Category Archives: Speech

Articulation, phonetics, phonology, dysarthria, dyspraxia

The Dudes Do ASHA 2015: Day 1 – Of Snow…

So it had been snowing in Denver. Not a lot. But snow there was. Just one week ago in Ohio I’d been able to wear a T-shirt and ride my motorcycle in unseasonably warm 70 degree temperatures. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact.

The charm of a snow-brushed Denver was somewhat offset by the accompanying bitter chill that my jacket was having a hard time fighting off. The Super Shuttle service, for those who haven’t used it, it located at the extreme edge of the transport area, beyond which appears to be nothing but plains for miles and miles. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to work out that if the wind is blowing in across freezing snow, the wind chill by the bus stand takes on a negative value and unless your willing to snuggle up to lots of folks like chickens in a roost, it’s cold. Another way to tackle the frosty air is to focus you thoughts on something else.

Like snow.

Allegedly, one of the special things about snowflakes is that no two are alike. Every single snowflake is different. In fact, a common metaphor used by the kumbaya brigade [1] is that people are like snowflakes and unique in their own special ways, and all of us are beautiful and special. What the one-world tree huggers fail to include in their metaphorical use is that snowflakes are also cold and short-lived; and while one snowflake might be exquisite, ten billion of the little buggers moving at 50 miles an hour is a blizzard.


Putting my curmudgeonly cynicism aside, what’s more interesting is that I suspect all of us happily accept the “all snowflakes are different” statement as a fact. But based on what? How many snowflakes do you need to look at before you can conclude that no two are alike? Or no three? Surely, you may think, that given the total number of snowflakes that have fallen to the earth since the dawn of time, at least TWO flakes have been the same. Doubtless one of our statistically oriented physics buff readers can supply some mind-bogglingly big numbers regarding snowflakes but math aside, let’s just think a little about what we mean by same and different.

As a Speech-Language Therapist, I’ve been teaching same and different as words and concepts probably from the first time I ever worked face-to-face with a kid. Like most SLPs, I’ve used objects, pictures, symbols, gestures, words, and any number of ways to reinforce what we mean by same and different because it’s a distinction that is critical to how we look at and talk about the world.

In language, “difference” is what marks fundamental distinctions at various levels of a communicative act. For example, at the sound level, whether you use the sound [p] or [pʰ] in a word is not going to make a difference in meaning if you are an English speaker. You might hear a slight variation but folks will not misunderstand you. However, in Hindi, using [p] or [pʰ] can make difference in meaning; [pɑl] means “care for” but [pʰɑl] means “knife.” These types of meaningful differences in speech sounds are what we all “minimal pairs” in Speech and Language Pathology and working with minimal pairs is bread and butter stuff to speechies [2].

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made the following statement in his Course in General Linguistics [3];

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system.  Their most precise characteristic is in being what they other are not. (p.17)

In other words, it’s differences within a language that are the stuff of speech, not the similarities.

Like all words, same and different are a little grey around the edges; they are not absolutes but “more or less.” Things are only the same so long as we using a pragmatic definition of same that works for us. If I open a can of peas and pour them into a pan to cook, I’d be very likely to say that they are all the same. We even have the expression, “as alike as peas in a pod.” But should I decide that my life is so devoid of meaning that measuring each pea using a micrometer seems like a good idea, I’m going to change my mind as say that the peas are all different. Equally when I say that the great thing about the McDonald’s Big Mac is that it’s the same wherever I buy one, in an absolute sense that’s false because no two Big Macs will ever be “the same” or even taste the same – they will be similar.

Most dictionaries define similar as meaning “resembling but not being identical to.” Logical positivists would probably be happy to argue that the word same should be replaced by the word similar, and hence forth when we’re teaching same and different to kids we should be honest and teach similar and different. Fortunately, most of us work at the level of pragmatic sense rather than absolute scientific truth. The inherent fuzziness of words within a language actually helps us to get on with life rather than banging our heads against a stack of dictionaries trying to find the REAL meaning of a word or the ABSOLUTE TRUTH of a proposition. Sure, they may be some mathematical truths out there, such as 2 + 2 = 4, but in the world of linguistics, imprecision is an inherent feature.

So as I got on the bus for the hotel, I was satisfied to look around and realize that we were all different but in the same profession, and we were all heading for the same conference center but then to different bars for different drinks.

Philosophy can be so comforting at times.

[1] The origin of the word kumbaya is still something of a mystery. In a recent article (The World’s First “Kumbaya” Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song) the author Stephen Winick suggests it originated in the American south as an African Spiritual, with “kumbaya” being a corruption of “come by here.” It’s plausible but there is no solid evidence. The way in which I use it is in a more modern incarnation where it has a pejorative meaning of wishy-washy or naively optimistic. You can even find examples of the phrase “kumbaya moment” in the Corpus of Contemporary American” being used political to deride the actions of the opposition.

[2] For the non-SLPs and non-linguists who follow the Dudes, it can be surprising to learn that the sounds we all use to make words vary across languages and that even a single sound such as a “b” can change depending in where is it being used in a word or phrase. It’s as if a speech sound isn’t a single thing but a cluster of “near enough” sounds. As long as the “b” you say is “near enough” to the “b” I’m used to hearing, then we’re good to go. If you actually record someone speaking a list of words with “b” sounds scattered around them (such as “bottle,” “cabin” “abstract” and “cab”), when you look at the words using speech sound analysis software, you will find that the “b” looks different in each case! The reason that we all think the “b” is always the same is because our brains are actually very good at interpreting “near enough” sounds, which makes life a lot easier.

