Tag Archives: language

Intersections on CBC Radio


Intersections bannerCheck out the CBC Radio show I took a break from the blog to help create and produce. Here’s a summary:

It’s happening in office towers, restaurant kitchens, even in our own living rooms. Some call it a “clash of cultures”. We call it “Intersections”. It’s a show about how we connect – or not – in our ever-changing Canada. Spouses, colleagues, neighbours and friends talk about the cultural tensions in their relationships. Their unexpected, funny and poignant stories tell us more about who we are and where we’re heading, exposing some uncomfortable truths along the way.  http://www.cbc.ca/intersections

Music makes the word go round


It’s easy to lapse into a sing-song way of talking to babies. Something along the lines of “I love you so much, oh yes I do, oh yes I do do do!”

It’s entertaining and elicitsIMG_1061 a smile or giggle – even some babble, in response. But the baby isn’t responding to what the mother is saying, so much as how she’s saying it.

University of Toronto Psychology professor Sandra Trehub has been looking into this, and presented at a symposium in May. It was the first one ever on music and language held by the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music in Montreal.

Trehub says babies are captivated by maternal speaking, but especially, by singing.

She says the prevailing belief is that language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly, and that music requires more effort. But she stresses that infants are naturally musical. They imitate their parents’ pitch as young as three months.

“So the mother might say ‘hi’ or ‘what are you doing’ and the child might go ‘hu-uh’,” says Trehub. “And later in the first year when infants engage in meaningless babble – baba, gaga – those who have listened to it carefully and measured it carefully, can recognize what language that child comes from. It has some of the rhythms and some of the intonation patterns.”

So if an infant is naturally musical, having a caregiver sing to them can boost their language development. Trehub says even though babies don’t understand the words, mothers can help them buy into language, through song.

“They sell infants on that form – the notion that that’s really interesting to listen to,” says Trehub. “And you know, months down the road, infants buy the content because they’ve already been captivated by the form.” Now, that’s some selling strategy.

ImageSinging teaches infants about how language is constructed. The words are presented slowly and rhythmically, so it’s easy to catch on. Some songs are highly predictable so babies find it very comfortable, and eventually join in.

Trehub says regular singing can help infants absorb words and sounds before they speak. So that when they actually start talking, they have a leg up.

To be clear, it’s live songs, sung to infants because it promotes reciprocal communication. Not listening to a disconnected recording like, say Baby Mozart (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

Besides helping them develop language skills, song can actually help calm babies.

A recent study Trehub co-authored found a baby listened to a voice for four minutes before being distracted. But could listen to a singing voice for NINE minutes. It’s not known exactly why, but it could be due to vocal timbre, which creates pleasing sounds for baby.

Other research backs the benefits of singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to infants before they can speak, adding to a growing body of research singing the praises of song.

So if you like to sing, you might want to sing more to your baby. If not, well, just stick to talking. It’s also proving to give your child that linguistic leg up.

Have a listen!

A Prepositional Tale


December 16, 2012

Once upon a time, we used the preposition “upon”. Alas, its days are numbered.

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales this month, which is inspiration enough to look at the changing nature of prepositions.

Those little words have an important function, usually locating us in time and space. As the way we relate to time and space changes, we reduce our use of words like upon, add others, and modify meanings. Because prepositions morph so much, they can seem confusing.

Robert Lane Greene, who writes The Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language, says it comes down to how these words evolved.

“For example, behind has a hint of the old word “hind quarter” – the hind – so it was something near your rear end, essentially,” says Greene. “So they start very literal [and] they become pretty concrete but still spatially literal. Like behind is a location in space, and then you can say I’m behind in my work and that’s a more abstract meaning.”

So they can be grounded in the physical or the abstract.

But often, the prepositions we use don’t make the most sense. We say in debt, when under debt might be more appropriate. We open up a store in the morning, and close it up at night. An alarm goes off by going on. Even varieties of English differ; we say on the weekend where Britons say at.

“Whether a single preposition is correct isn’t established by a logic; it’s usually just by convention,” says Greene. “We dream about something in English. You say soñar con in Spanish: to dream with something. The speech community itself gets to establish what random preposition out of the bag might go with certain phrases or certain expressions.”

Since preposition use isn’t obvious or even logical, it can be challenging when we have a new spatial relationship. Like moving from physical, to digital.

“Do you say on or in a website?” Greene asks. “For example, Slate calls itself a magazine; it’s a news and commentary website. But people will tend to say on Slate, or in Slate. In some cases, the correct preposition takes a while to shake out [but] usually it will. People say on Twitter, not in Twitter.”

