Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hardest Language to Learn?

One of the first questions linguists get asked is "What is the hardest language to learn?" Or, to be quite honest, the question often comes out as "What is the easiest language to learn?" Either way, though, the questions are based on the same premise: that there are languages that are easier/more difficult to learn than others.

My answer is typically the same--it hovers somewhere around "all languages have their own unique difficulties." However, if the person who is doing the asking is actually interested in having a linguistic conversation, I like to bring up the fact that some languages may appear easier or more difficult to learn, depending on their native language. For example, as a gross generalization, if your native language is English, it will be easier for you to learn another Indo-European language like Spanish or German than it will be to learn, say, Mandarin Chinese.

I had never seen someone break languages down into difficulty by the estimated required hours to become proficient in the language until I saw this picture below on 22 Words:

Chart from 22 Words

The entire chart assumes a native English speaker is the one learning a new language and then breaks the target languages into three groups. What I wish could be conveyed by the chart (but the chart would quickly become less of a graphic and more of a document) is what features of the languages were used to determine whether a language is closely related to or significantly different from English, how the number of hours were calculated for how long it takes to reach proficiency, and how proficiency is defined for this chart. I don't quite agree with the groupings--for instance, I have a hard time believing that--for the purposes of this chart--Hindi would be in the same level of ease for an English speaker as Polish.

What do you think? Can we group languages by difficulty of learning according to native language? If so, do you agree with the image above?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What the ....?

The post title sums up my reaction to the first time I saw these two sentences, both of which are supposedly sentences in English:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.
The first sentence relies on three different senses of the word buffalo: the city Buffalo, NY; the noun (the large mammal that once roamed the prairie freely); and the transitive verb, which according to my Mac dictionary means to "overawe or intimidate (someone)." The Wikipedia article on this sentence provides the background and some syntactic trees for the sentence, but I'll give you a shortened rundown here:

Let's start at the beginning: Buffalo buffalo work together to mean the NP "buffalo that are in Buffalo". This NP occurs three times in the sentence:

[Buffalo buffalo] [Buffalo buffalo] buffalo buffalo [Buffalo buffalo].
 The remaining instances of buffalo in the sentence are the verb form. The first instance of buffalo as a verb is working with the NP [Buffalo buffalo] to modify the first NP [Buffalo buffalo]. You might reword the entire first part of the sentence (this will take care of the first five instances of buffalo):

The buffalo that live in Buffalo that buffalo (other) buffalo in Buffalo...
Now the sentence is finished off with the transitive verb and its object, which also happen to be the buffalo in Buffalo:

The buffalo that live in Buffalo that buffalo (other) buffalo in Buffalo buffalo the buffalo that live in Buffalo.
Is it a sentence? Sure. By loose-ish standards. Is it a good English sentence? No. Why would Buffalo buffalo be buffaloing other buffalo that live in Buffalo two times over? That just doesn't make sense. So while it is syntactically possible, it's semantically void of really meaning anything. While it may not be a sentence you'd want to use in an everyday conversation, it is a sentence you can wow your friends with at parties. Just think of all the debates you can get into once you proclaim, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is too a sentence in English!

The second sentence from above only works with added punctuation. In fact, its Wikipedia article states that this sentence shows why punctuation can be necessary in some sentences to understand meaning. The sentence with its appropriate punctuation looks like this:

James, while John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.
Obviously, there was some sort of test, in which James wrote "had had" on the paper but John wrote "had", and the teacher preferred "had had" as the correct answer. All this took place in the past in a situation that required the past perfect to show that the activity was finished, thus leaving us with the seemingly (yet not) redundant pairing had had. In everyday speech, we often put the first had into a contraction, which sounds way less odd: I'd had three bananas before I realized that two would've been enough. That sentence just as easily could have started out with I had had three bananas... and been grammatically sound. That's what happens when a verb that has been grammaticalized as an auxiliary remains a main verb--have as an auxiliary (or helping verb) no longer has anything to do with its use as a main verb that usually (and loosely) shows some sort of possession (though "possession" doesn't even come close to fully describing the use of have as a main verb).

Again, is it a sentence in English? Yes. Is it one you're likely to come across? Not unless you're a teacher that left a blank on a test that should have been filled in with had had instead of had.

Do you know of any other crazy examples of sentences like these that people use to show off the oddities of language and syntax?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

What does it mean for a word to be beautiful? That question is what Robert Beard (Dr. Goodword) tackled when he compiled the list of the 100 most beautiful words in the English language.

After looking through the words, I am guessing he was going for sound and not meaning; otherwise, words like beleaguer and untoward surely wouldn't have made the list. But there must have been more than just sound being considered because words like bucolic and ripple just don't sound any more "beautiful" to me than other words that didn't make the cut.

I would imagine that most people would find less common words to be more beautiful than more common ones (after all, people tend to be more attracted by the things they don't encounter as often), and many English speakers would probably find borrowed words more beautiful than native Germanic words (I'm going with the foreign-is-exotic-and-thus-beautiful theory on that one). I've long been fond of words like facetious, quotidian, felicity, draconian, stygian, inveigle, fastidious, melodic, and phenomena because of the way they roll off the tongue--their meaning doesn't add beauty or intrigue (especially words like quotidian, stygian, and draconian), but they sound nice to me. It's entirely subjective, though--I can't say why one word sounds "pretty" but another doesn't. And the words that sound pretty to me probably don't sound pretty to other people. All these examples are of English, yet other languages have words that can be deemed as more beautiful than others by its speakers or by its learners. I rather enjoyed saying αληθεια and αμαξια while learning Ancient Greek (pardon my lack of diacritics on the words)--even moreso than the other words I learned.

