Building a Linguistic Time Machine

Thursday, February 22, 2024


Miller Hall 138 and Zoom

Use Meeting ID: 984 2720 0089

A virtual talk by Western alum Dr. Chris Carignan


Perhaps the most defining characteristic of our species is the complexity of speech to communicate meaning. Through muscular control of a relatively small portion of the body (the vocal tract), a speaker of a given language is able to modify the vibration of air particles as a vessel for transmitting a mental concept to a listener. However, in some cases the transmission of speech sounds from speaker to listener breaks down. We are all familiar with this phenomenon in our day-to-day lives: "I'm sorry… did you say 'bon appetit' or 'bone apple tea'?" But what if this misinterpretation could become permanent, leading to evolution of the language itself? This is indeed what many linguists believe happened in a wide variety of languages: the misinterpretation of certain speech sounds led to permanent historical change in the linguistic system. Although the evidence for this type of "listener-based" sound change is indeed compelling, studying how a given sound change actually occurred due to misperception of this sort is a fairly intractable problem. It's not as if researchers can very well build a TIME MACHINE in order to visit the past and gather data about the interaction between a speaker and listener… or can we? In this talk, I will present a method to address this problem by "recreating" the phonetic characteristics of a sound change environment and monitoring speaker and imitator speech articulations, in order to observe whether listeners-turned-speakers exhibit evidence of articulatory reanalysis in the laboratory in the same way that has been proposed to have occurred historically.

Dr. Chris Carignan

Chris Carignan is an Associate Professor in Speech Science in the department of Speech, Hearing and Phonetic Sciences at University College London, and Director of the MSc Language Sciences degree and the Dynamics of the Articulation, Acoustics and Processing of Speech (DAAPS) Lab at UCL. He received a BA in Linguistics and French from Western Washington University, and both an MA and PhD in French Linguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on employing and developing a wide variety of articulatory, acoustic, and statistical methodologies to pursue both theoretical and applied questions related to speech and language. His current projects range from using laboratory methods to research sound change processes, to developing an open-source 3D-printable ultrasound stabilization headset, to investigating the role of phonological contrast in constraining coarticulation across different languages, to creating state-of-the-art acoustic measurements of vowel nasalization, to using electromagnetic articulometry to investigate the coordination of co-speech head nod gestures under different degrees of prosodic prominence.