Archive for Changing times

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, Emojis and coded communication in Shanghai

Look everyone! it's a post about language in China by not-Victor! :)

I just had to drop everything and write this post while I was listening to the latest Reply-All podcast, this week consisting of a series of phone interviews with people around the world about the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in their area. The first interview was with Justine from Shanghai, and she was talking about ways people were working around censorship in talking about…

…uh oh I suddenly realize I may be doing a disservice to the Chinese public by posting about this, so I won't go into all the detail I intended. Anyway, the basic idea is that folks were using homophonic transliteration with emojis to get around censorship of certain stories about the epidemic there. You can listen to the podcast here; the relevant bit is between minutes 4:40 and 6:15.

If you can imagine it, this would be like trying to parse "Little Red Riding Hood" from emojis  like💡💯🐀✍️👱‍♂️. Leaving comments open to see if anyone can figure out what homophonic transliteration words I intend for that sequence. First prize is a disinfected plastic cup with logo from the Language Log water cooler stash delivered by drone sometime in 2022.

It's probably worth noting that this idea of communicating via pictures of sound-alikes is basically the actual honest to god origin of phonetically based writing systems. Also worth noting that this way of repurposing symbols to represent sounds of another expression has a long history particularly in Chinese and related languages, whose linguistic features mean that you often have lots of homophones and near-homophones, and whose logographic writing systems probably lend themselves to that kind of graphemic/phonemic cross-indexing during lexical lookup. (Someone must be studying that, right? ) So you get a lot of punning and double-entendres in Chinese writing, if I understand rightly.

If the idea of homophonic transliteration is new to you,  you could get in the wayback machine and check out this archival LL post from simpler times, here.

Wishing all my fellow humans the very best from a living room in Arizona!

 

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COVID-19 songs

I've recently seen several 1980s songs about troubled romantic relationships re-purposed to refer to the COVID-19 disaster. The most viral is Gloria Gaynor's "I will survive":

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Real people in virtual worlds: a viral update?

The idea of real people interacting in virtual worlds has been a staple of SF writing at least since the 1980s. There have been networked multi-player games at least since the 1970s, and of course such games have become a big deal in recent years. And more and more, the meetings that I'm involved in have some or all participants joining via internet-based virtual meeting software, like Skype, Zoom, Chime, etc.

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*Neither Sentence Nor Sentence?

Today in Seth Cable's seminar on Montague's Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence "Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes" was grammatical.
My own intuition was that it had to be "Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke", though that sounded a little funny too.

So out of curiosity I just checked in the big Huddleston and Pullum Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I was afraid the question was too arcane to be covered there; but to my happy surprise they do actually discuss it, on pages 1308-9 in their chapter on coordination.

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"Talking to someone"

From Julia Preseau:

I am feeling old today, having just realized that "talking to" is a widely used way to describe beginning stage of "dating relationships."

I noted it in two of these interactions on a little video experiment regarding "girls trying to pick up girls".

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Readers in these times

It's common these days to lament the decline of civility caused by various forms of internet discourse. But for an eloquently uncivil condemnation of incivility, it's hard to beat the introduction ("To the Reader") of the 1598 edition of John Florio's Italian dictionary A Worlde of Wordes:

I knowe not how I may again adventure an Epistle to the Reader, so are the times or, readers in these times, most part sicke of the sullens, and peevish in their sicknes, and conceited in their peevishnes. So should I fear the fire who have felt the flame so lately, and flìe from the sea, that have yet a vow to pay for escaping my last ship wracke. […] But before I recount unto thee (gentle reader) the purpose of my new voyage: give me leave a little to please my selfe, and refresh thee with the discourse of my olde danger. Which because in some respect it is a common danger, the discoverie thereof may happily profit other men, as much as it please my selfe. And here might I begin with those notable Pirates on this our paper-sea, those sea-dogs, or lande-Critickes, monsters of men, if not beastes rather than men; whose teeth are Canibals, their toongs adder-forkes, their lips aspes-poyson, their eies basiliskes, their breath the breath of a grave, their wordes the swordes of Turkes, that strive which shall dive deepest into a Christian lying bound before them. But for these barking and biting dogs, they are as well knowne as Scylla and Charybdis.

There is another sort of leering curs, that rather snarle then bite, whereof I coulde instance in one, who lighting upon a good sonnet of a gentlemans, a friend of mine, that loved better to be a poet, than to be counted so, called the auctor a rymer, notwithstanding he had more skill in good Poetrie, then my slie gentleman seemed to have in good manners or humanitie. But my quarrell is to a tooth-lesse dog that hateth where he cannot hurt, and would faine bite, when he hath no teeth.

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Militarism and Pacifism Among Phonemes

A recent request from Steve Anderson led me to borrow from our library its copy of the Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Held at the University of Ghent, 18-22 July 1938. (Why the scanned book isn't available from Google Books or from the Hathi Trust isn't clear to me…)

There are many curious and interesting features of this volume, such as the fact that most of the participants from Germany are cited in the List of Members as "Delegate of the German Government", e.g.

