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17 Jun 06:39

‘Like’ is an infix now, which is un-like-believably innovative

by Stan Carey

Like has undergone radical developments in modern English. It can function as a hedge (‘I’ll be there in like an hour’), a discourse particle (‘This like serves a pragmatic function’), and a sentence adverb (‘It’s common in Ireland, like’). These and other non-standard usages are frequently criticised, but they’re probably older than critics think.

More recent is the so-called quotative like (‘I’m like, Whoa!’), also often disparaged. This became widely established impressively fast and is leading to some remarkable usages in younger generations: children saying things like ‘What’s Ernie like?’ to mean ‘What’s Ernie saying?’

So some uses of like are emerging right now, spreading through younger speech communities. In episode 278 of Australia’s Talk the Talk podcast, guest Alexandra D’Arcy – a linguistics professor who literally wrote the book on like – says that while she might say ‘at like the same time’, her son can say ‘at the like same time’, which is not in her grammar at all. It’s a subtle but striking difference.

It gets better. The latest novel use to which like is being put is as an infix. Infixes are a pretty small set in English, so a new one is a genuine surprise, linguistically. In some ways it is unlikeprecedented.

A quick side note: An infix is an affix that occurs inside a root or stem – unlike a prefix or suffix, which occur before (unfair) or after it (development). Infixes are common in some languages, but in English they’re marginal, occurring in a few compound plurals (passers-by, cupsful), hip-hop lingo (hizouse), Simpsons-ese (saxomaphone, scrum-diddly-umptious), and expletive infixation (abso-bloody-lutely) – though here the insert is not an affix, so some would categorise this as tmesis. See this work by Alan Yu (PDF) for cross-linguistic detail.

Like now joins the limited club of English infixes. This re-like-markable innovation seems to have been around for a couple of decades at least (see below), but it came to my attention only recently, through The Vocal Fries, a podcast about linguistic discrimination. Episode 21 features (guess who!) Alexandra D’Arcy, who, around 23 minutes in, discusses the different roles of like and says:

And now there’s an infix. Right? So you can get—I can’t do it, it’s not part [of my grammar], it’s too new for me. This one’s genuinely new, but younger speakers can say things [like] ‘un-like-believable’. Right? ‘She’s un-like-sympathetic’…

Some examples:

A selection of tweets containing the phrase "for like ever". See link below.

Certain words are more amenable than others to like­-infixation, for both semantic and morphosyntactic reasons. Forever forming for like ever is a particularly common construction (it even features in a popular print), with ever sometimes typed in all caps (for like EVER) to like add to the user’s expressive style.

Browsing Twitter suggests it’s pretty much all younger people using it, mostly young women – ever in the vanguard of linguistic change – but a fair number of young men too. The 1.9-billion-word GloWbE corpus has 11 examples, while the new, 14-billion-word iWeb corpus has 74, including the following:

Selection of examples of "for like ever" from iWeb corpus

Most of the corpus examples are from the last 10 years, but the oldest I found is from c.1998, in the Never Been Kissed screenplay, revised draft by Jenny Bicks, based on Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein’s original script:

O.K., what have you wanted for like ever but you didn’t think it would – ever happen?

With more research, that can probably be antedated. Point is, this is new and fun and interesting, like is unlikestoppable, and its evolution is in-like-evitable. Within a generation it’ll feel like like has been an infix for like ever.

17 Jun 06:34

kurisquare: This is part of my webcomic Postcards in Braille,...


This is part of my webcomic Postcards in Braille, which you can read on ComicFury or Tapastic. Updates on Mondays! 

This comic/guide works well enough on its own, so I thought it’d be nice to post it here as well :D Braille is really cool and you don’t need to be blind or visually impaired to learn it - and spreading the use of Braille can help us build a more inclusive society! everyone wins!

Bonus fun fact: Braille is originally based on Night writing (or sonography), a tactile reading/writing system created for soldiers to communicate silently at night. Louis Braille adapted it into easier to read cells, creating the Braille system. Good to know it evolved into something so useful!

I’m guessing that W being an exception in Braille may have been because Louis Braille was French, and French doesn’t really use the W except in loanwords (for example, French pangrams virtually always contain a loanword to get the W in). 

11 Jun 14:40

How To Help People You Love Who Have Depression, Revisited

by JenniferP

Content note: There are mentions of suicide later in this post and also some very US-specific political stuff.

I promise not to turn this blog into an all politics, all US health-care policy all the time site, but this couldn’t be more important or personal to me. I could not in good conscience neglect the platform that this site and this community has given me to speak. Thank you for reading.

Four years back I wrote a post about how people can reach out to their friends who have depression. The advice still stands – center the person, not the condition, be patient and persistent, respect their autonomy, and come from a place of loving and enjoying them (vs. rescuing or “halping”).

But there’s more to be done.

If you’re a person with a mental illness, live through today. Then try again tomorrow. Unplug from being online if you need to. Be nice to yourself. Be as nice to yourself as you would be to a friend. You’re doing great, sweetie. ❤

If you’re a person without a mental illness, keep reading. We need you.

First, there’s some other individual stuff you can do. Rethink the language you use to describe mentally ill people and mental illness. Rethink blaming gun violence on mentally ill people, instead of where it belongs (toxic masculinity, misogyny, white supremacy are good places to start looking). Do what you can to reduce stigma around seeking mental health care, stop talking about dependence on medications as a weakness. Stop asking mentally ill folks when they are going to be better or “normal.” Most of us are not going to be “normal” without lifelong medication and support. Be an advocate for better mental health accommodations and policies in your workplace. Don’t automatically call police or 911 on mentally ill people (or anyone, really) unless your or someone’s life is in observable, imminent danger.

But individual acts of kindness and avoiding common mistakes are not enough. If we’re going to make things better for people with mental illness, we need big, sustained, collective action. So I want to talk about some more things you can do, especially in the United States, especially right now. If your entire social media feed is yelling “YOU ARE NOT ALONE! REACH OUT! GET HELP!,” stop and ask yourself:

What help?



With what resources?

If you want your friends and family with mental illness to be able to get the help they need, you need to do some work to make sure that help is available and real. Not just when prominent people end their lives. But now, yesterday, soon, tomorrow, all the time.

That means getting political. 

That means talking about and caring about boring stuff like health policy and legislation.

The Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act of 2010 (aka the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare)  had two ironclad principles that revolutionized the way people with mental illness could access health insurance, namely 1) Mental health conditions needed to be covered and treated just like physical health conditions 2) Pre-existing conditions meant that you couldn’t be charged more for or denied health coverage. (Love and kisses also to 100% coverage of reproductive health care and charging men & women the same premiums, and some other cool stuff). This meant that getting therapy or medication for depression or anxiety in the past wouldn’t go down as a black mark on your medical records and make you uninsurable.

If you read the list of essential health benefits at the link and they sound like pretty basic, normal, reasonable things that a health insurance company should do for its customers, awesome! That means that the ACA has successfully reset our expectations. Before the ACA, literally none of that was guaranteed. As a person whose employer does not provide insurance for people in my job category, I have been denied insurance coverage outright. I have been offered plans that cover everything except “preexisting conditions” (aka the things I would actually need care for). I have had insurance plans that did not cover any reproductive health care but also where getting pregnant would automatically void my policy. I paid at least as much as I do now for this lackluster coverage that I was too afraid to use most of the time.

If you are a young person and you didn’t have to deal with any of this before the ACA, maybe you can’t understand how expensive and terrible and stressful it was, how many of us put off going to the doctor for chronic conditions and things that could be quite treatable until they were emergencies or past the point of treatment.

We can definitely argue that the 2010 law didn’t go far enough, that “single payer” would have been better, that the law wasn’t implemented uniformly across every state, that it still gave the insurance companies too much wiggle room to raise premiums – there are many many policy arguments to be had!

And yet, for someone like me who can’t access health insurance through my employer, it definitely was better than what came before. Our ACA insurance paid for Mr. Awkward’s hospitalization for bipolar disorder in 2015. It meant that when he was at his worst and having constant suicidal ideation, we could go to the hospital without worrying that it would bankrupt us and just get him the care that he needed. It is not exaggerating to say that this probably saved his life because his jerkbrain didn’t have the argument that getting help would create a financial burden for us in its bullshit list of lies about why he should probably die. It also paid for my ADHD treatment and testing, which has changed my life. On an ongoing basis, it has meant that consistent access to a therapist and psychiatrist and necessary meds for both of us are routine, predictable, mostly affordable costs. Physical health stuff is better, too, like where I get to breathe because my asthma is actually treated with something other than a rescue inhaler and pretending that it will go away.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I live in a large urban area with many health care providers and resources. I also live in Illinois, one of the states that accepted the federal government’s deal on the ACA (heavily subsidizing health insurance plans for lower income folks in exchange for states expanding Medicaid). If you live in 24 states, the ACA has never been given the chance to work for you the way it was intended, and I believe you if you say that it didn’t function well for you. Some of the plans still really suck or have a really limited list of providers, it’s still expensive, even with the ACA in place it’s still somehow normal for people to have to crowdfund for their medical expenses which is completely embarrassing for us as a nation (For individuals you do what you need to do, you’ll get no shame from me!) And yet, the ACA is a lifeline for me and mine.

The things that suck about it don’t suck by accident. People with power to do better made decisions that led us here, like when insurers fought every single provision and consumer protection during the drafting of the law and are clearly lobbying to roll them back, or when a number of Republican governors and lawmakers decided to refuse federal funds in order to sabotage and tank the law and legislators removed the individual mandate in the tax bill. These officials made it suck on purpose so they could campaign on how much it sucked, and they spread a ton of misinformation in the process. (The complete irony of this is that the ACA was originally a Republican plan, and a version of it was piloted in Massachusetts by none other than Republican governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But Mitt Romney was white, I guess? Idek, it’s very confusing to me.)

Anyway, one of the biggest stressors to my own mental and physical health are the constant attempts to repeal or weaken the ACA. For example, right now the rule that insurance companies cannot refuse to coverage for pre-existing conditions is under assault. (Beeteedubs “sexual assault” is considered a pre-existing condition by insurance companies. So imagine being raped, seeking medical care, and then having that used to charge you more money for health care or refuse to allow certain things to be cared for at all.) If these protections are removed, it will eventually affect almost every person who buys health insurance. Even those of you who have employer-provided plans could go back to the days where your company health plan applications also came with filling out detailed medical history forms and a list of exclusions that wouldn’t be covered for a certain period of time.

I can’t describe how stressful the news about this is to me every time it comes up, the “ok, what happens if I lose health coverage and the ability to get it,”  the constant stress and fear and burden of having to frantically call elected representatives and rally and beg them – not even to make a thing that works pretty- okay-but-not-perfectly work better – but simply “please don’t destroy the only thing that lets life be even halfway functional or possible so insurance companies can make a tiny bit more dollars and you can brag about how you got one over on Obama, ok thanks.”

All this to say, if you care about people in your life with mental illness, you have to know this: If mentally ill people cannot even *buy* insurance that covers our care, we will die. Some of us will die slower than others, but we will die. This is not an exaggeration or a drill.

And the disability activists I know are exhausted. The mentally ill folks I know are stretched to the breaking point. The patchwork of nonprofits and informal resources we depend on is, well, patchy. The constant assault on our access to care exacerbates every anxious and depressed feeling. Even with adequate care, the anxiety that it could all be taken away at any moment if Senator Collins or Murkowski decide to stop playing hardball with votes affects me. Me, in therapy last week: “Sure, I’ll try a new med, but feeling awful is not actually unreasonable given the current circumstances. Maybe I’m not supposed to feel better. Maybe none of us are until we unfuck this.” 

