Archive for Awesomeness

There is No Racial Justice Without Linguistic Justice

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes come from a speech he delivered at a retreat attended by staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in South Carolina, one year before he was assassinated:

“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can't solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” (King 1967)

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Zebra finch self-tutoring

Sometimes a new experimental result suggests a very different way of interpreting older results. On a visit a couple of days ago to Ofer Tchernichovski's lab at Hunter College, I encountered a striking example of this effect.

The background is the experimental literature on zebra finch song learning. If one of these birds is raised in acoustic and social isolation, it never learns to sing a species-typical song, but rather continues to produce "proto-song", which is a sort of songbird equivalent of grunts and groans. In contrast, with a relatively brief exposure to an example of adult song during a "critical period" early in life, a bird will (later on) learn to sing properly, in fact imitating the tutor's song quite closely. Crucially, species-typical zebra finch song is made up of discrete "syllables" arranged in regular "motifs", whereas proto-song is relatively diffuse and non-categorical at all time scales.

A decade ago, I reported on some fascinating work from Ofer's lab showing that species-typical song can emerge over a few generations in a colony raised in acoustic isolation, never encountering any external adult models ("Creole birdsong?" 5/9/2008).

Now a newer experiment (Olga Fehér et al., "Statistical learning in songbirds: from self-tutoring to song culture", Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2016) adds a result that makes us think differently about the earlier work.

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Scarf 'em up!

Is there a linguist in your life? Puzzled for a present that might really shiver their timbers? I know it seems like we're all living on a higher plane, laser-focused on abstractions beyond the merely corporeal, but we do enjoy a worldly indulgence now and then. Consider, for example, these beautiful IPA-print scarves (and other merch) available on Redbubble from the inimitable Lingthusiam podcast team, Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Just the thing for keeping one's neck cozy at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in January in Salt Lake City. All the cool kids will be wearing them!

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The American Dialect Society in the New York Times crossword

The American Dialect Society gets a nice shout-out in Tuesday's New York Times crossword. More than a shout-out, in fact: the puzzle is actually ADS-themed.

Subscribers to the Times crossword can download the puzzle in Across Lite format or as a PDF. After you've solved it, you can read my commentary in the NYT's Wordplay column. (Or just skip to the column if you don't mind the spoilers. You can also see the clues and completed grid on XWord Info.)

Wordplay also quotes Greg Poulos, the crossword's creator (making his debut in the Times), who revealed that he came up with the theme while reading Language Log. Great to see, especially after Tom McCoy's grammatical-diversity-themed puzzle back in March. Linguisticky crosswords are all the rage!

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538 snags Trent Reznor Prize nomination

Rick Rubenstein has nominated this sentence (from Oliver Roeder, "The Supreme Court Is Allergic To Math", FiveThirtyEight 10/17/2017) for the prestigious Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding:

Justice Neil Gorsuch balked at the multifaceted empirical approach that the Democratic team bringing the suit is proposing be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, comparing the metric to a secret recipe.

Rick notes that "This passage from 538 took me several readings".

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Literally bigger than the phone book

The Edinburgh Festival season has begun. There are more than half a dozen independently run and temporally overlapping festivals, depending on what you want to count. But the biggest of all of them is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the entire world (I admitted in a Lingua Franca post to my love of the lowbrow humor of the comedy shows). I've often told people that the catalog of shows is bigger than the phone book for an average city — a claim that will be uninterpretable to many, since most of us hardly ever see telephone directories now. But I would hate for you to think that I spoke loosely. Let's get quantitative. Edinburgh does still have a phone book, published by BT (formerly British Telecom). It covers not just the city of Edinburgh but the whole Lothian county in which it sits. And the new edition just arrived. So I have the Edinburgh and Lothian phone book on the table before me, beside the Edinburgh Festival Fringe catalog. I have compared them. I have numbers.

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Veggies for cats and dogs

This video was passed on by Tim Leonard, who remarks, "real-time video translation at its best":

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Grammatical diversity in the New York Times crossword

Monday's New York Times crossword is the handiwork of Tom McCoy, an undergraduate member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. I wouldn't've thought it possible, but he's managed to make a coherent theme out of a nonstandard grammatical variant in American English.

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Tracing lexical trends in Google searches

Google has released a fun data visualization tool that shows changes in search interest over time for a variety of trending words, particularly new slang terms. In "The Year in Language 2016," you can see how frequently people searched for the definitions of words, in queries such as "selfie definition" or "define selfie." By this metric, the top 10 words for 2016 are: triggered, shook, juju, broccoli, woke, holosexual, shill, gaslighting, bigly, and SJW. You can also plot the search interest for more than 50 words from 2013 to 2016.

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Language for the people!

4 speakers

Four sure-to-be-amazing talks on language are coming to central Texas on January 8 and all are invited!

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Twitter-based word mapper is your new favorite toy

At the beginning of 2016, Jack Grieve shared the first iteration of the Word Mapper app he had developed with Andrea Nini and Diansheng Guo, which let users map the relative frequencies of the 10,000 most common words in a big Twitter-based corpus covering the contiguous United States. (See: "Geolexicography," "Totally Word Mapper.") Now as the year comes to a close, Quartz is hosting a bigger, better version of the app, now including 97,246 words (all occurring at least 500 times in the corpus). It's appropriately dubbed "The great American word mapper," and it's hella fun (or wicked fun, if you prefer).

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Reindeer lore

Yuletide is upon us, so it's time for some more reindeer talk.  The guest post below comes from Juha Janhunen, to whom I put the following questions:

Do any of the following ride reindeer?  Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people)

How long ago did the Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people) domesticate reindeer?

There's no price of admission to read this post, but a suggested donation, in the spirit of the season and in the tradition of this blog, is that you tell us how to say "reindeer" in your language and perhaps in a few other languages with which you are familiar.

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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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