If you read the description that's on the website, Dr. Goodword wants to help people beautify their language use, and yet I'm not sure what it means to have beautiful language. What do you think? Can words be beautiful? And if they can, what makes one word more beautiful than another? And, more importantly, what words do you find "beautiful"?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crazy Measurements

Americans have long been the oddballs in the measurement world with our inability to accept the universal measurements like grams and meters, preferring instead our feet and inches and pounds. In fact, if someone tells me something in 3 centimeters, it won't mean much to me until they say it's just over an inch. You can tell me you ran 10 kilometers, but I won't really be impressed until I figure out that's just over 6 miles. We like our measuring units that we've grown to love even if we don't fully understand them (what's an acre, anyway?).

I'm rather fond of our measuring system, but I might be willing to add new units of measurement to that system, especially if they're anything like these that were posted on the Mental Floss blog. Now I can say, with pride, that I am roughly one smoot tall. That sounds so much cooler than 5'7".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Conlanging, how I love thee

Since I was a kid, invented languages have been near and dear to my heart; in fact, I attempted to invent my own language (with very little success) when I was young, and then I grew up to teach a course on invented languages, for which I finally invented my own language. In the spirit of sharing the love of invented languages, I am sharing these six very cool websites about or promoting invented languages:

The first five are about specific invented languages while the last link is for anyone interested in becoming a conlanger (that is, someone who invents languages (or constructs them)). There are many, many more websites about invented languages, but these are some of the most helpful for anyone interested in a specific language or in what goes on behind the scenes with inventing a language.

As I'm closing this post, I realized I focused solely on creative invented languages, but I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention that some languages were constructed to serve as auxiliary languages, such as Esperanto. While such languages are interesting in their own right, I think the fictional languages have more life because they're meant to reflect an entire culture of a fictionalized civilization. I will also say that while I have never learned to speak any of these languages, I can spend hours learning about them metalinguistically without once getting bored.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

British vs. American

The other day I stumbled across the Best of British website, which provides a rather large list of British slang words defined for us Americans who don't know how to speak British. Some of the funniest ones were blow me and blow off, but there are some other great entries. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it's great fun to go through.

The website reminds me of when Ellen Degeneres had Hugh Laurie on her show and held a contest of sorts to see who could understand more slang--Hugh gave Ellen examples of British slang, and she had to guess the words' meanings; Ellen gave Hugh examples of American slang, and he had to guess the words' meanings. You can see the video below, or you can go here and see it on YouTube.

So let's table ideas on slang words and waffle on about sweet fanny adams until we're zonked or until some bladdered tosser who's legging it brasses us off by interrupting our chin wag. It'll be awesome! (Anyone who's British can feel free to openly mock my inability to apply newly learned slang correctly.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let's verb that

A poem has been floating around in cyberspace about the "Verbing of America" with examples of verbalized nouns. The point of the poem is to show how enigmatic our language is in selecting which nouns can be used as verbs, and if they are used as verbs, what their meaning will be. I highly suggest reading through the entire poem; an example stanza is below:

If when we change a noun to verb
To come up with our `verbing,'
Why can't I, when I'm using herbs,
Refer to it as herbing?

It is rather intriguing to think of what can or cannot be used as a verb. I can friend someone (i can even unfriend someone), but I don't think I can boyfriend or husband someone. I can Facebook someone, but I can't Twitter or MySpace someone. I can Google a word or topic, but I can't Yahoo or Bing anything. I can Netflix a movie, but I sure wouldn't Blockbuster a movie. I can DVR or Tivo a show, but I never VCRed anything when I recorded shows via a VHS tape (for that matter, I've never VHSed anything).

It's no wonder non-native English speakers get lost in our vocabulary. These examples (and so many more) show how arbitrary the process is in deciding which nouns can be functionally shifted to be used as verbs.

What other instances of verbed words can you think of?

Monday, November 7, 2011

How linguists play telephone

Do you remember that classic game of telephone that most of us played when we were younger? It's that game where one person starts by whispering a line into someone else's ear. It could be something like I think she needs to wear a blue blouse tomorrow. It gets whispered from one person to the next until it reaches the last person in line, who says what (s)he heard out loud to the rest of the group. By the time it gets to the end, the sentence might have turned into something like She sees a blue mouse and wants to borrow it. Usually some of the same sounds stay in the words, but it's difficult to hear someone whispering in your ear, especially when there are usually anticipatory giggles erupting all around you as the other kids are waiting to see what the sentence will turn into. If you've never played it before, you should give it a go. You never know what stress relief playing a game of telephone might bring.

Pamela Fox, who must be a linguist--or at least must be one at heart, came up with a new version of telephone: Translation Telephone. When you go to the website, you'll see a text box; type a sentence into that text box and hit the "Go!" button right next to it. Your sentence will be translated (by Google Translate) into a different language and then from that language into another language, and from that language into yet another language... until it has been translated into 20 different languages. After the 20th language, it will get translated back into English for your amusement. Keep in mind that the chain of translation is being done by a machine, so it's not perfect, and also keep in mind that the translation is going from language to language and not from your original sentence into 20 different languages. Along the way, your sentence is going to get, um, misshapen, if you will. By the time your sentence comes back out of the translation telephone game, it will most likely look quite different.

For example, I typed the following sentence into the text box: I just drew a ghost for my son on his paper, and he colored it black. I waited (with some anticipatory giggling) and watched as it went from English to Catalan to Chinese to Albanian and on and on until it was finally translated back into English. The end result?
I have my thesis, my son, his spirit, and he was black.
After laughing, I can go back and trace through the languages I know enough of to see where the sentence started going wrong (ghost, as you might imagine is translated quite differently, depending on the language). You can see the whole train of translation here. Every time you do a translation, the languages and order of those languages will differ, which makes this even more fun.

