So, I recently got an email from a reader (which I’ve edited into a single question for today’s post):
I’m currently in grade 11, and am trying to decide what I want to do with my life as far as education and jobs go. I absolutely adore writing, and it is certainly my dream career. However, I’d be fooling myself if I believed that I could rely on that as a sturdy job. So instead, for the time being, I will continue to write as a hobby.
I was reading a (fictional) book a little while ago, and one of the characters was someone who had devoted their life to living with the Navajo and learning their language and customs. That sparked some interest, and I began to look up things such as Global Studies. While I was searching, I came across Linguistics. So, here’s my question:
What exactly do you do? Sure, I’ve looked it up online. When I was doing that, I found basic definitions and found your site. When reading some of the things on there, I found a few very interesting and would love to hear your explanation of what linguistics is, if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to describe it. I think that as I look into it more, linguistics is one of those things that will become increasingly interesting to me.
This is an excellent question! Linguistics is one of those fields that most people have heard of, yet few can explain what it actually IS.
What don’t linguists do?
There are two really popular misconceptions about what linguists do which we should address first.
To start, linguists aren’t translators. Although there are many linguists who actually look into translation theory as a part of their research, that’s not what we are.
The other common misconception is that linguists sit around all day learning lots of different languages. This misconception leads people to, upon first meeting, immediately ask any linguist “How many languages do you speak?” This question is discussed extensively here, but in short, there’s more linguistics than speaking lots of languages.
Of course, there are many linguists who do part of their work by learning many languages, and it’s rare to find a linguist who speaks only his or her native language, one can be a very competent linguist and still spend most of their career working only with one or two languages. This is especially true in the realm of computational linguistics, where the problem isn’t so much the difference between languages, but getting a computer to understand human language at all.
What do linguists do?
This is actually really complicated question, but few people outside of the field know that. Linguistics is a very big field, with lots of different people doing lots of different things, because Language (with a big L, the whole idea of it) is wonderfully complicated with lots to study and research. So, I’m a linguist, yet I know people who are equally linguists who do things entirely different from what I do.
That said, we all have one thing in common: no matter what speciality or research area you look at, all linguists are trying to find and understand patterns in Language.
That sounds really abstract, but it seems to be the best common thread tying together all of the various sub-disciplines within the field.
- Field linguists doing langauge documentation may be looking for patterns which help them understand and then write a grammar for a language that nobody has ever described.
- Academic linguists are searching for patterns in whatever part of Language they feel is most interesting, and then generating models and theories based on those patterns.
- People doing natural language processing are looking for specific patterns in text that have specific meanings, so that they can then teach a computer to find those patterns without human help. Often, the first step in this process is to find patterns of meaning and then annotate a text with those patterns so that a computer can use them. (Incidentally, for the last few years, I’ve been getting paid to generate these types of annotation schemas for medical records, so that’s one very concrete thing that a linguist does.)
- People doing computer speech recognition (or studying human speech perception, like me) are trying to find the acoustical patterns which correspond to the sounds and words that somebody is saying, and people working on production are trying to find the patterns of mouth motion that correspond to certain sounds.
- People in applied linguistics are often trying to find patterns in language and language learning that they use to improve the teaching of foreign languages.
… and the list goes on! There are thousands of tasks that a linguist might be suited for, because Language is really complex, and we interact with language in so many different ways on a regular basis.
I wish I could give you are really concrete answer, a list of 20 things that linguists do, and be done with it. But, much like asking what doctors do, what lawyers do, or even what you can use a rope for, there are thousands of possible answers, only loosely tied together.
Ultimately, though, linguists find patterns in Language. That’s what we’re trained to do, and, for most of us, that’s what we love doing. Every different linguist might find a different set of patterns that they are interested in, or might go about looking for them in a different way, but that’s what unites us all.
And the most beautiful part of it all is that there are plenty of patterns left for you in your future linguistic career.
In light of the recent American push for gun control, I’ve been curious about the mindset and reasoning of the pro-gun, concealed-carry crowd, and reading posts on their forums.
