Thursday, September 30, 2010

what recession?

Apparently there is no recession in the machine translation market. Systran just posted no fewer than 8 openings for computational linguists!!  See here for 7 here for 1-2 senior positions.

Too bad Systran (and every other MT company) gave up hiring real linguists after the dot com bubble burst. But alas, lots of NLPers should be happy. Work! Work! Work!

bastardizing a snowclone!

Andrew Sullivan used this as the title of a post recently: Palinites, Latinos, Tea Partiers, Women, Oh My!

I love the X, and Y, and Z, oh my! snowclone as much as the next guy, but the construction has to be respected. You can't just add a fourth member of the list all willy nilly! There are rules!!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


The newest National Research Council PhD program ranking are out. I'm not quite willing to dish out the $125 for my own personal copy. Anybody care to look to see if they ranked linguistics departments?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

in praise of William Yardley

To take Pullum's lead, I hereby praise William Yardley, NYT writer extraordinaire who actually performed a little linguistic fact checking. I think he deserves to be linked to as much as possible. Give him a little google-juice. Pullum's coverage here, Yardley's story here.

the death of writing!

This is pure wild speculation: I can imagine writing becoming obsolete within maybe 200 years. My logic is thus:

Writing as a technology has only been with us for a small time (6000 years or so, compared to the 100,000 years or so of homo sapien evolution (ohhh, let's not get into how to date homo sapiens)), and it has only been utilized by a large number of people for an even smaller time (maybe 200 years or so, before that most people were illiterate (probably still are)). Hence, writing is an unnecessary and cumbersome luxury we can happily live without should something better come along.

Now imagine that the computational linguists finally get off their lazy arses and give me a computer I can frikkin talk to and can talk back to me*. If I can talk to my computer like a human being, poof goes the keyboard, right? I give a 90% chance of having this as a viable alternative within 50 years**.

Once I'm unburdened of the clunky inefficiency of a keyboard, and once I can preserve and share ideas without a writing system (think bloggingheads), why oh why would I bother with the ridiculous tedium of representing my words in an altogether unnecessary form?

But, you say, writing provides the best way to preserve and share ideas*** because it lets us organize and review and get all meta. No. It does none of those things. We do that. We're just stuck with this third party representation in which to do those things.

But how would academics write papers and get tenure? Good question. First, tenure will die long before writing systems (I give it maybe 75 years). Second, imagine that instead of writing a paper, I can create a virtual me, encode it with a set of arguments about a topic then instead of reading my paper, you engage in a Socratic give-and-take with this virtual me on the topic. Call it iSocrates****

Thus endeth the prophesy.

*I want everything Kirk had. I got the cell phone. The Terrapins are working on a transporter, now give me a frikkin computer I can talk to!

**I just made those numbers up. People seem to like fake numbers, so okay, there you are.

***You didn't really say that. I made that up. This is what's known as a straw man argument. It makes this kind of bullshitting easier.

****Dear gawd that's a horrible name. Let's hope this whole iXXX trend goes the way of eXXX, eXtreme, XXXtech, XXXsoft, etc.

Monday, September 27, 2010

can language affect blood flow?

Do languages affect blood flow in the brain differently? Apparently, yes! In a recent fMRI study, researchers showed that Cantonese verbs and nouns are processed in (slightly) different parts of the brain than English nouns and verbs in bilinguals. The researchers used a lexical decision task to contrast the processing of English and Cantonese verbs and nouns in the brains of bilingual speakers.

Chinese nouns and verbs showed a largely overlapping pattern of cortical activity. In contrast, English verbs activated more brain regions compared to English nouns. Specifically, the processing of English verbs evoked stronger activities of left putamen, left fusiform gyrus, cerebellum, right cuneus, right middle occipital areas, and supplementary motor area. The cognition of English nouns did not evoke stronger activities in any cortical regions.

This is truly language affecting thought, no? The point of general interest to linguist is that bilingual speakers seem to process words in their two languages differently. Cantonese words are processed using diffuse brain regions and English words are processed using localized regions (this is a simplified explanation of course).

