Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chinese Without Tone?

("please, wait a moment", image from

Vivian Aldridge has a nice website devoted to explaining braille systems for different languages (HT Boing Boing). If I understand correctly, tone is rarely represented for Chinese braille (let's forgive for the moment that "Chinese" is the name of a language family, not a particular language):

In the few examples of Chinese braille that I have come across, the signs for the tones were not used except in the following cases:
  • with the syllable yi, for which a good Chinese-German dictionary lists almost 50 different inkprint characters. In this case the indication of the tone helps to limit the number of possible meanings. 
  • in words where a syllable with a suppressed vowel comes before syllable without a consonant, for example the word sh'yong (try out, test) in which the braille sign for the fourth tone is used instead of the apostrope. In this case the tone sign seems to be used to separate the two syllables.
Tone is a non-trivial feature of Chinese languages. Omniglot has a nice page with the system displayed (fyi, it cites as one of its sources). The interesting point is that tone has the ability to be represented, but according to Vivian, it normally is not (however, she notes that she has only seen a few examples). I spent two years in college struggling in Mandarin courses. I would have liked to have dispensed with tone.

Friday, January 29, 2010

yo xochitl

I'm a sucker for installation art projects. Even though most of them suck, I'm an optimist and I find the genre interesting and compelling so I keep waiting until I find one that doesn't suck. You can find me sitting in the little white rooms in the basement of the Hirshhorn on many Saturday mornings ... waiting. So I was happy to stumble upon (though, not via StumbleUpon) the video above called "Barrio Linguistics: An experimental study of the linguistic landscape of Spanish Harlem, New York" (HT Mahalo).

While it is neither experimental nor a study in the academic sense, I found it enjoyable as linguistics related art. FYI, I'm not sure how to translate the phrase from the video "yo xochitle" (apparently, xochitle is Nahuatle for 'flower' ... I flower???).

From the video's YouTube page:

Barrio Linguistics is an exploration of nomadic Spanish found in the linguistic landscape of Spanish Harlem, New York City through interactive video installation. Makes use of photography, animation, poetry, video projection and electroacoutic audio to incite dialog about the role of language and advertising in contemporary society. The piece is an experimental documentary of the linguistics of south-north migration and the changing face of urban semiotics.  The piece was created by sampling all publicly viewable Spanish language text within a five block radius in Spanish Harlem. Later, a poem was written using exclusively this vocabulary.   In the installation, the order of the videopoem is dictated by the user. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bad Linguistics ... sigh

(cropped image from Huffington Post)

It has long been a grand temptation to use simple word frequency* counts to judge a person's mental state. Like Freudian Slips, there is an assumption that this will give us a glimpse into what a person "really" believes and feels, deep inside. This trend came and went within linguistics when digital corpora were first being compiled and analyzed several decades ago. Linguists quickly realized that this was, in fact, a bogus methodology when they discovered that many (most) claims or hypotheses based solely on a person's simple word frequency data were easily refuted upon deeper inspection. Nonetheless, the message of the weakness of this technique never quite reached the outside world and word counts continue to be cited, even by reputable people, as a window into the mind of an individual. Geoff Nunberg recently railed against the practice here: The I's Dont Have It.

The latest victim of this scam is one of the blogging world's most respected statisticians, Nate Silver who performed a word frequency experiment on a variety of U.S. presidential State Of The Union speeches going back to 1962 HERE. I have a lot of respect for Silver, but I believe he's off the mark on this one. Silver leads into his analysis talking about his own pleasant surprise at the fact that the speech demonstrated "an awareness of the difficult situation in which the President now finds himself." Then, he justifies his linguistic analysis by stating that "subjective evaluations of Presidential speeches are notoriously useless. So let's instead attempt something a bit more rigorous, which is a word frequency analysis..." He explains his methodology this way:

To investigate, we'll compare the President's speech to the State of the Union addresses delivered by each president since John F. Kennedy in 1962 in advance of their respective midterm elections. We'll also look at the address that Obama delivered -- not technically a State of the Union -- to the Congress in February, 2009. I've highlighted a total of about 70 buzzwords from these speeches, which are broken down into six categories. The numbers you see below reflect the number of times that each President used term in his State of the Union address.

