Archive for Language and animals

Stochastic popinjay and Perso-Arabic art / adab

‘Stochastic Parrot’: A Name for AI That Sounds a Bit Less Intelligent

An ancient Greek word for guesswork fuels a term that suggests supersmart computer programs are just mimicking whatever they see

Ben Zimmer, WSJ, Word on the Street (January 18, 2024)

In his capacity as chair of the American Dialect Society's 2023 Word of the Year competition new words committee, our Language Log colleague Ben Zimmer oversaw the selection of candidates from the "special ad-hoc category related to one of the most buzzed-about stories of 2023: artificial intelligence."

Our new category included an array of AI heavy hitters. There was “ChatGPT,” the name for OpenAI’s chatbot, which is so successful it often gets used generically for any generative AI system. There was “LLM,” short for “large language model,” the machine-learning algorithm trained on mountains of text that powers AI programs. And there was “hallucination,” for AI-generated responses that are untethered from reality.

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"Sheep-dog", spindle whorls, and meditation

Some people call it a "woolly dog", but that's more a description of what it's like.  That's not its name.  And it's not a "sheepdog" or "sheep dog", like a border collie.

Before I go any further into the nomenclature of canines, I want to recognize that they're all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  No matter what their size, shape, coloration, or behavior, from the chihuahua to the great dane, they are all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  It's only their breed that is different.  That is to say, they are bred to enhance different characteristics and to emphasize diverse traits.

Conversely, there are thousands of different species of birds.  It has always puzzled me why there is only one species of dog, but thousands of species of birds (upwards of 10,000), but I'm sure that somebody on Language Log will have the precise answer.  Is it that dogs are selectively bred by humans, whereas birds do their own thing?

The dog I'm talking about here — although extinct now — was raised for thousands of years for its wool!  It was carefully kept apart from other types of dogs to enhance its wool-bearing capability.  Like a sheep.  That's why I like to call it a sheep-dog, albeit somewhat jocularly.  It's a dog, but it has the wool producing characteristics of a sheep.

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Ox Demolition

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Skunk stunk

Two nights ago, it was raining heavily, with lightning and thunder every so often.  As I was peering out into the blackness of my backyard, all of a sudden, a bright light flashed on.  At first I thought it was lightning, but then I realized that someone or something had set off the light.  It didn't take long for me to spot a gleaming, coal black skunk crawling around through the brush.

Most striking were the narrow, white stripe on its forehead and along the length of its nose and the two broad swaths of white fur along its back.  It was so beautiful, all soaked in the rain, that I wanted to go out and get a closer look (make friends with it, so to speak), but my companion said, "No way!"

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Elk topolects

Who would have thought?

Even North America’s Elk Have Regional Dialects

Why do Pennsylvania elk sound different from Colorado elk?

By Kylie Mohr, The Atlantic Monthly (July 16, 2023)

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It’s a crisp fall evening in Grand Teton National Park. A mournful, groaning call cuts through the dusky-blue light: a male elk, bugling. The sound ricochets across the grassy meadow. A minute later, another bull answers from somewhere in the shadows.

Bugles are the telltale sound of elk during mating season. Now new research has found that male elks’ bugles sound slightly different depending on where they live. Other studies have shown that whale, bat, and bird calls have dialects of sorts too, and a team led by Jennifer Clarke, a behavioral ecologist at the Center for Wildlife Studies and a professor at the University of La Verne, in California, is the first to identify such differences in any species of ungulate.

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So many words for "donkey"

Almost as many as Eskimo words for "snow".  (hee-hee haw-haw) (see below for a sampling)

I've always been a great admirer of donkeys, and I love to hear them bray and make all sorts of other expressive sounds, some of which I am incapable of adequately expressing in words — especially when they are being obdurately stubborn and are unwilling to move, no matter what.  Anyway, their vocabulary extends way beyond the basic "hee-haw":

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Transcriptional Chinese animal imagery for English daily greetings

As those students who take my early morning classes know, I sometimes greet them with "gǒutóu māo níng 狗头猫咛" ("good morning"; lit. "dog's head cat's meow").  I learned that method of transcription from my father-in-law, who didn't know the alphabet but picked up a few words of English and wanted to write them down for future use.

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More on glat(t)

We have been discussing the Yiddish word "glat", albeit with a lot of loose ends (see "Glat perch and medicare yam" (12/19/22).  Having gained some additional information, it is worthwhile taking another look.

From a colleague:

I am very familiar with the word Glat, or Glatt. It is often used together with the word kosher. Glatt is Yiddish for "smooth". This word relates to meat and poultry and is never used with fish. Perhaps Chinese borrowed this word because Israel exports food items to China, including fish?
 
What Is Glatt Kosher?

For meat to be kosher, it must come from a kosher animal slaughtered in a kosher way. Glatt kosher takes it further; the meat must also come from an animal with adhesion-free or smooth lungs.

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Glat perch and medicare yam

Glat perch

Label in a Chinese fish market:

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Hornet's / hornets' / hornets / hornet nest

Usage is split on this one.  Merriam-Webster goes for "hornet's nest", OED prefers "hornets' nest", and many other dictionaries and websites choose one of the four options listed in the title of this post.

To my mind, logically it should be "hornets' nest" because it's a home that belongs (genitive) to a colony of hornets (plural).

My high school sports teams were called "hornets", so I have a long acquaintanceship with this fearsome insect.

On the other hand, we also find "farmers market" and "farmers' market", usually the former, occasionally "farmer's market", but I don't think I've ever seen "farmer market".

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Sayings about cats and dogs in Japan

One of the most famous novels in Japanese literature is titled Wagahai wa Neko de Aru 吾輩は猫である (I Am a Cat; see in "Selected readings" below), which I have always taken as a sign of the degree to which Japanese, at least some Japanese, can identify with catness.  The same holds true for Japanese painted scrolls depicting people as cats (or cats as people).

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Garbler of spices

A couple of days ago, we had occasion to come to grips with the word "garble":  "Please do not feel confused" (8/19/22).  This led Kent McKeever to write as follows:

Your recent use of "garble" has prompted me to pass on something I recently stumbled on.  I have been poking at the digital files of the Newspapers of Eighteenth Century English newspapers and ran across a reference to the London city government position of "Garbler of Spices."  From the context, it seems to be an inspector, perhaps processor, of spice imports.  Totally new to me.

Totally new to me too.

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Does "splooting" have an etymology?

In the summer of 1990, I spent a memorable five weeks at the outstanding summer institute on Indo-European linguistics and archeology held by DOALL (at least that's what we jokingly called it — the Department of Oriental and African Languages and Literatures) of the University of Texas (Austin).  The temperature was 106º or above for a whole month.  Indomitable / stubborn man that I am, I still insisted on going out for my daily runs. 

As I was jogging along, I would come upon squirrels doing something that stopped me in my tracks, namely, they were splayed out prostrate on the ground, their limbs spread-eagle in front and behind them.  Immobile, they would look at me pathetically, and I would sympathize with them.  Remember, they have thick fur that can keep them warm in the dead of winter.

I assumed that these poor squirrels were lying with their belly flat on the ground to absorb whatever coolness was there (conversely put, to dissipate their body heat).  At least that made some sort of sense to me.  I had no idea what to call that peculiar, prone posture.  Now I do.

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