Let’s Conlang – Part II “Let’s Get Phonetical”

In the last instalment of Let’s Conlang, I went through the basics of what conlanging actually is, then gave you a very basic primer on phonology, phonetics and all that good stuff. You might want to open that in another tab now just to have the IPA chart on hand, but just because I’m an awesome guy, I’ll also link you to the Wikipedia article on each group of sounds we use as we start the epic* process of…

Building a Phonology

The first step in building a phonology is to decide which distinctions are going to be meaningful. Will, say, the difference between [pʰ] and [p] be enough to create a minimal pair¹ (as in Ancient Greek φόνος /pʰónos/ “murder” vs. πόνος /pónos/ “work”) or will it be allophonic² as in English?

There are infinity and one different distinctions you could use building the phonology of your conlang (don’t question it; I’ve counted them all), but a lot of them are unlikely to ever occur in a natural language and a lot of those which do occur in natural languages can be very hard to pronounce.

Sure, there’s nothing stopping us from making a language with two hundred consonants and no vowels or something equally outlandish, but while that could be fun, for our purposes here, I think it would be nice to create a language that we have some chance of being able to pronounce. So let’s begin, starting with…

Consonants

1. Plosives

Let’s start with plosives, since pretty much every language has at least one of these. The most common plosives cross-linguistically are /p/, /t/ and /k/³, so let’s start with those. Now a very common distinction for plosives is voicing, so let’s add voiced variants of our plosives: /b/, /d/ and /g/.

Now we’ve got six plosives, but that’s a little boring. We want to imitate natural languages, but we don’t want to be sheep, blindly conforming to the corrupted norms of a soulless society, lead to the slaughter by the consumerist mass media and politicians whose only allegiance is to rapacious corporations, drowning in the fetid taint of world rotten to its core! … or something. So let’s add another distinction: prenasalisation.

A prenasalised plosive is basically exactly what it says on the tin: there’s a nasal sound before the plosive (much like the sequence nd in hand but functioning as a single unit). We could double our plosives here, by having prenasalised voiceless and voiced plosives, but let’s just go for one prenasalised series. Since nasals are naturally voiced sounds⁴, it makes sense to have a series of prenasalised voiced plosives, giving us /mb/, /nd/ and /ŋg/ for a total of nine plosives.

These prenasalised plosives are going to have some interesting implications for the distribution of some sounds in our language, depending on how we decide they could have come about, but we’ll get to that later. For now, we’ve got our plosives sorted, so let’s get onto another method of articulation: fricatives.

2. Fricatives

Less than 10% of languages in the real world lack fricatives (with most of these being native languages of Australia and New Guinea), so it’s probably a safe bet to include some in our conlang. Languages often have fricatives in the same places of articulation as their plosives⁵, so let’s give ourselves some fricatives: /f/, /s/ and /x/ (the ch in loch or Bach), corresponding to /p/, /t/⁶ and /k/ respectively.

But we wouldn’t want to stop there. So let’s add ourselves another. When it comes to fricatives, we’re really spoiled for choice: there’s a whole bunch of them and they’re mostly not too difficult to pronounce. For our purposes, one more fricative should be all we need, so let’s pick something nice and typical: /ʃ/ (the sh in ship).

Now, we have a choice here whether we make voicing a phonemic feature of our fricatives or not. Unlike with our plosives, here I’m going to go with no voicing distinction. As in Old English, the fricatives will be voiced intervocalically and when adjacent to voiced consonants, but the voicing will be entirely allophonic.

That might sound like an odd decision, but there are two good reasons for it: firstly, it’s different to what we’re used to in (modern) English, making it more interesting, and, secondly, the distinction is actually only found in about a third of the world’s languages, so we’ve got fairly good grounds for not making it here.

So, those four fricatives bring our total consonants up to thirteen, which is a lot more than Central Rotokas’ six, but still a far cry from English’s twenty-four⁷. So where to from here? There’s the sonorants, which we’ll get to soon, but there’s one more set of obstruents left to look at first: affricates.

3. Affricates

Affricates are funny little things. With only a cursory glance over an IPA chart, you might even miss them completely; they tend to get tucked away off to one side, or relegated to a footnote, but affricates are pretty common cross-linguistically and they’ll be an important part of our conlang. An affricate is basically just a plosive which is released as a fricative and diachronically they often develop from plosives which have been mutated by various processes⁸. How our affricates developed is not that useful to know right now, but it will come to be important later, so it’s good to keep it in the back of your mind.

