For those who like and use language

60 notes &

I’ve never heard the term ‘rainbow rice’ before, but as soon as I saw it in this context I knew what it was referring to. As far as I can tell the Chinese characters below it also say rainbow, but I’m not sure what the rest is. Living in Singapore, with a number of rice-focused cuisines, it seems like a perfectly sensible name.
In my Australian English childhood, we referred to these colourful decorations as ‘hundreds and thousands’, we also had ‘sprinkles’ but my intuition is that they are the smaller, hard spherical kind. Perhaps you could challenge me on that. I’m sure there are other words for them in your variety of English!

I’ve never heard the term ‘rainbow rice’ before, but as soon as I saw it in this context I knew what it was referring to. As far as I can tell the Chinese characters below it also say rainbow, but I’m not sure what the rest is. Living in Singapore, with a number of rice-focused cuisines, it seems like a perfectly sensible name.

In my Australian English childhood, we referred to these colourful decorations as ‘hundreds and thousands’, we also had ‘sprinkles’ but my intuition is that they are the smaller, hard spherical kind. Perhaps you could challenge me on that. I’m sure there are other words for them in your variety of English!

58 notes &

This vid is a couple of years old, but it hit the front page of Reddit this week and came to our attention. We love the infectious enthusiasm that this guy has for new languages and his love of connecting with people across the globe as they support each other’s language learning.

The comment thread on Reddit is interesting - quite a few people ask what criteria need to be met to earn the label ‘polyglot’ (which simply means "many tongues" or "many languages").

A polyglot is generally described as someone who has the ability to gain mastery or fluency several languages. It is a contested concept though. This forum of self-identifying polyglots (and aspiring polyglots) discusses their various criteria for achieving polyglot status. Michael Erard’s Babel No More looks at hyperglots who push the limits of what we know about the human ability to learn multiple languages.

This young person is clear in saying he is a learner in many of the 20 languages he presents in the video, and doesn’t make claims to fluency or proficiency in all of them.

So does that make this person a polyglot?

Language proficiency is a contested area and it’s tough to find consistency in how organisations or theorists classify it.

Proficiency is hard to measure - for example people might know lots of words, but use bad grammar, or be able to listen and understand most things but have poor speaking skills (such as children of migrants). Or someone may be very fluent in an office environment, but doesn’t have the vocabulary to talk about sport.

One framework for assessing competency is the Common European Framework of Reference of Languages. Its six reference levels are becoming widely accepted as the European standard for grading an individual’s language proficiency. CEFR levels can be compared to other common tests of proficiency across the globe (see this set of comparisons).

Ideas of linguistic competence and communicative competence have been tossed around for quite some time, by some of the big thinkers in linguistics and language acquisition - think Noam Chomsky and Dell Hymes. You can find more here on that.

So while we continue to debate the standards and definitions of polyglotism, let’s take a moment to applaud this young person’s energy, enthusiasm and commitment to language learning. We think he’s making the world a better place.

11 notes &

Nepal twice in a year!

I’ll be in Nepal for the next 7 or so weeks, returning to Ramechhap to record more stories, and taking some more mobile phones to continue trialing Aikuma. I’m really excited to be going back again so soon, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my adventures, and hopefully some more songs, when I’m back.

While I’m away I’ve lined up a bunch of weekly posts about the language fun-times I’ve been having here in Singapore, and Georgia will around when her day job permits. If that’s not enough reading for you, remember there’s always our archive, the list of blogs we recommend on our home page side bar, and the #tumblinguistics hashtag with enough reading to delight and entertain for hours!

17 notes &

A couple of weeks ago I ran a workshop at NTU on the basics of using ELAN, a handy program for creating time-aligned transcriptions of audio and video. I decided to try the screen capture function in QuickTime to record the presentation. If you’re interested in getting used to the basic settings and screens, and you can cope with listening to me talk you through it for an hour and twenty minutes I hope you’ll find it useful!

This workshop will introduce you to the features of ELAN. ELAN is a program that allows you to create time-aligned transcriptions of audio and video recordings. These transcriptions can then be further enriched through other programs such as Toolbox or FLeX, and can be used to create printed transcripts or subtitles. In this workshop we will work through setting up templates for a variety of transcription types, creating a basic transcription and some handy hints and shortcuts.

