[Lingtyp] spectrograms in linguistic description and for language comparison

Juergen Bohnemeyer jb77 at buffalo.edu
Fri Dec 2 14:52:14 UTC 2022

Dear Adam et al. – First, a couple of disclaimers:

  *   I don’t mean to hijack this important discussion. I just want to point out that from where I look at things, what you’re raising is a classic tip-of-the-iceberg problem.
  *   I suspect what I’m about to say isn’t going to win me any popularity contests around here 😉

And here it is: Contemporary descriptive and documentary linguistics has *no* standards or criteria, not even qualitative ones (whatever that might mean), for assessing how well the examples we use to illustrate the phenomena we document and describe represent the speech community, or indeed *which* community they represent.


I’d like to call this practice “epistemological pretend-naivete”.

When people start using spectrograms or pitch tracks, which are meaningless unless interpreted quantitatively, like examples, the deficiencies of epistemological pretend-naivete become obvious.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even if it’s a pretty fat tip. The broader problem concerns the status of *all* the examples we cite, regardless of whether they concern phonetic, morphosyntactic, lexical, or ethnographic phenomena.

Now that much of linguistics is being dragged kicking and screaming into a quantitative turn, I think it’s way past time that we have a discussion of the status of examples in documentary and descriptive linguistics in general.

Best -- Juergen

Juergen Bohnemeyer (He/Him)
Professor, Department of Linguistics
University at Buffalo

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From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Adam James Ross Tallman <ajrtallman at utexas.edu>
Date: Friday, December 2, 2022 at 5:51 AM
To: Cat Butz <Cat.Butz at hhu.de>
Cc: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] spectrograms in linguistic description and for language comparison
Hello Cat,

That's what I think as well,

But I'm not so sure this view is widely held ... I've had papers where reviewers ask for "phonetic evidence" and what they seem to mean is a single spectrogram or pitch track as if those are informative by themselves - even aggregated statistical data of acoustic measurements doesn't count.


On Fri, Dec 2, 2022 at 11:41 AM Cat Butz <Cat.Butz at hhu.de<mailto:Cat.Butz at hhu.de>> wrote:
Hi Adam,

if I saw a single spectrogram in a description of a phenomenon, I'd
assume it was there for illustrative purposes and nothing else. If we're
going to conduct empirical research on a phonological phenomenon, we
have to back it up with statistics, no? Otherwise, why even bother?

Cat Butz (she)
HHU Düsseldorf, general linguistics

Cat Butz (sie)
HHU Düsseldorf, allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft

Am 2022-11-27 11:24, schrieb Adam James Ross Tallman:
> Hello all,
> I would like to start a conversation about something and I’m taking
> a shot at lingtyp as a potential starting point for this discussion
> (perhaps not the right venue, because the issue is perhaps specific to
> phonological typology).
> One thing I’ve been confused and/or frustrated about since I started
> investigating tone and stress has been the use of spectrograms and/or
> pitch tracks in language description. It seems to me that linguists
> have very different views about what spectrograms and/or pitch tracks
> are for, but it has never been brought out in the open, to my
> knowledge.
> When I was an MA student, I was basically taught that the main purpose
> of a spectrogram was to show how one went about measuring some
> phenomena in the acoustic signal. A pitch track could be an
> expositional device to show variation in the signal perhaps related to
> speaker differences or intonation (Cruz & Woodbury 2014). However,
> spectrograms and pitch tracks are not “phonetic evidence” for a
> phonological claim. Due to the variability of the phonetic signal,
> acoustic phonetic data only really becomes phonetic evidence when it
> is aggregated for the purpose of statistical analysis (Tallman 2010).
> At least that’s what I thought in 2011, but I realized later that
> this was not the view shared by many linguists and, at least among
> non-phoneticians, my position is perhaps a minority one. In grammars
> and descriptive works, linguists often present individual spectrograms
> and pitch tracks as one off data points that support a claim. In the
> vast majority of the cases (except perhaps when vastly different
> intonational contours are being compared), I often struggle to know
> what the purpose of these displays or pictures are. How do we know
> they are not cherry picked? How do we know that these displays are
> representative?
> The differences of opinion about the use of spectrograms have emerged
> for me in the reviewing process – one reviewer says this spectrogram
> is useless, another says it's informative etc. one reviewer demands a
> pitch track, another says it does not communicate anything . etc.
> Opinions are simultaneously contradictory but aggressive and
> definitive.
> Sometimes the subtlety of the pitch phenomena the linguist is
> describing is way out of step with the ability of the pitch track to
> represent. I look at the pitch track and I think: “I cannot
> distinguish between pitch phenomena associated with tones and
> microprosody in this example so it is unclear what the purpose of the
> pitch track is or what it adds” or “if you were to tell me what
> tones the language had and give me this spectrogram / pitch track, I
> would not be able to associate them with any of the syllables in any
> consistent way”. Or perhaps the algorithm used to draw pitch isn’t
> appropriate and it's very difficult to understand what is being
> communicated by the display.
> I have started to wonder whether there were any guidelines or
> conventions for the use of spectrograms and whether others perhaps had
> any thoughts on the issue. Specifically I am interested in the idea
> that a single spectrogram could serve as “phonetic evidence”. I
> still find this view strange in light of the well known
> “stochastic” and “multivariate” relationship between
> phonological categories and phonetic realization (Pierrehumbert,
> Beckman, Ladd 2000; Mazaudon 2014, among many others), but it still
> seems to be widely held in our field.
> Cruz, E. & Woodbury, A. C. 2014. Finding a way into a family of tone
> languages: The story and methods of the Chatino Language Documentation
> Project. _Language Documentation & Conservation _8:490-524.
> Mazaudon, M. 2014. Studying emergent tone-systems in Nepal: Pitch,
> phonation and word-tone in Tamang. _Language Documentation &
> Conversation _8:587-612.
> Pierrehumbert, J., Beckman, M. and Ladd, D. 2000. Conceptual
> foundations of phonology as a laboratory science. _Phonological
> knowledge: Conceptual and empirical issues. _Oxford: Oxford University
> Press.
> Tallman, Adam. J.R. 2010. Acoustic correlates of Lenis and Fortis
> Stops in Manitoba Saulteaux. MA Thesis: University of Manitoba.
> --
> Adam J.R. Tallman
> Post-doctoral Researcher
> Friedrich Schiller Universität
> Department of English Studies
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Adam J.R. Tallman
Post-doctoral Researcher
Friedrich Schiller Universität
Department of English Studies
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