Monday, 30 April 2012

Think foreign, think rational

Well this is weird. Apparently, if you think in a foreign language when you're making a decision, you're more likely to make a rational, deliberate choice than to go with your gut instinct.

The premise is that these two contradictory scenarios are both plausible, so which one is right?:
  1. Thinking in another language takes up cognitive power, so there aren't enough little grey cells left for decision-making, and you go with your gut.
  2. Thinking in another language forces you to think quite consciously and deliberately, so you don't have as much freedom to make impulsive choices.
The experiment was based on Daniel Kahneman's famous study of framing: people are presented with a problem which involves them having to make a decision about saving or losing lives. There are two options, one of which means saving 200 out of 600 lives and the other means taking an all-or-nothing chance which will either save everyone or no one. Most people play safe and save 200 people. The framing part is that it's also presented in terms of losing lives, in which case they can either lose 400 out of 600, or take the all-or-nothing chance. Now most people prefer to take the risk. (Well, wouldn't you rather be the person that tried to save all the lives than the person who deliberately killed 400 people? Never mind that the person that chose to save 200 people was doing exactly the same thing.)

This means that people fluctuate wildly depending on how the problem is worded (framed), and allow their emotions to make illogical decisions when faced with a really hard choice. If you could remove that element of 'gut instinct', people would make the same choice each time (whichever choice it was). So if 2 above is right, this fluctuation should disappear or be much reduced. If 1 is right, it should remain.

In this new experiment, the same scenario was presented to groups of people in their first language (English) or their second language (Japanese). Graph a shows the number of people who chose the 'safe' option (chose to save the 200) in English and in Japanese. The black bar is when it's framed as saving lives, the grey when it's framed as losing them. You can see that in Japanese (L2), the number of people choosing that option remained constant, showing that they made more conscious, deliberate choices in their second language. (Graph b shows another similar experiment done on Korean speakers who'd learnt English, giving the same result.)

They even tried it with a small-risk, real-life experiment to see if it was the same, and in the process proved just how stupid people are. They gave students who had L1 English and L2 Spanish $15. For each dollar, the choice was to keep a dollar, in which case they had a dollar, or to gamble it. They might lose it, but if they won, they would get their original dollar back plus $1.50. So there is a very short-term risk, but the risk is low and the payoff worth a gamble, surely. And there's the added fact that if you gamble all your $15, you're pretty much likely to come out a couple of dollars better off. If you win nearly half the time, say 7 times out of 15 bets, you'll lose $8, but you'll win $10.50, leaving you with $17.50. Only 54% of students took the bet when it was presented in English, but when they had to use their second language, 71% of them did.

This shows that students aren't good at maths, and that people are really really scared of risk and will make irrational decisions in order to avoid it. Reduce their irrationality, and you get less risk-averse and more logical students. But then, why would you want that?

Friday, 27 April 2012

Special objects

Sorry for the proliferation of sign-related posts this week, but I keep seeing them. There's this sign in the lavs in the building where I work:

As you can see, it's an instruction to ladies to throw sanitary products in the special sanitary bins, not down the loo (if they really want us to do that they should provide more than one bin and put them inside the cubicles instead of outside). It tells us that in English, Chinese and Arabic, because it's in the school of modern languages and there are lots of Chinese and Arabic students about.

It also tells us the same again in English, with different wording. It's considerably more polite and almost affectionate in the wording ('please dear ladies') than the first English text, and it also differs in using the euphemism 'special objects'. It has one error in it, using singular 'it' to refer back to the plural 'special objects', although this doesn't necessarily mean it was written by a non-native speaker. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with the English versions that couldn't be fixed with a couple of punctuation marks.

But WHY are there two English versions? My guess is that the second is a translation of the Chinese. I really don't know why this would be the case, but that's how it reads to me. I think the English was written first, then translated into Chinese (and Arabic) and then, for some reason, translated back to English. I'd love someone who reads Chinese to tell me if that's true.

Alternatively, the second English text might have been written first by a Chinese speaker, and then some native English speaker told them it was a bit polite for a sign and rewrote it in a more 'English' way, and somehow both ended up being used.