What makes this priceless is that no machine will translate perfectly from one language to the next and that no two languages will word a sentence with the exact same words that have the exact same meaning, leaving some ambiguity for the next translation.

After you do some translation telephone games of your own, you should share your end results in the comments so we can all get a laugh!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fun with punctuation?!

I can't even say how happy the (nonstandard) interrobang makes me. Who knew punctuation could be so much fun‽

Punctuation is only peripheral to the study of linguistics--punctuation is really just a standard set of conventions for breaking up and marking written language. While punctuation may not be central to linguistic study, it is interesting to see how the conventions of punctuation change and to find possibilities for new punctuation marks.

For example, I'm not sure when the current love affair with exclamation points began, but I see more and more students thinking academic writing can be spiced up by an exclamation point or three and that question marks are frequently followed by exclamation points. I also like how things......... that have no need of ellipses........ receive more than their fair share!!!!! Punctuation appears to be one more way people are playing with trying to put more contextual (or perhaps perceptual?) meaning into written language.

I don't know if the interrobang will ever become standard, but it would be handy if it did. It makes the punctuation at the end of a surprising question much more efficient.

Monday, October 31, 2011

It's always the linguists...

A few years ago, David Chess wrote what appears to be a blurb of a science-fiction type story, in which things are going wrong, and it can all be directly blamed on the linguists who taught a culture concepts they had previously had no words for; you can check out the short story/blurb here. What I love about his post is that he explores this notion of whether or not people can think about concepts they have no words for. If a language has no word for yellow, does that mean they can't see the color yellow? If a language has no word for kazoo, does that mean they cannot fathom an instrument that makes noise by humming into it? Then again, since English has no word for bakku-shan, does that mean we can't envision a woman who is only pretty when being looked at from the back? (You can check out this article for other cool words English needs.) How much does our language and its words say about us and the way we think?

If you're interested in this, you might also be interested in the course on Language and Culture in the spring.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Want a linguistic challenge?

There is an annual International Linguistics Olympiad, and they are kind enough to share their problems with the public (once they've been used, that is). If you're up for a challenge, you can head over to their website and start with the sample problems and then move up to the archived problems. There are some neat data sets you can work on--I'm tempted to put a whiteboard in the hallway with a problem written on it Good Will Hunting style.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Psych's Last Night Gus

On the latest episode of Psych, the main characters (Shawn and Gus) have the misfortune of finding themselves in a Hangover situation--they wake up one morning and can't remember anything that happened the night before.

As the episode unfolds (and as they figure out what happened the previous night), Shawn and Gus start doing something that is quite linguistically interesting. They talk about themselves in the third person and differentiate between "last night X" and "today X", like in the following examples:

  • Last night Gus had some serious game.
  • I just want to know what line last night Gus laid on her. I need last night Gus, Shawn.
  • Last night Shawn was all evolved and mature and not a commitment phobe. Today Shawn is very much a commitment phobe.
  • Last night Gus had it right.

Normally, when English speakers refer to something specific about last night or yesterday or last week, we use the possessive, as in last night’s game or last week’s show. In the examples above, though, the speakers do not use the typical X’s construction; instead, they use the bare NPs last night and today to modify their names and to differentiate between the person they were last night (i.e., the person they became while drugged) and the person they are normally (i.e., the person they are back to being today). In all of the examples above, the speaker is referring to himself; therefore, Gus is speaking about himself when he uses the phrase last night Gus and Shawn is speaking about himself when he uses the phrases last night Shawn and today Shawn.

It is more typical to find utterances like these with a first-person pronoun, like in the future me will be happier or the old me was uptight. But it somehow makes it funnier that they use the third person to refer to themselves instead of using last night me or today me in these utterances. Even not considering the pronoun versus third person referent, it’s interesting that they use a specific date for the construction, since this construction is normally found with a more general time frame like the future you or the young me. We normally don’t attach specifics like last night and today. Then again, in this situation, it’s appropriate to attach specifics since last night Gus is not another way of saying the old Gus--Gus recognizes that he doesn’t typically “have game.” The only version of himself that has game is the one who was drugged the night before.

Juliet, another character, does use a first person pronoun when referring to another version of herself and Shawn in the future:

I don't want the future us to be dictated by something that last night Shawn said.

She is the only person to use the phrases last night Shawn and today Shawn other than Shawn himself. There is a difference in meaning by what she says here than what she would have been saying had she said, “by something you said last night.” She is recognizing that last night Shawn is not who Shawn normally is; if she had used “you said last night” instead, she would have been implying that who Shawn was last night is the same person he is today. In most cases, that would be a perfectly normal assumption; in very few cases do we change personalities overnight. It’s all very metalinguistic.

In another instance, Shawn uses you in another interesting way when he tells Lassiter (another character) to:

take a swim in lake you.

This example differs from the ones above because it draws a parallel between names like Lake Erie or Lake Watonga and replaces the end with a pronoun to refer to the metaphorical "lake of Lassiter-ness." I can't think of many more examples like this--if you can, please let me know.

And the following is a fun, yet unrelated, example:

...only younger and cuter and less murderer-y.

Shawn uses the above phrase to describe how a girl who grows up to be a murderer looks in an old picture.

Along with Modern Family, Psych is one of my favorite shows for language play--many episodes have Shawn making new words like murderery and shenanigan for the viewers’ entertainment.

