Stanford news: the Sunday NYT

Two Stanford linguistics stories in the Sunday (January 18th) New York Times: Tyler Schnoebelen at the American Dialect Society meetings, Will Leben on product naming.

The Word of the Year. In the Sunday Styles section, the hyperbolic “At the Super Bowl of Linguistics, May the Best Word Win” by Jessica Bennett, about

what is perhaps the year’s most anticipated lexicological event: the annual selection of the Word of the Year (also known as WOTY) by the American Dialect Society. If wordsmiths had a Super Bowl, this would be it, a place where the nation’s most well-regarded grammarians, etymologists and language enthusiasts gather to talk shop.

… Being that this year’s event was in Portland, it was only fitting that the “lumbersexual” (a fashionably rugged man who adopts the dress and facial hair of a lumberjack) was included in the “most unnecessary” category.

“Sometimes the words are just fun,” said Tyler Schnoebelen, a San Francisco-based linguist who looked not un-lumbersexual in a chunky sweater and beard.

But, he added, “There is something beautiful about a perfectly chosen word or phrase.”

Here’s a fairly lumbersexual (thumbnail) photo of Tyler:


Tyler does have flannel shirts, but I haven’t found a good photo of him in one.

Here’s a set of lumbersexuals from an 8/30/14 Gear Junkie story, “The Rise Of The ‘Lumbersexual'”:


Previous posting here on the ADS meeting: 1/11/15 on “manspreading”. And on Tyler, from 6/18/12 (“Emotions are relational”) about his Stanford linguistics dissertation , and from 6/14/13 (“Schnoebelen at Idibon”) about his current work.

Product naming. From the NYT Magazine, “The Weird Science of Naming New Products” by Neal Gabler:

The techniques [namer Anthony] Shore was using are a relatively recent innovation — one that makes the messy process seem more scientific. Will Leben was a linguistics professor at Stanford in 1988 when he got a call from Lexicon asking if its partners could visit him. At the time, Leben was teaching a course on the structure of English words, and Lexicon recruited him for a project: to create a list of morphemes, those parts of words that contain meaning. Using a thesaurus, Leben generated a long list of morphemes and the meanings of each — “pages and pages of morphemes,” Leben says, which Lexicon could then draw upon to create names that would express the nature of a particular product.

A few years later, David Placek, Lexicon’s founder, asked Leben what he thought of a name they had conjured, Triples, for a new cereal from General Mills that contained three different grains. “It sounds like something that’s light and crunchy,” Leben recalls telling them. He says their jaws dropped. Could the sound of a word say as much as its content? The idea of sound symbolism went back to at least Plato’s “Cratylus,” in which he associated sounds with physical characteristics, but linguists tended to discredit it. It had long been a fundamental tenet of linguistics, Leben says, that “the association between the meaning of the word and its pronunciation is an arbitrary one. The reason why we call a piano a piano has nothing to do with the sounds p-i-a-n-o.”

But Placek was intrigued, and he asked Leben to conduct a study to determine whether sounds did indeed convey physical properties. Leben called his study Sounder. He administered a questionnaire to 150 Stanford and Berkeley students, asking them questions like: Which sounds faster, “fip” or “fop”? Leben found a consensus. “Fip” was faster than “fop.” Why? Because of the way the sounds were generated in the mouth, Leben says. “Fip” feels lighter and faster because the vocal tract is open only a small amount. There is less acoustic substance for “fip” than there is for “fop,” the pronunciation of which causes the jaw to drop and the tongue to lower, creating a heavier, more powerful sound. There were many similar discoveries among fricatives and plosives, leading Leben to conclude that “the physical characteristics of sound are what determine associations.” Significantly, Leben got the same results when the study was conducted overseas. Lexicon took the idea and ran with it. “Pentium” began with a plosive that signified energy, power and dynamism. The “S” of the Swiffer mop made it sound fast and easy. The “D” of Dasani water made it sound heavier. Leben says: “It doesn’t say ‘refreshing.’ It says ‘slow down,’ ‘cool off,’ ‘relax.’ ”

Next, Placek asked Leben if he could conduct a study to see if there might be an association between sounds and emotional states. That was Sounder II, conducted in 2002. “The results came out so clean, it was hard to believe,” Leben says. Certain sounds, for example, were associated with daring or liveliness or sadness or insecurity. But Sounder I and II concentrated exclusively on the initial sounds of a word — its first consonant or vowel or both. Sounder III, just concluded last summer, asked whether consonants and vowels in other positions in a word might have a similar or additive effect. They did.

Among the discoveries Leben made: Fricatives convey “faster” and “smaller” — as do vowels that are voiced near the front of the mouth, like the a in “bat” or the i in “hid.” Plosives, or stops, convey “slower” and “bigger” — as do vowels that are voiced at the back of the throat, like the o in “token” or the double o’s in “food.” So-called voiceless stops like k, p, and t are more alive and daring than voiced stops like b, d and g, while the voiceless convey less luxury than the voiced. And all sound-symbolic effects manifest differently depending on context. They take on properties of the product being named.

Earlier discussion on this blog on some of these sound-symbolic effects, from Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky on food names.

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