Foreign accent syndrome

My dad told me about this article he’d read about a woman who woke up from jaw surgery to find her accent had changed. Interesting… Obviously everyone’s first thought is that her new jaw position is somehow affecting her speech. But there’s probably more to it than that.

Your physical makeup, including your jaw, is definitely important for speech, but it doesn’t actually control your accent. Just think of all the different kinds of jaws people can have even within a small community.

File:Jaws Book 1975 Cover.jpg

Jaws 1, Jaws 2, Jaws 3… (Wikimedia Commons)

Actually, humans are excellent at compensating for physical differences and coming out with pretty much the same sounds as people around them. Sure, after surgery it might take a while before your muscles get up to speed with their new targets, and you might struggle to relearn certain sounds. But an accent is something much bigger.

An accent is a huge, complex system which governs not only how certain sounds are formed, but which variations of those sounds are acceptable. For example, an English person might pronounce “bottle” with a glottal stop in the middle, [bɒʔʊɫ] “bo’ul”, whereas an Australian or American might use a tap, [bɒɾʊɫ] “borul”. The accent determines which sounds are allowed to substitute /t/. Another thing that can differ between accents is prosody, which includes things like speech melody, how stress falls on certain words (e.g. aluminium vs. aluminium), or even how fast you speak or what kind of voice quality you have (nasal, creaky, etc).

So where did the new accent come from? In this case, it’s something called foreign accent syndrome. Basically after a trauma, your brain somehow blocks your normal accent and makes you speak differently. I remember hearing about a similar phenomenon with one of Sigmund Freud’s patients who forgot her mother tongue after a serious illness, but could still speak other languages. There are also (unverified) reports of people who’ve randomly started speaking languages they never knew before.

The weirdest thing about the woman in the news story was that she was from Texas and had never been further than Mexico, but somehow ended up with a British accent. In this day and age that might not be completely unexplainable, there’s plenty of British people on American TV (I think she sounds a bit like the Supernanny), but it makes you wonder if your brain just stores everything you hear in a secret stash somewhere. I’d be really interested in listening to some longer recordings to hear if there are any features of her old accent still there. Apparently though, it’s slowly started to change, because even though there’s technically “no cure” for foreign accent syndrome, exposure and dialect coaching could help her work her way back to her old way of speaking.



Hip grandmas

My guilty pleasure is a Channel 4 show called Supersize vs Superskinny. You don’t have to guilt trip me for it, because I turn it into work (just like I turn jokes into work). This might not happen to you, but sometimes I hear something and I just have to rewind and listen again (like when I heard someone say “a brexit” the other day, and I realised that it’s a count noun now). So I’m watching this show where people swap diets to help them lose/gain weight, and this week the two participants are two women, one who is 34 and one who is 70. And the 70-year-old talks like this:

Lunch would only be like, scrambled eggs and two bits of toast.

I want to be able to like, still pick the kids up and, hug them and stuff.

Older people don’t usually use “like” like that. What’s going on?

At first I thought she might be putting it on. She’s on a TV show for a much younger audience, her grandkids might be watching, and she probably wants to sound young and hip. It’s not uncommon for people to change how they talk depending on who’s listening. For instance, I swear a lot more when I talk to my siblings than when I talk to my parents, and I don’t swear at all when I talk to my supervisor. People switching speech styles is a really common problem in speech research: we want to study natural speech, but then we record people in a lab. Which makes them nervous and self-conscious, especially because they know they’re being recorded. And usually none of their friends are there to call them out if they start talking differently. So they either guard their speech more, or try to impress you. Either way, they don’t talk like they usually do. We call this the observer’s paradox.

Philosoraptor - if people change when they're observed how do we know what they're really like

Obligatory meme summary. (memegenerator)

Another option is that she’s been influenced by her grandkids. According to the show she’s 70 years old and a great-grandma, which means her grandkids are probably somewhere in their 20s-30s and her great grandkids probably between 0-10. Both age groups are likely to use “like” a lot, because like it or not, young people do. “Like” has been around for a long time, but it only seems to have taken off in the last 30 years or so (see Tagliamonte’s work on “be like”). Older people don’t tend to use “like” as much because it hasn’t been on their radar very long. But if they have a lot of contact with younger people, they might pick it up gradually without even noticing. They might not use it as much as a teenager does, but it’ll be in their inventory. Could that be it?

Well, the final theory is that “like” is simply a remnant from her own youth. Like I mentioned, “like” has been around for a long time, and I’m pretty sure it was already a thing in the 1960s when she was a young adult. Our teenage years are an interesting time because at this age we tend to use more slang and non-standard language than later in life. Usually we get rid of this kind of language and start “talking proper” when we start working, but it doesn’t end there. As we hit middle age, some of these forms come creeping back, and by the time people retire they sometimes use as much non-standard language as they did when they were teenagers. Of course by this time their slang might be quite dated, and they might mainly use local slang anyway, but it might be enough to raise a few eyebrows. This social phenomenon is known as age-grading, and could be one reason why a 70-year-old might talk like a teen. Basically neither of them care what other people think, so they just talk how they like. Including, like, using “like”, like, a bunch.