[3] The original French version, Cours de Linguistique Générale was first published in 1916 after de Saussure’s death, based on the notes he had used for his taught course. It wasn’t until 1959 that an English language version, A Course in General Linguistics was published. It’s generally regarded as a landmark book in linguistics but unlikely to be recommended as an essential read – unless you’re studying the history of Linguistics.

Countdown to Christmas – Question 19: Thursday 19th December

You only have a few hours for this one! Dude 2 actually wanted to tweet it at 11:59 PM! But it’s a one-word answer so an easy win for someone. What word is used to describe the automatic repetition of vocalizations made by another person?

ANSWER: Echolalia!

Echolalia is the repetition of vocalizations made by another person and can be present in autism, Asperger syndrome, aphasia, schizophrenia, and other forms of psychopathology. Echoing speech and behavior is actually a normal feature of development but when it becomes persistent to the exclusion of generative speech and actions it becomes a pathological state.

The word comes from the Greek ekho (ἠχώ) meaning a repetition of sounds, and lalia (λαλιά) meaning “to speak or talk.” Echo is also a character from Greek mythology who was a nymph cursed by Juno so that she could only repeat the last few words of anyone she heard.

Echo and Narcissus


About echolalia from Synapse in Australia

The myth of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid

In Defense of the Grammar Nazi

Watching television is often a complete waste of time and a total abdication of Life. I admit that I suffer from anguish, shame, and guilt if I’ve just spent three hours viewing re-runs of Family Guy, Frasier, and Bar Rescue, so I’m as guilty as the rest of the world when it comes to Couch Potato Syndrome [1].

Nevertheless, if you try really hard, you can turn your sin into a virtue by questioning what you’re seeing and thinking about how it applies to what you should be doing instead. And one of my more recent observations has been in relation to attitudes towards “skills” and “expertise.” So let’s start with one of my favorite gripes – the Celebrity Chef.


Chef: Fuurin Kazan Chef in Black and White ( / CC BY 2.0 (

Americans in general seem to love watching people in conflict. I dare say that almost every “reality show” is predicated on the need to see people fighting while trying to live on an island, etching tattoos, singing, dancing, or even, for goodness sake, baking a cake! (“You’re going down, punk, when I whip your ass with this amazing fondue!”) The more spiteful and bitter the contestants, the better the ratings. Rome had the Coliseum with gladiators and Christians; we have cable TV with hosts and contestants.

But what all of these shows include is the Expert who exemplifies the target skill; the master who can turn something mundane and mindless into a work of sheer brilliance. Celebrity Chefs are such people. For them, the difference between a winning dish and one that has them vomiting into a bucket is whether the cook added two bay leaves or three.  And woe betide anyone who should cook a steak for 3 seconds too long – because there lies the way to the door. Fundamentally, the message that is being sold to us here is that the fine attention to minuscule details is what make a chef a great chef.

And we all sort of accept that.

Meanwhile, over in the sports arena, the same message is being played, except that the skill here is seen in the slightest of motions and the briefest of actions. In golf, putting just an inch too short of the hole is a miss that could have been avoided if just the merest of extra effort had gone into hit. In swimming, that last kick while extending the finger tips to touch the wall is the difference between a gold medal and nothing. In baseball, a two degree extra angle when the batter hits the ball can mean the difference between a World Series and a long, quiet flight home. And in basketball, that extra tap to push the ball an extra inch over the edge of the hoop can turn a player from good to legendary.

And we all sort of accept this.

Now consider the reaction at work I get when someone says, “So which of these two designs is the best?” and I reply with, “Er, better. It’s the comparative, not the superlative. If we had three choices, we could have a best.” Does this “attention to detail” come across as acceptable? Is this modest defense of some sort of standard seen as the equivalent of Gordon Ramsey tossing a whole plate of food into the trash because the color of the scallop is browner than he thinks tolerable? [2]

Nope. Any attempt at being precise in the use of language is seen instantly as nothing more than bourgeois pedantry, trivial snobbery, or the action of a Grammar Nazi [3]. Just take a look at any discussion thread on the Internet related to some issue of language use and within six or seven responses the level of argument will have dropped to name calling and attacks on anyone who tries to be in any way linguistically precise. There’s a good chance that even you, dear reader, are already feeling the pressure to trot out the “But language is always changing” argument in defense of anyone who seems to be having a hard time using their first language as their first language! When Sarah Palin used the word “refudiate,” rather than ‘fess up that she’d made a mistake, she actually tried to argue that she was no different from Shakespeare who “liked to make up words!” Sarah Palin as Shakespeare! And George W. Bush was the new Cicero.

Now before some of you have collective heart attacks and click repeatedly on the “Comments” button, let me be clear that I am NOT suggesting that everyone has to talk proper, avoid splitting infinitives, never use “their” when “there” is the right word, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, or stab themselves in the eye if they say “irregardless.” No, we know that oral language is frequently dysfluent, peppered with errors, given to jumping from topic to topic, and studded with words whose meanings can be slippier than a bucket of eels in olive oil. And written language can be similarly dotted with misarticulations (“nyoo kyoo luh” for nuclear anyone?), spelling mistakes, wandering apostrophes, malapropisms [4], and just plain unreadable rubbish.