(By the way, I've assumed Chinese simply because there are a lot more Chinese students in this school than Arabic, so it's just a probability. The above could equally apply to Arabic instead.)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

How do you pronounce this?

This has bugged me for years. There's this acronym on the window of a building I pass at Northumbria University:

I've sort of been pronouncing it like 'New Deal' in my mind (never having had cause to say it out loud). But maybe it's pronounced like 'noodle'.

Both have their pros and cons. New Deal is a bit more relevant than noodle to a design innovation lab, I suppose, but it's a sort of unwieldy phrase to have as your acronym. Then again, www is famously three times as many syllables as the phrase it's 'short' for. Also, the DIL is capitalised like it should be stressed.

Noodle seems a bit unrelated to design, and involves pronouncing the 'nu' as if you're from the Southeast (of England - think Jimmy Carr), but on the other hand it's a good word and fun to say.


Monday, 23 April 2012

Baboons can read!

Or rather, baboons can learn to recognise words and then learn the frequency of particular letters in them to predict if a new item is a word or not.

What they did was let baboons play with a computer in return for treats (so they could choose not to play at all if they didn't want to, or play a lot if they were greedy buggers.). They were presented with a whole load of words, all four letters long, all with a vowel and three consonants (as far as I can tell - I don't have access to the original paper). Some of the words were real, and some were non-words like virt or dran. The non-words were, I think, possible words (that is, they conform to the rules of the phonology of the language (phonotactic constraints). I don't know which language - the study was done in France but the phonotactic constraints of French and English are not all that different). The baboons had to press a button if they thought it was a real word, and another if they thought it wasn't. I don't think any of them did any better than chance at first, but they were given a treat if they guessed right until they had seen the words enough times to remember them and guess right 80% of the time. 

This is Dan the Baboon, class swot. He remembered 300 words:
Dan the Baboon
Note that this isn't reading - that means identifying a word as a word (connecting it with a sound and/or meaning). This is just object recognition, which I think is the authors' point - that reading isn't a linguistic skill, but rather object recognition and then we have other linguistic processes going on to make the next step, which baboons don't have. Fortunately, otherwise they'd start writing us notes and making demands for better treats or more fun computer games.

Once the baboons knew a load of words, the researchers gave them new ones to look at. Now, they could guess when a word was a real word at slightly better than chance, or 60% of the time. Apparently, they were recognising letter combinations like 'th' and assuming that new words with that letter combination were also words. (Note that Language Log has comprehensively dissected and basically trashed this claim, but I don't have access to the paper so I'm going to have to take the conclusions as they say.)

So the baboons seem to be able to break the words down into their letters, or at least smaller parts. I don't know if this is a new finding. The authors say it's like how you can recognise a table you've never seen before, because you know how a table basically looks, with legs and a top and the relations between the parts.

I don't think these baboons are so clever though. I want to know how they'd do with a non-word that had the letter combination 'th' - presumably they'd wrongly think that it was a word.

They would also (I'm fairly sure) do badly if they were asked to identify possible vs impossible non-words. This is what I mentioned before: impossible words violate the phonotactic constraints of the particular language. So blod is a possible (but not real) English word, but bkod is not. The baboons would not know this (of course, as they aren't associating the words with sounds and they don't speak English (they're French baboons) and they don't have any concept of phonotactics anyway). I don't know if they could learn to recognise them either, though - I think it might be too complex and the rules just too arbitrary. Even for Dan. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Fuckin A and the importance of commas

I saw this image on the internets illustrating this poor chap's inability to use commas (and knowledge of the difference between the spelling of comma and coma, an important distinction). 
After sniggering at the inappropriate mental image, I actually had trouble working out what the original meaning was. The comma is supposed to go after I have to watch him, I think (although a full stop would be better, probably), so 'Robby' has to watch his grandpa tonight. Then he says fuckin a man, tonite is gunna suck.

Well that's odd, I thought. Surely, if I know anything about anything, fuckin a is short for fuckin awesome (sorry about the inordinate amount of swearing in this post, by the way). And you would not be saying that it was awesome if you then said it was going to suck. Which he does. It's sarcasm, I suppose, but I missed it because people like this are not normally known for their use of sarcasm (by 'people like this' I'm generalising horribly over all people who write like this, but it's true).

