Why whom but not hwam?

Redefining "Right" and "Wrong" in Language. This blog is intended to be screen reader friendly.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All right I think I scared many readers away with my bulky post about synesthesia. So here's a shorter, sweeter post.

Somehow I managed to do well on my papers despite my really not being in the mood to write them when I had to write them.

I had a wonderful dream with a great linguistics question I had in mind, which I then forgot. If it comes back to me, I'll be sure to post it.

Hope you all have been having nice holidays.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Synesthesia and Language

Hi folks.

I finally handed in the two papers I had to do. Next semester I am thinking of signing up for Men, Women & Language, although I doubt there will be space left. I get last dibs as a visiting student, so usually full-timers take up all the spaces.

I heard that Georgetown and Gallaudet are consortium schools, along with some other schools in the area. I would love to take an ASL Phonology course or something at Gallaudet. Both of my professors were unintentionally very spoken-language-oriented, so it'd be nice to balance it out a bit. Even though one of my textbooks did use sign language examples throughout, my professor didn't mention them in the course. I think the main reason is because most people don't know that much about signed languages to begin with, and so professors don't want to teach what they don't know much about.

Anyway, I also want to learn Tactile ASL (TASL). It's a modified form of ASL used by and for DeafBlind people. It's also cool cause the situations you can use it in are even more varied than ASL. ASL can be used at school assemblies, while SCUBA diving, etc. But with TASL you can also communicate with someone under the covers or at a concert where it's too loud for speech and too dark for signing.

Another thing I wanted to discuss is language and synesthesia. Synesthesia is when the senses cross over in the brain. There are different types, such as grapheme-color (where words or letters evoke certain colors--also the most common), auditory-visual (seeing sounds), gustatory-visual (tasting colors), anthropomorphic (where objects have personalities), etc. There are all kinds of synesthesia. I was interested in wondering how it intersects with language. I know some synesthetes experience tastes from certain sounds, for example /k/ will be bitter and /s/ will be creamy. 

My color-grapheme synesthesia: A is red, E is yellow, O is a creamy white, I is a silvery white, and U is a deep blue. F and N are slightly different shades of green. H is indigo, or sometimes brown if combined with T (TH) or S (SH). Words are colored by their vowels and sometimes the first letter, if the first letter has a color. "Bike" is white bleeding into yellow. "Piano" is silvery white bleeding into red bleeding into creamy white. 

The corresponding sounds also have colors. The /a/ sound in father is tomato red. The /u/ sound in "food" is blue (even though the O's are white.) /m/ sound is blue, /n/ is green. 

And music has its own colors for me. A in writing is red but in music the note A is a fuchsia color. Middle C is white, D is blue, E flat is yolky yellow, natural E is a sunflower color. F is a yellowy green although a major 7 F chord (F, A, C, E) is jade green. F# is a deep forest green. G is red, B is a bluish gray whereas B flat is a slightly yellow-tinted slate gray. D flat is a shimmering light blue. 

So how does this relate to language? Well I was wondering if synesthesia helps to distinguish sounds.  For example, many people get confused because they think of C as a letter, e.g. come and celebrate. However, a synesthete might have different flavors or colors associated with the /k/ in come and the /s/ in celebrate, helping them realize that the C is pronounced differently. 

Also, synesthesia helps me with spelling. Common mistakes like spelling separately seperately and definitely definately makes no sense to me, because I clearly see that A as red and so I know it can't be seperately because that's yellow. And definately looks wrong because there's red in the middle that shouldn't be there--definitely is usually yellow and silvery white. 

I am familiar with lots of alphabets, and all the alphabets I know have some colors, although the strongest colors are in the Latin alphabet and also vowels across alphabets in general. In Farsi, ت (teh) is a cherry red, the Hebrew dalet is a muted yellow green, the Russian Я (ya) is pink, the Braille N is olive green, the Chinese character 覺 is a deep dark blue green. The fingerspelled alphabet in ASL is the same as the corresponding letters in English when I'm fingerspelling a word, but when the same handshape is used in a word, it has a different color. For example, the F handshape is green like in English when fingerspelling something, but the sign JUDGMENT (which is made with the double F handshape) is a shimmering yellow. 

