For all of you early adopters, I’ve updated the method described in my previous tutorial on using IPA fonts with Mac OS X for OS X 10.9 Mavericks. Not a lot has changed, just the layout of the preference panes.
Also, SIL has recently released a new version of the IPA Unicode Keyboard which resolves some weirdness with certain programs not thinking that the encoding is UTF-8. So, if you’re upgrading to Mavericks, upgrade your IPA keyboard too!
For what it’s worth, Praat works just fine in Mavericks as well, and is screaming fast if you use the 64-bit Alpha version on a 64-bit Mac.
Although I don’t have time for a full review, I recommend the upgrade to anybody with a compatible computer, it all seems to be improvements. So, go ahead and upgrade, you’ll still be able to transcribe to your heart’s content.
~ ə ~
From time to time, I feel the need to share a word with the world, which addresses a clear need in the English language (as well as in the universe, in general).
Oblication [noun] - A “vacation” where the destination, timing, and most other aspects of the trip are determined (or strongly coerced) by family or social obligations. Recreation and relaxation, where possible at all, usually come only at the whim of fate.
“Want to come with me to Vegas?” “I wish. I used up all of my days off on an oblication for my aunt’s destination wedding in wine country”
“I’d love to stop by while I’m in town, but I’m on oblication, so I won’t have two spare minutes in between family gatherings.”
Having just returned from a real vacation, with an oblication on the horizon, the difference is astounding, and tragically unmarked in our society.
~ ə ~
Today, I stumbled across a very old word with a very modern, very specific use: Crenellation.
For those of you lacking in 12th Century Military Architecture terminology, a crenel is one of the indentations in a battlement wall, the gaps in the alternating gaps and blocks at the rim of a battlement’s wall or roof, as in the diagram below:
This word was first attested (according to the OED) in the 1300s, so where did I find this word in use in the modern world?
Well, I’ve been looking for a quality flashlight for an upcoming roadtrip, and I discovered that the majority of quality lights now feature ”crenellation”, which makes no sense right up until you see the flashlight being advertised:
These crenellations (sometimes called a crenellated striking bezel) are designed to turn your flashlight into a makeshift self-defense weapon1, and apparently the term has caught on in the flashlight community. At the time of writing, when one Google Image searches “crenellated”, around 1/4 of the pictures are of flashlights or flashlight parts (the rest, of course, being castles).
Looking at these lights brings to mind one other delightful (and rather applicable) blend that I’ve not mentioned before: Tacticool.
Tacticool is a blend of “tactical” and “cool”, which is generally used to mock something which is both far more militaristic than the situation requires and far more concerned with looks than practicality.
This is most often used mockingly, to refer to a person (think “fatigue-wearing, H2-driving, crenellated-flashlight-carrying pizza delivery boy”) or to a overly-accessorized weapon or piece of equipment (a Google Image Search explains better than I ever could), but the term is quite versatile.
All linguistics aside, I did find a flashlight, and yes, it does have tacticool crenellations. But more importantly, I can now use something which is best described using a word from the 12th century alongside a word which seems to have caught on in July 2008.
Now, my flashlight can brighten my life in two ways!
~ ə ~
So, I recently got an email from a reader (which I’ve edited into a single question for today’s post):
I’m currently in grade 11, and am trying to decide what I want to do with my life as far as education and jobs go. I absolutely adore writing, and it is certainly my dream career. However, I’d be fooling myself if I believed that I could rely on that as a sturdy job. So instead, for the time being, I will continue to write as a hobby.
I was reading a (fictional) book a little while ago, and one of the characters was someone who had devoted their life to living with the Navajo and learning their language and customs. That sparked some interest, and I began to look up things such as Global Studies. While I was searching, I came across Linguistics. So, here’s my question:
What exactly do you do? Sure, I’ve looked it up online. When I was doing that, I found basic definitions and found your site. When reading some of the things on there, I found a few very interesting and would love to hear your explanation of what linguistics is, if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to describe it. I think that as I look into it more, linguistics is one of those things that will become increasingly interesting to me.
This is an excellent question! Linguistics is one of those fields that most people have heard of, yet few can explain what it actually IS.
What don’t linguists do?
There are two really popular misconceptions about what linguists do which we should address first.
To start, linguists aren’t translators. Although there are many linguists who actually look into translation theory as a part of their research, that’s not what we are.
The other common misconception is that linguists sit around all day learning lots of different languages. This misconception leads people to, upon first meeting, immediately ask any linguist “How many languages do you speak?” This question is discussed extensively here, but in short, there’s more linguistics than speaking lots of languages.