And with research studies proliferating in the news, the media have taken to saying a study out of such and such university, versus by particular researchers.

Over the past half century, we’ve actually added a number of new prepositions, according to Brett Reynolds, an English professor at Humber College. One of them is post, as in: How is the water, post Walkerton? I used it myself the other day: Post vacation, I always feel a little blue (but then I quickly bounce back!).


 So, if we’re continually adopting new ways to use prepositions, why do we cling to the old idea that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition?

We avoid it. Or we do it, but quickly cover up. Or we try to avoid it, and do it anyway.

The idea of preposition “stranding” dates back to the 1600s to poet and essayist John Dryden. He liked to compose his writing in Latin then translate into English – more sophisticated, apparently. And in Latin, a preposition must precede its object. The idea was condoned in an influential grammar book in the 1700s, and stays with us today.

“One linguist I know calls it a zombie rule,” says Greene. “It’s dead and everyone knows it’s dead and yet it keeps on coming at you.”

But in fact, it’s often more natural to end with a preposition. As in: She likes being fussed over; He relishes the project he’s taking on; Who are you talking to?!

If we just moved on from that old-fashioned rule, we would all live happily ever after.

 Listen here:

The Winning Words of Candidates


November 2, 2012

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been posturing and pontificating for what feels like forever; not even superstorm Sandy could slow them much.

Their speeches are wildly applauded (by supporters, at least), closely analyzed and assiduously fact-checked.

With good reason. Campaign speeches can play an important role in determining whom Americans will elect. But some researchers feel that may be due not as much to content or delivery as to the particular words they contain.

They can tell that by using the cool world of mathematics to cut through the blustery bombast of politics.

Chetan Narain, who has a degree in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton and now works for Google, says the actual words in a candidate’s speech are more important than you might think.

“One thing that I think words do, especially in the modern world of Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, is that they stick with you long after the speech is over.”

Think of, ahem, Romney’s comment from a recent presidential debate of having received “binders full of women.”

Narain created a mathematical model that he says can predict who will win a presidential race, based on campaign speeches alone.

This might seem a bit crystal ball-ish. But hang on. What Narain did was analyze more than a thousand speeches from 12 presidential campaigns between 1952 to 1996, as well as 2008.

From that, he created a model that predicted whether a speech came from a winning candidate or a losing one.

Winning words

Speeches clearly can’t encapsulate all the factors that can decide an election. But they can pick up on some interesting intangibles that can help predict a victor.

Mitt Romney likes to emphasize his five-point plan for the American economy. Plan seems to be winning word. 

Narain’s model, for example, highlights three areas: a candidate’s speaking style, the most important issues of the day, and the candidate’s position on those issues.

To have a winning speech, he says, “it’s important to sound urgent, it’s important to sound positive, it’s important to sound confident that you’re going to win and it’s important to make sure that your plans are getting out there.”

There are some key words that often show up in these so-called winning speeches. One of them is very which Obama likes to wing around, as in this phrase: “Citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy.”

It’s a word that invokes a sense of urgency, a call to action.

Other winning words are president and win. Obvious, perhaps, but saying those words seems to make them ring true.

It’s also important, it seems, for a candidate to repeat Republican and Democrat to differentiate and set the tone for a speech. And mentioning Medicare is often applauded, as are the words issue and plan. It seems voters do value ideas — or at least nod to them — after all.

Rhetorical losers

However, throwing around the word Washington does not a winning speech make; it sounds insidery.

Americans also don’t care so much for the words per cent and rate, perhaps because the message can get lost in the numbers. Who wants to do long division when you just want to be inspired?

And while words like vote and elect are winners on some occasions, that is not so much the case when used in the negative, or double-negative, as Romney did here: “To the majority of Americans who now believe the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this — if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”

Narain analyzed almost 100 campaign speeches by Obama and Romney this election. In addition to piling up the winning words, Obama employed verbs 20 per cent more often than Romney, who tends to use clunkier nouns.

Verbs are winners. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that verbs can indicate optimism or enthusiasm.

(He also found that using I denotes someone who is personal, honest, and more humble than someone who says we, which creates distance from the audience. And the research indicates Obama seems to be embracing his I-phrases more often this time around.)

Parties or personalities

All of this winning talk pushed Obama over the top in the first of Narain’s analyses. Sixty per cent of his speeches were classified as winning versus only half of Romney’s.

Sometimes words can fail even the best politicians.

But that was before the two parties’ conventions at the end of the summer.

Since then, Romney has gained swagger, as his rally in Ohio last week attested: “We want real change, we want big change. We’re ready. This is our time. I need your help. We’re going to win on November 6.”

