Spoken Language question

I’ve heard that when we actually speak, there are no distinct “gaps” between words - wetalklikethis instead of like this, for example. The “gaps” are just a result of our own perceptions and understanding of speech; that’s why often when we hear someone talking in a language we don’t know, it all seems to be running together in a long stream of articulations. The truth being that when we speak, it’s all a stream, but because we recognise the words gaps are inserted by our brains.

Is there research backing this up? Sounds plausible to me.

I read about this in Dan Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” (1991, Little, Brown & Co.) just a few weeks ago. From pp 50-51:

Note that this differs slightly from what you wrote in that there are in fact moments of silence (or near that, at least), though these do not correlate well with word breaks.


Why? Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. The Romans invented the space as punctuation to make their sentences easier to read. It’s a convenient, but artificial construct.

Yes, we run words together every time we speak and have speech patterns. There is a ESL teaching method that teaches words run together - I started to use it once, but abandoned. It really doesn’t help when in the early stages of learning, because you need to learn individual words and their meanings, grammar etc.
Native speakers predict and guess words if they are run together but sometimes we get it wrong. Have you ever got the words wrong for a song you’ve learned from the radio because they have been run together and you can’t hear where one stops and the next word starts?
We also have developed languages based on how easily we can run words together - eg. ‘an apple’ is easier to run together than ‘a apple’. Japanese (my second language) doesn’t have words that end on consonants because it would make it too difficult to run words together (amongst other reasons).

Just from everyday observation this seems very reasonable. When someone speaks english it seems that they talk in words.

However, when you overhear a conversation in a foreign language it just sounds like, “Yadaydayayadyaydyadydydaya”. Sometimes you’ll get a pause. But it doesn’t sound like “Word word word word.” This is especially true if you’re studying a foreign language. If someone speaks…very…slowly…to…you, you can understand the words. When they speak in a normal speed it’s, “Yakakayayaykyaya”. Wait, say that again?

Although a minority view, Alison Wray (British linguist) postulates that the proto-language our evolutionary ancestors spoke consisted of multi-syllabic phrase with a given meaning, and that we only later broke those phases down into individual words.

And they still do in German! :wink:

There are also prosodic, syntactic, and morphological clues that all of us inherently know (as native speakers) that indicate “breaks” between words.

We did a lot of acoustic profiling when I took Phonetics in grad school and the printouts are exactly as you said. The look like long strings of energy with no discernible word gaps.

It is my understanding that the main reason we think that the Germans have long words is because they have a spelling convention that puts words together without hyphens whereas in English we use hyphens (or spaces).

This may not be that good an example since I don’t speak German and my knowledge of this is fairly limited, but in German the word Kinderarst means “children’s doctor” or, rather, “pediatrician”. In the first case we just have a space between the words that Germans don’t have and in the second case we use a latinate form. Both translations end up longer than the German word (in this case).

I think that it is generally true (though by no means always true) that a word that looks comically long in German looks that way because Germans don’t include spaces when writing out compound words whereas English speakers do.

Well, before I learnt Spanish, it was impossible to distinguish one word from the next. My Spanish speaking wife insists the same is true in English.

I love German, and unfortunately my having learnt Spanish has caused me to forget much of my German, but I seem to recall from an early German textbook that there exists a single word – one of the longest documented in the world – that means the wife of a captain of the Danube steamship company. I think the fact that it’s not broken by spaces in the written language is signficant. Knowing German, though, I would never think to give it a second thought upon hearing it; it would be quite natural.

Spaces between words are merely there to make it easier for us to read the text. (cf. Spacesbetweenwordsaremerelytheretomakeiteasierforustoreadthetext). They don’t represent anything in the way we actually speak.

Punctuation, on the other hand, both serves to help the reader better understand longer strings of passages (by creating visual markers between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next), but they also mark places where there is a pause and/or change in intonation in the spoken version of the language. For example, a comma typically represents a place where a short pause could be inserted. A period is the equivalent of falling intonation and a pause that marks the end of a spoken sentence. A question mark is the written version of rising intonation that speakers typically use at the end of a question.

Ancient versions of written languages frequently did not include spaces between words, or any punctuation. In addition, there are samples of ancient Greek where the text of one line runs left to right, but the next line runs right to left, etc.

In addition, different languages have different ideas about what constitutes a word. Languages like German tend to run concepts together into a single “word,” while other languages would consider each of those concepts a separate word. (Examples are already given.) Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) frequently treat pronouns as part of the verb they depend on, to the point that they are frequently written as a single word. (E.g. Spanish Damelo!, which breaks down into da (give)+me (me)+lo (it).

Orally, there is a “vocal equivalent” to the space called “open juncture” – sort of a null phoneme. It’s what makes the difference between “a nice cream soda” and “an ice cream soda” distinguishable in normal (unhurried) speech.

Yesterday my daughter was explaining that her teacher was managing the class in a Silendis Missile. I couldn’t figure out what she meant and it finally dawned on me after I asked her to repeat it a couple of times that she said “silent dismissal.” (I work for a company that does a lot of DoD work and was predisposed to think about military hardware that day.)

There is also a word evolution path stemming from confusion of where the word boundary is and the “n” moves from “an” to the beginning of the following word, or vice versa, though I can’t for the life of me come up with an example. (For a fake example, suppose that “nerd” was originally “erd” but people started to think “an erd” was “a nerd.”)

The quote from Dennet is right.

As someone who edited audio tape with a razor blade, I can attest that there are most certainly gaps between words. Just not all words.

It’s relatively easy, for example, to find the gap following a “hard” sound like p, b or k. On the other hand, an s at the end of the word flows naturally into the next word, making it almost impossible to do a really clean edit.

You’ll see the same thing with digital editing, even more accurately. It doesn’t matter how fast the speaker talks. Sometimes there’s a natural break, sometimes there isn’t. But it’s based on sound, not spelling.

Apparently this is what happened with the word “newt”. See the Wikipedia article.

An apron was originally a napron.

I think it has more to do with rythym. The gaps are supplied in the off beat of each languages specific rythym. If you aren’t singing along, you loose the beat. Of course we can all learn new songs and find it quite natural and congruent if we make neural pathways.

Polysynthetic languages are quite interesting in the way they are contructed. The consist of root words to which some or many different morphemes are added. This example of Inuktitut is taken from Wikipedia:

Languages like this obviously lead to some very long words and also (I believe) lead to the belief that “Eskimos” have so many different words for snow, when actually they are saying the root word for snow followed by many other morphemes that describe the type of snow, how long it has been settled and what sort of ground it sits on top of. I’m sure someone will correct me if this belief of mine is not 100% accurate.

A real life example that many of us use: “That’s a whole nother story.” I’m not sure nother is in the dictionary yet, but we certainly understand it, and many of us do this without thinking about it–it’s not meant to be a play on words, in other words.

The opposite happened in the evolution of orange, though. This comes from a word like narang, but somewhere along the way, speakers decided that the N belonged with un/an (depending on the language). Spanish kept the N with the word, though: naranja.

French has extremely weak word boundaries in pronunciation, to the point that contractions are standard, rather than optional, and preceding consonants are actually phonetically attached to the next word (called liaison). For example, a French person says “u norange” rather than “une orange,” even in careful speech. The phrase “Je ne sais pas” (“I don’t know”) is properly pronounced /jn(schwa)saypa/, but is contracted to /shaypa/ in casual speech.