Where the disjunct appears is that while people will accept a Ramsey tantrum to defend standards in cookery, a Simon Cowell insult in defense of musical talent, or Tyra Banks tossing out some poor unfortunate judged not good enough to be America’s Next Top Model, they see no value whatsoever in the idea that there may be some standards in the use of the English language.

A big part of why this happens is that we are all, in our own heads, experts at language. After all, we’ve been speaking it all our lives so we must be experts. So how dare some self-appointed, smug-faced, pedantic, “no-life” critic tell ME that I used the wrong word… or can’t spell… or know my own language.

It’s a manifestation of the well-known difference between knowing a language and knowing about a language. And knowing about language is not regarded as a skill or expertise in the same way that knowing about cookery, golf, basketball, singing, tattooing, baking cakes, surviving on an island, or any other such endeavor is viewed.

In a recent post at Gizmodo, Casey Chain pointed out that Google’s definition of the word literally now includes the following definition:

Used to acknowledge something that is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to indicate strong feeling

Words do, of course, change meaning over time – less than 40 years ago being gay had nothing to do with sexuality – but there is nothing “pedantic” or “petty” about taking a stand to prefer one definition over another. In fact, the failure to try to preserve a word’s meaning can lead to it being totally hijacked by special interest groups.  Take the word socialized as in “socialized medicine.” Here’s a word that has been used particularly by the political right because it sounds close to socialist and serves to taint the very concept of “free health care” as being somehow close to communism – and you don’t support communism, do you? Listen to any Talk Radio show and you’ll hear it being used in the pejorative sense by all right-wing commentators, whereas left-wingers are more likely to talk about “affordable health care” or just “health care.” It’s a good example of where allowing a word’s meaning to change ends up with it becoming pejorative; like gay, or queen, or fag – all of which have slid from having a non-pejorative, non-sexual meaning to become almost taboo [5].

So unfashionable as it may be to talk about things such as “standards” and “norms,” it is possible to be fully aware of the evolutionary nature of language while at the same time taking some effort to protect some of the features that keep the system rich and fascinating without letting it degenerate into an “anything goes” mish-mash of rough words strung loosely together with no thought for the comprehensibility, flow, phrasing, and even beauty of language.

And after all;

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

[1] The saddest and most soul-destroying conclusion that one can come to is that it’s not just the watching of TV shows that is pointless but that one is watching the same thing over and over! With an average four-score years and ten alloted to our miserable time on the earth, depression can really set in when you realize that this is the tenth time you’ve seen Peter Griffin try to flip a dead frog out of the window, and it’s still funny. I guess when I’m lying on my death-bed about to croak, I’ll think, “Gee, if I’d only skipped those re-runs I’d have another few years to live.”

[2] Even the term “Grammar Nazi” itself illustrates the negative regard people have toward those who want to pay attention to those details that make language special and interesting. A Google search for the phrase turns up over 2 million instances, and Wikipedia provides the definition, “A Grammar Nazi is a common term used on the internet and on social websites for an individual noticing a grammatical mistake and correcting obsessively. ‘Grammar Nazis’ usually correct any punctuation or spelling errors they find in a comment or post. British comedians Mitchell and Webb have an interesting take on the Grammar Nazi.

[3] It seems to be de rigueur for celebrity chefs to be loud mouthed and arrogant, so much so that contestants in cookery contests appear to have developed these qualities before actually learning to cook. Thus the pleasure in watching these types of show is as much about seeing pride going before a fall as it is about having any genuine interest in a winner.

[4] A malapropism is where someone uses a wrong word that is phonetically  similar to the intended one. Examples of malapropisms would included “Magellan circumvented the world” for circumnavigated; “He was wearing a turbine on his head” instead of turban; and “When a baby’s born you have to cut the biblical cord” instead of umbilical.

[5] For those curious, the word gay appears to have taken on its meaning of homosexual in the 1920’s. At the end of the 1700’s it was used as a euphemism to describe a female prostitute – a “gay lady.” Queen was first used as slang to refer to male homosexuals way back in 1729 (“Where have you been you saucy Queen? If I catch you Strouling and Caterwauling, I’ll beat the Milk out of your Breasts I will so.” From the book Hell upon earth: or the town in an uproar. Occasion’d by the late horrible scenes of forgery, perjury, street-robbery, murder, sodomy, and other shocking impieties.) Finally, fag (or faggot) comes from US slang in the early 1920’s, most likely by way of its use of a term of abuse for a woman in the 1840’s.

Why Scarves are important to Speech Pathologists

In a recent poll of Speech and Language Pathologists  (The #SLPeeps Top 10 SLP Gifts) held by the folks at LessonPix, the number one object of infinite desire was… the scarf! Talk about stereotypes fulfilled. Tragically, this Dude was one of those who voted for the scarf, and readily admits to having a small collection of the things (you have to match with your coats and jackets – duh!) so perhaps it’s not necessarily surprising.

University of Lancaster UK Fylde College scarf

My new scarf

Of course, the other factor that may be biasing the results is that the poll is taking place just as the weather is becoming peppered with snow and the temperatures are falling faster than Mitt Romney’s post-election popularity [1]. So the stores are currently filled with more scarves than Santa has elves.

And so speaking of scarves and elves

One of the standard areas of concern for SLPs is teaching plurals. To be more accurate, teaching the phonological realizations of a morphological process that creates plural forms from a singular morpheme base. I toss that in because some folks seem to think that the Dudes are trivial, unprofessional, and simply out for a good time. That may have some veracity about it, but we are very aware that not everyone who reads this blog is, in fact, an SLP. So our role is to entertain and educate a broad church, and to promote the idea that SLPs are more than middle-class gentile ladies who wear scarves with twin-sets and pearls. Well, OK, so we do wear scarves…

Therapeutically speaking, we can use the scarf as a way of teaching a rather limited set of weird plural forms, namely those nouns that end in an /f/ sound when singular but turn into a /vz/ when plural. Here’s the list;

calf – calves
life – lives
thief – thieves
elf – elves
loaf – loaves
wife – wives
half – halves
self – selves
wolf – wolves
leaf – leaves
shelf – shelves

There are ongoing discussions about dwarfdwarfs/dwarves, with linguists typically coming down on the side of dwarves but Disney still insisting on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – and you don’t mess with the Mouse unless you want a law suit in the mail [2].

Historically, these “irregular” plurals come from a “regular” source – Old English. You see, one of the common plurals in OE was the ending “-as,” and so you would talk about one wulf or wif (wolf and wife [3]) but two or more wulfas or wifas. But there was also a rule in existence that said that all fricatives (such as /f/ or /s/) would become voiced (change to /v/ or /z/) when they were stuffed between two other voiced sounds, which includes vowels. So seeing as the /f/ in wulfas and wifas sat between vowels, they were pronounced as /’wulvæz/ and /’waɪvæz/. Finally, over time, the final unstressed vowel was dropped leaving /’wulvz/ and /’waɪvz/.


But the fun doesn’t stop here, oh no! Just to keep the excitement going, the word scarf doesn’t come from the Old English and wasn’t around with the wolves, wives, elves, leaves, or sheaves, and didn’t make an appearance in the English lexicon until the middle of the 16th century. It’s not absolutely certain, but odds are that scarf comes from Old Northern French escarpe meaning “a sash” or “a sling for a wounded arm.” At that time, folks did talk about wearing scarfs but in the 18th century, it became mor fashionable to wear scarves, the plural swap being influenced by those old Old English “irregulars.”

Using my old friend, the Corpus of Historical American, I was able to produce the following graphs that show how scarfs declined as scarves ascended.

Use of the word scarf over time

“Scarfs” over time

Use of the word scarves over time

“Scarves” over time

As a confirmatory check, I also did a Google N-gram search:

The words scarfs and scarves over time

“Scarfs” and “scarves” over time

We could stop here and say “so that’s why you should teach scarves and not scarfs” and be done with it, but there’s just one more wonderful little quirk of English I’d like to point out.

“My dog is a hungry wee beastie. Whenever I give him some food, he scarfs it down as if he’d never eaten before.” So why doesn’t he *scarve it down?

Well, when the word scarf appears as a verb, it comes from a completely different place. It is, in fact, a variation of the word scoff, which is in turn a slang word for “to eat voraciously” or “to devour hungrily.” This word made its appearance at the beginning of the 19th century and so it’s subject to the rules of Modern English grammar, not Old English. When you add the third-person verb ending of “s” to scoff, it becomes plain old scoffs, and in Modern English, the final sound takes on the voicing of the preceding sound, hence /’skɒfs/.

So there you have it! SLPs love scarves because they remind us about phonological processes that change words over time, processes that changed the pronunciation of plural and verb morphology, and even about the history of the English language.

Or maybe we just like the colors…

[1] I’m not given to engaging in political discussions but yesterday I drove past a gas station here in Ohio where the price of a gallon was $2.98, and less than a month ago I was listening to Republican pundits prophesying how gas prices would rocket if Obama were elected. They were so sure, certain, positive, and adamant about the truth of the assertion that there are only two conclusions to draw from their pontificating; either there were wrong (in which case they are no smarter than anyone who can scrawl an “X” on a ballot so not worth listening to) or they were lying (in which case they are lying bastards and will be first against the wall when the revolution comes.) If there’s a third alternative, let me know.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguistics scholar, argued for the use of dwarves, and all his works use that. But the venerable Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the words dwarfs as a plural, thus queering the pitch even further. Way back in 1862, Ernest Adams wrote The Elements of the English Language and noted that the forms dwarf/dwarves seemed to be in free variation, but that “in modern English the form in f is preferred” (p.39).

[3] Before someone smacks me over the head with very heavy copies of Beowulf or Caedmon’s Hymn, I am aware that since Old English was first spoken, there has been a Great Vowel Shift that changed the pronunciation of many words. So in my example of /’waɪf/ should really have had the long “eee” vowel, /i/ and been /’wif/ if we’re going to be more accurate. However, whether the vowel is /aɪ/ or /i/, the rule that changed /f/ and /s/ to /v/ and /z/ would still have applied.

My Car Has A Speech Problem: I’m Working On It!

It seems that’s it’s only a matter of time before we’ll spend as much time talking to machine as we do to people – perhaps even more so. As John Malkovich continues his televised love affair with Siri, I’m getting to grips with using Microsoft Sync  in my new car. Yes, not only can I now shout at my car when I get frustrated but it can talk back!

