Category Archives: linguistics

Speaking out for Science

speaking-waveform
Coming up this Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people around the world will join voices for the March for Science. (The main March will be in Washington, DC, and there are 512 satellite marches planned. I’ll be going to the Boston one.)

Soon after I heard about the march, I not only planned to go, but started working on a design for a t-shirt and sign. As I am a linguist, I wanted to represent speech and language sciences. I made a recording of myself saying my slogan, “speaking out for science,” and put together a graphic with the (orthographic) text, a waveform, and a phonetic transcription in IPA. I put up a draft of my design on Facebook, and got some feedback from other linguists on my transcription. I made a new recording with some clearer articulation, and put up a new image and transcription. I finalized a couple versions of my design (one with a spectrogram), and set up a storefront on TeePublic (an online t-shirt store), and lo and behold, several people ordered shirts!

speaking-spectrogram

A couple of weeks or so later, a (linguist) friend of mine shared a photo of herself in her new shirt. There was lots of gratifying positive feedback, but also a few other (linguist) friends of hers said things like “that’s not how I’d say that,” as well as “that’s not how I’d transcribe that!” There was much back and forth about both articulation and use of diacritics. (Mostly centered around the release of stop consonants, if you want to know the nitty gritty.)

While I admittedly at first felt a bit deflated to have the design I’d made for fun get feedback that felt harsher than what I’ve seen from anonymous reviewers on a conference abstract, I realized that there was an opening for a new variation on the design. Because this is what scientists do. We discuss our methods and our data with our peers, and we revise accordingly.

speaking-multispeaker

So I made some revisions. Whereas the possible variation in saying a simple 4-word phrase at first seemed like an obstacle to get around in choosing a representative production to use for my design, I realized that it was an opportunity for a new design to reflect the variation itself. And so I asked my friends and those friends of friends who’d been part of the discussion to submit recordings of themselves saying the phrase, with the option of sending their own transcription. My new design has 7 different productions of the phrase “speaking out for science,” along with a new sub-slogan: “No matter how you say it, science matters.”
speaking-multilingual

And I had another idea for a design to include more languages. I especially wanted to include a non-spoken language. I consulted with a Deaf friend on how best to represent the word science in ASL (American Sign Language). With her guidance, I consulted a few references (including video), and drew and adjusted a diagram to represent the word. I also included 26 other languages, in addition to English. (And I had to consult others again for help with a few of the languages with non-Roman script, including one friend in Abu Dhabi, and another in Bangladesh.)

And so it is that I have 4 different design variations. I have put together some files that are available for downloading and printing, free for personal use, should anyone else want to use them. (I’m planning on making a couple of two-sided signs, each with 2 of the different designs.) Variations of the designs are also available on t-shirts and on some other stuff on TeePublic.

Below are the files, formatted for printing on 18″x 24″ (but scaleable). The png files have a transparent background. Images were created using Praat and Illustrator.

  • Speaking out for Science: Single speaker waveform [pdf png]
  • Speaking out for Science: Single speaker with spectrogram [pdf png ]
  • Speaking out for Science: multi-speaker [pdf png]
  • Speaking out for Science: multilingual [pdf png ]

Let me know if you decide to use one of my signs. And let me know if you have any suggestions for future versions! (Help me get more voices and more languages. For science!) You can always email me at alejna99 “at” gmail.com.

Edited 4/18/2017: I have updated the pdf and png files to hopefully fix font issues that may come up on different computers. Please do let me know if you run into problems with any of the files!

The past tense, and other grammatical implications of death

One of the things that often strikes us, after someone’s death, is that we have to make a shift in how we speak of that person. It suddenly becomes an error to say “he loves popcorn.” Indpendent of the subject’s history of affinity for popcorn, there is that crossover point between loving popcorn, and having loved popcorn. Survivors undergo a transition where they find themselves using the wrong tense, and self-correcting. The realization that we have erred nags at our minds like the red ink marks of a high school English teacher urging consistency in an essay.

Then there is the loss of conjunction. For years, you go to visit Grammy and Grampa. The conjunction and serves to join two noun phrases [Grammy]NP and [Grampa]NP into a single noun phrase. That noun phrase can then serve in a variety of grammatical functions: subject, with nominative case ([Grammy and Grampa]NP called), or various object positions, with accusative (Let’s visit [Grammy and Grampa]NP), or genitive case (We need to remember to bring that book to [Grammy and Grampa]NP‘s house.) With the absence of one referent, the conjoined noun phrase loses both the conjunction and the second noun phrase. It is a simplification of structure that belies the complicated nature of the end of almost 6 decades of married life, a conjunction of law and love and life together that are only hinted at by the word and.

