Language and Communication

By George A. Miller | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
THE PERCEPTION OF SPEECH

Nature has given to men one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.

-- EPECTETUS

Vocal communication requires a listener to discriminate among vocal sounds, and the amount of information he can extract from the sounds depends upon the acuity of his discrimination. His ability to distinguish different sounds is good but not perfect. There are many subtle differences a listener cannot detect. Some sounds are too faint, some vibrations are too rapid, some differences are too small to be heard. These limits beyond which men cannot hear are called thresholds.


THE LIMITS OF HEARING

What is the slightest sound a human ear can detect? The answer to this question depends on a long list of 'if's,' 'and's,' and 'but's.' Before we can answer it, we must enumerate some of the conditions under which the measurement is made. First it is necessary to assume that the listener's location is perfectly quiet except for the sound we want him to hear. The sound should be a simple sine wave with a single frequency of vibration, for if the sound is complex and contains several component frequencies, we shall not know which component the listener hears. A sound with but a single frequency component is called a pure tone. The tone should go on and off intermittently and should stay on at least half a second, for if a tone is very brief, it is hard to hear. The listener should face the source of sound so that it falls equally on both ears, for both ears together are more sensitive than one alone. The sound pressure is measured in the absence of the listener; the calibrating microphone is placed where the listener's head is going to be. The frequency of the tone should be fixed somewhere between 2000 and 4000 cps; the threshold of detectability varies markedly with frequency, but the ear is most sensitive in this range. The listener is young and has no impairment of hearing. When all of these conditions are satisfied, a listener is able to detect a tone of about 0.0001 dyne/cm2. In terms of the amplitude of movement, the eardrum moves about 0.000000001 cm! If the ear were much more sensitive, it would begin to report the random movements of the air molecules.

-47-

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Language and Communication
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Preface to Revised Edition vi
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Foreword to the Teacher xi
  • Chapter 1 - By Way of Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Phonetic Approach 10
  • Selected References 46
  • Chapter 3 - The Perception of Speech 47
  • Selected References 79
  • Chapter 4- The Statistical Approach 80
  • Selected References 99
  • Chapter 5 - Rules for Using Symbols 100
  • Selected References 118
  • Chapter 6 - Individual Differences 119
  • Selected References 139
  • Chapter 7 - The Verbal Behavior of Children 140
  • Selected References 158
  • Chapter 8 - The Role of Learning 159
  • Selected References 173
  • Chapter 9 - Verbal Habits 174
  • Selected References 198
  • Chapter 10 - Some Effects of Verbal Habits 199
  • Selected References 222
  • Chapter 11 - Words, Sets, and Thoughts 223
  • Selected References 248
  • Chapter 12 - The Social Approach 275
  • Bibliography 276
  • Index 287
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