So if you want to help us “reach out” there are some further steps you can take:

If you can possibly vote in the 2018 midterms, do it. Resources on registering here. I’m sure my political leanings aren’t a mystery, but I’m not even going to tell you who to vote for – just vote!

If you literally can’t vote, then phone bank. Register people to vote. Drive people. Knock on doors. Show up to candidate forums and town hall meetings if you’re able. Provide childcare for people who can. Kick in some money if you have itDo something to make voting more possible for another person.

If you don’t feel “inspired” by any given candidate, well, me fucking neither, but who said you needed to feel inspired in order to do the most basic act of civic participation? Voting is not about your feelings and it has real consequences for human lives that are bigger than your feelings. Voting is a collective act, not a personal one. The lesser of two evils is still LESS EVIL.

Idealism and wanting more and better from the political process is a good thing, but, vote for those imperfect candidates that will use power to move the levers even slightly toward the just world you want to see. Protesting is great but what’s even better is voting for the people who might actually pay attention and listen when you protest their bullshit policies later. Vote on behalf of the people who are incarcerated, the people who are undocumented, the people who have lost their voting rights, the people targeted by voter suppression. Vote as a gesture against apathy and cynicism in the face of an authoritarian state. Vote because they are trying to make it harder for certain people to do it (if it didn’t matter, they wouldn’t try so hard to suppress it).

Vote because they don’t expect that you will, they are counting on the fact that you won’t – vote just to fuck with their heads! If you don’t have time to research every single candidate in every race on the ballot, pick the 10 that are most important to you and vote for those people and leave the rest blank. There will be no quiz or public humiliation ritual after the voting if you turn in an incomplete ballot.

Turnout in the USA 2014 midterm elections was just 36.4 % of eligible voters. That is pathetic. Go read about the Irish citizens who crossed the entire world to make this tiny action with huge, amazing consequences for the rights of their fellow citizens. Have a good cry at how very good and brave people can be and how things can actually eventually change if people work hard enough at it. And then get your ass to those polls.

Contact your elected representatives at the local, state, and national levels. Show up at their town halls if you can. Ask them to go on the record about supporting increased access to affordable health care and mental health care. Tell them that they’d better not repeal the ACA and replace it with something that weakens protections for pre-existing conditions. Tell them that mental health care must continue to be covered by health insurers. Tell them that you support full implementation of the ACA act in your state, including Medicaid expansion. Tell them you support funding for mental health clinics, especially in low-income areas. If you support single-payer health care (or as the Goat Lady likes to call it, “nationalization of the health care system”), tell them that too, but also (pretty please?) insist on full implementation of and expansion of the ACA in the meantime.

There are tons of guides on how to contact elected officials, this one seems like a pretty simple rundown , someone made one just for people with social anxiety and hey there’s an app for that. You could spend forever trying to find the perfect way, don’t worry about that so much, just do something. Start somewhere. The calls don’t take long, you don’t have to make eloquent speeches, they are just recording volume and numbers, my daily routine takes about 15 minutes all told.

And listen I HATE TALKING ON THE PHONE and I totally resent having to make this ridiculous set of phone calls every day, like “please stop tearing immigrant kids away from their parents at the US border and putting them in what sounds suspiciously like concentration camps” and “stop trying to make health insurance less available and suck more, thank you” but the reality is that we should have been making these calls and doing this work all along, all the past decade when we thought things were better, we should have pushed harder for the vulnerable people who were never safe, for the wrongs that were never righted. We had a not completely horrendous president for a minute and many of us, including myself, slept on it (check out that 36.4% turnout in the 2014 midterms number again if you doubt me). Maybe some of what we’re living through now could have been stopped if more of us had pushed harder then.

Whatever happened then, this is our task and our penance now, and if you aren’t currently being eaten alive by your brain it would help us out a lot if you decided to lend a hand. We need all of us to stay in the world, we need help to stay here, and we need to work together to push that world to be a little more bearable in our lifetime.


Moderator Note: If you think I’m going to moderate a comment thread about this today, your optimism and faith in me is adorable, I love you very much, but no.



11 Jun 14:36

Anthony Bourdain, Honorary Sociologist

by Caty Taborda-Whitt

I was absolutely devastated to hear about Anthony Bourdain’s passing.

I always saw Bourdain as more than just a celebrity chef or TV host. I saw him as one of us, a sociologist of sorts, someone deeply invested in understanding and teaching about culture and community. He had a gift for teaching us about social worlds beyond our own, and making these worlds accessible. In many ways, his work accomplished what so often we as sociologists strive to do.

Photo Credit: Adam Kuban, Flickr CC

I first read Bourdain’s memoir, Kitchen Confidential, at the age of twenty. The gritty memoir is its own ethnography of sorts, detailing the stories, experiences, and personalities working behind the sweltering heat of the kitchen line. At the time I was struggling as a first-generation, blue-collar student suddenly immersed in one of the wealthiest college campuses in the United States. Between August and May of each academic year, I attended classes with the children of CEOs and world leaders, yet come June I returned to the kitchens of a country club in western New York, quite literally serving alumni of my college. I remember reading the book thinking – though I knew it wasn’t academic sociology – “wait, you can write about these things?” These social worlds? These stories we otherwise overlook and ignore? I walked into my advisor’s office soon after, convinced I too would write such in-depth narratives about food-related subcultures. “Well,” he agreed, “you could research something like food culture or alternative food movements.” Within six months of that conversation, I had successfully secured my first research fellowship and taken on my first sociology project.

Like his writing, Bourdain’s television shows taught his audience something new about our relationships to food. Each episode of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown, went beyond the scope of a typical celebrity chef show. He never featured the World’s Biggest Hamburger, nor did he ever critique foods as “bizarre” or “strange.” Instead, he focused on what food meant to people across the globe. Food, he taught us, and the pride attached to it, are universal.

Rather than projecting narratives or misappropriating words, he let people speak for themselves. He strived to show the way things really are and to treat people with the utmost dignity, yet was careful never to glamorize or romanticize poverty, struggle, or difference.  In one of my favorite episodes of No Reservations, Bourdain takes us through Peru, openly critiquing celebrities who have glorified the nation as a place to find peace and spiritual enlightenment:

Sting and all his buddies come down here, they’re going on and on and on and on about preserving traditional culture, right? Because that’s what we’re talking about here. But what we’re also talking about here is poverty. [It’s] backbreaking work. Isn’t it kind of patronizing to say ‘oh they’re happier, they live a simpler life closer to the soil.’ Maybe so, but it’s also a pretty hard, scrabbling, unglamorous life when you get down to it.

My parents and I met Anthony Bourdain in 2009 at a bar in Buffalo where he was filming an episode of No Reservations. My father was thrilled to tell Bourdain how much he loved the episode featuring his homeland of Colombia. It was perhaps one of the first times in my father’s 38-years in the United States that he felt like American television portrayed Colombia in a positive light, showing the beauty, resilience, and complex history of the nation rather than the images of drug wars and violence present elsewhere in depictions of the country. That night in that dive bar, Bourdain graciously spoke with my dad about how beautiful he found the country and its people. Both the episode and their conversation filled by father with immense pride, ultimately restoring some of the dignity that had been repeatedly stripped of him through years of indignant stereotypes about his home.

In the end, isn’t that what many of us sociologists are trying to do? Honor people’s stories without misusing, mistreating, or misrepresenting them?

In retrospect, maybe Bourdain influenced my path towards sociology. At the very least, he created a bridge between what I knew – food service – and what I wanted to know – the rest of the world. In our classrooms we strive to teach our students how to make these connections. Bourdain made them for us with ease, dignity, and humility.

Caty Taborda-Whitt is a Ford fellow and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include embodiment, health, culture, and inequalities.

(View original at

10 Jun 13:40

People in the 2010s: Conversation is dying because...

People in the 2010s: Conversation is dying because everyone’s on their phones! People in the 1910s, intellectuals: Conversation is bad and everyone who does it should feel bad

(Oakland Tribune, March 21, 1910)

03 Jun 16:38

etirabys: Given names in Korean are almost always two syllables, with the first syllable usually...


Given names in Korean are almost always two syllables, with the first syllable usually being shared with your siblings and cousins (all the children of the same generation of a family, basically). I just grew up with this and didn’t think it was weird until I had cause to explain it to someone yesterday, at which point I stopped and wondered if I was making all of this up, it seemed so weird, how the heck do they coordinate that? Do the parents of the first kid of the new generation decide, or something? That doesn’t sound right. I looked it up, and it turns out that family lines keep a constant character array in a poem:

The sequence of generation is typically prescribed and kept in record by a generation poem (bāncì lián 班次聯 or pàizì gē 派字歌 in Chinese) specific to each lineage. While it may have a mnemonic function, these poems can vary in length from around a dozen characters to hundreds of characters. Each successive character becomes the generation name for successive generations.[1] After the last character of the poem is reached, the poem is usually recycled though occasionally it may be extended.

Generation poems were usually composed by a committee of family elders whenever a new lineage was established through geographical emigration or social elevation. Thus families sharing a common generation poem are considered to also share a common ancestor and have originated from a common geographical location.

Which is mindblowingly cool, I think.

03 Jun 16:34

Language Log fan club in China

by Victor Mair

This is just the cutest.

We have an ardent group of fans in Shenzhen, a large metropolitan area in the Pearl River Delta, just north of Hong Kong.

The word for "fans" in Chinese is interesting:

fěnsī 粉丝 (lit. "vermicelli made from bean starch, etc.", but now commonly used to transcribe the sounds of the English word)

Comment by Cynthia McLemore upon seeing the above photographs:

this is such a hoot! fans in Shenzhen, China held a Language Log party, and sent pictures. wearing jerseys! such a fun surprise. I’m sure after he finished his stint as quarterback in high school, Mark Liberman never imagined someone wearing a jersey with his name printed on it half a world away :)

Here's a video of some of the action at the LLog party in Shenzhen (hosted at an Argentine Mexican restaurant).

What they say in unison is this:

Shēnzhèn ài Language Log 深圳愛Language Log
("Shenzhen loves Language Log")

As will be demonstrated in the next post, these Chinese fěnsī 粉丝 ("vermicelli / fans") are true believers.

01 Jun 14:58

"The baby sign language phenomenon connects to what culturally deaf people celebrate as “Deaf Gain:”..."

The baby sign language phenomenon connects to what culturally deaf people celebrate as “Deaf Gain:” the notion that all of humanity can gain significant benefits and insights from Deaf visual-spatial contributions to the world, including A.S.L. and all its rich linguistic possibilities. Deaf friends I talk with applaud hearing parents for learning some signs with their children, and express hope that, someday, more people will use a signed language on an everyday basis, making communication easier for all of us.

But the developers and users of baby sign language don’t necessarily see A.S.L. fluency as a goal. Many of the books and websites actually assure parents that they don’t need to learn full A.S.L., and also that using baby signs won’t impede a child’s spoken language acquisition. […]

Finally, there is one more reason I feel ambivalent when my hearing acquaintances tell me they are using baby signs with their children. Often, I notice that these acquaintances are people who have never attempted to use any sign language with me — even though I am deaf, even though I am the one person they know who could most benefit from visual communication. This omission strikes me as a huge loss, even a huge injustice. […]

For decades, medical and educational professionals have discouraged hearing parents from signing with their deaf children. My own parents were told not to sign with me when I was a baby — and then proceeded to disregard that advice, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Some of these professionals believe that speech is superior and signing is only a crutch for spoken language acquisition, despite the fact that A.S.L. has been recognized as a full language since the 1960s.