Now, I have to admit that this is not my specialty so I am not familiar with the background literature. However, as interesting as this is, I must say I have some serious questions about their methodology and underlying assumptions. I

First, they use orthography as their base for determining the "similarity" and "complexity" of languages. That is, if two languages use an alphabet, they are considered similar. While they give some passing references to other linguist measures, ultimately it is orthography that they use to compare "complexity" of stimuli (their word, not mine). So, they compared the mean number of strokes in a Chinese character with the number of letters in an English word to determine which was "more complex" than the other. I found this weird.

Then they made an assumption that Cantonese words are more ambiguous with respect to parts of speech. I do not klnow if this is true, but it certainly is true that English has plenty of POS ambiguity (just ask Eric Brill), so it's not obvious to me that this is a fair assumption. Furthermore, they provider no evidence for this. Unfortunately, they do not publish their actual sets of stimuli, so it's not possible (this morning while googling around) to look at which words they actually use, but I suspect there's plenty of ambiguity to be found in the English words.

Based on earlier work, they conjecture that morphological simplicity leads the brain to distribute where words are processed in the brain:

...a recent fMRI study examining monolingual Chinese adults in our own laboratory indicated that Chinese nouns and verbs activate a wide range of overlapping brain areas (without a significantly different network) than those reported in the English studies cited above (Li et al., 2004). Relatively fewer distinctive  grammatical features of nouns and verbs at the lexical level are likely to be responsible for this finding, but the question may be addressed more directly by employing bilingual individuals.

And the corollary should be true: the fact that English has tense and number markings means English verbs and nouns are processed ion more isolated parts of the brain. This is my wording of their conjecture. I may be oversimplifying just a bit, but I'm trying to wrap my head around the underlying claim. It's not clear to me why this would be true.

Next (and this may be a bit nit-picky), they judged the level of bilingual proficiency using a self-assessment questionnaire. Call me a cynic, but I just don't trust people's perceptions of their own language skills.

Then, the researches used frequency data from really dated sources including Francis and Kuceras 1982. I love F&K as much as the next guy, but in the age of the BNC, Davies's freely available 400 million word COCA, and the redonkulous Web 1T corpus of 1 trillion words (yes, 1 Trillion!), I see no reason to use resources so old.

Their basic conclusions are a tad confusing too. They never clearly explained the connection between bilingualism and morphological complexity, imho. The interplay is complicated and requires thorough discussion, which they simply did not provide. When I used to teach writing to college freshmen, I always told them that their job when writing a paper was to make my job as a reader easy. Explain things clearly so I don't have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. These authors failed to make my job easy. I had to figure things out too much for myself.

Ultimately, they found something interesting, I'm just not sure what it means and without more thorough linguistic vetting of their underlying assumptions, their results remain a head scratcher.

Chan, A., Luke, K.K., Li, G., Li, P., Weekes, B., Yip, V., & Tan, L.H. (2008). Neural correlates of nouns and verbs in early bilinguals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1145, 30–40. (pdf)
Chan, A., Luke, K., Li, P., Yip, V., Li, G., Weekes, B., & Tan, L. (2008). Neural Correlates of Nouns and Verbs in Early Bilinguals Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1145 (1), 30-40 DOI: 10.1196/annals.1416.000

Sunday, September 26, 2010

pullum bait

Jeremy Porter decided to adapt Strunk and White's infamous Elements of Style for Tweeting here. C'mon Geoffrey, you know you wanna respond..I dare ya...

Friday, September 24, 2010

More On Jelinek...

The NYT's obit on speech recognition and computational linguistics pioneer Frederick Jelinek includes some surprising facts about the man:  He was childhood buddies with Milos Foreman. How cool is that? It also includes the intriguing morsel that JFK helped get Jelinek's blacklisted screenplay writing wife out of Communist Czechoslovakia (if only indirectly).

(HT Mr. Verb)


Why are there three times as many male bloggers as female ones? Dave Munger runs the numbers:

In the aggregate, it seems clear that women are—whether actively or tacitly—discouraged from blogging about science. Aside from a few superstars like Skloot (who is in such demand that she’s been on a non-stop international book tour for the better part of a year), I’ve seen little evidence to convince me otherwise. Despite the fact that women are getting science PhDs in nearly the same numbers as men, they are blogging much less. I even looked at the average number of posts about peer-reviewed research they had done, and again, men outpaced women by nearly 50 percent, which means men may have written as many as 80 percent of the posts on Even more strikingly, women may be discouraged from pursuing academic careers at all—from 1999 to 2003, 32 percent of chemistry PhDs were women, but only 18 percent of applications to tenure-track positions came from women.