More recently, Narain has found that about 80 per cent of Romney’s speeches are now deemed to be winning, versus only 40 per cent of Obama’s.

“We have gone from a commanding Obama lead to pretty much a dead heat,” says Narain. “I think it’s really interesting to see that swing, and it’s even more exciting to see that swing roughly correlates with what we’re seeing in the polls.”

Interestingly, the model shows that until the convention, Obama uttered Democrat twice as often, and Republican seven times more than Romney.

It appeared he was the one attempting to make the campaign more about differences between the parties.

For his part, Romney has emphasized personalities, by saying Obama’s name 20 per cent more often than is the reverse.

More recently, however, Romney’s name is on the president’s tongue much more often, suggesting the race has become a bit more personal for both of them.

Listen here:

The Desperate Synonyms of Fashionspeak


I took a break to create/produce Babel, a CBC Radio program about the changing English language. Check it out at: cbc.ca/babel.

May 18, 2012

Prowling down the catwalk this season is something called “tribal chic” with its khaki jackets, wooden bangles and animal prints.


Images from left: Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Diane Von Furstenberg.

Tribal is just the latest vogue word to describe a fashion trend. In the last while, we’ve been presented with any number of chics — athletic, street, pajama, granny, geek, eco, even Hitler chic.

We’ve also been hit with steampunk, gothic Lolita and boho grunge.

Fashion can indeed be a strange land. And the people who live there speak a curious language with rules of its own.

“You adopt a certain vernacular when you’re part of the fashion world,” admits Canadian fashion journalist Adrian Mainella, currently editor-in-chief of online style magazine The Aesthete.com.

“It’s a way of thinking and expressing yourself, and there are certain colloquialisms that people use within the fashion world that sometimes makes sense only to the fashion world.

“That’s something that happens because people typically spend a lot of time with one another, both in work and socializing. In a lot of ways, it becomes a tribe.”

So in the spirit of cross-cultural understanding, let’s try to translate some of this language.

‘Flatforming’ the merch

In the industry itself, there are words for the folks who make the fashion world whirl.

One of them is a Jolie Madame, which originally referred to a fashionable Parisian lady, but has since crossed the pond to mean any immaculately elegant, perhaps somewhat aloof woman. You could even tack on Angelina.

The jolie-laide (pretty-ugly) is a woman who will turn heads because she is striking, though not conventionally pretty. And the petite mains (little hands) are the people who actually put all those stylish garments together.

Speaking of throwing things together, the tribe also loves to blend words, as in swancho (a sweater/poncho), and shootie (a shoe/boot).

And abbreviations such as boho (Bohemian) and merch (merchandise) are as common as stilettos and big hair on the runway. Those never seem to go out of style.

Fashionspeak serves a couple of purposes, according to Erin McKean, lexicographer and author of The Secret Lives of Dresses.

“One is to give a ‘handle’ to concepts so they can be discussed easily,” she says.

For example, why say “flat platform shoes” when you can say flatforms?

Another is that, like any jargon, once you’ve mastered it you’re in the tribe. It helps maintain the exclusivity.

Desperate synonyms

Of course you could also say that fashionspeak is really aimed at getting people to buy in to the latest styles.

Designers and retailers put out the same clothes every year — pants, shirts, dresses — but to keep them trendy, they have to sound different from the clothes that were trotted out last season.

And this is where the linguistic gymnastics begin. Nouns get converted into adjectives as in Banana Republic’s explosional florals (what is that?), statement necklace and boyfriend jacket.

Some fit what McKean calls a “yet-but” construction (originally coined by fashion writer Erika Kawalek). A new outfit is a little bit this, yet it’s also that. As in boho-yet-classy, or sumptuous-yet-sporty.

Creative suffixes abound such as “—eggings” to describe, well, anything shaped like a legging. Like jeans, and here’s hoping these jeggings will quietly go away.

There is also the kind of branding that Nancy Friedman labels “fashion singular.” That would be pant instead of pants; a kitten heel instead of heels with an ‘s’, if you please.

Friedman also lays out the “desperate synonyms” used for jeans. They used to be stonewashed, then distressed. Now they’re busted, destroyed and damaged.

And still, people buy them!

“Fun words and colourful words and puns and plays on words — others in the literati think it’s a bastardization of the English language,” says Mainella.

“I think if the consumer connects to that word and that idea, that’s what you’re ultimately trying to achieve.”

Expanding the range

While fashionspeak is probably meant to be the lingo of the in-crowd, there are signs that it’s opening up to a broader audience.