A whole range of affricates are possible, but most of them are fairly rare. The most common by far are those with /t/ as their plosive element, so let’s roll with that. I know I said it doesn’t matter where the affricates came from, but it actually kind of does, it’s just not something we’ll be getting into quite yet, so just take my word for it that we’re going to want three affricates: /t͡ʃ/ (the ch in chair), /d͡ʒ/ (the dge in bridge) and /nd͡ʒ/ (similar to the nge in hinge), corresponding to our three types of plosives (voiceless, voiced and prenasalised).

OK, so all the obstruents are finally done. Now it’s time for sonorants.

4. Nasals

Nasal consonants are extremely common; there are virtually no languages without at least one⁹. In fact, /m/ and /n/ are two of the most common phonemes in the world. With that in mind, our language is going to have /m/ and /n/, for sure.

Now which other nasals we’re going to have (if any) is much more interesting. About half of the world’s languages have /ŋ/ (the ng in fornicating) and since we have /g/, and /ŋg/, it makes sense to have it in our language. Another cross-linguistically fairly common nasal is /ɲ/ (the ñ in piñata); we’ll take that too, giving us four nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/ and /ŋ/.

Easy. Next?

5. Laterals

Lateral consonants are basically L-ish consonants¹⁰, so it should come as no surprise that the most common lateral consonant is /l/ (as in the L and possibly the l in Lando Calrissian¹¹). We’ll take one of those and, since we have a palatal nasal, it makes sense for us to get the palatal lateral /ʎ/ (which is not a lambda (λ), but a y turned 180°) as well.

The above two sounds are lateral approximants. There are also lateral fricatives, affricates with lateral releases, lateral flaps and even lateral clicks and ejectives. Most of these are pretty rare (though the fricatives aren’t too so) and, since we’re not going to be having any of them in our conlang, I won’t bother going into them here.

6. Approximants

So we’ve just seen some lateral approximants, now it’s time for the regular kind of Approximants. Approximants are odd; they’re like consonants having identity crises. Some of them overlap a lot with voiced fricatives and in some places of articulation, no language bothers distinguishing the two. Don’t worry; we’re not going to be using those crazy buggers. We’ going to use the crazy buggers who can’t quite decide if they’re consonants or vowels: semivowels.

Semivowels are sounds like the y in you and the w in will do as I command. Now which semivowels we have in our language is really going to depend on our vowel system, so unfortunately, we’re going to have to come back to the semivowels next post, but trust me: it’ll be worth the wait.

And with that, we’re onto our last consonant:

7. The Rhotic

If a lateral is an L-ish consonant, a rhotic is an R-ish consonant. Nobody’s entirely sure what makes a rhotic a rhotic. Without throwing a whole bunch of new terms at you, the main unifying property is that they tend to pattern similarly to lateral approximants, but there’s not much else that all rhotics have in common. It’s all very interesting, but not very relevant, so let’s get to it. Rhotics are common cross-linguistically (though there are quite a few languages, most notably in North America, which lack them), with most languages that do have a rhotic having only one. For our conlang, we’ll go with that and we’ll just leave it as a rather ambiguous /r/ for now. Once we get into allophony in a couple of posts, we’ll be revisiting our rhotic and deciding on the particulars of its pronunciation(s).

And that’s our consonants (almost) done. We’ve got a good list now of nine plosives (/p/, /t/, /k/, /b/, /d/, /g/, /mb/, /nd/ and /ŋg/), four fricatives (/f/, /s/, /ʃ/ and /x/), three affricates (/t͡ʃ/, /d͡ʒ/ and /nd͡ʒ/), four nasals (/m/, /n/, /ɲ/ and /ŋ/), two laterals (/l/ and /ʎ/) and a rhotic (/r/), giving us a grand total of twenty-three consonants, plus whatever semivowels we decide to use. That’s fairly respectable.

Before finishing off with the consonant inventory of our language, however, there’s just one thing left to do. You’ll probably notice that we’ve got a pretty nice, orderly system going on here, but natural languages are rarely so tidy (though they certainly can be) and, as some guy said once, I feel like destroying something beautiful… or something like that. So let’s take our nice column of velars (/k/, /g/, /ŋg/, /x/, /ŋ/) and mess it up. A good target is /x/, which can be a volatile sound; instead of having it be a velar fricative, we’ll have it debuccalise to /h/ in syllable onsets¹², palatalise to /ç/ (the h in human) in syllable codas after front vowels¹³ and stay /x/ elsewhere. And that should give you a taste of the allophony we’ll get to start playing with once the basic phonology is in place!