(HT Razib Khan).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

what wrong with citing a paper?

Hadas Shema, an Information Science PhD student, discusses some of the politics and problems with academic citations in The citation game. She got her facts from Bornmann, L., & Daniel, H. (2008). What do citation counts measure? A review of studies on citing behavior Journal of Documentation, 64 (1).

This one jumped out at me:

Journal-dependent factors: Getting published in a high-factor journal doesn't necessarily mean your paper is the best thing since sliced bread, but it means more people are likely to think so. Also, the first paper in a journal usually gets cited more often (I wonder if that's still relevant, given how wide-spread electronic access is these days) (emphasis added).

Lot's of crap has been published in major journals. And the corollary deserves to be mentioned: lots of good article ar published in minor journals and fail to get the respect or notice they deserve.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Through the Language Glass (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. This covers The Language Lens (129-249). Part 1 is here. This review will cover the scientific evidence that Deutscher reviews suggesting that language affects thought, and will end with a shocking proposal.

To sum up my review of part one: meh. Okay, we've established that culture can influence language. This is a lot less controversial than Deutscher makes it seem and he spent a large amount of text defending that position. Okay, whatever, time to move on. In part 2 he again begins with historical review explaining why he thinks Whorf was a con man, but also why he thinks the core insights of early linguist relativity deserve closer, honest investigation. He complains that based his Hopi claims on just one lonely informant (p142). We'll see later that Deutscher himself falls for the same trap. He replaces Whorf with the Boas-Jakobson principle that languages differ in what they must convey, not what they may convey” (151). I respect Deutscher for making this a central theme in his book because I think he's right. To parrot his own recitation of Humbolt: any thought can be expressed in any language. It is what our native language forces us to foreground that makes linguistic relativity an interesting topic.

Deutscher spends most of the second part of the book reviewing three areas of language that have provided evidence that language affects thought: spatial coordinates, grammatical gender, and color terms (familiar from part 1). The general point I want to make about his evidence is that it is far weaker than he maintains. But is is interesting. A brief set of reactions:

Spatial Coordinates -- everything is embodied
Most of his argumentation about the affect of spacial coordinate terms on thought stems from Levinson's evidence from speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr which is famous for giving us the word “kangaroo.” Speakers of GY do not generally use ego-centric terms like "right" and "left" but rather use cardinal direction terms like "east" and "west." As a result, Deutscher claims, they remember information about situations differently than speakers of English. They have, so the argument goes, a perfect pitch for direction and they are always attuned to where north is. Deutscher's claim is that only the linguistic repetition of such terms can possibly account for this. Hence, their language affects what they pay attention to and what they remember, hence language affects thought.

I've never found this line of research all that convincing regarding linguistic relativity and Deutscher does not really add much to the debate. Like Deutscher's complaint above regarding Whorf's one lonely Hopi speaker, it turns out there are not many native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr left and haven't been for a while. These experiments on directional language involve very few speakers, and most of them have both cardinal direction and ego-centric direction in their dialect. If we're going to complain about Whorf's restricted subject pool, we must complain about Levinson's too.

But more to the point, I believe all direction terms are ultimately ego-centric insofar as they are embodied. The terms "north" and "south" are not magically universal. They are based on a human being's body and orientation (i.e., ego-centric). Don't believe me, ask yourself, what does "north" mean in space? What does "north" mean to an amoeba? Mostly what Deutscher does in his discussions of direction terms is reiterate the point he belabored in Part 1: culture affects language. Yeah, we got that already.

The rise of similarity judgments
That is until he discusses the table experiments. These experiments show subjects tables with objects on them and ask them to arrange them in accordance with a target. Basically, they ask for similarity judgement. How can you make this table arrangement similar to the previous table. This methodological paradigm has become prominent in psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics, especially studies testing linguistic relativity. In fact, all of the studies Deutscher discusses are similarity judgment studies of one sort or another. The point is that I show you one target thing, then two test things and ask, which test is MORE SIMILAR to the target than the other? Ultimately Deutscher himself problematizes spatial coordinate terms so much, they fall flat and remain unconvincing as a base of evidence for linguistic relativity.