The comparisons and analysis he reports are bogus and at least as "subjective" as his original intuition. Here's why:

All Of Them

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Most Excellent Blog

The excellent blog Cognitive Daily is calling it quits. This is one of the blogs that has most inspired me and helped me understand just how good academic blogs can be in reviewing and critiquing academic research. They leave a legacy not only of their excellent posts, but also the founding of the exceptional aggregator Research Blogging which continues to be a constant source of intriguing and thought-provoking reviews of the most current academic research (it happily dominates my feed).

One of the prime architects, Dave Munger, promises a "Mystery Project to be named later" (soon?) and I'm holding my breath (so hurry up Dave!).

Blob Wars

(images from Neuroskeptic)

Neuroskeptic reports on some disturbing news that the results of fMRI studies can be seriously impacted by the software package used to analyze the results. There are several packages available and while most do much the same thing, at least one uses a unique statistical approach which produces different results. Not "better" or "worse" mind you, just different. The image above contrasts results using the same data but different analysis software. Money quote:

Analysis using both programs revealed that during the processing of emotional faces, as compared to the baseline stimulus, there was an increased activation in the visual areas (occipital, fusiform and lingual gyri), in the cerebellum, in the parietal cortex [etc] ... Conversely, the temporal regions, insula and putamen were found to be activated using the XBAM analysis software only (emphasis added).

The comments on Neuroskeptic's post are detailed and instructive.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Linguistics of Food

At Gambler's House, blogger teofilo provides a very nice walk through of a couple of studies that use linguistics to study the spread of agriculture into the Southwest Unites States from Mexico. The methodology hinges on 1) tracking loanwords and 2) the assumption that Proto-Northern-Uto-Aztecan (PNUA) is a valid genetic unit. I'm not qualified to comment, but I felt the post was thorough and raised some fair objections as well as noting strengths.  Money quote:

"...the fact that the loans seem to have gone both ways shows that whatever contact took place involved both groups continuing to exist as social entities of some sort.  This is not evidence for assimilation, in other words, but for peaceful contact between agricultural and hunter-gatherer groups involving the exchange of information that enhanced the subsistence options of both parties."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ambivalent Unintelligible Syntax

The folks at Talking Brains posted a detailed walk through HERE of a neurolinguistic experiment that looked at where in the brain syntax and intelligibility are processed. They are happy that the research concludes that it is NOT "a left hemisphere function that primarily involves anterior temporal regions" nor is it "a portion of Broca's area, BA44, [that is] is critical for hierarchical structure processing."  Their ambivalence is based on their perception that the original authors don't see the contradictions inherent in their study. Money Quote:

What possible syntactic computation could be invoked BOTH by a grammatical violation and unintelligible noises but not by grammatical sentences?

Yes, what computation indeed.

The Daft Effect

Gotta love a scientist who sneaks the word "daft" through the peer review process: Body in Mind.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why Linguists Should Study Math

Bob Carpenter recently made the following comment on one of my posts: I'm very excited to hear that linguists are beginning to take statistics seriously (again). I'd heard the same thing from Chris Manning a year or so ago, but then other linguists I queried were more skeptical about the role of statistics.

This brought to mind a post by Harvard economist Greg Mankiw called Why Aspiring Economists Need Math. Some of his comments are relevant to linguists (not all, though). I Googled around to see if anyone had already blogged something like this, but couldn't find much (I'd be happy to hear I missed something). Being a bold blogger with little fear of humiliation (often a poor combination, btw) I decided to take a stab at it (UPDATE: I finally discovered a post from summer 2009 by Liberman at LL on basically this same topic here).