Using screen capture was a good learning experience for me - I’ll be sure to record any future workshops I run to share with you! Sorry if the video is a bit grainy, but it was a longer video than any I’ve made before.

114 notes &

Royal Babbies

[In deference to the fact that this post is coming out just after the Scottish Independence referendum, I might be talking about the UK royals, but I’ll use the more Northern variety of babby for baby]

I’m not personally that invested in the British royal family, but as long as Australia still uses their Head of State as our own, I suppose I have a vested interest in their progeny. They’ll end up on our coins after all. Although I’m not interested in the offspring of strangers, I am always interested in names, and naming conventions. As Laura Wattenberg at BabyNameWizard points out, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have astonishingly dull taste for traditional names - which is part of their general normcore appeal. 

This is really a missed opportunity.

There are some most excellent Anglo-Saxon names - many from royalty - just waiting for a return to fashinability. Admittedly, many of them predate the current ruling family, but they are all very satisfying to say, and will mean we can bring back graphemes like ash and eth. Last time around I suggested Æthelstan, but that was after they’d had the kid.This time, here is a list of excellent old Anglo-Saxon names that the Cambridges can mull over at their leisure.


  • Eadred
  • Eadwig (although perhaps ‘blessed war’ isn’t really what we want)
  • Sweyn
  • Cnut
  • Æthelwulf ( I mean, this name means ‘noble wolf’ - how cool is that!)


If these aren’t enough for you, here is a list of hundreds of names and their meanings.

188 notes &

Larry Trask on descriptivism



Non-linguists often accuse linguists of maintaining that “any sort of language is equally good”, particularly when we decline to join them in their passionate campaigns against whatever it is that has irked them. But this is misguided. Individual linguists have their own ideas about what constitutes good or appropriate usage in English, just like anybody else — except that the linguists’ views are usually far better informed than other people’s. But there is a big difference between expressing opinions and finding out what the facts are, and it is finding the facts that is the primary task of a linguist. Nobody would attack a botanist merely because that botanist was interested in finding out what plants are like, instead of creating beautiful gardens.

R.L. Trask, Introducing Linguistics (2000)

A nice botany analogy to add to the cat show analogy, the geology and biology analogies, the car analogy, and the brain surgeon analogy. 

This post reminded me of the analogy I often use when trying to explain what a linguist does, and how it’s different to the role of language learning. I often use a sports broadcaster analogy.

Using my knowledge of linguistics and observation I can describe phenomena that I can’t necessarily perform myself. Just like Eddie McGuire talking about a spectacular mark (for Aussie rules football fans), or a basketball commentator describing what went wrong on the way to a layup, I can tell you about complex grammatical phenomena that I might not be able to produce in Kagate and Yolmo. I know the rules, and the type of linguistic analysis I’m interested in is how each player in the game uses these rule (which is why I like this analogy over others).

Georgia and I were talking about this, and she said that there’s a problem with this, in that there’s a belief in some areas of broadcasting that you need to have played competitive sport to be able to talk about it - it’s the argument most often brought forth when women are denigrated when commentating men’s sport. There is analogy between this and theories of language description. Some linguists argue that in order to best describe the phenomena you are talking about you should be able to speak the language - you should know what it feels like to have skin in the game. Dan Everett advocates for fieldwork to be done entirely monolingually - check out this video demonstrate from last year’s LSA Lingstitute.

37 notes &

Of froffies and fricatives

As the weather warms up here in the southern hemisphere, moving us towards the summery days Australia is known for, we have noticed an aligned increase in the use of the word “froffies”.

