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Glossolalia: Parsey McParseface

Thursday, 19 May, 2016 1 Comment

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things syntactical, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with decacorns, continued with Euro English and today we’re venturing into open-sourced language parsing, which is central to creating better voice recognition technologies for our mobile devices.

Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, began yesterday and the focus is on machine learning and VR, and how these technologies are being used in its core products. For example, Allo is a new app that merges text messaging with a virtual assistant. When it launches this summer, Allo will “monitor” your conversations and offer relevant information. So, if a friend in Manchester invites you out for an Indian meal, Allo would suggest a nearby Balti house. Useful, innit?

In the build up to I/O, Google released SyntaxNet, its open-source neural network framework, which includes Parsey McParseface, an English language plug-in. SyntaxNet provides a foundation for Google’s Natural Language Understanding systems, such as the voice recognition capabilities of the Google Now intelligent personal assistant. Parsey McParseface is based on machine learning algorithms that analyse sentence structure to understand the role of every word and grammatical element.

parsing

“One of the main problems that makes parsing so challenging is that human languages show remarkable levels of ambiguity,” Google explained in a blog post. “It is not uncommon for moderate length sentences — say 20 or 30 words in length — to have hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of possible syntactic structures. A natural language parser must somehow search through all of these alternatives, and find the most plausible structure given the context.”

Google claims Parsey McParseface has achieved 94 percent accuracy interpreting English language news articles. Although not perfect, that’s good enough to be useful in a range of applications, it says.

Note: Despite its popularity, Boaty McBoatface did not became the name of the British government’s new polar research vessel. But it lives on, kind of, in Parsey McParseface, Google’s wry name of its English language parser. Where there’s humour, there’s hope.


Glossolalia: Euro English

Wednesday, 18 May, 2016 2 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things philological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with Valley vocabulary and we’re continuing with Euro English.

On Saturday night in Stockholm, 18-year-old Jamie-Lee Kriewitz became a footnote in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest by achieving last place for Germany with Ghost. This indignity has prompted Die Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the Association for the German Language) to demand that Germany be represented next year in Kiev by a song in German. Making the case, the association’s managing director, Andrea Ewels, said that the Eurovision Song Contest does not reflect the linguistic diversity of Europe and that there are lots of fine German singers of German songs.

Note: The last year a German-language song represented the country was 2007, when the late Roger Cicero sang Frauen regier’n die Welt. It ended up in 19th place from a list of 24 entries. Germany last won in 2010, when Lena sang Satellite, in English.

Only three of the 42 entries in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest were not in English. Back in 1956, when the event began, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the contest, didn’t specify which language singers could use as it was expected that each nation would use its own. And everyone did until 1965, when Ingvar Wixell represented Sweden with Absent Friend. France protested. Charles de Gaulle, the French President, who had vetoed Britain’s application for EEC membership in 1963, argued that English “hegemony” would damage the cultural variety of the contest and the EBU was forced to stipulate that each country’s entry to be in an official language of that land.

The turbulent Swedes struck back in 1973 and persuaded the EBU to drop the “official language” rule, which resulted in a run of English-language winners, including ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974. The Élysée Palace was not pleased and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing used his power to compel the EBU to restore the language restriction in 1978 and it remained in place until 1999. Since then, only one non-English song has won the contest: Serbia’s Molitva in 2006. To show how far the wheel has turned, the French and Italian entrants this year had choruses in English and the Spanish song was totalmente in English.

In Paris, Rome, Madrid and Moscow, the reality that English is the language of global music has finally sunk in. International audiences want to listen to songs they can understand and they’re used to hearing songs in English, not in Russian or Ukrainian.