One particular post on Reddit’s /r/ccw concealed weapons board jumped out at me. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to save a link and haven’t been able to find it, but it said something along these lines:
My concealed weapons instructor told us that if we’re ever in a situation where we have to draw our weapons, we should shout “Police drop your weapon!”. I know that it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, but here’s the kicker: If you’re ever on trial, you can claim that what you actually said was “Please drop your weapon!”, which is totally OK, and the other witnesses won’t be able to contradict it.
The person who proposed this was immediately jumped on by other members of the board and it was almost universally agreed to be a bad idea, but it is phonetically fascinating.
At the core of the suggestion is the phonetic similarity between “police” and “please”, but interestingly, they’re not always similar. The slow-speech forms, in my dialect of American English, would be transcribed into the IPA as below:
Please - /ˈpliz/
Police - /pəˈlis/ (“puh-LEESE”)
In this phrasing, “Please” and “Police” aren’t terribly similar. But if you speed up the pronunciation of “Police” just a bit, merging the two syllables into one, you can get, narrowly:
Police (fast speech form) - [ˈpʰl̥is] (Sounds like “Pleese”)
Please (fast speech form) - [ˈpʰl̥iz] (Doesn’t change)
Although there’s often just the tiniest hint of schwa following the /p/ in fast speech forms of “police”, with this pronunciation, the only difference between the two is the voicing of the final fricative (/s/ vs. /z/). Given that English word-final voiced fricatives are often pretty voiceless (think how often you hear “Expensif” instead of “Expensive” in casual speak), the police/please ambiguity in quick speech is very real.
Mind you there’s also a very strong alternate pronunciation (often used by actual police officers, and prominently featured on “The Wire”) which uses initial stress on the word “PO-lice”, giving us /ˈpowlis/. If you live in an area where that’s common, or if you’re dumb enough to shout “PO-lice, drop the weapon”, the ambiguity is gone and you’re just impersonating an officer. And of course, the whole thing still does hinge on a jury believing that while somebody was threatening your life, you were still polite enough to preface your command with a “Please”.
So, the ambiguity is real in some cases, and anything is possible with an expensive enough lawyer, but from a linguistic standpoint, well, I wouldn’t bet my freedom on this cute little trick.
I happened upon a thread over at Reddit, featuring the below picture of a popular knife manufacturer’s website, put through Google Translate (click to expand):
Here’s the text:
A sharp blade with a distinct tip, an integrated ignition steel and a diamond sharpener makes Bushcraft Survival the ultimate knife to force Bush enthusiasts. On the rugged vagina is a well lit place for the steel and with the diamond it becomes easy to sharpen the blade. It’s easy to swap two supplied bältesclipsen that lets you choose how you want to carry your knife.
This is, of course, absolutely wonderful. As several in the thread pointed out, in Swedish, French, Danish, German (and likely others), the word “sheath” (through some pretty straightforward analogy) is also is used to refer to a woman’s vagina, and indeed, the original site is in Swedish.
It appears that when the original poster used Google Translate, it saw “slidan” and chose “vagina” instead of “sheath”, resulting in comedy gold. You can see it also stumbled on bältesclipsen (‘belt clips’) later in the note, refusing to translate the term at all. Of course, if you visit the manufacturer’s official English version of that page, the “rugged vagina” becomes a “robust sheath), and oddly enough, the belt clips disappear entirely.
An illustrative example
However amusing, this is actually a wonderful example of one of machine translation’s key shortcomings: computers have no understanding of the real world.
Any human who was trying to translate that passage (and who was aware of both meanings of ‘slidan’) would likely use ‘sheath’ without a second thought. It’s an article about a knife, they’re referring to the sheath of a knife, and there are no women mentioned anywhere in the article, so the choice is clear.
To a computer, it’s all just words. The machine was processing along, then came to a point where a word could mean either ‘sheath’ or ‘vagina’. It has no understanding of knives, sheathes, vaginas, or tabooed subjects. It had likely been programmed to choose the more frequently used of the two words, and vagina (84,900,000 results) shows up almost three times as often in Google’s results than sheath (24,800,000 results). So, unaware of the meaning, the taboo, or the humor, the translation was made.
