Let Your Kids Watch!

One of the special things about having grandchildren is that when you’ve had enough of them, you can give ’em back to their parents. There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude to be reveled in with this, particularly if you had some challenges bringing up your kids in the first place. Although I don’t actually gloat, I can’t but help feel a frisson of pleasure when my darling daughter tells me she’s had a sleepless night because her 3-year-old got up a 3:00 AM and began running round the house, and her 7-year-old had a tantrum before going to school. I simply nod sagely and say, “Yes, it’s rough, isn’t it.” Bad Daddy!

So while she and her husband get all the pain and anguish of living and working with two young kids (and we all know it doesn’t get any easier as they age!) I get to have fun time with them because (a) they only get me in small doses and (b) I can spoil them rotten [1].

Of course, this doesn’t give you free rein to allow total anarchy and hedonistic behavior so you have to at least rationalize your choices when it comes to letting your offspring decide what they want to do. Which brings me to Peppa Pig.

For those unfamiliar with this delightful British cartoon character, Peppa lives with her mummy and daddy and little brother George, who apparently has an expressive language disorder that no-one is in the least bit worried about. His only two utterances appear to be “dinosaur” and “Rrraarrrgggghhhh!” neither of which is core vocabulary and represent only two grammatical classes; noun and interjection. Sure he’s only a toddler pig but come on, his motor skills suggest he’s at least 24 to 30 months, so I’d expect him to have a much larger lexicon!

Language disorder aside, Peppa has an extended family in the form of Grandpa and Granny pig, who appear to be pretty well off considering they have a boat, which is not as common in the UK as in the US [2]. Then she has an extensive network of imaginatively named friends such as Suzy Sheep, Rebecca Rabbit, Zoe Zebra, Emily Elephant, and Delphine Donkey. It seems that initial consonant alliteration is a critical feature of animal nomenclature! But it’s actually a very good way to develop phonological awareness skills. According to Reese, Robertson, Divers, and Schaughency (2015):

…parents who play rhyming or alliteration games with their children, who sing rhyming songs more often with their children, or who engage in other types of wordplay (e.g., tongue twisters), may be fostering their children’s phonological awareness. (p.57).

Wittingly or unwittingly, the writers for Peppa Pig have built in so cute, subtle ways of providing viewers with phonemic cues that can help in speech sound development. And as Reese et al. also point out, “Children’s phonological awareness develops rapidly in the preschool years and is an important contributor to later reading skill. (p.54)” Clinicians and educators are usually much more aware of this. Thatcher (2010) points out that:

Children gain important information about rhyme and alliteration from learning poems and rhymes in which the prosodic features of the poem stress the shared sounds in the word. The profession of speech pathology must take possession of this area of early intervention… (p.476).

But wait, wait – there’s more! The didactic properties of Peppa Pig don’t just end with phonology. For the purpose of analyzing the vocabulary content of the show, I obtained a written set of transcripts from the complete first season [4] and ran the data through WordSmith 7, my trusty corpus linguistics software tool of choice. With this, I’m able to compare the frequency of use of words from the Peppa Pig sample with any other list that I choose. What I wanted to do was get an idea of how “core” the vocabulary in Peppa Pig is, and by “core” I mean how much of the entire vocabulary used is made up of high frequency words used by many people of many ages across different situations [5].

Being the author of Unity 84, a language program available in Prentke Romich devices, I choose the vocabulary associated with that as my core comparison. This is simply because it’s a set based on data from a number of core vocabulary studies and includes hundreds of low frequency nouns, which offer a little balance to a pure core list that would be weak in such words. But so long as I use the same core to make comparisons against other samples, the resulting “Core Scores” will be comparable [6].

So here’s how Peppa Pig fares in the “Core Score” arena.

corescorepeppapig

Core Score for Peppa Pig

What this means is that I counted ALL the instances of where core words were used in Season One, then counted all the instances of fringe words, and generated a simple percentage. So if someone is watching Peppa Pig, almost 83% of all the words they hear will be core words. I therefore give Peppa Pig a “Core Score” rating of 83.

It’s great to be able to toss out a number and say “Hey, this TV show is an 83” but that’s not tremendously useful unless there are comparisons. So I found a transcript for an episode of another of my favorite cartoons shows; SpongeBob SquarePants. And here’s how he did:

corescorespongebob

SpongeBob SquarePants Core Score

As you can see, SpongeBob gets a “Core Score” of 75, which tells me that my clients would be better off watching Peppa than SpongeBob if I want them to hear more core words. And in general, I would. After all, if I want to encourage clients to use more core words, putting them in situations where they hear lots of models of how those words are used is a solid goal.

Just out of curiosity, I applied the same analysis to three common, popular children’s books; Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Here’s what I found:

corescorebooks

Books Core Scores

All of the preceding is not peer-reviewed research. It’s not even close. In fact, I’d even be hesitant to call it a “pilot study.” In the world of Business, it’s what we call a “Proof of Concept” – where you test out a few ideas so as to demonstrate that what you’re thinking about is something on which someone would be prepared to spend money [7]. But if you were to use it to argue the merits of suggesting that watching Peppa Pig is not a bad thing, then I think the data supports your decision!

References

Reese, E., Robertson, S.-J., Divers, S., & Schaughency, E. (2015). Does the brown banana have a beak? Preschool children’s phonological awareness as a function of parents’ talk about speech sounds. First Language, 35(1), 54-67.

Thatcher, K. L. (2010). The development of phonological awareness with specific language-impaired and typical children. Psychology in the Schools, 47(5), 467-480.

