Wednesday, December 1, 2010


From "The phonetics-phonology interface" by John Kingston in The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology (2007, Paul de Lacy ed.)
The development of tone from an earlier contrast in laryngeal articulations of an adjacent consonant is an extremely common sound change (Hombert, Ohala, & Ewan, 1979), particularly in the language families of East and Southeast Asia.

There are two assertions in this quote, and I think one of them is far more mysterious than the other. It's interesting to me how easily they can be mixed in a single breath.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Portmanteau → Cran-Morph

Q: What do you call a Labrador - Poodle cross breed?
A: A Labradoodle.

Q: What do you call a Golden Retriever - Poodle cross breed?
A: A Goldendoodle.

It's a thing.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unsafe for who?

Not infrequently, I will hear someone from the UPenn community (undergrad / grad / faculty / staff) complain about how unsafe Philadelphia, or West Philadelphia is. For some reason, I always become defensively offensive in these conversations, and I'm not sure why. It's not just a Philly pride thing. I have a  different emotional response when someone says that New York is better than Philly, or that Philly is dirty, etc. Now, a recent police shootout with a carjacker on the West side of campus, leaving one of the carjackers dead, has brought this issue to the top of my mind. The whole incident began and ended within 10 minutes it appears, and the Department of Public Safety sent out an e-mail with some details of the event an hour later. The fact that many Penn students are angry that they didn't receive a text message sooner than that is raising that same feeling of defensive offence.

This post is about why I think I feel that way. I think it's likely to be unpopular. So, let me say from the outset that as a description of an emotional reaction of mine, it's probably unfair and biased in some ways, and I'm not trying to pass off the contents here as results or facts.

I think I get offensively defensive about the safety of Philadelphia when a Penn person talks about it for two reasons.
  1. I feel that they have rarely stepped back to appreciate their own privileged position in Philadelphia which derives from their Penn affiliation.
  2. I feel that what they call a sense of "unsafety" is actually an uncomfortable class consciousness.

There are a few ways in which Penn students are specially privileged with regards to personal safety. Most strikingly, they have their own private police and security force with omnipresent patrols. They can call for walking escorts anywhere within the UPPD patrol zone. They have a special alert system to send text message warnings about possible and ongoing threats. These are some special services that regular Philadelphia citizens don't have, but there are also many other smaller details where Penn students benefit. For instance, pedestrianized areas on campus are almost universally well lit.

What all this means is that large amounts of time and energy are specially devoted to keeping Penn kids safe, special time and energy that typical Philadelphia citizens don't get.

Also, to say that Philadelphia is unsafe isn't very informative, because the unsafety is not uniformly distributed socially or geographically. Who is Philadelphia unsafe for? I grabbed 2009 homicide data from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and generated this histogram.
When it comes to homicide, it looks like Philadelphia is dangerous for young black men, like the one who was killed in the shoot out.

With Philadelphia population data from the American Community Survey (found on, I came up with an estimated risk of being a murder victim. That is, for every age, race and sex group, I calculated the 1 in X chance of being a murder victim. In the plot below, I've superimposed the estimated risk of a Penn Community member being a murder victim in 2007 and 2008 based on the Penn DPS 2010 Annual Security and Fire Report. There were no murders for 2009 in the report.
According to my rough calculations, a black man in his early 20s had a 1 in 400 risk of being a murder victim in Philadelphia in 2009, while the average Penn community member had a 1 in 25,000 risk of being a murder victim in 2008.

I think it's a fair criticism here to say that data on assault or sexual violence might look different. Certainly young black men wouldn't be at the highest risk for being rape victims. However, I'd be shocked that if for all kinds of violent crime, Penn students weren't many orders of magnitude less likely to be victims than normal Philadelphians.

What grates against my sense of propriety is how the people who objectively appear to be the safest in the city can worry so loudly about their personal safety, and feel entitled to so much, like informational text messages arriving sooner than one hour following an incident. There is a real problem of violence in this city, but Penn students are not its victims, and they already benefit from many special services devoted to their safety.

As for my second reason for getting worked up, everything is much more speculative. I just don't think that when the average Penn student says "Philadelphia isn't safe," they say so because they have been a victim of Philadelphia violence themselves, or know someone who has been, or even know the statistics of the area they're talking about. Instead, I think they're reporting some different kind of emotional reaction to Philadelphia.

There have been a few occasions in my life where I have been in the numerical racial minority, and have, for want of a better expression, felt my whiteness on me. I am fully aware that the fact that this is a rare enough event to be reportable is a function of my straight white cisgendered male privilege. The reason I bring it up at all is because I think I recognize the same kind of feeling in the Penn people who complain about the safety of Philadelphia. Just being in a city, or walking through some if its areas, perhaps they feel their whiteness (approx 55% of the student population) or upper middle classness (approx 70% of the student population from the top 10% income percentile) on them.

Maybe what I just said is true, and maybe it's not. Regardless, my own emotional reaction when a Penn person complains about safety is that their complaint is class based. What bothers me is not their own class consciousness, but rather their conclusion that there is a flaw in the city or their neighborhood that caused them to have this uncomfortable experience. Their presumption that a city and neighborhood most have never lived in ought to be a safe-space for them is offensive to me.