BACH, Prof. A., Drachenfelsstr., 1, Bonn a/Rhein, Germany. (Delegate of the German Government.)
FEYER, Miss Ursula, Eulerstr., 21, Berlin N. 20, Germany. (Delegate of the German Government.)
FISCHER, Prof. W., Englisches Seminar, Universität Giessen, Ludwigstr., 19, Germany. (Delegate of the German Government.)

I saw no analogous identification of scholars from other countries, though perhaps I missed a few.

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They triumphs?

Farhad Manjoo, "Call Me 'They'", NYT 7/10/2019:

The singular "they" is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let's all use it.

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad. I dabble in woodworking, I take out the garbage, and I covet my neighbor's Porsche. Though I do think men should wear makeup (it looks nice!), my tepid masculinity apparently rings loudly enough online and in person that most people guess that I go by "he" and "him." And that's fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But "he" is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans' legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

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Great but not good? "Put a pulse to the hooter"

From "CLAUDE E. SHANNON: An Interview Conducted by Robert Price, 28 July 1982":

[Shannon is talking about a visit to Alan Turing in Manchester in 1950.]  So I asked him what he was doing. And he said he was trying to find a way to get better feedback from a computer so he would know what was going on inside the computer. And he'd invented this wonderful command. See, in those days they were working with individual commands. And the idea was to discover good commands. And I said, what is the command? And he said, the command is put a pulse to the hooter, put a pulse to the hooter. Now let me translate that. A hooter is an English, in England is a loudspeaker. And by putting a pulse to it, it would just be put a pulse to a hooter. Now what good is this crazy command? Well, the good of this command is that if you're in a loop you can have this command in that loop and every time it goes around the loop it will put a pulse in and you will hear a frequency equal to how long it takes to go around that loop. And then you can put another one in some bigger loop and so on. And so you'll hear all of this coming on and you'll hear this "boo boo boo boo boo boo,"[CS vocalizing in a sing-song fashion] and his concept was that you would soon learn to listen to that and know whether when it got hung up in a loop or something else or what it was doing all this time, which he'd never been able to tell before. That was a great idea, but I don't think it was really a very good idea. That command seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary. [laughs]

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Contextualized Muppet Embeddings

Over the past few years, it's been increasingly common for computational linguists to use various kinds of "word embeddings".

The foundation for this was the vector space model, developed in the 1960s for document retrieval applications, which represents a piece of text as a vector of word (or "term") counts. The next step was latent semantic analysis, developed in the 1980s, which orthogonalizes the term-by-document matrix (via singular value decomposition) and retains only a few hundred of the most important dimensions. Among other benefits, this provides a sort of "soft thesaurus", since words that tend to co-occur will be relatively close in the resulting space. Then in the 2000s came a wide variety of other ways of turning large text collections into vector-space dictionaries, representing each word as vector of numbers derived in some way from the contexts in which it occurs — some widely used examples from the 2010s include word2vec and GloVe ("Global Vectors for Word Representation").

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Danmu

Kendra Schaefer, "China's 'barrage videos' are chaotic af — and say a lot about loneliness", The Next Web 10/11/2018:

"Hey, I know," said someone in a design meeting once. "How about we let users post live comments as they watch their favorite shows. Then we could scroll those comments across the viewport so they cover the entire screen, like a curtain of enthusiastic verbal abuse?"

"HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" laughed alternate reality me, "Who hired this asshole?" […]

That's a conversation between hundreds of users, laid over the top of a video player, while the video is playing. Someone implemented that. Someone institutionalized that chaos, and what's worse, they did so with great success. The feature is called danmu(弹幕), and it's the hottest thing going in Chinese streaming media UI.

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The joys of correspondence

In response to the discussion of "Realistic limitations" on telephone conversation, Anne Cutler sent in a link to her 1989 New Scientist article "The new Victorians":

"My dear Hooker," wrote Charles Darwin to Joseph Hooker on 6 March 1844, "I will not lose a post in guarding you against what I am afraid is … labour in vain." This urgent warning went by post, because Darwin had no option: he had no telephone. What the Victorians did have, however, was a pretty efficient postal service, and they made good use of it. Look at the fat volumes of Darwin's correspondence. Hooker was only one of many fellow scientists with whom Darwin exchanged letters at a rate that seems to us prodigious. Victorian scientists bombarded one another with ideas, results and opinions, and all by mail.

By comparison, we write few such letters. But now, quietly, a new age of scientific correspondence is opening, and what has brought it about is a new kind of mail: electronic mail.

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Chinaperson

When I started taking Mandarin in the fall of 1967, one of the first words we learned was "Zhōngguó rén 中國人".  A classmate of mine translated that as "Chinaman", provoking our teaching assistant to reprimand him severely, saying that it was a racist term, and to give him a stern lecture about the history of anti-Chinese discrimination in the United States.

Now a West Virginia candidate for the US Senate, Don Blankenship, has fallen into the same trap by referring to the Asian-American father-in-law of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a "China person" (see here, here, and here for news reports).

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