Archive for Style and register

Read vs. spontaneous speech

Across the many disciplines that analyze language, there's surprisingly little focus on the properties of natural, spontaneous speech, as opposed to read (or memorized and performed) speech. But of course that dichotomy is an oversimplification — there are many linguistic registers, many ways to read each of the many styles of text, and even more individual, social, and contextual factors influencing spontaneous speech.

So one place to start is events where the same speaker, addressing the same audience for the same purposes, both reads a passage and answers questions — in such cases, at least the speaker and the context are controlled. In "Fluent 'disfluencies' again", 9/3/2022, I looked at the question-answering part of such an event, a press briefing by the U.S. Department of Defense Press Secretary, Brigadier General Patrick S. Ryder. At least, I looked at one small aspect of some of his answers, namely the distribution of certain kinds of disfluencies interpolations.

The focus of this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ will be one of Ryder's more recent press briefings, comparing the introduction (where he reads prepared text) to the first of his answers to subsequent press questions. I'll look at (aspects of) the properties of speech segments and silence segments, as well the statistics of local inter-syllable durations. For both of those features, fully-automatic analysis techniques allow research at scale, though this morning's data sample is small.

I'll also take a short comparative peek at his filled pauses and rapid word-repetitions in the two passages.

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Xi Jinping's faux classicism

This new article in The Economist (6/29/23) has a familiar ring to it:

To understand Xi Jinping, it helps to be steeped in the classics

China’s leader has invented a phrase—and an image

Take four Chinese characters, all of them in everyday use. Put them in a certain order and, lo, they become a phrase that looks like classical Chinese—the kind of language used by the literati of yore. The idea they convey could be expressed just as succinctly in colloquial Chinese, but the classical style has gravitas. And it is a phrase loved by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, so all must follow suit.

More than any of his predecessors, Mr Xi likes to spice up his speeches with quotations from classical literature, especially poetry and philosophy. It fits one of his stated missions: instilling “cultural self-confidence” (alongside confidence in the political system). And it helps to buff up his image. In Chinese history, rulers were expected to be erudite. Two volumes have been published providing explanations of Mr Xi’s classical aphorisms.

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Knowing how much I like to invent terms for things that have no name ("topolect", "character amnesia", etc.), and needing a word for the parlance produced by ChatGPT-4 and kindred AI chatbots, Conal Boyce asked me to coin a term for it.  I instantly obliged him by coming up with "pablumese" to designate the sort of language that is unremittingly neutral and takes no stance on any subject or topic it addresses.

Conal liked my invention and responded:

Here's one of the problems with ChatGPT and its brethren: Not only does it spew what Victor calls 'pablumese' but for technical questions it then mixes its pablumese with quantitative nonsense, creating a truly creepy kind of output.

I was curious to see how it would handle the question of how many copper atoms fit into the cross-section of a typical copper wire. It responded in a way that made it sound very knowledgeable, breaking everything down into tiny (sometimes condescending) steps, and yet, at the very end of its perfect logic, it botched its answer, because it was unable to do a conversion between millimeters and picometers correctly.

But here's the kicker: What makes this stuff maximally odious is that the creeps who design it will succeed in taking over the world anyway, because this week "version 4 is astonishingly better than the beta ChatGPT!!!" and version 5 next week will be astonishingly better than…. etc. etc. until they've improved it enough that it really will threaten the jobs of 3/4 of the human race. It must be an absolutely sickening time to be a young person, trying to plan one's career.

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Parse depth in essays vs. novels

In "Trends" (3/27/2022) and "Embedding Depth" (11/28/2022), I noted that Earnest Hemingway's reputation for "little short sentences" is generally false to fact. I made the point by comparing the distribution of sentence lengths and embedding depths in his memoir A Moveable Feast to Usula K. Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind.

In a comment on "Embedding Depth", Bloix complained that A Moveable Feast is probably not "a reliable example of the style that made [Hemingway] famous in the 1920s and 30s." In today's post, I'll explain again why I chose that work, amplify the point by comparing Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises to Le Guin's 1974 novel The Dispossessed, and wave my hand at broader generalizations about dialogue vs. exposition and fiction vs. essays.

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Inaugural embedding depth

Following up on yesterday's "Embedding depth" post, I've done the same analysis to the 62 Inaugural Addresses of U.S. presidents. (Actually, 61 of them — I had to omit John Adams' 1797 address, because its 35th sentence is 797 words long, which made the standard version of the Berkeley Neural Parser break down in tears…)

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Embedding depth

In "Trends" (3/27/2022) I compared the distributions of sentence lengths in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wave in the Mind. The background, and some of the conclusions, can be found in the slides for my SHEL12 presentation. Hemingway is known for his short and simple sentences — see e.g. "Homo Hemingwayensis", 1/9/2005, for some discussion — but as I showed, his average sentence length is actually a bit on the long side for his time. And his overall distribution of sentence lengths is essentially identical that found in (later) work by Ursula K. Le Guin, despite her hilarious discussion of an alleged difference in her 1992 essay "Introducing Myself":

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How many characters does it take to say "staff only"?

