Question: What ways do you know to encourage people to come up with different ways of saying the same thing?

Background: I'm working on a project where my goal is to get variants of utterances as a way to quickly gather speech data on dialects.

My challenge is to find a way to overcome priming effects. For example, I don't want to say

How do you ask to go to the garden?

and get

"Let's go to the garden" or "Want to go to the garden?"

I want to prompt the participants about going to the garden and get "Want to take a walk in the patio?" or "Time for a stroll in the plaza" or something like that. Basically, I don't want the participants to use the same phrasing I used but use their own.

So that's why I'm wondering if you know of studies that faced similar challenges? Or any insight/pointer into linguistic fieldwork of this type would be super helpful.

Ultimately, I'm trying to get people to come up with variations on everyday things like

Lend me that book


Take me to James' house

Anyway, thanks for any help.

  • 1
    To do this properly is very hard, diglossia is internalised. What is the scope of the project, do you have resources to actually go visit the places where dialect speakers are among themselves? Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 5:51
  • Yes. I have the resources to go visit places, but I have to talk to one person at a time.
    – Xavi Pi
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 15:41

1 Answer 1


I'm not sure whether this will meet your needs, but my colleague Pete Becker used to do a little trick to generate descriptions. He wanted to underline the point that there were an infinite number of ways to describe anything (a point which he carefully did not mention to his audience before the trick).

He would say, to the audience, usually a class,

"I'm going to say 'Start', and then I'll do something. When I'm done, I'll say 'Stop'. You pay attention to what I do and when I say 'Stop', you write down what I did on a sheet of paper.
When everybody's done, we'll collect the papers. Ready?"

Then he'd say "Start" and do something simple like put a book on a table, then say "Stop", wait,
and collect the papers. When he read them aloud to the class, he would always find that every description was different; he told me he'd never seen a word-for-word duplicate. I've tried it a few times and agree; people are immensely variable in how they use their language.

  • In machine learning that task is called "image captioning" or "video captioning". Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 5:44
  • Google's has the apt name 'Show and Tell'.
    – amI
    Commented Sep 29, 2018 at 15:37
  • Does the variability depend on how the crowd have been primed? For example, he might have (perhaps inadvertently) said earlier in the class "And then the guy must have left the books on my desk", or this sentence was aired earlier that week on TV Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 15:09
  • He used to do it at the beginning of the class, after the usual preliminaries.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 20:38
  • The variability comes from the fact that everybody's grammar is unique (after all, everybody makes it up as a 3-year-old), and their connections to semantics and pragmatics are also unique, since they're the product of different lives and habits. Standardization is official but not real, and "Universal Grammar" is nonexistent, so you get vast variation in any linguistic dimension whenever you look close enough at the details.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 22:37

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