“These hats are on fleek, my baes, and I don’t give two sh*ts what nobody says.” (Wikimedia Commons)


SciFest aftermath

Having recovered from the excitement of the Glasgow Science Festival I’m now ready to tell you all about it.

Our first event this year was a walk-up science fair stall in the Kelvingrove Museum, where we brought our ultrasound machine and let people come up and image themselves talking, eating, drinking and tongue-twisting. The event was really popular and it was great to see so much interest from all kinds of different ages; most people don’t think about how complicated speech really is, and when they’re find out they’re fascinated. Among the highlights were all the different languages we managed to image, from English and Gaelic to Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and many more. We also brought along a laptop with the Seeing Speech website for people to browse. It was two intense days (there were queues forming on more than one occasion), but time flew by and it was really rewarding. Plus my supervisors gave me brownie points for bringing jellies in the shape of teeth and lips, so I’ll remember that one.

The following weekend we set up camp in the Glasgow University Laboratory of Phonetics (lovingly known as GULP) for a trio of speech events (one led by me, and two by my colleagues). Parts of the day were filmed by a TV crew who’ve said it should be broadcast at some point this autumn, so that’s very exciting! The rest of the day was a lot quieter than the Kelvingrove weekend, but very good and also well-received. Most of the events started with a little talk giving necessary background to the different topics, and then we put the participants at different work stations to do some independent exploring. The event that I led started out with some information about the anatomy and acoustics of speech production, and then we had three work stations with tasks set for each one. One group were browsing the Seeing Speech website and drawing different speech sounds, one were constructing paper larynxes (larynx = the organ where the vocal folds are), and a third one were imaging themselves with the ultrasound. Unfortunately we forgot to take pictures of most of this, but here are some from the day at large.

The best thing about these events was that we organised a similar day last year, which was successful but where the format didn’t quite work (basically a large-group activity, but the groups tended to either be too shy or get too enthusiastic and get off topic). This year we worked really hard to find something that would work for everyone, and were really pleased with the results. People were enthusiastic, worked really well, engaged with us and seemed like they were learning a lot. So overall, I’m super happy with our contribution to the Science Festival this year, and hopefully they’ll have us back again next June. Looking forward to it!

Glasgow SciFest ’16

My colleagues and I are appearing at the Glasgow Science Festival this year, and I’m very excited. 2015 was my first year, with two speech workshops for school kids that went down really well. This year we’ve got a similar workshop plus two walk-up events at Kelvingrove Museum, all ultrasound based. So there’ll be some ultrasound scanning of tongues, some treasure-hunting on the Seeing Speech website, some science talk, and probably also some fooling around with our rudimentary vocal tract (consisting of a balloon, a duck whistle and a rubber tube). If this sounds like your idea of a good day out, you know where to find us. If not, I’ll be reporting on our adventures in due course. Till then!


Who said phoneticians don’t know how to have a good time?

Look deep into the windpipe

Let’s talk vocal cords. Or, actually, let’s talk vocal folds, because that’s what phoneticians call them. I think it’s because “cords” makes it sound like people have little harps down their throats. Not that these kinds of figurative names stopped the funny bone or the uvula (literally “little grape”, a.k.a. the wee punching bag at the back of your throat). So what are the vocal folds and what do they do? Well, I hope you’re ready.

I remember being showed this clip in my first phonetics class, and inexplicably I’m still here seven years later. What the hell was that? Well, some singers were kind enough to let someone film their vocal folds by sliding a tiny camera down through their nose and into their windpipe. Apparently the procedure isn’t as horrible as it sounds, and most people can get through it without gagging (although those with over-sensitive gag reflexes usually get their throats numbed with a sedative spray).

The cameras are looking down into the larynx (a.k.a. the voice box, another interesting name), which is basically an organ made of muscle and cartillage that makes sure food doesn’t go down the wrong pipe. The so-called Adam’s apple (seriously, what’s up with the names?) is actually just the front part of the larynx, which tends to stick out a bit. The larynx also acts as scaffolding for the vocal folds, which sit near the bottom.

In the video, the kind of triangular hole you can see is the space between the vocal folds. It opens up when the singers breathe, and very nearly closes up when they’re singing. The narrowing does two things: firstly, it makes the vocal folds really tense, and secondly, it makes the air push harder as it’s coming through a smaller opening. This makes the vocal folds vibrate, creating a buzzing noise. The generic buzz is then “shaped” by the throat and mouth, magically turning it into speech (read all about it in a previous post).

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Or in some cases, magically turning it into poop. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some people need to have their larynx removed for medical reasons, meaning they can’t generate the vocal fold buzz by themselves. Instead, they can use an electrolarynx, a device you hold against your throat which generates the buzz for you. The result is a bit unnerving, not only because you’re basically lip synching to yourself, but also because unlike the vocal folds, a lot of electrolarynxes can’t change pitch, which makes the speech sound very monotone and robotic.

