Sep 22, 2021 • 29M

The Pandemic's Effect on Language

Do Covid masks make it difficult to understand speech? That depends on your language.

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Turns out that some languages are less intelligible through a mask than others, and, believe it or not, it all depends on how often you use certain consonants. It’s called the McGurk effect and it’s the closest that linguistics comes to actual magic.


From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and you know, in line with the fact that the Booksmart version of Lexicon Valley is going to be somewhat more topical than the Grand Old version, I want to discuss something that I've tried not to get too much into because of my motto that life is always happy in the valley and that is the pandemic, especially since it could be argued that we're coming out of it. And I feel a little better about referring to it at length. And I want to discuss language and the pandemic and beyond the level that some people started asking back about a year and a half ago. What about all of these new terms? And, you know, the answer is, well, you know, what about them? So social distancing, you can't do a show about that. Yes, we learned a bunch of new words and expressions. But still, the question is — especially, you know, a year and a half out — what kind of effect has there been on language from all of this stuff that we've had to go through? And, you know, one of the first things that you might think about is these God-damned masks. What kind of effect does it have? For example, someone very near and dear to me was talking about how when she goes to a store and she has to tell them whether or not she's going to use credit or debit, well, when you're in there and everybody's masked, the cashiers have told her that it's hard to understand whether people are saying credit or debit because those two words differ only in their initial consonant, as we call it. So is it cr- or d-? There is no problem with that at all in normal life. But when you've got a piece of cloth in front of your mouth, it can be somewhat muffled and you can't make up for that by looking at people's mouths and doing a little bit of passive lip reading as we all do, whether we're conscious of it or not. So credit, debit, what did you say? And so, my sweetheart tells me that she walks into the store and she has to actually enunciate or shout credit or debit. What's going on with that?


Do these masks actually muffle speech in that way? Do they create a kind of a confusion? And, you know, we would expect that they would. They certainly are. And one way that we know it is that linguists are aware of something called the McGurk effect. And the McGurk effect is one of these things where you can have fun in a class showing people that linguistics can be magic. And what it is, is that if you show a video clip of somebody saying gah, but then what you play them saying is not gah, but bah — you have those two things going on — the person is with their mouth saying gah, but you play them saying bah, what an Anglophone does when they see that is they could swear to God that the person is saying dah. You watch somebody mouthing gah, you play them saying bah. Well then what you hear is not bah and you don't hear gah, what you hear is dah. And what's especially fascinating is that those consonants, the b, d and the g, have a certain relationship in terms of how pronunciation actually works. So forget the order that those things come in in the alphabet. It's not about b first and then d and then g. It's actually more interesting than that. And the alphabetical order is actually only accidentally consonant, haha so to speak, with how this works. B is with your lips, d is when you put your tongue on that alveolar ridge, that thing that you burn if you drink your hot cocoa too fast, then g is the soft palate. So front, middle, back, b front, d middle, g back. So what happens is if you see somebody speaking the back, gah, and then what's played is them doing the front, bah, you end up correcting it to what's actually in between, dah, which the person didn't say and you didn't hear. That is called the McGurk effect. Absolutely fascinating thing. It's funny with McGurk, I always find myself having the most random thought when I hear that. Does anybody remember that sitcom Dear John? This is way back about 30 years ago. Judd Hirsch is off of Taxi and Dear John was supposedly based on a British show, but really Dear John was a shameless attempt to put Judd Hirsch in Taxi again. And they had characters that almost all corresponded to the Taxi characters. And as you can imagine, the show was pretty good. It wasn't quite a keeper, but because it was more Taxi and because the actors were good, I must admit that back then when there was less to do because there wasn't really any internet yet, I watched it. And I remember Jere Burns had this character Kirk, and Kirk is this sort of Guys and Dolls-ish vernacular person. And the running joke was that he'd introduce himself as “Gurk.” My name's Gurk. And so I always think of “Gurk” when I hear about the McGurk effect. You know, why am I imitating this obscure character? Listen, everything's on YouTube. Here is Jere Burns. The first time, this is the first episode where he introduces this “Gurk” character.