And that is how I feel about that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Midterm Elections in Pennsylvania

As a sort of "for fun" side project, I've been looking at the Pennsylvania senate race results. The Democratic candidate, Joe Sestak, lost by a narrow margin to the Republican candidate, Pat Toomey. I've been kind of interested in the results because 1) it was such a close race, 2) I'm from Pennsylvania, 2) I'm from Philadelphia. As James Carville once said, "Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between," so these election returns could have an interesting distribution.

I got the county-by-county election returns from PA Department of State Website. So, first things first, here's a plot of how many votes each county contributed to each candidate. I've subtracted the Republican votes from the Democratic votes, so that the bars represent the margin of victory for each candidate in each county. The colors of the bars represent the size of the Republican or democratic skew by county (specifically, log(Democratic Votes / Republican Votes)).

The counties that contributed most to Sestak were Philadelphia and Allegheny (where Pittsburgh is located), and the counties that contributed most to Toomey were Lancaster and York. One thing to notice is that while there are a lot of red counties in Pennsylvania, no county is as red as Philadelphia is blue. In fact, the trend in this data is that Philadelphia is exceptionally Democratic.

I know that population size is correlated with Democratic voting. So, I got voter registration data from the PA Recovery Act website, and merged it with the returns data. This figure plots the county population of registered voters by the Democratic skew in the county. I've also included a robust regression line, and labeled the most outlying counties (the top quartile of absolute residuals).

So, Democratic voting is correlated with population size, but Philadelphia is a huge outlier.

There was also a lot of talk about how Democrats were not energized to vote this election, so I wanted to see if you could see that effect in the data. I came up with a rough Democratic Turnout Skew number: log((Democratic Votes / Registered Democrats) / (Republican Votes / Registered Republicans)). Really, this should be based on exit polls, but I decided just to work with what I've got. The more positive this number, the more likely(-ish) a Democrat would be to vote than a Republican in that county, and the more negative, the more likely a Republican would be to vote than a Democrat. I compared this turnout skew to the Democratic Registration Skew: log(Registered Democrats / Registered Republicans).

Here's a plot of that data, with a local regression line (calculated excluding Philadelphia).

In almost all counties, Republicans were more likely to be voting than Democrats, except in the three labeled suburbs of Philadelphia. There seems to be no effect of the Democratic-ness of the county when Democrats are < 50%. However, when a county has more than 50% registered Democrats, Democratic turnout takes a nose dive compared to Republican turnout. This is either because Democrats are less motivated to vote (diffusion of responsibility?) or because Republicans were especially motivated to vote, or both. Again, Philadelphia is a strong outlier.

Lastly, I compared the Democratic voting skew in the senate race to the Democratic skew in the Governor's race.

It looks like all counties were more likely to vote for the Republican candidate for governor. Specifically, voters were about 1.17 times more likely to vote for the Republican governor than for the Republican senator, regardless of how strongly the county went for the Republican or Democratic senate candidate. This is one case where Philadelphia was not an outlier.

So, that is that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Can She pass?

Helo everyone, and welcome to today's episode of Can She Pass?, the game show where we see if she can, well, pass. Our contestant today is a young British girl from Season 1 of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour (original air date, April 19, 1963). While on vacation with her parents in Arizona, she gets accidentally kidnapped, driven south of the border, and witnesses a murder. She desperately wants to be reunited with her parents, and is on the run from the men who kidnapped her. As we meet her now, she has met a good Samaritan, a wonderful, down to earth all American boy who as agreed to sneak her across the border to America. All she has to do is not rouse the suspicion of the border patrol officer.

So everybody, let's ask ourselves: Can She Pass?

Oh no! That was a good faith attempt with "yep", but Americans don't say "r[ɑ]nch," at least not in the South West. You did not pass.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Michael Caine Speech

British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (I don't really know them either) illustrate divergent approaches, and language policing thereof, in the stylistic context of Michael Caine speech... or something like that.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Misunderstanding Pads

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker described language as a nearly miraculous tool for getting our thoughts out of our heads and into others'. That is, language is a tool for communication. Now, some linguists might argue that while language is used for communication, it is not primarily a mechanism of externalizing thoughts.

Either way, in his now out third volume on language change, and in class, Bill Labov has been telling us about how language doesn't even work that good for communication all of the time. Bill has a corpus of natural misunderstandings which was collected by people around Penn. Most of the data was collected in 1987, but we've started collecting more again. Bill has been passing out pads of paper with this printed on them:

Every time one of us experiences a linguistic misunderstanding, or observes one, we have to write it down. It's a kind of fun project, but this post is specifically about these pads.

It occurred to me that we could set up a google form, and have people submit misunderstandings online, automatically compiled into a spreadsheet. As I started setting up the form, I realized that no one was going to want to use it, because it wasn't that cool. To be cool enough for people to be engaged with the collection of data, I'd need to create an iPhone app.

Or, pass out pads of paper. Here's the weird thing. These misunderstanding pads are cool. Everyone I've mentioned them to wants one. And then, once they get them, they carry them around and collect a bunch of data. But they're completely analog! How could something so drastically old fashioned be cool and interesting? I guess that once something becomes so old fashioned, it can be just as novel as the newest, cutting edge thing. An online form is at median banality, but analog pads of paper, and smart phone apps are interesting outliers, albiet on opposite ends of the distribution.

You have to wonder if one day, there will be an expensive and fashionable phone marketed that can only place calls, kind of like Shaker furniture.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

SAT Scores and Family Income

On the Sociological Images blog, I saw a graph posted displaying the relationship between family income and average SAT score.  I wasn't exactly sure how the axes of the graph related to meaningful ranges, so I've recreated it her, superimposing average SAT scores for a few Philadelphia area colleges.

