A Blog About Language

July 30 2014 1:05 PM

Talking to Computers: Can a Child and a Chatbot Become Friends?

Technically ELIZA was born about a decade before I was, but that didn't stop us from becoming friends. There in the basement of 62 Choctaw Trail, Ringwood, NJ, surrounded by my dad's weird darkroom equipment and foam futon chairs, ELIZA would wait for me. She hung out in our TRS-80. She was always ready to talk.  

If you don't know ELIZA, she was the product of a 1966 computer program that was written to simulate a therapist. The premise was simple: You type something, and ELIZA responds as appropriately as she can. If she does a good job, then she might pass the Turing test, which was her goal: She wanted to trick you into thinking that you were talking to a real person rather than a computer program.

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July 28 2014 12:49 PM

Why Are Opera Singers Hard to Understand?

High, squeaky notes. Screeching soprano solos. Unintelligible opera divas. There are a slew of stereotypes for how soprano voices sound at the top of their range. Even exceptionally talented singers struggle to be understood when singing high notes. Is it just a matter of technique, or is there something else going on? As it turns out, soprano voices are limited more by physics than by skill, and here's why:

July 25 2014 2:50 PM

Quiz: What's the Most Unique Relationship Between Language and Culture?

The Japanese language has a single word that encompasses both green and blue colors, while the Russian language has separate terms for different shades of blue. So does this mean that people who speak Russian and Japanese perceive these colors differently from English speakers? And even more questionably: are we only able to form concepts of things for which we have a name?

July 23 2014 2:09 PM

How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech: Interrupt Men

About a month ago at work I overheard one woman complaining to another woman about a coworker's habit of interrupting everyone in meetings. "That's just how it is around here. The women listen, but the men interrupt in meetings all the time," one of them summed it up.

As a moderate interrupter myself—I'm sorry if I've interrupted you, I just get excited about what you're saying and I want to build on it and I lose track of the fact that it's not my turn and I know it's a bad habit—I started wondering if she was right. Do men interrupt more often than women?

Search for "do men interrupt more than women" and you will find a variety of answers. The answers loosely break into two categories: 1. No, they don't, and 2. Yes, they do.

The empirical linguist in me got to thinking, and a few weeks ago I decided to figure it out.

July 21 2014 11:04 AM

We Have Ahold and Awhile, So Why Not Alot?

There's one word that upsets alot of people. And I mean alot. It's been around for awhile, but don't let anyone who's particular about grammar get ahold of it! "It's not a word!" they'll tell you. "It's two words!"

I'll be honest: writing that paragraph practically made my teeth hurt. I'm about as allergic to alot as most of you probably are. But I'm here to tell you to get used to it. It will be around for quite awhile.

July 16 2014 1:17 PM

What Happens if a Child Is Never Exposed to Language?

Children learn the language(s) that they hear and see around them at a young age, but what happens if a child just never has any linguistic input, spoken or signed? Although a scientific study around this question would undoubtedly be fascinating, it would also be extremely unethical, so much so that the cultural historian Roger Shattuck has called it The Forbidden Experiment.

July 10 2014 11:21 AM

What's Going On Around "Around"? New Uses of Old Prepositions.

Prepositions are notoriously unstable.  That is, the particular term used in a given expression is subject to long-term change in a process I call "preposition creep." In recent years, for example, common usage has shifted from enamored of to enamored with, obsessed by to obsessed with, and excited about to excited for. Such shifts may seem arbitrary, but a closer look often suggests an explanation.

So it is with the longstanding preposition-creep from about to around.

July 7 2014 12:19 PM

7 of the Best Dialect Quizzes

If you're feeling particularly nationalistic, or just want to see how consistently you speak like your friends and neighbors, here are all the dialect quizzes that I could find. Find out what your dialect most resembles, and, in many cases, help science at the same time!

July 1 2014 3:38 PM

Why Do Sportscasters Use the Historical Present?

Like newspaper headlines and personal anecdotes (So I'm walking down the street yesterday, and this guy comes up to me and he says ...), sportscasting makes frequent use of the present tense. Unlike other uses of the historical present—which refer to actual past events—the sports announcer is commenting on a game that is playing out before our very eyes. If ever there were an appropriate time to use the present, surely this is it. So what's so strange about it?

June 27 2014 1:47 PM

When Your Eyes Hear Better Than Your Ears: The McGurk Effect

This clip from PBS demonstrates the McGurk Effect: When you hear a sound (like "ba") that that conflicts with how you're seeing someone "produce" it (like "ga"), your mind tries to reconcile them by making you think you're hearing something more consistent with your visual input, (like "da").