Introduction to Phonetics

( Fall 2011, Fall 2012 )

Humans have the uncanny ability to convert thoughts into vibrating air molecules, perceive minute patterns of vibration happening around their heads, and translate those vibrations back into thoughts! Nothing any science fiction author could ever write about mind reading could be as amazing, intricate, or subtle as speech. This course introduces students to the study of speech production and perception and the nature of the acoustic signal that is transmitted from speaker to listener. The course goals are:

  1. To understand fundamental principles of phonetic theory and phonetic representation. We will study current theories of the complex tasks accomplished by speakers and listeners and will arrive at a representation of speech sounds in terms of their articulatory (speaker-based), acoustic, and perceptual (listener-based) characteristics.
  2. To introduce students to phonetic experimentation and analysis. Small-scale experiments will provide training in physiologic measurement, acoustic analysis and perceptual testing. We will reinforce theoretical principles by performing empirical tests of claims.
  3. To consider articulatory, acoustic and perceptual properties as imposing a set of simultaneous constraints on the notion of ``possible speech sound'' and as contributing to the definition of ``possible speech sound system'' for human languages. This consideration serves as a bridge from phonetics to future coursework many students will take in phonology.
  4. To provide practical experience in producing and transcribing sounds of the world's languages.
Fall 2012 Syllabus

Introduction to Phonology

( Spring 2012, Spring 2013 )

This course is designed to do two things:

  1. Survey some basic phonological data: How do speech sounds work, pattern, and interact across the world’s languages? Why can’t *bnick or *fnaishl be a word of English? Why does your Japanese friend think you get a Big Mac at Makudonarudo? What properties do sound patterns share across every language in the world, and in what general ways do they differ? Much of this course will focus on patterns within and among sound segments, but later we will talk more about larger phonological units like syllables and words.
  2. Teach you to analyze phonological data like a scientist. Throughout the course we will look at lots of languages. In each case, you will look at some data, see patterns in that data, describe them as carefully as you can, use a theory to capture those patterns, and then assess how well the theory works — or even compare two theories’ abilities to capture the same data. In the first two thirds of the course, the theory we will use is one of phonological rules. In the later weeks, we will entertain a different theory that uses ranked constraints.

Some sample SVG-formatted lecture slides (in new window, navigate with arrow keys, give it a minute to load up)

2. Phonetics Review
3. Phonemes & Allophones
4. From Phonemes to Features
12. Robot Ethics
Fall 2011 Syllabus

Introduction to Linguistics

( Summer 2008, Fall 2011 )

This foundation course serves as an introduction to language and linguistics. We will begin with the surprisingly difficult question, 'what is language?' and the related, but not identical, question 'what is a language?'. We will examine the structure and use of language at all levels: social identity and register, how words mean (lexical and cognitive semantics), how words are built up from smaller parts (morphology) and how words are arranges in sentences (syntax). We will then discuss the physiology of speech (articulatory phonetics) and what the organization of speech sounds can reveal about the mind (phonology). Finally, we will return to high level social questions with the study of language variation (sociolinguistics), the process and inevitability of language change (historical linguistics), the development and ideology of writing systems and the psychological underpinnings of language.

Throughout the semester we will highlight the interdisciplinary nature of linguistics, especially as it relates to anthropology, sociology, mathematics and cognitive science. Students will gain experience with hands-on data analysis from English and a number of other languages.

Fall 2011 Syllabus

Hearing & Speech Perception

( Spring 2012 )

Experimental speech perception, which spans a period of more than 60 years, investigates how listeners extract a linguistic message from the input acoustic signal. From the discipline's earliest years, researchers recognized that the acoustic signal is highly variable and that perceptual processing is more complex (and interesting!) than a simple one-to-one mapping between acoustic property and linguistic percept. Thus, much of the research in speech perception has been guided by the fundamental question of how listeners "cope" with acoustic variability to achieve perceptual constancy.

