Archive for January, 2018

Orca emits speech-like sound; reporters go insane

Published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B you will find (provided you have the necessary institutional credentials or library membership) a paper entitled "Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca), by José Z. Abramson, Maria Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Lino García, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz, and Josep Call. The paper is about the conditions under which killer whales can be induced to use their blowholes to imitate sounds that they hear. And it will not be a huge surprise to Language Log readers that the world's newspapers immediately lost their minds. The Daily Mail, a scurrilous Conservative-oriented English tabloid, on its very successful soft-porn-laden website, used the headline "Orca on the blower: Killer whale learns to talk." Hundreds of largely plagiarized stories are springing up around the world under similar headlines (don't make me try to list them). They can do this because when the topic is language, you don't have to maintain any pretense of seriousness. You can just make stuff up. Nobody (other than maybe Language Log) is going to call you on it.

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Opamacare

One of the most widely noted aspects of last night's SOTU address was the president's pronunciation of "Obamacare" as if it were spelled "Opamacare":


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"I don't think there isn't a darn thing I can do"

RichG sent in a link to Matt Pierce and David Montero, "Warrants in Las Vegas mass shooting reveal name of additional 'person of interest", LA Times 1/30/2018 [emphasis added]:

Authorities were looking into an additional "person of interest" following the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and wounded hundreds of others, according to search warrants unsealed by a Nevada judge Tuesday.

Though Stephen Paddock has been identified as the lone gunman in the Oct. 1 massacre, and authorities had been looking at his girlfriend, Marilou Danley, the court mistakenly failed to redact another name from the warrants: Douglas Haig.

That is the name of a Mesa, Ariz., ammunition dealer who runs a website called Specialized Military Ammunition, which touts itself as "your source for premium, MILSPEC, tracer and incendiary ammunition in popular military calibers," including ammunition that "ignites diesel and kerosene." (Officials have said that Paddock shot at aerial fuel tanks during the attack, although they did not ignite.) […]

The Las Vegas Review-Journal was the only publication to receive the mistaken document, which identified Haig as a "person of interest." It's the first public acknowledgment by law enforcement that a third person had been investigated in relation to the crime.

District Court Judge Elissa Cadish apologized for the error and issued a gag order on any publication of the original document that included the name.

"I ordered them redacted and thought they were redacted not only to protect the investigation, but because of concerns about possible danger to this individual," Cadish said. "Unfortunately, I think the reality is now that it's up online and I don't think there isn't a darn thing I can do to take it off."

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Adversarial attacks on modern speech-to-text

Generating adversarial STT examples.

In a post on this blog recently Mark Liberman raised the lively area of so-called "adversarial" attacks for modern machine learning systems. These attacks can do amusing and somewhat frightening things such as force an object recognition algorithm to identify all images as toasters with remarkably high confidence. Seeing these applied to image recognition, he hypothesized they could also be applied to modern speech recognition (STT, or speech-to-text) based on e.g. deep learning. His hypothesis has indeed been recently confirmed.

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"Voiceprint" springs eternal

John R. Quain, "Alexa, What Happened to My Car?", NYT 1/25/2018 [emphasis added]:

And even though voice bots like Alexa and Google's Assistant can be taught to recognize different voices — well enough to cater to each family member's favored Pandora stations, for example — they do not offer any sort of biometric security, such as voice print analysis. As a result, Alexa's voice-recognition capabilities are not discerning enough for security purposes, according to Amazon.

There are two things about this passage that caught my attention.

First, a minor point: the NYT here chooses to write "voice print" as two separate words. This is a change from their previous practice — already in May of 1962 (and many times since),  the grey lady was writing "voiceprint" solid in stories like this one:

A researcher from Bell Telephone Laboratories described yesterday tests that he said, showed that "voiceprints" may prove to be almost as effective, for identification, as fingerprints.

And second, a more important point:  here's a journalist who still thinks that "voice print analysis", however spelled, offers "biometric security".

[Warning: what follows is a long post about lexicographic, technological,  journalistic, and literary history, guaranteeing that at least three quarters of the content will bore or mystify most readers.)

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A productive-ass suffix

Currently making the rounds is a video from Conan showing a standup appearance by the Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola. In his experience of learning English as a second language, he says, "I think the hardest word to truly master has been the word ass." He muses on the peculiar application of -ass as a slangy suffix in words like lazy-ass, long-ass, grown-ass, bad-ass, and dumb-ass.

Stan Carey discussed the video on the Strong Language blog ("A paradoxical-ass word"), and he links to Mark Liberman's 2014 roundup of scholarship on -ass (on Language Log and elsewhere), "Ignoble-ass citation practices."

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Accentuate the negative

A curious case of a forced-choice sentence-completion question on a ninth-grade exam at a high school in Taiwan is briefly discussed on Lingua Franca today, for a very general non-linguist readership. It merits a slightly longer and more serious treatment, which I thought Language Log readers might appreciate. The exam question basically asks for a decision on the question of which one of these sentences is fully correct and which deserves to be called ungrammatical:

(a) Lydia knows few things, and so does Peter.
(b) Lydia knows few things, and neither does Peter.

Because continuation with neither does… is widely taken to be a test for negative polarity, this amounts to asking whether Lydia knows few things is a positive clause like Lydia knows everything or a negative one like Lydia doesn't knows anything. And a friend of mine in Taiwan reports having asked a number of English speakers, with a truly surprising result. He finds a split between the two great English dialect groups, the North American dialects (AmE) and the British and Australasian dialects (BrE). The AmE speakers that he asked all said (a) was correct, while the BrE speakers all said that (b) was correct.

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Forcing Mandarin on Hong Kong

According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by the Prime Ministers of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United Kingdom (UK) governments on December 19, 1984, the way of life in Hong Kong would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years from the time of its handover to the PRC in 1997. This would have left Hong Kong unchanged until 2047.  I never for a moment thought that China would adhere to this agreement, and we see in countless ways how basic rights, laws, and socio-political institutions have been changing radically since the handover in 1997, only twenty years ago.  One of the most noticeable aspects of these changes has to do with language.

Cantonese is rapidly being pushed aside in favor of Mandarin, and this is not what the people of Hong Kong would have wanted to happen.  The threat to Cantonese is manifested in many ways, such as more and more schools being required to provide classroom instruction in Mandarin instead of Cantonese.

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Global drop in GNP?

Is it my imagination, or has there been a drop in GNP (Gross National Peeving) across the Anglophone world? I'm not seeing nearly the volume of "Angry linguistic mobs with torches" that I (think I) did a decade ago.

So the recently viral story about this sign on the door of the Continental bar makes me kind of nostalgic:

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Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese, part 4

Screenshot from Nikita Kuzmin's WeChat:

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What it is is what it is

Jay Livingston sends a compendium of tautologies from The Wire:

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Learning not to avoid

Joanna Klein, "Swatting at Mosquitoes May Help You Avoid Bites, Even if you Miss", NYT 1/25/2018:

If you keep swatting at a mosquito, will it leave you alone?

Some scientists think so. But it depends.

Some blood meals are worth a mosquito risking its life. But if there's a more attractive or accepting alternative to feed from, a mosquito may move on to that someone or something instead. 

An interesting story. But this is Language Log, not Insect Learning Log, so let's focus on the prominently-displayed picture caption, which reads:

A new study suggests that mosquitoes might learn not to avoid people who swat at them, by recognizing their smell.

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Poetic dynamism

Well, the dynamic range of the amplitude of syllables in poetry readings, anyhow:

What IS that?

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