Hair Salons + Speech Perception

The oddest thing happened the other day. (Linguistically, that is.) I was at the hairdresser. I’ve been going to the same person for a while now, but she works at a busy salon with lots of stylists in training who often do the pre-cut washing. So, in other words, I was getting my hair washed by someone new. As she started the wash she asked me, in a Scottish accent:

“Is that your natural [kəɾᵊl]?”

And then this inexplicable thing that happened: I heard that word as color. So I said “Yes, it is” because I don’t dye my hair. Then she said something like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, I’ve spent hours trying to get mine to look like that.” And this was confusing, because I have boring black hair. So then I realized, of course, she’s talking about my hair’s curl — just like every single stylist before her, for the last two decades, has always done! (And no, I’m not 20 years old; my hair went curly after puberty.)

So this is what makes this moment of misperception so baffling: I always get comments on my curls and I never get comments on my color. In theory, I could’ve predicted that she’d ask me about my curly hair before even saying anything at all! And prefacing the word with the word “natural” should’ve been absolutely foolproof for accurate perception, because I would bet that 99% of the occurrences of the word “natural” that I’ve encountered while in a hair salon have been collocated with the word “curl.”

Add to this the fact that I’m a linguist, and a sociophonetician at that, and that accents are my object of study, and that I’ve been living in Scotland for over two years now, and so I’ve heard this before (girl, world, swirl), and… This is all very embarrassing.

Linguistically, here’s what I find surprising. First, there’s all sorts of evidence from sentence processing that we do predict a word’s occurrence based on probabilities calculated on the fly from the words that precede it. Given two equally semantically probable options (as in this case), it’s not a far stretch to imagine than an individual’s personal experience would weight these probabilities further (e.g., me versus someone with straight hair who dyes it regularly). Second, I think it’s interesting that syllabicity apparently trumped phone identity. The /l/ precedes the /r/ in the word color but follows it in the word curl. But I was apparently happy to accept this swapping of liquid position because of the strength my mental representation of color as having two syllables and curl only having one. (Perhaps the fact of the /r/ being realized as a tap has something to do with it, but I’m not sure what.)

My analysis: The plural marking on count or mass nouns is often dropped in technical use, like fashionistas who say that like a certain kind of pant or cattle ranchers who talk about a lot of cow. While it may be relatively more colloquial to talk about someone’s curl, I’d still personally refer instead to someone’s curls (or curly hair). My own experience, both in and out of salons, is probably more with the sentence “Are those your natural curls?” than “Is that your natural curl?”. I think that if the initial verb had prepared me for a plural noun then there’s no way I would’ve misperceived the word as color, because my hair has only one color. Similarly, if there had been a final [s] after the word, it would’ve disambiguated the words as well. (And perhaps if I were greying a bit then this misunderstanding wouldn’t have happened, either.)

Another point in my defense, I mean, by way of explanation, is that hair salons are noisy. There was a blow-dryer going at the time just a few feet away, and there’s lots of research that shows that perception is degraded in noisy environments. (So there!)

Socially, what this experience did was reaffirm how relatively low my frequency of interaction is with people whose accents are ‘Scottish enough’ to have pronunciations such as [kəɾᵊl] for curl. I’ve talked about this before, but this was a strong reminder of that (unfortunate) fact.

The haircut that followed the aforementioned event.

The haircut that followed the aforementioned event.

P.S. I’m happy to receive corrections to my ad hoc transcription attempt (because hey, obviously I can’t hear as well as I’d like to think I can)! Since I have a lack of ‘authentic’ data (and please just accept those scare quotes and don’t get me started on ‘authenticity’), here’s a clip of a voice actor/trainer discussing the Scottish pronunciation of the word girl.

P.P.S. Throughout this post I’ve been self-conscious of my spelling choice for the word color. On Twitter, I always follow Lynne Murphy‘s practice of using a parenthesis around the variant letter, e.g., colo(u)r. But here, I thought that would be distracting. however, I do recogni(s/z)e the irony in using US spelling on a blog called vocalised…


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8 Responses to Hair Salons + Speech Perception

  1. My completely non-linguistic thought on the situation: Maybe you thought you heard colour because you’re getting older, and your subconscious is self-concious about that. You defend your natural hair colour, as a way of saying, I’m young, dammit! Of course it’s my natural colour 😉

  2. Laura says:

    At least you got a good haircut out of it!

  3. Steph says:

    Or maybe it was being in the environment of a hair salon that primed you for “colour”? There are far more cues around for colour than for curl; for instance, beauty magazines that I see more often talk about achieving different sorts of colour or maintaining colour, etc. than they talk about curls. Similarly, around the salons, there are usually visible products for hair colouring, but not really any visible products for perming, etc. Also, maybe you overheard people talking about what hair colour they wanted, or you saw people getting their hair coloured, and that’s what primed you instead! (In my experience, there are usually more people getting colour done in a salon than, say, getting their hair permed.)

  4. Lawrence Shirley says:

    Essentially, you here admit that the expert linguist made a linguistic mistake (though defended). This fitted my mood since, just a few minutes before reading your posting, I had returned semester grades to my students, itemized and with a total that I had calculated manually. Three students pointed out that I, their mathematics teacher, had made adding mistakes! I guess this is pre-Christmas confession time.

  5. Expat Mum says:

    I’m from the north of England (Geordie) and the accent is often mistaken for Scots; I too, would have said “curl” in the singular, as in “the curl of your hair”. Interesting.
    I also think that since the Scots give words like “curl” almost two syllables, it strengthened the case for the word colo(u)r having been said.

  6. Anna says:

    While we don’t flip our /r/, we put two syllables in girl and world in the Upper Midwest, too! But as to your mistake, an American also probably wouldn’t ask “Is that your natural curl?” At least in the places I’ve lived, an American would be more likely to say “is your hair naturally curly?” or “are these curls natural?”. So I think there’s also more to your anticipation than just the syllables–patterns of phrases that you’re used to can also make a difference. Probably two years there haven’t erased the expectations for particular patterns that you developed in the US!

  7. This article is very interesting 🙂 Thank you very much!!!

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