Archive for August, 2021

More "I don't know"

We're following up on "Dinosaur Intonation" (8/28/2021) and "Hummed 'I don't know'" (8/29/2021). And today's installment starts with a distinction. There are two largely separate issues:

  1. Intonational choices (for performances of "I don't know" or any other phrase).
  2. Various types of articulatory reduction or replacement,
    from crisp hyper-articulated performances,
    through progressively slurred versions,
    to hums, grunts, or even whistled or instrumental imitations.

Homer Simpson's version, from this YouTube clip, lenites the consonants pretty much to extinction, and reduces the second ("don't") vowel as well, going beyond Michael Watt's comment about a friend who spelled it "iono":

[The numbers in black are f0 estimates in Hertz (cycles per second)]

But today we're going to focus on the intonational choices, rather than the words-to-hum continuum. And the method will be socratic — we'll give examples, and ask questions. The answers will emerge in later installments, or perhaps in the comments.

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I'm (like)

Yesterday, I had a ride with a young man (age 23) from East Liverpool, Ohio to Irwin, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 70 miles, so we had the opportunity for a good talk.  He is a tow truck operator by trade, but was also acting as a taxi driver to earn some extra income.

We had a nice, free-flowing conversation covering all sorts of interesting topics:  his work as a tow truck driver, the ceramics industry in that Tri-State (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) corner of the world, his 12-year-old niece winning the first demolition derby of her life and getting a 6-foot-high trophy plus a prize of $1,200 at the Hookstown County Fair, and much else besides.

Fairly early in our conversation, I noticed an unusual feature of the young man's speech, the prevalence of the word "I'm" at the beginning of sentences.

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Hummed "I don't know"

Following up on yesterday's "Dinosaur Intonation" post, here's Ryan North performing four repetitions of the contour featured in his comic:

His comment: "I fear I may have over estimated how universal it is but it's common here in Southern Ontario and I've never encountered anyone in my travels who didn't recognize it, or at least who couldn't figure it out from context and then asked me about it. I'm really curious to see the results of this survey!"

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Dinosaur intonation

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The pragmatics of nyms, hyper- and hypo-

When I saw this sign in a local state park yesterday, it reminded me of the recent discussions about "Pregnant people" and "People with erectile dysfunction".

In the background of the sociocultural issues about inclusive or exclusive language, there's a general problem about choosing terminological levels in taxonomic hierarchies. Having just spent a couple of hours swatting at mosquitoes and gnats, I wondered whether this sign's assertion that "It is unlawful to chase or disturb wild birds or animals" might put me at risk of legal penalties.

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Martin Kay, 1935-2021

I learned about Martin Kay's recent passing from a brief obit on the ACL's web site — Tim Baldwin, "Vale Martin Kay":

It is with a profound sense of loss that, on behalf of the ACL Exec, I announce the passing of Martin Kay on August 7, 2021.

Martin was a pioneer and visionary of computational linguistics, in the truest sense of those terms. He made seminal contributions to the field in areas including parsing, unification grammars, finite state methods, and machine translation.

Martin was educated at the University of Cambridge, before moving to the USA and working at Rand Corporation from 1961 to 1972. He was Chair of the Department of Computer Science at University of California Irvine from 1972 to 1974, before moving to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In 1985, he took up a position as Professor at Stanford University, and split his time between Xerox PARC and Stanford until 2002.

Martin was awarded the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and was Chair of the International Committee for Computational Linguistics from 1984 to 2016. But perhaps equally for those who had the good fortune of knowing him personally or attending an event that he spoke at, he was a warm, generous, extraordinarily funny, disarmingly down-to-earth man whose loss is felt keenly.

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The many sights and sounds of "Buchanan"

When I checked into a hotel on the east side of Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon, the manager told me he was from "Buckanen", West Virginia.  I just assumed that he was using some local variant of "Buchanan", and it sounded very unusual to me, since the only pronunciation of "Buchanan" I've ever heard is /bjuːˈkænən/.  When I started poking around and looking into the matter, however, it turns out to be not  at all that simple.

Unsurprisingly, the first person surnamed Buchanan I came across on the www was James Buchanan, Jr. (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) , who served as the 15th president of the United States, from 1857 to 1861.  According to Wikipedia, his surname is pronounced /bʌˈkænən/ buh-CAN-nən.

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Creating scientific terminology for African languages

Article in Nature

"African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms:  Many words common to science have never been written in African languages. Now, researchers from across Africa are changing that", Sarah Wild, Nature 596, 469-470 (August 18, 2021)


Here are some selected passages:

There’s no original isiZulu word for dinosaur. Germs are called amagciwane, but there are no separate words for viruses or bacteria. A quark is ikhwakhi (pronounced kwa-ki); there is no term for red shift. And researchers and science communicators using the language, which is spoken by more than 14 million people in southern Africa, struggle to agree on words for evolution.

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Reinterpretation of Xianbei qifen ("grass") and its reflection in Mongolic

[This is a guest post by Penglin Wang]

The Chinese transcription of foreign words has made a unique and valuable contribution to our understanding of linguistic situations in early Inner Asia, but it was sometimes inevitably fraught with logographic confusion and scribal errors. Even given quite advanced word-processing and printing in modern times, one can hardly prevent miswriting or misspelling from happening. In ancient China, presumably, it was historians and other authors who heard foreign words spoken and jotted them down, and then further changes developed through the involvement of scribes, typographers, and printers, with each possibly committing their own miswritings and infelicities. It is therefore necessary to reinterpret certain transcriptions on the basis of the known philological and linguistic relevance of what came to be written down.

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Ask Language Log: "rained out"?

A question from V.R.:

I was just having a conversation with a friend, and mentioned that it had "rained out last night." Do you happen to know if that use of "rained out" (as opposed to a baseball game being rained out) a Midwesternism?

I don't know — but maybe LLOG commenters will.

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Live life to drugs

Geoff Wade picked this up from Twitter, but you can find similar signs on Reddit,, and any number of other sites.  Who knows where it began, but it seems to have become a standard meme translation of the Chinese slogan.

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"People with erectile dysfunction"

Following up on yesterday's "Pregnant People" post, I thought I'd look at terminological developments for a condition associated with male as opposed to female birth sex and anatomy.

The first thing to note is that current discussions of erectile dysfunction use both "men" and "people", sometimes in the same article — thus Richard Fogoros, "Is Viagra (Sildenafil) Safe for Men With Heart Disease?", verywell health 12/10/2020:

Viagra (sildenafil) has been life-changing for many people with erectile dysfunction (ED), making it possible to have a robust and satisfying sex life. However, this drug and others belonging to a class of medications called phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors (PDE5 inhibitors), may not be safe for people with certain types of heart disease.

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Vulgar village vernacular

This Chinese article is about a man who has made a living by painting slogans and ads on village walls for thirty years. Some of the slogans are rather bizarre, as may be seen by looking at the many photographs in the article.

The article says it is such a well-paying job that the man was able to buy 6 apartments in his hometown with his earnings. Painting on walls is one of the major ways to advertise or propagate goods and ideas in the countryside.

There are many examples of such signs in the article, but I couldn't understand all of them upon first glance, so I wondered if the country folk would be able to read the signs. I asked a number of my graduate students from China, and they all said, yes, the country folk not only would be able to read them, but would enjoy them and would be motivated to buy the products and services promoted by the signs.

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