The consequences of this philosophy of enforced speech for deaf education, literacy and language development have been disastrous: It has meant that many deaf children never acquire a fluent native language that will enable them to reach their potential. This is starting to change, but most deaf children still do not receive full A.S.L. exposure in their early years, which are critical for language acquisition.

The fundamental injustice of the baby sign-language trend is that our culture touts the benefits of signing for hearing children, but disregards A.S.L. for the deaf children who need it the most.

- Rachel Kolb, Sign Language Isn’t Just for Babies
31 May 03:07

learninglinguist:An informative thread on meme semiotics by...


An informative thread on meme semiotics by Daniel Ginsberg on Twitter.

29 May 07:39

Al Bean, Apollo 12 moonwalker, has died

by Phil Plait

Al Bean, the fourth human to walk on the Moon, died over the weekend on May 26, 2018.

You can read about him and his place in history on the NASA website obituary. You can get some sense of him there, but what it doesn't really convey is just how funny and personable he was.

There are a lot of books and articles about the shenanigans he and fellow Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon pulled on their mission. They were cutups, and their journey was not at all like the formal voyage Apollo 11 was. I'll leave it to the interested reader to find more.

I met Al a couple of times, both of which were at the SpaceFest conference in different years. He was warm and generous with his time, quick to smile, and clearly just enjoying his life immensely.

I want to take this time to share a story about him, one that's a little different than most you may have heard but which illustrates the man.

First, here is, without contest, my very favorite photograph ever from any Apollo mission. It was taken by Conrad, and shows Al on the surface of the Moon:

Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean standing on the Moon. Credit: NASA Zoom In

Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean standing on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Oh, do I so love this shot. Al is holding a sample container filled with regolith, the grainy dust coating the lunar surface. You can see Conrad reflected in his helmet. Over Al's shoulder is a sunstrike, streaks of light from the Sun reflected inside the camera. The diffuse pentagon is actually an artifact of the camera's shutter system (the overlapping metal leaves form a distorted pentagon in some settings, which you can see in a Smithsonian photo of the Apollo 11 camera). I love the soft grainy contrast of this photo, the lunar rocks in soft focus and the horizon to the black sky in the background. It's perfection.

My personal story with this photo started with the Moon hoax conspiracy theory. I won't recount the whole there here, but you can read about it in my article about the 10th anniversary of the airing of the despicable Fox TV show about the hoax.

But that photo provided a watershed moment for me not just in debunking the Moon hoax, but in laying waste to conspiracy theories in general; it reminds me that reality is real, and that when you go after anti-science, you're doing the right thing.

So. I lived in California some time back, and not long after I moved there I visited the Gundlach Bunschu winery with some friends. They have some playful wine labels they use, including one for a cabernet sauvignon that features a wildly photoshopped version of that picture of Al on the Moon. I had seen the bottle in stores, but it was a bit pricey for me, so I opted not to get one (a decision I rather regret now).

I loved the label, though, and was delighted to find the winery sold them for a buck each separate from the wine, so I bought a couple.

Fast-forward to a couple of years later. My friend, astronomer and space artist Dan Durda, told me he was going to be at a space art conference and Al — himself an artist — would be there. Dan offered to get me an autograph if I wanted, and I swear the light bulb over my head was a visible thing. I ran to my room, got the labels, and handed them to Dan. He laughed. "Is there anything specific you want him to write?" he asked me.

Why, yes, I replied. Yes, there is.

A wine label signed by astronaut Al Bean. He wrote, “To Phil— Yes, I was there! Al Bean, Apollo 12”. Credit: Gundlach Bundschu / Phil Plait

A wine label signed by astronaut Al Bean. He wrote, “To Phil— Yes, I was there! Al Bean, Apollo 12”. Credit: Gundlach Bundschu / Phil Plait

This is now framed and hanging in my office. It's one of my proudest possessions. I'll add that most astronauts don't want to talk at all about the Moon hoax, seeing as how it disparages their entire profession, careers, and crowning achievement. I can't blame them.

But Al? He didn't even hesitate to sign the labels. I mentioned it to him when I finally met him in person a few years later, and I got a wry chuckle from him; he remembered signing them and thought it was a funny idea.

I'm so glad, so honored to have been able to share a small slice of this man's life. To his friends and family, I offer my condolences. And to everyone else, remember: Only a handful of people today can be placed in the pantheon of space exploration firsts, and those like Al Bean will be remembered by humans — no matter what planet they call home — for centuries to come.

27 May 03:23

A Lexicographer’s Guide to Real Words

by Kory Stamper

One of the occupational hazards of being a lexicographer on social media is that you are often subjected to arguments about whether something is a word or not. Lexicographers see these complaints and swiftly scroll right on by them, though we do sometimes indulge in a judicious (and perfectly justified) subtweet. We’ve learned that arguing with people about whether something (usually “irregardless“) is a “real word” is a Sisyphean exercise in futility, and lexicographers get enough of that at work.

But that doesn’t help you, the person being hollered at on Twitter that “mines” isn’t a real word. Who better to tell you what a word actually is? So in the interest of settling all those arguments, forever (amen and amen), here is a short (senses 1 and 2) lexicographer’s guide to “real words.”


I think [insert reviled word here] isn’t a real word.

Let’s back up. Why do you think it’s not a real word? Because by a linguist’s definition, if it communicates meaning to an audience, then it’s “a real word.”

That’s ridiculously broad. 

Oh gurl:

How do you communicate thoughts to an audience? You might communicate by uttering a string of phonetic sounds, making signs in a manual language, or writing a series of characters. Meaningful units of these sounds, signs, or written characters are often what we would consider to be words.

In short: if it’s part of a language system and communicates meaning, linguists consider it to be “a real word.”

But it’s illogical/ugly/stupid.

Just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it somehow “not real.” This is one of the more absurd notions that people have about language: that the mere dislike of a word invalidates its very existence. You’d never see that logic deployed effectively anywhere else in the real world. [Ed. note: The White House is not the real world.] I hate heat, for instance, and think temperatures above a very dry 80F can just nope right on out of here–but summer arrives every year, like clockwork, just to piss me off. Should my personal feelings about the power of the sun ruin everyone else’s beach vacation?

Besides, “illogical” and “stupid” rely on your knowledge base, and lemme tell ya, that’s smaller than you think. You may think that “inflammable” to mean “flammable” is illogical, because “in-” means “not,” but you would be wrong. “Inflammable” comes from the Latin inflammare, which means “to inflame” or “to burst into flame.” The “not” “in-” has nothing to do with it. “Inflammable” meant “flammable” before “flammable” meant “flammable”!

And even if a word is illogical or stupid, so what? You know how many completely unremarkable words arose from a stupid misreading? You use “cherry” and “apron” just fine, even though “cherry” came about because some 14th-century doofus thought the Anglo-French “cherise” was plural (it wasn’t), and “apron” came about because court clerk read “a napron” as “an apron” and rendered it as such, and then future readers thought, “Oh, man, the clerk to Edward III says it’s ‘apron,’ I better get in line,” even though that same clerk used “napron” later in the Household Ordinances, and here we are.

Language is not math. Language is people, and people are a mess. Yes, you too.

But this word is jargon, and jargon is meaningless, so it’s not a real word. Use words that actually mean something!

Jargon is, properly, the technical language of a particular group or activity. It can also refer to obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions–a definition that is pretty damned jargony. But not all jargon (sense 1) is jargon (sense 2). Hell–not all jargon (sense 1) is even all that technical! If you like a sport, have a job, go to school, have a hobby, or watch TV, then you know and use jargon. You can stream the Royal Wedding online while cabling an Aran sweater, checking the box scores for last night’s game and helping your kid figure out their math homework using manipulatives when the commercial breaks are on. Your whole life is marked by jargon of one sort or another, so stop getting your knickers in a knot over it.

But this supposedly real word isn’t in your/a/any dictionary!

It’s a common misconception that dictionaries enter every word in a language. This is a misconception started by dictionary companies who were desperate to outdo one another in sales and so made some dubious claims about how their dictionaries were “the sum of all human knowledge” and how, in dropping some bucks on one, you could “hold the English language in your two hands.”

There are many, many, many more words that do not make it into dictionaries than do, and this is the nature of the dictionary. If English is a swift moving river, then a dictionary is a cup of water scooped from that river: static, small, hopefully a good representative sample of that river, but not the river.

There are lots of reasons why a word might not be entered into a dictionary. First, what do we consider discrete words? Is the noun “compact” a different word than the verb “compact”? Are the different meanings of the noun “compact” different words? What if the different “compacts” come from different etymological sources? Is every inflection of a word a different word than the root? What about compound words like “slingshot”? Is that a different word from “sling” and “shot”? What about potential compound words, or potential inflections that we might not have now but we could at some point in the future (“mouses”), or potential affixal uses (“unfriend”)? What about words that no longer exist? What about initialisms and abbreviations? Are these all discrete words?

Incidentally, this goat rodeo is also why people who tell you that English has however many hundred-thousands words in it are full of bullshit (which can be one word or two words, depending on how you reckon).

Every professionally edited dictionary has criteria for entry–generally speaking, widespread use in printed prose for a sustained period of time–and many words never meet that criteria. Even good words! “Prepone,” a brilliant verb which means “to reschedule to an earlier time than originally scheduled” and is based on “postpone,” doesn’t yet meet the criteria for entry at Merriam-Webster, and it’s not only a clever coinage, but so frickin’ handy! Does away with the dumb confusion caused by “move back” and “move up” (“We’re moving the 10am meeting back to noon.” “So you’re moving it up to noon?” “No, we’re moving it back to noon.” “Was it originally at noon?” and then everyone sounds like a pathetic mashup of The Confederacy of the Dunces and “Who’s On First”). Everyone should use “prepone” in print, but not enough people do, and so it languishes in the database, noticed but not defined.

And there’s another sticking point. For a word to get into a dictionary, it needs to be found and tracked by lexicographers–and, to be frank, lexicographers are experiencing job creep as the industry shrinks. Gone are the halcyon days when a lexicographer had an hour or two daily to read and look for new words: now we’re busy writing and copyediting articles for the website, answering correspondence, running social media feeds, moderating comments on those feeds, brainstorming new products, doing media, writing editorial reports, proofing sales reports, coding for the database, troubleshooting the outdated data in the database…oh, and defining. Your sparkling, wonderful coinage, which you use constantly on Twitter and have, as I told you to do, used in letters to the editor or in editorials your town paper has printed…sorry I missed it. I was busy justifying my corporate existence with a click-positive article on the phrase “three sheets to the wind” in conjunction with an ad campaign we’re running with Budweiser.

The whole dictionary racket ignores the flashpoint where language is actually made: speech (or signing). Words are rarely born in print, but that’s all the lexicographers track. That means that all those words you use only in family conversations, or new words that are coined for one in-person interaction and never used again–those very real words–are lost to us. Until we hack Alexa to record everything you say and send it to our offices, that is. (j/k, lol)

Steve Kleinedler puts it best: “the English language changes too quickly and is too vast to be completely catalogued.”

Okay, let’s try this: how do I know when a word isn’t real?

Not to get all ontological and shit, but if it is a signifier of meaning used in the course of communication between people, it’s real. Even if it’s unintelligible to you! I don’t speak Polish, but I’m not going to say that Polish words aren’t real just because I don’t understand them.

You’re making me sound like a massive prick.

What’s the point, really, of declaring that a word isn’t real? It’s ultimately a show of power or superiority over someone else, and so, in that sense, it is the marker of an absolute unit of shittiness. I’ve made my feelings about correcting people’s speech known before, and this is just another variant of it. It centers someone else’s language in your own experience, and it’s ridiculous to think that yours is the default experience for everyone. Language is bigger than just one person! That’s a feature, not a bug!