Fashion words, for example, have been burbling up in the blogosphere.

LBD famously stands for Little Black Dress. There’s also VPL (Visible Panty Line), VBS (visible bra strap). Not to mention: LSD (the dangerous little sequinned dress) and TFFF for the too-fat-for-fashion. My, it’s a catty world.


It was actually a blogger who coined a current buzzword. The Man Repeller.com (which brandishes stylish clothes that men just don’t get) thought up arm party for the jangle that a stack of bracelets makes on a woman’s arm.

McKean says fashion bloggers are contributing more to the lexicon these days because they have more “at-bats”. They’re constantly writing about the latest fashion, from what celebrities wore last night, to what they saw on the street this afternoon.

High-end fashion magazines, while they may have regular blogs, tend to save the big splashes for their monthly publications.

As McKean puts it, “you can limit the number of invitations to an in-person fashion show, but you can’t police the internet.” And so the tribe expands.

Now, you likely won’t hear too much of the fashionspeak blog-talk in the haute couture world. But the democratization of the lingo may be a sign that the fashion tribe is willing to take some of those tribal chic bracelets and throw a little arm party —despite themselves.

The Secret to Learning Languages


Jan. 3, 2012

On a trip to Costa Rica, I marvelled at how a fellow traveller could flip so easily between languages. She would go from English to Italian with her friend, to French with someone else.

And then she picked up Spanish. Just picked it up as if it were an empanada at a street stall.

But this woman’s prowess still can’t compare to someone like Alexander Arguelles, an American polyglot who averages about nine hours a day studying dozens of languages.

A typical daily regime: writing and reading in Arabic, then writing at least two pages each of Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Latin, followed by reading Persian and writing two pages of Russian grammar before composing in Latin, doing grammatical exercises in Turkish, trying out a bit of Swahili, and reviewing Irish conversational dialogues.

When he goes running, it’s a different “story.” Literally. He hooks up his headphones and simply listens to an audio book in a foreign language, to exercise his brain as well as his legs.


Arguelles is featured in a new book by writer Michael Erard called Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

The ability to listen. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a conference in Berlin.  

The brightest of these super-learners is the 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, believed to have spoken 72 languages!

Legend has it that Mezzofanti picked up Ukrainian in two weeks, and that he learned the language of two prisoners overnight so he could hear their confessions and grant them forgiveness before they went to the gallows.

While that’s obviously not normal, Erard says that polyglots and hyperpolyglots (people who speak more than six languages) can teach us something.

“The hyperpolyglots are people who have learned how they learn,” says Erard. “They know their cognitive style, they know the strategies that work better for them, they know their environment, and the resources they have access to.”

The challenge for the rest of us is figuring out how we learn languages best.

You may spend years working on Spanish grammar exercises only to find you can barely stitch together a sentence, and that a conversation is a match of linguistic tennis you’re watching from the sidelines.

The way I learned French in school was completely ineffectual: the same grammar rules year after year, marginal increase in vocabulary and minimal dialogue, and unhelpfully taught in English. By the time I finished high school, all I could really do was ask where the train station is.

It took a year in France (and a lot of train travel) for me to become fluent.

Meanwhile, a few years later, a rigorous diet of German every morning, where I was taught in German and repeated everything I heard, had me speaking the language somewhat fluently within three months.

I thought there must be a way of recreating this rapid language learning back at home.

Turns out there is.


Some polyglots, as well as Erard who is not but writes about language, recommend a method called “shadowing.”

Erard says that when he tried this technique with Hindi one afternoon, “the heavens opened” and that he can still remember the Hindi words he learned that day.

The method is simple: go outside, put on headphones and play a bit of the language you’re trying to learn.

Then walk briskly, staying upright and, in a loud, clear voice, try to repeat what you hear, simultaneously. Hear, repeat, hear, repeat and march around.

Odd, yes, but effective.

Erard says shadowing has a number of things going for it. It gets you used to people looking at you when you’re doing something new, so it reduces the embarrassment factor.

It also hooks up kinetics to the language, so it engages those gross motor skills and makes you less focused on what’s going on with your mouth and tongue. Plus it exercises your working memory, which is key to learning a foreign language.

Another key is making the experience enjoyable.

To acquire any language, you need to repeat words and phrases often, so repeat things you like. When we do something pleasurable, dopamine is released in the brain and that makes us want to do it again.

Et voilà

The underlying element to this, though, is to try to figure out something about your own style of learning. Is it easier for you to remember written material? Or is audio or video more effective?

Figuring out your neurology — how your brain is wired — can also help you learn a foreign tongue.