Urban dictionary confirms that the definition of froffies is beer, or any other alcoholic beverage:

Tom: Derek you hitting the froffies this weekend?
Derek: Sure am buddy.
We reckon this word is pretty endearing. It is a very typical Australian English slang word involving some of our favourite features like shortening (just like grundies).
It also plays with the tricky pronunciation of the word “froth”, which challenges us with two fricative sounds in close succession. It’s a difficult word to say.
The ‘f’ requires the lips and teeth to come together and push air through a narrow channel as a ‘voicless labiodental fricative’ sound, then we have to quickly move to make the ‘r’ sound straight after. And we quickly finish the word by pushing our tongue forward against the alveolar ridge behind the teeth, to make the ‘th’ sound (a voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative).
It’s a kind of linguistic calisthenics (which BTW is a word with its own phonetic traps, with that ‘s’ and ‘th’ in quick succession). It’s understandable that the final sound in ‘froth’ would assimilate to the word-initial ‘f’. 
Hence, froffies. 

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Minus 18 is an Australian youth-led organisation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* young people. They do a huge amount of work to support and raise the voices of young people, and they recently launched a resource that educates us about the importance of pronoun choice for trans and gender diverse people.

As well as this ace video, Minus 18 have developed the Pronoun App so we can learn more about pronoun preferences and how to best navigate the related conversations.

As the pronoun resource says, “There are lots of reasons it’s important to use the correct pronouns a person prefers, but the simple answer is it can make a person feel pretty shit when you use the wrong ones.”

Find more here at Minus 18’s website.

6 notes &

AUSTRALEX 2013 Proceedings now available!

I had a great time at the Australex conference last year, and it’s exciting that  proceedings are now available as open access download from the conference website (via link above).

There are lots of great papers here, and the nice thing about lexicography is that the ideas and stories behind peoples’ work are often quite accessible even if you don’t work in this area (which is probably why I enjoyed the conference so much).

Particularly interesting is the work by Rob Amery & Mary-Anne Gale tracing the work of the missionary linguists who came over from Germany over 175 years ago and provided documentation of the Indigenous languages of the South Australia area. I also partcularly like David Nash’s paper, which suggests that the modern scientific naming conventions are a great way to incorporate endangered words into a new domain of knowledge.

As a dictionary dabbler, I feel very lucky to have a paper in this collection as well. In it I discuss the workflow and social experience of the lexicography work I’ve done with the Yolmo and Kagate communities to date. It is rather chatty as far as my academic writing is concerned, so if you’re at all interested in the type of work a field linguist occasionally finds herself doing you can read all about it.

Thanks to Jasmin Morley. Julia Miller and Ghil‘ad Zuckermann for their work on the volume, and the conference, and thanks to the University of Adelaide for hosting the proceedings online and making them open and easily accessible!

33 notes &

Fall over vs Have a fall

None of us are getting any younger, but sometimes the semantics of getting older creep up on you without noticing. I was chatting to my mum (hi mum!) the other night about a friend’s mother who had tripped over and fell the other day, leaving a spectacular bruise. “Just don’t tell anyone she had a fall” my mum said, “she’s not even 60, she’s too young to have a fall.”

So, falling over is something that younger active people, do - they just didn’t notice some environmental hazard, were distracted, and normally are adequately mobile. On the other hand, having a fall is something that happens to older people, a politeness that implies that their body somehow failed to keep itself upright. ‘A fall’ being an event, also signifies that it is some kind of milestone, and indeed it can sometimes be the start of ongoing issues for some older people. I feel like this may be a UK phrasing - perhaps because the first two links when I googled the phrase are to UK health sites. Looking at an N-gram for the two phrases in the UK (well, GB) and US corpora, GB does have more tokens of “have a fall” but not by a whole lot more.

The conversation with my mother reminded me of a couple of years ago, when my grandmother fell. She didn’t really have a fallbecause she fell off a ladder while cleaning gutters - quite what an 80 year old women was doing mucking out leaves we’ll never know, but even spinal fractures haven’t stopped her since. It was far to active an accident to warrant it being a fall. Looking at my personal corpus (ie my gmail account), I did consistently refer to it as “fell over”, so I’m glad my current intuitions are supported by the data.

My nan is fine now - but I’ve become more sensitive to the language used about the action of those older and younger than me. I’m sure there are lots of other examples, younger people are focused or driven while older people are stubborn, younger people know what they like, while older people are stuck in their ways. I’m sure my mum will start pointing out others when I inadvertently start using them to refer to her!