Grammatical Gender
Most languages have terms for classifying things. Some languages have more elaborate classifier systems than others. In German, the term for the fork is die Gabel, marked by feminine die. Ultimately, most languages with elaborate classifiers have systems that can be described as incoherent in so far as most things given one classification have no inherent properties that signify that classification (there is nothing inherently feminine about a fork). However, Deutscher provides evidence that speakers of languages with grammatical gender will evoke properties of things in keeping with their gender classifier, suggesting that the classifier is causing them to imagine a fork would speak with a female voice, for example. But these experiments mainly test vague associations of imagination, not linguistic causality, as Deutscher admits.

Color Terms
It is not until chapter 9 Russian Blues that Deutscher really delivers the goods. It is this chapter which provides the most interesting evidence for the effect of language on thought. Pity it is only about 15 pages of the book. The whole book should have been more like this. The facts he discusses involve the basic point that the brain sees what it wants to see. It turns out our perception of color has little to do with any objective feature of the thing we're looking at (he explains this fact brilliantly in the Appendix which I highly recommend, and frankly, should have been the first chapter, not relegated to the attic of an appendix). The point is that our brains change the input. As our eyes take in objective photons, our brain photoshops the input (a great analogy from Deutscher which really brings the point home).

The experimental results Deutscher discusses involve more similarity judgements, albeit with a twist. Instead of relying solely on the similarity judgments, researchers studied the more objective reaction time. They showed people different color patches and asked them to judge the sameness. Despite the various and clever variations on this theme, they all relied on subjective judgements of similarity. And this is where they fail to extricate themselves from the problem of strategizing.

Unfortunately they all share the critical flaw that making a similarity judgment is a logical reason act and may be mitigated by strategizing. Deutscher discusses this fact, but doesn't realize that none of the fixes work. A similarity judgment is always a logical process susceptible to the effects of strategizing. This will be a major issue in my Shocking Proposal at the end. You see, regardless of how clever the test, as long as you are basically asking a subject to make a similarity judgment, you are asking them to reason about the task. So your results will be tinged by the strategizing of human subjects as they logically try to game the system. This is well known in psycholinguistics and difficult to avoid. So how do you objectively test what colors a person considers blue?

A Shocking Proposal
The paradigm already exists. How can you objectively prove that English speakers really do consider aspirated /kh/ and unaspirated /k/ both the same phoneme? You condition them to fear aspirated /kh/ by shocking them every time they hear it (measuring their galvanic skin response). Once they are conditioned, you then play them unaspirated /k/ (with no shock) and check to see if you get the same GSR spike (in anticipation).

Okay, now apply this to color terms. Condition subjects to fear center of the category blue, then show them gradations. What causes the GSR spike? That's what they consider blue. now do that with speakers of 40 different languages.

If the hippies on the human subjects review board let you do it, there's your dissertation.
Guy Deutscher (2010). Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

will there be a speech therapy oscar?

The new movie The King's Speech has won the Toronto film festival's most popular film award. Winners of that award often go on to win big at the Oscars.

Interesting for us linguists because the movie "Tells the story of the man who became King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II. After his brother abdicates, George ('Bertie') reluctantly assumes the throne. Plagued by a dreaded stutter and considered unfit to be king, Bertie engages the help of an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Through a set of unexpected techniques, and as a result of an unlikely friendship, Bertie is able to find his voice and boldly lead the country into war" (from IMDB, emphasis added).

I don't know anything about Logue, but Caroline Bowen, a Speech-Language Pathologist, posted some good info here, including this bit about the actual "unexpected techniques":

The therapist diagnosed poor coordination between larynx and diaphragm, and asked him to spend an hour each day practising rigorous exercises. The duke came to his rooms, stood by an open window and loudly intoned each vowel for fifteen seconds. Logue restored his confidence by relaxing the tension which caused muscle spasms. The duke's stammer diminished to occasional hesitations. Resonantly and without stuttering, he opened the Australian parliament in Canberra in 1927.

