Archive for November, 2008

In a Guangzhou Taxi

I just returned from a linguistics conference in China. I won’t even try to compete with Victor Mair’s reports (here and here and here, for example) about the way English is fractured there, but a taxi ride in Guangzhou provided me with a few bits of interesting language information.

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Androids, electric sheep, plastic tongues…

For your edification and amusement: An articulator-based, rather than acoustic, speech synthesis device.

The original context, here on Botjunkie, says that the ultimate goal is a voice compression system for cellphones. I'm a bit confused about this — I *think* that the idea is that representing speech articulatorily will be less data-intensive than representing it acoustically, but that seems wildly improbable to me.

Here's the description of the system on the Takanishi Labs page. Amazingly, they even have a rubber set of vocal cords at work! (scroll down to see them in action).

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No getting laid in the NYT

Rob Walker's "Consumed" column in the NYT Magazine on Sunday (9 November) looks at prepaid credit cards, in particular the Prepaid Visa RushCard, "the product of a partnership between Unifund (a Cincinnati company best known for buying up and collecting on bad debts) and Russell Simmons, a founder of Def Jam records and the Phat Farm apparel brand." 

“We created the prepaid RushCard,” Simmons says in [an ad], “so everyone will have access to the American dream.” That sounds a little bland for someone with Simmons’s brand-building panache, but recently, in The Economist, Simmons gave his pitch a bit more zing by suggesting (in terms that can only be paraphrased here) that the card has aphrodisiac properties.

The point he was making, however earthily, was that plastic and status are intertwined in contemporary America. 

Ah, the NYT, ever modest (as we've commented on here many times). Just what was it that Simmons said that required paraphrase in the Times?

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Eastward is as eastward does

The latest xkcd:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

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Some discipline where nobody knows what the hell it is

As I read the text of Rob Balder's latest PartiallyClips strip, about whether magic is perhaps secretly taught in universities, I experienced a moment of terror over whether linguistics was going to turn up in the third panel. But our discipline dodged the bullet. Check it out.

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RNA(s): variety individuation

A nice little example of "variety individuation" (see here), in which a mass noun N (like wine) has corresponding count uses meaning 'variety of N' (as in three fine wines), from a piece by Andrew Pollack ("The Promise and Power of RNA"), in the 11 November Science Times section of the NYT. It's all about RNA.

RNA is clearly a mass noun for a long part of the article. But then we get to the hard fact that there are lots of different types of RNA, and count uses (referring to varieties of RNA) blossom, often alternating with mass uses.

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Bushisms fewer than expected?

We've spent a lot of electrons attacking the Bushisms industry — but we've never tried to make the argument that John Hinderaker put forward a couple of days ago, apparently in earnest ("The importance of being careful", 11/9/2008):

In this regard, President Bush is an excellent model; Obama should take a lesson from his example. Bush never gets sloppy when he is speaking publicly. He chooses his words with care and precision, which is why his style sometimes seems halting. In the eight years he has been President, it is remarkable how few gaffes or verbal blunders he has committed. If Obama doesn't raise his standards, he will exceed Bush's total before he is inaugurated.

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Short-long or long-short?

On Saturday, I was at a workshop on "Brain Rhythms in Speech Perception and Production". One of the participants was Aniruddh Patel, author of Music, Language and the Brain. His presentation was "Rhythms in Speech and Music", and one of the papers that he discussed was John Iversen, Aniruddh Patel, and Kengo Ohgushi, "Perception of rhythmic grouping depends on auditory experience", JASA 123(4): 2263-2271, 2008.

Unfortunately, I had to leave that workshop early, in order to travel to Düsseldorf for the Berlin 6 Open Access conference, where I am now. As I was leaving, Aniruddh gave me a reprint of the Iversen et al. paper, and asked for comments. So I'll keep up my act as "the Madonna of linguists" (even though the reviews to date have been mixed), and offer my comments in the form of a blog post.

