What is surprise?

Image from Pixabay

Rethink Speech offers you funny, surprising experiences to help you unlearn commonly held false beliefs about the nature of speech and how it works.

To get the most out of these experiences, it is worth addressing a question you may not have thought about explicitly yet: What is surprise?

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A philosophical question – with many delicious layers


If you don’t know Afferbeck Lauder, you should. He was the inventor, or should we say the observer, of strine. Strine is a kind of rendition in spelling of the sound of a very broad Australian English accent. Here’s one of Afferbeck’s less well known pieces, an existential cry of a kind familiar to many teenage (or middle-aged) insomniacs – which also offers a wonderful philosophical insight into the nature of speech and how we understand it.

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Echoic memory, and the surprises you never notice

Does Rethink Speech make you laugh yourself hoarse? (Sorry) Image from Pixabay

Do you groan when you hear a pun? Here’s a very bad one to get you in the mood:

  • A cross-eyed teacher lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils.

Now puns are great fun – but they also tell us absolutely heaps about speech and how it works.

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Using the surprises: Uncovering the hidden tenets of the c-a-t theory

Image from Pixabay

The surprise that makes the demonstrations in this module humorous comes from the fact that the very same stretch of speech can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on the mindset we bring to it.

Why is that surprising?

Well, because it violates something we think we know for sure about speech, namely, that speech is something objective, ‘there to be heard’, the same for everyone who listens to it.

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‘Isn’t this all just cognitive bias?’ Maybe there’s a better way to think about it…

The concept of cognitive bias, most famously confirmation bias, has become very well known in recent decades, especially through research in behavioural economics.

Now cognitive bias is a real and important phenomenon. But it can be used too readily to ‘explain away’ phenomena like those that arise in the study of speech, by attributing them all to subconscious bias, or ‘tricks’ played by our brains.

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What does it mean to ‘think about’ speech?

Image from pixabay
Image from Pixabay

The first step in rethinking speech is to recognise what you currently think about speech. But what does it even mean to ‘think about’ speech?

Like many things to do with speech, it is easy to misunderstand

As usual, the first thing is to be clear on what this expression does not mean.

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