Archive for Humor

Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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"Arrival" gets the wug treatment

Linguists have been having a field day with the movie "Arrival" (see: "'Arrival' arrives"). From Ollie Sayeed on Facebook, here's a playful take on the shot of Louise Banks (Amy Adams) holding up a whiteboard with the word "HUMAN" for the aliens' perusal.

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Another fake AI failure?

The "silly AI doing something stupidly funny" trope is a powerful one, partly because people like to see the mighty cast down, and partly because the "silly stupid AI" stereotype is often valid.

But as with stereotypes of human groups, the most viral examples are often fakes. Take the "Voice Recognition Elevator"  skit from a few years ago, which showed an ASR system that was baffled by a Scottish accent, epitomizing the plight of Scots trapped in a dehumanized world that doesn't understand them. But back in the real world, I found that when I played the YouTube version of the skit to the 2010 version of Google Voice on my cell phone, it correctly transcribed the whole thing.

And I suspect that the recent viral "tuba-to-text conversion" meme is another artful fraud.

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Advances in tuba-to-text conversion

My dad accidentally texted me with voice recognition…while playing the tuba

(h/t Chris Waigl)

[Update: Mark Liberman suggests this might be some artful fakery. See: "Another fake AI failure?"]

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"Thank you for your contribution"

Yesterday evening I wound up spending several hours in the Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires, and the result was a brilliant idea. Or maybe an idle fantasy — you decide.

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"Fatso Kim the Third" blocked in China

On microblogs and on social media in China, it was well nigh universal to call the ruler of North Korea Jīn sān pàng 金三胖 ("Kim Third Fat" [referring to Kim Jung-un, third in the line of Kims following his father Kim Jung-il and his grandfather Kim Il-sung]) — until the North Korean government caught wind of it and complained to the Chinese government:

"North Korea begs China to stop calling Kim Jong Un fat" (FOX News, 11/15/16)

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The silence of Language Log

Our much-valued readers will all be wondering why Language Log has so far said nothing about the result of the US presidential election. That is an understandable question. Most of the newspapers seem to have managed to get out editions for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; but not us.

The answer is that we are in the position of Jack Benny in an old, old radio comedy program long ago, in a sketch where a highwayman demands of him: Your money, or your life!

There is no answer. So the highwayman repeats his threat: Your money, or your life!

And the legendarily stingy protagonist cries out, "I'm thinking it over!"

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China's "core" leader

I've been reading countless reports about how Xi Jinping was made the "core" leader of China during the recently concluded meeting (6th Plenum) of the CCP, e.g.:

"China’s Communist Party Declares Xi Jinping ‘Core’ Leader

"China's Ruling Party Endorses Xi as 'Core Leader' After Meeting" (RFA, 10/27/16)

"Down to the core:  Xi Jinping gets a new label, but no more power: In China, a year of political infighting lies ahead" (The Economist, 10/27/16)

"China’s Xi Jinping Tightens His Hold on Communist Party:  Officials at conclave designate the president as the ‘core’ of the leadership, using title conferred on Mao Zedong " (WSJ, 10/27/16)

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*Notice, in the photograph accompanying this article (and many other articles), all the members of the Standing Committee, seated at the front of the hall facing us, raise their hands in exactly the same way (angle, height, position of thumb versus other fingers, etc.).  The other members of the Politburo, with their backs to us, also match the posture of the Standing Committee members, but not with such exactitude.

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New spamference joke

Ethan Weston & Carter Woodiel, "Paper Fully Written By iOS Autocomplete Accepted By Physics Conference", Newsy 10/23/2016:

A nonsensical academic paper on nuclear physics written only by iOS autocomplete has been accepted for a scientific conference.  

Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the Human Interface Technology laboratory at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, received an email inviting him to submit a paper to the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics in the US in November. 

“Since I have practically no knowledge of nuclear physics I resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help me writing the paper,” he wrote in a blog post on Thursday.

“I started a sentence with ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and then randomly hit the autocomplete suggestions.  “The text really does not make any sense.”

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Ultimate language threat

The news these days, I find, seldom merits a smile. But at one news story I heard at lunchtime today I actually laughed out loud, alone in my kitchen. Michel Barnier, charged with heading the EU side in the complex forthcoming negotiations that will set the terms for the UK's exit from the European Union, has found a way to hurt the British more deeply, and put them more at a disadvantage, than I ever would have thought possible. It is so fiendish it ought to be illegal, yet it violates no law or basic principle of human rights. It is simply wonderful in its passive-aggressive hostility. I take my hat off to him. He has announced that he wants all the negotiations with the British team to be conducted in French.

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He's still waiting

From Francois Lang:

Attached is a photo of a sign in the washroom at Heckman's Deli in Bethesda, MD

I kept waiting for all the employees to wash my hands. I even asked. But nothing. Maybe it was something I said?

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Pick a word, any word

To access an article in the Financial Times yesterday I found myself confronted with a short market-research survey about laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Answer three our four layers of click-the-box questions, and I could get free access to the article I wanted to look at. A reasonable bargain: clearly some company was prepared to pay the FT for access to its online readers' opinions. And at the fourth layer down I faced a question which asked me to choose a single word that comes into my mind when I think of a certain Microsoft product.

My choice, from all the tens of thousands of words at my disposal, and the word I picked would go straight into the market research department of the one corporation, above all others, for whose products I have the greatest degree of contempt. Just choose that one evocative word and type it in, and I would be through to my article. A free choice. Which word to pick?

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The possessive Jesus of composition

Let me explain, very informally, what a predictive text imitator is. It is a computer program that takes as input a passage of training text and produces as output a new text that is composed quasi-randomly except that it matches the training text with regard to the frequencies of word or character sequences up to some fixed finite length k.

(There has to be such a length limit, of course: the only text in which the word sequence of Melville's Moby-Dick is matched perfectly is Melville's Moby-Dick, but what a predictive text imitator trained on Moby-Dick would do is to produce quasi-random fake-Moby-Dickish gibberish in which each sequence of not more than k units matches Moby-Dick with respect to the transition probabilities between adjacent units.)

I tell you this because a couple of months ago Jamie Brew made a predictive text imitator and trained it on my least favorite book in the world, William Strunk's The Elements of Style (1918). He then set it to work writing the first ten sections of a new quasi-randomly generated book. You can see the results here. The first point at which I broke down and laughed till there were tears in my eyes was at the section heading 'The Possessive Jesus of Composition and Publication'. But there were other such points too. Take a look at it. And trust me: following the advice in Jamie Brew's version of the book won't do your writing much more harm than following the original.

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