Now, I’ll leave you with this pretty table¹⁴, neatly summarising all the work we just did (click to embiggen).

Isn't it beautiful?

In the next post, we enter the exciting world of VOWELS!

– Ben xoxo

Notes

¹ Two words differentiated only by a single sound (e.g. cat /kæt/ and pat /pæt/ whose only meaningful difference is the PoA of the initial voiceless plosive: /k/ vs. /p/).
² Conditioned by its environment or just varying freely like some kind of crazy loose cannon phoneme.
³ With /p/ being slightly less common (having been lost in Arabic and a bunch of other languages from around Northern Africa).
⁴ A number of languages (such as Welsh, Icelandic and Burmese) have voiceless nasals, but they’re uncommon cross-linguistically.
⁵ This is both a sweeping generalisation and a vast oversimplification, but at least gives us a starting point.
⁶ We could take /θ/ (the th in think) as the fricative corresponding to /t/, but since it’s a pretty rare sound cross-linguistically, I chose /s/ (probably the most common fricative) instead.
⁷ There are twenty-six consonants if you count the marginal phonemes /ʍ/, which only appears in certain dialects, and /x/, which optionally occurs in a small number of words. To stretch it further, you’d probably have to include interjections like uh-oh/ˈʌ̆ʔ˦əʊ˨/, tut-tut /ǀ ǀ/ or phew /ɧu˥˩/. Accepting consonants in interjections like these would also require you to say that English is tonal and has click consonants, which, though not entirely untrue, would be a misleading to say the least.
⁸ As in the English /t͡ʃ/ (the ch in chair), which developed from palatalised /k/. (In some dialects, the sequence /tj/ as in Tuesday also becomes /t͡ʃ/, while in American English the /j/ is usually dropped.)
⁹ Only about 2% of languages lack nasal consonants and, of these, most have nasal vowels (as in French bon /bɔ̃/), prenasalised plosives or both.
¹⁰ Not to be confused with hellish said by a French or Cockney person.
¹¹ The l in Calrissian is not necessarily [l]; in most dialects of English, an /l/ in the syllable coda is often realised as [ɫ] (a velarised lateral approximant), often called “dark l” (presumably due to its connection with the dark side of the force). /l/ in syllable codas may even lose its lateralisation completely, merging with /w/ or vocalising to [o] or [ʊ].
¹² We’ll get into syllables later, once the basics of our phonology are done.
¹³ We’ll get into vowels next post. Jeez, gimme a break.
¹⁴ Note for the table: /h/ is not technically a fricative, but it is traditionally grouped with the fricatives, so we’ll do so here.

* Opinions may vary as to the epicness of phonology-building.

Let’s Conlang – Part I “Crash Course Phonology”

Salutations, Brain Exchangers! Welcome to my all new blog series: Let’s Conlang! In this series, I’ll be going step-by-step through one of my all-time favourite hobbies: conlanging. (Note: this is an introduction; the actual conlanging will start next post.)

So, wtf is conlanging anyway? It might sound like some kind of obscure sex act¹, but the truth of the matter is far less exciting than that. Conlanging is simply the process of creating a conlang (a constructed language) and in this series, I’ll be going step-by-step through that process, with you, specifically you, the person reading this right now!

You’ve probably heard of some conlangs before (unless you’ve been living sub lapide for the last umpteen years), even if you haven’t come across the word. Probably the most (in)famous example is Klingon, the language of the Klingons from the Star Trek universe. Next most well-known is probably Quenya, one of the many languages Tolkien created for the denizens of Middle Earth. These kind of conlangs, designed to imitate natural language and enrich fictional worlds, are often called artlangs, in contrast to other conlangs, such as Esperanto, which are designed to be used as International Auxiliary Languages. As useful as something like Esperanto may (or may not) be, we’re not about being useful here – we’re about having fun – so in this series we’ll be focussing on constructing an artlang.

Anyway, enough yackety-yak, let’s get to it!

Where do we start?