The dark line connects the average score for students on each test within each income category. Each labeled colored line indicates the median SAT score for Philadelphia area colleges. The dashed vertical line indicates US median household income.

As you can see, UPenn is far outside of the range of even the wealthiest income group. Being wealthy seems to get you from Penn State Abington to Drexel or Temple for free. Everyone has to work hard to get scores to get into UPenn, but students from wealthy families have an edge over students from poor families, or even median income families.

Andrew Gelman discussed privilege and SAT scores on his blog once. He made some proposals that instead of rewarding points to disadvantaged students, take points away from advantaged students. His argument in a nutshell:
"Disadvantaged students are defined typically not by a bad thing that they have, but rather by good things that they don't have: financial resources, a high-quality education, and so forth. In contrast, advantaged students get all sorts of freebies."
That is, it is easier to define and deduct the positive effects advantaged students have. His 6 proposals (in condensed form here) were
  1. All high school grades on a 4-point scale (A=4, B=3, etc). No more of this 5-points-for-an-A-in-an-AP course.
  2. Subtract points for taking the SAT multiple times.
  3. Subtract points for taking longer on the SAT.
  4. Subtract points for taking a commercial coaching program such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.
  5. Subtract points for going to a private school.
  6. Subtract points if your school (public or private) has its own SAT preparation program.
Now, some commenters thought this was unfair for reasons that are kind of fuzzy. We could take the definition of "privilege" in this context to mean unequal outcomes for equal efforts. Wealthy kids who take SAT prep classes don't, by definition, work harder than poor kids, but they will receive better outcomes.

Others said, "Shouldn't parents with means be allowed to buy the best education for their children?" Given the premises that some schooling is better than others, and that with better schooling comes better economic opportunities, I think it is only reasonable that parents try to do the best that they can for their children. However, the normative suggestion that it should be the case that you can buy a better education is an offensive social attitude to me.

However, here's a super cynical thought experiment. Let's say that you could implement a perfect privilege normalizer for SAT scores, either by boosting the underprivileged or by deducting from the overprivileged, so that only the true aptitude of students shone through. How would this affect the college admissions process?

Well, let's take the purpose of college education to be purely status conveyance. At least, it's status conveyance that separates elite colleges from the rest. To be an effective status conveyer, you need to be careful about who you convey it to. That is, you need to be sure that you're only conveying status to the right kind of people. That is, you should only convey status to people who already have status.

So as it stands now, you're very lucky as a college, because people with more status do better on the SAT, but the SAT appears to be meritocratic on the surface. Hey presto, there's your gatekeeping device. What happens when you take away the status effect on SAT scores? The SAT becomes a poor gatekeeper.  Therefore, I would predict that if SAT scores were effectively normalized for privilege, you would see a de-emphasis of their importance in college admissions, and a redoubled emphasis on the qualitative materials, like extracurricular activity resume, and writing sample.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

AAVE in Big Green Neon Letters

I was just sent a music video for Sxip Shirey's song I live in New York City. It's a pretty cool song (even if it is about NYC). Shirey is apparently known for his creative instruments, and this song features his playing-a-harmonica-into-a-bullhorn-aphone (my own coining).

But this post isn't about playful morphology. At 4 seconds into the video, a scene flashes by which displays AAVE in big green neon lights.

Of course, the possessive marker "'s" is frequently (or usually?) omitted in AAVE. Thus, what would be "Alex's Barber Shop" in White NYC English is "Alex Barber Shop" in AAVE.

I find examples of dialectal features that are carved into stone (or neon signs or whatever) really interesting, specifically because of how much effort is involved in putting them there. Talk is really cheap compared to the cost of creating a neon sign. Some people might argue that dialects like AAVE are just sloppily spoken Standard English, but could you really argue that the sign says "Alex Barber Shop" due to laziness? I've never owned a barber shop, but if I did, I'd definitely check the neon sign order form three or four times to make sure that it said exactly what I wanted it to say. Therefore, I conclude that Alex's sign says "Alex Barber Shop" because he meant it to, and he must have invested a lot of energy and money to make sure it said exactly that.

This also reminds me of something Bill Labov talks about1. He has a presentation where he puts up a picture of a Dunkin' Donuts sign. Then he asks us why Dunkin' Donuts decided to call themselves Dunkin' Donuts. "Because," he says, "everyone knows that Dunkin' Donuts taste better than Dunking Donuts."

I wonder, then, whether everyone knows that it's better to go to Alex Barber Shop than Alex's Barber Shop.

1. I talk a lot about things Bill Labov talks about, but can I really help it? Can anybody?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pretentious /æ/ hole

This week on Car Talk, there was a wonderful moment that exemplified a feature of the Boston dialect, inter-generational conversations about language change, and the importance of covert prestige.

At 22 minutes into the show, someone calls in with the name Cara (or Kara or something). While trying to figure out whether to pronounce her name as C[a]ra or C[æ]ra, Tom brings up something his kids give him trouble for. Here's a transcript of the relevant part, with the audio below.

