Archive for Linguistics in the news

Voynich code cracked?

Since high school, the Voynich manuscript is something that I have puzzled over from time to time.  What language and script is it written in?  What's it about?  Although no one has been able to read the manuscript since Wilfrid Voynich, the PolishSamogitian bibliophile and book dealer first brought it to light more than a century ago, the evocative illustrations and mysteries swirling around it have led to many fruitless attempts at decipherment.

Now a British academic (in Journal of Romance Studies) declares that it was a manual for nuns written in unencrypted proto-Romance:

"Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text", University of Bristol (May 15, 2019).

A University of Bristol academic has succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed—by cracking the code of the 'world's most mysterious text', the Voynich manuscript.

Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars for over a century, it took Research Associate Dr. Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

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Language revival in the news

BBC Future has a very nice article by Alex Rawlings about the work of Ghil'ad Zuckermann on language revival in Australia and the larger context of such efforts. One new thing I learned about Zuckermann from this article was that before he moved from Israel to Australia, he was a specialist on language revival in Israel. (That's what we generally think of as the revival of Hebrew, but he insists that the modern language is different enough from Biblical Hebrew, because of the influence of all the first languages of those who participated in its revival, to need a different name – he calls it Israeli.) Anyway, it's a nice article. Thanks to Victor Mair for sharing it around the Language Log water cooler.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190320-the-man-bringing-dead-languages-back-to-life

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F-word diets

JoAnna Klein, "Did Dietary Changes Bring Us ‘F’ Words? Study Tackles Complexities of Language’s Origins", NYT 3/14/2019:

Thousands of years ago, some of our ancestors left behind the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and started to settle down. They grew vegetables and grains for stews or porridge, kept cows for milk and turned it into cheese, and shaped clay into storage pots.

Had they not done those things, would we speak the languages and make the sounds that we now hear today? Probably not, suggests a study published Thursday in Science.

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Plosives take over the New York Times Styles section

Just last week, Caity Weaver was waxing rhapsodic about Kim Cattrall's alveolar plosives in the New York Times Styles section:

When Ms. Cattrall says the word “didn’t,” she respects each and every D and T.

Indeed, it could be said that alveolar plosives — the consonant sounds made by tapping the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge, just behind the teeth, as when hitting one’s D’s and T’s — are some of Ms. Cattrall’s best work. She is a careful enunciator who takes time to pronounce distinctly every element of a consonant cluster. Her diction might be described as intricate.

(More from Mark Liberman here.)

And now the plosives are back, in a Styles article by Jonah Engel Bromwich about IHOP's curious rebranding as "IHOb" (which it turns out has to do with burgers).

P and b are both bilabial plosives, meaning that your mouth does the same thing when you make the sound of both letters. The difference is that “b” is voiced, which for some people, makes it sound funny or strange coming at the end of a word.

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Kim Cattrall's alveolar plosives

Caity Weaver, "Kim Cattrall Can Talk to Me About Anything", NYT 6/6/2018:

Because I’m one of the youngest people alive (29), I was not old enough to be interested in a program with “sex” in the title when “Sex and the City” premiered on HBO in 1998, 20 years ago today.

Consequently, beyond the broadest outlines of the plot — there are four friends, having sex, and the city — the only detail I know firmly about the show is: Sa-MANh-thAH TAL-hkss hLike thIS.

If you have ever seen even one second of the actress Kim Cattrall in character as Samantha Jones, the vamp of “Sex and the City,” you know what I mean. From Ms. Cattrall’s larynx, the words of Samantha slunk and shimmied across the Manhattan of the early aughts, her voice sliding around ribald puns as if extra lubricated. […]

What you might not know is that Kim Cattrall’s real voice is as unlike the voice of Samantha Jones as a late October morning is unlike a Fourth of July high noon. I know this. I know this in my bones. I know this so well the knowing will be imprinted in the DNA of my descendants for a hundred generations — because I am unable to stop listening to the same four podcast episodes featuring Ms. Cattrall, over and over.

They’re very relaxing. […]

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News program presenter meets robot avatar

Yesterday BBC's Radio 4 program "Today", the cultural counterpart of NPR's "Morning Edition", invited into the studio a robot from the University of Sheffield, Mishal Husain and the Mishalbot the Mishalbot, which had been trained to conduct interviews by exposure to the on-air speech of co-presenter Mishal Husain. They let it talk for three minutes with the real Mishal. (video clip here, at least for UK readers; may not be available in the US). Once again I was appalled at the credulity of journalists when confronted with AI. Despite all the evidence that the robot was just parroting Mishalesque phrases, Ms Husain continued with the absurd charade, pretending politely that her robotic alter ego was really conversing. Afterward there was half-serious on-air discussion of the possibility that some day the jobs of the Today program presenters and interviewers might be taken over by robots.

The main thing differentiating the Sheffield robot from Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA program of 1966 (apart from a babyish plastic face and movable fingers and eyes, which didn't work well on radio) was that the Mishalbot is voice-driven (with ELIZA you had to type on a terminal). So the main technological development has been in speech recognition engineering. On interaction, the Mishalbot seemed to me to be at sub-ELIZA level. "What do you mean? Can you give an example?" it said repeatedly, at various inappropriate points.

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Confronting abuses of power

[This post was written with input from Emily M. Bender, Claire Bowern, Andrew Garrett, Monica Macaulay, David Pesetsky, Leslie Saxon, Karen Shelby, Kristen Syrett, and Natasha Warner.]

Many linguists, and probably also many regular Language Log readers, will have by now heard about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint recently filed by a set of faculty members currently or formerly associated with the University of Rochester’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The complaint alleges a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and other abuses of power by another member of the BCS faculty, the mishandling of investigations into this pattern of abuse by the BCS and UR administrations, and evidence of retaliation against the complainants. Some key links, for those who haven’t yet seen them:

[Update, 9/18/2017: here are some more reports.

