Shared posts

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.

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.

You can help keep Lingthusiasm advertising-free by supporting our Patreon. Being a patron gives you access to bonus content and lets you help decide on Lingthusiasm topics.

Lingthusiasm is on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter.
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!

In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit


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.

29 Apr 18:18

Travelling whilst Muslim: pack sunscreen and prepare for Islamophobia

by Media Diversified
Harun Khan shares his experiences with religious profiling in western airports and the anxiety it can bring before, during and after travelling

Religious profiling is a common topic of conversation before any trip amongst British Muslim communities – especially amongst those of colour. Pre-travel topics tossed around often concern personal safety, religious dress, racism and the impacts of profiling on minority communities.

Given examples of high-profileMuslim celebrities who have been profiled at airports such as Muhammad Ali Jr , Shahrukh Khan and Sir Mohamed “Mo” Farah , as well as cases of Muslims being forcefully removed from airplanes for speaking their native Arabic or reading books about Syria, it is understandable that Muslims have been made to feel alienated when exercising their freedom of movement in the West. This culture of fear is deeply rooted in Islamophobia and presents a realm where anything related to one’s perceived Islamic identity may be viewed as suspicious and hence reportable.

Judging by our media depiction alone, it is arguable that black/brown male Muslims are one of the “more suspicious” demographics within Western society – even having Muslim members of parliament supporting enhanced security measures solely for young Muslim males like myself. And, from personal experience, it is highly evident that policies like this are in full force across Western airports.

Despite being equipped with many social privileges; my maroon British passport, native English tongue and London-trained doctor-status, I have also been stopped pre-departure a total of four times, out of five international flights over the last 3 years. All encounters varied in duration, level of intimidation and psychological turmoil.

My stories centre around my travel to “the land of the free”, more commonly known as, the United States of America. During medical school, I was honored to present my medical research but despite this academic achievement, my experiences were very much marred by the way I was treated at the airport.

In 2015, I was awarded two prizes for my research at university and was granted a place at a prestigious international conference hosted in San Francisco. This was my first international conference to stamp on my CV and coming from a low-income community, I had not had the pleasure to travel frequently as a young adult.

I shared the plane with what seemed like hundreds of surgeons, medical doctors and research scientists. My excitement came to halt at San Francisco International Airport . Here, I became increasingly anxious when all, bar one, of the passengers ahead me in the arrivals queue were asked to turn right and I was asked to turn left.

As I followed the line on the floor, I eventually turned a corner and was asked to place my passport on the counter and take a seat; here other people of colour joined me. Within 15 minutes, I was taken to a lone room with at least 3 white men for questioning – one taking the lead and the other two drifting in and out of the interrogation.

“Why are you here? “Are you actually a medical student?” “Wait … you were born in the UK?” “Why were you born in the UK?” “Where have you travelled? “You’ve travelled to Morocco before – how close is that to [insert terrorist hotspot]?” “Do you use social media?” “Can I google you [whilst he fake-types]?”

They made notes on everything I said and questioned me on every detail of my answers – “Wait, if you’re medical school is …” I was eventually forced to hand them my ID from Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, London, so they believed me.

I was then left to stand in line for 20 minutes – in a line that only consisted of me – for my suitcase to be turned upside down whilst airport agents chatted and laughed amongst themselves only a few feet in front of me. Ironically, the man who tore open my suitcase was not white and wore a thick accent. Disappointed, I watched him continue to question my identity. “So, where are you from?” He wanted me to say Pakistan. Not England.

Photo from Wikimedia.

In 2016, when I attended another conference in LA, things were slightly different. Moments after I set foot into London Heathrow, the speaker-phone called for a “passenger Mr Khan going to Los Angeles.” That, coupled with the Secondary Security Screening Selection (or “SSSS”) code that was already printed on my ticket online, led my gut feeling to drag me towards the desk.

“Come this way, Mr Khan”. They opened the entrance rope only for me and two others – Mohammed, who was black, and an unnamed South Asian gentleman wearing a suit.