Tom:My kids always make fun of me because I say "c[a:]n't." "I c[a:]n't do that." They say you're supposed to say "c[eə]n't."
Caller:You are.
Tom: "C[eə]n't." They think I'm being pretentious when I say "c[a:]n't."
Ray:Well your mother's sister would be your what?
Tom:My [a:]nt.
Ray: [a:]nt.
Caller: Oh, see.
Ray: That sounds rather pretentious, doesn't it?
Caller: You are pretentious.
Tom: It does! No yeah. And then they say to me, "Oh! Do you eat pot[a:]tos or pot[ei]tos?" And I say, "Get lost!"

Of course, Tom's kids are making fun of his broad-a system, which is a receding feature of Boston English. The really interesting thing about Tom's conversation with his kids is that they are informing him of the new norm. He's supposed to say "c[eə]n't" you see. Typically language policing runs in the opposite generational direction. However, as Bill Labov has casually mentioned, usage notes for incoming norms are one of the few things for which parents will take their children's advice, another being makeup.

The other interesting thing here is Tom's kids' attitude towards the classic Boston broad-a. They think it sounds pretentious. Even though it is a conservative form of the local dialect, I suspect broad-a indexes "British" for Tom's kids. But when a Brit uses broad-a, I'm sure Tom's kids, along with most Americans, think it sounds fancy. Why does it sound pretentious when Tom uses it?

Because who does he think he is! It's important to not sound too trashy or lower class, but it's also important to not try to sound better than you are. A related, but different example of this tension comes from Suzanne Evans Wagner's dissertation. Short-a in Philadelphia is tensed from [æ] to [eə] in many environments, including before voiceless fricatives like /f/. Wagner's dissertation includes this story of a Philadelphian returning home after a year at college:
And I was telling my mom the story. I was like, “Yeah, I was laughing [læfɪn] really hard at that.” My mom was like, “Did you just say laughing [læfɪn]?” And I was like, “Yeah, I did.” She was like, “Never fucking say that again.”
Abandoning the authentic Philadelphia short-a required a swift and firm response from this girl's mother. In the context of Tom's story, it's interesting to wonder about what circumstances had to obtain for a form which is actually authentic to be reanalyzed as foreign by the younger speakers in the community.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


On Wednesdays, I have two free lunches, one after another. The first is associated with Penn Language and Communication IGERT program. The second is called Splunch, for speech and phonetics lunch, hosted by the phonetics lab.

At football games, Penn undergrads throw slices of toast onto the field. It's a tradition that started after alcohol was banned in the football field. During the fight song (or the school song, or some song like that), there's a line that goes "Here's a toast, to dear old Ben[jamin Franklin]".  The engineering department has actually designed a toast zamboni to clean up all the toast from the field.

What ties these two thoughts together is that there is a group of students who want to end the Toast Toss.  I read some of their flyers today, which included some statistics on poverty and hunger in Philadelphia. The line that caught my eye said "What does the Toast Toss mean about Penn?" I'm struck by the fact that I had never reflected on how frivolously throwing bread around, or receiving two free lunches in one day might seem to a chronically poor and hungry person living in my own city.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More on the n-word

I made a rather long blog post about Dr. Laura's "use" of the n-word a few days ago. I talked about how you could reason to a conclusion from theoretical pragmatics that Dr. Laura should never have (technically) mentioned the n-word, because it doesn't have to be used to deliver its expressive content. I've just experienced some evidence that for some people, any reference to the words existence is enough to deliver its expressive content.

On the StackExchange English Language and Usage site, someone asked why American English doesn't use -er pejoratives like "wanker" or "nutter." I posted an answer saying that American English doesn't use those pejoratives, but it does use many others, like "cracker" or "motherfucker". I included a list taken from Wikipedia.

In one of the comments, a site moderator said
Some others: codger, greaser, hater, muckraker, poser, not to mention the “N-word”, which ends in -er.
In response to that comment, someone else said
The "N" word is offensive! As are the others but, in particular, the reference to the "N" word. I am disappointed [...]. I should think a moderator would steer well clear.

Again, like with Dr. Laura, the moderator didn't use use the n-word, he merely mentioned it. But, he also used what I assume is the standard taboo avoidance term: n-word. Even this was enough to offend some commenters.

P.S. John McWhorter has a bit about the history use of the n-word and other racial slurs as in-group terms.

Friday, August 27, 2010

/ay/, Animated.

The Animation

Click on the image to see the animation.

The Data

The data underlying the animation consists of 928 tokens of /ay/ drawn from an interview with a 60 year old Philadelphian. The data was transcribed by an undergraduate supported by an NSF grant. It is coincidental that I was also the interviewer. A forced alignment of the transcript to the audio was performed using the Penn Phonetics Forced Aligner (P2FA). I extracted formant measurements at 6 millisecond intervals from every stressed /ay/ using Praat. I coded contextual information based on a syllabification of CMU dictionary transcriptions.

One super-long token of /ay/ was excluded because it was extremely poorly tracked, possibly due to a misalignment.

The Analysis

I rescaled the time variable to between 0 and 1 for all tokens. I then fit a smoothing spline anova model for F1 and F2 in R using ssanova() from the gss package with the following formulas
  • F1 ~ Voice*log(Duration)*Time
  • F2 ~ Voice*log(Duration)*Time
These models took a long time to fit. Using these F1 and F2 models, I got the predicted fits for F1 and F2 values at given time point in a vowel of a given duration in a given voicing context.

