Years ago I became intrigued by the idea that some forms of perception involve physical mimicry. One of my college linguistics classes (back in the mid-90s) touched on the motor theory of speech perception, which asserts that when we listen to speech, we reverse-engineer the sounds we hear, identifying each sound with the motion or “gesture” of the vocal tract that would be needed to produce it. So, when I listen to you say a word like “dog,” I recognize the word by preparing to say it myself, or at least by figuring out what I’d need to do to with my mouth in order to make those same sounds.  In fact, some studies show that seeing and hearing speech excites the motor system involved in speech production (to quote the title of one paper by Watkins, Strafella, and Paus) — when I listen to you say “dog,” I exhibit neural activity similar to the act of speaking.

When I first heard about these ideas, I wondered if there was a way I could test them myself, or at least explore the territory through an introspective experiment. If listening to speech, or even imagining speech, involves some degree of physical mimicry, what would it happen if that mimicry were obstructed? Would it be harder to perceive speech, or to imagine speech (two separate but related processes) if I adopted an awkward physical position — a configuration of the vocal tract that would make it difficult to physically mimic what I was hearing?  I came up with the following simple experiment that focuses on imagined or “inner” speech:

The Emperor Experiment

1) Stick your tongue out as far as you can (as when a doctor asks you to say “ahhh”) and keep it in that position.

2) Now try to imagine yourself saying the word “emperor.” Try to hear the word in your mind’s ear (as when you talk silently to yourself) but don’t actually say it out loud or do anything with your mouth besides holding your tongue out.  Although your tongue should remain extended as you do this, you should try to imagine the word pronounced clearly, as you would normally say it (i.e. without an extended tongue).

Stop reading and try it!

Were you able to hear the word “emperor” enunciated without a lisp in your mind’s ear? Or did you find that were only able to hear something like em-pah-wah — the way “emperor” would sound if actually spoken with an extended tongue?

I’ve administered this experiment to countless “subjects” informally over the years, including dozens of unsuspecting conversation partners at coffee shops throughout New England, and approximately 30 classmates in an Artificial Intelligence class I took as a grad student. I find that roughly half of participants react to me as though I’m crazy, not because I’m asking them to do something silly like sticking out their tongue, but because they have no problem imagining a clearly pronounced “emperor” in step 2 and therefore don’t see any point to the experiment. The other half quickly bursts out laughing in step 2, because they discover (often to their great surprise) that they simply cannot imagine a clearly pronounced “emperor” while they keep their tongues extended — they can only imagine a mangled, lisping em-pah-wah. Their imagination is a slave to their tongue!

My own experience was that I could only hear em-pah-wah the first couple of times I tried the experiment, but with some practice, I gained the ability to imagine a clear “emperor” no matter the position of my tongue. So it seems that a physical obstruction interferes with imagined speech for some subjects initially, but it’s possible to learn to separate the imagined sound from what it suggested by the obstruction.

I still wonder why people have such different experiences the first time they try this expirement: why is it initially easy for some but hard for others? And how might other kinds of physical or motor interference affect what we can perceive or imagine? I haven’t had occasion to study “extended tongue effect” formally, and I don’t know whether something similar to the emperor experiment occurs in the research literature: I’d appreciate any references you might send my way.

The emperor experiment came back to mind today after several years of dormancy: I was having coffee this afternoon with a neuroscience researcher (and founder of the startup momedx) who has done some fascinating work on visual perception in people who gain or regain sight after years of blindness. On his first try, my coffee companion reported that he heard “em-pah-wah.”

Driving on I-90 from Boston towards the Berkshires yesterday, I spied a curious road sign gleaming in the summer haze:


My mind skipped over three possible interpretations of this grammatically ambiguous statement and landed on a fourth. I didn’t read it as an assertion of the tenet that plows are cautious; I didn’t read it as an admonition to plows to be cautious; and I didn’t take it as a directive to non-plows to avoid plows. Channeling my inner copy editor (always the pessimist), I assumed it must be a simple misspelling of:


It’s not easy making signs (as evidenced by the preponderance of wretched signage in our world), and so I can easily imagine an incautious sign-maker trying to write PLEASE and having it come out as PLOWS.

Unfortunately, the very thought of this has put me in a state where I can no longer see the word please without mentally substituting it with plows (and the result turns out to be grammatical with surprising frequency). And so I invite you, dear reader, to join me in this affliction by listing some of your favorite please/plows substitutions. I will start off with one of my favorites:

Always say plows.

All prose is wordy–it’s made of words! So when does prose, a fundamentally wordy thing, deserve to be disparaged as wordy?

I struggle with this question because my brain is wordy–got lots o’ words. My thoughts are wordy, so my writing comes out wordy.  How much time should I spend eliminating “unnecessary” words?

The question is complicated because “wordiness” is a matter of perspective. If someone is convinced I’m a good writer, or if they’re particularly interested in my subject, they will likely ignore the redundancies in my prose. However, if they don’t “trust” me as a writer, or if they are bored by my topic, they will notice and object to my excesses.

I’ll go further and say that “wordiness” is a matter of musical taste and reproduction. All writing is musical in that it has tone and rhythm; the words are the raw material for a concert that we perform in our minds as we read.  Words will “sound good” to us if we can find the right voice to read them in (and when the author or text comes recommended, we usually work harder to find that voice).  If we don’t have an inner voice to fit the text, then our performance will fall flat: we’ll hear a bunch of disconnected sounds and call it “wordy.” 

We accept the wordiness of great speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because all of the verbiage becomes a substrate for the aura–and the sound–of a great speaker.  Read it like Lincoln, and it does sound great; read it in the voice of a bored student, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve tried to rewrite Gettysburg as a modern schoolteacher might, if the original text had been submitted as a homework assignment, an essay draft to be edited. Here is the final revision (95 words):

Our nation was founded eighty-seven years ago on the idea that all men are created equal. Our civil war is now testing whether any nation based on that idea can endure. Today, we dedicate a portion of the battleground to our fallen troops. But in a larger sense, we cannot hallow this ground with words–the troops have already hallowed it with their struggle. Instead of talking idly, we should dedicate ourselves to their unfinished work, so they will not have died in vain. Let’s keep our nation free and ensure that self-government survives on earth.

Here is the original (267 words):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Swearing Prohibited (Censored)

I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.

Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?

Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most of my friends were willing to take this sign at face value.  Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message.  (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)

For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!

Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — nig[BLEEP] — in his own mind.)

Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse.  And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign.  Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing?  Or do they really, really agree with it?

Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?

As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears?  I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.

As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:

Swearing Prohibited (Uncensored)


I feel like I see a lot of pro-donut signs (America Runs On Dunkin’, etc.) so an ostensibly anti-donut sign is a bit of fresh air. I have a taste for nonsensical and ludicrous signage, from Engrish to Legalese, and here, opportunity called.

I’m interested in graphic leitmotifs like the red circle with a slash through it.  Red circles with slashes mean business. Usually there’s a more complicated icon inside the circle that represents the thing to be avoided or “not done.” But in this case, the inner icon is as simple as possible: a donut that matches the red circle’s contour.  Perhaps the red circle was built to fit (glaze?) that donut in an act of accommodation? In this sign the “thing” and the “thing that negates it” are pals, in perfect formal agreement.

Lastly, the phrase “Do not donut” has caused me to develop a huge number of tongue-twisters that I really should stop saying, so “Do not donut!” means to me “Stop saying tongue-twisters about donuts!” Unfortunately, the sign doesn’t help!

The donut and enclosing circle in this sign were constructed from various sizes of the “O” from the font used in the lettering.


I’ve been thinking about how punctuation marks exhibit self-reference. A mark might indicate something about a sentence, and also embody that same thing: it might be what it describes.

The simplest example is the period. The period tells us the sentence is ending, and in fact it is the end–it’s the very last character that we consider to be part of the sentence.

This constant conjunction of indicating “the end” and being “the end” is so familiar to us that the distinction can be hard to see. Imagine, then, that we were taught to write like this:

Punctuation Rule #1: Place the period after the penultimate word of the. sentence

Of course, that’s a dumb rule, but it shows how, with a different usage convention, the period would not be self-referential. In this altered system, the period tells us where the sentence ends (always after the word that follows it) but it isn’t the end (there’s one more word to go).

Now consider the exclamation mark! The exclamation mark is self-referential because it indicates emphasis, and yet by being less common than the period, it commands our attention and thereby creates emphasis when it occurs. Of course, if we overuse the exclamation mark, it ceases to stand out, and becomes less effective in creating what it indicates.

