Archive for Changing times

The sparseness of linguistic data

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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Food logistics: a sign of the times

Dachser Food Logistics is what it said on the side of a van that just went by the window of my hotel in Leipzig. Do you see why I raised an eyebrow?

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Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)

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Reaching a crescendo?

There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.

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Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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Is there an epidemic of plural abstract nouns?

Anthony Gardner, "Absurd Persons Plural", The Economist 12/12/2012:

Earlier this month I went to a lecture by the American novelist Richard Ford. Called "Why novels are smart", it was brilliant and thought-provoking. But my thoughts were also provoked by the British academic who introduced him, commending—among other things—his "prose styles".

Now, Richard Ford is without doubt a great stylist; but he only has one style. He has honed it over many years, and having brought it pretty much to perfection, he very sensibly sticks to it. So why this mysterious use of the plural?

The same question might have occurred to those listening that morning to BBC Radio 4’s "Start the Week". In the course of a discussion about Germany, one panelist referred to the country’s "pasts". I suppose you could argue that, since the country was divided for 40 years into East and West, it has two pasts—but that strikes me as sophistry. The sorry truth is that we are facing a new linguistic fad: the use of the plural where the singular has always been used before, and indeed would make much more sense.

Specifically, we’re talking about abstract nouns. I first noticed the shift a few months ago when another speaker on Radio 4 came out with "geographies". For a while I thought it might be confined to academia; then I realised that it was creeping into the high-faluting vocabulary beloved of arts organisations. One spoke proudly of its "artistic outputs" and what the public wanted "in terms of outcomes".

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Teen communication

Zits for 11/7/2012:

But it's not just land lines — "In Constant Digital Contact, We Feel Alone Together", Fresh Air 10/18/2012:

Terry Gross: You had said before a lot of parents complain that their children will accept the parents' text message and respond to that, but they won't pick up the phone, they won't answer the cell phone.

Sherry Turkle: Yes.

Terry Gross: I'm sure you've spoken to children and teenagers about that. What's the explanation?

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Pundits were confused and inaccurate

Also, the sky turns out to have been blue much of the time, and early returns are strongly suggesting that water is often wet. John Sides, "2012 Was the Moneyball Election", The Monkey Cage 11/7/2012:

Barack Obama’s victory tonight is also a victory for the Moneyball approach to politics.  It shows us that we can use systematic data—economic data, polling data—to separate momentum from no-mentum, to dispense with the gaseous emanations of pundits’ “guts,” and ultimately to forecast the winner.

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How The Times Has Changed

"President Strikes Blow for Finalize as English", NYT 11/30/1961:

In the course of his highly articulate new conference today, President Kennedy struck one grating note for lovers of the English language. He used that bureaucratic favorite "finalize."

"We have not finalized any plans," Mr. Kennedy said when asked about a possible trip overseas.

The new edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines finalize as "to put in final or finished form." It gives as an example the use of the word by former President Eisenhower.

A grieving linguist commented today that "Eisenhower began the process, and Kennedy is finalizing it."

And not satisfied with one little joke, the editors followed up with another — "Finalized?", 11/30/1961:

Mr. President, are you sure you gave the old place a thorough housecleaning after you moved in? It seems that your predecessor left a few loose words behind that you have inadvertently picked up. When you said yesterday, "We have not finalized any plans," it sounded for all the world like a previous occupant who once said, as quoted in Webster's Third (or Bolshevik) International: "Soon my conclusions will be finalized." In any case, please be careful where you walk, because there may be some loose syntax lying about. Meanwhile, let's invite the clearners in. They'll have the know-how to get the job finishized.

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"A nation in which supports dependency"

Glenn Bingham send in a link to this passage in a recent radio address by Paul LePage, the governor of Maine ("Obamacare is on Hold in Maine", 7/7/2012):

Even more disheartening is that reviving the American dream just became nearly impossible to do. We are now a nation in which supports dependency rather than independence. Instead of encouraging self-reliance we are encouraging people to rely on the government.

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Advancement

In what I think is a fairly recent development, North American universities and other non-profit entities are using using the word advancement for fundraising, public relations, and related activities:

The Office of Advancement supports the mission of Georgetown University and its faculty and students through developing relationships with key constituencies.

Staff who work in the Office of Advancement have one mission: to move people to extraordinary levels of support for Queen's University.

The Office of Advancement is dedicated to supporting the mission of The University of Alberta by fostering relationships that result in continuing goodwill and financial support from alumni, parents, friends, and organizations.

The Office of Advancement will generate and develop the best relationships and resources to achieve Michigan Engineering objectives.

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Big Data in the humanities and social sciences

I'm in Berkeley for the DataEDGE Conference, where I'm due to participate in a "living room chat" advertised as follows:

Size Matters: Big Data, New Vistas in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Mark Liberman, Geoffrey Nunberg, Matthew Salganik
Vast archives of digital text, speech, and video, along with new analysis technology and inexpensive computation, are the modern equivalent of the 17th-century invention of the telescope and microscope. We can now observe social and linguistic patterns in space, time, and cultural context, on a scale many orders of magnitude greater than in the recent past, and in much greater detail than before. This transforms not just the study of speech, language, and communication but fields ranging from sociology and empirical economics to education, history, and medicine — with major implications for both scholarship and technology development.

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No comment at The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail has this terse and unpunctuated notice below one of its stories today:

Sorry we are unable to accept comments for legal reasons.

Why this departure from the open comments policy that is the right of every online reader of anything in the 21st century?

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Berlin 9

Today and tomorrow I'm participating in the Berlin 9 Open Access Conference, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Bethesda MD.  This afternoon I'll be giving a talk in a session on "Transforming Research through Open Online Access to Discovery Inputs and Outputs".

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Sirimania

Yesterday's Doonesbury joins the parade of praise for Siri:

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