With an audience of some 200 million, the Eurovision Song Contest is the goose that lays golden eggs annually for the EBU. It’s now the most-watched non-sports live television event in the world, and Asia and America are knocking on the door. The idea that participating countries would compete with songs that cannot win, to satisfy a linguistic policy, is ludicrous. It’s an international song contest, sung increasingly in the language of popular culture. Competing nations are not being made to sing in English; they want to because they know the fate of songs that are not in English.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a success and its linguistic issue has been settled, but the debate about the role of English in Europe is far from sorted. On Thursday, 23 June, a referendum will be held on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. If “Brexit” were to happen, the 450 million citizens of the EU would find themselves using a lingua franca spoken officially only in the Republic of Ireland (population 4.6 million) and co-officially in Malta (population 450,000). How will this affect Euro English? More on this during our Brexit week in June.


Glossolalia: Decacorns

Tuesday, 17 May, 2016 3 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things lexical, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. Yesterday, it was Singlish; today, it’s the turn of Valley vocabulary. The vocabulary of Silicon Valley, that is. In that vale of code, people speak of “dogfooding,” which means “using your own product or service internally as a way to validate its quality and capabilities.” According to digital lore, the word was coined in 1988 by David Cutler, who led the development of Windows NT, the basis of the modern Windows personal computer operating system.

Dogfooding is one of the many geeky terms in Valley Speak: Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley by the husband-and-wife team of Rochelle Kopp and Steven Ganz. They had the very clever idea of funding the book via the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, and 149 backers pledged $5,545 to help make their dream come true. By Valley standards, $5,545 a modest sum, but like those mighty oaks that from little acorns grow, many a unicorn started small. A unicorn, by the way, is a startup with a valuation of a billion dollars, but such is the torrid pace of the Valley that the unicorn is now giving way to the fabled “decacorn,” which has a $10 billion valuation. All this jargon is the by-product of technology, marketing and management guff and, along with reading Valley Speak, an entertaining way of keeping up with it is to watch HBO’s satire, Silicon Valley.


Glossolalia: Singlish

Monday, 16 May, 2016 3 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things etymological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language and we’re kicking off with Singlish, a hodgepodge dialect of Singapore’s official state languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — as well as bits of Bengali, Cantonese and Hokkien.

To “talk cock” is Singlish for “to talk nonsense” and the definition can be found in The Coxford Singlish Dictionary by Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, which was published in 2002, and has sold more than 30,000 copies since. “Bo hee hae ma ho” is the Singlish equivalent of “Beggars can’t be choosers,” and means “When there’s no fish, prawns are good too.” The latter example is courtesy of Gwee Li Sui, the Singaporean poet, novelist and literary critic. “Do You Speak Singlish?” is the question he posed yesterday to readers of the New York Times. Singlish, he said, “is one of Singapore’s few unique cultural creations” and it seems to be thriving, despite official attempts to outlaw it:

“The government’s war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently. The compulsory national service, which brings together male Singaporeans from all walks of life, has only underlined that Singlish is the natural lingua franca of the grunts.”

To an outsider’s ear, Singlish sounds like verbalized text messaging: concise, energetic, abbreviated, playful, elastic. Here, Gwee Li Sui tok the tok.


To singularize, or pluralize, that is the question

Monday, 2 May, 2016 0 Comments

The Rainy Day copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the twelfth edition, dates from 2011 and it’s beginning to show its age. Take the word “singularity,” which all nerds know is the approaching era when “our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today.” According to our Concise Oxford English Dictionary, however, the definition goes like this:

singularity n (pl singularities) 1 the state, fact, or quality of being singular. 2 Physics & Mathematics a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially a point of infinite density at the centre of a black hole.

The entry on “singularity” is followed by the definition of “singularize” or “singularise”, which is a verb, “1 make distinct or conspicuous. 2 give a singular form to (a word).” Its counterpart, “pluralize/pluralise”, is defined as “1 make something more numerous. 2 give a plural form to a word.” And this brings us to GitHub, the largest host of source code in the world, with 12 million users and some 31 million repositories, where Blake Embrey has added a module titled “pluralize” that uses “a pre-defined list of rules, applied in order, to singularize or pluralize a given word. There are many cases where this is useful, such as any automation based on user input,” he says.