The Animation (again)

The "velocity" of the "gesture" is represented in two ways:
  1. The larger the point, the slower the velocity.
  2. The bluer the point, the slower the velocity.
However, these two indicators have different scales.
  1. Size: Size represents velocity relative to vowels of any duration. Two points of the same size in a short vowel and a long vowel represent the same velocity
  2. Color: Color represents velocity relative to vowels of the same duration. So, a very blue point means "short for a vowel of this duration." Points with the same color from vowels of different durations do not necessarily represent the same velocity.

The x and y axes are negative logged hertz values, and are constrained so that an inch of plot space corresponds to the same amount of negative logged formant space for both x and y.

I generated 100 frames representing a smooth transition from the minimum duration to the maximum duration. At some point, voiceless context /ay/ disappears. This is because no pre-voiceless /ay/s were longer than 0.240 seconds.

Each frame was generated using the ggplot2 library in R, then saved to a .png. Then, I used png2swf from swftools to sew the .png's together into a flash animation running at 15 frames per second.

Room for Improvement

The formant data was very messy. I simply set the maximum formant and number of formants for the entire file, without making any adjustment. I might try to implement some kind of estimate evaluation like from Keelan Evanini's dissertation, except bootstrapping from the speaker's own data.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dr. Laura Effed Up

For those who haven't heard, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a well known conservative radio talk show host, has recently retired from radio after using the N-word multiple times during a conversation with an African American caller. You can read a transcript and listen to audio here if you so wish. It's just as ugly as you would imagine it to be.

Usually when a story like this comes up, there are three questions that are repeated over and over in the public discourse.
  1. What is the nature of my right to free speech vis-a-vis offensive speech?
  2. Doesn't speaker intent matter?
  3. Why can African Americans use the n-word as an in-group term, but I can't?
As far as 1. goes, I'm a linguist dammit, not the ACLU! But, no one has been arrested, for what they said, and Dr. Laura was not forced off the air by a government agency. As Word said
In the United States we can say anything we want as we are protected by the first amendment, but that does not mean that it will or should always be tolerated.
And that's all I'll have to say about that.

As for 2. and 3., I think these are not unreasonable questions to ask in a cultural vacuum. After taking cultural history into account though, the usual answer to 2. and 3. is that these are just the prices that you pay after centuries of continuous social domination, which you have (albeit unknowingly) cashed in on and benefited from in your own life. I would say it is a good exercise to accept that as a sufficient answer, although I understand why that will really piss some people off. Some bad things happen to everyone, and as Victor Frankl said
a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.

But, the whole reason I'm making this post is that I think there are good answers to 2. and 3. even within a cultural vacuum (ish).  When news stories like these come up, I'm specifically reminded of a paper by Chris Potts on expressives.  The paper in question is called "The expressive dimension", and it appeared in Theoretical Linguistics in 2007 (you can find a copy on his website). In this paper, Potts defines expressives as words or phrases which indicate an attitude of one entity towards another, and specifies that attitude's intensity and positivity/negativity. I should also note that Potts' paper was not written to address the morality of public usage of offensive speech. Rather, he was addressing theoretical questions within pragmatics, and I have decided to apply his reasoning to this specific case.

The aspects of expressives which Potts identifies which are crucial for answering questions about 2., speaker intent, are their independence and immediacy. Potts says that expressives are independent from the propositional content (what is being said) of the sentences they're embedded in. To take his example:
(4) That bastard Kresge is famous.
(5) Kresge is famous
(4) and (5) mean the same thing in a very strict sense, but adding the expressive "that bastard" adds an additional expressive meaning. This goes to say that it is not necessary to demonstrate that Dr. Laura called some an n-word in order to claim that she entered the attitudes conveyed by the n-word into the discourse, because the expressive content of an utterance is independent from the propositional content of an utterance anyway.

Immediacy is closely related. As Potts says
the act of uttering an expressive morpheme is suffcient for conveying its content.
That is, expressives are essentially performative. By merely saying the word, Dr. Laura was immediately introducing the attitudes associated with it into the context. Just like you can't unring a bell, you can't unsay the n-word.

(Incidentally, the argumentation of the previous two paragraphs is a large part of why I've decided to only write "n-word" in even this dispassionate and theoretical blog post.)

I think reasoning from Potts' paper can also address 3., the use of the n-word as an in-group term. He says that another property of expressives is perspective dependence. Remember how I defined an expressive as "words or phrases which indicate an attitude of one entity towards another, and specifies that attitude's intensity and positivity/negativity"? Well, the n-word could be understood to indicate this attitude between these entities:
  • People who find blackness hateful...
  • ...have explosively negative attitudes towards...
  • people.
Now, if two African Americans are having a conversation, and one calls the other the n-word, the attitude which as been entered into the context is one of some third party against both of them. From there, it's not very hard to understand how the n-word became a recognition of group identity. So, to answer Dr. Laura's question, that's why black comedians can use the word, but you really really can't.

It's easy to imagine something that started off as an in-group term being used as an epithet also. Let's say that "dude" means something like
  • The Man...
  • mildly irritated by...
  • ...youth culture.
Kids would call each other dude all the time, but if a teacher said "You failed the test, dude," that would be a clear epithet. Of course, it would be no where near as awful as the n-word, because the intensity of the attitude conveyed by "dude" is much less.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Language Use and Aging

There was a recent scene from Louis C.K.'s new show Louie which highlights another reason why language change really bugs some people: it makes them feel old. At least, that was my reading of the scene combined with my familiarity with C.K.'s other work.