KIRK MORRIS: The name's Kirk.
JOHN LACEY: Oh, hi. John. Nice to meet you.
KIRK MORRIS: All right, stick with me. You're gonna make out like a bandit.

The McGurk effect. And guess what has actually been shown in research that's now coming out in the wake of the height of the pandemic. It turns out that when people have these masks on their faces, young people are good at compensating. They stop relying so much on that passive lipreading and they get better at just distinguishing consonants based on hearing them. However, people who are older don't do that nearly as well. The ability atrophies. And so the masks have been less of a problem with the young than with older people. This was demonstrated by a very interesting paper in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and it was by Czech researchers. And to tell you the truth, I don't know much about Czech and I can't pronounce their names. But it was in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. It was recently. And if you want to check it out, you should check this out. You'd predict it. You wouldn't necessarily predict that there would be an age issue. But yeah, these masks make it harder to understand what people are saying, sometimes in really graphic ways. But just in general, we don't get to do that lipreading. The way we learn to deal with human language is that you don't have to see the person's face. We know that from, you know, the radio, et cetera. But it certainly does help. And if we've got people in front of us watching their face is part of how we accomplish comprehension. With the masks that's muffled, and so you have to adjust and we can. But adjusting, as with just about everything else, is harder as you get older.


And it's interesting, you think about other languages. The McGurk effect happens in lots of languages, more in some than in others. Although within a given language, the results are almost bizarrely consistent. But you can imagine there are places where these masks must have been more of a problem. And so, for example, I'm not aware of any article about how people are dealing with masks in the language Rotokas, which is spoken on an island off of New Guinea. But Rotokas is famous for one of the languages with the fewest sounds, period, of all. So there are languages that have like 148 different sounds. One of the click languages has that many because there are many, many, many clicks and then many, many other consonants and vowels. But then there are languages that have the fewest sounds and Rotokas is one of the ones with the very fewest. And so, for example, with consonants all Rotokas has — if we're going to be technical, it's the central Rotokas dialect — but all central Rotokas has is p, t, k, b, d and g. Now you can hear that as a pattern. So it's the b, d, g — front, middle, back — and then p, t, k have the exact same relationship. Really p and b are the same thing but different; t and d are the same thing but different; and k and g are the same thing but different. Feel it? So, p, b, and you're thinking well one is a B and that's close to the beginning of the alphabet and then P is somewhere in the late middle. No, that's completely irrelevant. P and b — b is just p with kind of some belly in it. So all Rotokas has is b, d, g and the related p, t, k. Nothing else. No nasal sounds. The way Rotokas speakers make fun of speakers of other languages is they start going mmmnnn, because that's how speakers of other languages seem to them. Now that doesn't mean that they have any problem with making themselves understood in normal conditions. But imagine if all you've got is p, t, k, b, d, g and now you've got these masks on, and there is this effect that you have where you are likely to hear a different consonant if you don't get to see the person's face. The McGurk effect must be a real pain in the ass on Rotokas in particular, in any language with that few consonants.


