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.