In sending along the photograph below, Geoff Dawson writes:

I find it hard to believe it takes nine characters. Curious as to what they really say.

From a furniture shop in South Melbourne Australia.

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Trends in book titles

I've been interested for some time in the way that (written) English sentence lengths have evolved over time — see "Trends", 3/27/2022, or the slides from my 5/20/2022 talk at SHEL12, "Historical trends in English sentence length and syntactic complexity". It's well known that the titles of published books have undergone an analogous process, but I don't think I've written about it. (Nor do I know of any scholarship on the topic — perhaps some commenters will be able to suggest some.)

A couple of days ago, while looking for the origins of an idiom, I stumbled across a contender for the title-length championship in in an interesting work from 1740 (image here):

THE ART of READING: OR, THE ENGLISH TONGUE MADE Familiar and easy to the meanest Capacity. CONTAINING, I. All the common words, ranged into distinct tables and classes; as well in regard to the number of letters in each word, as to the easiness of pronunciation, and the bearing of the accent. With useful notes and remarks upon the various sounds of the letters occasionally inserted in the margin. II. A large number of lessons, regularly suited to each table. III. An explanation of several words; particularly such as are of the same, or nearly alike in sound: designed to correct and prevent some orthographical errors and mistakes. IV. Some observations, rules, and directions, relating to the reading and writing English properly and correctly. The whole done after a new and easy Method. Approved of, and recommended, as the best book for the use of children, and all others, who would speedily attain to the knowledge of the English tongue. By P. SPROSON, S. M.

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Chinese parallelism in an English-language scientific paper

I received the following letter and observations from the editor of a science journal:

We will be rejecting the paper because it is outside the range of topics the
journal handles. But it also has a writing style that I'd like to warn the
authors to avoid. Here is a sample (from the usual "review of previous work"):

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The ideology of short sentences, part 1

Karla Adam and William Booth, "What next for Boris Johnson? Books, columns, speeches, comeback?", WaPo 7/9/2022:

Many assume Johnson will eventually return to his former profession of journalism. Writing a weekly note for the Daily Telegraph was lucrative, \$330,000 a year, which fellow hacks calculated to garner him over \$2,750 an hour. […]

He also owes a publisher a biography on William Shakespeare, which he has not completed. He did finish a biography of his idol, Winston Churchill, which some critics panned as a worthless retread, lacking in insight, scholarship or new material, but which the reviewer in the Financial Times called “crisp, punchy, full of the kind of wham-bam short sentences that keep the reader moving down the page.”

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Memoirs of a Woman of Long Sentences

In the question period after my virtual talk yesterday at SHEL 12, an alert audience member asked about the outlier in a graph that I showed of average sentence length over the centuries. The outlier is marked with an arrow in the plot below, though no such arrow singled it out in the presentation:

I had been struck by the same point when I made the graph, and identified the work and author as John Cleland's 1748 epistolary novel, "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure", commonly known as Fanny Hill.

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About six weeks from now, I'm scheduled to give a (virtual) talk with the (provisional) title "Historical trends in English sentence length and syntactic complexity". The (provisional) abstract:

It's easy to perceive clear historical trends in the length of sentences and the depth of clausal embedding in published English text. And those perceptions can easily be verified quantitatively. Or can they? Perhaps the title should be "Historical trends in English punctuation practices", or "Historical trends in English conjunctions and discourse markers." The answer depends on several prior questions: What is a sentence? What is the boundary between syntactic structure and discourse structure? How is message structure encoded in speech (spontaneous or rehearsed) versus in text? This presentation will survey the issues, look at some data, and suggest some answers — or at least some fruitful directions for future work.

So I've started the "look at some data" part, so far mostly by extending some of the many relevant earlier LLOG Breakfast Experiment™ explorations, such as "Inaugural embedding", 9/9/2005, or  "Real trends in word and sentence length", 10/31/2011, or "More Flesch-Kincaid grade-level nonsense", 10/23/2015. 

In most cases, the extensions just provide more data to support the ideas in the earlier posts. But sometimes, further investigation turns up some twists.

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Good translation is an art: Bēowulf

As a published translator myself, I certainly strive to make my translations worthy of being considered as art.  But it isn't always an easy task.  Witness "The Tricky Art of Translation and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Modern Beowulf", CD Covington, (Mon Feb 7, 2022):

It’s not very often that a thousand-year-old poem has a new translation that gets people hyped up, at least in the Anglophone world, but Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent Hugo Award-winning translation of Beowulf stirred up a lot of interest—there’s even a video series of writers and entertainers reading it out loud. (Alan Cumming’s section is excellent—he really knows his way around alliterative verse.)

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