Feeling depressed after dropping his girls off with their mother for a week, Louis has a one-off smoking and drinking bender with his neighbor. He wakes up the next morning extremely hung over, and ventures out for a coffee.

Clearly Louie feels like everything the young, hip people around him are saying is both meaningless and incomprehensible.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hyena Vocalizations

Recently, I've been helping a friend analyze some Hyena vocalizations he recorded in the field. He's specifically looking at whoops. Here's a recording of a hyena whoop that a different researcher posted to the web: Whoop (paper). It's been a lot of fun and, with the permission of the researcher, I'd like to show you a spectrogram and a pitch track of a whoop.

There, wasn't that nice?

"People’s spoken language should go unmolested"

Time for a sociolinguist in the news Shout Out, or SITNSO. There is a brief editorial piece on Kirk Hazen in the NYT today, called Say it Loud (via David Durian).

“People’s spoken language should go unmolested,” Dr. Hazen told the grateful students that day, while also urging them to embrace change. “All living language is change.”

Friday, August 20, 2010

On Marc Hauser and Science

Things are looking very bad for Marc Hauser(via Language Log), and it's been sending shivers up and down the spines of a lot of people I know. What he's been accused of seems like the worst thing that could happen. It's like learning that someone from your neighborhood is a serial killer; the stuff of hushed conversations in the hallway. "Oh my god! I was just about to cite that paper too. And I know a guy whose brother was an RA in his lab. I mean, everyone knew some of this stuff was a stretch, but this?"

I'd like to reflect on what this news means for science. Hauser's behavior was, if the final verdict ends up being what it looks like it's going to be, completely reprehensible. Fudging data is antithetical to the progress of science, and extremely damaging to public understanding of science. To quote Shaggy 2 Dope from the Insane Clown Posse:
Fucking magnets. How do they work? And I don't want to talk to a scientist. Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.
Insane Clown Posse, Miracles
The proliferation of attitudes like Mr. Dope's makes Hauser's (alleged) actions even more shameful, especially as it seemed like he tried to craft a lot of his work for broader public consumption.

But at the end of a day, even though a scientist failed, science was successful. According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed's story, research assistants in Hauser's lab successfully utilized the scientific method to discover inconsistencies in the data. Hauser's coding was not reproducible from the raw data, eventually leading one of his research assistants to report him to higher ups at Harvard. Here is a clear case of scientific progress at work, with no regard for the status or authority of the researchers involved.

And, I think the consequences will be positive, over all. This should serve as a reminder to us all of the importance of reproducibility or our research. There will be broader demand to demonstrate that we are not Hausering the data (you heard it here first!), which means publishing more raw data, which means cleaner, more careful research.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Britney Spears Tongue

This is a pretty interesting thing. Apparently, when singing (or at least appearing to sing in music videos) Brittany Spears has apico-labial /l/. Look up any given video of her being interviewed, and she's not doing it.

Is this a singing / acting thing?

This live footage shows her doing the same thing.

This is quite an interesting salient non-acoustic style thing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On the bagel lady

Briefly, I think the Starbucks bagel lady's argument is probably semantically sound, but not pragmatically. Thus, she was not engaging in good social behavior.

She ordered a whole wheat bagel, and refused to specify that she didn't want anything on it. Then, she got belligerent and was escorted out by the cops. Her argument is that
When you go to Burger King, you don't have to list the six things you don't want.
So, that actually makes good sense to me. The list of things that she doesn't want is potentially infinite, so if I had to design an efficient computational system for taking orders, it would return only exactly what was requested.

However, let's get realistic / pragmatic. Who ever wants just a bagel? I'm actually someone who frequently orders everything bagels as-is, and even if I say "I'll have an everything bagel as-is," the baristas will usually clarify "So, no cream cheese or anything? Not even sliced?" Having bagels with nothing on them is unusual, and I accept that. There is a certain convention that an order for a bagel is an order for a bagel plus some spread. That's just a fact of our social world.

This lady was upset that she was asked to specify "with nothing," but I bet she'd also be pissed if she asked someone if they knew what time it was and they replied, "Yes."

Language Use and Morality

People really, really like complaining about language use. Just check out the "peeving" tag on Language Log where they, of course, discuss the peevers rather than peeve themselves. The thing that has always struck me about peevers is how they view non-standard language use and language change through a moral lens. They certainly utilize moral language in their rhetoric. A great example is the  Queen's English Society. Some choice quotes from their website (emphasis is my own):
The Society has been concerned about the decline in standards in the use of English for many years.  Our language faces a number of challenges, as it becomes ever more widely used by people with ever less knowledge of it and respect for it.
We aim to: [...] Help our youngsters to learn English and enjoy using it properly.
Every time something goes wrong [...] we hear the phrase "communications failure." But nobody will plainly admit that it was a failure to read and write documents in standard English.
The QES could become the recognised guardian of proper English and we would strive to halt the decline in standards in its use.
The focus on downward decline, the fate of our children, and the failure to recognize the true source of our problems could all be lifted from an evangelical preacher's call to recommit our lives to Christ.

Bill Labov has also noted to us in class that language change is unique among social changes. He said that there are some older people who keep up with fashion, music and technology, but no one has ever been interviewed who said "You know, it's really great the way kids are talking these days. They're just doing great things with the language, and I hope they keep it up."