Who, apart from lexicographers and coders, care about such wordy matters? Apple does, and tomorrow we’ll find out why Apple is at war with the singular and the plural of its product(s). Example: “It would be proper to say ‘I have 3 Macintosh.'”


Surreal English/Japanese phrases

Tuesday, 26 April, 2016 0 Comments

“What a nice barbed wire.”
“Thank you. I knitted it myself.”

While that’s the kind of surreal exchange one could imagine happening in a bar on Mars run by Salvador Dali, it’s actually an example of conversational English as presented by English Vocabulary Not on Any Test, a book that’s big in Japan. And that’s not just an idle phrase, either. The Twitter account has 88,000 followers. The book depicts ordinary people doing ordinary things, using English and Japanese. The target market is Japanese speakers who want to learn English as it is used in conversation across the Anglosphere. Well, an Anglosphere where HR managers convey the bad news by saying, “I’m afraid to say this, but you are passed your best-before date.”

Japanese English

Note: “octopus wiring” is authentic Japanese English and the term is used internationally to described hazardous arrangements of electrical cables.


Infobesity and infoxication, now and then

Monday, 25 April, 2016 0 Comments

There’s a synonym for infobesity doing the rounds and it’s infoxication. If neither makes sense, here’s the older version: information overload. For those who think infobesity and infoxication are silly abuses of medical terminology, Stewart Butterfield has two words: cognitive diabetes. And he should know. Stewart Butterfield is the CEO of Slack, a cloud-based teamworking tool with some three million users and a value close to $4 billion. When he raises a red flag about messaging addiction, it’s time to listen.

Speaking at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference earlier this month, Butterfield compared our obsession with Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and, yes, Slack, to the diabetes epidemic, when “suddenly, as a species, we got infinite, free calories,” he said. Now that we have “infinite, free communications,” the messaging addiction has become a form of “cognitive diabetes.”

None of this is new, of course. Early in the 20th century, the poet and critic T. S. Eliot worried that the “vast accumulations of knowledge — or at least of information — deposited by the nineteenth century” were creating “an equally vast ignorance.” In his essay, “The Perfect Critic,” for the literary journal Athenaeum in 1920, he put it like this:

“When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.”

When every one knows a little about a great many things… Must put this post on Twitter, Kik, Whatsapp, Skype and Facebook now.

Hash tag wall


We need to dialogue around

Thursday, 14 April, 2016 0 Comments

dialogue around [phrasal verb]: to take part in a conversation to resolve a problem. Example: “Steve, we need to dialogue around your choice of office attire.”

The awful “dialogue around” is up there with “action” as a verb: “You can’t call her now. She’s actioning the deliverables.” The adjective “amped”, meaning to be excited about something, is in the same category: “They’re really amped about the new site.”

Business communications would be a lot easier if people dropped the jargon. On the other hand, if you want to speak “corporate”, the Center for Corporate Studies talks the talk of those who disintermediate, enthuse and incent.


So, let’s action that

Thursday, 31 March, 2016 1 Comment

The American linguist Arika Okrent wrote a book once and gave it a mouthful of a name: In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language. On her YouTube channel, the videos have crisper titles: French Phrases Hidden in English Words, The Evolution of Dude and Why is English Spelling so Weird? Her latest offering tackles the dreaded management-speak and packs a lot of erudition into 3 minutes and 32 seconds.

A follow-up, we hope, will examine such current awfulness as “synergy”, “going forward”, “deliverables”, “empower”, “leverage” and, worst of all, the hideous habit of starting a sentence with the word “so.”


The repo, the n-gram and the lemmas

Tuesday, 29 March, 2016 0 Comments

Every day offers opportunities for learning new words. Example sentence: “This repo contains a list of the 10,000 most common English words in order of frequency, as determined by n-gram frequency analysis of the Google’s Trillion Word Corpus.”