So I looked it up on Urban Dictionary, because that's where you get incomplete and inaccurate information about colloquial expressions, and it said that it does stand for awesome, but that you can use it whether the situation is good or bad. The entry never mentions the word 'sarcasm', though, so I wonder if it's not sarcasm but in fact just generalisation or broadening of an expression from an exclamation of pleasure to an exclamation of any strong feeling. Knowing the intonation would help, but as I don't associate with teenagers I can't say it's a usage I'm familiar with in real life. Or irl, as the internet would say.

Friday, 13 April 2012

As if!

You probably know the expression, as if. It's used to show incredulity, in a kind of negative way. Sort of scoffing. So you can say,
As if he's ever going to get a girlfriend!
And what you mean is that he hasn't a hope in hell of getting a girlfriend. You can also use it on its own, like in the film Clueless: As if!

But like all colloquial phrases, its usage is shifting. I noticed that I use it like this:
As if I know what we're doing yet.  
As if I have sat nav.
It signifies something that we both know isn't true and is a faintly ridiculous suggestion. I'm almost scoffing at my interlocutor for suggesting it. My sister, however, uses it like this:
As if you can't eat bread and stuff? 
As if he doesn’t pass that on, does he even know?
It doesn't help that both the examples I could find in emails from her contain a negative element, whereas mine are affirmative. But she's definitely not scoffing; she's more just exclaiming and engaging in mutual feeling (so she's sympathising in the first one, and joining me in being outraged in the second).

But the main difference is that the propositions are true, in hers, but mine are false. As if I have sat nav means (It's not true that) I have sat nav, but As if he doesn't pass that on doesn't mean (It's not true that) he doesn't pass that on. It was said when he actually didn't pass it on. It's gone from being a negator (the grammaticality of yet in the first example proves it is, as you can't have yet in an affirmative sentence) to being an intensifier of sorts, used to make the proposition it's attached to more emphatic.

Urban Dictionary says that you can use it just to draw attention to something (true):

Cassie: Are you going to LeedsFest this year?
Jordyn: As if I can't go to LeedsFest! HATE THAT!
This is even more extreme, as in this exchange as if is attached to new information which has not previously been mentioned/known by both parties. In all of the other cases, it's attached to given (recently discussed or already-known) information (echoed information, often, so that the proposition has just been uttered by the other person before the as if expression that echoes it). In this last example, it's attached to the answer to a question asked by 'Cassie', who does not yet know the answer, so it must necessarily be new information.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Paint it black

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously sang 'I see a red door and I want to paint it black'. Except he didn't. Listening with more than usual carefulness, I noticed that what he sings is 'I see a red door and I want it painted black'. Everyone else already knew this, apparently, and the lyrics sites agree.

In fact, he never sings the words 'Paint it black'. The message is the same: he wants the door to be black. But the way he wants that effect to be achieved differs. If he says 'I want to paint it black', he is going to do the painting himself. If he says 'I want it painted black', he's going to get someone else to do it.

This is known as the causative (because he is causing someone else to do something). It implies intention and responsibility for the action as if you had done it yourself: if you're accused of murder it's not going to do you any good to say 'I didn't kill him, I had him killed'. (Not all causatives require intention, but with have they do.)

It's a type of passive construction, in the song: the verb is in the passive form and the passive auxiliary be is optionally present, or alternatively have:
I want it (to be) painted black
I had him killed (=he was killed
English doesn't have a regular way of indicating causation. We have this have construction (as in the murder example), or other kinds of passivisation (as in the Stones song), and also the similar make, but we also have causative versions of lexical verbs (so the causative counterpart to eat is feed, where feed means 'cause (someone) to eat'), and some verbs can be causative or not with the same form. Other languages have inflections to indicate causation, or a regular alternation in the verb. Wikipedia tells me that Maori adds the prefix whaka- to make a verb into its causative counterpart, so ako is 'learn' and whakaako is 'teach' (literally 'cause to learn').

Friday, 6 April 2012

Do you even know what you're saying?