Erard says tests such as the Modern Language Aptitude Test can help determine your strengths and weaknesses by assessing your memory recall, executive (organizational) functions and ability to discriminate among sounds.

It can also measure the strength of your phonological loop — the ability to keep a string of spoken sounds in your brain while you figure out how to pronounce them.

Of course, these tests don’t measure motivation or commitment or the cultural aspects of language learning, but they can give you valuable knowledge.

For instance, if the test shows your working memory isn’t strong, you could do memory exercises while you learn Spanish grammar and vocabulary. And ya está! Before you know it you will be booking a trip with an off-the-beaten-track tour agency in Guatemala.

A test could also reveal that you are the type that tends to reach an intermediate level in a language, but then plateaus.

If that’s the case, you can reset your goal: you won’t be an ambassador, but you’ll be able to travel with ease, or watch TV and read a magazine in that other language. It’s a good reminder to be patient when people here speak English with a heavy accent or incorrect grammar. They may have been trying to improve for years, and they’ve simply plateaued.

We all have different language learning abilities; we just need to figure out what each of ours is.

When it comes to picking up new languages, we’re not all hot tamales.

The slinky, seductive sound of brand names


Dec. 2, 2011

The name Mazda zips off the tongue, especially if you add that zoom zoom bit. Rolex rolls. Ferrero Rocher melts. Nokia clicks. And L’Oreal somehow makes you feel that you’re worth it.

Let’s face it: some names just work. And companies are knocking themselves out to get just the right one because big names that people connect with can translate into big bucks.

One company in particular is leading the charge, and it has a secret weapon: Linguistics.

Will Leben is the director of linguistics for Lexicon, a firm that’s created billion-dollar brand names such as BlackBerry, Dasani, Pentium and Swiffer.

Leben knows of what he speaks. He studied under the famed Noam Chomsky and taught linguistics at Stanford University for 35 years.

His view is that how a name sounds can determine its success in the marketplace.

Slinky sounds

“There were signs from past research that certain sounds convey certain meanings,” Leben says.

The shiny bull's horns are fine but linguists would say it is the zoom zoom that makes Mazda move. 

In the linguistic world, that’s called sound symbolism. And to discover which sounds convey which meanings, Lexicon has done two big studies.

The company’s Sounder I study in 1995 tested objective qualities such as how fast or luxurious a word sounds.

What it found was that consonants made with the tip of the tongue, like t, tend to make names sound faster. Think of Toyota, Total, Toshiba.

Sounds like p and b, made with more massive articulators — the lips and back of the tongue — are deemed more luxurious.

No surprise then the names Burberry and Porsche practically slink out of your mouth.

That’s because “voicing is the vibration of the vocal chords while the sound is being made,” Leben explains. “Voicing weighs down a sound. If a sound is voiced, it’s more likely to sound heavy. If it sounds heavy, it’s more likely to sound luxurious.”

He says that when Lexicon named Dasani, they started with “san” for sanitation. Then they added a D, which sounds relaxed because it’s voiced. Tasani wouldn’t have been the same.

Some sad words

In their follow-up Sounder II study in 2001, Lexicon linguists tested emotional qualities to try to determine whether words sounded alive, daring, sad or insecure.

One of the questions was: Which sounds more alive, Sekka or Zekka? (Which do you think?) Zekka was the winner.

They found that sounds like k, b and z were deemed more alive and daring. And the noisier the better! And that r, l and n sounds were smoother and mellower, even sadder.

So now it makes sense why Mazda zooms, Rolex rolls and L’Oreal makes you want to curl up on a white sofa and eat bonbons all afternoon.

Repetitive sounding names can also pack a punch. A University of Alberta-led study last year found that names such as Kit Kat, Coca-Cola and Lululemon have a positive effect on consumers.

Names that use haplology can work too. That’s when a word is contracted by omitting one or more similar sounds or syllables, as in Toys “R” Us or Crunch ‘n Munch.

An added punch can be had from names that rhyme, contain alliteration or onomatopoeia.

Name Changes

All this to say that a bit of linguistics knowledge can make for a successful name.

What's in a name? Lady Gaga accepting a Bambi media award in Germany in November 2011.

It can also explain why companies bother to switch from one name to another. The folks at Google clearly made the right choice ditching their original name, BackRub (yikes!).

But of course some companies get it wrong, like when Blackwater converted to Xe (did anyone think about the pronunciation factor?); or when Andersen Consulting became Accenture (“accent on future” which just sounds like a fake word created by a bunch of managers); or when Comcast became Xfinity, criticized for sounding like a porn company.

