COLING 2014 is the 25th International Conference on Computational Linguistics kicking off in Dublintomorrow. I will be there in spirit, as a co-author on a paper that looks at the use of the Aikuma mobile app for language documentation. I’ve talked about this work on the blog briefly before, but we now have a poster and a full article about the app and our fieldtests in PNG (which is where the photos above come from), the Amazon and Nepal (that last bit is mine).
Late last week there was a bit of internet buzz around a paper by Neil Hall looking at the ‘Kardashian effect’ in academia - Academics who are famous for having social media profiles that outstrip their research profiles. As you can tell from the length, and the tone, this article it is not intended to be serious. Having said that, I think it seriously misunderstands the nature of academic social media.
I didn’t have to use his formula to figure out I’m what he would consider a Kardashian - Superlinguo has over 27,000 subscribers across our social media platforms, and I’m an early career researcher with a rather niche publication record in journals like Nepalese Linguistics. One thing I’ve known after a year on the job market, is that writing this blog nets me zero academic cred - if I wanted that I’d spend more time writing stuff for places like Nepalese Linguistics. I write for Superlinguo because I don’t want to live in an ivory tower, the work my colleagues do is fascinating and worth sharing with the world in an approachable way. Hall mixes up the role of science communicator and scientist - I am both, often just at different times of day. I think a lot of other ‘Kardashian academics’ are the same.
On a tangential note, Hall may have jumped the shark with his Kardashian analogy. Peak Kardashian in the New York Times was 4 years ago, and even in Google trends it looks like the big Kimye wedding is the only thing that stopped a plateau.
I became aware of the Speak Good English campaign here in Singapore when it was advertised on the side of a double-decker bus. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take a photo - but it did make me hit the internet and learn about this government project that’s been running since the turn of the millennium.
Singapore has a recognised local variety of English, often referred to as Singlish (which I will write about sooner or later). The Good English movement aims to get people to move towards a more internationally recognised standard of English use. The website is full of information on common errors, correct pronunciation, and words people mix up. Although I couldn’t get the answers for the online quiz, it gives a good idea of the kinds of errors they’re keen to remove from Singaporean’s English usage.
Here at Superlinguo, we try and get people to chill when it comes to grammar and accents. There’s so much variety, and trying to bully people into using the variety you think is best can leave them feeling second-rate, even if their language is use perfectly consistent and used by a whole community.
Having said that though, the situation isn’t always so simple. Singapore has adopted English as the language of mainstream education and much daily communication partly because of its (British) Colonial past, and partly to provide a common language for the Chinese, Malayans and Indians who all call this nation home. Even Singaporeans who are fluent native speakers of English have assumptions made about their English competency, as illustrated by this conversation written about by my friend Amos - who speaks a highly standardised English.
In many ways, being able to tell people to appreciate language variation is a position of privilege. You have to be sufficiently comfortable with your own variety of language, and where that places you in the world. I’m not necessarily saying the Speak Good English movement is the only answer, but I think its enduring presence says a lot about Singapore, language variation and just how closely linguistic prestige is linked to identity and power.
[Image via Wikimedia - but I’m still determined to get a photo of that bus!]
Some time on Friday we hit 20,000 Tumblr followers - and the number of new Superlinguo follower has continued to tick up steadily all weekend. This is probably somewhat due to Georgia’s reblog of an Improved Names post being picked up by Boing Boing. Welcome to all of our new word-nerd pals.
Superlinguo is written by me (Lauren) and Georgia. We write about language and linguistics. We are both Australian English speakers, but we cover a whole range of topics. We also loiter on twitter and facebook, if you’re on Tumblr, like this blog, you can find more linguistics blog goodness via the #tumblinguistics hashtag. I’ve posted a link above to our archive, which is full of all kinds of language geekery for your amusement.
I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the other week, and hadn’t really thought of subjecting you to a review until I read Geoff Pullum’s thoughts over at Language Log. As he points out, there are many inconsistencies in the apes’ use of language.
I appreciated the inclusion of sign language - the apes use ASL, and the reason why is explained very sweetly. I’m not sure how linguistically complex the ASL was, it looked a bit pared down, but at least it was one area where they got some expert assistance. There are precedents for teaching apes to sign in a limited capacity (one being Nim Chimsky), so this made sense. It made less sense that the apes would use spoken language given that many primates lack the vocal tract physiology to articulate the range of human sounds. Therefore, the speaking apes are more in the realm of fantasy than sci-fi.