I think my synesthesia helps me keep track of my alphabets and languages. It also helps me know the key of a song when I'm listening to it because I know that if a song is predominately blue I know it's in D. And then if I know that there are notes of green it's D minor but if the green is darker and purer then it's D major. Minor tonality has muted earthy colors, major tonality has brighter colors. And tonalities such as dorian or phrygian have a mix of muted and bright colors.

Do you have synesthesia? Does it help you memorize things? Maybe it helps you in math because various symbols are colored or have flavors? Do your senses get overloaded when your exposed to a lot of stimuli, e.g. at a concert?

I also want to note that synesthesia is often painted as just a benefit, but it's not necessarily. Sometimes my senses are overwhelmed. Sometimes if I see something and the color and letter don't match, I get an unpleasant feeling. Sometimes I'll be listening to music and I see these beautiful colors and then a track comes in with an ugly color and messes it up. When people are too loud or there is too much noise going on, I get overloaded. So just keep in mind that being synesthetic is just another way of being, and it's not a plus or a minus. It just is what it is.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. :) 

On Tuesday I went with a classmate of mine to my middle school to get some surveys from middle schoolers. We also interviewed one teacher, and she is going to do an Internet interview with another teacher.

The survey was about how often middle schoolers use text messaging and IM shortcuts in everyday conversation and writing, and whether they use it in papers and so on. Does it affect their language? Does it affect their writing?

The teacher we interviewed was convinced that the use of texting/IM shortcuts was leading to the disintegration of students' grammar. This is a very common view--almost every teacher we mentioned the project to mentioned something about how "kids these days don't know grammar."

The main assumption is that if you are not exposed to "proper" grammar only then you will internalize improper grammar. But let's look at where we first learn language. The first people we learn language from is our parents. But how do parents talk to their kids? In full-blown adult language with correct grammar usage?

Mother: Johnny, look at my eyes disappearing behind my hands and reappearing again!
Baby: (cooing noises)
Mother: Look! My hands are disappearing and reappearing!

Now how about this conversation.

Mother: Peek-a-boo!!
Baby: Cooing noises.
Mother: (gasp) Peek-a-boo!!

Somehow we internalize full-blown correct grammar from "peek-a-boo" and "gaga gugu." So do you really think "JK" and "LOL" will lead to the disintegration of grammar?

Another thing to think about is that there are many languages that uniformly use shortcuts. Arabic and Hebrew routinely omit vowels. Grade 2 Braille has 198 shortcuts, some of which are single letters for entire words (H for have and K for knowledge and ,F for Father). And Deaf people have been using shortcuts such as "mtg" (meeting) and "ga to sk" (go ahead to stop keying) for TTY communication for years. And yet their grammar isn't deteriorating. 

Something to think about.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

African American Vernacular English

The most over-discussed topic in Linguistics in my opinion is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). So you might be wondering why I'm discussing it now? Because I want to call all you non-linguists* on something.

All this talk about how AAVE is a different language from Standard American English (SAE)? That right there folks, is racist. Okay before you attack me let's back up some.

Different languages are defined by the mutual unintelligibility of two speakers. So the reason Tagalog and Quechua are considered different languages is cause if you put two speakers of Tagalog and Quechua in the same room, they won't know what the other one is saying. Sometimes the difference in languages vs. dialects is political, e.g. Chinese "dialects" versus Romance "languages." They are about as similar and different from each other, but China is one country, and Western Europe is made of all different countries, so all the sudden Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects, yet Spanish and Italian are languages.

Indian English and British English are considered two different dialects of English because they are mutually intelligible and a speaker of IE and BE in the same room would be able to understand each other no problem. Well guess what, two speakers in the same room, one of SAE and the other of AAVE will have no problem communicating. So they're dialects. And plus I have issues with the name AAVE because I know plenty of African American folks that speak SAE and I know plenty of white folks that speak AAVE (I use it myself and I'm white). So why do we have to use race to define dialects?

So since AAVE and SAE obviously meet the criteria for being dialects (mutually intelligible), the reasons they are claimed to be different languages is political. I don't know if others see this but I think trying to claim "that language associated with black people" is different from "that language associated with white people" is racist. To me it sounds like trying to widen the gap between two races.  We really aren't all that different in the end, folks. I have plenty of AAVE-speaking friends (not all of them black or of color) and I have no issues understanding them. And they have no issues understanding me when I speak SAE.