But then there are places where you would assume that it would be less of a problem. And that's because this issue is with consonants, not with vowels. The vowels come through the cloth pretty darn well. So that's not an issue. And that would mean that if you are a language with lots and lots of vowels, then this sort of thing isn't going to be as much of a problem in terms of comprehension. And I think, for example, of Cambodian. I'll just bet — and if any of you are Cambodian you can please let me know, I would genuinely like to know — I'll just bet that the masks aren’t as much of a problem in Cambodian. And that's because, this is a factoid that doesn't get around as much as that certain click languages have lots and lots of sounds, but just like there are languages that have lots and lots and lots of consonants, there are languages that have lots and lots of vowels, too. So, for example, depending on how you count it in English, you've got about 13 vowels. Cambodians got 30. It's really rather amazing. If you take the single vowels and then also the diphthongs — not dipthong as you want to call it if you see it on the page and you look by too quickly, but diphthongs — diphthongs like not aw but oi, not ah but ai. Diphthong. Those are still thought of as single sounds. Take the vowels that are single and then the diphthongs, Cambodians got 30 — you might say 29, you might say 31. And it depends on the dialect but they've got 30. It's funny how that happens. The only languages in the world that regularly have that many vowels are in Southeast Asia and they're ones that are related to Cambodian. And what that is, is the result of language change on tone languages. So I've talked about how there are languages where tone, the pitch that you utter a syllable on, is as important to indicating the meaning as what the vowel is itself. And so, for example, in Mandarin you can say, dah, okay but you've got to do the tone because dah is big, whereas dah is answer and dah is hit, and so on. Well, I'm always telling you that language always changes. Well, what about tones always changing? They can change into other tones, definitely. But another thing that can happen in a tonal language is that the tones wear away and just become different vowels. So where there once were four levels of tones and then a bunch of vowels, well, what ends up happening is you have just a big giant bunch of vowels. And so that's how Cambodian ends up having 30 vowels. Roll the tape back and it had some tones, just like a lot of the languages surrounding it — like Vietnamese, like, depending on what you call surround, Chinese. But now it's got 30. And that means that it's got so many vowels that speaking through a mask is probably less of a problem because the vowels come through loud and clear and they can help to distinguish what the consonants are that are being confused because you've got so many vowels to work with, and, well with context, you must be fine. So if you're a Rotokas speaker, and I'm sure I have many Rotokas speakers among my listeners, let me know how much of a pain in the ass the masks have been. And if you're Cambodian, let me know if you've noticed that with Cambodian, actually it's just not that much of a problem. It is, you know since we're talking about Cambodian, it's time for a song clip. And, you know, let's try this. It's Cambodia. It's hot there. In the summer of 1987, it was hot because it was summer, at least in Philadelphia. And I had this mind numbing but socially wonderful job working in the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia. And I remember this song was one of the pop hits, and I've always loved it. And I don't know anybody else who does. But one of the people who worked there, a woman in her 50s, I remember she said, you know, I like this one. I've been hearing this one on the radio. I like it. So well, Cathy liked it. So I'm not alone. I salute Cathy and Barbara and Antoinette, my summer coworkers, back at the Federal Reserve Bank in 1987. You know, actually, folks, for those of you who may have read Nine Nasty Words, this is the summer job where there was another coworker who used to yell motherfucker all the time. This is that job. In any case, the song is by ABC. Yeah, I know. But there was something about them and it's “When Smokey Sings.” It is one of my top ten favorite shitty pop hits of all time.

When Smokey Sings


You know who else has a problem with the masks and you kind of wouldn't expect it, people who use sign languages. Now, you kind of think that because they're talking with their hands that the mask would be less of a problem, but no. The truth is that facial expression is very important to getting across not only the things that we convey with facial expressions in spoken languages, but also grammar. There are grammatical things — and not just little nuances, but, you know, basic grammar — where you really have to have the face. And of course, the mouth and the nose are, for most people, part of the face. And so having the mask on when you're doing sign language is a problem. And in some ways it's more of a problem than it sometimes is in spoken languages, especially with Cambodian. And so, for example, you're trying to express yourself in American Sign Language, ASL and you do kind of a, a pout with your lips, a little bit of a pout, and you're kind of miming mmm. So that's what you're doing. That is one way of saying “regularly.” So whatever you're signing, whatever the verb is, when you do that little pout — as if to go mmm — that means that you do it on a regular basis. Now, if you think about it, that's not just making some facial expression. If I make my lips into a little pout and go mmm, nobody around me is going to say: oh, you do it that often? Doesn't look like that at all. In other words, it's arbitrary, like so much of language. There's no reason you call that thing a cat. That's not the sound it makes. It doesn't go cat. It's just arbitrary. Well, that kind of mmm, I'm sure there's some story as to how that came to mean regularly, but now it's just language. Well if you can't see your mouth then you can't convey that. Or you do the same pout but then you stick your tongue between your teeth a little bit, like thth. A little bit of th-ness. That means “carelessly.” Once again you can't convey it if you've got that damn thing on your face. Oh, by the way, I keep calling it that. I have masked along with everybody else, but goodness have I hated it. I don't like having that thing on. And it's partly because I'm weird. And I mean, I know none of us like it, but for example, I own not a single hat. I have never had a hat since I wasn't being made to wear one. I don't like something on my head and I have never felt, goodness my head is cold. And so only on the very, very, very coldest days will I put up a hood. I have various pairs of sunglasses. Never wear them unless I'm on the beach on my back with the sun right in my eyes. I get, most people put on shades. I don't want to. I don't want that in front of my eyes. I want to see the world as it is. Same thing with the masks, don't like them. That's why I keep on saying Goddamn, I have never gotten used to them, but I do read them. But if you are signing, then it's a problem to the point that there are these masks with windows in the front so that you can see and people who are signers like them quite a bit. Also, there's lipreading involved with sign language. It's to an extent. And once again, if the lips are covered up, you can't read them. And so the masks have not been fun for people who are using signed as opposed to spoken language, despite the fact that you might think that sign languages are all about the hands. That's what I thought at first. I thought, well, if there's one good thing about this, it's that people who are signing don't have to feel like they're being muffled by the masks for what I thought of as the obvious reason. But no, I wasn't thinking hard enough. They do.