Using tongue twisters, Logue helped the duke rehearse for major speeches and coached him for the formal language of his coronation in 1937 (emphasis added).

Bowen says that the King managed to speak in a slow, measured pace. You can download a 1 minute sound file of King George VI's broadcast on the day Britain declared war on Nazi Germany here. You'll note that he does indeed speak very slowly.

Bowen, C. (2002). Lionel Logue: Pioneer speech therapist.  Retrieved from on (9/21/2010).

In Defense of Hauser

The Harvard Crimson has published an Op Ed, Who Will Speak for Hauser?, by two of Marc Hauser's colleagues who defend him against what they see as "irresponsible and inaccurate" journalism and they insinuate that several prominent scholars have engaged in a smear campaign (my word, not theirs) against Hauser because they disagree with his results. These are serious accusations and my reaction is that this Op Ed is also irresponsible and potentially inaccurate (about the motivations of the other prominent scholars). 

But this is due in no small part to Hauser's own silence. Harvard needs to release its findings and Hauser needs to have a press conference.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Through the Language Glass delay

Just fyi, I promised part 2 of my Through the Language Glass review today. I have finished the book and have much to say. Too much. My review is about 50% complete but needs work. In the least, I need to add discussion of categorical perception, color terms, and galvanic skin response. I have a brilliant! shocking proposal to add. Should be done by Wednesday morning.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

RIP: Fred Jelinek

A nice eulogy by Hal Daume here.

UPDATE: Here is a PDF of Jelinek's ACL Lifetime Achievement Award speech: The Dawn of Statistical ASR and MT. Money quote:

Research in both ASR and MT continues. The statistical approach is clearly dominant. The knowledge of linguists is added wherever it fits. And although we have made significant progress, we are very far from solving the problems. That is a good thing: We can continue accepting new students into our field without any worry that they will have to search, in the middle of their careers, for new fields of action.

X will Y here

Lauren pointed me to a new slogan for the Pittsburgh Penguins "Amazing Will Strike Here" and it turns out its a part of a set of slogans:

These are all plays on the construction X will Y here.

I don't like any of them, in the sense that they don't seem inspiring, but rather clunky and awkward...then again I am a Sabres fan...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

EFL in Na'vi

Well, I finally watched Avatar. Dear gawd that was an awful movie. No one ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of American movie goers. Oh well.

I posted a bit about the creation of the Na'vi language here, but when I watched the movie, there was one glaring linguistic issue that seems to have gone entirely unnoticed: English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Na'vi. According to the story, some of the Na'vi attended a school at some point where they were taught English, so we get to hear them speak not only Na'vi, which everyone loves to talk about, but also English, which everyone missed as an interesting lingo-topic (as far as I can tell).

My point is that they're remarkably good at nuanced English constructions, except when the writers decided they had to throw in an EFL error to make it look more realistic, and they didn't do a good job of thinking about what Na'vi EFL errors might look like. I suspect they did not consult Frommer on this question.

Here's the first English we get to hear from the first two Na'vi characters to speak English on screen, transcribed as faithfully as possible by yours truly, and not including the intervening dialogue of Jake Sully.

  • Don't thank. You don't thank for this. This is sad. Very sad only.
  • All this is your fault. They did not need to die.
  • Your fault. Your fault. You're like a baby. Making noise. Don't know what to do.
  • Why save you?
  • You have a strong heart. No fear. But stupid. Ignorant like a child.
  • Sky people can not learn. They do not see.
  • No one can teach you to see.
  • You're like a baby.
  • You should not be here.
  • No. Go back.
  • Go back.
  • Seeds of the sacred tree. Very pure spirits.
  • Come. Come.
  • My father is deciding whether to kill you.
  • That is mother. She is Tsahik. The one who interprets the will of Ewah.

Mo'at (mother of Neytiri)
  • What are you called?
  • Why did you come to us?
  • We have tried to teach other sky people.
  • It is hard to fill a cup which is already full.
  • What are you?
  • It is decided. My daughter will teach you our ways. Learn well Jake Sully. Then we'll see if your insanity can be cured.
Based solely on the written form of the speech examples we have above, I think it can be said that these two Na'vi speakers speak pretty good English (they played up accents heavily in the movie to try to disguise this so I want to focus on the written speech). What's most striking is how good they are at some things that non-native speakers, especially those who have had as little exposure to English as presumably the Na'vi must have had given the movie's plot. Now, the sentence structure alone isn't going to be critiqued because, in the context of the dialogue, something like "ignorant like a child" sounded natural and acceptable.