We were taken into a room one-by-one. I was asked to take off my belt and empty my pockets. I was asked to open all my bags. After speaking with me briefly, the team leader – an elderly South Asian woman – learned that I was at medical school after I asked what I did for a living. If you know anything about elderly South Asians, or our culture, this fact instantly grabbed her attention and she subsequently became friendlier. When her male colleague left, I explained my frustration as to why I felt singled out. Now more trusting of me, she went onto explain:

“This will happen to you every time you come to the US. Your name was sent to us from the Department of Security. You can appeal the decision though,” she smiled. “Take a picture of this website – just login and fill out the form.”

She was the first person to admit that this was not random. Nonetheless, I was too fearful to take a picture of anything on my phone, so I pretended to take a picture and soon left after the ordeal was over. As I left the airport, and entered the sea of people on the ground, my anxiety improved.

Experiences like this have made me more aware of how my identity is politicised. Traveling, a leisurely experience for white passengers, in an anxiety-ridden one for Muslims. We have had to learn to navigate these unsafe spaces.

Photo from Wikimedia

With the rise in social media to document such instances, many US-based civil rights groups have heavily criticised acts of racial and religious profiling in North American airports – often pursuing legal action on behalf of American Muslims. In Europe, no country has acknowledged that such profiling exists and out of fear of detention, it is difficult to speak up against perceived acts of injustice in person.

That’s what makes it important to document and share our experiences – so that in future our pre-travel discussions can be more about what clothes to pack and not about how to look ‘less Muslim’.

If you enjoyed this, and want more like it, then please consider making a donation, it can be anything from £2 and takes no time at all. Or give what you can afford from £2 per month and become an MD member.

Harun Khan is currently working as a junior doctor in the NHS and is passionate about issues relating to global health and social inequalities. He aims to use his clinical work, public health research and writing as a means of supporting the most marginalised communities worldwide. In summer 2017, he launched a non-profit, that aims to support students from low-income communities pursue higher education within the UK.

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators, and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.

29 Apr 16:56

The origins of Pama-Nyungan, Australia's largest family of Aboriginal languages

The origins of Pama-Nyungan, Australia's largest family of Aboriginal languages:

An article by Claire Bowern in The Conversation about how the Pama-Nyungan languages spread and changed through Australia. Excerpt:

The approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.

Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.

All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End. 

Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate. […]

Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family. […]

We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.

You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.

What languages tell us

Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.

For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.

There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.

Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.

Read the whole article (including language maps!) here

24 Apr 10:27

Voter ID – a list, with snarky commentary

by Alix

I didn’t know, until I had the misfortune to be watching BBC Parliament today (I hate how that happens) that my manor Bromley is one of only five boroughs to be piloting a scheme of asking voters for ID in the local elections on 3 May. No ID, no vote.

All ID-related schemes bear the aspect of a solution looking for a problem, and they’re not fussy about the size of the problem. Shadow Minister Cat Smith pointed out today that electoral fraud was minimal, and only one case had been prosecuted following the last election. She was obviously hampered in this noble truth-speaking by Labour’s papers-please record in government, which a few of us perhaps mentioned at the time might come back to bite them on the arse, and this is exactly what happened as the ominously titled Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith, dwelt gloatingly on previous Labour pronouncements.

“And are the Labour party really saying that there is any amount of crime that is “too small” to tackle?” she smirked on, as if this was an unthinkable lunacy as opposed to an essential metric in criminal justice resource allocation.

She also claimed that few people should need to buy ID, and a long list of the choices available were on the polling card.

I have one and it’s true, they are. Let’s take a look at it.


The big ticket item here is the passport which in the UK costs a minimum of £75.50 provided you apply online and take your own digital pictures to HM Passport Office’s unsmiling requirements.

If you unsurprisingly don’t want to chance getting this wrong (say, if there are shadows anywhere in your home), you can shell out another tenner at a high street photographer to get some pictures taken, then if you’re a complete idiot you can go back the following week (to a different branch obviously) and get some more taken because you forgot the first time to specify you wanted them emailed to you, and walked blithely out with your cute little 90s-style wallet of paper pictures, and then two days later in the front of the queue at the butcher’s slapped your forehead and said “Oh fucking hell.” It costs more if you apply by post, and it costs more if you use the Post Office’s Check You’re Not a Complete Plum And Send service.

I don’t know the cost of the other items, and I don’t know what the “Freedom Pass (London)” is at all (it sounds wonderful), but on the assumption that all of them either cost money or are limited to certain groups, let’s pass without further incident to Column B.