We are surprisingly unaware of what we're saying. The actual words, I mean - we're astonishingly good at remembering the content or the general gist of a conversation, but very bad at remembering precisely what words were used. Many an argument has been built on just such a memory failing.

Linguists are more inclined than most to notice the way people say things, as well as what they actually say (or instead of what they say, sometimes). We're familiar with the informants who, presented with a questionnaire, claim never to use construction X, and then go on to do so in the next sentence, and what's more we know that we do this ourselves. But even we are not always aware of the way we speak.

This is one of the things I teach my students, in passing. In an early dialectology seminar we discuss a list of non-standard grammatical constructions that they are supposed to have surveyed their friends' use of. One of them is the doubling of comparatives and superlatives, such as most biggest or more uglier. Every year, without fail, the students look at me in utter disbelief when I suggest that people do this a heck of a lot. I do it, all the time. I know that it's a shibboleth (a linguistic thing that marks you out as different. Or a moron, if you read the insane rantings on the Tumblr #grammar tag) but I like it. But they really don't think that anyone ever says that sort of thing. I tell them that if they listen out for it, they'll hear it, and generally I've already done it once by the time we get to that point anyway.

There was a lovely example of just this at the PG conference held at my university last week. My friend gave a talk on sentence-final like (it was canny good like). In the question period (during which I asked a question that inadvertently included a sentence-final like), she mentioned that there is also reported to be a sentence-final but. Then she said, I've never heard it but. Brilliant. Within the very sentence in which she doubted that it was common, she uttered it herself.*

*(It was an intermediate version of final but, actually, one of the ones that Jean Mulder describes as not a true sentence-final particle, but equally not simply ellipsis with a missing but-clause. But this is all for another day, another post.)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

C S Lewis's writing advice

The brilliant Letters of Note blog has reproduced a nice letter CS Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia, among my favourite books when I was little) sent to a young fan. In it, he gives her advice about writing. He critiques hers specifically, and then goes on to answer some questions she had about grammar:
About amn't Iaren't I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. "Good English" is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn't I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren't I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don't know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don't take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say "more than one passenger was hurt," although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!
Sensible advice from a very clever man.

Monday, 2 April 2012


I saw the verb oversuds used recently. Clearly it's derived from the noun suds, which became a verb in its own right first. The OED has an entry for suds (v.) dating it back to 1834:
1834   ‘C. Packard’ Recoll. Housekeeper 12   Ma'am Bridge was sudsing the clothes in a tub before her.
It doesn't list over-suds even in the derivatives of suds, though. The prefix over- is attached to suds to give the verb meaning (I presume) to lather up too vigorously or cover in too many soap suds (perhaps giving a surfeit of bubbles, or causing too much mess, or whatever). So far so boring. But I was quite taken with the fact that suds is plural. This is the case when the verb is transitive, as above, or intransitive:
1972   Fortune Jan. 73/1   Detergent foam first became a matter of national concern in the early 1960's, when Representative Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin, among others, pointed out that detergents were persisting, and sometimes sudsing, in the environment.
Normally, when you form a verb from a noun by simple conversion (as opposed to using a verbal suffix or some other process), it's the singular form of the word that's used. Take the verb bubble. It may actually pre-date the noun bubble, but even if it does, for the purposes of demonstration that doesn't matter. What's important is that there are two words, one a noun and the other a verb, and the verb is homophonous with the singular form of the noun, despite the fact that bubbles, like suds, tend not to occur singularly (in this meaning). A pan of water that's boiling has many bubbles in it, but you still wouldn't say that the water was *bubblesing. Any morphological process is like this, in fact - it's a mousetrap, even if it's used to catch lots of mice, and tights can be footless, even though they lack both feet. It's even a bubble machine, not a bubbles machine, even though it makes millions of bubbles.

Perhaps it's because it's hard to identify a single sud. We can talk about a sud, but it's not generally used in the singular. It is still a count noun, not a mass noun that happens to look like a plural or a pseudo-plural like linguistics. We use it with plural agreement, for instance (though the OED says 'usually'). But we almost always use it in the plural, and I suppose that's influenced the verb formation process. It's very unusual, though.