Actors, singers and sports stars have long known the importance of creating a zippy name, but it’s more hip than ever now to create your “brand.”

For example, the bubbly-sounding Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), the rebellious K-Os (Kheaven Brereton), down-home Shania Twain (Eilleen Regina Edwards), upscale Portia DeRossi (Mandy Rogers) and feisty Tiger (Eldrick) Woods. Hmm, maybe nix the last one.

I’ve dabbled with a name change myself. My running friends used to call me the rather jaunty-sounding C.Ro because I share J.Lo’s birthday. But it never really caught on.

Next frontier

Needless to say, many people feel a brand name itself is much less important than the marketing that surrounds it. Microsoft and IBM have done pretty well despite their blandness.

But tell that to the folks at Lexicon. They have a 77-member geo-linguistics team spread around the world that covers 53 languages. They’ve been busy researching how English names are perceived in foreign markets.

Now they’re onto the next frontier: researching how foreign brand names are perceived in an English market.

When you hear Chanel, you think French, seductive and ooh-la-la. It adds to the cache of the brand.

But what about the Chinese car Sunny? A pleasant name to be sure. But would you buy a car that sounds more like a weather report than a lean, mean machine?

And how do people feel about the Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and the Korean Hankook tires, which are making inroads in the West.

In our globalized world, it’s more important than ever to have a name that not only connects with people, but translates across borders.

Linguistics may be the not-so-secret weapon that can give you that edge.

Listen here:

Technology is turning us into fast talkers

Oct. 31, 2011

From Strombo to Jon Stewart, let’s agree that some broadcast hosts can talk at the speed of lightning. They’re smart and satirical even if they do sometimes trip over their own brilliance.

Indeed, the media are full of fast talkers from talk shows to sitcoms and newscasts.

But it’s not just media types who motor along.

Texts, tweets, and technological gizmos are making communication ever faster and it’s causing many of us to speak more quickly in our everyday lives to keep up with it all.

Ray Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University in Kansas and he has done considerable research in the area of human neuroscience and speech.

“A decade ago,” he says, “I measured the speed of speech of teachers, family members and those out in society at a rate of about 145 words per minute, the average rate of human speech.

“That is certainly not what we’re finding today. People are speaking at a rate of typically 160 to 180 wpm, as I have measured it.”

Too fast for our brains

Some of us, of course, like to speak trippingly on the tongue to show that we’re smart and funny. But fast talking is also a result of our overwhelmed brains trying to cram more into the same amount of time. For broadcasters – more news; parents – more activities; teachers – more information.

CBC TV and radio host George Stroumboulopoulos, a fast talker. 

Hull’s mission is to slow the world down, one person at a time. Teachers, broadcasters, doctors, lawyers, even parents, they all come to him to learn to speak more deliberately and with greater clarity.

Hull is particularly concerned with elementary school teachers. He recently conducted a workshop for teachers in a large school district in Kansas. And last July, he spoke to teachers, professors and administrators at a meeting held by the U.S. Department of Education.

He says that he’s measured elementary school teachers in the classroom speaking at 180 words per minute. At that rate, he says, “those children simply cannot comprehend what is being said. Their central nervous system is not designed to do that.”

Hull says the human brain is best able to comprehend speech at around 124 to 130 wpm; when we speak slowly, our brains have the time to fill in the gaps of speech with elongated vowels and consonants.

The 30s slowdown

Now, perhaps you already speak at the Mr. Rogers rate of 130 wpm. Fantastic. Or you may speak quickly and be perfectly understandable. Carry on, I say.

Mr. Rogers, a slow talker. 

But others (our foreign minister, for example) can end up clipping word endings, slurring words together or eliminating pauses. End result? Sometimes we understand only half of what’s being said.

So when teachers or parents think that kids don’t listen, it may be more that they don’t understand what’s being said.

It isn’t just the speed of words that’s the problem. A recent study showed that fast-speaking and fast-moving cartoons negatively affect children’s “executive function,” meaning their ability to stay on task without being distracted.

It found that four-year-olds who sat down and watched just nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants had lower concentration levels than other kids their age.

So while fast-speak may be fun, it’s also fraught.

Seniors also can have a hard time with people who speak quickly, especially on the phone. And who doesn’t get frustrated with phonemessagesthatruntogether?

Hull says that when we hit our mid-30s, our central nervous system slows and we’re less able to understand people who talk quickly. By around 73, we have the listening abilities of a three-year-old.

Slow down

Hull says we all need to advocate for slower speech.

That may be especially true for those of us who live amid a growing population of new immigrants. Heck, if native speakers can’t keep up, then people with a lesser grasp on English must get really muddled by the motor mouths.