With this loss of the conjunction, too, comes a shift from the plural to the singular, which of course brings its own implications for subject-verb agreement. In the present tense, English requires a different verb inflection for most third person singular subjects than for plural ones. Grammy and Grampa love it when we visit must change to Grammy loves it when we visit, with the inflectional affix -s added to the verb to reflect that singularity. This, of course, reminds us once more that there is only one of the two members of that former conjoined phrase whose actions, affinities and attributes will, by and large, be discussed using the present tense.

We mustn’t forget, though, that we can hold onto the present tense, and even the future; A whole host of constructions are available to us by keeping Grampa in object positions. I miss Grampa. It’s okay to be sad about Grampa. We will hold onto Grampa’s memory.

musings on the tomato (and suspected pseudonyms)

One of my tangential work-related projects has involved developing materials for labelling disfluencies¹ in speech, especially as they interact with prosody. Disfluencies include a number of phenomena such as filled pauses (um, uh) false starts (Hey! Those are my pa- trousers!) and unexpec- -ted … pauses or lengthening of woooords or partsss of words.² Disfluencies occur very frequently in natural speech, especially in spontaneous speech.³

Since they occur so frequently, it should be really easy to find examples of them, right? Well, yes and no. The trouble is that we’ve been looking for examples that we can redistribute, as part of training materials. Some of the materials we have used in previous research has not been licensed in this way. (A lot of people made such recordings before even imagining the web, let alone that their voices might show up there.) So, I have been on the hunt, on and off for several years, for materials that are suitable: high quality recordings of spontaneous speech produced by native speakers of American English. Those constraints right there limit things more than you might think. And then add on to that the desire to find things that have been released into the public domain, or shared with a creative commons license allowing derivative works and redistribution.

I don’t remember exactly when I came across the Internet Archive, and considered it as a potential resource for finding such soundfiles, but searches had been only moderately fruitful. But when I found the tomato guy, the Internet Archive bore fruit.

Buried among hundreds of podcasts, I found Musings with Sherman Oak, and I found Sherman Oak rambling about eating a tomato. This podcast was not only chock-full of examples of disfluencies, but tagged as public domain. And on top of that, I found it hilarious. If you have a minute, go have a listen to Sherman talking about tomatoes. (The whole episode is only 3 minutes and 17 seconds, but you can get a pretty good idea from the first minute. Or jump ahead to one of my favorite bits, around 1:30: “raw tomatoes are an evil vile thing.”)

I have no idea who Sherman Oak is. Sherman had a blog for a while, also called Musings with Sherman Oak. The blog has very little content, and a suspiciously large number of typos and other quirks. Which is completely in character with Sherman Oaks.

But I have this strong suspicion that Sherman Oak is a just that: a character. I think there’s a strong possibility that it is an actor or comedian, or comedian-actor, creating Sherman. In fact, I have a candidate: Thomas Lennon. (He was on, and one of the creators of, Reno 911, and has done a lot of stand-up and sketch comedy.)⁴

Listening to Sherman, I had this sense that I recognized his voice. And poking around more through some videos of Thomas Lennon on YouTube, I haven’t yet found anything that dissuades me.⁵ In fact, if Sherman Oak is not a character of Thomas Lennon, then he should be.

¹ Yeah, I just linked to Wikipedia. For a much denser and more academic discussion of disfluencies, see Shriberg’s 1994 dissertation.
² i.e. segmental lengthening that is not obviously in the service of phrasing or pitch accents.
³ Spontaneous speech typically is contrasted with read, elicited, or rehearsed speech.
⁴ He also, as is the case with many actors, lives in L.A. There is a district of LA called Sherman Oaks, which could be a coincidence. He is also from a town in Illinois called Oak Park. I only know these things from reading his Wiki page. I never previously had any cause to stalk him.
⁵ See, for example, this interview [youtube] or this stand-up bit [youtube].


Some tomatoes grown by a friend of mine in her garden. I did not eat them, though I have been known to enjoy a tomato. Even a raw one.

acting normal

With my poster sent off to the printer for the conference I’m attending next week, I felt a bit of the pressure ease up. I figured I’d put something up here. When I haven’t been posting regularly, though, I often wonder where to start back in. There are just too many possibilities, with all that’s going on in my life and in my head. Often, I resort to looking back through my photos to see what I’ve been saving. The trouble is, there again are just too many possibilities. I like like to have some sort of rhyme or reason when I post, and of course what I like best is some sort of theme.¹

Happily, the title of my previous post provided, because I came across this photo from a January trip to the Boston Museum of Science. Here are Phoebe and Theo, standing in front of a display demonstrating normal distribution.² (I learned tonight that this type of set-up is called a bean machine, which is a cool thing to be called. Not that I’m saying I want to be called a bean machine.) Anyhow, I couldn’t refrain from making “normal” jokes. I asked Phoebe and Theo to try to look normal as they posed in front of the normal curve.


My two children, acting normal in front of the normal distribution.

