Archive for Linguistics in the news

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
We spend our days
Immersed in

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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", 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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Jafaican doesn't exist

To answer the many critics of his "whites have become black" diatribe, the Tudor historian and obnoxious TV personality David Starkey published an article in The Telegraph on August 19 defending his stance on the way Jamaican linguistic patterns are allegedly implicated in the cause of the English riots. The linguistically relevant point is that he has now shifted his reference away from "Jamaican patois", which is a synonym for Jamaican Creole, Ethnologue code JAM, henceforth JC (see my article in Times Higher Education on this). He now cites a "mixed race" critic of "ghetto grammar" to back up his condemnation:

Lindsay Johns, the Oxford-educated mixed-race writer who mentors young people in Peckham, argues passionately against "this insulting and demeaning acceptance" of a fake Jamaican — or "Jafaican" — patois. "Language is power", Johns writes, and to use "ghetto grammar" renders the young powerless.

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Don't read this post: Be a Language Log reader!

The big deal in a new paper "Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self" (see also the official PNAS site, or e.g. this Discover magazine article "The power of nouns….") is that people can be manipulated into voting simply by clever use of nouns instead of verbs in a questionnaire. In each of several studies, potential voters were split into two groups and given (amongst other questions which didn't vary by group) one of two questions to answer:

Group 1 question: How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?

Group 2 question: How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?

Turned out that Group 1 turned out. Really. In one of the studies an amazing 95.5% of them actually turned out to vote, whereas only 81.8% of Group 2 voted. That's obviously a huge effect on voting behavior. And it appears to be caused by the use of a construction with the nominal "voter" instead of the verb "vote".

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