What they're good at that I would have expected them to have problems with:
  • Contractions: They both fluently use you're, don't, and we'll.
  • Quantifiers: all this and no one.
  • Subjectless Imperatives: Go back, Come, Learn well Jake Sully.
  • Degree Modifying Adjectives: Very pure spirits.
  • Progressive Aspect: My father is deciding whether to kill you.
  • Multiple Subordinations: Then [we'll see if [your insanity can be cured]]
  • Embedded Modals: Then we'll see if your insanity can be cured. This is a very difficult thing for virtually all EFL students.
  • Hypotheticals: Then we'll see if your insanity can be cured, My father is deciding whether to kill you.
  • Use of which: It is hard to fill a cup which is already full. This one confuses even native speakers of English.
  • Dummy it-Subject: It is decided
Nonetheless, even with this impressive fluency, they managed to pepper in some errors. My hunch is that the writers threw these in to make them look like non-native speakers but they spent much less time thinking about the nature of how the Na'vi should speak English than they did about how they should speak Na'vi:

  • Omitted Determiner: That is mother.
  • Adverb Placement: Very sad only (this is the best example of a clear EFL-style error in the passages above, probably in the whole movie. Yeah, adverbs are tough.)
  • Awkward Construction Choice: What are you called? This is first day English class: Q: What is you name? A. My name is Bruno.
Some constructions are ambiguous:
  • Copula: It is decided. This is a semantically difficult stative copula where the state is expressed by a past-tense verb (i.e., it is in the state of having been decided) which is acceptable in English, but is likely to be used only by highly fluent speakers. If this is an erroneous form of It has been decided, did some part of Na'vi grammar cause such an error?
  • Failed Contractions: They did not need to die, Sky people can not learnYou should not be here. While I lauded their fluent use of contractions above, they're rather inconsistent. Again, it's like the writers wanted to throw in a "can not" here and there just to make it sound less fluent.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Through the Language Glass (Part 1)

The publisher Henry Holt and Company was kind enough to send me a review copy of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages which bills itself as "demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial" but which also goes beyond that and purports to demonstrate that language affects thought, if only via habits of mind.

This is part one of a two part review. I expect to post Part 2 next Monday, Sept. 20th. My division into two reviews follows the book's own division:
  • Part 1: The Language Mirror (pages 1-126)
  • Part 2: The Language Lens (129-249)
Part 1: The Language Mirror

Saturday, September 11, 2010

habits of mind

A high school math teacher helps us all understand critical thinking. Personal fav: Looks at statements that are generally false to see when they are true.

(via kottke)

Friday, September 10, 2010

favre syntax

ESPN just used the following playful phrase:

The best is Brett to come.

Language like this is hard to critiqe, but I felt his made more sense:

The Brett is best to come.

The ESPN version maintains greater fidelity to the original syntax while mine maintains greater fidelity to the original semantics.

FYI: as far as I can tell, there is no backslash on my droid keyboard options. Hence, no html. Frik!
UPDATE: I used my home computer to add italics.

syncing vs. synching

The commenters over at Liberman's post Apico-labials in English all clearly prefer the spelling syncing, but I find it just weird looking and find synching more betterer.

Google does little to resolve the issue:
  • syncing = 3,840,000 hits
  • synching = 3,830,000 hits
However, it's worth noting that that Google's spell check red-underlines synching (and also that their hit counts suck).

Over at COHA, the issue is more clear:

What the graph says is that while historically syncing has been the preferred spelling, synching has taken a sudden and dramastical lead. In other words, I'm winning. Damn right.

COHA charts (same data as above)


If your teacher corrected graffiti

(image from this blog)

(HT matthiasrascher)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

woulda coulda shoulda with cigarettes and booze

David Crystal recently debunked the claim by a Mad Men cast member that There was no ‘gonna’ or ‘shoulda’ back then [in the 1960's] by citing examples going back as far as 1602.