Linguists should study math* because...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

Blue Meat and Clever Research

Cognitive Daily reviews some really clever research on synesthesia, the phenomenon of associating words with colors, as well as other multimodal associations (not to be confused with its poor cousin sound symbolism). For example, there are people who will experience seeing the color blue when they hear the word meat (the actual word-color associations are not fixed or predictable, as far as I know). There is neuroscience research suggesting that people who experience this have some sort of overlap in processing areas for the word-color pairs (read an excellent roundup of the research here at NeuroLogica Blog). But this is a difficult area to study because there are so few true synesthetes and their experiences are inconsistent.

Bargary et al. 2009 wanted to discover when the color association was triggered in the time course of lexical recognition. Exactly how were they going to track that?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

silly pronouns

kottke gets silly with pronouns. Money quote: Lemme get this straight...when me was subtracted from you, what's left over is ours?

Transliteration Preferred Over Translation

Ingrid, at her Language On the Move blog, posts about an interesting M.A. thesis that studied the translation of brand names into Arabic. Money quote:

...basically, he’s saying that the entire target population of an advertising message doesn’t get it. Small wonder that Arabic speakers often gripe about the way the Arabic language has become “infested” (Al Agha’s term; p. 82) with English. Al Agha notes that the preferred “translation” strategy in his corpus of Saudi fast-food ads is transliteration rather than translation.

Having worked in the international branding industry (for an ever so brief amount of time), I can attest to the issues and problems that arise that Ingrid discusses further, and they are indeed non-trivial. It's a good read.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I'm rather shocked, pleasantly, that Slate has managed to publish a story involving linguistics that is not completely bonkers. Chris Beam wrote a remarkably sane and thoughtful explanation of the Harry Reid kerfuffle, couching it in terms of code-switching. He also quotes John McWhorter, the LLer who has written the best analysis of the story, as far as I can tell.

Give it to me!

Sean, a grad student in linguistics at University of Edinburgh who blogs at The Adventures of Auck (which has a nifty header that you get to play with), has a nice post where he walks through competing hypotheses and experiments regarding the role of pragmatic cues in children's word learning. Read it HERE. Money quote:

Children try to integrate cues from different domains into one coherent communicative intention. It is suggested that it may be harder to modify lexical entries for familiar words without a clear reason than to link novel words to familiar objects.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

More Russian Illusions Than I

Colin Phillips gave a nice plenary talk at the LSA this afternoon on the role grammatical illusions can play in studying the online processing of sentences (was it just me, or did his English accent seem more pronounced than usual? Was this a social register effect or am I off my rocker?).  He drew a really nice parallel with optical illusions and the value they have added to the study of vision.  The point is that there are some sentences that seem perfectly grammatical at first, but upon reflection, are completely incoherent. For example:
  • More people have been to Russia than I have.
Most native speakers of English will read this sentence and be perfectly happy, but re-read it a few times. Do you see the incoherence? It's incoherent because ...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Infiltrating The Secret Cabal

Having managed to infiltrate the secrete cabal held in City X (i.e., Baltimore) I discovered a couple of things (pssst, my infiltration might continue into the weekend..I'm not authorized to comment any further).

First, the secret city, famous for its triumphant inner harbor renovation, has a FAR MORE INTERESTING Little Italy neighborhood just a mile further down Pratt street. My advice, for what it's worth, screw the Inner Harbor's plastic corporate food and walk a mile down the road to a great little restaurant scene.

Second, Ensconced within the glassy, plush confines of the Hilton, I couldn't help but hear Jean Baudrillard  Ryan Bingham whispering in my ear, "welcome to the desert of the real." With its vestigial ports rusting before our eyes, this shipping and steel city desperately clings to its hopes and dreams of reclaiming glory's past by flashing the lights of its corporate sponsors ESPN Zone and Cheesecake Factory. Yet, its true charm (and yes, there truly is charm in Baltimore) lies in its people and small businesses.

