Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dogs shall be carried

I was in London recently, and while I was at King's Cross station I noticed that the escalators, which bear the usual safety warnings, now say among other things that 'Dogs shall be carried'. Maybe they've always said that, but it's more common to see the warning as 'Dogs must be carried'. This has given rise to the well-known joke, also seen in the recent Paddington film, in which a child is late for school and when asked why, he says that the sign said dogs must be carried and it took him ages to find a dog.

So my question is, does using 'shall' instead of 'must' remove this comedy interpretation or improve the sign in any way? No one really uses 'shall' any more, but it indicates future and apparently has some sense of being a command. 'Must' also expresses a command ('deontic necessity' - it can also express 'epistemic necessity' as in 'It must be cold outside'). Does 'shall' seem politer? Does a warning sign need to be polite? Unknown. Some more good suggestions here.

(photo credit not known; it's all over the internet)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Spelling reformers get wrong end of stick shocker

Crikey. This Guardian article seems designed to elicit spluttering apoplexy. I think the author must be trolling. Nevertheless, I shall content myself here with pointing out a few minor quibbles. Throughout, letters within <pointy brackets> refer to orthography (spelling) and letters within /slash brackets/ refer to sounds and are in the IPA. My statements apply to English only unless otherwise specified. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Eric Pickles' personal taxpayer has funded a limo... oh wait

I'm aware that it's been far too long since I blogged. Life and work have both been a bit busy; I'll be blogging about our Genius of Language events soon. For now, I thought I'd share this crash blossom with you. This news story has now got a new headline, but when I saw it it looked like this:

Eric Pickles' Taxpayer Funded Limo Bill Passes Major Milestone

A crash blossom is a syntactically ambiguous headline that is either humorous or misleading or simply confusing, usually due to the telegraphic style of headlinese. In this case, it sounds like Eric Pickles has his own personal taxpayer. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Money for old rope

Pragmatics showed up again on this week's The Apprentice. (Pragmatics shows up in all communication but you know what I mean.)

The contestants were asked to find a one-metre length of old rope. One team found a length that was 1.7m long, and were given a right good telling-off for it. Now, whether that fits the bill depends on what you want it for. Suppose you want to lower something down a one-metre drop. Then, you might ask if someone has a metre-long rope and if they have a 1.7m-long one, they'll say yes. It's enough that the rope is at least one metre long for it to be true that it is one metre long. Lord Sugar is a literal chappie, though, and if he says one metre he means one metre, no more, no less, and they were not permitted to have it.

We saw this literalness again: the teams had to find an anatomical, full-size skeleton. One team found a full-size paper skeleton, which I thought was pretty clever, but it was also disqualified, on the grounds that it made Lord Sugar look stupid I think. I suppose that a completely flat skeleton is not technically anatomically accurate.

*The title of this post is not accurate either: the team got the old rope for free so no money changed hands.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Subgenres of autogenerated text?


I was checking my spam folder earlier today, and it seems that on the 2nd of November I got a bit of an email flood, all somewhat missing what is presumably their target market:

Seems to be some text scooping going on - note the incorrect spacing and capitalisation of my name. Obviously I didn't open any of these, but gmail shows you a little preview of the text, and it's very odd. Here's a close-up:

Looks automated, as it doesn't make any sense. 'Nodded as you with some clothes', 'Mean anything else that long and ricky', 'Family was still on but as connie'? Strangely compelling. I wondered whether the text might not have been autogenerated from some kind of 'romance' novel because of the names, and certain phrases. You'd be able to check, probably, whether such words and phrases occur disproportionately often in certain genres and in conjunction with each other, and given a large enough sample of emails you could answer that question. I won't, though. I'll just be happy the way I am.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Phones allowed (and encouraged)

Not so long ago, we told students off for using phones in seminars. Today I found myself encouraging the use of phones. What is the world coming to?

What's happened is that phones have gone from being a communication device to being a pocket computer. I still wouldn't allow students to text or facebook in classes (if I can stop it), but there are so many uses for a smartphone, you'd be missing the point to ban them altogether.