Something else about the pandemic and language. You know, if you are somebody who, you know, for part of your living writes for the media, now and then you make predictions and it's very easy to never check up to see whether your predictions come true. You write it, and I don't know if all people are aware that if you write for the media regularly, you forget what you write the second you write it because you're on to the next thing. And a lot of people forget what you write the second you write because they're on to reading the next thing. And so pundits, as it’s sometimes called, don't get checked up upon enough. And so I decided to check up on myself. I said two things about language and the virus. I was wrong about one and I was right about another one. The one I was wrong about is that sometime back there, and I'm pretty sure it was on this show, I said that people were not going to take up the term Covid, they were going to call it Corona. Because there was a time — I'll bet we're almost already forgetting —  where you could talk about Corona. I remember that's what my kids were calling it for the first two or three months. And I was calling it that because Corona is a prettier word than Covid. You could call that arbitrary, but rrr, nnn, they don't stop — as opposed to covvv, which kind of has the kind of tire on the pavement then d. So it's like covvvv … d, it's like an accident. And so I kind of thought esthetically Covid is going to catch on because it sounds like the disease that it is, whereas Corona puts a kind of a corona of gentleness around it. I was wrong. Covid is what has caught on and to have people calling it Corona — they're going to have people doing that probably in movies about this in 20 years. And it's going to be a little, a little inaccurate, like showing people with water bottles in 1991 when it hadn't happened yet. But then I actually was right about something else. And this is something the same sweetheart is the one who came up with, it wasn't really me, but I jumped onto it and I wrote about it in the Atlantic. There was an idea that people who use a heritage language, as we call it, at home — s o people who say in the United States use English outside of the home, but then another language from another country in the home. The idea was that kids were going to get better at speaking those home languages during the lockdown because they weren't out being distracted by English as much. That was a prediction. It was something you could imagine and you couldn't be sure, but it looked like that was going to happen. And if you check up on it a year and a half later, it looks like that has definitely been true. Now, whether the effects will stick is a question. I would bet they won't. We should check up on that in the future. But nevertheless, a year and a half later, it's been shown that kids who have been under lockdown have been better at their heritage language because they aren't so distracted by English from the outside and English having that coolness effect, even if it does it through the media. Still your home with grandma, your home with your parents, you're using it more. There's a study by Li Sheng at U. Delaware. Li Sheng, and they were working with various other people. And it shows that if you are in a household these days, you're four to eight years old and English is the outside language, Mandarin is used at home. After the lockdown, these kids have been better at Mandarin than they were before. So their comprehension of English and Mandarin is the same, but they produce Mandarin. Their spoken Mandarin is a little better than their spoken English because it's been polished at home with native speakers of Mandarin such as their parents and their grandparents, and they haven't interacted live as much with English speaking peers. So that's a neat study. And similar things have been shown in Britain and Ireland and in Norway. And I also found a study in Uganda. Same thing. So we're not saying Corona, we're using that ugly word Covid, but it has given a little bump to kids retaining the language of their parents as opposed to big giant, nasty, dirty English. So language at home, language and love, love American style. There's your transition because I want the other song cue In this episode to be one of my favorite theme songs. Love American Style was a show that really does not travel outside of its time zone at all. It was this anthology show with these, you know, by today's standards, tacky little stories about love and hinting at sex about as much as Procter and Gamble could let you get by with at the time. But one of the best things about it was the theme song, which I remember. I found the show when I was seven and eight, about as incomprehensible as The Tales of Gilgamesh. But I did like the theme song and this is it. It's The Cowsills. If anybody remembers this, I know you liked it too, even if you didn't want to bother with the show.

