Archive for August, 2012

"Glottal Opera"

The flexible fiber-optic laryngoscope was invented by a group including Osamu Fujimura, my former boss at Bell Labs (Masayuki Sawashima, Hajime Hirose, and Osamu Fujimura, "Observation of the Larynx by a Fiberscope Inserted through the Nose", JASA 1967).  During the past 45 years, this technology has become a routine part of otolaryngology. This 2009 film by John Fink used an Olympus ENF-V2 Video Rhinolaryngoscope:

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Chinese terms of address for single ladies

When I started to learn Mandarin nearly half a century ago, it used to be that xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") was a polite way to refer to or address a young, unmarried woman. You could also extend xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss", lit., "little elder sister") to convey other, related meanings, such as lǎo xiǎojiě 老小姐 ("old maid / miss"), xiǎojiě píqì 小姐脾气 ("petulant; flirtatious; coquettish"), and so forth. Gradually, however, xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") evolved to the point that it often came to be used in a jocular or facetious manner.  Furthermore, when used by itself, xiǎojiě 小姐 may be applied to prostitutes, so one must be careful when referring to someone with this word.  It seems that there is no longer a broadly accepted, relatively respectful term of address for a young, single woman.

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Last month on the EL trail

It's been a while since I've been on the endangered languages beat. Here are a couple of links of recent writings on the topic for those who are interested.

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Noisily channeling Claude Shannon

There's a passage in James Gleick's "Auto Crrect Ths!", NYT 8/4/2012, that's properly spelled but in need of some content correction:

If you type “kofee” into a search box, Google would like to save a few milliseconds by guessing whether you’ve misspelled the caffeinated beverage or the former United Nations secretary-general. It uses a probabilistic algorithm with roots in work done at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the early 1990s. The probabilities are based on a “noisy channel” model, a fundamental concept of information theory. The model envisions a message source — an idealized user with clear intentions — passing through a noisy channel that introduces typos by omitting letters, reversing letters or inserting letters.

“We’re trying to find the most likely intended word, given the word that we see,” Mr. [Mark] Paskin says. “Coffee” is a fairly common word, so with the vast corpus of text the algorithm can assign it a far higher probability than “Kofi.” On the other hand, the data show that spelling “coffee” with a K is a relatively low-probability error. The algorithm combines these probabilities. It also learns from experience and gathers further clues from the context.

The same probabilistic model is powering advances in translation and speech recognition, comparable problems in artificial intelligence. In a way, to achieve anything like perfection in one of these areas would mean solving them all; it would require a complete model of human language. But perfection will surely be impossible. We’re individuals. We’re fickle; we make up words and acronyms on the fly, and sometimes we scarcely even know what we’re trying to say.

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Increasingly generative hybrid Technik

Evgeny Morozov, "The Naked and the TED", The New Republic 8/2/2012 (Reviewing Hybrid Reality):

As is typical of today’s anxiety-peddling futurology, the Khannas’ favorite word is “increasingly,” which is their way of saying that our unstable world is always changing and that only advanced thinkers such as themselves can guide us through this turbulence. In Hybrid Reality, everything is increasingly something else: gadgets are increasingly miraculous, technology is increasingly making its way into the human body, quiet moments are increasingly rare. This is a world in which pundits are increasingly using the word “increasingly” whenever they feel too lazy to look up the actual statistics, which, in the Khannas’ case, increasingly means all the time.

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Those Esperanto ghazals

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More unquotations from the New Yorker

Janet Malcolm and Jonah Lehrer are not the only New Yorker writers who have been accused of fabricating quotations. A more recent case involves a piece by Jared Diamond, "Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours", 4/21/2008 (abstract on the New Yorker's web site here).  Diamond's article led to a long series of negative responses at iMediaEthics and Savage Minds, as well as a $10M libel suit (which as far as I can tell is still pending).