Punctuation Rule #2: Use it! The exclamation mark! Wherever possible!

In followup posts, I would like to argue that two nonstandard punctuation marks: the interrobang and the irony mark, are a field-day of self-reference. In particular:

The interrobang is baffling

The irony mark is the most ironic thing ever conceived⸮

The AT&T motto Rethink Possible is a good example of unintentional self-reference.  I gather it’s supposed to mean “Rethink what’s possible!”  But it could also mean “A rethink is possible.”  Indeed a rethink is advisable–a rethink of the motto.

Here’s my own rethink of Rethink:

Rethought (TM)




The “nonsense” above means something to me personally. It’s a pun which, depending on your perspective, might seem obscure. The very topic of obscure puns is interesting to me because it leads to some questions about communication that I’ve always struggled with. An obscure pun, just like an uncommon word, can make someone who doesn’t “get it” feel left out: puns can be annoying and sometimes intimidating. Although I love wordplay and engage in it daily at Quadrivial Quandary, I don’t have the kind of encyclopedic, Jeapordy-player sort of mind that would make it easy for me to “get” many common puns when I first hear them, and so I’m quite familiar with being on the “Please, not another pun!” side of a conversation. On the other hand, I find that if a speaker takes the time to explain the context of an obscure pun, this can be a very powerful way to connect with that person. It’s interesting to see meaning emerge as I come to understand more and more of what someone “actually meant” by something. The challenge in writing, of course, is that too much explanation can be equally irritating, and one never knows quite how much to offer.

I’ve become intrigued by the idea of putting some obscure puns “in the spotlight” by rendering them as images with engaging typography. This brings a visual dimension into the experience of considering a pun, and for me at least, makes the whole thing more interesting.

The example above is a play on the editor’s notation “sic” which is short for the Latin “Sic erat scriptum,” which means “Thus it had been written.” Sic is used to indicate that a mistake in quoted text was present in the original (i.e. it’s not a typo by the author who’s using the quote). In my example, there’s something “funny” about how sic is written. Since I spend a lot of time writing software, I’m extremely conscious of mismatched parentheses, and I view them as something to be corrected immediately–the urge to “fix” them is practically primal. So, when I view the image above I want to correct it, but then I realize that it has a kind of self-referential accuracy to it. The word sic is calling out an error, and indeed there is an error in that extra paren on the left. If we were to remove that paren, what then would the error be? Sic would just be dangling on its own, or referring to something not shown. I suppose it could be seen as an error to write “(sic)” where there is no error, so “(sic)” could be referring to itself, but that interpretation is too obscure for me. I need to have a visible error to “anchor” the pun.

I also enjoy the multiplicity of possible interpretations. Yes, “((sic)” could be saying “I’ve been written wrong–I’ve got an extra paren on me left.” But here’s another way of seeing it: What if that paren was there in the first place, just dangling on its own, in a state of mismatchedness? Then someone wrote “(sic)” right beside the open left paren to helpfully point out that “(” had been written in error?

So, what’s fun for me about this example is that it challenges my own inclination to label something as wrong. I see the unbalanced parens and I think “Wrong!” but then I become aware of a different explanations which make me think “Wait, it’s OK. It works!” I don’t have “space” to address this fully here, but the same kind of play between “wrong” and “right” is what I find provocative in art, and what I seek in my own photographic and musical work: something about the image or sound startles you, makes you think it might be “wrong” and then you come to see the logic in it.

The example below fuses a “sic joke” with “italics mine.” It appears that “Italics mine” had been misspelled as “Ital mine” and [sic] was put in there to point out the error.  (In so doing, it gives us the same letters we’d need to correct the error, just in a scrambled order.)  But notice how the text of “(Italics mine)” surrounds, even engulfs the italicized “sic.” What is “italics mine” actually trying to say here? It could be saying “I’ve just italicized the letters of sic.” Or it could be saying “Look, I surround sic, I own the italicized sic, I own the error!”


I got the idea for (ital[sic] mine) when my friend Robin suggested that I do a followup to my post on italics mine with something about sic. When she sent me this suggestion, she wrote “sic erat scriptum” as follows:

sic (erat scriptum)

If you like sic, you’ll love this Corrected Dictionary.


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