Machine translation is hard, and although we laugh at these occasional funny results1, we should be amazed at how good it already is. More importantly, though, it’s crucial that we understand the shortcomings of these programs, because your company’s website is only a word-frequency-based decision away from selling rugged vaginas.
This morning, a young woman was hit while crossing the street by a hit-and-run driver. It’s a pretty terrible story, and as such, the local news networks have been covering it extensively all day.
There was one linguistically interesting occurrence related to this unfortunate bit of news: As one of the reporters from 9news.com live-tweeted the press conference, she made a very interesting error in one particular tweet:
East HS student was walking in the crosswalk w/the right away when she was hit. Student has head injury, again in critical condition. #9NEWS
This is a textbook ”eggcorn”, where an obscure, unusual, or otherwise opaque word or phrase is replaced with a similar sounding, more common one. I’ve discussed these before, but this particular one, substituting “right away” for “right-of-way” was particularly delicious.
After a reader pointed out the issue, to her credit, the reporter issued a followup tweet, thanking the reader and saying that she “was paying too much attention to the news conference”. Nonetheless, it was a linguistically fascinating error, and a beautiful example of the fact that eggcorns can still occur in some situations even when a person is familiar with the actual phrase or word.
Fast-scene-eight-ing, no? (OK, that was pushing it)
As I’ve mentioned briefly in the past, I was an early backer of app.net, a for-pay social networking site. On the heels of their decision to offer a by-invitation free tier, I figured I would talk a bit about my experience there, and why I’m growing more and more fond of it over time.
A different paradigm
In practice, the biggest failings of Facebook and Twitter come from the simple fact that users are product to be delivered, rather than clients. Facebook’s privacy snafus (discussed extensively in my post about leaving Facebook) have primarily stemmed from their desire to make your data open to more marketers and advertisers. Twitter’s recent API changes and 3rd-party-client killing are largely to ensure that advertisers’ (annoying) messages are viewed as they want, when they want you to see them. In short, Facebook and Twitter make their money by selling me to marketers and advertisers, and by presenting me with things I don’t want to see.
This is why app.net is revolutionary and different. The initial idea behind the service was that a social network supported by its users would be able to put 100% of its efforts towards the users, rather than to advertisers, data miners, or marketers. They promised that you would own all your data, that the API would be open, and that the terms would be open to public comment. This is a brilliant idea, and is what led me to back the service immediately, even at the relatively steep $50/year (now down to $36/year).
Implementing the idea
App.net was backed, and opened its doors in August 2012. At first, they simply had alpha, a 256-character microblogging service. Then they launched annotations, a behind-the-scenes markup which allowed app.net posts to carry much more information than a 256-char post. This led to the development of services like patter, an IRC equivalent using ADN, and blog, which allows for long-form writing. Now, they’ve launched file uploads (10GB per paid user), and at this point, app.net is able to serve as the core of nearly any social-network-related app or site.
Most importantly, they’ve done all of the above well. The ADN staff has shown an abundance of caution, and aside from yesterday (during the launch of free accounts), the site has seldom been slow, and I’ve never once run into a bug or major error while using the site (or a 3rd party client).
Speaking of 3rd party clients, the developer community has stepped up nicely. Mac OS X has a great new app.net client called Kiwi, and there are great clients for iPhone (Riposte is my choice) and for iPad (NetBot wins). So, it’s well-adopted in the dev community, and there’s no shortage of good solutions for posting and interacting with the service, although the permanence of 3rd party services is always worth questioning.
The most important question, though, is what the experience is is like for users. Well, having spent 6 months or so on the service, I’d like to speak to that. We’ll start with the problem, then move to the joys.
App.net’s biggest problem
App.net is already better than Twitter and Facebook for many things. The problem facing app.net is the same problem facing any other nascent social networking site: your friends aren’t on it.
Right now, as many people have rightly pointed out, App.net is a magnificent place to talk about new technology, programming, and other “techie” kind of interests. This is not to say that there are not other “normal” people on the site, but they’re vastly outnumbered, and early in its lifetime, ADN certainly had more than its fair share of “brogrammers” (a wonderful term in its own right), although that too is changing.