For one thing, students and universities in general are increasingly paper-free. All assignments are now submitted online and marked online. We no longer give out lecture handouts (though we might still do worksheets) because they're online for students to access themselves. Students are free to print these if they wish, and many do, but not all. Partly because of printing costs, I would guess (a few pence per sheet) or feeling that it's not worth the trip to the library to use the printer. Most still make notes on paper, rather than on a laptop, indicating that it's not really a desire to ditch paper that motivates the move away from printing slides.

In seminars, however, we refer to the lecture content quite a bit. This week, for instance, we were writing phonological rules and the seminar exercises referred to rules they'd learnt in the lecture. Some students had printed copies, some made do with their own notes, but some had the slides on their tablet or phone. When I saw others struggling to recall something, I suggested they do likewise. Perhaps they hadn't up till then because they thought phones were not allowed, but some didn't seem to have thought of it.

Similarly, a few weeks ago I suggested to students that they keep a copy of the phonetic alphabet chart in their phone to refer to in seminars so they didn't have to remember to bring one. Again, some hadn't even thought of doing it. But there are apps now that store documents, or scan paper ones and turn them into PDFs (I frequently do this with whiteboards or handwritten notes). I use ABBYY Finescanner to 'scan' (it takes a photo and 'flattens' it) and Evernote or Onenote or Notability to store them (yet to find one app that does everything I want in the way I want… I've only just started using Onenote so I'm hoping it might be that one). In fact, the camera function is handy in many ways - now, it's so easy to simply photograph a page of a book rather than photocopy it, and recently my students included their syntax trees as photos in their assignment.

Another way students sometimes use phones in seminars is to look things up. They need a definition, or to check some fact, and they can just quickly Google it. I might mention some particular speech characteristic (such as the weird way Britney Spears says /l/ with her tongue out) and they can look at a video on YouTube.

One thing I'm going to try next term is using an app in my lectures called Socrative. It's a voting system, so I can ask a question and the students press a button to choose an answer (or type something). Then I can show the results on screen and it's anonymous, if I want it to be. Much better than having them put up their hands or give the answer, which no one wants to do.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Machines can hear it

More from the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast. The Elves have an incredible breadth of knowledge, but by necessity cannot have an in-depth understanding of all the facts they present. This becomes obvious when they talk about something that one happens to know something about. This morning, I was listening to them discussing accents, and they said a number of things that reminded me that there's a curious mismatch in terms of how much people like to talk about language and how poorly equipped they are to do so. (Linguistics is not the only subject to suffer from this, of course. Psychology springs to mind.)

The most striking thing was their discussion of (by now fairly old) research analysing the Queen's Christmas speeches over the years, which concluded that the Queen does not speak the way she spoke when she was younger. The reason that this is interesting is that it shows that older people's language shifts, not just young people's. But the shifts documented in that study are slight, and affect vowels, which are notoriously hard to pin down.

Because we need to be able to tell the difference between bet and bat, we hear vowels as categorically different sounds, but they are actually points in a continuous potential noise-range (you can easily slide from e to a with no break in between, and the intervening sounds are halfway between the two vowels). What distinguishes vowels from each other is their relative 'distance' from each other (scare quotes to indicate metaphorical usage and also technical terminology - the distance is literal as well).

This means that when sounds change very slightly, you might not be able to hear it, or you might not hear it reliably because you're expecting to hear a particular sound (the McGurk effect is a famous demonstration of just how useless you are at hearing a sound if you're expecting to hear another). If you can't trust your own ears, you aren't going to do a very convincing scientific experiment, are you? So people use specialist equipment to measure sounds, and then they can analyse these measurements to determine exactly what sounds were produced and how (for instance) the Queen's vowels have changed over time. So, one change they noticed was that her vowel in words like had was produced lower in the mouth in the 1980s than in the 1950s, causing it to sound a bit more like had and a bit less like hed.

The Elves reported the study and in the course of the conversation, said 'You can't hear it though. Machines can hear it'. This was met with astonishment from the audience and the other Elves, but it's no stranger than measuring anything else with a machine (blood pressure, brain activity, blood sugar levels, gravity, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, radioactivity...). It's a peculiar quirk of language that because we all do it with a reasonable degree of consciousness, we think we must know all about it, even though we don't know how our lungs or digestion work without explicit teaching.

So I think the moral of this is that everyone should come to my department's forthcoming event, consisting of an exhibition, two film screenings and a public lecture, and learn more about how amazing language is!