I actually can do this without a piece of photo ID, but I’d be very surprised if everyone could:

The poll card itself counts as an item. If you’ve lost that you’re presumably doomed because it tells you what you need to bring – so already that’s one more piece of admin responsibility over previous elections.

Bank card (valid) – this would be my first pairing. Obviously no good if you don’t have a bank account, and this circumstance would suggest a relative lack of privilege.

Mortgage statement (not more than 3 months old) – see above with bells on re privilege. Also, they’re annual, so only 25% of the privileged will have a valid one.

Bank, Building Society, Credit Card statement (not more than 3 months old) – mine are all paperless, because, 2018. I suppose I could tick the ticky box in my internet banking to say “I’d like a paper statement next month please” provided I (a) had the foresight to do this in time and (b) had internet banking or else (c) time and leisure during working hours to phone the bank and hold my way through the ABBA back catalogue. Privilege, privilege, privilege.

Cheque book – lol.

Council tax statement or demand (not more than 12 months old) – if it’s in your name, sure – privilege again. One of the most hassly things about house sharing was always making sure everyone’s name was on something, and then having to periodically switch them around because someone wants to join a gym that thinks internet provider bills are all iniquitous forgeries and only gas will do, or similar.

Utility bill (not more than 3 months old) – see above re names. Also, my water bills are annual and my gas and electricity provider doesn’t even give me the option of paper bills any more, because, 2018. Honestly, admin is like continually slipping between two universes identical in every way except for their vastly different cultural beliefs around paper, one set of organisations positively boasting about the fact that it doesn’t weigh you down with it, while the other set of organisations chastises you for not having any.

(I wouldn’t fancy your chances of printing out an online bill either, I bet they won’t like that. I got round this when I joined the library, that other fierce examiner of personal identity, by using the printer at work and then folding it into thirds like business mail. Show them what they’re expecting to see, etc.)

P45 or P60 – if you work, sure.

Paper driving licence – presuming this also costs money. It certainly costs admin time.

Birth certificate – I’m amazed mine has survived this long and this many house moves, but I’m sure not everyone’s has.

All the rest of the list – limited by circumstance.

Most of the above is about privilege one way or another, the privilege of being worthy of receiving (non)paper in some capacity, and of having an identity that hasn’t changed over the period when all this (non)paper has accumulated. But it’s also about the wider privilege of having the health, time, foresight, and ability to wrangle officialdom to read that list and assemble the correct items from it. There’s just no way round the fact that this scheme asks voters to do more work and meet more standards to vote, and any kind of barrier of that nature is going to exclude some people.

I got my passport renewed, mostly because I needed to anyway, but also because this is not my first rodeo in turning up to desks and timidly submitting bits of crumpled paper to stern ladies. Basically, I have a hunch this will go wrong. There are too many items on that list to effectively train polling staff in all the little ins and outs and possibilities, and for them to retain it all day as hundreds of faces, names and circumstances present themselves. What was once a process has become a set of judgement calls, and inevitably some of them will be close. Somebody will call something wrong, and somebody will be unable to vote. And going on the “Minister for the Constitution”‘s own logic, even one person turned away would be a problem in urgent need of remedy.

Upon which, they’ll introduce ID cards like they wanted all along.


22 Apr 16:53


I found a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but the idea of reading it didn't spark joy, so I gave it away.
22 Apr 16:53

The Windrush generation: British citizenship and mobility control

by Media Diversified
Sundeep Lidher reflects on how stories of colonial and Commonwealth arrivals must be re-framed to recognise the Windrush generation’s status as citizen-migrants

This piece was originally published on The Runnymede Trust’s blog, Race Matters

The threats of deportation facing individuals who arrived in Britain from the West Indies between 1948 and 1971 have been alarming, as has the government’s response . The historical amnesia which has dominated reporting around these cases is also cause for concern.

We have been repeatedly reminded of the valuable contributions made by these individuals – as tax-paying, law-abiding, long-term residents, who responded to invitations to rebuild post-war Britain. This ‘good immigrant’ narrative is problematic. Not only because it diminishes the agency of West Indian arrivals, many of whom moved to Britain independently of ‘official’ recruitment schemes, but mainly because many of the individuals in question were not, in fact, immigrants on arrival. Any analysis of the current fallout must accurately engage with the legal dimension of the historical relationship between ‘Windrush generation’ arrivals and Britain. Namely, the institution of British citizenship.