So what am I supposed to do when I see a word that I think isn’t a real word but which you, a so-called professional, tells me is?

Ask about it! And if you can’t ask the person who uses it, ask a linguist, because they love it when people ask questions about things that they can actually research, instead of dumb questions like, “Oh, you’re a linguist, how many languages do you speak?”

Why do people use “mines”? There is a dictionary that will explain why–and it will also tell you about “hern” and “theirn” while it’s at it. Has someone used a jargony word, like “logomark,” that you think is redundant? Do a quick search online for how a logomark differs from a logo, and consider that perhaps, though jargon, it is a word that serves a purpose that neither “logo” nor “trademark” completely serves. Did someone utter “irregardless” in your hearing? Buy fifteen copies of this book and read the fourth chapter repeatedly. Revel in a language that is always growing and lives well beyond your grasp!

And stop tagging lexicographers on Twitter. We’re really only there for the dog pictures, man.



25 May 12:35


by Evan Stewart

One major part of introducing students to sociology is getting to the “this is water” lesson: the idea that our default experiences of social life are often strange and worthy of examining. This can be challenging, because the default is often boring or difficult to grasp, but asking the right questions is a good start (with some potentially hilarious results).

Take this one: what does English sound like to a non-native speaker? For students who grew up speaking it, this is almost like one of those Zen koans that you can’t quite wrap your head around. If you intuitively know what the language means, it is difficult to separate that meaning from the raw sounds.

That’s why I love this video from Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano. The whole thing is gibberish written to imitate how English slang sounds to people who don’t speak it.

Another example to get class going with a laugh is the 1990s video game Fighting Baseball for the SNES. Released in Japan, the game didn’t have the licensing to use real players’ names, so they used names that sounded close enough. A list of some of the names still bounces around the internet:

The popular idea of the Uncanny Valley in horror and science fiction works really well for languages, too. The funny (and sometimes unsettling) feelings we get when we watch imitations of our default assumptions fall short is a great way to get students thinking about how much work goes into our social world in the first place.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

(View original at

25 May 09:43

Awesome Childhood Spelling


Uhh…where it says “looked” read “lopped”. lol This is based on the original tweet you see up there by Twitter user @Sal_Perez4 (see the original tweet here).

Another, similar thread by Jonathon Owen on the linguistics of this same excellent tweet.

25 May 09:40

Rid of it

by (Jen)
It's an emotionally resonant date to mark but I probably can't improve on my summary of the Section 28 affair from two years ago here. But as we mark 30 years since Section 28 came in, worth remembering that it is also 15 and 18 years since it was got rid of, depending where you live. Yet its shadow lingered on - and as the current government drags its heels on reform of sex and relationship education for England that shadow gets to linger a little longer. And we have this bold parallel taking place around us as voices just like those that warned of the danger of allowing children to know that bi and gay people existed then, now warning of the horrors that will be unleashed if children get to know about gender diversity. I might just live long enough to see what the next stupid scare story is in thirty more years.

It was heartwarming to see the news from Wales yesterday where the Lib Dem / Labour coalition is striking out in the opposite direction from Section 28, giving young people age-appropriate information to give them information and skills around gender, sexuality, consent and bodily autonomy. I grew up in Wales at the height of clause mania and it is nigh impossible to imagine such things. Yet here we are: hurrah.

For Scotland, the clause went three years before the rest of the UK, reflecting how the Lib Dem / Labour coalition government there had different priorities from the Labour majority government at Westminster. One of the frustrations of the 2010-2015 Lib Dem / Tory coalition was that it was almost always critiqued against what had been before, rather than what would have happened had the Brown government won another term. That's a misleading prism to look at things through - a logic that would wind up with asking why the 1974 Labour government did so little to roll out broadband internet access to rural areas - but with the SNP running Scotland and Labour running Wales there was no easy and direct comparison. But with tuition fees, the evil clause and a smattering of other things, from 1999 we got a clear reflection of exactly what difference the Liberals were making compared to having a single party administration.

For the rest of us it took another three years, and I'd forgotten that when it was at last brought to an end by an amendment tabled by Ed Davey - one of those Liberal MPs who lost their seat in the big lurch right of 2015 but who is now back in parliament. There's a neat symmetry that both sides of the border it was kicked out by Liberals, as the only party to have opposed it in those early days of 87/88.
23 May 07:28

babbelcause:Sign Language Isn’t Universal – There isn’t one...


Sign Language Isn’t Universal – There isn’t one universal sign language for all: even British and American sign languages have very little in common. Here, with full subtitles, is someone actually qualified to explain why!

See also this map of sign language families and this list of sign languages from around the world

23 May 07:24

First light for TESS!

by Phil Plait

NASA's newest planet-finding machine, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey satellite — TESS — launched into space on April 18, 2018. Since that time it's been on what's best described as a Rube Goldberg orbit. It's used its onboard rocket several times to increase the size of its elliptical orbit around Earth, and then, on May 17, it got close enough to the Moon (about 8,000 km) to use its gravity to radically alter the spacecraft's trajectory, changing not just the shape but the tilt of the orbit. One more burn on May 30 and it'll be in the correct orbit to start up its science.

It'll sweep the sky over and over again, using its relatively small cameras to take images of huge swaths of sky, measuring the brightnesses of hundreds of thousands of stars. Periodic dips in the starlight will reveal the presence of exoplanets, alien worlds orbiting alien stars.

It's a monumental task, and I can show you just how big it is, because NASA just released the "first light" image from TESS, a test photo taken to make sure everything is functioning well onboard:

A chunk of sky near Beta Centauri (the bright star near the bottom) seen by the TESS spacecraft in its very first image. Credit: NASA / MIT / TESS Zoom In

A chunk of sky near Beta Centauri (the bright star near the bottom) seen by the TESS spacecraft in its very first image. Credit: NASA / MIT / TESS

Whoa. This image shows a couple of hundred thousand stars (I assume; that's what NASA has claimed, and I decided not to count them all), and they showed up in a mere two-second exposure! Mind you, this is one small patch of sky about 10° on a side, and TESS will be looking at the entire sky over a period of two years. That's 40,000 square degrees, 400 times bigger than this image.

When I first saw this image I could tell right away it was in or very near the plane of the Milky Way. Our galaxy is a flat disk, and we're in that disk, so the plane appears as a fuzzy streak of light stretching across the sky. When magnified, that fuzz resolves itself into millions of stars, so when you look into the plane of the galaxy you're seeing far more stars than when you look up and away from it. There's also long streaming filaments of dark dust in the galactic plane, and you can see those in the image, too.

But where is this, exactly? When the image was first released on Twitter, it didn't say. So I fired up Sky Safari and scanned around the Milky Way, but couldn't place it. I was about ready to give up when my pal Alex Parker tweeted he had it:


By using an online astrometry program, the field was identified as being near Beta Centauri (also called Hadar) in the southern sky. The NASA press release (which I saw later) also says that the edge of the wondrous Coal Sack dark nebula can be seen to the upper right as well (I was later able to determine that the bright glow in the upper part is called Cederblad 122).

I immediately zoomed in on that part of the sky using my own software and laughed out loud. Ah, that explains why I couldn't find it: The image from TESS is reversed left-to-right! Amazing how much harder that can make IDing it.

Mind you, this is not the final way TESS images will look! Again, this is a preliminary engineering test shot, and over time the cameras will be adjusted to produce the best possible images. The first science first light image should happen in June.

And then the fun begins. Unlike the Kepler observatory, which stared at one spot in space, focusing on 150,000 or so stars that were relatively faint, TESS will look at brighter stars. The reasoning behind this is that while Kepler was looking to find as many planets as possible, TESS is looking for ones that are closer (and therefore easier to study for follow-up), given that brighter stars tend to be closer to Earth.

So think of this as our first "howdy, neighbor!" photo from an observatory that's going to find lots and lots of our neighborhood planets. Thousands of them, in fact. It'll likely double the number of confirmed exoplanets known and will be a bounty for planetary scientists.

Remember: 30 years ago we didn't know of a single planet outside our solar system. Now we know of several thousand. 30 years hence, who knows? It's a big galaxy. And we're just getting started.

20 May 19:57

Medieval freedom of information

by Alix

“Freedom of information” and “open data” as concepts of governance have modern associations, partly because a steady progress is widely presumed from “closed” in the past to “[relatively] open” now, and partly because a lot of our associations with those terms are naturally digital, since that is our main enabling technology. If you try to take this concept back in time by, say, googling “medieval open data” like a lazy dilettante you will find a lot of people and research centres digitising medieval source material, mapping medieval landscapes or townscapes using modern mapping data and interpreted historical accounts, or doing interesting crunchy things with metadata from given record classes. The “open” in medieval open data means open to us, now. It never means open to them, then.

But you do come across something very like the phenomenon of freedom of information in the context of the Peasants’ Revolt. The “peasants”, (who I think we are still agreed were among the more prosperous members of their communities, unless some kind of Python-based revisionism has taken place in the last twenty years), were famously extremely well-versed in the notion that documents of authority were important. Tax records, manorial rolls and title deeds could record serf or free status, manor of origin, duties and dues owed to lordship, duties and dues owed to the Crown in a way that directly impacted their lives. According to M. T. Clanchy, whose work underpins the field of medieval literacy, serfs as early as the reign of Edward I were required to have their own seal for the purpose of authorising documents, so whether or not this is a literate culture by modern standards, it is certainly a bureaucratic one. The people who marched on London in the summer of 1381 selectively seized or burned documents as they went, culminating in the destruction of the archives of John of Gaunt in the Savoy Palace on the Strand.

This was clearly understood to be targeted rather than randomized destruction by contemporaries, because elsewhere, shocked by the revolt into considerations of citizenship and the common weal, authorities thought it appropriate to make documents, not more protected from the commons, but more accessible to them:

The first of the ordinances produced by Bristol’s civic elite towards the end of 1381 sought to make civic government more accessible to the commons of the town. Although ‘all the records, papers and muniments touching the Commons’ were to be preserved ‘within the Guildhall or in some other privy place under lock’ (‘ou en aultre place prevee sur serute’), two or three of the commons, in addition to the mayor, were now to be given their own keys in order that ‘every man can have copies or the records when need be’. The town’s civic archive was to be available for public consideration: no longer was government to be carried out in private beyond the scrutiny of the commons. The revolt of 1381 had underlined for Bristol’s rulers the need to be more sensitive to pressure from below and to adopt a more consultative style of civic government.

C. D. Liddy, War, Politics and Finance in Late Medieval English Towns: Bristol, York and the Crown, 1350-1400 (Boydell & Brewer 2005), pp 96-7.

This doesn’t get called freedom of information or open data because those are anachronistic terms and it’s not really the main story Liddy is telling here. Actually this passage follows a fifteen-page account of how the city of York slowly stopped being a complete banana republic over the course of the 1370s. In places, to a given definition of this term, it is completely hilarious. The ship racket was the best thing in town – taxes raised from York’s citizens were used to build and maintain two ships for the Crown’s use, but as there was no such thing as a consistent Royal Navy at that point, the elite merchant class basically got two free ships funded by the people to run their stuff in whenever they weren’t required by the Crown.

But anyway, I would love to know more about what happened next in Bristol. How was this power of access to the archives communicated to people? Was it really complete? Who used it and when, is this traceable in court records? And did other authorities make similar provisions? And most importantly of all, was there any rowing back from all this later?