I have a lexicographical dream

I came across this video on Ted the other day, which I label a sort of "I have a lexicographical dream" speech:

Do I even need to say how much I adore Erin McKean after watching it? Students who've taken any of my classes know that my dream job is that of a lexicographer, and she made the job sound even more amazing than I already thought it was. She has an interesting question that doesn't quite get answered (nor could it in only 15 minutes) about what the dictionary should be in terms of format and usefulness. It sounds like she leans more towards a corpus format with the ability to search for a particular word and see examples of its uses in actual written or spoken language data. However, it would need to be more than that because dictionary users would still need a sort of summary to provide the overall theme of data examples, most common definitions, and usage notes for the words. There must be a better way to make the dictionary so it can be more useful, but, wow, that's a daunting task to compile examples, usage notes, pronunciation, and more, especially if you're trying to do that for every word in the English language.

I've seen several online and electronic dictionaries that are trying to become more than just a paper dictionary on screen, such as Wordnik, but I haven't seen one that does it all. Earlier I wrote a post about dictionary and word apps for the iPhone/iPad, and I still use all those apps because not a single one has everything I want. Each one has at least one unique feature that makes it so I have nine apps and three bookmarks for online dictionaries on my iPhone. Have you found any one website or app that is your one go-to source for your electronic dictionary needs?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Must Read: Letters of Note

On Wednesday, the Language Log had a post called "Dejobbed, bewifed, and much childrenised" that I absolutely adored. It was based on a post they had seen in the Letters of Note website--a website I hadn't heard of before reading that post.

This morning I finally had some downtime to go check out Letters of Note, and I am fascinated by what's there. The website collects and posts personal letters (from what I've seen, all written in English) that are "correspondence deserving of a wider audience." I have tried and deleted several of my attempts to describe the types of letters on the website; I'll settle for saying that the letters are too diverse to categorize and are incredibly interesting to go through. The "Dejobbed, bewifed, and much childrenised" letter is worth the perusal alone, but you should also check out "My belly is too much swelling with jackfruit" and "It's more likely that I was doing 911km/h" if you're in the mood for a light pick-me-up. Then again, if you'd like something more serious, there are letters that are sad, sweet,  nostalgic, and uplifting.

I think the website (and eventual book) is a beautiful nod to the dying breed of handwritten personal letters, and it's making me want to go grab some stationery and start writing some of my own Letters of Note.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Spotlight on Linguistic Tools: Two More Online IPA Keyboards

I had previously talked about TypeIt's online IPA keyboard on this post. Since that post, the TypeIt keyboard now has an option for a full IPA keyboard, which is exciting for anyone who needs to type with more than just those IPA symbols found in English. You can go directly to that keyboard by following this link. When you go to the website for the full keyboard, you will see the following:

IPA TypeIt Full screenshot

In the above picture, you'll see the setup is the same for the English keyboard--there is white space for typing, which you can do with the keys on your computer's keyboard, and then you click on the special symbol you need to insert it into the text. Next to last row of options, you might notice that it says "more." If you click on that, you will get two extra rows of IPA goodies to type with:

IPA TypeIt Full: Extra rows

For all of the diacritics that get added above or below symbols, you will need to type the symbol you want it added to first and then hit the diacritic button. For example, if I want to do a voiceless [r], I need to type r into the text box before hitting the voiceless diacritic so that I get [r̥]. If you're trying to use a diacritic that connects two symbols, type in the first symbol, hit the diacritic button and then type in the second symbol. For instance, if you're typing in a diphthong for [eɪ], you should type an e first, hit the overhead arch, and then type in the next symbol to get this: [e͡ɪ].

That keyboard is still an excellent option for anyone wanting to use an online IPA keyboard; however, it isn't the only option. There are two more online IPA keyboards I've come across that I quite like since writing that post.

1. Weston Ruter IPA Keyboard
This online keyboard works exactly like the IPA TypeIt keyboard--it provides you with a text box that you can type in using your computer keyboard, it provides you with buttons you can click on to get the IPA symbols, and you can easily copy and paste what you have typed into your document. The difference is in the layout. The Weston Ruter keyboard is laid out like the full IPA chart, as partially seen in the screenshot below.

Weston Ruter IPA Keyboard screenshot

It's impossible to get the entire page into one screenshot, so I highly suggest you go to the website and play with it to see if you like the layout. The text box at the bottom of the screen doesn't move--what does move is the upper part of the screen, where you can scroll through the consonant chart, non-pulmonic consonants (like clicks and implosives), vowels, and diacritics. The diacritics work like the ones described above: you must type in the symbol first and then click on the diacritic you want to go with it.

I really like the Weston Ruter keyboard because I am so used to working with the IPA chart that it's easier for me to see what I need on the chart. The one thing I'm not so fond of is that the whole chart doesn't fit nicely (no matter how much I zoom out on the website) onto one screen, and having to scroll back and forth can get annoying.

2. IPA Character Picker
This online keyboard is my favorite of the three. It's not my favorite because of features--all three keyboards work in the same way, all three allow you to choose font and other specifications, and all three have a copy-and-paste capability for importing text into your document. Again, the difference is in the layout. When you first go to the IPA Character Picker website, you'll see this:

IPA Character Picker screenshot

The default screen is an IPA chart with special characters and diacritics below the consonant and vowel charts. However, if you prefer more of a keyboard feel, you can click on the keyboard option and see this:

IPA Character Picker: Keyboard layout

Now the symbols are laid out to match where they would typically occur on a QWERTY keyboard. That might help people more unfamiliar with the IPA charts--and some people might just prefer the look and feel of an actual keyboard. If you still want more options, you can click on the font grid option for this layout:

IPA Character Picker: Font grid layout

The screenshot above is zoomed out quite a bit to get the whole grid on there. If you're used to looking at how unicode character grids are organized, you might prefer using the font grid layout to the other two.