How does speech perception differ from other types of auditory processing? What is the relation between speech production and perception? Are the primitives of speech perception auditory or articulatory? Do perceptual primitives associate with smaller (features, phonemes) or larger (syllables, words) linguistic units? How do listeners form perceptual categories from variable input, and what is the nature of the categories, or mental representations, that are formed? How is perception reorganized developmentally due to a child's experience with a particular phonological system? And in turn, how does perception influence phonological systems and phonological change?

This course is a hybrid advanced course/seminar treatment of the relationship between acoustic signals and mental representations. We will begin by concentrating on the human ear and psychoacoustics. This will lead into a survey of the primary theories of speech perception. Finally, we will treat as many topics of special interest as we can before we run out of time and are forced to part.

Spring 2012 Syllabus

Advanced Phonology

( Fall 2012 )

As we have designed it together over the summer, this is not so much a course in how to do phonological analysis as it is a course in what phonology is. We will, of course, get our hands dirty now and again and do some actual phonology, but for the most part we will be reading, thinking about, and discussing different theories of phonology. We will evaluate the assumptions each theory makes about what language is and how it works. Questions we will encounter include: what should count as evidence for a theory of phonology? is there any such thing as grammar? how can we tell? are there mental representations of abstract linguistic units and, if so, how abstract are they? what responsibility does the phonologist have for sociolinguistic variation, frequency differences, and coarticulatory patterns in a language?

The specific course goals are:

  1. To survey a representative (but by no means comprehensive) sample of phonological theories and to discuss their assumptions, goals, similarities, and differences.
  2. To approach two or three of the big, active, intractable current problems in the linguistic analysis of sound and gesture and to use these problems to evaluate the theories we have surveyed.
  3. To practice writing critical analyses of theoretical and empirical writing.
Fall 2012 Syllabus

Computational Linguistics

( Spring 2013 )

This is an introduction to computational linguistics intended primarily for students with a solid grounding in linguistic theory & methodology who wish to expand their toolkits and world view to include computational methods. You will learn enough Python to think, just a bit, like a computer scientist. The full course description is not yet available, but we will use Jurafsky & Martin, second edition (be certain to get the second edition!).

Students from computer science are, of course, also welcome. For you the challenge will be coming up to speed with linguistics while your peers are acquiring programming skills.

Praat Scripting

( 2013 LSA Summer Institute, Stanford Summer 2014, LSA Annual Meeting 2015 )

Praat is a software tool for recording, analyzing, playing, and modifying speech sounds in the course of linguistics research. It can also be used for behavioral experimentation, phonological simulations, statistical analysis, drawing & plotting, corpus annotation, as a dessert topping, and also as a floor wax. Praat also includes a domain-specific scripting language that can be used to automate or streamline all of these tasks.

This course introduces basic automation and scripting skills for linguists using Praat. The course will expand upon a basic familiarity with Praat and explore how scripting can help you automate mundane tasks, ensure consistency in your analyses, and provide implicit (and richly-detailed) methodological documentation of your research. Our main goals will be:

  1. To expand upon a basic familiarity with Praat by exploring the software’s capabilities and learning the details of its scripting language.
  2. To practice a set of scripting best practices to help you not only write and maintain your own scripts but evaluate scripts written by others.

The course assumes participants have read and practiced with the Intro from Praat’s help manual. Topics to be covered include:

  • Working with the Objects, Editor, and Picture windows
  • Finding available commands
  • Creating new commands
  • Working with TextGrids
  • Conditionals, flow control, and error handling
  • Using strings, numbers, formulas, arrays, and tables
  • Automating phonetic analysis
  • Testing, adapting, and using scripts from the internet

College Writing

( Fall 2008 )

Learning to write good college prose is a lot like learning to be a great cake designer. The folks on Ace of Cakes can no more show up at a formal wedding with an animatronic Britney Spears cake (with sparklers) than they can show up with an undercooked puddle of Betty Crocker cake mix — at least, not if they expect to get paid. A really great cake has to be delicious, of course, but it also has to be structurally sound, it has to be beautiful, and, crucially, it has to be appropriate to the party.

Your writing is very similar. You can write a well-structured logical argument with insightful commentary and mastery of your topic, but if it reads like a lost James Joyce short story or cribbed Radiohead lyrics you're unlikely to get an 'A'. Your job in college is not merely to understand what you're taught but to synthesize and demonstrate your learning in the language appropriate to the party.

