July 13, 2004

"Could care less" occurs more

A few days ago, I called into question Steve Pinker's story about could care less. Pinker claimed that could care less is not just a colloquial phrase meaning couldn't care less, because "The melodies and stresses are completely different, and for a good reason. The second version is not illogical, it's sarcastic".

I expressed the belief "that (a) the two phrases are not generally distinguished prosodically as Pinker asserts they are; and that (b) the cited prosodic difference would not as a general rule yield the asserted (sarcastic vs. non-sarcastic) difference in interpretation".

Let me hasten to say that this doesn't put me in the camp of those who sneer at could care less as foolish and illogical. In fact, I freely admit that I use this phrase myself, and though I'm often foolish and illogical, I don't take this to be an instance. Instead, I agree with the OED that could care less is just a colloquial phrase, which for whatever reason means essentially the same thing as couldn't care less.

In any case, I promised "to examine the examples in some conversational speech corpora to evaluate [Pinker's claim] (a), and show you all the pitch tracks". I also promised to "say more later about [Pinker's claim] (b), and how to evaluate claims like this".

Well, I haven't quite gotten there yet. This is partly because I've got a few other chores to deal with, but it's also because my first search produced a surprising result. According to the Switchboard conversational speech corpus, Americans of all ages are far more likely to use could care less than couldn't care less. In fact, in that corpus, couldn't care less doesn't occur at all.

The Switchboard corpus is "a collection of about 2400 two-sided telephone conversations among 543 speakers (302 male, 241 female) from all areas of the United States". I searched these for the word sequence "care less", and found eight relevant examples -- all eight of which are the could care less variant. The couldn't care less form simply doesn't occur.

Here are the examples. Each is preceded by the conversational ID, the sex and birth year of the speaker, the start and end times of the speaker turn, and the turn ID.

sw2331 (M-1950) 341.82 347.24 A.105 And it's something we can do together, so. Well, she doesn't do much hunting, she could care less about that.
sw2352 (F-1940) 519.90 540.44 A.175 It'd be great but the problem with that is you have all of these little branches off the main problem and everyone is very concerned about one thing, you know, like the woman down the tip of Texas that, that calls her turtles and kisses everyone of them everyday. She's terribly interested in her turtles she could care less about shrimp --
sw2490 (F-1964) 253.10 269.04 A.103 Um. -- and, and, I think, and that's what they were going after, uh, they went to interview this town, I mean it's a little dinky town, they went to interview them about the gun control laws [lipsmack] and, uh, the police said, (( )) all the people said, that's fine we could care less. You know, we're all honest, and everything like,
sw2586 (F-1961) 380.88 383.73 B.142 Oh. And the little one, of course, is, could care less.
sw2749 (F-1969) 331.18 348.48 B.56 Probably, yeah [laughter]. Yeah. But, uh, no, it's, it's sad, though, that, uh, that the people, though, that you, you, somebody's life is in twelve people's hands and sometimes those twelve people could care less.
sw3090 (F-1942) 204.48 208.84 A.71 Uh-huh. our son could care less about a budget, and our daughter watches her pennies so closely,
sw3415 (F-1956) 110.70 113.40 A.45 I don't mind waiting, that, that, that's, I could care less --
sw3550 (M-1959) 261.74 264.64 B.126 Uh-huh. -- just to be a little, you know, little car that I could care less about --

As a result, this data is not enough for me to be able to check Steve Pinker's hypothesis about the prosodic marking of the contrast. However, we can certainly disprove his suggestion that the speakers who use this form are "teenagers". The conversations were recorded in 1991, so the speakers' ages at the time were 41, 51, 27, 30, 22, 49, 35, and 32. Not a teen in the bunch.

But I haven't given up on testing the "prosody of sarcasm" hypothesis for this contrast.

Luckily we've recorded and transcribed (though not yet published) quite a bit more conversational speech. Looking at one of these other sources, I found eight could care less examples, and one of the couldn't care less variants. And in another collection, I hit the mother lode: 32 examples of couldn't care less, against 37 examples of could care less. (I'm a little worried about the last set, though -- although it was recorded in the U.S., it was transcribed in New Zealand...) If the couldn't care less examples in the last set are not just transcription errors, that'll be plenty to get a good evaluation of intonational differences, if any. Once I track down the audio, anyhow. So stay tuned.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2004 03:57 PM