Unfortunately, at the moment, there is only one person that I have met in real life who is on App.net. The majority of people that I know are on Facebook, simply because the majority of people that they know are on Facebook. It’s a tough sell to get anybody on a new social network, even tougher to be the first of their group of friends on it. App.net’s welcoming community dulls that pain, and has allowed me to meet very interesting people who I never would’ve interacted with otherwise. Ultimately, though, when you meet people that way, you end up with that strange, modern sort of friend who is your friend because you’ve learned about them online, rather than people who you learn about online because they’re already a friend.
This is not just a question of your local network. On Twitter, nearly every news agency, university, organization, and company has a Twitter feed that you can follow for updates, but right now, there are relatively few of these institutions on App.net, and because I rely on their Twitter feeds for sources of news and information, I’m forced to also use Twitter. This is a different subset of people who are not on the service who I wish were, and I badly wish that the ADN folks would track down news services, celebrities, and prominent bloggers and simply offer them a free verified accounts.
In order for App.net to take off, enough people have to see enough use for the service that it gains a critical mass of friends. You use Facebook because of the people on it, despite the service. ADN doesn’t have the people, so they badly need to show off how good that service can be. If I worked for App.net, my highest priority right now would be giving a top-of-the-line, reference implementation of the protocol available from the web which shows off not only how app.net is different, but why you need to be using it instead of your existing network. Something that I can show a friend and say “Look at what $36 a year can get you beyond Facebook or Twitter!”, and something with a bit more flash than what Alpha (the current reference implementation) provides.
Nevertheless, the current lack of people is something that I hope will change. App.net’s new “freemium” Model will lower the barrier of entry for many, and the invitation-based system will help people bring the people they care about onto the system. But the fact of the matter is that right now, ADN is a little too subtle about what it offers that existing solutions do not, and although an open API is a great lure for techie types, it means absolutely nothing to my aunt, my colleagues, or my next-door neighbor.
But there is a reason to love it, even without everybody you know.
A Fundamentally Human Social Network
App.net right now is fundamentally human. Right now, you can be reasonably sure that every person posting is an actual human, using their account for actual human purposes. Because a person had to pay to set up an account, you get fewer accounts which simply serve to notify about a given product, project, or service. In addition, spam is more-or-less absent (microspam excepted), and there’s a greater feeling of ownership of content and niceness, simply because, I think, people are paying to write it.
So, unlike with Twitter, where the vast majority of feeds are for publicity, notification, spamming (and other forms of marketing), or special-purpose secondary accounts, the signal-to-noise ratio is much much higher. It’s safe to say that the majority of App.net posts are by humans, for humans. You can, of course, carefully curate your twitter stream to only include human posts, but even still, advertising spam (even the officially endorsed versions) is impossible to avoid.
In addition, although it seems like a silly difference, the ability to write up to 256 characters makes for a surprising improvement in conversation and post quality. There are a great many things that can’t really be adequately said in 140 that can be in 256, and this, coupled with most clients’ robust support for conversation views, makes for a great medium someplace in between IRC-style chat and blog post conversations.
The idea of this strong social API is a brilliant one, and is already starting to work. I already mentioned patter, which provides IRC style chat using your ADN account. The true strength of app.net was shown to me the day that Felix Baumgartner made his supersonic jump, and by clicking a single link, I was frictionless-ly logged into a chat room to discuss it live as it happened, using the same credentials, friends, and service that I was already used to. With the advent of more services along these lines, having an app.net login, I hope, will be the key to a kingdom of interrelated apps.
Give it a try
Right now, App.net offers a wonderful microblogging experience with a number of great clients, great third-party apps, and a pleasant community and vibe. The biggest problem (really, the only major one) is that it’s new and hasn’t been widely adopted outside the techie world. But the best way to change that is to sign up.
Now that free accounts are available by invitation, there’s no good reason not to sign up and poke around a bit. If you’re interested in giving it a try, email me or leave a comment with your email address and I’ll shoot you an invite.
Once you’re there, look me up. Just look for nerdy, language-related posts from @vowels.