I have to wonder why language is moralized. A lot has to do with class and social structures certainly. Certain uses of language become associated with certain groups of people, and then attitudes towards those groups of people are transferred to the uses of language. But I think there might also be more to it than social attitudes. For instance, I doubt the woman who recently engaged in what amounts to linguistic (not-so) civil disobedience in a Starbucks was motivated by her social attitudes towards baristas.  Likewise for the emotional reports by some that things like misplaced apostrophes "make [them] want to stab bunnies."

I think it would be worth evaluating this peeving as being exactly what it looks like: a form of moral judgment. There was a TED talk that captured my imagination on this topic a while ago by Jonathan Haidt. He was discussing his Moral Foundation Theory. He hypothesizes that there are 5 moral foundations of moral judgment:
  1. Harm / care
  2. Fairness / reciprocity
  3. Ingroup / loyalty
  4. Authority / respect
  5. Purity / sanctity
Here is his talk:

The focus of his talk is on the difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to to focus on the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity moral foundations and reject the the aspects of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity which have repressive social effects. Conservatives, on the other hand, embrace all five foundations given the premise that order and security are better than chaos. The crucial quote from his talk comes at 14:45.
The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious, and it's really easy to lose.
That, I feel, must be the point of view of all peevers who take a moralistic stance on language use. In a sense they are right. The order and structure of human language is what allows it to function. Were that structure to crumble, so might many of our most useful and valuable human institutions.

However, that is where the peevers' premises are false. Language has been changing ever since humans have been speaking (by hypothesis), and there is no sense in which any observable changes in the available historical record have either contributed to or detracted from the orderliness of language. I'm not speaking from a hippy dippy anything goes social attitude either. What I mean is that in order for the Queen's English Society to even begin making the moral judgments they do, they would have to empirically demonstrate that the following conditions obtain:
  • There is a meaningful scale of measurement for the orderliness and logicalness of a particular spoken language.
  • The long chain of demonstrable language changes which took place between Proto-Indo-European and Modern English have been, on the whole, optimizing the orderliness of the spoken language.
  • The contemporary language changes currently occurring in Modern English are, on the whole, destructive to the orderliness of the spoken language.
The broad consensus of the language scientific community is that the first condition does not obtain, and therefore the following two conditions are not meaningful.

In conclusion, I feel bad for the peevers' misapprehension. Too many people already spend too much time engaged in moral outrage behavior based on false premises. These language peevers could be spending their mental time and energy on something actually socially useful. On the other hand, I am irritated by their anti-rationalism. When it comes to language peeving, there are empirical facts that are relevant to the very formulation of moral judgments, but these facts are surprisingly of little importance or interest to the peevers. That is a peeve of mine.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"My aunt had a psychopathic brain, and she lived to be 90."

There was recently an interesting NPR story about a neuroscientist who studies the biological basis of psychopathy. The surprising twist is that he himself has genetic and brain activity indicators of being a violent psychopath! But, he seems like such a nice guy. The conclusion of the story is that we are not simply products of our biological determinants; environmental factors also play a very strong role.

And of course, that must be true. Just look at language. We speak a particular language because we have a genetic predisposition to do so, and then we were exposed to a particular language environment. The fact that nature / nurture arguments are still raging with regards to language, which is a pretty self contained system, makes me think that they will take a long time to be resolved for issues like psychopathy.

However, I think that one of the reasons this is such an interesting story is because it's emotionally satisfying, and that's not a good thing. It's too easy to hear this story and think, "He found this brain activity is related to psychopathy, but he has that brain activity, and he's not a psychopath. Therefore, people are magic."

First off, I don't know that Dr. Fallon has figured out the risk of psychopathy associated with having this brain activity. From what I understand from this NPR story and his TED talk, he's figured out that people who are psychopaths tend to have this particular brain activity, but I don't think he's done the study to figure out how many people with this brain activity are psychopaths. That second proportion is the necessary one to know in order to evaluate how surprising or unsurprising Dr. Fallon's peaceful existence is.

Secondly, as with almost all determinants of any kind of outcome, they only operate probabilistically. For instance, I think it's pretty much accepted wisdom that smoking is highly correlated with a variety of health problems. However, everyone also knows someone, the mythical aunt from the title of this post for instance, who smoked every day and lived to be very old. That's not contrary evidence to the fact that smoking causes health problems. In fact, it's expected that some people would have no health problems, all else being equal. That's the definition of probability.

So, even if the risk of psychopathy was very high given this brain activity (which again, it might not be), the fact that some one person with this brain activity is not a psychopath shouldn't be surprising, and doesn't really call the biological basis of behavior into question. The fact that he also happens to study the biological basis if psychopathy just happens to sex the story up.

The moral of the story is to think twice about science journalism that has an emotionally satisfying end to it.

Lost: Season 6 and Linguistics

I've been watching the entire series of of Lost this summer. I've been ok with the fantastical and bullshitty stuff. For instance, CPR always works, and I don't know what an L4 vertebra is, but if you have one, you're basically fucked on this show. I'm even comfortable with the fact that not everything will make sense in the end.

However, I'm starting to get bugged how they've decided to run roughshod over my domain (linguistics) in season 6 all of a sudden! My major beefs so far are:


1) I don't care how long Richard was on that Island. There's no way he can be speaking unaccented English in 2010. When he got there, he was in his early 40s and just learning English L2. Now all of a sudden he's got a perfect American accent!? I think there's no doubt that 40 is way outside he critical period!

