Archive for Linguistic history

Generative linguistics and neural networks at 60

An interesting new paper by Joe Pater: "Generative linguistics and neural networks at 60: foundation, friction, and fusion":

Abstract. The birthdate of both generative linguistics and neural networks can be taken as 1957, the year of the publication of seminal work by both Noam Chomsky and Frank Rosenblatt. This paper traces the development of these two approaches to cognitive science, from their largely autonomous early development in their first thirty years, through their collision in the 1980s around the past tense debate (Rumelhart and McClelland 1986, Pinker and Prince 1988), and their integration in much subsequent work up to the present, 2017. Although these traditions are often presented as in opposition to one another, such a presentation assumes polar versions of each approach, and ignores the ever-growing body of results that have been achieved through integration.

 

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Guys and gals: Or, why the "Chinese" are called "Han"

In the comments to "Easy versus exact" (10/14/17), a discussion of the term "Hànzi 汉子" emerged as a subtheme.  Since it quickly grew too large and complex to fit comfortably within the framework of the o.p., I decided to write this new post focusing on "Hàn 汉 / 漢" and some of the many collocations into which it enters.

To situate Language Log readers with some basic terms they likely already know, we may begin with Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic", lit., "Han language"), Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic spelling"), and Hànzì 汉字 ("Sinograph, Sinogram", i.e., "Chinese character").  All of these terms incorporate, as their initial element, the morpheme "Hàn 汉 / 漢".  Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

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Bruria Kaufman

The Annual Reviews have a tradition of featuring retrospective articles by or about senior figures, and the Annual Review of Linguistics has followed this pattern with pieces featuring Morris Halle in the 2016 volume and Bill Labov in 2017. For 2018, we'll be featuring Lila Gleitman.

As background, Barbara Partee, Cynthia McLemore and I spent the last couple of days interviewing Lila about her life and work. We've got more than 7.5 hours of recordings, which is more like a book than an article — and it may very well turn into a book as well, with edited interview material interspersed with reprints of Lila's papers. But what I want to post about today is one of the many things that I learned in the course of the discussions. This was just a footnote in Lila's life story, but it has its own intrinsic interest, and I'm hoping that some readers will be able to provide more information.

I learned that the founder of the Penn Linguistics Department, Zellig Harris, was married to a mathematical physicist named Bruria Kaufman. She worked with John von Neumann, wrote some widely-cited papers on crystal statistics in the late 1940s, published with Albert Einstein (Albert Einstein and Bruria Kaufman. "A new form of the general relativistic field equations", Annals of Mathematics, 1955), and later wrote papers like "Unitary symmetry of oscillators and the Talmi transformation", Journal of Mathematical Physics 1965, and "Special functions of mathematical physics from the viewpoint of Lie algebra", Journal of Mathematical Physics 1966.

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When Uptalk Went Viral

This is a guest post by Cynthia McLemore, following up on Ben Zimmer's post on "'Uptalk' in the OED", 9/12/2016.


Twenty three years after James Gorman coined a word for “those rises” in the New York Times and unleashed a viral phenomenon associated with my name, and on the occasion of the OED's latest entries, Language Log has invited me to take stock of my experiences and offer some comments.

First, some background. In the late 1980s I started working to construct a theory of intonational meaning in English from the ground up. My aim was to gather facts about the intonational system as they occurred in natural settings in order to understand the role of culture and context in meaning-forming processes. I chose a sorority as the community to study because it had features of a natural speech “lab”: a social hierarchy, age stratification, recurrent contexts with consistent roles and expectations, homogeneity in ethnicity, gender, age, social class, religion, and regional affiliation, and pressure on speakers to conform to norms. In other words, identifiable socio-cultural parameters and reduced sources of variation.

One of the recurrent intonational forms I recorded and analyzed was a phrase-final rise used to introduce certain types of monologues in meetings and structure certain narratives. My Linguistics 101 students told me they heard it around campus and associated it with sororities. But while I was holed up in the lab scrutinizing pitchtracks of the sorority speech data, a broader use of those same phrase-final rises was spreading through American culture more generally. By 1991, when I started presenting my research on the more particular uses I’d found in the sorority — and the more abstract meanings I proposed for the intonational forms themselves — I was overwhelmed with invitations from various academic departments around the country, in addition to conferences, and gave over forty talks in little more than a year. Wherever I went, cab drivers, colleagues, friends and fellow travelers gave me their observations and opinions about “those rises.” Media interest was gaining in 1992 and 1993, but went right off the charts in August 1993 when the NYT published Gorman’s piece.

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Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics

Or maybe I should say, Tom Wolfe's take on linguistics.