I like this online keyboard for its variable layouts, but even more than that, it does something quite cool and handy (especially if you're just beginning with the IPA and trying to learn all the symbols). When you mouse over a symbol, you'll see a description like this pop up at the top of the screen:

IPA Character Picker: Symbol description

In the screenshot above, you can see that a description pops up for whatever symbol your mouse is hovering over; in this case, it's the unvoiced postalveolar fricative, which also goes by the unicode number 0283, which can also be called "Latin small letter esh". You learn the IPA description, the unicode 4-number description, and the "street name" of the symbol all in one go.

I now give the IPA Character Picker as my site of choice to my students. However, I think it's good to have options, and so I still recommend you take a look at all three and decide for yourself which one works best for you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SpecGram Seeking Submissions

One of my favorite ways to kill a little time while remaining linguistically active is perusing the Speculative Grammarian, an online journal for satirical linguistics. In other words, it's a journal for linguists to poke fun of the field while also writing about real things. You might think of it like the linguistics version of The Onion.

Besides the awesome articles and fun linguistic-related puzzles, the Speculative Grammarian is also cool because it accepts articles from anyone who has a good idea for a linguistic-related article. You don't have to be a top scholar to have good ideas for a humorous article on linguistics--you just need knowledge of the field and a sense of humor.

If you have an idea for an article, you should go to this link and follow the directions there. While you're there, you should most definitely check out the Linguistics Career Chooser--especially if you're a minor wondering what to do with your background in linguistics (and in need of a laugh).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"What Does English Sound Like to Foreign Ears?"

A student sent me this link to a website that has a collection of fun linguistic-y videos, one of which is a video that has a hilarious rap (performed by Italians) that is supposed to be in English. What they are speaking is not English, yet it simulates what English sounds like to them. And, I must say, they are doing an excellent job--my brain was trying to figure out what they might be saying as I listened (even though I knew full well they were not speaking in English).

After you watch that video (and all the other fun ones on that page), feel free to give a big thank you to my awesome students who send me links to fun websites.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Typography, Language, and Fun

I have long been a fan of the written word, and artists are taking the written word to the next visual level in videos like these:

If you liked that one, other videos like that can be found here.

If you really pay attention, you'll notice that all the videos take aspects of the words themselves and the context of what's being said to create the visual artistry of words. It's linguistics in action. And I love it!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Video: Ultimate Caption Fail!

A student shared this video with Chris, who shared it with me. It's too funny not to share with anyone interested in language or funniness.

If any of you are going through withdrawals from school work, you should go through the original transcript and compare it phonetically to the second one. It would be interesting to see just where the program went wrong.

Examples like this raise an interesting point about the abilities of computers to work with human language--notice that in the video, the speakers often spoke fast or in different intonations. Human ears and brains are designed to work with variegated--and incomplete--inputs, but computers deal best with inputs that do not vary, and they don't work well with needing to "fill in the blanks". (Some of you may be nodding as you remember the last time you tried to speak into an automated computer on the other end of the phone, and it kept replying, "I don't understand. Repeat what you said.")

What's the funniest misunderstanding you've had with a computer?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

French in the Summertime

For all those students who have taken FRE 131 and haven't quite decided when to take 132, you should seriously consider taking it this summer.

That way you can ... watch a French movie without needing subtitles, travel to Paris and order lunch at a local bistro in the native language, and feel exotically chic as you bust out your French.

If you're looking for a more academically sound reason to take French, it goes hand-in-hand with studying linguistics--it helps with research (you might be surprised how many linguistics articles are written in French), and it helps with understanding English from a historical perspective. All of my students who have taken French have told me how surprised they were that French and linguistics courses focusing on English complemented each other.

This summer, you have the opportunity to take FRE 132:

Even if you can't take the course, please help us spread the word by letting your friends know!

If you have any questions, contact Dr. Joyce Johnston at jjohnston@sfasu.edu.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fall 2011: ENG 442 Course Description

We are planning on offering a section of ENG 442: Topics in Linguistics with the topic of Second Language Acquisition in the fall. It will most likely be offered during the TTh 9:30-10:45 time slot. For Linguistics minors, the course could satisfy the core requirement or an elective in Categories II or III. English majors and minors could use the course for their required linguistics course, and other students could count the course as an upper-division elective.

The course description is included below:

This course will focus on both former and contemporary approaches to how humans learn a second (or third) language. Discussions will include a range of languages (no knowledge of a second language assumed). We will examine the nature of language, multilingualism, heritage language acquisition, the roles of the first and second languages in second language acquisition, formal approaches, typological and functional approaches, language processing, socio-cultural views of second language learning, and the psychology of second language learning.

If you are interested in the course, please e-mail Chris at samsc@sfasu.edu in order for him to find out if the course topic has enough student support to run.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Garden Path Newspaper Heading

Newspapers are well-known for potentially vague and ambiguous headings for stories, but the following heading, for me, was really just confusing:

Police: Crying toddler 4 hours in shut bank vault

I had to read that several times before my brain made sense of it.

I don't normally think of newspaper headings as garden path sentences, but I think this might qualify as one--the problem for me is the "4 hours" bit. If it had come after "in the bank vault", some weirdness could have been avoided: "crying toddler in shut bank vault 4 hours". That kind of sounds better, but it leaves me wondering what advantage that has over putting in the preposition 'for' in front of "4 hours". And was the 'crying' necessary? Why not cut out 'crying' in favor of words that would help in understanding the heading? After all, I can't imagine a toddler being stuck in a vault for 4 hours without some crying involved.

In reading the article, though, some of the sentences inside the article were also a bit, uh, interesting in their structures:

Authorities say police and firefighters couldn't free the toddler and feverishly summoned the locksmith after the child apparently strayed into the open vault as the bank was closing Friday — before an employee shut the vault door for the day.