Like any creative endeavour, starting out a conlang can be a little daunting. Natural languages are huge, complex systems which have evolved over many thousands of years and we’re expected to single-handedly create one from whole cloth? Well, yes and no. A constructed language will never have all the nuances of a natural one, just like even  the best painting doesn’t contain every detail of the real world. It only needs enough detail².

“But,” you say, rudely interrupting my monologue, “none of that tells me where to start.”

This is true. Sorry about that. I suppose I got sidetracked. Which gives me a great opportunity to make another point: getting sidetracked whilst conlanging is one of the best ways to get the necessary details in there. Maybe I got sidetracked on purpose just to make that point³.

The most sensible place to start is with phonology, which, admittedly, I kind of gave away in the title of this post. Phonology, for the non-linguistically inclined, is the systematic organisation of a language’s phonemes. Phonemes I’ll get to in a moment, by for now, just read it as “sounds”. There are two main reasons that I like to start with phonology, one artistic, the other pragmatic. Artistically, the choices you make in a language’s phonology are going to have the biggest effect on its sound, which will give you direction for other aspects of the language. Pragmatically, the phonemes of a language are its fundamental building blocks, so, yeah … probably best to get them done first.

So, phonemes are important, but what are they? I could write a whole blog post answering that, but it would be boring and, for our purposes, largely superfluous. In a sentence: a phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of sound in a language.

As an example, let’s use the English phoneme /t/. Mostly, we think of it as the sound of t in top (aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive [tʰ]), but phonemes don’t just have one sound, they also have allophones (literally “other-sounds”) which are either conditioned by the environment they appear in (e.g. the t in stop, which loses its aspiration, becoming [t]) or just in free variation (e.g. the final t in foot may be aspirated [tʰ], unaspirated [t], preglottalised [ʔt], or replaced with a glottal stop [ʔ] all without altering the meaning). If we want to add even more complexity, in most dialects of American English intervocalic⁴ /t/ (as well as /d/) becomes an alveolar tap [ɾ], meaning an underlying /t/ can be realised as upwards of six different phones (sounds).

Now, if you’re not familiar with linguistics, that last paragraph may have been a little confusing with all that “aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive” nonsense, but terms like this aren’t half as complicated as they seem. It’s just a description of the various phonetic properties of the sound. “Aspirated” means that it’s pronounced with a burst of air (like you feel if you put your hand in front of your mouth and say puff out the candles on the pink pig cake); “voiceless” means it’s pronounced without vibrating the larynx, as opposed to /d/, which is voiced (say tug and dug next to each other; the main differences are aspiration and voicing⁵); “alveolar” means that it’s pronounced with the tongue up against the alveolar ridge (the sticky-outy bit behind your upper teeth); finally, “plosive” means that the vocal tract is completely blocked to make the sound.

OK, deep breath. That probably seems like a lot of work to describe something as simple as the sound t. We don’t want to have to say “aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive” every time we want to talk about a t. And that’s why we have (drum roll) the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)! TA DAA! In the IPA, “aspirated voiceless alveolar plosive” is simply [tʰ]. Now, I’m not going to tell you to memorise the entire thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time familiarising yourself with it. That massive Wikipedia article might make it seem very confusing, but all you really need to know can be summarised in this simple table:

IPA2005_1000px[1]

Looking at the consonants, along the top are the places of articulation (where your tongue/lips is/are⁶) and down the left are the manners of articulation (how you make the sound).
Here is a nice interactive IPA chart which let’s you hear the sounds too.
Note: when playing around with phonology, you will want to say the sounds aloud, which can be very useful; however, be aware that you will sound like a complete idiot. This is unavoidable.

For now, I’ll leave you with that.
If you want, spend some time getting to know the terms and symbols of the IPA; we’ll be using them quite a bit in the posts to come. If not, no sweat; you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

This introductory post has been largely non-technical. If you’re not so happy about that, don’t fret; the next post will get into the nitty-gritty of conlanging and we’ll start work on the phonology of a brand new language. If, on the flip side, you’re worried about getting in over your head, there’s no need for that either; Any technical term I use, I’ll give a definition for in the footnotes, or I’ll link you to its Wikipedia page.

Click to continue to Part II, where the real fun begins!