In 1948, the British Nationality Act provided a definition of British citizenship for the very first time. It did so in globally-expansive terms. The Act aimed to re-establish some degree of uniformity on nationality questions across the Commonwealth in light of emerging definitions of local citizenship in places like Canada.

Under the Act of 1948 British-born and colonial-born people were, in legal terms, one and the same. Anyone born in Britain or in a British colonial territory became a ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ (CUKC or ‘British citizen’). All Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies were also British subjects. The Act recognised Citizens of Independent Commonwealth Countries (CICC or ‘Commonwealth citizens’) as British subjects too, and afforded them the same rights in Britain as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies.

So, from 1 January 1949, whether a person was born in Britain, in a British colony or an independent Commonwealth country he or she had the same legal rights in Britain. At least in theory. These rights included unrestricted entry and settlement, access to the labour market, voting rights, entitlement to welfare benefits and eligibility for Parliamentary office.

In terms of the rights it extended to those born in colonial territories and independent Commonwealth countries, the British Nationality Act of 1948 didn’t change a great deal. It legally encoded the privileges that had, until that point, been attached to British subject status.

Despite the legislative assertions of 1948, not all British and Commonwealth citizens were imagined as equals. Whilst definitions of British citizenship remained formally expansive until 1981, successively restrictive immigration laws determined precisely which categories of British and Commonwealth citizen could make claims to unrestricted entry and settlement in Britain, and which could not. Qualifications based on passport origin (1962) on parentage (1968) and on ‘patriality’ (1971) differentiated between categories of British and Commonwealth citizen for the purposes of entry. This differentiation operated primarily, but not exclusively, along race-based lines. In carving hierarchies of access to Britain these restrictive laws also carved hierarchies of citizenship. British and Commonwealth citizens who fell afoul of evolving immigration requirements were subject to criminalisation and deportation.

Racialized gatekeeping practices, institutionalised from 1962 onwards, and which continue to determine our hostile immigration environment today, have long historical roots in Britain. Demands currently being placed on ‘Windrush generation’ arrivals for documentary evidence of their entitlement to remain in the UK have direct historical parallels. History shows that these requirements have – often wilfully – frustrated the entry and settlement of individuals who otherwise had legitimate claims to live and work in Britain.

For example, legislation regulating the entry of aliens from 1914 , and bureaucratic machinery policing alien seamen in 1925 became sources of harassment for British-subject seafarers of African and Asian descent. Those who were unable to provide documentary evidence of their British subject-status were forced to register as aliens.

Later, in 1949, the Home Office re-established requirements that demanded documentary proof of status for anyone seeking entry to Britain who claimed to be a British subject. Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and Citizens of Independent Commonwealth Countries who were unable to satisfy these requirements would be refused leave to land. British officials simultaneously liaised with overseas authorities in a bid to make it more difficult for West Indians, South Asians and Africans to obtain the necessary travel and identity documents to enter Britain – despite their citizenship status.

In the early part of the last century, these mobility controls turned targeted categories of imperial subjects into aliens in Britain. In the latter half, similar controls eroded the rights of certain categories of British and Commonwealth citizens, turning them into immigrants.

Frustratingly, historical illiteracy continues to dominate public discourse around post-1948 migrations. Stories of colonial and Commonwealth arrivals must be re-framed to recognise their status as citizen-migrants. There is also a broader need to teach and understand British histories that unpick the complex processes that have determined who has come to be defined as ‘British’ over time, and why. Histories of empire, decolonisation, migration, racism and anti-racism are also histories of inclusion and exclusion, of both citizens and migrants. Proper engagement with these histories will help us to make better sense of how the past has shaped – and continues to shape – who ‘belongs’ in modern Britain. The Windrush deportations are just the tip of the iceberg.

This piece was originally published on The Runnymede Trust’s blog, Race Matters

If you enjoyed this, and want more like it, then please consider making a donation, it can be anything from £2 and takes no time at all. Or give what you can afford from £2 per month and become an MD member.


Sundeep Lidher is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge and Researcher on the Our Migration Story project at The Runnymede Trust.

Twitter: @historysunny

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators, and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.

