Archive for February, 2020

"Forty Days and Forty Nights"

The old hymn and blues song of that title have been very much on my mind during the last couple of months.

George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

Forty days and forty nights
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled….

Muddy Waters (1956)

Forty days and forty nights, since my baby left this town
Sun shinin' all day long, but the rain keep falling down
She's my life I need her so, why she left I just don't know….

These are very different kinds of songs, yet they are both focused on a period of forty days and forty nights.  I've been thinking about these songs a lot in the current climate of far-reaching quarantines against the novel coronavirus epidemic centered on Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

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Changing times

Changing norms about public display of certain words, as exemplified in the display windows of a local store:

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Ladies' room

Photograph taken at the Los Angeles International Airport:

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Cossack and Kazakh

At dinner the other night, someone asked whether Cossack and Kazakh are etymological descendants from the same source. The consensus around the table was "probably yes", but no one really knew anything. A bit of internet research supports that conclusion — though no doubt readers will be able to add depth and nuance.

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“Overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”: The Oscars and multilingualism

Below is a guest post by Tihomir Rangelov.

The Korean film Parasite’s landslide success at the Oscars this year has been called "a cultural breakthrough". Was it a linguistic breakthrough as well?

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English syllable detection

In "Syllables" (2/24/2020), I showed that a very simple algorithm finds syllables surprisingly accurately, at least in good quality recordings like a soon-to-published corpus of Mandarin Chinese. Commenters asked about languages like Berber and Salish, which are very far from the simple onset+nucleus pattern typical of languages like Chinese, and even about English, which has more complex syllable onsets and codas as well as many patterns where listeners and speakers disagree (or are uncertain) about the syllable count.

I got a few examples of Berber and Salish, courtesy of Rachid Ridouane and Sally Thomason, and may report on them shortly. But it's easy to run the same program on a well-studied and easily-available English corpus, namely TIMIT, which contains 6300 sentences, 10 from each of 630 speakers. This is small by modern standards, but plenty large enough for test purposes. So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I tested it.

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"Andy's chest"

Notice the button on Andy Warhol's jacket:

Source:  The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 4 (Paintings and Sculptures Late 1974-1976).

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Xiist music

Allusions to Language Log posts abound:


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Winnie the Flu

Tweet from Joshua Wong 黃之鋒, Secretary-General of Demosistō:

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From a physical point of view, syllables reflect the fact that speaking involves oscillatory opening and closing of the vocal tract at a frequency of about 5 Hz, with associated modulation of acoustic amplitude. From an abstract cognitive point of view, each language organizes phonological features into a sort of grammar of syllabic structures, with categories like onsets, nuclei and codas. And it's striking how directly and simply the physical oscillation is related to the units of the abstract syllabic grammar — there's no similarly direct and simple physical interpretation of phonological features and segments.

This direct and simple relationship has a psychological counterpart. Syllables seems to play a central role in child language acquisition, with words following a gradual development from very simple syllable patterns, through closer and closer approximations to adult phonological and phonetic norms. And as Lila Gleitman and Paul Rozin observed in 1973 ("Teaching reading by use of a syllabary", Reading Research Quarterly), "It is suggested on the basis of research in speech perception that syllables are more natural units than phonemes, because they are easily pronounceable in isolation and easy to recognize and to blend."

In 1975, Paul Mermelstein published an algorithm for "Automatic segmentation of speech into syllabic units", based on "assessment of the significance of a loudness minimum to be a potential syllabic boundary from the difference between the convex hull of the loudness function and the loudness function itself." Over the years, I've found that even simpler methods, based on selecting peaks in a smoothed amplitude contour, also work quite well (see e.g. Margaret Fleck and Mark Liberman, "Test of an automatic syllable peak detector", JASA 1982; and slides on Dinka tone alignment from EFL 2015).

In this post, I'll present a simple language-independent syllable detector, and show that it works pretty well. It's not a perfect algorithm or even an especially good one. The point is rather that "syllables" are close enough to being amplitude peaks that the results of a simple-minded, language-independent algorithm are surprisingly good, so that maybe self-supervised adaptation of a more sophisticated algorithm could lead in interesting directions.

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Facebook Guang Guang Guang Guang translate loop

From Jeff DeMarco:

I hit the translation button for this Facebook post and this is what I got!

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Chinese coronavirus linguistic war

From a Taiwanese colleague:

In the struggle against Wǔhàn fèiyán 武漢肺炎 ("Wuhan pneumonia"), Taiwan has to fight the war on three fronts: (1) trying to stop the virus at its borders; (2) trying to join the WHO for world-wide collaboration and disease information; and (3) fighting against the Communist Chinese dictatorial linguistic policies.  The linguistic policy on disease terminology is really weird; it smacks of George Orwell's 1984.

He cites this article in Chinese and this facebook page (also in Chinese).  Here's another article in Chinese from Taiwan that sticks to "Wuhan pneumonia" despite the pressure from WHO and the PRC government to adopt a name that is not transparent with regard to the origin of the disease.

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Preventive Care for Local Languages

February 21st is International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1999 and celebrated every year since, aimed at promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In honor of the day, the following is a guest post by Alissa Stern, the founder of BASAbali, an initiative of “linguists, anthropologists, students, and laypeople, from within and outside of Bali, who are collaborating to keep Balinese strong and sustainable.” BASAbali won a 2019 UNESCO Award for Literacy and a 2018 International Linguapax Award.

We’re told “Don’t wait” to treat our bodies, secure our homes, or maintain our cars. We should do the same for local languages.

Despite all the years of language revitalization, we are still losing about one language every two to three weeks.  In this century alone, the number of languages on the planet will be halved. A little preventive care would help.

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