– Ben xoxo

¹ Or maybe I just interpret everything as some kind of obscure sex act.
² What constitutes enough detail is going to vary depending on more factors than I care to list (e.g. what you want to achieve with the language, how much you care about details, how much free time you have, etc.).
³ I didn’t.
⁴ Appearing between two vowels.
⁵ Actually, voiced consonants in English are often partly devoiced when appearing word-initially, but we’ll just ignore that for now.
⁶ Except in the case of the glottal consonants which can be thought of as having no place of articulation or an undefined place of articulation.

Brain Exchange S02E04

Brain Exchange – S02E04 (Perma Download Link)

In this episode we talk about humanzees once again, Bill Gates’s condom offers, that crazy Kim Jung Un, Whether we are just a text file for an alien race and Total Annihilation  This is the fourth episode from season two of the extravagant Brain Exchange Podcast. Staring Ben and Michael.

Articles and websites discussed in this episode come from the following:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanzee

The Condom Challenge

We are star people: Proof we are text files for Aliens

Total Annihilation Story

Ingliş

(Go to page 2 or mouse over text for normal English orthography.)

Grítiŋz, Brein Eksçeinjrz!

Yestrdei, ai spent sm taim dïvelöpiŋ a nyú wei rait Ingliş. Ðis teibl şud giv yú ól yú níd tú nëu tú ríd it.

Ai nëu wot yór þinkiŋ: “ðäts ósm, Ben! Kän ai taç yór seksi bodi?”

Nd yór rait; it iz ósm. Bët händz of mai seksi bodi (nles yór [RIDÄKTËD]). It mait ól sím laik gobldigúk ät fŕst, bët ívn in ðë fyú sentnsëz öv it yúv red sëu fár, çänsëz ár yór ólredi stártiŋ pik it ap. its ízi; ðäts ðë point.

If yúv bín peiiŋ prtikyëlŕli klëus ëtenşn, mait häv nëutïst ðät sam wŕdz kud könsívëbli spelt in a nambr öv difrënt weiz. Fór instns, “chance” kud çäns ór çáns. Bëuþ ár ízili andrstud, bët nau häv ðë ädëd ëdvántïj öv bíiŋ eibl indïkeit wiç prönansieişn intend, anämbigyuësli!

Nau it mait saund laik ai cánt şat ap ëbaut hau greit ðis órþogrëfi iz. “Ðér ár dautlës disëdvántïjëz,” mait sei. Nd, wans ëgen, ár körekt (árnt a klevr litl sosïj?). Ðë mëust obvíës disëdvántïj öv ðis sistm iz ðät ðë histríz öv nd rïleişnşips bïtwín wŕdz ár meid äz ëupeik äz ðei ár in spíç. Bët evriwan andrständz spíç wiþaut eni síriës problmz, sëu ðë fandëmentl pŕpös öv längwïjkömyúnïkeişniz in nëu wei hármd. Plas, ïmäjn hau ízili çildrën nd non-neitiv ädlt lŕnërz kud pik ap Ingliş speliŋ!

Aim andr nëu ïlyúz̧n ðät mai nyú órþogrëfi wil evr faind waidspred yús, bët häv ëdmit, its a priti kúl aidië. Wel, dëunt ríli häv , bët it wud nais if ät líst prïtendëd .

Ben
xoxo

Edit (due to requests): For people who (for whatever reason) don’t like hovertext, see the next page for a full transliteration.

I thought this was an excellent written piece on free thinking. I think it actually is a good representation of what my own views on Atheism are. As much as actually looking at religious beliefs and systems are hilarious – what makes you better? Good read.

Robinince's Blog

Take this as you will, that is the way of things. You have probably read this before, written by other people in a more pertinent and concise manner, but if you have a minute or two and nothing better to do…

 

About a month ago, someone asked if I felt i was a bit zealous with my atheism. I asked them for some evidence of my zealotry (yes, always a stickler for evidence, damn these scientists muttering in my mind) and they politely backed down as they realised that my zealotry was based on presumptions. 

This may be due to my Christmas shows, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless people, which a few people seem to imagine is some rally where a gathering of excited atheists strip naked, smear themselves in the offal of dismembered papal emissaries and scream banshee-like as the high priest Richard Dawkins rears up on…

View original post 1,115 more words

Placebo Misunderstandings and Misuse

Note: I am aware there is a great deal of literature in the field of placebo studies and this is intended only as a “pop primer”. See Price, Finniss and Benedetti (2008) for a review.