Another thing I would like to mention is that it's not fair to talk about all these different white dialects, and then to make this one group of AAVE, that covers dialects from Dallas, TX to Chicago, IL. There is just as much variety within AAVE dialects as there is within SAE dialects. 

So my end point folks, is that talking about SAE vs. AAVE as different languages is just racism disguised in language.

*As pointed out by my linguistics professor

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Language and Gender

So I'm doing a research project with three other classmates on how language affects perceived gender. We've been thinking about linguistic features that come across as more masculine, more feminine, or neutral, etc.

We came up with features such as using the word "like" in many different ways, using the conditional tense, and pronouncing "ing" with a final velar nasal more often than with an alveolar nasal, apologetic vs. empathetic sorry.

So this would play out as something along these lines. The first would be marked as more feminine and the second one as more masculine.
I was like (1), "I don't know, like (2), five bucks?"
(1) Quotative Like (used to introduce a quotation)
(2) Approximant Like (used to mean "approximately")
I said, "I don't know, maybe five bucks?"

Conditional Tense
Would you like something to eat?
Do you want something to eat?

We were dancing and singing all night long
We were dancin' and singin' all night long.

Empathetic vs. Apologetic Sorry
F1: I got into a car accident today so I don't have my car with me.
F2: I'm sorry.
F1: Yeah.
F2: Do you need a ride somewhere?
F1: That'd be great.


M: I got into a car accident today so I don't have my car with me.
F: I'm sorry.
M: Why are you sorry? It's not your fault.
F: I know I'm just saying.

Are there any other differences you've noticed as trends? Not necessarily what each sex uses but that is associated with masculinity/femininity? So a linguistic feature that when a man uses it sounds normal, when a woman uses it sounds masculine, or a feature that when a woman uses it sounds normal, but when a man uses it sounds feminine.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Can I go to the bathroom?

Did you ever have that annoying teacher that would reply to your question "Can I go to the bathroom?" with "I sure hope so!"?

Enter Pragmatics. That teacher was not taking into account the law of Conversational Implicature (Grice). That's basically a fancy way of saying that there is often an extra meaning to something someone says beyond its semantic (literal) meaning. The semantic meaning of "Can I go to the bathroom?" is "Do I have the ability to go to the bathroom?" But the speaker's meaning is "Permission to go to the bathroom?" The extra part is that the student is asking for permission. People figure out the extra meaning behind an utterance by using the Cooperative Principle, which basically says that you can figure out the speaker's meaning from the semantic meaning by assuming that the speaker is behaving rationally and cooperatively. So when your teacher interprets your asking permission as your asking about your ability to form bodily functions, s/he's not taking into account that you are behaving rationally and cooperatively. You wouldn't randomly ask your teacher if you have the ability to take a shit in the middle of class because you're behaving rationally and cooperatively. So obviously there's an extra meaning behind "Can I go to the bathroom?" and that extra meaning is you're asking permission.

The speaker's meaning depends on the context of use. For example, if you just woke up from a major surgery on your vertebral column, when you ask your surgeon if you can go to the bathroom, you probably mean "Do I still have control over my bowel movements?" But in the classroom context, it's obvious to all your classmates (and should be obvious to your teacher) that you're asking permission to go to the bathroom.

So next time your teacher replies, "I sure hope so!" you can tell them "It's not like I just risked becoming paralyzed, so you just misinterpreted the meaning of that question given the context of use! Not to mention you completely violated the Cooperative Principle!"

Friday, October 31, 2008

Computational Linguistics

My professor wore cat ears today. And she dressed in black and orange and passed out candy.

And the class featured my VoiceOver on my Mac, to show how text-to-speech works (computational linguistics). Little awkward cause she definitely gave me a five-minute introduction.

VoiceOver is a screen reader that comes with Apple that is designed for blind and visually impaired people. I told it to read the following things:

I do not have the cot/caught merger.

I do not have the pen/pin merger.

I read the newspaper every day.

I haven't read the newspaper today.

I read the newspaper yesterday. (which it read as "I reed the...")

Happy Halloween, folks.

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