My issue is with the "after the child apparently strayed into the open vault as the bank was closing Friday" clause--it comes in an odd place to logically follow the flow of the story. If police and firefighters summed a locksmith, then it would have to be after the child had already gotten stuck in the vault. My thought is that the story would have been more clear if the bit about how the toddler got stuck in the vault in the first place had been placed before the police and firefighters summoning a locksmith.

Here's the real question: Am I just being picky? Or do other readers find the piece a bit jilted because it jumps back and forth in the telling?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Best Blend Ever?

I have mentioned the linguistic genius of the writers of Modern Family before. Well, they've done it again with creative blending.

In this week's episode, Phil couldn't figure out why Claire (his wife) is upset with him. So as she leaves the house, he shouts, "Happy Valenbirthiversary!"

I dare you to come up with a better blend.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

For All Ye Old English Fans

Last year, several of my HEL students fell in love with the letter thorn (þ) and wanted to reinstate it in our modern English alphabet. They must not be alone because Michael Everson has recently started a blog: þorn.info.

I dare you to not love (or at least appreciate) a blog whose first post starts with these words:

For many years I have been a devotee of the noble letter þorn and its history. This blog will celebrate the letter þorn and will, from time to time, be updated with þorny þings of interest.

I must say, it's quite refreshing to know I'm not alone in feeling outright joy for (or 'obsession with'?) language. And now I have to figure out how many ways I can insert 'þorny þings' into my lexicon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Latin American Studies Speaker Series

For anyone interested, Dr. Heather Olson Beal is giving a presentation today for the Latin American Studies Speaker Series; her presentation is "Education and Language Immersion":

What happens when educational policymakers mix second language acquisition and
mandatory school desegregation? Come find out more about a unique Spanish/French
immersion program in Louisiana that has been successful in raising student achievement,
helping students develop target language proficiency, and attracting a diverse student body.

The presentation will be held at 4:00 p.m. today in LAN 102 (the presentation is 30 minutes and will be followed by 30 minutes of Q&A).

Anyone interested in language acquisition, education, and/or applied linguistics should attend the presentation!

Interesting LingLinks

I've been meaning to write a post for a while now that provides some interesting links to linguistic-y articles. My original intention was to do a post on each, but since I waited so long, I'm going to provide them all in one post. The first three are all English-specific:

1. "Acquitted by heavy NP shift?" on the Language Log is an article about how dangerous it is to drop function words out of sentences--especially when that sentence is a part of a law. You be the jury: Should the driver have been acquitted for sloppy legal writing?

2. "Cannot Be Underestimated" by Ben Zimmer (for the New York Times 'On Language' column) focuses on that very phrase in English and its misuse. It's similar to the debate on how "couldn't care less" should actually be used--many American speakers say "I could care less" to mean they actually couldn't care less about something (because if they could care less, then they care at least a little bit, which isn't what they meant to say in the first place). On the flip side, you might say this article is about how English idiomizes entire phrases so that they mean something different as a whole from what they should logically mean if you add up the meaning of the parts. (Yes, I do believe I just made up a word--should it have been 'idiomify'? 'Idiomaticize'? 'Idiomaticalize'?)

3. "The Passive in English" by Mark Lieberman (on the Language Log) provides a description of the English passive--a construction that is often misunderstood.

And, finally, the last article is not so language-specific:

4. "Typing vs. Longhand: Does it affect your writing?" by Livia Blackburne investigates the possibilities that writing something out longhand will leave you with a different product than if you had typed the same thing from the get-go. As a person who loves to write things out longhand (at least in note form) before typing, it's an interesting question. I often find it difficult to go straight to the computer to type, especially if it's near the beginning stages of the writing process. My brain almost requires the connection of pen and paper to be able to get things going. Once they're going, I can often move to a keyboard and type away. I now want to experiment on my writing to test it for any differences that might result from relying on each writing process. If you know there is a difference when you use one or the other when you write, I'd be interested in hearing it (and I'm sure Livia would, too).

Have a "ling-tastic" time reading through those articles!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ling Club: First Meeting

The SFA Linguistics Club (SFALC) will have its first meeting on Wednesday, March 9, at 4:00 p.m. in the English Conference room (LAN 208).

Come join us for linguistics fun and free food!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hilarious Correction, as posted by The Media Blog

Just when you think you are so tired that nothing could make you take the energy to giggle, you come across something as hilarious as this (which was originally posted on The Media Blog):

Thank you to The Media Blog for posting this, and thank you to the person who sent me the link about this article. I didn't just giggle--I chuckled out loud as I repeated "30 sows and pigs!" several times to my computer screen. While my computer doesn't seem to get the joke, I sure am glad I do.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Welcome Back and Fun News

Welcome back, SFA students! Today is the start of a new semester, and I know both Chris and I are looking forward to our linguistics classes this semester. All 5 classes made, including both Topics courses--running two 442s in one semester is a record for our program. Thank you to all the students who are making this program growth possible!

Speaking of program growth, some students got together and created a Linguistics Club for SFA. They are in the process of getting all the official paperwork finished to be recognized by the university, but if you'd like to join in with their adventure in linguistics, don't feel like you have to wait for that pesky paperwork to get filed. You can find the Linguistics Club on Facebook, or you can shoot Lindsey an e-mail at SFASULinguistics@yahoo.com.

We are proud of our program's growth in its infancy and are excited to see where it goes from here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dictionary & Word Apps to Soothe the Word Lover's Soul

The spring semester is almost upon us, so I thought this would be an entirely appropriate time to do a post on apps that might come in handy to any budding (or not-so-budding) linguist. All the apps in this post are available on the iPhone and iPod Touch (and with the exception of one, also on the iPad); I cannot say for certain whether all are available for other devices.

