Sunday, January 28, 2007

Trade and betrayed

On Sunday morning, before the Mrs. gets up, I always fortify myself to read Safire and listen to NPR. That usually means hearing Will Shortz do his puzzle. The audio won't be available on the NPR site until this afternoon, but it sounded like he slipped in a tough one. The game involved filling in blanks where one word was the other word with the same sound shape plus a prefix be-, like nine and benign. So, you had to think about sounds (not spelling) and do a kind of pseudo-derivational operation, be- prefixation. Cute. One sentence was roughly:
A wife might feel _______ if her husband decided to _____ her in for a younger woman.
Now, what Mrs. Verb (not her real name) would feel in this situation, I imagine, would be the sharp kick of my .357 Colt Python as she shot me (of course she's never as much as picked up a gun), but the answer has already been given away in the subject line: Betrayed and trade. This looks somehow eerily like experiments in the psycholinguistics literature, where reaction times are measured against tasks of different levels of difficulty. This item seemed to confuse the guest. I wonder if it was the combination of this more-or-less derivational operation plus an inflectional one: Both are unrelated like most of the pairs, but these are verbs in different tenses and I wonder if folks find it hard to make that set of disconnects. Without knowing the literature on this subject, that is, I'm wondering if people focus on the be- and don't think as quickly about doing an inflectional operation; might be easier with entirely unrelated forms.

Anyway, the bigger question: I've always been struck how really good psycholinguistic experiments often look like well-designed puzzles (although the experimenters have to beat the trick to death to get adequate data). Has Will Shortz ever looked at that stuff? Does he give thought to what's going on in the brain as we solve these things? I'm thinking back to Mark Liberman's LSA talk about how linguistics doesn't have the role it should in public life. It's clear that people are wildly excited about this puzzle, but wouldn't it be better if people understood a little of what's happening under the hood?

OK, time to shovel the new snow ...


Anonymous said...

i agree about psycholinguistics experiments and puzzles. of course, participating in some psycholinguistic experiments seems more like proof-reading papers for a high school remedial writing class.

Mr. Verb said...

True enough ... there's clearly an art to designing those creatures.