Notes
[1] It’s right there as number one in the Grandparent Commandments; “Thou shalt bestow upon thy grand offspring anything and everything they desire, and in the event that this is not possible, thou shalt feel perfectly OK with saying, ‘Oh sweetheart, that’s something to ask mommy and daddy.'”

[2] My older daughter and her husband have a boat on which my wife and I have spent some happy hours letting them do all the work of dragging it to a lake, dropping it in the water, steering it to the nearest lakeside bar, and paying the cost of repairs, maintenance, and storage required so that we can enjoy those 5 days in summer when the nautical life is the thing to embrace. Like having grandkids, having another family member own a boat means you can have all the pleasure but none of the responsibility.

[3] As further evidence that Peppa’s younger brother has a problem, note that he is one of the only character who does NOT have an alliterative name – he is “George Pig” as opposed to, say, Peter Pig or Paul Pig, or even Patrick Pig. So not only has he a more complex name structure to deal with than all the other animals, but he also has that initial “djuh” sound /d͡ʒ/ to struggle against. Poor George!

[4] My source is at “Glamour and Discourse”: Peppa Pig transcripts Season One. In the spirit of transparency, you’re free to use the same data and run your own analyses to see if they match with mine. I think they will but in a world driven by President Donald Trump’s “alternative facts” who’s to know?

[5] New visitors to this blog who are unfamiliar with the notion of what we refer to as a “core” vocabulary set in the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) might like to check out the following posts:
Of Puck and Patois
Of Corpora and Concordances
The Monteverde Invincia Stylus Fountain Pen – and Keyword Vocabulary

[6] At a more technical level, the Unity core list is an unlemmatized list that consists “words” that are defined as “a string of letter terminating in a space or punctuation mark.” So the words eat, eats, and eating are counted as three distinct words, even though they are really just variations of the one lemma, <EAT>. A critical question in deciding on what constitutes a “core” list is whether it should include only root words such as eat and drink but not eating and drinking, or whether it should have all forms of a word in there. If you use a core that has eat but not eats, then any TV show or book that uses the word eats would not have that token counted towards a “core score” – but shouldn’t it? I’m open to suggestions, folks!

[7] I intend to test out a few more core lists in order play with the Core Score idea a little more.

The Contronymic Properties of Shit

Some years ago I posted a piece called Shitosophy: A Philosophy for the Existentially Lost, which relied heavily on the use of the word shit and its synonyms to make a point. This time around, I’m using shit again to introduced – 0r reacquaint – readers to the concept of the contronym. You may not have heard the word contronym before but you will have come across examples of it.

contronyms

A contronym is a word that can be used in two ways to mean exactly the opposite of the other. The classic example is cleave. On the one hand, it’s used to mean “to join or stick together” as in “I was so dry my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth,” and on the other it’s used to mean “to split apart” as in “The hatchet cleaved his head in two.” [1]

Other contronyms include sanction (meaning both “to permit” and “to ban”), strike (meaning both “to hit” and, in particularly in baseball, “to miss”), fast (meaning “moving quickly” and “stuck immovably”), and peruse (both “to look over quickly” and “to look at in great detail”).

So where does shit come into this? Well, below is an image shared with me last week from Facebook that is ostensibly one of those “kids, look at what they come up with” pieces:

we-have-shit

To be fair to the kid, it’s not wrong! And what’s more interesting is that there are two meanings to the sentence that can only be disambiguated by changing which word is being stressed.

If the stress comes down on the verb have, as in “We HAVE shit,” then that means “we have something.” In this case, shit is used as a mass noun meaning “stuff” or “something.” However, if the stress comes down on the noun for “We have SHIT,” this means “we have nothing” or even “we ain’t got diddly squat.” Here the word shit means “nothing” or an absence of something.

What we’re seeing here is the word shit being used contronymically as it can mean both something and nothing. Of course, shit has many other meanings and so isn’t solely a contronym but the example above demonstrates its contronymic aspect. The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple entries for shit as a noun, adjective, verb, and interjection, along with a list of phrases that includes shit as an essential component. It’s clearly a very flexible word (as is the case with a number of profanities) and very, very old.

There’s another contronymic example of shit that depends on whether it is used along with the indefinite or definite article [2]. Consider the sentences below:

  1. You are the shit.
  2. You are a shit.

In the first instance, shit means something that is good and desirable but in the second it means something bad and undesirable. You’d be happy if you were THE shit but not if you were A shit.

Both cases serve to illustrate how a word’s meaning can be changed dramatically by minimal effort. In the first, it’s stress that determines meaning, and in the second it’s the definite/indefinite article that does it.

So now you know some new shit!

Notes
[1] Fans of the tremendously entertaining Game of Thrones on HBO can now go back and re-watch the series to count the number of examples of cleaving that take place on a regular basis. From the cleaving of Cersei and Jaime Lannister in an incestuous rendition of “the beast with two backs” to the cleaving of Gregor Clegane’s horse’s head from its body. And as a final piece of cleaving trivia, when Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey, did her naked “Walk of Shame,” she actually used a body double actress by the name of Rebecca Van Cleave, which involved the photo-shopped cleaving of Lena’s head onto Rebecca’s body. And who said linguistics was boring!

[2] In the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) words like the, a, and an are often lumped together with words such as at, in, be, and is and called “Little Words.” As I’ve whined about before (Stop with the Little Words Grab-bag) this category is non-linguistic and based purely on the number of letters used in a word. But in the case of “the shit” versus “a shit,” we can clearly see that teaching a versus the is essential because the wrong choice can significantly change the intended meaning of a phrase or sentence. So the a/an/the distinction has to be treated as much more that just “little words.”