I've been an avid reader of Tom Wolfe's works since the 60s:  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Painted Word, Bonfire of the Vanities).  What I like most about his non-fiction is that, as a leader and exponent of the New Journalism, he writes with a flair that captures the reader's attention without sacrificing accuracy and objectivity.  What attracts me to his novels is that they convey the impression of having been based on a huge amount of research, without in the least being turgid or dull.

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"Among the New Words"

Ben Zimmer, Jane Solomon, and Charles Carson, "Among The New Words", American Speech May 2016:

In this installment we continue our consideration of items nominated at the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year proceedings […]

The overall winner is considered here: they used as a singular third-person pronoun, a gender-neutral (or “epicene”) alternative to the binary of he and she. One might object that there is nothing particularly new about singular they, as the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.) includes examples
back to the fourteenth century […]

What is genuinely new, however, is the use of they to refer to a known person in order to transcend the binary of he and she in the construction of a “non-binary” gender identity, such as transgender, gender-fluid, genderqueer, or agender.

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Two linguists explain

You should go read "Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake", The Toast 6/14/2016. Gretchen McCulloch interviews Kate Wiles about the imitation-Old-English that Paul Kingsnorth uses in The Wake, a novel about resistance to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

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Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

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"Is a thing" antedated to 1783

In the comments on my post "When did 'a thing' become a thing", 4/18/2016,, James Barrett points us to a video from the Royal Society that includes the following passage from a letter, dated 1783, from one Eberhard Johann Schröter in St. Petersburg, addressed to Dr. Daniel Solander, an associate of Sir Joseph Banks:

If any body could be thoroughly convinced that a prediction of winds is a thing and possible and real, then to such a person a proper classification of them would be useful.

(This letter was selected to be read because its card was the very last item in the card catalogue of the Royal Society's library.)

This citation suggests that the "is a thing" usage has always been Out There in platonic Idiom World, and may have been incarnated many times through history before it finally caught the memetic brass ring. And never mind that Eberhard Schröter was presumably not a native speaker of English.

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Firing and wiring

In discussions about the history of usage, like this one, people often bring out generic memories ("I heard this all the time back in such-and-such a time period") or even more specific recollections ("I remember so-and-so saying this back in 19XX"). I've done this myself more than once. But recently something happened that made me wonder whether these memories can sometimes be false ones.

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When did "a thing" become a thing?

Alexander Stern, "Is That Even a Thing?", NYT 4/16/2016:

Speakers and writers of American English have recently taken to identifying a staggering and constantly changing array of trends, events, memes, products, lifestyle choices and phenomena of nearly every kind with a single label — a thing. In conversation, mention of a surprising fad, behavior or event is now often met with the question, “Is that actually a thing?” Or “When did that become a thing?” Or “How is that even a thing?” Calling something “a thing” is, in this sense, itself a thing.

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Style or artefact or both?

In "Correlated lexicometrical decay", I commented on some unexpectedly strong correlations over time of the ratios of word and phrase frequencies in the Google Books English 1gram dataset:

I'm sure that these patterns mean something. But it seems a little weird that OF as a proportion of all prepositions should correlate r=0.953 with the proportion of instances of OF immediately followed by THE, and  it seems weirder that OF as a proportion of all prepositions should correlate r=0.913 with the proportion of adjective-noun sequences immediately preceded by THE.

So let's hope that what these patterns mean is that the secular decay of THE has somehow seeped into some but not all of the other counts, or that some other hidden cause is governing all of the correlated decays. The alternative hypothesis is that there's a problem with the way the underlying data was collected and processed, which would be annoying.

And in a comment on a comment, I noted that the corresponding data from the Corpus of Historical American English, which is a balanced corpus collected from sources largely or entirely distinct from the Google Books dataset, shows similar unexpected correlations.

So today I'd like to point out that much simpler data — frequencies of  a few of the commonest words — shows some equally strong correlations over time in these same datasets.

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The determiner of the turtle is heard in our land

One useful way to look at the "The case of the disappearing determiners" is to compare bible translations, because this controls to some extent for variation in the underlying message. So as a first tentative step on that path, I compared the  Song of Solomon in the King James Version, first published in 1611, with the Song of Solomon in the Message Bible, published between 1993 and 2002.

The overall statistics for the Song of Solomon in the two sources show a fall of about 38% relative:

Version # words # the % the
kjv 2663  175  6.57%
msg 2737  111  4.06%

And here are a couple of specific verses to compare:

kjv 2:12: The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
msg 2:12: Spring flowers are in blossom all over. The whole world's a choir – and singing! Spring warblers are filling the forest with sweet arpeggios.

kjv 2:17: Until the day break , and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.
msg 2:17: Until dawn breathes its light and night slips away. Turn to me, dear lover. Come like a gazelle. Leap like a wild stag on delectable mountains!

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