Third, I shared a few flagons of aqua vitae with the chair of a prominent department of brain and  cognitive sciences and we seemed to agree on some critical points (can't rule out the effects of the aqua vitae, of course).  I sum up thusly (with the caveat that these are my explications alone on what was expressed under the influence of said aqua vitae and may not reflect any opinion other then mine, in the here and now, blogging under the influence of said aqua vitae):
  • The Bayesians are coming: the next linguistic wars will not be between different theoretical factions, but between the traditional theoreticians and the statistical computationalists (not necessarily a bad thing, btw).
  • The bar was good: the demise of comprehensive exams is a bad thing. They forced students to live up to a basic standard of competence that the wishy-washy replacement requirements fail to enforce.
  • Good help is hard to find: the scarcity of people who know both the computational/statistical side AND the linguistic side is frustrating.
  • Brother, can you spare a dime: what happened to the jobs???? Ain't no jobs no more, don't matter what you wrote your diss on.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Word Of The Decade

Benjamin Zimmer posted about the American Dialect Society's Word of the Decade vote coming up tonight in Baltimore and I noticed something unusual about one of the candidates: 9/11.  I commented thusly:

Hmmm, for word of the decade I find 9/11 most interesting, linguistically speaking. While google follows a well known pattern of turning a brand name into a verb (e.g., xerox that for me), 9/11 names an infamous event by the date it occurred. Are there any other examples of this? We don’t refer to Pearl Harbor as 12/7 or Waterloo as 6/18 (yep, had to wiki that one). Normally we use place names. I’m trying to think of another example of this usage and I’m coming up blank. Only the fourth of July comes to mind as similar.

Can anyone think of other examples of this, in any language? I'll be in Baltimore tonight meeting friends at the LSA. I might pop into the meeting and put in my two cents. Hopefully there will be rabid debate, angry protestations, booze...too much to hope for fisticuffs?

UPDATE: Peter Taylor posted a nice response over at LL in the comments: it's far more common in Spanish. Cinco de Mayo probably rings a bell, even if you can't say what happened then. My city (Valencia, Spain) has a metro stop, a hospital, and I don't know what else named for the 9th October, commemorating the day it was captured from the Moors in 1238. There are also streets named for (at minimum) the 3rd April, 25th April, 1st May, and 18th July.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twitter Project: Medieval and Renaissance Minds

In an attempt to be connected to the 21st century world, I have begun a brief Twitter project wherein I will be tweeting HERE (#awlobf) one sentence for every page of the bestseller A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age by historian William Manchester from Thursday, January 7 at 9am through Monday, January 11 at 7pm.

Each Tweet is intended to be a pithy gloss of the take-away point of that page of the book. The tweets will be in order and each will begin with the page number it is associated with (1-296). The tweets will be published periodically between 9am and 7pm each day from Thursday January 7th though Monday January 11 (the date of the book club meeting). I will use SocialOomph to automate the tweets (HT HATProject).

For more, see the tweets here and a brief explanation here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hiro Yoda Speaks

(screen shot from

I couldn't help but notice on Monday night's episode of Heroes, the recently discombobulated Hiro spoke a couple of sentences in Yoda-speak. Namely these two:
  • Good you have done, Princess.
  • Defeat the dark side, we will.
Well, let me clarify that. He was translated into English subtitles as speaking Yoda-speak, which is, in English, rather already Japanese-like (verb final and all that). BUT WAIT! What was Hiro saying in Japanese? If Yoda-speak means you take verbs and put them at the end of sentences, then how is Yoda-speak represented in a language that's already verb final? Were his sentences verb-initial? I'm curious to know what grammatical funny business the writers came up with to pull this off (or was he simply speaking grammatical Japanese and the English subtitles alone contained the allusion?). Any Japanese speakers care to clear this up?

PS: I believe my title Hiro Yoda Speaks follows acceptable topic comment order for Japanese for me to model the intended sentence Hiro Speaks Yoda. Were my title Yoda Hiro Speaks, I believe a better English translation would be "It is Yoda that Hiro speaks."  No?

Booting Smack

(image from Boing Boing)

Having discovered this NYC guide to shooting smack (HT Boing Boing), I was little perplexed at the final guideline: Only "boot" once or twice in one shot.