Thanks to the advances in speech recognition and consumer technology, I can now press a button in my car to make a phone call (“Call Bob at home”), find a restaurant “Find Italian Restaurant”), find my way home (“Directions Home, please”), and listen to any of the thousands of songs on my trusty old iPad Classic (“Play Album ‘Mi Bossa Nova'”). I’m pretty sure I’m close to asking my toaster to make me a lightly done whole-wheat bagel or telling my ice dispenser to make me a White Russian [1].

Sadly, it appears that speech recognition is not quite at the same level as human beings just yet. It appears my car is having a few problems with comprehension and expression. I’m not at the point just yet that I can provide a detailed phonological analysis but I intend to do assessment over the next few weeks.

My first hint that my car may have a disorder came after asking it to “Play track, ‘Fugazi.'” This is from the 1984 album Fugazi by the UK Prog Rock band, Marillion. For those unfamiliar with the word, it’s apparently US army slang and an acronym of “Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In,” which basically means everything has gone to pot, the shit has hit the fan, and the situation is unapologetically dire. The word is pronounced foo-GAH-zee (/fu’gɑ:zi/) or perhaps foo-GA-zih (/fu’gæzɪ/) but either way, it’s a /fu/ sound for the intial CV.

Unless, you are my car. When I tried to ask it to play the track, it seemed to be unable to understand, and it was only when offered me some alternatives that I worked out why; it asked me if I want to listen to FJOO-gah-zee, with the stress now on the first syllable, and an epenthetic palatal approximant, /j/.

Poor thing! Rather that seeing “fu” as being pronounced like “futon,” “further,” “full,” or “fun,” it seems to think it should be treated as the “fu” in “fuel,” “fuchsia,” “fugitive,” or “fume.” Of course, the fact that the pronunciation of “fu” can vary between /fju/ and /fu/ is what’s likely to be causing the problem. The system’s “brain” presumably contains rules that are applied to text strings, and one of those is something along the lines of [“fu”/fju/] and there may then be a list of “exceptions” – of which “fugazi” isn’t a member.

It’s also having a hard time with hearing Hounds Of Love [2], an album brought out by Kate Bush a year after Fugazi. Instead of Hounds Of Love, I get “Playing ‘Pretzel Logic,'” an admittedly terrific album from Steely Dan but irritatingly not the one I wanted!

So, I’ve decided the car needs therapy. It will doubtless be challenging because I can’t show it pictures and ask it to name things, nor can I give it any test that requires a pointing response (“Show me which one is a cat/hat.”) What I can do is ask it to play a selection of tracks and then when it gets the wrong one, jot down the error. Then, while the erroneous track is playing, I can ask it “What’s this?” and see how it pronounces it – which is basically how I discovered the “fugazi” misarticulation.

What I’m really looking forward to is expanding my practice to include the speech and language needs of non-sentient, pre-sentient, and semi-sentient machines that have issues. Surely as more technology becomes speech enabled, more technology will have problems.

Thinking back to my childhood, I suspect I may have stumbled on this while watching the very early (and very black-and-white) Fireball XL5, a UK puppet-based TV show about the adventures of Mike Zodiac and the crew of his spaceship, the Fireball XL5. Sure, the production values were not quite up to those of Prometheus, but this was a long time ago and as a child, your ability to suspend disbelief is stunningly high. One of the crew was Robert the Robot [2], who was made of see-through plastic, had a head like an upturned bucket, and had a problem with intonation and the habit of adding a /Ə/ vowel to the end of a word. Here’s a link to a YouTube clip where you’ll hear a sample of his speech:
 Maybe the plight of that poor mechanical man planted the seed of my becoming an SLP.

In the meantime, if any of you, dear readers, have a Ford with the Sync option, I’d love to hear from you with any examples of mispronunciation that your car has produced, and any mishearings it has demonstrated (like Pretzel Logic for Hounds of Love.)

Once I have a large enough sample, I’m planning to do an analysis and then offer it to the nice folks at Microsoft. That might get me a polite thank you letter or, if Bill Gates is feeling super kind, a new Windows 8 “Surface” when they release it.

Now all I need is for my toaster to develop a lisp…

[1] One part vodka, one part Kahlua, one part cream. If made in a glass directly, drop a few ice cubes in first, followed by the vodka, then Kahlua, and finally the cream. Stir gently. If made in a cocktail shaker, just be sure to fill it; one is never enough, especially while sitting on the porch on a cool summer’s evening. Oh, and don’t skimp – buy good vodka.

[2] The actual track, Hounds of Love, contains a clip at the very beginning that says, “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” This is from an excellent 1957 movie from French director Jaques Tournier called Night of the Demon (UK) / Curse of the Demon (US). Described by one critic as “one of the most intelligent and thoughtful horror films ever made,” it’s a black-and-white horror flick about a skeptical American psychologist, Dr. John Holden, who is cursed by an ever-so-English cult leader, Julian Karswell. It’s an amazingly atmospheric film and the fact that it is shot in black and white actually enhances it.

[3] The diminutive form of Robert is, of course, Rob or Robby (or Robbie, as our Scottish friends would insist). Anderson’s choice of name may have been influenced by the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, a loose remake of Shakespeare’s best play, The Tempest. The movie has the first appearance of Robby the Robot, who was destined to become an iconic cast member for the classic 1965/66 series Lost in Space.