… plus lots of reporting from the University of Rochester Campus Times, just two links to which Mark Liberman provided in a comment below. (end update)]

While we process the horror and come to terms with the publicity of this particular case, linguists everywhere are also mobilizing both to discuss and to do more to address the widespread problem of academic abuses of power, and sexual harassment in particular. We do not pretend to think that academia is somehow unique in any particular regard, but a key point that is emerging in these discussions is the recognition that its promotion procedures and incentives, its models of supervisory relationships, and its institutional structures may unfortunately serve to play mutually-reinforcing roles in attracting, fostering, and protecting abusers of power. We need to recognize that the whole field suffers when such abuse goes unchecked. Actions taken by those who would protect abusers distort the learning and research environment for victims, their allies, and our entire community.

Among the very first and most productive public discussions was this one initiated by Lauren Hall-Lew on her blog (9/9/2017). We know many department chairs have already addressed all members of their departments to express their strong commitment to working against sexual harassment and other abuses of power, and we think that this is an important discussion to begin in every department. A group of Linguistic Society of America members has been brought together by Claire Bowern to help draft an open letter to the LSA calling for attention and action from the Society, given the failures of our institutions (9/12/2017, with over 700 signatures as of this writing). The LSA, in turn, has responded to calls from both the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics and the Executive Committee and has announced a special workshop on “Sexism, Harassment, and Title IX Rights” for the 2018 Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City in January (9/12/2017).

[Update, 9/22/2017: The LSA Executive Committee has now officially responded to the open letter, now signed by over 1000 members of the LSA and broader linguistics community.]

And, of course, there are countless other discussions, some private, some more open, happening everywhere. Personal stories are being shared, from heartbreaking to horrific, and expressions of support for victims of abuse are everywhere. There is now a grassroots movement to foster an environment where linguists can have open discussions of this sort, sharing anonymously (or not) these kinds of stories so that the message gets out to our colleagues and junior members of the field that the problem affects more than just young women, and that there are options for responding.

All of this in just a few days. Linguists are good people. We can and will do better.

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Hurricane naming policy change

I think it's becoming clear that alternating male and female personal names to individuate Atlantic tropical cyclones is not a good idea. These storms are becoming far too nasty. Calling a storm "Harvey" makes it sound like your friendly uncle who always comes over on the Fourth of July and flirts with your mom. And "Irma" sounds like a dancer that he once knew when he was in Berlin. Science tells us that these devastating meteorological events are probably going to get worse in coming years. (Ann Coulter says that as a potential cause of increased violence in hurricanes, climate change is less plausible than God's anger at Houston for having elected a lesbian mayor; but let's face it, Ann Coulter is a few bricks short of a full intellectual hod.) Hurricanes need uglier names. You can't get Miami to evacuate by telling people that "Irma" is coming.

Accordingly, next year the National Hurricane Center is planning to name tropical cyclonic storms and hurricanes after unpleasant diseases and medical conditions. Think about it. The state governor tells you a hurricane named Dracunculiasis is coming down on you, you're gonna start packing the station wagon. So as the season progresses, the following will be the named storms in 2018.

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Court fight over Oxford commas and asyndetic lists

Language Log often weighs in when courts try to nail down the meaning of a statute. Laws are written in natural language—though one might long, by formalization, to end the thousand natural ambiguities that text is heir to—and thus judges are forced to play linguist.

Happily, this week's "case in the news" is one where the lawyers managed to identify several relevant considerations and bring them to the judges for weighing.

Most news outlets reported the case as being about the Oxford comma (or serial comma)—the optional comma just before the end of a list. Here, for example, is the New York Times:

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

This is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues. It's the text of an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who made a comment about linguists on Twitter not long ago.


Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,

As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

In the @ArrivalMovie I'd chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

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Patton Oswalt on Trump, Obama, David Lee Roth, and Rutgers linguistics

At the Writers Guild of America Awards on Sunday night, host Patton Oswalt predictably made some Trump jokes in his opening monologue. What wasn't so predictable was an extended analogy involving '80s hard rocker David Lee Roth and the linguistics department at Rutgers University. The key line: "Donald Trump taking Obama's job would be like if the head of linguistics at Rutgers made fun of David Lee Roth, and David Lee Roth was like, 'I'm gonna take his job.'" A shout-out to Bruce Tesar, chair of the Rutgers linguistics department?

Oswalt's bit starts around 5 minutes into the monologue, after some banter with James Woods, who was in the audience.

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"Arrival" arrives

"Arrival" hits the theaters this weekend, and I'd heartily recommend it to all Language Log readers. The film, despite its science-fiction trappings, does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work. I've posted about the movie a few times before even seeing it, based on the trailers:

Now, having seen "Arrival" (and having had the chance to interview Amy Adams, who portrays Dr. Louise Banks, as well as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer), I've devoted my latest Wall Street Journal column to it: "In 'Arrival,' a Linguist is a Movie Hero." (If you hit the paywall, you can get to the column by Googling the headline or following a social media link.)

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Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

"Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’".
"The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory" ("In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages").
"Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning" ("A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages").
"In world's languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning" ("Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds").
"Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds" ("After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds").
"Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds".
"Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings".
"WORLD LANGUAGES HAVE A COMMON ANCESTOR".

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one "discovered a universal human language" or "overturned years of linguistic theory" or showed that "world languages have a common ancestor" or demonstrated that "the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings". And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: "biology could play a role in the invention of human language", "words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds", etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven't found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it's not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there's little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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