Author Topic: Impressionists  (Read 3108 times)

Offline enunciativo

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 6
« on: October 10, 2014, 09:05:12 AM »
Many years ago, I saw a segment of a television show that featured an impressionist, perhaps Rich Little.  Another guest was someone whom he imitated, let's say Kirk Douglas.  I don't know what kind of equipment was used--perhaps an spectrograph--to produce a "voice print" of Rich Little imitating Kirk Douglas and of the real Kirk Douglas.  The results were very different.  However, when Rich Little imitated Kirk, George Burns, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, or just spoke normally, the results were surprisingly uniform.  So, what was being represented visually?     

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1977
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Impressionists
« Reply #1 on: October 10, 2014, 10:22:24 AM »
There is a difference between imitation and acoustic similarity. Imitation is a way to give humans the impression that someone sounds like someone else. It does not mean they will have the same acoustic features. They will of course be more similar than when they are not imitating the individual, but what we hear in an imitation isn't just whether the acoustics are the same. We hear distinctive markers.

As a really basic example, I could stretch out my vowels and say "y'all" and "ain't" a lot-- most people would recognize this as a "southern (American) accent" even though that's not even close to how a real southern accent would be acoustically.

This, along with other phenomena like categorical perception, shows that humans look for specific features or qualities in auditory input rather than considering all of the acoustic information equally. And we are biased toward certain features, especially when deciding if we think one sound is "like" another sound.

Another example is in language contact situations-- the "th" sound in English may be heard as "s" or as "t" (or possibly other sounds like "f") depending on the language of the listener. There is no absolute "similarity", just what we perceive. (We could measure some kind of objective similarity in the acoustic signal, but that wouldn't be about human language any more, just sounds.)
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.