Love American Style theme song

For the musicologists among you, what's good about it is the pedal point in the bridge, the way the note in the bottom is the same all the way through. It makes the bridge sound kind of nostalgic and, frankly, more sophisticated than it is. I love pedal point.


What about new words during Covid? Well, as I’ve told you, to be honest, I have not found anything terribly interesting about them except that the words are just new. As you know, I'm often kind of a grammar person, but there is something that's interesting. More about me and the predictions. And this one seems to be coming true. When I say that language is always changing and you should take it as kind of a spectator sport, this was one of those things. And so, for example, the word mash, as in The Monster Mash. I say that because, remember Count Chocula and Frankenbrry. Well, they release those at Halloween again, and I love Frankenberry. It is a marvelous cereal. Usually you only get it at Halloween. For some reason, I found it in up-ish-state New York for sale at a Target. And so now I have a box of Frankenberry the size of a child in my home, and on the back there's something about Monster Mash. So the word mash, originally it was maks. Okay, now that in itself is just an isolated factoid. But fish, the original word was fisk and then in some dialects it became fiks. So you see how something ks. But then that might become sk, and then that might become sh. There's this ks, sk, sh interchange in English just like ask, for example. Well, just as many dialects of English have said aks as ask, and that is why, yes, Black people in colloquial speech say aks, not to mention many white people. It's not because people don't know what order to put their consonants in. It's because way back in old English, there was an alternation between askian and aksian. And now we have that as ask and aks, and that's not special pleading because also mash and maks, fish, fisk, fix. Well, if that's true, then I've been listening to people talking about vaxing and people being antivax and I've been thinking we need about five minutes before you start hearing people say antivask because when you say ks, there's a part of we English speakers that wants to kind of switch it around. There's always that little alternation. And so you can aks, you can ask, it's a maks that becomes mashing, etc. I was thinking antivax, some people are going to say antivask because it feels kind of good and because we're used to words like mask and ask and wouldn't you know, it's true. There apparently is an expression that's making its way. It starts small and then maybe it'll spread, but it's making its way. You can be antivask, antimask. That's what people are saying. I've only seen it with antimask alongside. But still, I'll bet it's the beginning of a colloquial pronunciation of vax as vask because it feels right, because there's so many words that end in sk as well as ks. So there is a, a Tweet that I found.

Humans are generally like this. Hear/read something 1000X--e.g. anti-vask & anti-mask lies from Right Wing TV, radio, newspapers or social media

Or there's somebody who wrote, frankly sadly: I know anti-vask, anti-mask nurses. Well, the world is complicated, but that means that yes, vax … antivask. Say that enough, and there are going to be people who say antivask. I'm assuming that before long, if it hasn't happened already, there are going to be people talking about the antivask people and just, you know, letting it go by because that's how language goes. There's some words during Covid. That's the one I've been listening for. And so far, it's behaving the way I think it should. And of course, that's what it's all about.

If you'd like to leave a comment or check out our other great podcasts, Banished with Amna Khalid and Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield, or if you want to subscribe, please visit Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. And our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. You know what, if I may, unless your body really can't take it, you should get the vaccine. And in any case, your host has been John McWhorter.