Robby the Robot

Robby the Robot

Isaac Asimov also had a character called Robbie in a story of the same name back in 1940. However, the first use of Robbie is, according to Wikipedia, from a 1935 story by Lester Dent and Walter Ryerson Johnson called The Fantastic Island. Robbie is a mechanical version of the story’s hero, Doc Savage, used by him to confuse his evil foes.

Is “Foreign Accent Syndrome” a Cinnamon Bun?

On October 15th, 1996, bakers at the Bongo Java Roasting Company were surprised to find that nestled among a tray full of fresh cinnamon buns was one pastry that looked uncannily like Mother Teresa. In fact, it was so uncanny that for some, it became miraculous; evidence that The Great Baker in the Sky was sending us messages to prove His existence.

Bun like Mother Teresa

Nun or bun?

Or was it?

What we can see going on here is the confluence of two effects: Patternicity, [1] a cognitive bias based on the tendency to see patterns when none exists, and the Law of Truly Large Numbers, which states that given really large samples sizes, weird things will happen.

The TLN thing can be dealt with pretty easily in this case. How many cinnamon buns do you think are baked on a single day at the Bongo Java House? Let’s assume 100, which is probably very conservative. What’re the odds that one of those might look a little like Mother Teresa? Probably unlikely.

But the Bongo Java House had been open since 1993, six days a week for 50 weeks a year, which gives us a bun total of 90,000 over a three-year period. So what are the odds that one of those might resemble Mother Teresa? Now it’s seeming a little more possible.

Now think about how many bakeries there are in the entire USA, churning out cinnamon buns by the bucketload for three years. The 2009 US Census said there are over 38,000 retail bakeries, and on that basis, we can  estimate that some 3,420,000,000 buns were made between 1993 and 1996. So, one more time – how likely do you think it is that one of those looked similar to Mother Teresa? Or Barack Obama? Or even yourself?

Given such huge numbers, it is almost inevitable that a Nun Bun will appear, and it only takes ONE person to spot one to make the miracle. Only it’s not really a miracle but a natural consequence of the law of Truly Large Numbers. [2]

Let’s go one step further with this. Suppose the media got a hold of this miraculous appearance of Mother Teresa (which they did) and suddenly told millions of people about it. Up until this point, no-one was expecting a Nun to pop up in their daily box of high-calorie pastries so no-one was really looking. But once you’ve heard about one Nun, folks will start looking for another. And given that there are millions of buns made every day, the odds of finding one are good.

Out of 3 billion buns over three years, do you think it likely that we could find, say, 10 such Nun Buns? Easily. Bear in mind that there’s also some flexibility built in to the notion of “resembling” or “looking like” Mother Teresa; the bun doesn’t have to be the spitting image but enough to garner consensus from a large group of observers that it’s a reasonable apporximation. So you’re not just looking for a single example of a bun that looks exactly like Mother Teresa but clusters of buns that have common features. Put another way, it’s not that we have one bun in 100 that looks just like Mother T, but 3 or 4 that “sort of” look like her. This increases the odds of finding miraculous munchies.

So here’s the big question: Given that we find 10 ersatz nuns out of our multi-million sample, can we now talk about a special “Mother Teresa effect?” Is there a mysterious force that creates Mother Teresa buns? Is this proof that the Great Baker in the Sky really exists?

Sadly, no. We’ve stacked the odds of finding the “Mother Teresa effect” by setting up what we want to find in advance. By defining what we’re looking for – a bun that looks like a specific nun – given an large enough pool of buns from which to draw our examples, we’ll find her. [3]

All of which brings us to the topic of Foreign Accent Syndrome. This is a rather dramatic pathology that has been defined as “a motor speech disorder in which patients develop a speech accent which is notably different from their premorbid habitual accent. [4]” Other researchers have suggested that there may be cases of FAS that are psychogenic in origin [5], may be a prosodic disorder [6], [7], or developmental in nature [8].

According to Akhlaghi, Jahangiri, Azarpazhooh, Elyasi, and Ghale (2011), “Most FAS cases reported so far have been due to a stroke involving lesions in different cortical and subcortical areas of the language dominant hemisphere (mainly left hemisphere). [9]”

Linguistically, a wide range of features have been reported as being significant in creating the “foreign sounding” nature of the speech. These include the reduction or simplification of consonant clusters, consonant or vowel deletion, consonantal changes of articulation, vowel changes of articulation, epenthesis or metathesis, and vowel diphthongization.

Such variability suggests that there is less of  syndrome going on here than we might want to believe. Rosenbek (1999) suggested that because many of the features of FAS are similar to those of a more general apraxia of speech (AoS), we should treat is as a subtype of this. Marien, Verhoeven, Engelborghs, Rooker, Pickut, and De Deyn (2006) note that, “research has neither been able to identify a coherent system in the speech errors nor to separate it unambiguously from AoS [10]. What seems more likely is that this is more of a cinnamon bun than a specific disorder. Back in 1996, Kurowski and Blumstein said of FAS:

Why then do we persist in seeking to characterize the phonetic characteristics of this disorder, its potential neuropathology, and its underlying mechanism, instead of concluding that the foreign accent syndrome is an epiphenomenon existing only in the “ears” of the beholder. [11]

In contrast, the same authors change their minds in a 2006 paper where they say that:

On the basis of consideration of the various case study reports in the literature and our own work, we have proposed that the foreign accent syndrome is properly considered a syndrome and that it is distinct in both its characteristics and underlying mechanism from an apraxia of speech, a dysarthria or an aphasic speech output disorder. We also proposed that the foreign accent syndrome is primarily a disorder of linguistic prosody. [12]

But this doesn’t convince me. Like the Nun Bun, the condition is predefined; it’s “any example of a general motor problem that sounds like a foreign accent.” Given the many, many ways an apraxia could present, a small cluster will indeed sound similar to some other language. And studies suggest that when you ask naive listeners to identify a specific language, they tend to be less than accurate; they can, at best, simply say, “it sounds foreign as opposed to just unintelligible.”