After I read that passage I had a look around for other examples, but it’s hard graft for a feckless blogger, because that anachronistic and yet so convenient uniting concept of “freedom of information” isn’t employed by medieval historians. Christ, I’ll have to go to a library. It’s an example of the kind of historical enquiry Dr Will Pooley referenced the other day, when he appealed for the term historians use when they’re using a record class systematically to gather data of a kind the source was not intended to record. To some extent you could say (and somebody did) that’s how we use all sources, there’s always that interpretational veil, but I get the distinction he is making:


I don’t have an answer to his question (actually it’s amazing how few useful operational terms historical enquiry has in common use, unlike archaeology where your “middle range theory” is what most human people would call an overview) but in essence I feel like what he is describing here is what I would like to do with “medieval freedom of information”. It surprises me that one can construct the concept at all, so there might be more surprises and even suggestions for modern open data and FOI practitioners.

20 May 08:52

‘What Ramadan means to me’: Muslim women on the month of fasting and prayer

by Media Diversified
Muslim women included in forthcoming anthology, Cut From The Same Cloth, discuss what Ramadan means to them

Sabeena Akhtar
Writer & editor, coordinator Bare Lit Festival

From the grey winter mornings of my childhood, sat around a cloth on the floor eating freshly made aloo parantha, to the busy Ramadhans of my teens; traversing the mosques of London with friends, looking for the best place to pray night prayers. One thing has always remained constant – the need for self – improvement. I find myself yearning for Ramadhan and the opportunity of taking one month in every year to better myself and my relationship with God. Imagine, the mercy of having one month to withdraw from the pressures of everyday life and just focus on trying to be kinder, more charitable, more disciplined and forgiving. Ramadhan is so much more than a refrain from food, it is a spiritual and physical cleanse.

In fact, far from the hangry adherent you may imagine, I find myself more patient than at any other time of year! Ramadhan for me, is the ultimate mix of self care, worship and unbridled joy. There is such comfort in knowing that over a billion people observe the month with you, quietly rising to bow their heads in prayer and reflection, to share the joy of iftar with family and friends and the serenity of standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer with the community.

Yvonne Ridley
Journalist & author, Secretary General of European Muslim League

I was working in the Middle East when I celebrated my first ever Ramadan in 2003 and there was much excitement in Qatar as the blessed month approached. This was reflected in the shopping malls, workplace and mosques and was highly visible just like the run up to Christmas in the UK. As a convert it was also a little daunting as the best of all months arrived but I got through it easily with the support of my Muslim friends. The most spiritually uplifting period for me happened when I visited friends at Discover Islam in Bahrain and we performed Taraweeh. I can still hear the rustle and swish of their abayas as we rigorously performed our lengthy prayers.

However on returning to the UK, the next Ramadan was a little bit of an anti-climax as I didn’t live in a Muslim community and the excitement I’d experienced in Qatar simply wasn’t there. So bear in mind this can be quite a tough period for new Muslims and I would urge you all to adopt a revert for Ramadan as it can be a lonely period for those of us who’ve chosen a faith which is viewed as alien and strange to family and friends.

Raifa Rafiq
Trainee solicitor, writer, co-host Mostly Lit podcast

Ramadan for me is encompassed by two things. It is the time that always tests my discipline, resolve but most importantly my love of Allah because I am someone that definitely does not like to go hungry. I fast not because I want to, I fast because it has been decreed from Allah and my love for him surpasses any worldly indulgence. And I think it is very important to talk about that difficulty. That difficulty feeds me as it displays so viciously my love and strength for my religion. The second aspect of Ramadan that I sure look forward to is honouring family and the community ties. We sometimes become so distracted by worldly woes that we forget those that hold us down and ground us. Ramadan forces us to get together and honour one another. Ever since I knew of Ramadan, my family have always done Iftar together, nobody gets left behind. The kids start setting the table or the mat as the sun starts to settle, everybody goes to pray and come back to break bread, laugh, talk and honour one another. Love of Allah and love of Family – that is my Ramadan.


Shaista Aziz
Journalist & writer

Ramadan is an opportunity for a spiritual recharge. It’s the time of year when I’m especially aware of the lightning speed pace of my life, my work and the travel I do. Ramadan forces me to take a step back and try and slow down where I can to focus on the essence of the month – to connect me more deeply with my faith and to understand just how short my tenancy is in the world and how limited my time is in the spaces I’m present in. 

Ramadan has a hugely calming influence on me. One of the most beautiful lessons from the month is to just be, to make more of an effort to remain still and to humble myself daily and empathise more deeply with those struggling in their lives here and across the world. 

This Ramadan I will be traveling to Calais with Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity to cook and serve iftar to refugees and to put solidarity and compassion into action, which is what Islam teaches me to do daily. 
To me, Ramadan is about self-reflection. Without food you’re forced to break habits and reflect on how you use (or misuse) your time. At the same time, fasting connects you with your essential humanity – everyone has to eat, and feeling hungry and thirsty connects you to each other. It can be a humbling experience, a reminder that we are all reliant on Allah emotionally and materially.

Sumaya Kassim
Writer & researcher

My Ramadan is probably quite unusual because it isn’t family orientated. Most of my family live in London and in Yemen, so though there is a lot of texting at the start of Ramadan, it can be quite isolating if I don’t make an effort. I know that there are lots of people who feel similarly for a variety of reasons (e.g. because they’re family aren’t Muslim, they’re migrants, etc). The upswing of this is that you appreciate invitations from friends and the masjid’s efforts all the more. I do miss Ramadan in Muslim majority countries, because of the athaan, and because people are experiencing the same thing collectively and shops are open late but, honestly, parts of the UK’s major cities – particularly in Birmingham – are basically like that. I love the effort local businesses make, it’s beautiful to see places hand out sweets to kids, and the general atmosphere of charity and kindness. Though I do increase my worship during the holy month, I’ve learnt from past years that smaller acts that are consistent are better than grand gestures (this also happens to be a central principle in Islam, so win-win). Ramadan is the perfect time to cultivate habits that you can carry throughout the year, so I focus on actions and behaviours I know will fit in with my life and my interests. Islam – to submit to Allah – should be easy; if certain acts of worship start feeling like a chore, I probably won’t do them outside of Ramadan.

That said, I definitely read more Quran. I’m fortunate to be (relatively) bilingual so I engage with the Quran as an unlearned, unscholarly critic. I enjoy stories and etymologies (and over-analysis), so the Quran appeals to me on a variety of levels. No matter how many time I’ve read it, it’s always a novel and spiritual experience. I also pray more and make more of an effort to extend my prayers and attempt to reach a state of khushooa’a (i.e. feeling closer to Allah).

Cut From The Same Cloth is crowdfunding to be published, you can support it here.

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20 May 06:43

The pragmatics of ESP

by Neal Goldfarb

As I was browsing some search results in Google Scholar, I came across a listing for a paper titled, "Communication and Community: The Pragmatics of ESP."

After reading the title, I asked myself, If you have ESP, why would you need pragmatics?

Then I looked at the title of the journal: English for Specific Purposes.

Oh. That's different. Never mind.

The details:

Widdowson, H. G.
English for Specific Purposes, v17 n1 p3-14 1998
Examines the role of pragmatics in developing communicative competence in English for special purposes (ESP), noting that (1) knowledge of the cultural conventions of different professional discourse communities provides for effective in-group communication and (2) alongside this knowledge, students of ESP should be taught how to use it in the context of the larger communicative community. (MSE)



19 May 21:17

lingthusiasm: Lingthusiasm Episode 20: Speaking Canadian and...


Lingthusiasm Episode 20: Speaking Canadian and Australian English in a British-American binary

Australian and Canadian English don’t sound much alike, but they have one big similarity: they’re both national varieties that tend to get overshadowed by their more famous siblings. 

In this episode of Lingthusiasm, your hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch use Lynne Murphy’s new book The Prodigal Tongue as a guide to the sometimes prickly relationship between the globally dominant British and American varieties of English, give a mini history of English in our own countries, and discuss our national quests to find space between and around US and UK nationlects. 

On the way, we ask the big, country-dividing questions like, is soup more likely to be brothy or puréed? Does “please” make a request ruder or more polite? What’s a prototypical bacon? Where on your face is a frown?

This month’s bonus episode on Patreon is about what you should know if you’re considering linguistics grad school: whether to apply, tips on applying and choosing a school, and some of the differences between the North American and UK/Australian systems.

We also announced that our Patron goal bonus art will by done by Lucy, who is not only a great artist but also an English language teacher with a Masters in Applied Linguistics. We’ll be sharing updates on the Patreon.

Here are the links mentioned in this episode:

You can listen to this episode via, Soundcloud, RSS, iTunes, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also download an mp3 via the Soundcloud page for offline listening, and stay tuned for a transcript of this episode on the Lingthusiasm website. To received an email whenever a new episode drops, sign up for the Lingthusiasm mailing list.

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Email us at contact [at] lingthusiasm [dot] com

Gretchen is on Twitter as @GretchenAMcC and blogs at All Things Linguistic. Lauren is on Twitter as @superlinguo and blogs at Superlinguo.

Lingthusiasm is created by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Our audio producer is Claire Gawne, our editorial producer is Emily Gref, our production assistant is Celine Yoon, and our music is ‘Ancient City’ by The Triangles.

Make sure to also check out my livetweet of The Prodigal Tongue for more interesting snippets about national varieties of English

18 May 13:31

“I Felt Like Destroying Something Beautiful”

by Sandra Loughrin

When I was eight, my brother and I built a card house. He was obsessed with collecting baseball cards and had amassed thousands, taking up nearly every available corner of his childhood bedroom. After watching a particularly gripping episode of The Brady Bunch, in which Marsha and Greg settled a dispute by building a card house, we decided to stack the cards in our favor and build. Forty-eight hours later a seven-foot monstrosity emerged…and it was glorious.

I told this story to a group of friends as I ran a stack of paper coasters through my fingers. We were attending Oktoberfest 2017 in a rural university town in the Midwest. They collectively decided I should flex my childhood skills and construct a coaster card house. Supplies were in abundance and time was no constraint. 

I began to construct. Four levels in, people around us began to take notice; a few snapped pictures. Six levels in, people began to stop, actively take pictures, and inquire as to my progress and motivation. Eight stories in, a small crowd emerged. Everyone remained cordial and polite. At this point it became clear that I was too short to continue building. In solidarity, one of my friends stood on a chair to encourage the build. We built the last three levels together, atop chairs, in the middle of the convention center. 

Where inquires had been friendly in the early stages of building, the mood soon turned. The moment chairs were used to facilitate the building process was the moment nearly everyone in attendance began to take notice. As the final tier went up, objects began flying at my head. Although women remained cordial throughout, a fraction of the men in the crowd began to become more and more aggressive. Whispers of  “I bet you $50 that you can’t knock it down” or “I’ll give you $20 if you go knock it down” were heard throughout.  A man chatted with my husband, criticizing the structural integrity of the house and offering insight as to how his house would be better…if he were the one building. Finally, a group of very aggressive men began circling like vultures. One man chucked empty plastic cups from a few tables away. The card house was complete for a total of 2-minutes before it fell. The life of the tower ended as such: 

Man: “Would you be mad if someone knocked it down?”

Me: “I’m the one who built it so I’m the one who gets to knock it down.”

Man: “What? You’re going to knock it down?”

The man proceeded to punch the right side of the structure; a quarter of the house fell. Before he could strike again, I stretched out my arms knocking down the remainder. A small curtsey followed, as if to say thank you for watching my performance. There was a mixture of cheers and boos. Cheers, I imagine from those who sat in nearby tables watching my progress throughout the night. Boos, I imagine, from those who were denied the pleasure of knocking down the structure themselves.