I decided to plug in four relevant strings* into COHA and see what's what:

nada. zip. zilch. bupkiss.




With the exception of gonna, they show the same pattern of a rise in frequency throughout the 20th Century, and all were in use in the 1960s for sure. Now I suspect this rise in frequency has more to do with editing than language use. I suspect it has gradually become more and more acceptable to print these forms in publications. The mystery remains why gonna did not come along for the ride.

*note that I literally mean strings, not words. There are potentially other spellings of these forms.

Ivan added themselves

I just subscribed to which advertises itself as Facebook for academics.

First of all, there already is a Facebook for's called Facebook.

Second, can't they at least learn from Facebook's example? They're having the same issue with singular/plural they:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

get it?!

And the award for cleverest title for a linguistic relativity article goes to...

Bluer Rather Than Pinker

70% of this claim is bullshit

On average, 70 per cent of our total verbal experience is in our head," estimates Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University in California.

This is an incoherent claim, we'll see why in a second.

I ran across this quote in the latest article on linguistic relativism, What's in a name? The words behind thought by David Robson, which surveys a variety of experimental results showing top-down processes where language has some effect on mental behaviors. The article chooses not to balance this with experimental evidence showing bottom-up processing effects, but yes, there are those too.

It's a typical lightweight article that only gives you snippets on one side of a complex issue and tries to make complex things look so obvious and easy only a dummy would think otherwise. It's Fox News for linguists. It's designed to make readers say, "well, of course, that's obvious" without critically engaging in the truly interesting complexities of cognitive processes. So, back to Boroditsky's claim (I've mentioned her so much recently, I can now type her name correctly on the first try almost every time). Let me ask a simple question:
  • In what way could it be possible that anything less than 100% of our total verbal experience is in our head?
Give me an example of just one verbal experience that is NOT in our head (I will accept getting hit over the head with a dictionary, if only for pure slapstick value). Also, calling "70 per cent of our total verbal experience" an average requires a funky meaning of "our total verbal experience."

Monday, September 6, 2010

what is a "pair"

I started a new photo project this weekend involving the idea of pairs of things when I walked by the example above of two crossed pieces of tape. I immediately dismissed it as not an example of a pair of things and walked on, then stopped and thought, wait a second, why isn't that a pair?

To me, there's something about the fact of crossing that blocks this as being a pair of tapes. However, the phrase a pair of scissors is just fine and that involves two crossed things and a pair of pants is fine and that involves two things sewn together. However, in those two cases, I don't really decompose the constituent semantically. I treat it as a whole. It's simply a historical coincidence to me that we use the word pair. I don't really think of scissors and pants as a true pair of things.

Now, the nuts and bolts below, those are clearly pairs to me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

past tense

There is a place that looked like a dance studio to me in the mt. pleasant neighborhood of dc named "past tense" and the play on meanings escaped me until i learned it is actually a yoga studio. Ahhhhhh...

UPDATE: I added the photo 09/09/10.

street art grammar

Found this street art at the corner of Madison Dr. and 7th. NW DC (the Smithsonian sculpture garden). Quick question: why is AINT quoted? Is this the artist name (note the lack of an apostrophe, suggesting this is not ain't).

Saturday, September 4, 2010

the original Whorf

Guy Deutcher's NYT's article on how language affects thought continues to get buzz, as surely his book Through The Language Glass will when people read it (it was just released 3 days ago and is currently #234 on Amazon's book rank). One common reaction amongst bloggers is that Deutscher gives Whorf himself unfairly harsh treatment, and ultimately mis-represents Whorf's own opinions.

For example, Kathryn Woolard, SLA President, says "Whorf’s own statements of his theory look little like the caricature that opens the NYT article and much more like the position that Deutscher himself offers as reasonable and compelling. Far from holding that “the inventory of ready-made words” in a language “forbids” speakers to think specific thoughts, Whorf argued that patterns of grammatical structures, often the most covert ones at that, give rise not to a language prison but to a “provisional analysis of reality” and habits of mind, very much as Deutscher concludes."

Mark Liberman says "And in fairness to Whorf, he mostly ... suggested that linguistic differences would have exactly the sorts of minor biasing effects on perception and memory that Boroditsky and others have found."

