Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dissertation in a nutshell

So months ago I posted an entry about Finnish hockey as an intro to my dissertation topic. The point was supposed to be that it's hard for us non-Finns to even figure out how many words are in a sentence that someone speaks, and yet Finnish babies who are too young to wipe their own butts figure it out. Then later I went over a bunch of cues for finding words that infants, and adults, might use. Apparently that was 8 months ago now and I never even got around to my actual dissertation topic.

So here it is.

I am looking at the importance of timing in finding words. People have expectations for when things will happen based upon some sort of internal clock. The internal clock isn't as regular as one with the little quartz crystal, but it's there. Let's say you are reading this blog post during the day. What would happen if you brought this text up and after reading one sentence you got a phone call from the family wondering why you didn't come home for dinner? It would surprise the hell out of you. You might not know precisely when dinner will happen, but you know roughly when it is, and you know that reading one sentence won't take you however many hours it is between now and that time.

The more structured our temporal environment is, the more precise our internal clock can be, and it is most precise when it's got a beat. You've got rhythm and it helps you understand the world.

My dinner example is a very vague internal clock. You know it's sometime in a few hours, but that may be about it. But listen to a song with a strong beat and you can tap your foot right along. Trained musicians will hit the same beat within tens of milliseconds, and us regular folk aren't that far off. We know exactly when the next thing is going to happen. Here's Stevie Wonder's band on Sesame Street again, just because I can't help but link to this. If you watch it, notice how many musicians are playing at once here - 8 perhaps? They all know precisely when each event is going to happen. Also, notice how many muscles are involved in playing an instrument. Just looking at the sax, he's got to move the muscles in his finger, diaphragm for breathing into the instrument in short bursts, very controlled tension in the lips, and probably some tongue work. That's a good 10? 15? muscles moving all at once in exact coordination with the trumpet next to him. Add up the band and you might have 200 muscles moving as one. Finally, notice how natural finding a beat is by watching the awesome kid in the red shirt shaking everything he's got.

Now here you might think we are cheating because there's a drummer marking every major beat precisely. True, but most of us can find the beat in Bach's Air on a G String as well. You don't shake your money maker with it, but the events are very structured in time.

And to make my final musical point, here's a link to Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Sabre Dance. Again, here you will see an enormous number of people all playing within milliseconds of one another, but I also chose this one because B used to be captivated by this song when still an infant. He'd be crying his head off in the car and we'd put this on and silence was almost immediate. Usually in 2 or 3 listens, he'd fall asleep. Infants, though they can't create a beat by dancing or hitting, can hear it.

Overall the point is that a sound, properly structured, allows us to make incredibly precise predictions of when something will happen. Now language is certainly not as structured in time as music is clearly. We rarely want to tap along when our boss calls us on the phone. I don't listen to John McCain and shake my groove thang, shake my groove thang, yeah, yeah. (Though maybe I will try that now; could make the upcoming Conventions a lot more fun.) But it does have some temporal patterning. It's this pattern that lets us know if someone is speaking quickly or slowly. Often we will even match our own speech rate to theirs when we talk to them in casual conversation. Our ability to expect that certain words or syllables will be of a certain duration allows us to notice when they've been slowed down for emphasis.

I think that people can make some limited predictions about when the beginning of a word will be and this allows them to find words in that interminable stream of speech. That's what I mean by timing. We know what time he will say that word.

More on rhythm in speech at a later date.


Precie said...

Ooh, that's fascinating! Particularly because my husband and I use different temporal patterns. Which can be disconcerting.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yoikes! Maybe I'm glad I decided against that Masters in Linguistics after all. I was just interested in teh sociological implications of word etymology (in the historical context vis waves of conquest.) But you're getting all seriously scientific, overlapping biology and stuff. My brain's smoking just reading your high school level explanation.

Anonymous said...

I also think this is fascinating. As a representative of the golden girls, I have noticed that, with age, the beat in speech changes. More pauses enter the conversation, and it is more difficult to figure out when someone has finished talking because it might just be a long pause. The timing is thrown off, and perhaps that is why older people keep interrupting each other. Just a thought. Keep up the great work! This is a very interesting subject. muffytrue

sylvia said...

Why Finnish? Lack of inflection?