Archive for Linguistics in the news

I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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Dialect chat on MSNBC

The interactive dialect quiz on the New York Times website, developed by Josh Katz from Bert Vaux and Scott Golder's Harvard Dialect Survey, has proved to be immensely popular. It's been a viral sensation on social media, much like the original Business Insider article on Katz's heat maps back in June (currently at 36 million pageviews and counting). And as in June, Katz's work is attracting plenty of mainstream media attention, too. This morning, I was on a panel discussion talking about the dialect quiz, and regional dialects in general, on MSNBC's "Up With Steve Kornacki" (segment 1, segment 2).


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Media uptake on uptalk

Yesterday afternoon, UC San Diego Linguistics grad student Amanda Ritchart presented her research (joint with Amalia Arvaniti) on the use and realization of uptalk in Southern California English at the 166th Acoustical Society of America meeting. This work is profiled in the ASA's press room, and has thus far received a fair amount of attention. You can hear and/or read about it on KPBS (San Diego's public radio station), at WBUR's Here & Now, on BBC News, and in the Washington Post. (See also this shout-out on the Linguistic Society of America website.)

Uptalk has been discussed many times here on Language Log, so regular readers are probably not unfamiliar with it. But one of the most recent Language Log posts on the topic ("Uptalk awakening", 9/29/2013) shows how relatively unaware of this long-standing feature of many varieties of English some folks still are. So the media coverage of Ritchart & Arvaniti's work is welcome — and on the whole pretty good, if a little biased toward a "wow, it's spreading to men!" interpretation of the research results, which kinda misses the point. But of course, if you scroll down to the comments (why oh why do I ever scroll down to the comments???), you'll see that many appear to think that the use of rising intonation at the ends of (some!) statements is the clearest evidence we have of the decline of western civilization. Sigh.

Update — more here.

 

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Andrew Byrd reading Schleicher's Fable

Eric Powell, "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European", Archaeology Magazine:

In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive. Here, University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd recites his version of the fable using pronunciation informed by the latest insights into reconstructed PIE.

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Galbraith: the secret clue

Patrick Juola's guest post on identifying the authorship of The Cuckoo's Calling (now number 1 in the Amazon hardback bestseller list) is fascinating. But I seem to be the only person in the world who picked up the secret message that Joanne "J. K." Rowling sent when she picked the pseudonym under which she would publish her first crime novel. It is amazing that no one else picked up on it, but there we are: it was just me. I saw it as soon as… well, as soon as the Sunday Times revealed their discovery of the novel's pseudonymous nature, actually, which is not quite as good as seeing it before the story was all over the newspapers, but I still think I deserve a lot of credit for my penetrating intelligence. I can't imagine why I don't do crosswords; I'd probably win prizes.

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Rowling and "Galbraith": an authorial analysis

The Sunday (UK) Times recently revealed that J.K. Rowling wrote the detective novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The newspaper explained that, as part of their investigation, they sought the assistance of two scholars who have developed software to help with authorship attribution: Peter Millican of Oxford University and Patrick Juola of Duquesne University. Given the public interest in the Rowling revelation, I asked Patrick to write a guest post describing the authorial analysis that he conducted. (For more on the story, see my post on the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog.)

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About those dialect maps making the rounds…

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably already seen Business Insider's "22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From Each Other." (Or, as it was originally titled, "22 Maps That Show the Deepest Linguistic Conflicts in America.") The piece has truly gone viral, garnering more than 21 million views, according to Business Insider. But there's been some confusion about the origins of the dialect survey data.

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Bad science reporting again: the Eskimos are back

You just can't keep a bad idea down. And you just can't lift the level of bad science journalism up. David Robson of New Scientist, in a piece published in that pop science rag a couple of weeks ago (issue of 22/29 December 2012, p. 72; behind a pay wall) and now also published in the Washington Post, reports on a book chapter by Igor Krupnik and Ludger Müller-Wille about anthropologist Franz Boas's travels in the early 20th century with a Canadian Inuit band whose language he learned. Robson says of Boas:

Mentioning his observations in the introduction to his 1911 book "Handbook of American Indian Languages," he ignited the claim that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow. Although the idea continues to capture public imagination, most linguists considered it an urban legend, born of sloppy scholarship and journalistic exaggeration. Some have even gone as far as to name it the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest evidence, however, suggests that Boas was right all along.