Hull has worked with television newscasters who he has timed speaking at 200 wpm.

“People call in and complain that they cannot understand what that news broadcaster is saying and that’s why that news broadcaster is referred to me.”

You’d think, he says, “that people would begin to take the hint that they… need…to…slow… down.”

There are a few ways to do that. Communications experts suggest looking people in the eye to get feedback, and pause between phrases.

[Pause inserted here.]

You can also time yourself. Mark 130 words on a page and clock how fast you read it out loud. If you’re done in less than a minute, try slowing down and see what that feels like.

Then again, I clocked myself at 170 wpm, and I’m often told how clearly I speak. So it may depend on how well you enunciate your words.

Instead of sighing dramatically, throwing up your hands and saying “nobody understands me,” do your bit to help people understand you.


Listen here:

Java jargon: Coffee lovers take lessons from wine snobs


Sept. 15, 2011

You’ve been there, sitting in a restaurant beside some tweed jacket type who swills his glass of red through tobacco-stained teeth and expounds on the delicate notes of currants and figs, the slight eucalyptus aftertaste. Or perhaps the young professional, giant sunglasses perched on immaculate updo, droning about the complexity of the white, what with its blend of vanilla and lemon, its slight taste of cotton sheets.

Really? Who tastes their sheets?

Let’s face it, wine snobs are annoying — what with the way they crowbar ordinary words to describe something many of us just slug back and quietly enjoy.

Well, now there’s a new snob on the block. With the growing interest in purity, body and single-origin, this drinking dialect is expanding to a different beverage.


Coffee, it seems, is the new wine.

It was inevitable. Most accounts plant the origin of the word “coffee” in the 1600s. It stems from the Turkish word kahveh and the Arabic word qahwah, which originally meant –– wait for it –– wine.

History professor Ralph S. Hattox explains the etymology in his book Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East:

“The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something,” he writes.

“According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is ‘wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].’ The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”

‘Pure coffee’

So, with coffee linguistically linked to wine, it makes sense that we’re now using similar language to describe it.

With a disdain for foam, the caffeinated wine snob is embracing “pure coffee,” mimicking the move from table wine to Cabernet, if you will. A quick trip to a few pure-coffee blogs yields the following: “the coffee held notes of fig, chocolate milk, a bit of wheat, black bean and bran. The overall feel was smooth with a little kick. As it cooled, a smokiness entered the sensory picture.”

And, “the espresso held bright lemon, ginger, rosemary, milk chocolate, with a velvety texture amidst a brown healthy crema.”

That all sounds quite nice, but I’ve never detected rosemary in my espresso. Then again, the two packets of sugar eliminate the need for all but one adjective: “sweet.”

Coffee connoisseurs talk more about single-origin or single-estate coffee, made with beans from one country or one farm. So, instead of Bordeaux and Gray Monk Riesling, you have Costa Rican Tarrazu and Panama Geisha Aristar.

And what of body? Like wine, java has body, and it’s being increasingly sized up (better assessed if you swirl it in your mouth). We yak about Brazilian and Honduran coffee having light and medium body, of Tanzanian beans being full-bodied.

So, why is java jargon becoming more refined?

Chocolate, salt also have own vocabulary

Morton Satin says people are trying to express their individuality through the products they consume. He’s the author of Coffee Talk: The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew and vice-president of the Salt Institute, a trade association for salt producers. Satin says it starts with marketers making us want to buy a product like coffee or wine and is driven by the likes of the Food Channel.

Once we taste a product and learn more about its nuances, we then need the language to describe it.

Satin says what’s happened with oenological language is spreading to not only coffee but chocolate, too. The brown stuff is described in terms of how well-tempered it is (whether it has a good gloss and healthy snap); its aroma (released by rubbing the chocolate with your thumb), which can range from kumquat and mushroom to juniper and baked bread; and how it melts in your mouth: creamy or greasy, or perhaps waxy and gritty. Like wine and coffee, more attention is paid to terroir, and cacao content is also of essence.

A man holds sea salt harvested from a salt field near Karachi, Pakistan. Salt is now being described with similarly elaborate vocabulary as wine, coffee and chocolate. 

Satin says even salt is getting more descriptors. We used to speak merely of table salt, but there’s also kosher salt, sea salt and fleur de sel (an expensive sea salt harvested from the surface of pools of evaporating sea water in France that is said to have high mineral content). There’s Brittany and Japanese sea salt, Hawaiian sea salt, Himalayan rock salt, finishing salt, flake salt, Kala Namak and now even smoked sea salt.