And statistically, like the Nun Bun, we are talking about some 60 cases in refereed journals since 1947 [7] among many other cases of AoS where the client has NOT been described as having a foreign accent. Patternicity and Truly Large Numbers can explain the phenomenon without the need to propose some special etiology or feature set. In terms of therapy, it’s unlikely that one would take a fundamentally different approach to intervening with a client who “has” FAS as opposed to someone identified as having apraxic symptoms.

Foreign accent syndrome may make for good TV and catch the ears of the media at large, but there’s still limited evidence that it deserves, or needs, to be a special syndrome.


[1] I talked about this in an earlier post with a review of Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. Other words to describe this phenomenon of finding patterns when none exists are apophenia and the clustering illusion.

[2] “Miracles” frequently turn out to examples of the human tendency to count the hits and ignore the misses i.e. to ignore the fact that when very, very large numbers are involved, weird things can occur. A 2010 plane crash in Libya killed 103 people but one child survived. Although the media was quick to call him the “miracle” child, the other 103 people clearly didn’t get to partake of the same luck. And those people who claimed to have dreamed about the crash the night before it happened weren’t compared with all the people in the world who have ever dreamed about a crash that didn’t happen.

[3] Some of you may be reminded of the story that if you have an infinite number of monkeys typing letters at random, you’ll eventually end up with a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Law of Truly Large Numbers says that you don’t have to have an infinite number of monkeys but just lots of them and a large amount of time.

[4] Verhoeven, J. and Marien, P. (2006). Neurogenic foreign accent syndrome: Articulatory setting, segments and prosody in a Dutch speaker. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 23, 599-614.

[5] Verhoeven, J., Mariën, P., Engelborghs, S., D’Haenen, H. and De Deyn, P. P. (2005). A foreign speech accent in a case of conversion disorder. Behavioural Neurology, 16, 225-232.

[6] Haley, K.L., Roth, H.L., Helm-Estabrooks, N. and Thiessen, A. (2010). Foreign accent syndrome due to conversion disorder: Phonetic analyses and clinical course.  Journal of Neurolinguistics, 23, 28-43.

[7] Haley, K.L. (2009). Dysprosody and Foreign Accent Syndrome. Perspectives on Neurophysiology and Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders, 19, 3, 90-96.

[8] Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Wackenier, P., Engelborghs, S. and De Deyn, P. P. (2009). Foreign accent syndrome as a developmental motor speech disorder. Cortex, 45, 870-878.

[9] Akhlaghi, A.,  Jahangiri, N., Azarpazhooh, M.R., Elyasi, M. and Ghale, M. (2011). Foreign Accent Syndrome: Neurolinguistic Description of a New Case. In Proceedings of 2011 International Conference on language, literature and linguistics. Dubai, UAE.

[10] Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Engelborghs, S., Rooker, S., Pickut, B.A. and De Deyn, P. P. (2006). A role for the cerebellum in motor speech planning: Evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 108, 518-522.

[11] Kurowski, K.M. and Blumstein, S.E. (1996). Foreign Accent Syndrome: A Reconsideration. Brain and Language, 54, 1-25.

[12] Blumstein, S.E. and Kurowski, K. (2006). The foreign accent syndrome: A perspective. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19, 346-355.

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai: Book Review

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Ruiyan Xu
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Paperback UK Edition, 2011: £7:99
Kindle US hard cover: $4:81 (pbk. to be released October 2011)
Kindle US download, $11:99

Cover for The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai

This debut novel from Shanghai-born Ruiyan Xu is an exploration into the powerful role language plays in human relationships, and how the loss of this capacity can have serious, perhaps even irreversible effects on even our most personal interactions.

The basic premise of the story is that following a singularly unique brain injury, successful Shanghai businessman, Li Jing, loses his ability to speak. What is also key to the problem is that although he can comprehend both English and Chinese, the only language in which he makes any progress in broken English, his second language that he learned as a child when his family moved to North Carolina. Tragically, neither his wife, Meiling, nor his 8-year-old son, Pang Pang, can understand English.

To help with is rehabilitation, the hospital enlist the help of a US neurologist, Rosalyn Neal, who is a specialist in rare brain injuries and also going through a divorce. As a mirror linguistic image to Ji Ling’s wife, Rosalyn neither speaks nor understands Chinese.

It’s clearly not a clinical textbook. Any thoughts of gleaning some tips on how to work with bilingual aphasics should be abandoned even before picking up the book. There’s a half-hearted attempt at using an electronic translation dictionary as an augmentative communication system but nothing else appears to have been tried. Then again, this is a novel and not a pedagogic textbook so I may be being a little too critical. So let’s get back to the characters.