22 Apr 16:50

cardboardfacewoman: rooksandravens: derinthemadscientist: thepioden: animatedamerican: nentuaby: ...











you can make nearly any object into a good insult if you put ‘you absolute’ in front of it

example: you absolute coat hanger

as well u can just add ‘ed’ to any object and it’s sounds like you were really drunk

example: i was absolutely coat hangered last night

#i was gazeboed mate #i was absolutely baubled

Meanwhile, “utter” works for the first (e.g., “you utter floorboard”) but somehow “utterly” doesn’t seem to work as well for the second (“I was utterly floorboarded”).

Utterly doesn’t work for drunk because it’s the affix for turning random objects into terms for *shocked*, obviously.

… huh.  I thought that might just be the similarity to “floored”, and yet “I was utterly coat hangered” does seem to convey something similar.

I have to tell you, I am utterly sandwiched at this discovery.

Completely makes the phrase mean “super tired”.

“God, it’s been a long week, I am completely coat-hangered.”

Something is

Something is wrong with our language

Is it a glitch or a feature?


I think this means you’ve been utterly linguisted.

19 Apr 09:46

Travelling whilst white? How to enter Africa

by Media Diversified
Mwango Moragia turns some of the questions she’s had at western airports back on the questioners
LOCATION LOCATION: Madame, do you know WHERE in Africa you are?

No worries if you don’t know. Just name 5 African countries, their capitals and their geolocation to progress onto the next stage of questioning.

LANGUAGE DISADVANTAGED: You speak fluent English and nothing else?

Oh. It’s just that over here most of us speak an average of three languages fluently. I guess we need to allow your education system time to catch up?

JUMP THROUGH SOME HOOPS: You’ve come here to study? Fine, please prove your language skills.

You say you’ve been speaking Swahili all your life because you grew up with a Tanzanian nanny?

In order to obtain a Pointless Bureaucracy Certificate to enrol at the University of Dar es Salaam, please pay a sum of $300 to the government to officially test your alleged Swahili language skills, when you have done so please come back.

Also, we don’t take imperialised education systems receipts to justify language skills, thanks.

VOLUNTOURISTS, PROOF OF INTENT NEEDED: Are you here for volunteer work?

Are you here to go into orphanages to sexually abuse orphans under the guise of [insert western charity] and then hide under foreign powerful jurisdictions?

You’re here to build schools? Are you qualified to build schools? Where is your contracting degree/qualifications

SHOPPING FOR CULTURE: Are you here to walk into the marketplace?

Will you take photos of jewellery, then commodify and appropriate ideas to Aldo, Topshop, Harrods and Zara as ‘tribal chic’ without giving credit to the African women and men who designed them?


AN EXOTIC GETAWAY: You’re here on holiday?

Are you here to stay at expensive hotels and not interact with any locals? Stare at everybody on your one ‘excursion’ to a village then proceed to go back to [insert western city] to inform your friends and family that they should be thankful for everything they have because now you’ve seen the real Asia/Africa and you guys have it so good with your shoebox-sized houses and ready meals?

BABIES ARE NOT FOR SELFIES: Are you here to randomly take selfies with other people’s children as they walk home from school?

Do you randomly take selfies with other people’s children as they walk home from school in your home country?

Are you here to take pictures with other people’s children to put on your Tinder profile and show all the nice girls and boys in Europe/America/Canada you check the philanthropy box?

SAVIOUR’S DAY: You are here to visit the child you donate $1 a month to? What is his/her name?
WORK ABROAD: You are here to work? You have 10+ years of managerial experience working at Gap HQ in the US?

Unfortunately , we do not recognise your qualifications from your country but what you can do is enrol in school and complete your undergraduate and masters from our institutions and try to reenter the job market after a couple of years.

Yes, I know Kenyan nationals arrive with no qualifications in London and get better jobs and paid more than locals but that’s something to take up with the UK, not us.

You have a family to feed? Perhaps work as a cleaner or a taxi driver part-time as you redo your entire education. It’s really easy, everyone does it and you’ll be back on your feet in no time!

GAP YUH: Are you on your gap year? To find yourself? How did you lose yourself?

What makes you think you’ll find yourself here? I think maybe you should look for yourself at home. Maybe you’re under the sofa?

COLONIAL FANTASY: Are you here to shoot commercials for swimwear or music videos using our beautiful landscapes and wild animals but intentionally exclude using any local Africans?

