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!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Geek English

This is an open question, or an idle wondering, depending how you view it.

I've noticed a particular variety of English which I'm calling 'Geek English'. I'm calling it that because I notice that it's particularly used by people who I would broadly identify as geeks, nerds, whatever you like, in a basically positive sense. You know, the kind of people who spend time playing online games, a lot of time in the internet in general, and are happy to be thought intelligent. It might also be people who would otherwise sound quite posh. For instance, some of the QI elves on their podcast 'No Such Thing as a Fish' have this accent (particularly Anna).

My question is, what characterises it and where does it come from? I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it, but my immediate impression is that it has a vaguely transatlantic sound. There's a bit of what sounds like 'flapping' of the t's, and also the intonation is quite distinctive, and I think perhaps the vowels are a bit non-UK-like. But then, all this could be an incorrect assumption based simply on its unfamiliarity to me. A proper phonetician needs to study it.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Postik notes

I was recently at the excellent Petrie museum in London. It's got loads of ancient Egyptian stuff, including a lot of beads. They also had this board:

It says 'Please write any comments on postik notes'.

Someone has rather snarkily corrected the error by putting a squiggly line under the word and writing the correct word and putting 'sp' next to it. This is overkill, but no matter.

I thought the mistake was quite charming. Post-It notes are sticky, after all, so 'postik' is kind of an eggcorn, almost (it doesn't quite fit the definition). And 'post' is used in a not-very-British way - I think you post things on walls more in American English than UK English, and Lynne Murphy confirms this at her blog Separated by a Common Language. So that makes it more likely that the person didn't realise the meaning of the name Post-It (i.e. display it on the wall).

Monday, 13 October 2014

On being impolite to our smartphones

I'm behaving like an old person and getting disgruntled at new developments in technology. Google and Apple both have a voice-controlled thing in their various devices which allows you to speak your search query. You can activate this with a button, but now there's a way to make it notice that you want it by saying a specific thing. In the case of Google you have to say 'OK Google' and in the case of Apple you have to say 'Hey Siri' (Siri is the name of the pretend person in your iphone).

Both of these are very rude, 'Hey Siri' perhaps less so, but still rude nevertheless. I think it's just about OK to say 'hey' to a real person if, say, you were just talking to them and you're walking away and then you remember something and you want to signal to them that you want their attention again. Or you can say 'hey' instead of 'hi', if you know the person quite well. So perhaps you can say 'Hey Siri' as if you're saying 'hi' to it, but I haven't tested it to find out. From the inflection in the advert, it's much more like you're summoning a minion (which you are, but if they're going to make it sound like a real person, then you ought to treat it like a real person).

'OK Google', on the other hand, is just downright rude. It sounds to me as if Google is consistently messing up and you're resigned to that but giving it yet another chance to get it right. Poor Google. Or perhaps you're challenging it, like 'OK Google, you think you're so clever, try this'.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Web developer - literally

This screenshot and associated comment are linguistically interesting for (at least) two reasons:

The first reason is the meaning of the phrase 'web developer'. This is Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web (which is different from the internet in slightly complicated ways). Therefore, he is a web developer in the everyday sense of the term, in which he writes code or whatever it is that web developers do, but he is also the person who developed the web - literally, the web developer.

This is an insight into the way that the meaning of compounds in English (and other languages) can be arbitrary, in that a blackboard is a board that is black while a washboard is not a board that is wash, but also follow common patterns. So we can't know out of context that 'web developer' is a developer for the web, we just have to know that that's what it conventionally means. But we can make predictions based on common ways of combining words to make compounds. You wouldn't expect a hand mixer to be a thing that mixes hands, for instance - you'd expect it to be a mixer that is operated by hand, as that's more sensible. But grammatically, both are possible. The former is what's known as a synthetic compound, in which the first part (in English) is the object of the verb in the second part. So a hand mixer mixes hands, a lorry driver drives lorries, and a web developer develops the web. The latter doesn't have this relationship between the parts. Instead, the first part modifies the thing in the second part. A hand mixer is a mixer that is hand-powered, a safe driver is a driver who is safe, and a web developer is a developer who works on the web.

Secondly, this is a good example of the way a word can switch to meaning the exact opposite of what it used to mean. I'm talking about 'modest' in the comment above the photo. Modest is my contender for 'Word Most Likely To Mean Its Opposite In Fifty Years'. It's mostly used nowadays (in my unscientific opinion) in fossilised phrases like 'modest income' or in a sarcastic sense ('Oh, modest as well!' when someone boasts). That to me is prime material for reanalysis as its own antonym. For that to happen, there has to be some confusion or obfuscation of the meaning. In that comment, it's not clear if the commenter is being sarcastic (ie using the 'invented the web' reading of the job title) or genuine (using the 'programmer' meaning). Someone for whom the word means 'proud' or 'boastful' could interpret it their way, and one more instance of modest means the opposite of what it does to someone else. If they then use it in an unambiguous way to mean 'proud', well, that meaning scores one more point and semantic shift marches on.