It occurred to me that what we hear and interpret as speech is often an inarticulate garble of phonemes that native speakers process with lightning speed (usually) to come up with a clear and specific meaning.

For example, in English if you are a native speaker and you hear


you probably parse it instantly and correctly as

You're going to have to get out of here now!

But non-native speakers would be completely flummoxed unless there were sufficient contextual clues—angry face, threatening or warning gestures, tone of voice—to make most of the meaning clear.

I'm wondering how much of this post-processing is based on pattern recognition, how much is contextual or modal or extra-linguistic, and so on. Certainly if I were to bring up an abstruse topic out of the blue, and spoke in a similarly rapid and inarticulate manner, comprehension would go way down, even for native speakers.

  • You appear to be confusing writing with speech. What any native speaker does is instantly understand an utterance, correct; but it's not at all clear that any, let alone all, native speakers use written graphemes, or even orthodox morphemes, to structure their understandings. Many discourses are entirely a matter of fixed phrases used for pragmatic and phatic significance; the rest is likely not "processed" beyond recognition as a fixed phrase.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:33
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    I'm not speaking about graphemes. They're unfortunately the only way I have to render what I hear in a written question.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 18:50
  • Good question, but how would one quantify these things? It is a combination of all of those things...perhaps someone can give a summary of the most salient points.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 19:11
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    @Mitch: It seems to me—and I am not a linguist—that language is not processed word by word like data packets. I believe we hear highlights in an oral statement and put them together after the fact. Sometimes we can go the other way and be predictive about what the last part of a sentence based on what we've already heard, but mostly we fill in details after the fact to arrive at a complete comprehension. I noticed this while watching movies when the dialogue wasn't clear. Sometimes two or three phonemes would be all that was needed to make sense of a longer statement. Hope that helps.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 20:34
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    @Robusto: I liked your garbled speech. No need to remove the fun part.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 20:38


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