As a speech therapist, Rosalyn Neal is a good neurologist. She’s also not much of a psychoanalyst because her comprehension of the concepts of transference and counter-transference in the therapeutic relationship appear to be as foreign to her as Mandarin Chinese. And despite her initial plans to learn some Chinese, she is so wrapped up in her emotional distress that this doesn’t happen. Once she finds an ex-pat community to hang out with, her non-learning is pretty much assured. There are, in fact, times when Li Jing appears to be more linguistically capable than Rosalyn!

In truth, I don’t quite care for her. She’s not a heroine but all too human, to the point of being selfish. The world revolves around her, even though she wants to believe she is “caring” and “professional.” She is more Id than Ego or Superego and causes more conflicts than she cares to acknowledge or even be aware of.

In contrast, Meiling gets all my sympathy. She is the one who struggles most to come to terms with her husband’s injury. This is compounded by the fact that Li Jing’s successes were based on his ability to schmooze and cajole investors into parting with large amounts of money to his company, and without his speech, he is nothing. Meiling has to struggle with holding her family together and change her own life in order to do this. She is heroic.

Li Jing sits in the middle. I’d even be tempted to cast his role as that of the amanuensis of the emotions between his wife and his doctor. Although his spoken language is damaged, he works, unconsciously, as an interpreter of the feelings exhibited by the women. Rosalyn interprets Meiling’s emotional status by how Li Jing responds to her, and Meiling understands Rosalyn by how Li Jing reacts in her presence.

And it is this interplay of the non-verbal that makes the novel interesting. Other strands include the part played by Li Jing’s father; the relationship between Li Jing and Pang Pang; on the ways Meiling has to re-evaluate her roles as wife, mother, and professional now that Li Jing is unable to work. All of these are critical to the story but the narrative is fundamentally about the difference between spoken language and non-verbal communications.

The actual writing is fluid and colorful. The corpus linguist in me wants to download the Kindle version and run it through a concordance software and analyze keywords, where I suspect adjectives would shine. Some of the best prose comes in relation to the weather in Shanghai. For example;

As soon as they leave the air-conditioned cool of the hospital Rosalyn begins to sweat. It’s almost the middle of July, and the sun hammers down, vicious, the light almost pulverized. She doesn’t know how all these women in Shanghai can just float by in wispy silk dresses in this heat, their faces dewy and flushed instead of streaked with sweat.

Notice how the first sentence contrasts “cool” with “sweat,” and how the heat “hammers” and “pulverizes” yet the women merely “flush” and “float.” Xu isn’t afraid to use adjectives and is restrained enough to keep her writing from becoming mere purple prose.

Ultimately, the book is a satisfying read. The three main characters are solid and you get to see them change as the plot unfolds. You will doubtless have different sympathies and empathies to mine but that’s the sign of a good novel, the opera aperta of Umberto Eco where text has more than one meaning and interpretation by the reader is the critical element, not just the strings of words on a page.

Ruiyan Xu

Ruiyan Xu (image © Bloomsbury Press)

And talking of being doggedly skeptical…

It’s called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and defined by the American Humane Society as;

… a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process. AAT is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.

So what are we to make about Scout the Labrador who apparently is a skilled phonetician. In a recent article from the Missoulian newspaper, SLP Nancy Jo Connell takes her dog with her when treating children with language problems. Now, there’s some evidence (and not a lot) that pets such as dogs and cats can make someone feel better, and kids with autism appear to relate to animals.

Therapy dog

"I think that was a linguolabial trill!"

But where do we draw the line on the claims made about AAT? How about here?

He has a big vocabulary. When children with speech problems use the right word the right way, he responds. When autistic children who have problems with self-expression speak, he responds. When deaf children sign to him, he responds.

Really? A big vocabulary? The dog? Has he been assessed on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test? Did he bark the answer or just paw the pictures? It’s always a good idea to be open minded but not so open that your brains fall out.

Here’s an explanation of how it works from Connell:

With Scout, the children don’t have to be “corrected” if they use the wrong word.

If Scout doesn’t respond, Connell and others simply encourage them to find the right sound or word.

“It’s not a corrective model,” she said. “We don’t tell them what’s wrong. If they say a word and Scout doesn’t respond, we say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t understand you.’ “

Ah, so the truth is not necessarily that the dog understands the kids but that this is more of an example of a therapist using facilitated communication with animal. If the assertion is that Scout can process human speech and “know” the answer to something, we’re going to need a little more evidence than kids “use the right words, he responds.”

Badge for certified therapy dogs

Official CTD Badge

The problem here is whether SLP’s as a profession are interested in evidence-based practice or not. We can choose to “go with our gut” because in the case of having dogs around the clinic, unless the pooch actually bites a client, there’s no law necessarily being broken, and if you are sincerely advocating for using your pet as a therapy tool the least you can do is provide some objective measures of intervention with and without “Fluffy,” “Spot,” or “Lassie.” Hopefully the claims for Scout’s vocabulary size and ability to discriminate correct and incorrect responses is more journalistic hyperbole than alleged practicum fact.

For a reasonably sober summary of AAT, you could stop by the website of the Interactive Autism Network and read their article on findings. They point out that, “there is little research-based evidence that AATs lead to specific gains by children with ASD, but interest in the topic is growing in parallel with the field of AAT itself.”

By all means enjoy your pets, but avoid outrageous claims about their clinical skills. And after all, if animals really are that smart, how long do you think it will be before employees replace you with Champion the Wonder Horse?