Unfortunately this breaks our “Colonial Fantasy’ clause precedented by  Taylor Swift and her ‘Wildest Dreams’ music video.

Unfortunately we cannot grant you a visa and we are going to have to put you on tight security watch.

This is what we call an ‘Iggy Azealia Alert’ and you will be detained in the ‘Department of Stealing Cultures and Appropriating Narratives’

It’s usually quite full so please expect a lengthy wait.

TOXIC: You are here to donate blood? No. You cannot.

Laws clearly state if you have ever lived in countries outside of Africa, ever had intercourse with non-Africans you are not allowed to donate blood.

HOME SICK: Lastly are you here to learn about and appreciate the country and the people of the country you are in or are you here to tell people about the land of genetically modified milk and honey?

All right, thank you for your cooperation.

Let me just run a quick background check, get some fingerprints, a urine sample and a kidney for insurance, and we’ll have your visa ready.

The fee today is $900.62

Yes, I know I only asked you questions today but all Canadians/Americans/Europeans pay $900.62 for temporary visas.

Yes I know Africans pay just $12 for their visas into the UK but these are just the rules. I don’t make them. I just enforce them.

Thank you for your payment Madame, here is your single-entry visa. Have a lovely stay!

Although comically presented, these questions are illustrative of the harmful  profiling, invasive badgering and discrimination immigrants go through on a daily basis to try and ‘prove’ themselves to institutions and countries that continue to systemically undervalue them.

If you enjoyed this, and want more like it, then please consider making a donation, it can be anything from £2 and takes no time at all. Or give what you can afford from £2 per month and become an MD member.

Mwango Moragia is a masters student studying Global Media and Communications at the London School of  Economics and Political Science. She is a community organiser, editorial assistant, photographer and in her free time -a spoken word artist.

All work published on MD is the intellectual property of its creators, and requires permission to be republished. Contact us if you have any questions.

17 Apr 10:25

I like this idea of IPA Chart Battleship from @vocalfriespod so...

I like this idea of IPA Chart Battleship from @vocalfriespod so much that I want to file it here in my teaching linguistics tag.

15 Apr 07:50

Heaven’s Vault is an interesting-looking symbol-deciphering game...

Heaven’s Vault is an interesting-looking symbol-deciphering game that’s apparently “like Guitar Hero for linguistics.” From a review in The Verge:

Initially, the premise for Heaven’s Vault sounds like a typical video game. You play as a young woman named Aliya Elasra, accompanied by her temperamental robot Six, and together you explore a series of moons that were once home to a mysterious ancient civilization. But the ruins aren’t filled with violent aliens to kill or powerful weapons to discover. Instead, what the civilization left behind is words, and it’s your job to figure out what they mean. […]

The first time you see a hieroglyph, you essentially have to guess what it is. The game will show you a pictorial, and then give you a few options for what it might mean. A symbol could mean either “temple” or “garden,” and, initially, all you have to go on is the context of where the symbol is and what it looks like. If you guess wrong, you aren’t punished. In fact, the game lets you carry on thinking that could be the meaning of the word. As you explore, you’ll keep seeing symbols repeatedly and learn new ones that can give you a better idea of what others mean.

Eventually, if you’ve guessed wrong, Aliya will realize that it isn’t right, and the definition will be reset. By that time, you may have worked out what it really means by discovering other hieroglyphs or by learning something new about your location. It’s a system designed specifically to make you feel unsure and thus more like a real archaeologist. The game’s creators want you to fumble around. “We deliberately delay that process a little bit so that it goes on for slightly longer than you might be comfortable with because that feeling of not quite being sure is important,” says Inkle co-founder Jon Ingold.

The language itself has around 1,000 words, and the team describes it as being “logically constructed.” The idea is that the symbols aren’t random; each has a meaning, and that meaning is always the same. […]

While the language itself is real, the team admits that, in order to make it work for the purposes of the game, it’s not exactly the most functional language. “It’s complete in the sense that it’s fully logical, but it’s also not a super useful language,” Humfrey explains. “We have around 1,000 words, which is just enough to be useful for the purposes of the game.” He likens it to Guitar Hero for linguists: it’s enough to make you feel like you’re doing the job, but it cuts out a lot of the more tedious busy work. 