That's where this class comes in. We're going to hone our writing skills, learn to pay attention to form as well as content, and get a lot of practice writing.

Fall 2008 Syllabus

Pseudorandom quotes from evaluations.

( both positive & negative... )

“I just wanted to thank you one more time for the tutorial. It was perfect, and really fun. You're a great teacher.”

“Dr. McGowan is absolutely amazing. He is very entertaining and knowledgeable and always quick to answer questions and discuss concerns. His atmosphere and attitude are very informal, and even in a big class, he makes efforts to get to know his students personally and address their needs individually. I cannot imagine having a better instructor for anything. His lectures are never, ever boring and are full of pop culture references that engage students and enhance their understanding of the material. Also, he is hilarious and full of great advice. He took the time to get to know me and really helped to quell my qualms about being a linguistics major. He also doesn't get mad if you e-mail him lame linguistics jokes. If you have a chance to take a class from him, I cannot recommend enough that you do it. He is great.”

“He did a really great job of encouraging dialogue and responding to comments and questions in a way that made students very comfortable to voice their own ideas. The way he organized the seminar subject matter was also very well planned and helped students to begin to make sense of a large body of research in just one semester. Highly recommended.”

“Really cool, great guy, but not a great professor: pretty disorganized, lectures turned into discussions most of the time and we fell waaaaay behind.”

Okay, I need to respond to this one. The point about not being a great professor is well taken. However, turning lectures into discussions was an explicit goal I had for the class and certainly didn't happen by accident. Furthermore, while it's true that we didn't reach all of the topics laid-out on the syllabus, it is not true, in any sense, that we `fell behind'; waaaaay or otherwise. —Kevin

“He is by far the best teacher I've had at Rice. He encouraged and facilitated thought in and out of class, taught everything thoroughly and was able to present the material in a way that was constantly engaging and interesting. Take any class you can with this man! ”

“Dr. McGowan was an amazing teacher. His lectures were very engaging, and he was also very friendly.”

“Dr. McGowan was very entertaining, but he also seemed to know what he was talking about very well. He presented the material in an engaging and informative way.”

“Dr. McGowan was an excellent professor--very engaging, humorous, and intelligent. I looked forward to going to his class, because he was such a good teacher. ”

“He tended to get off topic a lot, and it made the actual content of his lectures really hard to follow. I got lost a lot.”

I'm so sorry I lost you; I do wish you'd told me before the evaluation, though. What felt `off-topic' was meant to be engaging and interactive. Class time is precious and there is a lot of work to do. I know this. What may feel like a relaxed digression is almost always, in fact, a fairly calculated attempt to repeat important material in a slightly different and context-sensitive way. I work harder now to make the structure clearer and to relate these `digressions' more explicitly to the original presentation of the material. Thanks for letting me know. —Kevin

“Kevin McGowan is awesome. Really, everyone loves him. He is super funny but also really passionate about the subject. That combination is IDEAL for a professor. And when do you ever come across an ideal situation? Never. Except now. So if you're thinking of hiring him, do it. If you're not thinking of hiring him, you should start.”

“Dr. McGowan is an absolutely outstanding professor and I don't think I've ever been so inspired to learn than in his classroom. ”

“Dr. McGowan is hands-down one of my favorite professors ever in the history of my time at Rice. He's a very funny yet effective professor. Every time I went to his class I always expected to have a laugh and learn something absolutely fascinating. Not only is he a great lecturer in class, but he's also great outside of class in terms of assisting with homeworks and being pretty understanding needing more time. He's very approachable, sweet, and beyond knowledgable about his subject. I didn't know what to expect out of Phonology when I took it, but I was pleasantly surprised when I absolutely enjoyed his class and looked forward to attending lectures. He made it fun, interesting, and novel. I also had taken Phonetics with him, and while that was his first class that he taught and it was still in the beta-testing stages, I still had a great time and learned a lot. If Kevin McGowan is still around, take his class. Any of his classes. Please. You'll thank yourself, I promise.”