Of course, there are many linguists who do part of their work by learning many languages, and it’s rare to find a linguist who speaks only his or her native language, one can be a very competent linguist and still spend most of their career working only with one or two languages. This is especially true in the realm of computational linguistics, where the problem isn’t so much the difference between languages, but getting a computer to understand human language at all.
What do linguists do?
This is actually really complicated question, but few people outside of the field know that. Linguistics is a very big field, with lots of different people doing lots of different things, because Language (with a big L, the whole idea of it) is wonderfully complicated with lots to study and research. So, I’m a linguist, yet I know people who are equally linguists who do things entirely different from what I do.
That said, we all have one thing in common: no matter what speciality or research area you look at, all linguists are trying to find and understand patterns in Language.
That sounds really abstract, but it seems to be the best common thread tying together all of the various sub-disciplines within the field.
- Field linguists doing langauge documentation may be looking for patterns which help them understand and then write a grammar for a language that nobody has ever described.
- Academic linguists are searching for patterns in whatever part of Language they feel is most interesting, and then generating models and theories based on those patterns.
- People doing natural language processing are looking for specific patterns in text that have specific meanings, so that they can then teach a computer to find those patterns without human help. Often, the first step in this process is to find patterns of meaning and then annotate a text with those patterns so that a computer can use them. (Incidentally, for the last few years, I’ve been getting paid to generate these types of annotation schemas for medical records, so that’s one very concrete thing that a linguist does.)
- People doing computer speech recognition (or studying human speech perception, like me) are trying to find the acoustical patterns which correspond to the sounds and words that somebody is saying, and people working on production are trying to find the patterns of mouth motion that correspond to certain sounds.
- People in applied linguistics are often trying to find patterns in language and language learning that they use to improve the teaching of foreign languages.
… and the list goes on! There are thousands of tasks that a linguist might be suited for, because Language is really complex, and we interact with language in so many different ways on a regular basis.
I wish I could give you are really concrete answer, a list of 20 things that linguists do, and be done with it. But, much like asking what doctors do, what lawyers do, or even what you can use a rope for, there are thousands of possible answers, only loosely tied together.
Ultimately, though, linguists find patterns in Language. That’s what we’re trained to do, and, for most of us, that’s what we love doing. Every different linguist might find a different set of patterns that they are interested in, or might go about looking for them in a different way, but that’s what unites us all.
And the most beautiful part of it all is that there are plenty of patterns left for you in your future linguistic career.
~ ə ~
In light of the recent American push for gun control, I’ve been curious about the mindset and reasoning of the pro-gun, concealed-carry crowd, and reading posts on their forums.
One particular post on Reddit’s /r/ccw concealed weapons board jumped out at me. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to save a link and haven’t been able to find it, but it said something along these lines:
My concealed weapons instructor told us that if we’re ever in a situation where we have to draw our weapons, we should shout “Police drop your weapon!”. I know that it’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, but here’s the kicker: If you’re ever on trial, you can claim that what you actually said was “Please drop your weapon!”, which is totally OK, and the other witnesses won’t be able to contradict it.
The person who proposed this was immediately jumped on by other members of the board and it was almost universally agreed to be a bad idea, but it is phonetically fascinating.
At the core of the suggestion is the phonetic similarity between “police” and “please”, but interestingly, they’re not always similar. The slow-speech forms, in my dialect of American English, would be transcribed into the IPA as below:
Please - /ˈpliz/
Police - /pəˈlis/ (“puh-LEESE”)
In this phrasing, “Please” and “Police” aren’t terribly similar. But if you speed up the pronunciation of “Police” just a bit, merging the two syllables into one, you can get, narrowly:
Police (fast speech form) - [ˈpʰl̥is] (Sounds like “Pleese”)
Please (fast speech form) - [ˈpʰl̥iz] (Doesn’t change)
Although there’s often just the tiniest hint of schwa following the /p/ in fast speech forms of “police”, with this pronunciation, the only difference between the two is the voicing of the final fricative (/s/ vs. /z/). Given that English word-final voiced fricatives are often pretty voiceless (think how often you hear “Expensif” instead of “Expensive” in casual speech), the police/please ambiguity in quick speech is very real.
Mind you there’s also a very strong alternate pronunciation (often used by actual police officers, and prominently featured on “The Wire”) which uses initial stress on the word “PO-lice”, giving us /ˈpowlis/. If you live in an area where that’s common, or if you’re dumb enough to shout “PO-lice, drop the weapon”, the ambiguity is gone and you’re just impersonating an officer. And of course, the whole thing still does hinge on a jury believing that while somebody was threatening your life, you were still polite enough to preface your command with a “Please”.
So, the ambiguity is real in some cases, and anything is possible with an expensive enough lawyer, but from a linguistic standpoint, well, I wouldn’t bet my freedom on this cute little trick.
~ ə ~