¹ I can spend far more time thinking about posting than actually posting.
² I realized that this is a lovely spontaneous usage of a sentence with attachment ambiguity.³ One could read this as “Phoebe and Theo demonstrating normal distribution, in front of a display” which would be high attachment. In case it wasn’t clear, I intended the low attachment reading, with the display doing the demonstrating. If Phoebe and Theo were to try to demonstrate a distribution in front of a display, I expect they’d have an easier time trying to do something bimodal.
³ It’s totally normal to reflect on attachment ambiguities.

Standing in line or standing on line?

Here at collecting tokens, we ask the important questions.

Me, I say “stand in line.” Magpie points out that she says it differently:

In these parts, we stand ON line. :)

I live in New England, she lives in New York. These parts aren’t that far from those parts. But I think my “in line” version reveals my past life as a rolling stone. I always have trouble with the “where I’m from” question, seeing as I’ve lived in New England for over 20 years, but only ever lived in California for 12 years. But I guess my dialect is still more West Coast than East Coast. (You can take the girl out of California, but you can’t take California out of the girl.) I certainly haven’t developed a Massachusetts accent, though it’s possible that some of my vowels have shifted. (Do you say caught and cot with differently? I didn’t used to, but now I’m not so sure. It’s just possible that the occasional [ᴐ] pops up.)

Anyhow, back to the main point: in line or on line? Which do you say, and where are you from? (Or, do you queue?)

For that matter, if you say “stand on line,” do you also say things like “get on line” or “jump on line”? (And what about “Jump in the Line“?)

And while we’re on the topic of prepositions, I’m curious about another thing. I always say “graduate from X,” as in “I graduated from college.” But I hear other say “graduate college.” How about you?

(By the way, there are linguists out there who study this sort of variation, and it’s cool stuff. Check out, for instance, Bert Vaux‘s page of links on dialects, which includes a link to an article with the title “Standing on line at the bubbler with a hoagie in my hand.” Can’t go wrong with that.)

the one about a halfalogue with QQ about cherpumple

Today, at the ISLE conference, I treated myself to going to some talks that have nothing to do with my subfield. Particularly fun was the session on internet idioms:

Section A (CAS 203)
Internet idioms (Chair: Daniel Donoghue)
10:50-11:20 Jon Bakos, “QQ More”
11:25-11:55 Daphné Kerremans and Susanne Stegmayr, “Neologisms on the internet”
12:00-12:30 Ursula Kirsten, “Development of SMS language from 2000 to 2010″

Actually, while it was the title of the session, only one of the three talks was technically about internet-specific idioms. One was on finding and tracking neologisms on the internet, as in using the web as a corpus to track the appearance and usage of new terms, but the neologisms themselves need not have internet origins. The speakers described a tool that they have been developing for this purpose, and illustrated the utility of the tool with a couple examples of neologisms they have tracked: cherpumple and halfalogue. (Cherpumple, by the way, is a dessert involving layers of cake with pies baked in and which may give me nightmares, and halfalogue is a term coined by a researcher to label overheard half conversations when someone nearby is on the phone.) There was also the talk on SMS language, or texting.

I really enjoyed the talk on “QQ,” and learned some new stuff. Such as the meaning of QQ. It’s a generally pejorative term used primarily (or even exclusively?) in online gaming circles, mainly World of Warcraft, and means more-or-less “whining.” It has two competing etymologies, one of which is that it is based on an old game command to suddenly quit a match (Alt + Q + Q), the use of which caused annoyance to other players. The other possible origin is from an emoticon: Q_Q. It makes a little sad face, with the Q tails looking like tears. I’m really intrigued and amused by the idea of a term originating in an emoticon. It’s a strange new world. Or a strange new word. (Plus it’s so gosh-darned cute!) The talk was full of entertaining usage examples, showing (among other things) that QQ usage reflects productive morphology (use as different parts of speech, with affixes, etc.). People will toss around accusations of QQing or being a QQer, or call a discussion a QQ thread. But then it’s also sometimes used sort of self-mockingly or playfully. I found myself wondering whether this term will take off out of those circles, and whether it will make its way into spoken language.

I have to say, I find it more appealing than a cherpumple.

masters of communication


This sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie amuses me. Quite a lot. (Thanks to The Skwib for offering up these tasty nibbles, which are neither plain, nor prawn flavored.)

If you enjoyed that, you might also enjoy sketches by The Two Ronnies. I confess I’d never heard of them until reading the comments for the Fry & Laurie sketch on YouTube. (Which is usually a dangerous endeavor, as 99% of the comments on YouTube are written by 12-year-olds.) However, on this occasion I learned that the sketch above was likely influenced by this other sketch comedy pair. You can see a bit of their skillful timing below in “Crossed Lines.”


And one more from the Two Ronnies. This last one is chock full of fun with phonetic ambiguity. (You scream, I scream, we all scream for phonetic ambiguity.)

(This post actually relates to several of my candidates for categories of things I like, but I won’t count this post as one of my 40 since I don’t have time to say more. But can you guess what some of the things I like are?)