I guess the take-home message here is to take care of your larynx. In order to help you with this I took the liberty of googling “larynx health”, and found this piece of Australian advice: “A common irritation to the larynx is voice abuse, which includes screaming, singing or shouting too much.” If this is a problem for you, maybe reassess your life situation. Also I’ve heard you shouldn’t whisper when you have a cold or something. Over and out.

Crashcourse in Swedish compounds

So I’m Swedish. But for a Swedish linguist, I don’t really engage much with the language; since I moved to Scotland most of my life has pretty much been in English. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot to be said for Swedish. And the combination of me trying to teach it to my boyfriend while at the same time becoming more and more inept at it myself has resulted in a lot of discoveries about how absolutely crazy and amazing Swedish is.


For example, this is normal.

Just like lots of other languages, Swedish has a number of words which are wildly amusing to English speakers. Some examples include slut (end, finish), fart (speed), fack (compartment; also Facket, the worker’s union), kock (chef) and prick (dot). But it’s in our actual rude words that Swedish really shines. Who wouldn’t be offended if someone called them a luspudel (flea poodle), snorvalp (snot puppy), fåntratt (silly funnel) or hönshjärna (chicken brain)? In Sweden there’s even a law against calling policemen pigs, because of the popular rhyme polis, polis, potatisgris (police, police, potato pig). I mean it’s strong stuff.

These compound words are probably my favourite aspect of Swedish, because they tend to get so creative. Although Swedish has plenty of loan words, the old school approach was just to make up new expressions using words we already had. With some ingenious results, my favourites including: stekspade (frying spade = spatula), bläckfisk (ink fish = octopus), morrhår (growl hairs = whiskers), strumpbyxor (sock trousers = tights) and sugrör (suck pipe = straw).


I just spent 10 minutes on this. (Memegenerator, mostly)

Compounding is very common in Scandinavian languages, as well as German and Dutch, which is the reason why some of our words are so long. To go back to swearing, it’s totally legit to call your stalling car an idiotfanskapsmackapär (idiot-work-of-the-devil-device). Or, to give a more culturally valid example, to call a party that goes on for months and is widely and frequently discussed in the media eurovisionsschlagerfestivalen (a.k.a. Eurovision). Because life in the Arctic Circle just isn’t hard enough without a constant supply of tongue twisters.

I’d like to finish off with a few honourable mentions from nature, a domain where I think most languages get quite creative. Let me know if you have any good ones, here are my picks of the bunch (sorry): prästkrage (priest collar = daisy), maskros (worm rose = dandelion), fetknopp (fat bud = sedum plant), käringtand (hag’s tooth, apparently this flower is known as “bacon and eggs” in the UK), jordgubbe (earth man = strawberry), björnbär (bear berry = blackberry).

Now go off into the world and impress your friends!



All things linguistic

A couple of days ago we had a visit from internet linguist extraordinaire Gretchen McCulloch, who talked to us about web impact a.k.a. how to make people care about your research on social media. I immediately realised that I’ve bookmarked several of her posts on various sites without realising that she was a single person, and proceded to apologise. Gretchen has a lot of stuff going on: she’s written articles for a number of websites including The Toast, Mental Floss and Grammar Girl, and also runs a blog called All Things Linguistic. My favourite thing by her is probably this explanation of how we create weird nicknames for Benedict Cumberbatch, because let’s face it, we’ve all been there.

As a young padawan it was exciting to meet Gretchen because she’s not only capable of giving pro tips, but she’s also really enthusiastic about what she does. As weird as it might sound, a lot of academics don’t share the joy of sharing, but venture into social media anyway because “impact” is a red hot buzzword right now. Which can make the whole thing feel a bit like a chore.


“Do you find research makes blogging a chore? Well then, maybe you don’t deserve to blog at all.” (Spoilsbury Toast Boy 2)

So how does one write for the internet, without it feeling like a chore, in a format people will actually want to read? Here are some of Gretchen’s pro tips (as I understood them anyway):

  1. Only write when you feel like it, and about stuff you like! Bookmark interesting stuff and write about it.
  2. Find your academic blogger voice. It’s probably going to be different from your academic voice and your normal internet voice. It might take a while to find. Keep writing!
  3. Keep it simple. If you can replace jargon with normal words, do that. Maybe introduce 1-2 terms per post.
  4. Make posts self-contained. People don’t read your posts in order. Make sure everything they need is right there.
  5. Choose the right platform for you. For example, WordPress has a lot of nice blog features, but Tumblr has more of a culture of reblogging and sharing. Using several platforms to promote your blog, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, can also be useful to build an audience.

I found these helpful, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and put them up here. (See! I’m both being productive and sharing with fellow baby bloggers!) The third bird is obviously encouraging you to go and check out Gretchen’s stuff, because it totally counts as work.