Tag: linguistics

The Linguistic Phenomenon Du Jour: Vocal Fry

By Veronique Greenwood | December 13, 2011 1:26 pm

What’s the News: Rarely has a humble little sound aroused such interest as in the last few days, as a paper about a phenomenon called vocal fry, a creak in someone’s voice as they speak, has been propelled to web prominence. Though many outlets got some basic facts wrong—the new study doesn’t actually show that fry has become more common among young women, just that it was common in the small group surveyed—all recognized the opportunity to launch into something we wish we knew more about: why we make funny sounds when we talk.

How the Heck:

  • Vocal fry is a low, rumbling creak that, in English speakers, seems to appear mostly at the ends of sentences and has been captured in voice recordings going back to the early part of last century. Below is a clip (start watching at 34 seconds) with Mae West showing vocal fry on the “me” in “Why don’t you come up sometime, see me,” identified by the linguistics wonks at Language Log. Basically, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from falsetto.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain

Clever Study Uses Genetics Trick to Trace Language Back to Its Very Beginning, in Africa

By Valerie Ross | April 15, 2011 2:47 pm

walking
Likely area of language origin, in white, based on:
A) phonemes found in individual languages and
B) phoneme diversity averaged across language families

What’s the News: Southern Africa may be the birthplace of human language, according a new study published yesterday in Science. The study further suggests that language may have arisen only once, with one ancestral language giving rise to all modern tongues, an idea linguists have long debated. This finding parallels the human migrations out of Africa supported by genetic and fossil evidence.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins

Is Grammar More Cultural Than Universal? Study Challenges Chomsky’s Theory

By Veronique Greenwood | April 15, 2011 10:43 am

tree
Researchers traced word rules across more than 3,000 languages.

What’s the News: Noam Chomsky, look out: If language has any universal grammar, it’s hiding really well, conclude the authors of a recent Nature study. The idea that all human languages share some underlying structure, regardless of where or when they evolved, an influential idea that nonetheless has drawn some controversy since Chomsky popularized it in the 1950s. One part of natural-grammar theory is the idea that certain word order rules (whether the verb or the noun goes first and whether a preposition goes before or after a noun, for example) will always associate together, regardless of which language they occur in.

But when cognitive scientists and a biologist teamed up to see whether there were shared patterns in word order across four large language families, they found almost none. A common cultural background, they found, was the best predictor for how a language orders words.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
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