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The logic of interaction is difficult

Yesterday's xkcd:

Mouseover title:

"Oh right, eye contact. Ok, good, holding the eye contact … holding … still holding … ok, too long! Getting weird! Quick, look thoughtfully into space and nod. Oh, dammit, said 'yeah' again!"

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Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations

I was shocked to read that Jonah Lehrer had quit his job at the New Yorker, after admitting that he fabricated some quotations from Bob Dylan in his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I was shocked because what Lehrer did is consistent with the standard behavior of journalists, though perhaps not with the official story of what this behavior is supposed to be like. But the actual practice, in which journalists often put between quotation marks whatever representation of a source's opinions they feel that their narrative needs, was validated by judicial decision in a famous case involving another New Yorker writer 25 years ago — someone who is still on the magazine's staff.

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Celebrating "Kromowidjojo"

The winner of the women's 100-meter freestyle swimming event at the London Olympics is the wonderfully named Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. Her last name (pronounced /'kromowɪ'ʤojo/) has naturally attracted some attention, so I thought I'd offer an explainer for those interested in its origins.

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"Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II’s"

I did a double-take at a photo caption in yesterday's NY Times: "Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II’s, was part of the team that won a silver medal in eventing on Tuesday."


"A granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II's"—why the unusual double genitive (was the term originally Jespersen's)? Despite all the attention given to Zara Phillips, that phrase appears only twice in Google, excluding duplicates, and "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth's" appears not at all—this against more than 600 hits returned for "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II" and "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth." (Google actually estimates 230,000, but you know how much that means.) The double genitive seems to be very rare when speaking of family members, even those of whom one can have an indefinite number, unless the genitive itself is realized as a pronoun ("a granddaughter of yours," "no son of mine"). But of course the construction is fine when one is speaking of friends, colleagues or other alienable relationships. Search me. There's an extensive literature on this construction, from several schools, including contributions by Ray Jackendoff, John Taylor, Barbara Partee, Chris Barker, Gianluca Storto, and a number of others (see the bibliography in Chris's 2008 paper), and no doubt this point is covered somewhere — but where?

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"Would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French?"

Today, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on H.R. 997, the "English Language Unity Act of 2011" sponsored by Rep. Steve King [R-IA]. The House bill and its Senate counterpart (S. 503, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe [R-OK]) have been introduced in the last several sessions of Congress, and there's no indication that this attempt to "declare English as the official language of the United States" will be any more successful than the previous iterations. But at the very least the hearings provide some moments of politico-linguistic theater. At the hearing today, Rep. John Conyers [D-MI] delivered his opening statement in halting Spanish, after which Rep. Trent Franks [R-AZ] requested, "would you repeat that in Yiddish and Vietnamese and French?" Franks and King both argued that Conyers' use of Spanish was itself a compelling argument in favor of the bill (with King making a Tower of Babel reference). Here's the video, from TPM.

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Texting and language skills

There's a special place in purgatory reserved for scientists who make bold claims based on tiny effects of uncertain origin; and an extra-long sentence is imposed on those who also keep their data secret, publishing only hard-to-interpret summaries of statistical modeling. The flames that purify their scientific souls will rise from the lake of lava that eternally consumes the journalists who further exaggerate their dubious claims. Those fires, alas, await Drew P. Cingel and S. Shyam Sundar, the authors of "Texting, techspeak, and tweens: The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills", New Media & Society 5/11/2012:

The perpetual use of mobile devices by adolescents has fueled a culture of text messaging,   with abbreviations and grammatical shortcuts, thus raising the following question in the   minds of parents and teachers: Does increased use of text messaging engender greater   reliance on such ‘textual adaptations’ to the point of altering one’s sense of written grammar?   A survey (N = 228) was conducted to test the association between text message usage of   sixth, seventh and eighth grade students and their scores on an offline, age-appropriate   grammar assessment test. Results show broad support for a general negative relationship between the use of techspeak in text messages and scores on a grammar assessment.

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