Read the rest of the review.

This game reminds me of the symbol-deciphering puzzles in the Linguistics Olympiad – I hope it leads people into wanting to learn more about linguistics! 

14 Apr 10:44

Fly over Jupiter's north pole in a 3D thermal infrared tour

by Phil Plait

I recently wrote about the Juno spacecraft's stunning images of soul-crushingly enormous cyclones swirling around Jupiter's poles. The images were taken using JIRAM, the Juno InfraRed Auroral Mapper, which is sensitive to light in the far-infrared part of the spectrum. This is where in Jupiter's upper atmosphere emits light — deeper air is warmer, higher air cooler, so this allows scientists to probe different depths into the ginormous planet's atmosphere.

Juno scientists have taken that data and used the temperature of the gas as a proxy for depth, creating a 3D flyover tour of Jupiter's north pole that is as wondrous as it is deeply eerie. Watch:

I bet you didn't know Jupiter's north pole is covered in a Chicago-style deep-dish pepperoni pizza!

Before Juno arrived at Jupiter in 2016, we weren't really sure what the poles of the planet looked like. Jupiter's spin axis is only tipped about 3° to its orbit, so from Earth we're always looking at the poles at a shallow angle, and perspective from the planet's curvature distorts everything.

Juno, however, flies directly over the poles, sweeping over the north pole of Jupiter at the blood-freezing distance of 4,200 kilometers (less than 3,000 miles) — mind you, Jupiter is 140,000 kilometers wide, so this is a razor's slice from the cloud tops.

That's why these data are so important. Not only are planetary scientists seeing Jupiter from above for the first time, but they're seeing it with instruments that can map the surface and see down through the cloud tops to depths of 70 km or so. That gives them a handle on how the gases behave directly.

As cool as that is, there's something else, too. In the last pass by Juno, it happened to get Jupiter's moon Io in its sights. The images were processed by amateur astronomer and 3D artist Roman Tkachenko, and, well, take a look:

Jupiter's moon Io, imaged in the thermal infrared by the Juno spacecraft. Each bright dot is an active volcano. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech / SwRI / ASI / NAF / JIRAM / Roman Tkachenko Zoom In

Jupiter’s moon Io, imaged in the thermal infrared by the Juno spacecraft. Each bright dot is an active volcano. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech / SwRI / ASI / NAF / JIRAM / Roman Tkachenko

Oh. My.

Io is the most geologically active object in the solar system; Jupiter's ridiculously enormous gravity squeezes and stretches the moon, heating the interior, and causing liquid and gaseous sulfur to erupt from holes in the ground. Do you see what that means?

Every bright dot on that image is an active volcano. An eruption of sulfur magma on a moon orbiting another world.

Tkachenko labeled the volcanoes in the middle image, and provides a rendering of what Io looks like in visible light on the right.

Io is covered in volcanoes; the first was discovered by Linda Morabito while examining images taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in March 1979. Since then, 150 have been discovered, and there may be more than twice that many in total. Io erupts so much that over its lifetime, enough material has come from its interior to literally turn the moon inside out. That is truly one of the most bizarre things I've ever heard about our solar system.

I think about that sometimes. We had the truly incredible Cassini mission orbiting Saturn for 13 years, taking hundreds of thousands of images and other measurements that gave us unprecedented insight into that world, its rings, and moons. Juno isn't designed to be as generalized as Cassini, yet what it's showing us is still astonishing. I wonder what we'd learn if we had a Cassini-class mission orbiting Jupiter for a decade or more.

And Uranus. And Neptune. And really just every object in the solar system.

We live in a playground of wonders, a delight for our eyes and minds in every direction we look. We really should look more.

12 Apr 16:52

I tweeted my way through The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy’s new...

I tweeted my way through The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy’s new book about British vs American English. I’ve been a fan of her blog, Separated by a Common Language, for many years now, so it was fun to see it expanded in book form! 

The book is out today and you can get both US and UK editions via the book’s website (as well as do some fun quizzes about how much you know about each!)

12 Apr 07:21

New favourite example of structural ambiguity: “Fake degree...


It took me like three times to get this right. :) But then it is awfully early in the morning...

New favourite example of structural ambiguity: “Fake degree claims dog prominent Spanish politicians.”