Greg Downey says "The one thing that turns me off to Duetscher’s writings is his pretty harsh bashing of Benjamin Whorf, who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting anthropological linguists."

However, we don't need to rely on these secondary sources to stand up for Whorf, we can read one of Whorf's original papers that started this kerfluffel (60 years ago): Science and Linguistics (pdf). Happily for the lay reader, that paper is neither very science-ee nor linguistic-ee, nor is it very long. It's actually quite readable. It's basically a series of thought experiments and casual language facts. If you can read Deutescher's article, you can read Whorf's.

So let's take a look at what Whorf said in his own words.

Friday, September 3, 2010

debunking chomsky's poverty of the stimulus

Melody, a researcher in cognitive science at Stanford, has posted a detailed discussion of the problems with Chomsky's famed povery of the stimulus argument from the perspective of the last 40 years of computational learning models. Hindsight is always 20-20 right?

Money quote:

....there are at least two goals of modeling in cognitive science : 1) to discover the best computational method of accounting for a given phenomena, 2) to discover the best account that is also psychologically plausible. The goal has never been to rule out a whole class of models on the basis of one ill-starred example.  Because — quite frankly — models don’t deal in ‘logical possibilities.’  They are not mathematical or logical proofs.  Step 3 in Miller and Chomsky’s paper is a pseudo-scientific non sequitur.

The whole post is well worth reading.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What actually affects thought?

Guy Deutscher's recent NYT article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? is getting  a lot of buzz on Twitter and blogs. I already posted a review of some linguistic relativity research here, and Mark Liberman has promised to discuss Deutscher's article at length and Greg Downey has posted a thoughtful review as well, so I don't want to milk this too much, but I just read the article and have a few comments worth airing.

First, when I started becoming a linguist over ten years ago, I was not a fan of linguistic relativity,

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Virtual Linguistics Campus

Via Twitter, I just discovered the University of Marburg's The Virtual Linguistics Campus, a set of online courses covering a wide range of linguistics topics. Basically, a degree in linguistics online, roughly. The costs appear to be quite low too. A 50€ registration fee per term and 30€ per class. You could take 20 classes over 2 years for about 800€. Not bad.

I object to their categorizing psycholinguistics as "Applied Linguistics" but they have a nice set of Language Technology courses and surprisingly, a Project Management course (though it's not clear if it's specific to linguistics projects, though that would be a great class to offer).

the largest whorfian study EVER! (and why it matters)

Let me take the ball Mark Liberman threw on Monday and run with it a bit. Liberman posted a thorough discussion of Fausey and Broditsky's neo-Whorfian English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently. Specifically, he invited readers to carefully examine the methodology of the experiments themselves, and not just focus on the conclusions. It turns out that a few years ago another set of neo-Whorfians, Jürgen Bohnemeyer and company, published a paper that addressed similar methodological concerns:

Ways to go: Methodological considerations in Whorfian studies on motion events. (With S. Eisenbeiss and B. Narasimhan) Colchester: University of Essex, Department of Language and Linguistics (Essex Research Reports in Linguistics 50: 1-19). 2006.

This paper addressed experiments involving motion events like rolling and falling whereas Fausey and Broditsky's work addressed agentivity like breaking and popping, but there's enough overlap to warrant some comparison, particularly since the Bohnemeyer et al. paper specifically addresses methodology wrt Whorfian experiments.

But before I get into the details, let me state clearly why I think this is important. In other posts, I have dismissed popular lingo-topics like language evolution as outside the mainstream of linguistics because they don't bear directly on what I consider to be the center of the linguistics universe: How the brain does language. But linguistic relativity (aka, The Whorfian hypothesis) is one of the great questions of linguistics and cognitive science precisely because it bears directly on the question of how the brain does language. And we're only just now developing the proper tools and methodologies to study the question with scientific rigor. It may turn out that language does not affect other cognitive processes or the effect is minor. I don't care. I just want to know one way or the other. And it's work like Bohnemeyer's and Broditsky's that will lead us to knowing, eventually.

Now the fun stuff.

NLPers: How would you characterize your linguistics background?

That was the poll question my hero Professor Emily Bender posed on Twitter March 30th. 573 tweets later, a truly epic thread had been cre...