How We Translate Sounds (Language) Into Meaning

Have you ever wondered, perhaps whilst outrageously blazed or doped up, how the combination and sequences of sounds that we call language actually make sense to us?

In addition to the words themselves, the person speaking them is a crucial component in understanding what is being said. Van Berkum also saw an N400 effect occurring very rapidly when the content of a statement being spoken did not match with the voice of the speaker (e.g. “I have a large tattoo on my back” in an upper-class accent or “I like olives” in a young child’s voice). These findings suggest that the brain very quickly classifies someone based on what their voice sounds like and also makes use of social stereotypes to interpret the meaning of what is being said. Van Berkum speculates that “the linguistic brain seems much more ‘messy’ and opportunistic than originally believed, taking any partial cue that seems to bear on interpretation into account as soon as it can.”

Wow. Really gets you thinking, huh? Really gets you thinking, “Why can’t little kids like olives?”

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