2) This is more nitpicky (maybe), but would an 1800s Spaniard really have said "etoy"? /s/ deletion is very common in American Spanishes, and I believe it clearly distinguishes American from Europe an Spanish nowadays.
[edit: Apparently there is s-deletion in Canarian Spanish. It probably still wasn't period appropriate, but whatever.]
 I think the show should get props for giving the actor a chance to showcase his bilingualism though (Nestor Carbonell is Cuban American). Maybe that fact un-peeves this peeve.

2 (again, cause the last one didn't count)) Jacob hits Richard in the back of the head and says in such an American accent, "Whad're you doin' here?"(that "d" represents a flap) Now, I don't know the whole deal on Jacob yet, but I get the gist that he's maybe supposed to be even ancient. Couldn't they at least go with the cinematic trope that ancient = British accent?

3) Sun runs into a tree and then forgets English? And Jack thinks it might be temporary aphasia which "affects the language center in your brain." It was nice that the writers wrote the following dialogue between Miles and Lapidus:

Miles: She hits her head and forgets English? We're supposed to buy that?

Lapidus: ...asks the man who communes with the dead.

Ok writers, I get it. Freaky stuff happens on this show. But it would be freakier if, say, she had some mystical vision, then couldn't remember English, but after working through her internal conflict over leaving the island, she gains her English back. A simple log to the head doesn't invite mystical bullshit.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"P[ʌi]sonal files"

This morning, I was passively listening to NPR's On the Media when I heard the person being interviewed say
...p[ʌi]sonal files of inmates and p[ʌi]sonnel...

As I've blogged before, I'm susceptible to noticing [ʌi] showing up in strange places. But, this token was not of the usual type for me. Usually I hear [ʌi] as a raised variant of the phoneme /ay/, as in "bike" or "rice" or "write." But in this case, [ʌi] was a realization of an r-colored schwa, as in "bird", or more commonly "thirty-third."

"[tʌi]ty-[tʌi]d" for "thirty-third" is a known and old variable of New York City speech. As far as I know, it has been receding along with some other socially recognized markers of NYC speech, like r-lessness, although I don't know the most recent scholarship on this particular variable.

So, I thought I was listening to an interview with an old-school New Yorker. But then, I started hearing all of these Southern features, specifically monophthongization of /oy/ in "t[ɔ]let tissue" and of /ay/ in "div[a]d." Mysterious, no?

No! I recalled seeing a paper presented by Thea Strand, Michael Wroblewski & Mark K. Good called "Words, wuds, woids': Variation in BIRD realization in Southern Louisiana at the NWAV 36 conference. In fact, [ʌi] for r-colored schwa is also a feature of African American speech in southern Louisiana. I looked up the show piece, and the biography of the interviewee. Wilbert Rideau (Wikipedia, personal website) was the editor of the first (and only?) uncensored prison publication, and he grew up in in Lake Charles, LA.

Check out the OTM piece. Rideau is a wonderful dialect speaker, and his story is very interesting.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Dwindling" Whites

*Disclaimer* I am not a demographer. I am a linguist. Yet, I do pretty ok with quantitative data, and visual display thereof. Therefore, I feel at least equally qualified as the AOL News Contributor who reported "White Population Dwindling as Calif. Grows."

Apparently there has been a trend for White Californians to move out of the state. The important bit of data:
[W]hites accounted for just under 41 percent of California's overall population in 2008, down from 47 percent in 2000.

The article also includes 3D pie charts representing the demographic breakdown of California in 2000 and 2008. These pie charts are object lessons in why you should never use pie charts. Go to the article, look at the pie charts. Now, without cheating (the data is displayed when you hover your mouse over), which group grew more, Asians or Blacks?

The article also links to the California Department of Finance report, which contains the raw data. I've downloaded this data, and carried out my own graphical analysis of it.

Figure 1

Oh the poor dwindling Whites!

A stacked bar chart is also illuminating.

Figure 2

So, there's been a decrease in the size of the White population, but Whites are still the plurality of the state. Does this constitute a dwindling? I'm not much of a semanticist, so I'll just leave that point there.

So what's the big story here? I see two. First is the large increase in size of the Hispanic population. It's clear from Figure 1 that they are on track to become the plurality population in the state. The second is the increase of the Multiracial category. Figure 3 plots the %Annual Change within each group.

Figure 3

While Hispanics, Asians, and Pacific Islanders have been showing an average 3% annual increase in population size, the Multiracial group has been increasing by 6% annually.

Overlooking the big story in the data, overblowing a smaller effect, and producing that god awful pie chart are all symptoms of the same disease, I believe. It's what happens when you have a story, or an analysis first, then look at the data.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blogging Again

I'm just returning from the annual NSF IGERT Project Meeting. I've been supported by an NSF IGERT fellowship during my first two years of graduate school, and was asked to present a poster on my research. Mine was on a dialect geography project I did on the low-back merger and subsequent changes, specifically TRAP retraction and STRUT lowering. I didn't win the poster prize in my research category, but another linguist working in second language acquisition did! Congrats Sunyoung!

I've decided to resurrect this blog after the Digital Science panel discussion. Blogging about my field seems like a fine way to spend my (little) free time. My only apprehension is that I'm blogging openly under my real name. I'm sure everyone in academia has the experience of coming across a paper they wrote in undergrad or early graduate school, and felt a little ashamed and embarrassed by it. Now I'm planning to archive that on the open internet? I've got to be a little crazy.

But, I'm also very passionate, and we all need to fail a lot before finding success. So here goes nothing!

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