Anyone who has had a course with me knows my love of (er, obsession with) dictionaries, so it should come as no shock to those students that I have quite a few dictionary apps downloaded on both my iPod Touch and iPad. The ones I have not downloaded are either because they are too expensive or, from what I can see, they do not offer unique enough information or interface to catch my attention. If I have missed any dictionary/word apps that you think absolutely should have been included, please leave the name of that app in the comment section below. The following reviews are ordered in terms of my favorites.

1. WordBook English Dictionary & Thesaurus by TranCreative Software
WordBook is my go-to app when I want to look up a word's meaning, associated words, and/or etymology. You do not need to be online to use the app itself; however, some of the features (e.g., online links) require connection to the internet. Some of the features that make it stand out from other dictionary apps are these:
  • selection of three different notation systems for pronunciation guides (IPA, American Heritage Dictionary notation, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary notation), as well as a comparison chart of those three systems
  • sound files for each word that actually sound like real people (with three different options of speakers: "Sue", "Alex", and "Cindy"
  • every word in the entries are linked to their own entry (you just have to touch any word you want more information about)
  • ability to bookmark entries, add notes to entries, and share entries via e-mail
  • ability to select font and text size
  • supplies words of the day for anyone wishing to learn new words
  • easy-to-read etymologies
  • customizable links to online sources (e.g., link to that word's Wikipedia entry or a Google search for that word) [*requires internet connection]
  • shake for a random word entry
When you type welcome into WordBook, here is what you will see:

Entry for 'welcome' in WordBook app

I highly recommend this app for anyone in the market for a portable dictionary.

Price: $1.99 (iPhone)

2. WolframAlpha by Wolfram Alpha LLC
One of the reasons I like the Wolfram Alpha app so much is that it can function as a dictionary, but since it is a database of virtually everything, it can also function as a scientific calculator, weather updater, encyclopedia, and more. It also has an online counterpart that can be handy when you're at your computer: WolframAlpha: Computational Knowledge Engine.

For me, there is one major drawback to this app: It is not really intuitive, so I still have to refer to the guides whenever I want to look up a new type of information. When you type in "word X" (i.e., in order to search for a word's definition, you need to type word followed by the word you're interested in looking up: word time, word welcome, etc.), you get these sections (word welcome is the entry that supplies all the examples below):
  • definitions
  • pronunciation
  • hyphenation (e.g., wel-come [7 letters | 2 syllables])
  • first known use in English
  • word origin (which only lists the language of origin--not the forms or any extra information like related words)
  • typical frequency in written and spoken language
  • inflected forms (e.g., welcomes, welcomed, welcoming, welcomer)
  • synonyms
  • antonyms
  • narrower terms
  • broader terms
  • rhymes (with)
  • other notable uses (e.g., surnames, given names, city names, movie titles, internet domains)
  • crossword puzzle clues (e.g., good reception; hug, maybe; kind of wagon)
  • scrabble score
  • texting form
  • anagrams
  • phone keypad digits (e.g., 935-2663)
When you type welcome into WolframAlpha, here is what you will see:

Entry for 'welcome' in WolphramAlpha app

I like the app because you get a lot of types of information about the word, and there are some cool links available. For instance, when synonyms are provided, you can click on a link that will expand that section and show you a word network of synonyms. What I find frustrating about the app is that some of the sections that I wish were expandable are not. Since I do a lot of work where I need to know specific etymologies, this app doesn't really help me. It tells me what date is the first known use in English and lists the language(s) the word originated from, but it doesn't show any specific information about its origin. Also, the words themselves are not linked to other entries, which is a drawback if, say, a definition uses a term you do not know. Instead of being able to simply click on that term, you have to look that term up separately.

So why is it still my second favorite? It's a handy app because its database is so thorough. I use it to find out weather patterns in the area, information on language families, and more; in other words, I use it for more than just a dictionary.

Price: $1.99

3. English BigDict by Brentwick
The English Big Dictionary app has a beautiful interface, which is one reason I like this app so much. When a dictionary app makes you smile just by looking at it, it is a pretty cool thing. Some of the features unique to this app are these:
  • etymologies written out like prose (easy-to-read, yet thorough with information on related terms in other languages)
  • pronunciation guides in IPA and SAMPA
  • audio files for US and UK pronunciations
  • translations into other languages for the more common entries (the more common the word, the more translations available)
  • associated phrases and their uses
When you look up welcome in English BigDictionary, here is what you see:

Entry for 'welcome' in English BigDictionary app

Translations for 'welcome' in English BigDictionary app

I bought this dictionary for its etymology sections and translations; I don't use it when I need to look up a word's meaning (I refer to my WordBook app for that), but it could definitely be used that way. The one major drawback for most people will be its price.
Price: $8.99

The Dictionary.com app does exactly what it sounds like: It provides the entries from Dictionary.com directly to your iPhone without needing an internet connection. Each entry provides a sound file for pronunciation, definitions and associated phrases/idioms, and a brief etymology entry. The etymologies provided are so brief, though, that they are a bit cryptic; students new to reading etymological information will most likely not get a lot of information out of them. The app also offers thesaurus entries and a word of the day.

When you look up welcome in the Dictionary.com app, here is what you see:

Entry for 'welcome' in Dictionary.com app
Dictionary.com is a "no frills" app but may be just what you need if all you want is an app to give you words' definitions and synonyms/antonyms.

Price: Free (with ads)
Price: $2.99 (no ads)

*This app has no iPad equivalent.
When you search for a word in the AED app, it separates the entry into parts of speech (e.g., noun, verb, adjective). Every entry provides a pronunciation guide and the ability to bookmark the entry; each part of speech section within the entry provides a general definition, a short example in a sentence, more general associated terms, and more specific associated terms. The app also provides a "shake" feature--you shake your iPhone to go to a random word.

