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.

Of course, everyone knows the meaning of speech can be interpreted differently depending on the mindset of the listener. But the speech itself, the words it contains? That should be straightforwardly objective, right?

Well it turns out that’s not really true at all – as we have seen here in Experiencing Speech, and explore in far more detail in Rethink Speech 101- Unlearning. (Curious? Get some more introductory examples in the Intro, especially: What does it mean to ‘think about’ speech?).

And the most surprising part of all?

The evidence that it is not true is under our noses all the time. We experience examples like the ones in these Experiencing Speech demonstrations every day. Which leaves a big question.

Why don’t we simply observe the evidence under our noses and recognise that our beliefs about speech are false?

Image from Pixabay

The reason is, our society’s false beliefs about speech are not a random collection of inaccurate facts. You could say there’s a method in the madness of our erroneous thinking about speech.

Our false beliefs are knit together into a kind of informal theory that Rethink Speech calls The Everyday Theory of Speech (ETS), or, for short, the c-a-t theory.

You may be surprised to be told you have a theory of speech – especially if you have never studied phonetics. But if you have been surprised by any of our demonstrations, it suggests you do. Remember that surprise indicates we are making inaccurate predictions, which suggests our predictions might arise from inaccurate knowledge or false beliefs.

So what are these false beliefs?

The c-a-t theory tell us that speech is a sequence of sounds, or phonemes (like c-a-t), grouped together to form words (like ‘cat’), which in turn are grouped together to form sentences (like ‘the cat sat on the mat’).

Hang on – those don’t sound like false beliefs! They sound like obvious facts.

That’s exactly the problem. Many facts of common knowledge about speech are facts in the same way it was a fact a few hundred years ago that the sun orbits the earth.

Phonetic science has clearly shown that many basic facts like this are wrong.

The c-a-t theory sounds so plausible – but it is not how things really are

We demonstrate that in detail in Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning, but you can get a preview at How to rethink speech and/or Did you know you have a theory of speech?

The problem is, the false beliefs we have been taught exert such a strong grip on our observation, that mostly we don’t even notice evidence that contradicts them. Even at advanced levels of scholarship, it is surprisingly easy to tolerate cognitive dissonance in our beliefs about speech. Other times we notice, but just feel briefly amused or amazed, and then go about our business continuing to use the c-a-t theory as the basis of our common knowledge.

The false beliefs of c-a-t theory have bad effects!

The fact we have such a shonky theory at the heart of our common knowledge of speech creates all kinds of havoc – as we show in our modules Forensic Phonetics and Rethink Speaking.

We need our unlearning and rethinking to go beyond recognition that the c-a-t theory is wrong.

We need to replace the c-a-t theory with a better way of thinking about speech. What should this new theory be like? No doubt you are developing some ideas on that important question. Indeed phonetic science has suggested a whole range of new theories.

The c-a-t theory makes us drunk so we don’t notice it contradicts observations and even our own beliefs

But it’s harder than you might think to get beyond the c-a-t theory. Oftentimes, even when we replace some of its most obviously wrong elements, we are left with, not a really new theory, but a modified c-a-t theory!

To make sure our rethink gives us a genuinely better way of thinking about speech, we need to understand exactly what it is that makes the c-a-t theory wrong.

This is one of the most important principles of Rethink Speech.

The problem is, very often, when we find out we’re wrong about something we thought we knew, a solution comes to us quite quickly. But how do we know that solution is right? After all, we’ve just discovered something we confidently believed to be true was actually quite wrong! So it’s clear that a simple sense of ‘knowing’ isn’t always enough.

How can we be sure our ‘solution’ won’t send us off half-cocked in a direction just as prone to error as the old one?

The answer is, we need to spend a bit of time investigating what it was that caused the error we are coming out of. What exactly are the false beliefs it rests on? What prior beliefs do those false beliefs rest on? Are there errors in the prior beliefs? In short: what is the right level to perform our rethinking magic and see the results we want?

And all that requires not just thinking about speech, but thinking about our own thinking. In itself, thinking about thinking is one the hardest kinds of thinking there is. But thinking about our thinking about speech? That’s extra hard! Why? Because the thinking itself uses speech!

That’s why Rethink Speech offers both Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning and Rethink Words 101: Unlearning – as well as a range of introductory and applied modules.

Hopefully this little intro has whetted your appetite and helped you see there’s a lot to learn about speech without needing to get waylaid by symbols and technicalities (useful as those are in the right context).

Before we go, maybe it’s worth a quick mention of one common commonly suggested solution that doesn’t really address the problems of c-a-t theory at their core – so stay tuned for our next topic.