As an academic it is difficult to remove my everyday experiences from research analysis.  Likewise, as a gender scholar the aggression displayed by these men was particularly alarming. In an era of #metoo, we often speak of toxic masculinity as enacting masculine expectations through dominance, and even violence. We see men in power, typically white men, abuse this very power to justify sexual advances and sexual assault. We even see men justify mass shootings and attacks based on their perceived subordination and the denial of their patriarchal rights.

Yet toxic masculinity also exits on a smaller scale, in their everyday social worlds. Hegemonic masculinity is a more apt description for this destructive behavior, rather than outright violent behavior, as hegemonic masculinity describes a system of cultural meanings that gives men power — it is embedded in everything from religious doctrines, to wage structures, to mass media. As men learn hegemonic expectations by way of popular culture—from Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne—one cannot help but think of the famous line from the hyper-masculine Fight Club (1999), “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.”

Power over women through hegemonic masculinity may best explain the actions of the men at Ocktoberfest. Alcohol consumption at the event allowed men greater freedom to justify their destructive behavior. Daring one another to physically remove a product of female labor, and their surprise at a woman’s choice to knock the tower down herself, are both in line with this type of power over women through the destruction of something “beautiful”.

Physical violence is not always a key feature of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 1987: 184). When we view toxic masculinity on a smaller scale, away from mass shootings and other high-profile tragedies, we find a form of masculinity that embraces aggression and destruction in our everyday social worlds, but is often excused as being innocent or unworthy of discussion.

Sandra Loughrin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her research areas include gender, sexuality, race, and age.

(View original at

17 May 08:00

Yanny vs. Laurel: an analysis by Benjamin Munson

by Ben Zimmer

A peculiar audio clip has turned into a viral sensation, the acoustic equivalent of "the dress" — which, you'll recall, was either white and gold or blue and black, depending on your point of view. This time around, the dividing line is between "Yanny" and "Laurel."

The Yanny vs. Laurel perceptual puzzle has been fiercely debated (see coverage in the New York Times, the AtlanticVox, and CNET, for starters). Various linguists have chimed in on social media (notably, Suzy J. Styles and Rory Turnbull on Twitter). On Facebook, the University of Minnesota's Benjamin Munson shared a cogent analysis that he provided to an inquiring reporter, and he has graciously agreed to have an expanded version of his explainer published here as a guest post.

The production of sounds produced with a relatively open vocal tract (like the vowels in "Laurel" and "Yanny") and some consonants (like the "l", "r", "y", and "n'" sounds in "Laurel" and "Yanny") have infinitely many frequencies in them. Think of it like hundreds of tuning forks playing at once. If the lowest-frequency tuning fork vibrates at 100 cycles per second, then the tuning forks will be at integer multiples of 100 Hz: 100, 200, 300, up to infinity. If the lowest-frequency tuning fork vibrates at 120 cycles per second, then the tuning forks will be at integer multiples of 120 Hz: 120, 240, 360, up to infinity. We can change the frequency of the so-called 'lowest frequency fork' by changing the tension in our vocal folds (layperson: 'vocal cords'), which causes them to vibrate more slowly or more quickly. We hear those changes as changes in the frequency of the voice, like the pitch glide upward when you ask a yes-no question, or the pitch glide downward when you make a statement. But speech has many more frequency components than just that lowest-frequency component. Remember, infinitely many tuning forks. The difference between an "ee" and "ah" vowel is that some of the frequencies that are especially loud in "ee" are quiet in "ah" and vice versa. The same pitches are present–the tuning forks are always vibrating–but the loudness of each of the frequency components (each of the tuning forks) changes from vowel to vowel.

Hopefully I've been clear so far, because here's where it gets weird.

So, the frequencies (the 'tuning forks') that are loudest are what we call formants. The formants are the horizontal stripes in the picture above, called a spectrogram. A spectrogram is a quasi 3D picture. It's sort of like a topographic map. The x axis is time, so a spectrogram can show things changing over time. The y-axis is frequency. There are many different frequencies in speech—many different 'tuning forks' in our analogy—and we need to represent as many of these as we need to describe speech. In speech, we usually focus on those frequencies between 0 and 10,00 Hz, but since the youngest, healthiest humans can hear up to 20,000 Hz, we sometimes show 0-20,000 Hz, as in the above. The shading shows which of the frequencies are loudest. Think of the shading on a topographic map: the shading shows where the mountains are. It's the third dimension of the map. The dark-shaded regions are the highest amplitude (=loudest, though 'loudness' and 'amplitude' are subtly different for reasons we won't worry about here). They formants (=the frequencies where there are amplitude peaks) change over the course of the utterance, as you go from "l" to the "aw" vowel to the "er" vowel to "l". Roughly speaking, each formant has an articulatory correlate (or, the higher up you go, correlates, plural). The frequency of the lowest-frequency formant roughly tracks tongue movement in the up-down dimension (from a high position in "ee" in "beet" to a low position in the 'short a' of "bat"). The second-lowest formant roughly tracks tongue movement in the front-back dimension (from the front position of the 'short a' in "bat" to the back position of the 'long a' in "bot"). We tend to perceive these differences regardless of the absolute frequency of the formants. A child's formants are higher than an adults, because the kids' mouths and necks are smaller than adults'. Still, we perceive the lowest-frequency formant as tracking up-down tongue movement, regardless of whether it's lower frequency overall (as in an adult) or higher-frequency overall (as in a kid). Think of the way a melody sounds on an alto saxophone versus a baritone saxophone. We can hear the same notes and melody even though the timbre—the 'tone quality', so to speak—is different because of the overall size differences of the instrument. For illustration, here is the lowest 2000 Hz of the above spectrogram, with the formants overlaid on it in red.

Now, right away we see that there is something awry about this signal. Where there should be a second formant, there are just speckles that appear random. One thing about this signal is that it's hard to track the F2. This is perhaps the first ingredient into why it is so susceptible to being identified differently. The F2 is, for some reason (overlapping voices? Intentional shenanigans? The girl from The Ring?) masked. That means that people can use 'top-down' knowledge (expectations, beliefs, priming from the words on the screen that this was presented with) to fill in their perception of the tongue's back-front movement. This was first pointed out by Rory Turnbull in his nice analysis of this signal.

Now, look at the first spectrogram, and focus on the higher frequencies. You see some faint stripes that look like lighter-gray formants at those higher frequencies. Those shouldn't be there. Humans can't produce those. Perhaps they were made by some bored undergrad who just discovered a few facts about signal processing. Let's imagine that the bored undergrad made them by taking some formants at lower frequencies and raising their frequencies (not a hard thing to do, honestly, using the 'change gender' function in the free software application Praat), then mixing them back in with the original signal.   Now, just to be clear, the higher-frequency formants are not an additional 'new voice' (scare quotes intentional) in the signal. It's the same tuning forks. It's just that the higher-frequency tuning forks has the same patterns of high and low loudnesses as the lower frequency ones. I heard the higher-frequency formant sequences when I first listened to this signal two hours ago and thought that they maybe were someone talking in the background. Then I thought "ERMERGERD, IT'S THE AUDIO VERSION OF THE RING.

Then I remembered that I was an adult, and that The Ring was just a movie. So, I decided to look at the spectrogram. Then, I made the attached spectrogram and realized that one of the primary weird things in this signal is that it has a lower-frequency formant pattern repeated at higher frequencies.

Excursus: Rory Turnbull pointed out that we don't know what kind of compression algorithm is used on Twitter. Maybe that's to blame, and not a bored undergrad. But no matter, I will assert with some confidence that these *shouldn't* be there based on what we know about human speech production.

Returning from the excursus, we can now ask: what does that mean?

One possibility is that the formant pattern at the higher frequencies is just "Laurel" transposed to higher frequencies, and that "Laurel" sounds like "Yanny" at higher frequencies. That's plausible–we never hear that kind of higher-frequency speech, and we don't have a huge body of scholarship on what higher-frequency formants would sound like.

Excursus: since writing this, Suzy Styles has tweeted a B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L tutorial on speech acoustics, along with her equally beautiful interpretation of this phenomenon. WTG, Dr. Prof. Styles! If you read Dr. Prof. Styles' tutorial, you will learn a figurative ton about the perception of formant-frequency changes. If you want to learn more about the perception of higher-frequency formants, you can dive head-first into UC-Davis professor Santiago Barreda's work on formant-frequency shifting in speech.

So, circling back: high-frequency formants like those highlighted with "shenanigans" above just don't occur in human speech.

Is that the only possibility? Of course not. Another possibility is that the lower-frequency signal has "Laurel" and "Yanny" mixed together on top of one another. Maybe the pitch (=the 'lowest frequency tuning fork') for "Yanny" is lower than that for "Laurel", which would jibe with the percept that was reported to me by Vox's Jen Kirby. If that were true, and if the higher-frequency formant sequences (the ones that were added artificially) were also "Yanny", then you'd be setting people up to hear "Yanny" if they could hear high frequencies well. That is, the higher-frequency formant ensembles (the girl from The Ring/bored undergrad stuff that is outlined in red boxes on my figure) might be most clearly audible to folks with good headphones and good hearing, and those who can hear them might then be more likely to hear the lower-frequency "Yanny" 'pop' away from the "Laurel" than those of us with Dad hearing (sorry, I love quacking about the fact that I made it to middle age) and cheap headphones. I'm not sure–there's no easy way to analyze overlapping speech signals. Separating concurrent voices is actually one of the worst problems in speech engineering, and is something that human ears can actually do better than machines most of the time. So, we're all left just speculating at this time. But, I'd say that my story is as plausible as anyone's. I still say that it's possible that it's just the formant pattern "Laurel" repeated at multiple frequencies, but if you say that you hear a lower-frequency "Yanny", I don't want to argue.

Now, just to give some additional evidence for this argument, I have embedded sound files that have various frequency ranges in them, from low to high. To be clear, these don't correspond to the frequency ranges above. The lowest is 0-4500 Hz, the next-lowest is 2000-6500 Hz, and the highest is 4500 to 9500 Hz. To quote University of Arizona professor Natasha Warner, "I tried filtering a whole bunch of ways (low-pass at various frequencies, high-pass at various frequencies), all on my computer with the sound turned up, and I consistently get Yanny. Of course high-pass filter at 5000 Hz makes the whole thing sound like crickets, roughly. But crickets saying 'Yanny'."

0-4500 Hz:

2000-6500 Hz:

4500-9500 Hz:

OK, hopefully that was a little clearer. There are a few long-term takeaways from this kerfuffle:

(1) Damn, sure is nice not to be talking about '45' for once. We need stuff like this to go down more often!

(2) Mad kudos to the woman who posted this on her Twitter. She was described as a "Social Media Influencer," and I say that she is at the top of her game. By sharing this, she brought enormous attention to herself. That's her job, and she's doing it cunningly and shrewdly.

(3) Speech is hard to understand. We might naively think it's easy to understand because we use it all the time (at least, folks who communicate in the oral/aural modalities do). Speech acoustics (and acoustics in general) are, in my thinking, not intuitive. Moreover, this body of knowledge doesn't build on other bodies of knowledge that most people have. When you learn about language in school, it's mostly about written language, not spoken. That's not me being snotty, but rather me saying that it must be hard to write about this kind of information for a broad audience, because it's three layers removed from what most people think about daily. Even disentangling the types of frequencies ('what is the lowest-frequency tuning fork?' vs. 'what are the frequencies of the loudest tuning forks?') takes a little bit of a conceptual leap. One of the reasons why speech is such a neat phenomenon is because there is so much work to be done still at the ground level. I hope that this phenomenon will inspire people to think more about speech science, experimental phonetics, and the nascent field called 'laboratory phonology'. Good places to start looking for work on these topics are and

(4) Building on (3), way to go to the speech science/experimental phonetics/labphon communities for working together as a team to talk about this phenomenon. I feel hashtag blessed to be part of a community that has precious few members who are driven by credentialist ambition, and who are instead driven to work as a community to solve problems as they arise.