When you look up welcome in the AED app, here is what you see:

Entry for 'welcome' in AED app (on an iPad screen)

The reviews of this app indicate that it is a handy app for writers and for anyone wanting a dictionary that supplies a word association feature. I, however, do not find this as handy as my WordBook app or the other ones above. Maybe I just don't get the coolness of the associations, but it appears to me that the information provided is the same as what I can find in my other, more thorough apps.

Price: $0.99 (this is the current price; if you go to the app store, you will see that the app is currently 90% off, which means this app will increase in price shortly)

*American Heritage Dictionary by Enfour, Inc.
Now I have left reviewing territory and entered my wish list territory. The AHD app is only for the iPhone/iPod Touch, which is one of the reasons this app is remaining on my wish list and not being immediately downloaded onto my iPad (I have yet to get an iPhone, and my iPod Touch doesn't go everywhere with me). My former students know of my love for the American Heritage Dictionary, and the app looks amazing:

American Heritage Dictionary app in App Store

However, the price is a bit daunting; at $24.99, only the most serious students would probably be interested in purchasing the app. There is a "desk" version available for only $3.99, but--as you can imagine--some of the cooler features from the more expensive version are missing. There is also a "deluxe" version with even more features for $29.99. Quite honestly, I would probably spring for the extra $5 to get the deluxe version, but that willingness might be related to my obsession with the American Heritage Dictionary (which is my favorite dictionary in book form).

Do you have any favorite dictionary/word apps?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Creative Writing and Neurolinguistics

Livia Blackburne recently wrote an essay titled "From Words to Brain" about words' journeys from a written page to the readers' minds. The summary on Amazon is below:

What is it that transforms a page full of words into an experience that moves us and leaves us changed? Livia Blackburne explores this cognitive process, from its objective beginnings on the page to the reader's personal investment in the story. The essay, which combines scientific expertise and a flair for storytelling, weaves together current results from cognitive psychology with examples from the classic fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. From wolves to functional magnetic resonance imaging, the essay draws the reader through the text and ultimately beyond it. Because "the experience of reading a story does not end with the last page." That's the point at which the real development begins.
From Words to Brain is approximately 7000 words.

I highly recommend the essay for anyone interested in the connection between the page and the reader. However, I know that not all people are willing to pay $3.99 for an essay, so here are two more sources where you can find Livia's insights on the written word and its connection to the brain.

Livia also runs two blogs: A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing (for the creative writers out there) and Reading and Word Recognition Research (for the linguists out there). I am fascinated by both blogs--she does an amazing job of tackling huge scientific concepts and making them more accessible to her blog readers. She is becoming well-known in the creative writing world as a source for new ways of thinking about the art of writing and how it is, indeed, a process that affects the brain as well as the soul.

Say what?

As some words are vanishing (or being banished or being threatened to be banished), new words are being created to fill their void. Some are more useful (and meaningful) than others, but all are welcome to the English language. Or are they?

Below is an apology written by Ricky Romance after threatening to shoot Chris Brown:

I would like to extend my most sincere apologies to the elderly and youth of our nation for my sudden acrasial message of violence towards other individuals of unimportance. 
I must eclaircise any misunderstandings that I am a Man of irrational aggression and behavior.
In no way am I attempting to justify my actions towards persons of high immaturity levels and hypocritical methods of "becoming a better person," I was wrong. 
My unexpected reaction to fallaciloquences embellished with deceitful humgruffin cover-ups and unnecessary remarks towards my younger brother enraged me. 
I couldn't seem to fathom how a immature nanocephalous adult raglan tailored ex-batman and a jean maillot wearing macrotus, labrose, kazachoc like dancing, woman beater callent could make such comments and pass judgment to an abuse victim.
At the moment I was infuriated. Please let my actions be as a lesson as what not to do. You must vastate yourself to aggression and search for other solutions before reacting.
Threatening closet coward human beings only leads their tearful plea for restraining orders, desperate cries for help from "affiliating gang bangers", and countless whiney excuses -I.E. "she hit me first!!" to the media and courts, which could possibly result unwanted circumstances.
As for the once semi high powered homosexual perverts, molesters and child rapists of the Industry, I vaticinate justice will be brought to you on Judgment Day.
I leave this to God though. Please except my apology, obviously knowing the message can always be heard if ears are around . Thank you.
- Ricky Romance

The letter is reprinted on the SPOGG Blog, which is where I first read about it. My mind is still reeling as I try to figure out all the words perniciously thrown around. In fact, all I can think right now is, "Is he for real?" Oh, that and, "It's accept, not except!"

Your Fellow Humgruffin in Linguistics

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Speaking of Banishing Words...

Daryl Cagle collects political cartoons from various sources and has created a list of comic strips in response to the "cleaning up" of the words in Huck Finn; you can find the cartoons here. There are quite a few in the list, and several had me snorting at my computer screen.

Anyone who has had a linguistics course with me knows that I strongly feel that we associate negative connotations with words and that the words themselves cannot be "good" or "bad." They are words. The "good" and "bad" comes in how we use them. I find it disheartening that instead of using books like Huck Finn that were written in a different era with different ideals to prompt discussions on language change, our nation is sweeping its verbal history under the rug and telling the public that some words are, indeed, bad. In fact, they are so bad that readers should not have to find such words in their books. *sigh*

What was your reaction to the changing of the words?

Banishing Words?

Lake Superior State University came up with a list of words they would like to see banished in 2011; examples include viral, epic, and a-ha moment. You can find the whole list here.

What do you think? Should certain words be banished? Or do you think the arguments against these words are only for particular uses of the words and not against the words themselves?

More importantly, are there any words you think they left off their list? I'm just sayin'...