Honestly, I've never heard the term "boot" in reference to drug use before, but drug users are famously inventive linguists (see here) so I rolled with it (note that this definition of "boot" is only 5th on Urban Dictionary's list of meanings), but I'm not clear what the guideline means. If "to boot" means to "to inject" then what does it mean to inject more than once in one shot? What does "one shot" refer to?  Apparently it does not refer to the injection, otherwise that would mean "only inject once or twice in one injection," which is incoherent.  Since this is buried under Tip #6: Take Care of Your Veins, I wonder if it means "only use a particular vein for one or two injections at a time" where "a time" means multiple injections in a short period or something like that. Urban Dictionary does not list this as a meaning for "shot," but the Drug Slang & Terminology Vault lists "blow a shot" as meaning "when an injection misses a vein." But that doesn't seem to quite have the same meaning either.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Meaning Is A Bit Mysterious...

I love iconoclasts, and writer Edmund Blair Bolles is playing the linguistic iconoclast at his intriguing blog Babel's Dawn (a blog about the origins of speech) by posing 10 Hypotheses About Language and Thought. Here are the ten, but you'll have to click through to Bolles' page to read his complete thoughts. Money Quote:

For most people meaning is a bit mysterious. It seems to be some kind of content that is passed from speaker to listener, but all sorts of paradoxes appear when you investigate that idea closely. Meaning becomes as mysterious as mind. On this blog, the meaning of words comes from their ability to pilot the attention of both the speaker and listener... It occurs to me that I’m in a different position. I don’t have a mysterious definition of meaning, so I ought to just lay out a series of hypotheses about how this non-mysterious power arose, and suggest what might be sought in order to disprove the hypothesis. So here is my list of what I’d like to see tested.

  1. All apes perceive well enough to understand language at the single-word level.
  2. Apes can direct one another’s attention.
  3. The critical difference between apes and humans at the single-word level is that humans are motivated to share attention in a triangle of speaker, listener, and topic.
  4. We have evolved special mechanisms that give us more control over our powers of attention.
  5. The power to attend to absent things (remembered or imaginary things) is not exclusive to humans but is probably much more common to them and we probably have special brain mechanisms that facilitate it.
  6. The ability to speak in metaphors came after speech was established because metaphors require an ability to pay attention to two things at once—the perceivable world the metaphors point to, and the invisible world the metaphor is about.
  7. Informal abstractions are metaphors whose meaning has been lost.
  8. Speech contracts came late and gain strength through ritual.
  9. Mysterious symbols are special and came even later.
  10. Logical or mathematical symbols came even later, yet rest on very old powers.
Now go read his blog and think deeply about his questions...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Island Constraints and Mr. Snuffleupagus

Tomorrow, 60 Minutes will air a segment called, no joke, Elephant Language (HT Daily Beast). It's about a group out of Cornell called the Elephant Listening Project. who believe that the low-frequency infrasonic sounds made by elephants might constitute a language. I am naturally suspicious because these kinds of claims tend to conflate the notion of language with the more general notion of communication system into a muddled mess of a concept.   Without a good definition of human language, how can we say that some non-human communication system is also a "language." It's an untestable claim.

There are thousands of human language problems to solve, and few linguists to solve them.  Investigating elephant language is low on the priority list, I'd say. As I've noted here, animal language stories are just one of those things that gets regular people to say, "gee wiz, really? wow"  while it gets academic linguists to say "meh."

Talking Brains

This is truly awesome! (HT Research Blogging). gfish at World of Weird Things blogs about a voice synthesizer that literally turns thought into speech!  This 21st Century is going to be amazing.  Money Quote:

By matching the frequencies being generated in the cortex, the software tries to predict the phrases that the patients wants to say and via a synthesizer, says them out loud. The process can take as little as 50 milliseconds, about the same amount of time it takes an average person to do exactly the same thing with his or her mouth.

TV Linguistics - and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

 [reposted from 11/20/10] I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ...