Saturday, April 27, 2013

SAT Used Invented Language in the 1920s

In 1926, the standardized test known as the SAT was first administered. The version of the test was different from what it is now (of course), and the most amazing difference between what is was and what it is now is--in my humble opinion--the fact that the 1920s version included a section in which students translated an invented language. The Atlantic ran an article about it a couple weeks ago and include a sample section from that test.

I wish the SAT still had this type of information on the test. I remember being in a program at school where we had to translate a paragraph from Esperanto, and it took a lot of logic and step-by-step thinking to get through it. I don't think people give enough credit to what it takes to create or translate an invented language (and it helps that it's invented in exercises like these because it takes out some of the irregularities of natural languages that could make the process messier).

The following quote was taken from the article:
And while today's SAT has three core sections (Critical Reading, Math, and Writing), the SAT of 1926 had nine sub-tests, seven devoted to verbal skills and two devoted to math: Word Definitions, Arithmetical Problems, Word Classification, Antonyms, Number Series, Analogies, Logical Inference, Paragraph Reading, and Artificial Language. ... Still, the College Board's faux-netic language is a testament to how drastically educational priorities can change over time. In a world that increasingly emphasizes students' technical abilities, we take it for granted that math and verbal skills -- reasoning and communication -- should share the stage with each other. 1926, though, was a different time, with different educational goals.

Sure, I may have picked that quote for the 'faux-netic' in it, but the rest of it says something pretty important, too. I think it's interesting to think how much education has shifted (and still is shifting). It surprised me when I read this to realize how much of the test was devoted to verbal skills and how little was devoted to math. Our system seems to be almost the complete opposite today; even the verbal sections now often include elements of science or other disciplines (for example, reading a short essay about biology and responding to comprehension questions). I would like to get my hands on a full copy of one of those original SATs to see how the verbal sections were organized and what information each one targeted.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Forensics and Assessment of Suicide Risk

USAToday posted a story about a researcher who is working to teach a computer to assess the suicide risk levels of patients; he has a database of suicide notes and is using teams of investigators to tag language in them in order to teach the computer the patterns to look for. You can read the original article here.

The statistics provided near the end of the article are interesting:

The computer was 93 percent accurate -- identifying those with suicidal tendencies over the control group -- while humans were right slightly more than 50 percent of the time with the same groups.

I could see how a computer would be able to move straight to the heart of the matter--looking solely for the triggers it's been trained to catch--which could help improve its accuracy. Human perception is often blinded by too many outside factors. That being said, I am interested in knowing how well the computer performs in continuing trials; I wonder if language is too narrow a scope to identify risk (leaving out other factors, such as history, facial expressions, intonation). The article, of course, does say that the computer is not meant to replace a practitioner/counselor/doctor--it is only meant to aid in diagnosing risk.

Looking at John Pestian's list of publications, I don't see one where he specifically talks about the outcomes of this project--something I'd very much like to see.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hawaiian Sign Language

A recent article on CNN discussed Hawaiian Sign Language, a language still used by only about 40 people, most of whom are elderly. Researchers are working now to document this language before it's too late. According to the article, roughly 80% of HSL signs and the HSL grammar are distinct from ASL, making it its own language, rather than a dialect of ASL.

KITV News also covered the story, along with demonstrations of the differences in signs between HSL and ASL:

A college student in Hawaii also made a video to teach seven common signs used by most Hawaiian people (deaf or not):

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


I stumbled across a webpage with idioms, and it made me start to question how I would define some common English idioms. The webpage is, which features a banner across the top that defines idioms as 'a natural manner of speaking to a native speaker of a language.' My first issue with the page is with that definition--I feel the definition provides some kernel of truth, but there is a lot missing from how idioms are separated from other natural manners of speaking; also, notice the definition only includes a one-way relationship (in the definition, the listener is specified as a native speaker, but not necessarily the speaker of the idiom).

After scrolling down through the page, there are several idioms defined that I would argue with. The following three are examples of these potentially arguable definitions:

  • 'as high as a kite': anything that is high up in the sky.
  • 'barking up the wrong tree': a mistake made in something you are trying to achieve.
  • 'chip on his shoulder': angry today about something that occured [sic] in the past.

My own uses of these idioms don't quite match up with the above definitions; however, I don't want to bias my audience. Do you agree with these definitions? If not, how would you change them to make them more accurate?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Atlas of True Names

Thanks to a student who shared this website with the other Dr. Sams, I think I know what I want for Christmas this year--a map from Atlas of True Names.

The atlas literally translates place names on maps, based on the name's etymology, making looking at a map even more intriguing than it already is. I'm sure some of the names are a bit liberal in their translations, but the appeal is that the different names makes it like looking at a map of a fantasy world, when it's really just a map of our world.

For instance, you can head over to the Great Land of the Tattooed (England) to visit Unfordable River Town (London) and leave from there for Westland (Ireland) to visit Darkpool (Dublin); of course, on the way, you'll have to pass through Land of Strangers (Wales). You can then travel across the Sea of Weeds (the Atlantic Ocean) to visit any one of the coastal cities of the United States of the Home Ruler, including New Yew Tree Village (New York), Sibling Love (Philadelphia), or Marsh Farm (Washington, D.C.).

Even if you don't go on that epic journey, you should take a moment to appreciate how cool the Atlas of True Names is.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Visuwords: Graphical dictionary

I've seen visual thesauri and dictionaries floating around the web, but I think the best one I've seen (or at least the one I've had the most fun with) is Visuwords, an online graphical dictionary. When you go to the page, you see the following space:

Visuwords screenshot

There is a search box at the top, where you can enter a word you want to explore, or you could choose to hit the "random" button to the left of the search box, which will give you exactly that--a random word.

Running down the left of the blank white area (where your word will be mapped) is a key to understand what you're about to see:

Visuwords key

Using Visuwords can help identify parts of speech and semantic relationships, both helpful in a linguistics classroom.

I chose to search for the word 'linguistics', which resulted in this graphic display:

Visuwords search for 'linguistics'

You can zoom in on the area to pay more attention to some of the detail going on:

Zoomed in section of 'linguistics'
Using the key down the side of the page, I can see that linguistics is a kind of humanistic discipline, that lexicology is a kind of linguistics, and that 'linguistic' and 'lingual' are derivations of the word 'linguistics'. If you hold your mouse over any of the the visual definition, you can get more information:

Mouse over information

In this image, you can see a yellow box of more information about the 'humanistic discipline, humanities, liberal arts, arts' entry.

All in all, I think this is a pretty cool tool to visualize relationships among words and concepts and is something I will introduce in my linguistics courses when we discuss semantics.