The repo, there, is short for repository, and a repository — a kind of a folder filled with files — is the most basic element of GitHub, the largest host of source code in the world, with 12 million users and some 31 million repositories. As regards the n-gram, it is a type of language model for predicting the next item in a sequence of text or speech in computational linguistics.

It was a GitHub mention by Morten Just that inspired all this, and the Dane’s link is a gift that keeps on giving: “This repo is useful as a corpus for typing training programs. According to analysis of the Oxford English Corpus, the 7,000 most common English lemmas account for approximately 90% of usage, so a 10,000 word training corpus is more than sufficient for practical training applications.” You will have noticed “lemmas” there and if you’re wondering about its meaning, check out morphology.

Google’s Trillion Word Corpus contains lots of gems. With repo, n-gram and lemmas defined, we’ve still got a way to go until we reach the end of the exotics.


Europe will continue to speak English after Brexit

Monday, 8 February, 2016 0 Comments

What will be the role of English in the European Union if the British vote for Brexit? To use one of those phrases that most speakers of English do not understand, with one fell swoop English would change overnight from being the community’s unchallenged lingua franca to a minority language spoken natively only by the Irish if the British decided to leave. Naturally, English would remain essential for doing business in Brussels, but its prestige would be tarnished and its authority questioned.

Or would it? There is a counter-argument that even if Brexit were to happen, English would expand its role as the EU’s working language because of its growing global influence, which is powered by the dynamism of North America, the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere. As well, it’s preeminent position in science and business remains unchallenged and, on a practical level, its lack of genders and related conjugations, unlike Germanic and Latin languages, makes it attractive to millions of learners looking for jobs in a world where the universal English “you” offers a practical way of avoiding those social minefields caused by formal modes of address in other languages. Yes, the spelling system is inconsistent, but this is balanced by the incredible depth and breadth of the English vocabulary.

Brexit Question: In a post-Brexit EU, would UK English be replaced by US English? This is a tricky one because anti-Americanism is the only form of racism that’s acceptable in Europe and the speaking of UK English or “Oxford English”, as some affectedly like to say, is seen as a form of superiority. But this is silly because US English, with its preference for structures such as “He didn’t do it yet”, is simpler than UK English with its preference for the more complex present perfect tense: “He hasn’t done it yet.” This is not to say that US English is a pidgin unworthy of sophisticated Europeans. Far from it, but it is an uncomplicated language, with simplified spelling and reduced vocabulary, that has demonstrated enormous value for a nation that has successfully absorbed millions upon millions of newcomers from a of broad spectrum of linguistic groups. And now that Europe is receiving vast wave of migrants, the need for a basic, continent-wide language makes more sense than ever.

Should Europeans be unwilling to learn US English because it would represent to them the ultimate acceptance of American supremacy, there is an alternative: Hiberno-English. The English spoken in Ireland manages quite well without the intricacy of the present perfect — “How long are you in Brussels?” — or the nuisance of pronouncing “th” in words such as this, that and those. In this way, it is actually nearer the original pronunciation that lexicographer David Crystal is now championing. Another advantage of Hiberno-English is that its speakers use the entire UK English vocabulary and enhance it with colourful coinages of their own: “yoke” (thing), “craic” (enjoyment), and lively alternative meanings — “cute” (clever), “savage” (excellent) and “bold” (naughty). What’s not to like? And then there’s the spelling: “reigns” for “reins”, and so on.

Sunday World

A Brexit would rattle the already shaky EU structure and it would pose a severe crisis for the island of Ireland, but it need not be all downside. Hiberno-English could be the light at the end of the tunnel and it might not be long before Martin Schulz is saying, “C’mere to me, Jean-Claude. Where’s the feckin’ yoke for opening the bottles? Tisn’t in the press, anyway. The turnout was desperate last night, wasn’t it?”