Christopher Carignan at LEL seminar

Posted on November 18, 2019 by

If this week’s seminar title doesn’t convince you to come, Manchet doesn’t know what will. The speaker, Christopher Carignan from the University College London, will give a paper on “How to build a Linguistic Time Machine (instructions included)“.

The talk will be in SamAlex A7 on Tuesday 19th November at 4.30pm. Below is a short teaser.


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 molecules 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 historical change. Although the evidence for this type of “listener-based” sound change is indeed compelling, proving that any given sound change actually occurred due to a breakdown 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 monitor speaker and imitator speech articulations, 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.

Posted in: LEL events, phonetics