Satin likes the idea of using more refined language to describe the essential things we consume. It means we’re trying to renew our interest in the basics of life, he says, that “we’re starting to recoup a certain part of our consciousness, so our life isn’t just about work.”

This new language doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, Satin admits, so we have to practise it, but as we gain more confidence in knowing what is a good wine and what is good coffee, chocolate and salt, we’ll eventually have the words for it.

And we may already have the words, even if they’re not snob-sanctioned. At a wine-tasting party I attended a while back, we had to come up with a few lines for each wine.

People wrote descriptions like “cinnamon velvet” and “amber mist.” But my favourite was an Australian Shiraz someone said tasted like a “sunset in Manitoba.” I can’t think of finer language.

Are we trivializing the language of death?


May 19, 2011

I recently discovered that an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for several years, had passed away. It came as a shock.

I didn’t know how to reach her family, so I did the only thing I could think of to connect: I looked her up on Facebook.

There I found pages and pages of condolences, most written about (let’s call her) Jane, the more traditional way. But some were written to her, as if she were still alive.

There were comments like: “OMG…RIP SOOOOO sorry to hear of your passing.” “Luv n thoughts r w u, i hope ur @ peace wherever u r.” “You are now somewhere safe and worry free!”

“R.I.P. YOU WILL BE MISSED SOOOOOO MUCH!!” And, “I’m sorry, Jane.”

Somehow I felt pressured to write her a little note as well. But it felt odd, uncomfortable even. And I wondered why.

I get that Facebook is a place to mourn — a digital gravesite, if you will.

But the difference is that what I would say graveside to my friend, or write in a letter to her parents or loved ones, is private. With Facebook, everyone’s condolence is there for all to read.

But what really bothers me is that these postings seem so mindless — that people don’t even have the courtesy to write a proper sentence to someone who has just died.

Digital deathspeak

Internet expert Jesse Hirsh suggests that the flippant comments could be some people’s way of addressing the absurdity of a death when that person’s profile is still active.

Today’s social media, he says, merely reflects a society that is increasingly secular and doesn’t yet have a protocol for dealing with death in a respectful manner.

Another element here is that digital technology has allowed us to adapt to a different model of communication, says Marco Adria, director of the Master of Arts in communications and technology program at the University of Alberta.

“We don’t write things to have them interpreted, we write for them to be broadcast. Like a radio broadcast, once it’s said, it’s gone.”

Now it’s making sense. Now I understand the posting: “I WAS SO PRIVILEGED TO HAVE KNOWN YOU.”

It’s a kind of Sarah Palin-style shout out — folksy and inappropriate at the same time.

But that’s okay, says Adria, “because conversations are complicated. Talking to the dead online can be easier than talking to people in real life, which can be messy and not turn out as you want.”

Dead people talking

Also, it’s becoming easier to write to the deceased, especially if they have a Facebook, Twitter or other online account. Their identity is still as it was — their interests, photos and postings, the causes they support — they’re all still online, even after they pass away.

“Technology works as a metaphor,” says Adria. “We refer to it as the net, as channels, as a transmitter. So just as we use it to chat with the dead, the dead can end up talking as well.”

And talk they do. There are dozens of famous dead people who don’t just have Twitter accounts, but communicate through social media as if they were still alive.

The stand-in for a witty Queen Victoria tweets: “Let me make this clear, I do NOT require 38 ministers to advise me on the happenings of the Dominion.” Dom Perignon (who always seems to be drinking) recently re-tweeted: “Prince Harry Gives ‘Brilliant’ Champagne Toast.”

 Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901). She really doesn't tweet, you realize. (Reuters)  Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Edgar Allan Poe constantly offers words of wisdom and Charles Darwin, in his dull note-taking style, tweets a description of each leg of his trips.

But perhaps William Shakespeare sums it up best when he tweets: “All this is but a dream.”

The late Marshall McLuhan (who incidentally has a Twitter and Facebook account) would no doubt agree with this otherworldly communication.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body. And that when you use technology, you lose part of your body.

For instance, the telephone extends the voice but “amputates” the hand used to write correspondence. The computer extends so many parts of the body — brain, voice, hands — that we lose other natural abilities.

In effect, says Adria, we tweeters and tech users become disembodied — ghost-like.

So, perhaps, we’re just as ghostly as the ghosts we communicate with. We have become more used to sending online messages into the ether than having face-to-face conversations.

Still, while I’m all for the Facebook tribute page, when it comes to commemorating the deceased, I’d rather make sure my message actually gets to the people most affected by the loss here on Earth.

That means writing my message by hand and sending it to the family.