Monday, October 27, 2008

The road not understood

Today I ran into two sentences that caused mild confusion due to a garden-path-like effect. Each of them influenced by a different red-herring.

The first occurred sometime before noon. Here at Purdue (and certainly at other institutions) everyone logs on to the computer network via their career account. It's the same account that stores files and hosts personal web pages. Mine has been acting up and I was going through a little manual fix. My friendly officemate walks in and asks how I'm doing. Without turning around and with an apparently distraught tone I say: 'Oh…I'm just trying to work out some problems with my career account.'

It's a pretty specific and obvious garden-path effect. In the full sentence it should be clear that the noun career is a specifier on account. So it functions like an adjective. But until you've heard the entire sentence you might think that I've said I have career problems. And the look of concern on my officemate's face betrayed the temporary misdirection. She was relieved. I started to explain a model of the source of her confusion. She changed the subject.

The second mis-taking occurred when I was listening to Buffy explain her recent fatigue. I don't think I drink too much coffee yesterday. And so I thought she was tired enough to produce that ungrammatical sentence. But she didn't flinch. And in the moment just before I prepared to tease her I finished processing the effect of her Minnesota accent on the sentence. I started to explain to her and another officemate what led me astray and they told me to write a blog post instead. So…

You see, Buffy's a pre-velar raiser. She raises the cat hat back snack vowel /æ/ to a closed-mid front [e] (name bake say) when it comes before a voiced velar stop /ɡ/ or before a velar nasal /ŋ/ —the gang bang coda consonant. I don't raise much (if at all) before the stop. I do raise a little bit before the nasal. But nothing like Buffy. She raises so much that it's almost a lax high front [ɪ] (or perhaps the higher close central [ɨ]).

So her pronunciation of drank is almost identical to her pronunciation of drink. And without a disambiguating context leading into the word I couldn't tell the difference. If she had said Well, yesterday I only drank a small cup of coffee I wouldn't have been as likely to wander down the wrong path.

The first sentence, wandering down the wrong career path, is a pretty typical temporary detour and the correct meaning becomes clear quickly and easily.

The second sentence is almost a simple mishearing because her pronunciation is ambiguous. But I'm not usually confused by her pre-velar raising and I can see how the path of the sentence made it easier to hear the wrong word. So it isn't just pronunciation that can make all the difference.

† But not because she's bored by linguistics. She simply had a question about other linguisticky matters. Such officemates are a treasure.


  1. I like how you describe these garden variety garden path sentences as causing "mild confusion." I'm requesting a post on the possibility of sentences that might induce "extreme confusion."

    I'm thinking of Zen Koans, I suppose... or the one about "The sentence that follows this sentence is true. The sentence that precedes this sentence is false" or something like that.

    Make sure you read Godel, Escher, Bach before you post on that kind of construction, though.


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