Not a single statement in this passage is correct.

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Perhaps now more than ever, ain't nobody got time fo that

Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination
by E. Lepore & M. Stone, 2012

Perhaps now
More than
Ever
We spend our days
Immersed in
Language

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Dragon, L&H, Goldman Sachs…

Recommended reading: Loren Feldman, "Goldman Sachs and the $580 Million Black Hole", NYT 7/14/2012.

This story provides a shocking example of how little investment bankers often do to earn their money, and how badly they often do it; in short, how parasitic and destructive the culture of the financial industry has become.

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Sweden's gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun

Slate has an article lambasting Sweden's growing enthusiasm for total gender neutrality, and it raises the profile of a move, actually originating in the mid 1960s, to get hen established as a new pronoun meaning "he/she/it", eliminating the forced choice between han "he" and hon "she".

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"Hong Kong people are dogs!"

That was the headline on the front page of the Saturday, January 21 Dōngfāng rìbào 東方日報 (Oriental Daily): "Xiānggǎng rén shì gǒu" 香港人是狗 (Hong Kong people are dogs). See here and here (with video).

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Vocal fry: "creeping in" or "still here"?

According to Marissa Fessenden, "'Vocal Fry' Creeping into U.S. Speech", Science Now 12/9/2011:

A curious vocal pattern has crept into the speech of young adult women who speak American English: low, creaky vibrations, also called vocal fry. Pop singers, such as Britney Spears, slip vocal fry into their music as a way to reach low notes and add style. Now, a new study of young women in New York state shows that the same guttural vibration—once considered a speech disorder—has become a language fad.

This story has been picked up elsewhere, e.g. Cory Doctorow, "Deep-voiced 'vocal fry' thought to be creeping into American women's speech", BoingBoing 12/11/2011; Ben Flanagan, "Vocal Fry a new language fad mainly among college females", AI.com 12/12/2011; Meredith Engel, "Vocal fry: Your creaky throat noises are now an actual scientific trend", Jezebel 12/12/2011; "‘Vocal Fry’ Is the Hot New Linguistic Fad Among Women", Gawker 12/12/2011; Melissa Dahl, "More college women speak in creaks, thanks to pop stars", MSNBC 12/12/2011.

It's nice to see a piece of phonetics research getting this kind of play. But Fessenden's take on this story will be surprising to those who have looked at a few pitch contours — these "low creaky vibrations" have been  common since forever. And moderate use, especially at the ends of phrases, has never been considered a speech disorder.

Puzzlement increases after reading the cited paper.

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"Rebuilding the Mosaic"

About a week ago, the National Science Foundation released "Rebuilding the Mosaic: Fostering Research in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation in the Next Decade".  You can get some of the background from the press release, or read the whole report; but I want to quote three of the bullet points from the Executive Summary:

  • Future research will be interdisciplinary, data-intensive, and  collaborative. That vision rests on thorough grounding in the  core SBE sciences that continue to present important, discipline-based research and methodological challenges.
  • The research community looks to NSF/SBE to provide leadership  and direction in building capacity and infrastructure, most notably in interdisciplinary training (capacity-building) and infrastructure  (data and facilities to support analysis, simulation, tools, and  training in new research methods, including integration and  synthesis across data, methods, and disciplines).
  • Four major topic areas have been identified within the wealth  of ideas received: population change; sources of disparities; communication, language, and linguistics; and technology, new  media, and social networks.

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Sirte, Texas

According to Ben Zimmer, I'm writing from the front lines. But it's pretty quiet here, sitting at home in Texas, looking at tweets that have come out of Libya in the last couple of weeks. And somehow I don't think I'll be the first twitterologist to suffer from combat fatigue. Maybe that's because my students Joey Frazee and Chris Brown, together with our collaborator Xiong Liu, have been the ones doing computational battle in our little research team. That and the fact that nobody is firing mortars around here.

Yet quiet as it is where I'm sitting, it's a startling fact that today it's easy to hear far off clamor, to listen to the online noise made by thousands of ordinary people. Ordinary people in war zones. What are those people thinking?

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