(5) And lastly, as someone whose primary job is to train people to be speech-language pathologists, consider this. Did you find listening to this audio sample maddeningly hard? Welcome to the daily world of people for whom speech perception is not always automatic. This includes people with even mild hearing loss, people with subtle auditory perception and processing problems that are associated with various learning disabilities (developmental language disorder, speech sound disorder, dyslexia, autism spectrum conditions), and even new second-language learners. The frustration that you might have felt listening to this signal is what many of these folks face on a daily basis when listening to something as seemingly simple as trying to identify speech in the presence of background noise. Turn your frustration into empathy and advocacy for those folks. Learn more at, and support your local speech-language pathologists and audiologists!

[end guest post by Benjamin Munson]

A postscript (from Ben Zimmer): It turns out the audio in question comes from the pronunciation given for the word laurel on (link). This was revealed on Reddit and has been subsequently analyzed on Twitter by Carolyn McGettigan and Suzy J. Styles. As it happens, I used to work for and its sister site, the Visual Thesaurus. In fact, back in 2008 when the audio pronunciations were first rolled out for the Visual Thesaurus, I wrote about the project here on Language Log (as well as on the VT site), explaining how we had worked with performers trained in opera, who were adept at reading the International Phonetic Alphabet. So the laurel audio ultimately comes from one of those IPA-savvy opera singers!

Update (myl): The NYT has an app that lets you use a slider to vary the l0w-to-high preemphasis of the recording, which should help you to understand what's going on.

Even later update (from Ben Zimmer): This article in Wired gives the whole backstory, including more on the opera singer who pronounced the word laurel for, and the high school students who circulated the audio. I also spoke briefly to Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson about the whole Yanny/Laurel debate on CBS Evening News.

16 May 12:57

Verbing and nouning are fine and here’s a quiz

by Stan Carey

New words enter English in a variety of ways. They may be imported (import); compounded (download); clipped (totes); affixed (globalisation), acronymised (radar); blended (snowmageddon); back-formed (donate); reduplicated (mishmash); coined (blurb); or formed from onomatopoeia (cuckoo), proper nouns (algorithm), folk etymology (shamefaced), or semantic shift (nice, starve).

Another important source is when a word in one grammatical class is used in another: this is called functional shift, because the word shifts function. A noun becomes an adjective, a verb becomes a noun, and so on. It’s also called conversion and zero derivation – because a new word is derived without any inflection or affixation.

Linguistic conservatives often object to the process. At every Olympic games, for example, people complain about medal being verbed, blithely unaware that the usage dates to at least 1860, when W. M. Thackeray wrote, ‘Irving went home medalled by the king’. From my A–Z of English usage myths:

Functional shift is hugely important for producing vocabulary and has always been integral to the health and growth of English. Not always predictably: schedulize ‘make a schedule’ became a verb in 1832 but didn’t take; decades later, schedule was verbed by conversion and gradually caught on.

Pretty much anything can be verbed, as competent writers well know. In the great western Shane, Jack Schaefer verbs seems:

‘Seems to you, eh?’ said father. ‘Seems to me you’re mighty young to be doing much seemsing.’

Close-up of a bar of dark chocolate

Let’s chocolate.

A.M. Homes, in This Book Will Save Your Life, verbs the phrase shall I:

‘There’s one in the kitchen. Shall I put the groceries away?’

‘Shall I’—where is this guy from? Most people can’t speak English at all, and not only does he speak it, but he ‘shall I’s.

‘Yes, that would be lovely.’

So don’t hesitate to change a word’s grammatical category to suit your expressive needs. As long as the meaning is clear and the context is appropriate, convert and play to your heart’s content.

With this in mind, I wrote a quiz for Macmillan Dictionary on nouning and verbing, two common types of functional shift. It presents 10 words used as both nouns and verbs, and asks which came first. After answering, you’ll learn a little about the history of each usage. You may be surprised by some of them. I was.

Let me know how you get on. And if you’re in the mood for more language quizzes, Macmillan has lots more here.

Quiz, incidentally, has been a noun since at least 1780 (in the now-archaic sense ‘eccentric person’) and was verbed soon afterwards, in 1787 (‘tease, mock’). The ‘set of questions’ sense and the related verb emerged some decades later.

Edit: The quiz is featured at 3 Quarks Daily and Language Hat. Comments on both sites report people’s results and highlights. (Result and highlight are proving awkward…)

13 May 19:16

“English Only, Please!”

by thegeekygaeilgeoir

Language discrimination. You hear about it all the time.

A young woman is standing in a supermarket line, talking on the phone to her mother in Spanish, and someone taps her on the shoulder and says “This is America. We speak English here.”

Two college students are chatting in Arabic on the underground in London, and a big guy gets in their faces and tells them to bugger off back to their “own country.”

A couple of women go on holiday in Wales and come back red-faced and angry because “They were speaking Welsh in the pub, and we know they were talking about us!”

You hear about it, and it makes you angry, but you never really, truly internalize it until it happens to you.

Welcome to the World

I  spent this past weekend thoroughly enjoying the annual Los Angeles-area Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (Irish language immersion weekend), which was held this year in Thousand Oaks, CA. This was my fifth year at this event, and I always look forward to it. Wonderful people, An Ghaeilge an t-am ar fad…what’s not to love?

I’ll write more about the L.A. DSG a little later this week (I have a lot of photos and memories to organize!). I had a wonderful time! But right now I want to write about something that happened to some of us on the last day of the weekend, because it was very upsetting to all of us, and not something I feel I can let slide.

On Sunday, the last day of the DSG, a group of us decided to visit the nearby Gardens of the Worlda botanical garden in the heart of Thousand Oaks.

Gardens of the World was established by Irish-American entrepreneurs Ed and Lynn Hogan as “a striking monument to commemorate the various cultures of the world.” It consists of five different gardens, each one dedicated to a particular world culture.

“Field trips” are a fun feature of the L.A. DSG…a chance to speak Irish in a different setting, with different conversational topics. As Gardens of the World is no more than a mile from where we were holding our classes, it seemed like a perfect place to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon, speaking Irish and enjoying the beautiful early summer weather.

Seeming is Not, Alas, Believing

I really wish I could say that the Gardens of the World was a good experience. I wanted it to be a good experience. I’d had a wonderful weekend, I love botanical gardens, and this seemed like a perfect cap to the occasion.

Sadly, things went pear-shaped rather quickly.

Three of us arrived shortly before the others and, noticing the very small parking lot, politely asked one of the docents if there were other places to park nearby. We were treated to an officious lecture about how limited space is in the gardens (it really isn’t all that limited, nor was it particularly crowded!). It was very clear that our little group presented a huge problem to this person, and she wanted to be sure we knew just how big a problem we were.*

Nothing like first impressions, eh?

Eventually the rest of our group found parking, and we set off to enjoy the gardens, chatting as Gaeilge.

A second confrontation

We hadn’t been in the gardens 15 minutes when we were confronted again, by the same docent.

We’d stopped at a display of the California missions and one of our number had begun to talk (in Irish, of course) about the missions and the role they played in the history of California,  for the sake of those among us who were from out of state.

Suddenly this woman confronted us again. She accused us of “conducting a private tour.” She accused the person who had been talking about the missions of “using an amplification device” (she wasn’t).  She complained again about the size of our group. Then she said the thing that turned our irritation into shock and outright anger:

“We can’t have you doing this in a foreign language, because we don’t know what you’re saying.”

To say that we were gobsmacked would be putting it mildly.

I have no idea what she thought we might have been saying that could possibly have been so bad that she felt threatened by the language we were speaking. Horrible things, such as “The Japanese garden is all about tranquility” or “The missions were established by the Spanish”? Or maybe “Roses are my favorite flower?” Or perhaps she thought we were talking about her, like the women in the Welsh pub?

You’d think a docent at a place called “Gardens of the World” would be more receptive to world languages, but apparently to some a rós is not a rose.

Well, we continued on our “tour,” and we didn’t stop speaking Irish, but that line continued to fester, and when we got back to the place where our classes were being held. we talked about it for a bit.

California is a state that people of many tongues call home, and that many more visit every year. There is no excuse for language discrimination in any place, but in a place as diverse as Southern California, it’s absolutely absurd.

I found it particularly ironic that this happened in a place that was established by a family with the surname “Hogan.” I don’t know if Ed and Lynn Hogan spoke Irish, but their ancestors certainly would have. And they would have faced terrible discrimination — a form of bigotry and cultural genocide that came very close to eradicating the language altogether.

I volunteered to write a letter, which I have done. If I hear back from them, I’ll update this post with their response.

Why the fear?

I’ve never understood the xenophobia that makes some people suspicious or resentful of those who speak another language.

Are some people actually so self-centered that they think that people speaking another language are talking about them? Really?

It’s a big world, full of people of divers tongues and cultures. To my mind, one of the best parts of living in the 21st century is the opportunity we have, thanks to the internet, to communicate with people all over the world…to learn about languages and customs that our ancestors never had the chance to experience.

It’s time to let go of the fear. To learn to appreciate and enjoy diversity, rather than to resent and shun it. It’s time to celebrate the human family in all its wonderful variations.

A garden full of flowers of all the same color, shape, and scent, after all, would be a very dull place indeed.

Le meas,


* In the interest of full disclosure, there is a line, buried in the small print on Gardens of the World’s website, asking groups of six or more to contact the gardens before they come. We  hadn’t seen it. We weren’t a large group, but there were more than six of us, and had we seen it, we most certainly would have called. And, had this been explained to us politely when we showed up, we would have been happy to break into smaller groups, as the reason we were given for the problem with larger groups was that they’re concerned about big groups interfering with the “traffic flow” in the gardens. Unfortunately, we were shown no politeness whatsoever — in fact, we were lectured as if we were naughty, and not particularly bright, little children — which, by the way, are also apparently not welcome in the gardens!


10 May 12:15

Frontiers of gender iconography

by Mark Liberman

Toilet signs should be an international standard. This is my main accessibility request honestly.

Here at the Seagaia Convention Center in Miyazaki, where LREC2018 is sited, the restroom iconography looks like this:

Side-by-side it's pretty clear who is meant to go where, even though top hats and bow ties are pretty thin on the ground these days, and in fact I haven't seen any of the 1200 people at the meeting wearing any sort of hat at all. But on the way to finding that sign, I saw just the red icon, and was more than a little puzzled about what sort of thing it was supposed to represent.


08 May 17:53

How We Talk, N.J. Enfield (Review)


It’s really astonishing that human conversation happens at all. People respond to questions more quickly than they should be able to think of their answers, and our decisions about whether someone is being helpful or not can be based on millisecond differences in their responses.

Nick Enfield’s 2017 book How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation summarises some of the key work he has undertaken on how conversation works, with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. The book situates this work in some of the key research from the field of Conversation Analysis in the last 50 years. Topics covered include looking at how silences of different lengths gets interpreted, how people repair their speech as they go along, and how ‘um’ in English has correlations in enough other languages that Enfield refers to it as a ‘universal’ word. All of this is framed throughout the book with the metaphor of the ‘conversation machine’, which is a delightful commercial model of the ‘interaction engine’ in Nick’s 2006 book with Stephen Levinson (which I found tremendously helpful back when I was conceptualising my PhD research).