I have come to realise that there is a great degree of misunderstanding in the general public of what the placebo effect actually is. Furthermore, I argue that the term is grossly misused not just by the public, but by some scientific literature. I have heard people say that the placebo effect is “mind over matter” or “the power of the mind”; alternatively many people use it as a general term to explain any health improvements that are not associated with medication. This is not correct.

A placebo is a totally inert substance given to a patient. The placebo effect is the observed positive effect a placebo has in a clinical trial. It is simpler to think of it as a “placebo response” – this is the change in a symptomatology of an individual that occurs as a result of placebo. Clearly note  – as a result of the placebo.

I think a great deal of confusion surrounding the placebo effect is brought about by the ease with people confuse separate phenomena for a placebo response. To explain, I will give an example – take the following graph. [Data for illustrative purposes]

Graph 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Assuming that there was a statistically significant change between month one and four in the placebo condition, it is likely someone would claim that this was due to the placebo effect (i.e. the effect of taking the placebo causing a psycho-biological response). However, this is not the case and we can’t actually assume that. The reason for this is because we don’t have a “no-treatment” group. There are a wide variety of reasons why people with depression could improve over four months which have nothing to do with taking a placebo. Take a look at the following graph for instance [Data for illustrative purposes].

Graph 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now let us assume that there were no statistically significant group differences between the “no treatment group” and the “placebo group”. This is telling us that people improve over time regardless of whether they are given a placebo or not. This could be due to pure statistical/psychometrical reasons – for instance “regression towards the mean“. (This is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on a second measurement). Such a reduction could also be explained by “natural history” – the magnitude of symptomatology change over time in absence of treatment. Thus, it would be incorrect to say that there was statistically significant improvements in the placebo group due to a placebo effect because we are aware other variables have caused the improvements.

So in order to be able to say that the placebo effect is present, we first have to be able to rule out other phenomena such as regression towards the mean and natural history by conducting studies in which carefully designed “no treatment” or “natural history” control conditions are present to compare the placebo condition against. However, such studies still don’t tell us what is causing the placebo effect; in my opinion yet another cause of significant confusion.

The placebo effect is a result of many (if not, innumerable) variables (see Price, Finniss and Benedetti (2008) for a review). However, remember that these variables are not the placebo effect in and of themselves. For instance, expectancy, which is the subjectively perceived likelihood of an outcome or effect, is considered to be one of the driving factors behind the placebo effect. Montgomery & Kirsch in 1997 showed “expectancy accounted for 49% of the variance in postmanipulation pain ratings”. In other words  this study demonstrated that one’s expectations of a drug and recovery process is a significant variable accounting for the amount of pain reduction reported. Through a well planned study, identified the placebo effect and the documented a causal agent.

However, just because there are expectancy effects present doesn’t imply a placebo effect. Likewise, just because a causal factor of the placebo effect is present, doesn’t imply the placebo effect. For example, a 2005 study conducted by Bausell, Lao, Bergman, Lee and Berman found three important things. Firstly, that there was no statistically significant differences in pain perceptions between a real acupuncture group and two forms of placebo acupuncture groups. Secondly, the study found that patients who believed that they received real acupuncture reported significantly less pain than patients who believed that they received a placebo (regardless of what they actually received). Finally, they found that acupuncture does nothing at all to help dental pain.

From these findings, the only conclusion is that the effects of acupuncture analgesia are due to an expectancy effect. This is because the effect of pain reduction (or lack there of) was not due to the placebo group – it was due to expectations of the treatment and its efficacy. There was only an expectancy effect. Thus, for the people who did report a reduction in pain from acupuncture  we cannot say that it was a placebo effect, we can only say it was due to an expectancy effect. Thus, the causal factors behind the placebo effect can be present in isolation of the placebo effect. Furthermore, I would argue that without a no-treatment control – they couldn’t have demonstrated a placebo effect anyway.

So where does this leave us? Well, the placebo effect is present when all other possible causes have been ruled out; a well designed no-treatment control group or natural history group has been incorporated into the study; and it can be shown that there is even a placebo response. There are a wide variety of known causes of a psycho-biological placebo response, with one’s expectations being only one of many. However, it is important to note that the causal factors behind a placebo response are not in themselves indicative of a placebo effect.

So for this reason, next time you hear someone talking about “a placebo effect” you can be a jerk and point out the faults in their layman’s use of the the term. This now raises the interesting questions -when something is medically inert, yet it produces a result better than nothing at all – why does this happen? For answers to this, you need to delve into the research yourselves!

Michael