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Everett on the Pirahã in The Guardian

The Guardian interviewed Dan Everett while he was in the UK recently for lectures in Edinburgh and London, and has published a piece about Dan and the Pirahã. The Language Log fan who was the first to point it out to us (thanks, Rachele) asks about its example of recursion. It says:

Chomsky … recently refined his theory to argue that recursion — the linguistic practice of inserting phrases inside others – was the cornerstone of all languages. (An example of recursion is extending the sentence "Daniel Everett talked about the story of his life" to read, "Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life".)

Is that recursion? Well, unfortunately the matter isn't clear. Let me explain.

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Fry on the pleasure of language

After I saw a Youtube clip of British comedian and quiz show host Stephen Fry pedantically insisting that none requires a singular verb, I was sincerely disappointed that this intelligent man evinced exactly the kind of "linguistic martyrdom" that Thomas Lounsbury ridiculed a century ago in The Standard of Usage in English.

My spirits lifted when I saw another Youtube clip (via the Tensor) wherein Fry and his comedic partner Hugh Laurie hilariously hold forth on language:

For my money, "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers" trumps colorless green ideas sleeping furiously any day. And now comes more heartening evidence that Fry is a true language lover and no prescriptivist stick-in-the-mud. On his newly redesigned blog, The New Adventures of Mr Stephen Fry, he kicks things off with a wonderfully rambling post entitled "Don't Mind Your Language…". A choice excerpt follows below.

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There will be passives

It's time once again for our semi-regular feature, "Mr. Payack Bamboozles the Media." Paul J.J. Payack, as Language Log readers know, is the assiduously self-promoting president of the Global Language Monitor who has managed to hoodwink unsuspecting journalists on a range of pseudoscientific claims, most notably the number of words in the English language. (He now claims we're 2,248 words away from the millionth word, a progression that he turns on and off based on his publicity needs.) During the U.S. presidential election season, he's attracted media attention for "linguistic analysis" of key debates and speeches. Last month, CNN trumpeted his findings about the Biden/Palin vice-presidential debate: Palin spoke at a tenth-grade level and Biden at an eighth-grade level, and Palin used passives to deflect responsibility. That nonsense went unremarked here (except briefly in the comments), but Payack's latest round of flapdoodle, pegged to Barack Obama's victory speech on election night, is deserving of mention, even if it helps to fuel his cynical promotional machine.

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Interactive visualization for computational linguistics

I didn't make it to ACL2008 back in June, but Ani Nenkova, who was the tutorials chair, recently sent me a link to some really terrific slides from a tutorial by Christopher Collins, Gerald Penn and Sheelagh Carpendale on "Interactive Visualization for Computational Linguistics". (Warning: it's a 13.8 MB .pdf file).

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Fleeting "Fucking": Original Sinn

People have had a lot of fun with FCC chairman Kevin Martin's claim that "the F-word "inherently has a sexual connotation" whenever it's used. Daniel Drezner asked, "If I say 'F#$% Kevin Martin and the horse he rode in on,' am I obviously encouraging rape and bestiality?" And as Chris Potts makes clear, if you measure a word's connotations by the items it co-occurs with, fucking doesn't seem to keep particularly salacious company. So it's simply wrong to claim that these emphatic, expletive, and figurative uses of the word (e.g., as in fuck up etc.) fall afoul of the FCC's rules, which define indecency as language that  “depicts or describes… sexual or excretory activities or organs.” 

But hang on. Emphatic fucking may not depict or refer to sex, and may not even bring it explicitly to mind. But the link is still there. Why would these uses of the word be considered "dirty"  if they weren't polluted by its primary literal use? And what could be the original source of that taint if not the word's literal denotation (or at least, of its denotation relative to the attitudes that obscene words presuppose about sex and the body)? In fact if fuck and fucking weren't connected to sex in all their secondary uses, they would serve no purpose at all. 

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