What I found disappointing is that the apes moved towards spoken language more as they became less idyllic ‘savages’ in their Avatar-esque tree world and became conniving in a way that moved them closer to acting like the humans in the urban environment. Sign language was therefore positioned as the softer, simpler communication compared to the fuller and more complex speech. Sure, the more they interacted with humans the more they used spoken language (where they learned that is never really explained), but it’s not clear why they had to meet the humans on their spoken language terms - a roadblock to communication for many signing communities, not just this imaginary one.
Sorry for going full linguist film critic on you, but for me this tendency to move towards spoken language as the film progressed echoed the now refuted idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny - i.e. that this movement from signed communication to spoken communication that occurs in the film for individual apes somehow mirrors the development of linguistic communication from basic manual gestures to sign. The idea can be boiled down this argument:
Early humans gestured pantomimically to communicate
At some point humans then shifted to speaking because it was ‘better’
Gesture no longer important (‘dropped as superfluous’ Henry Sweet, or ‘quickly replaced’ Tomasello).
It’s no clear why early humans would start communicating with their hands, which were busy with feeding, hunting and doing things. It’s also not clear why speaking suddenly was decided to be ‘better’ in such a theory. (For more on this check out David McNeill’s How Language Began)
What is clear is that the signing apes in this film are actually using a complex linguistic system (although perhaps not drawing on its full complexity), and so it’s not clear why they’re also bilingual in a spoken mode, although it does indicate they are far more linguistically competent than any known non-human primates in the real world!
Reblogging because these new names for everyday stuff are bringing some LOLs to our weekend.
The creative names above are reminding us of the awesome power of the compound word - most of the new names offered here are compound words (with a notable exception being the cute portmanteau ‘porksicle’).
Compound words are great. Why feel restricted by using words on their own? Combine them and feel the power of a new, compounded word!
We classify a compound word as a word which is composed of more than one free morpheme.
In linguistic morphology, we make the distinction between a bound morpheme as a morpheme (the smallest grammatical unit in a language) that appears only as part of a larger word, whereas a free or unbound morpheme is one that can stand alone. A compound word brings together previously ‘free’ or separate words, and bam, a new word is created.
Generally, an English compound word consists of a ‘head’ (e.g. moose) and a ‘modifier’ (e.g. sand, denoting what type of moose it is).
We can get very creative in English with compound words - they can use nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions and adverbs. And they can be hyphenated (e.g. mother-in-law), closed (e.g. football, childlike) or open (e.g. real estate).
Compound words demonstrate the flexibility and malleability of language - if you can’t find a word that fits, put two (or more) others together and you’re all set.
I’m not a corpus linguist, but I love playing with different corpora when they’re presented in accessibly and fun ways - so I was thrilled when Claire Hardaker tweeted about the NYT Chronicle, a way to visualise the language used across the newspaper’s history.
Like Google’s n-gram corpus, it presents a nice clear chart. It has some advantages over n-gram, for example the NYT corpus is completely up to date while Google’s gets sketchy for contemporary references; compare NYT drone to n-gram drone and you see the NYT data kicks up swiftly just where the Google data ends.
There are obviously biases in this data too. For one, there’s a bias towards American spelling that isn’t as pronounced in the Google Books corpus. The genre represented is also fairly narrow.
I found a nice use for it the other day while listening to a This American Life podcast that talked about “the meat question”; a period in the late 19th and early 20th century when the USA was unsure it would have enough viable agriculture to feed its population and looked at alternative sources of meat (including, most famously, hippopotamus). The NYT Chronicle has a nice couple of spikes in usages of this phrase when the issue was most pressing (and therefore made it into the news), while the Google Books usage is more diffuse, as people wrote books in the aftermath, being a corpus that is less immediate than newspapers.
This may not become my default go-to tool, but it’s nice and simple and makes a great point of comparison to n-gram. Thanks Claire for sharing!
Since ALS 2013 last October, Jill V and I have been editing the proceedings. There are 21 papers available as free open access downloads here. I think these represent the great spread of research done by ALS members. Many of the papers are on English, or Australian Aboriginal languages, but not all.
Clicking on any of the links will take you to the individual paper, which has an abstract with more details. Papers in the volume include diverse topics:
It’s been really great to work with such a diverse range of lovely authors (and reviewers!). Thanks must go to the UniMelb digital repository team for helping us to set up the collection and giving it a home, and the UniMelb library crew for helping out. I also have to thank Jill for making it all relatively unstressful, and often quite a lot of fun.
Happy reading! Anything caught your eye? Let me know and I can do a follow-up post!