There’s lots to like about this book, and the presentation of research. I particularly like the commitment to ensuring that it is not only the ol’ regulars like English that are included in analysis. You’ll get to learn about the differences in conversational features in languages like Lao (Laos), Murrinhpatha (Australia) and Siwu (Ghana) too - or perhaps more astoundingly, the similarities between them.

This book is a great example of how research can be presented in a clear way that is engaging for a non-expert reader. It’s for the quick-minded non-expert, who is ok with acquiring (or ignoring) a bit of jargon along the way, but if you want an exercise in good pop-science writing, sit down with one of these chapters and the original research on which it is based. I did hope the larger question of ‘why this work?’ would be answered; Enfield is diligent about making sure all of the researchers are given a research-area title, but it is intriguing to ponder why conversation intrigues psychologists, linguists and sociologists alike. 

If you did linguistics but never got to study Conversation Analysis, or you want a whistlestop tour of some of the most interesting work to come out of the field in the last couple of decades, this book is certainly worth a visit.

How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversations, N.J. Enfield (Amazon)

[Thanks to Basic Books for the review copy. I also purchased a copy when Nick launched the book during the ALS conference in December because I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.]

05 May 07:54

NASA hopes to launch its next big Mars lander, InSight, tomorrow!

by Phil Plait

NASA is ready to launch its next big mission to the Red Planet: Mars InSight!

First, about the launch. It's scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday, May 5, 2018, at 11:05 UTC. That’s 04:05 Pacific time, yes, a.m., so if you want to see it you'll have to be up early. In an unusual move, the launch will be from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Normally, interplanetary missions are launched from Florida, but due to some peculiar circumstances the site was moved to California. It takes more power to launch to Mars from California, but happily the rocket, an Atlas V, has that to spare.

This will be the first interplanetary mission ever launched from Vandenberg. If you live in the Southern California area, NASA has info on how to watch the launch with your own eyeballs. If you don't live near there, never fear: It'll be live-streamed.

You should be aware that the weather as of now isn't looking great for launch; early fog reduces visibility. However, the launch window extends to June 8, with an opportunity every day (though the time of day varies a bit). Hopefully they can get this candle lit earlier rather than later.

Once launched, InSight will travel for about six months to get to Mars, and is scheduled to set down on the surface on November 26, assuming it launches tomorrow. It's a lander — the first NASA mission to Mars since MAVEN, and the first planned to touch down since Curiosity — and will be looking into marquakes.

The Mars lander InSight will sit on the surface and measure marsquakes, heat transport, and the planet’s wobble, all to help us understand the internal structure of the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Zoom In

The Mars lander InSight will sit on the surface and measure marsquakes, heat transport, and the planet’s wobble, all to help us understand the internal structure of the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Yes, you read that right. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It has very sensitive seismometers on it (called SEIS, for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure), designed to investigate seismic activity on Mars. This is critical to understand the planet's interior. In fact, it's how we've learned so much about our own planet's innards! As waves travel through the interior, they move through different material and can be changed (for example, some kinds of waves can't travel through liquids, which is how we found out part of Earth's core is molten iron), revealing Mars' structure. It'll also detect meteorite impacts! That's pretty nifty.

One of the scientists on the team that built the seismometers wrote an article about them that's fun to read; he talks about some issues they had just a few weeks ago that threatened the launch! It was resolved, but what was causing it is why the article is cool. Go check it out.

Mars InSight is equipped with a fleet of instruments to probe the planet’s interior. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Zoom In

Mars InSight is equipped with a fleet of instruments to probe the planet’s interior. The complete description is at the credit link. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight is also equipped with a heat probe (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, or HP3) that will penetrate the surface to see how heat flows up from the interior. This is an ambitious experiment; the probe is supposed to hammer itself an amazing 5 meters down into the Martian surface, far more than has even been attempted or achieved before.

Very interestingly to me, a set of radio antennae (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, or RISE) will measure the planet’s wobble. Have you ever watched a top spinning on a flat surface? The axis of rotation of the top will make a circle in a process called precession. This is due to friction with the table applying an off-center force (called torque) to the top. Other forces can cause the precession itself to wobble as well, and this is called nutation.

How a spinning object precesses and nutates depends on the forces acting on it, and the structure of the object. The forces in this case are mostly from the gravity of the Sun and Jupiter. As Mars wobbles, the rotation rate is affected very, very slightly. This can be measured with extreme accuracy, though, by sending radio signals to Mars and having them reflected back using radio antennae. Doing this with previous missions like Viking and Pathfinder revealed that Mars does precess, gave hints that Mars is differentiated — that is, has different layers of materials in it — and even gave an estimate of the size of its core.

With InSight, planetary scientists hope to nail that down much better, and also determine whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid. I think it’s interesting that we don't know that yet! Hopefully, in just a year or so, we'll find out.

But first things first. The mission has to get off the ground. I'll note that launch of Mars InSight was originally supposed to be in 2016! It was delayed when leaks were found too close to the launch date, and the mission had to be pulled back. The problems were fixed, but orbital mechanics — the relative positions of Mars and Earth — dictated that the next launch window would be 26 months later, so here we are.

Let's hope everything goes nominally (NASAese for "no problems") and we see the roar of the Atlas flinging this mission skyward!

03 May 04:50

Zora Neale Hurston and Kossula

by Neal Goldfarb

The Vulture story that this tweet links to ("The Last Slave") begins by talking about the fact that when Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, it was "eviscerated by critics." And "[the] hater-in-chief was no less than Richard Wright, who recoiled as much at the book’s depiction of lush female sexuality and (supposedly) apolitical themes as its use of black dialect, 'the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh.'” The story continues:

Six years earlier, Hurston had tried to publish another book in dialect, this one a work of nonfiction called Barracoon. Before she turned to writing novels, she’d trained as a cultural anthropologist at Barnard under the famed father of the field, Franz Boas. He sent his student back south to interview people of African descent….

Barracoon is testament to her patient fieldwork. The book is based on three months of periodic interviews with a man named Cudjo Lewis—or Kossula, his original name—the last survivor of the last slave ship to land on American shores. Plying him with peaches and Virginia hams, watermelon and Bee Brand insect powder, Hurston drew out his story. Kossula had been captured at age 19 in an area now known as the country Benin by warriors from the neighboring Dahomian tribe, then marched to a stockade, or barracoon, on the West African coast. There, he and some 120 others were purchased and herded onto the Clotilda, captained by William Foster and commissioned by three Alabama brothers to make the 1860 voyage.

When Hurston tried to get Barracoon published in 1931, she couldn’t find a taker….One publisher, Viking Press, did say it would be happy to accept the book, on the condition that Hurston rewrote it “in language rather than dialect.” She refused. Boas had impressed upon her the importance of meticulous transcription, and while her contemporaries — and authors of 19th-century slave narratives — believed “you had to strip away all the vernacular to prove black humanity,” says Salamishah Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Hurston was of the exact opposite opinion.

The story recounts one of Hurston's early conversations with Kossula:

“I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”

His head was bowed for a time. Then he lifted his wet face: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ ”

The book's full title is Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo." [Amazon]


30 Apr 06:45

On beyond the (International Phonetic) Alphabet

by Mark Liberman

In case anyone was wondering the kinds of things I'm learning about...this makes a lot more sense to me than it would've a few months ago. (Shame about "spazz" being the suggested new symbol here though!)

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a useful invention, which everyone interested in speech sounds should learn. But it's much less useful for actually doing phonetics than you might think. Whenever this comes up in discussion, I'm reminded of the Dr. Seuss classic On Beyond Zebra:

In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!

Here's a simple example — listen, and contemplate:


And again:


Just a few more:


Those are the seven renditions of sentence SX437, "They used an aggressive policeman to flag thoughtless motorists", from the TIMIT Acoustic-Phonetic Continuous Speech Corpus, created at SRI, TI, MIT and NIST between 1987 and 1990.

And among the many things happening in these examples, the point of interest to us today is the pronunciation of the final /sts/ sequence in motorists, which varies from a full s + t-closure + s sequence in (1):


…through successively weaker approximations to the /t/ gesture in (2), (3), and (4):




…through successively shorter uninterrupted /s/ regions in (5), (6), and (7):




In case you're tempted to think that the problem here is sloppy speaking by ordinary unprofessional talkers, here's an example from a consummate professional voice. Terry Gross is the host of the Fresh Air radio interview program, and this is how she starts her 3/16/2015 interview with Daniel Torday:

And this is not an aberration. In words like motorists, artists, activists, exists, consists, , etc., both professional speakers and ordinary Americans exhibit a similar palette of outcomes for the word-final /sts/. There might be a well-defined silent stop region separating two [s] fricatives, or there might be a region of variably-lowered amplitude in the middle of a fricative, or there might a variable-length fricative without any medial amplitude modulation at all. (And it's worth noting that in fluent speech, the full [sts] variant is quite rare. There are just 4 full [sts] variants out of 61 word-final /sts/ examples in TIMIT, for example (6.6%). In fluent reading of continuous passages the proportion is generally to be lower than that, and it's lower still in spontaneous speech. Overall, the uninterrupted [ss] — or [s]? — version seems to be the commonest case.)

So how should we transcribe these various variants of /sts/?

As far as I know, the IPA doesn't have any symbol for a lowered-amplitude region in the middle of a coronal fricative. We could go "on beyond (IPA) zebra" and invent one — maybe an otherwise unused letter like sigma σ, or maybe taking over one of Dr. Seuss's inventions, say spazz:

But that would probably be a mistake, at least if we interpret

[sts] ↔ [sσs] ↔ [ss] ↔ [s]

as necessarily representing qualitative symbolic distinctions rather than a continuum of degrees of lenition.

For one thing, as we continue on beyond phonetic zebra, we'll find that other variations in strength, timing and coordination of articulatory gestures seem to motivate literally thousands of additional "symbols":

As Dr. Seuss put it

Oh, the things you can find
If you don't stay behind!

But by inventing and deploying those symbols, we'd be giving premature answers to the really interesting and important questions.

My own guess is that the /sts/ variation discussed above, like most forms of allophonic variation, is not symbolically mediated, and therefore should not be treated by inventing new phonetic symbols (or adapting old ones). Rather, it's part of the process of phonetic interpretation, whereby symbolic (i.e. digital) phonological representations are related to (continuous, analog) patterns of articulation and sound.

It would be a mistake to think of such variation as the result of universal physiological and physical processes: though the effects are generally in some sense natural, there remain considerable differences across languages, language varieties, and speaking styles. And of course the results tend to become "lexicalized" and/or "phonologized" over time — this is one of the key drivers of linguistic change.

For more on this, see "Towards Progress in Theories of Language Sound Structure", in Brentari & Lee, Eds., Shaping Phonology, 2018.

[And yes, Dr. Seuss has been steering kids wrong all these years —  duality of patterning ensures that a properly-designed alphabetic orthography can spell any real or possible word in a given language. But extending the alphabetic principle to phonetic interpretation is a mistake, in my opinion.]

30 Apr 06:39


by Victor Mair

Word of the day from Robert Macfarlane:

Pamela Crossley called this lovely word to my attention.  It was also she who initiated our discussion of words for "mud season", that time of the year which is no longer winter nor yet spring that evokes a profound sense of being betwixt and between.

A few salient issues raised by the commenters on Macfarlane's tweet:

Iris Murdoch used this concept repeatedly in novels such as The Sea, The Sea and The Nice And The Good.

How to pronounce it (quite a few people mentioned this).


Welsh (cf. this recent post)

I have my own idiolectal way of pronouncing "sjushamillabakka" and am quite satisfied with it, since merely by saying the word I can conjure up the transitional setting and the watery sensations that it signifies.