Monday, July 31, 2006

NY Times on Irish: No impovement on Safire

This week's "On Language" column in the NY Times Magazine is guest-contributed by Marion McKeone, and it really is a pretty sad example of grammatical characterization.

She seems to be trying to say that the Irish (like many cultures) have more conventionalized circumlutory politeness formulas than speakers of American English (though I'm not 100 per cent convinced of even that). But she attributes this to the influence of the grammar of Irish (Gaelic)...

She correctly notes that Irish repeats the complementizer/auxiliary and a type of pronominal to express agreement or disagreement (there's a negative complementizer), rather than use a single word 'yes' or 'no'. However, there's no necessary connection between using this grammatical mechanism (also used in several other languages) and directness or indirectness—in particular, one can of course directly express disagreement with the negative complementizer just as easily as with a word like 'no' (another example of the Language X has no word for concept Y trope). Here's the passage, in which she goes on to attribute the perceived tendency to circumlocute to genetics (does anyone need to be told that genes have nothing to do with the particular language one speaks? though of course they have everything to do with the ability to learn a language at all):
But we Irish just can’t say yes. Or no. It’s not in our genes. In Irish Gaelic, our native tongue, we don’t even have a word for them. The closest is “Is ea,” which means “It is so.” And “Ni hea,” which means “It is not so.” There are, however, about 50 different approximations that indicate various degrees of equivocation.

Our genetic inability to call a spade a spade and our compulsion to say no when we mean yes, and vice versa, are but surface manifestations of a deeply ingrained reflex to subvert, invert and pervert the English language at every opportunity.
A "genetic inability" is just a surface manifestation of something deeper?

The very next thing she says maligns the ability of Irish to be used to express logical truths, a conclusion which I'm sure would have horrified the great Irish scholars of the Middle Ages, when the rest of Europe looked to the Irish monasteries as great centers of learning:
In Ireland, the words must fit the rhythm, often at the expense of logic or clarity. Irish Gaelic has its roots in the ancient Goidelic of the Celts. English comes from the Germanic. We may be geographic neighbors, but when it comes to linguistic traits, we’re poles apart.
For someone who makes her living writing in English, it seems a bit much to claim her linguistic traits are poles apart from those of other English speakers. She quotes some famous Irish users of Irish English on the characteristics of Irish Gaelic. Here's Colum McCann, a novelist, claiming that Irish is 'convoluted' and 'evasive' compared to direct, forthright (Germanic!) English:
“The Irish language is convoluted in its grammar, evasive in statement and relies much more on sound, rhythm and onomatopoeia than English does,” he says. “It ducks and swerves. The forced marriage of English to Irish, resulting in what some people call Hiberno-English, has resulted in a great deal of wonderful literature but also a lot of head-scratching.”
And here's Shane McGowan, formerly of the Pogues, on swearing in Irish English (song)writing:
The liberal, and frequently illogical, peppering of conversations with swearwords by Irish writers is more a method of retaining a rhythmic pattern of speech than an expression of hostility. Shane MacGowan, founder and frontman of the Pogues and arguably the finest songwriter of his generation, colors his lyrics blue because it reflects the Irish way of speaking, of emphasis and underscoring a point. And besides, he says, “they plug the rhythmic gaps.”
Now, it's possible that this point has more substance, especially in the realm of poetry and song—meter is a harsh mistress. But the connection to 'illogic' is, well, illogical. And he goes on to refute the apparent earlier assumption that there's something logical and direct about English. In discussing Joyce, McGowan says:
“Joyce was simply taking the inner Irish rhythm to the limit and imposing it on the English language. There were all these mad English language rules that don’t work anyway. The entire book is about pointing out the absurdity of the English language.”
And, not to impugn the Irish Gaelic credentials of any of these sources (I'm a big fan of the Pogues and McGowan's songwriting myself), but the assertion on the part of McKeone that Irish Gaelic is the "native tongue" of the Irish in general also doesn't reflect reality, or maybe reflects a misunderstanding about the normal use of the term 'native tongue'. Irish is an endangered language; Irish English is the first language of the vast majority of Irish citizens. The Ethnologue claims 260,000 speakers of Irish, while the population of Ireland according to Wikipedia is 5.9 million people, in short, less than five percent of Irish residents speak Irish Gaelic as a native tongue. I sort of doubt that McGowan's a native speaker of Irish, since he seems to have spent his early childhood in the center of the country (not in the Gaeltachtaí, the Irish speaking regions, mostly in coastal areas). He might still be, of course, but odds are against it. And I don't know about Colum McCann (who's from Dublin) or Marion McKeone. But surely the NYTimes Magazine can do better than this, linguistically speaking, if they want to publish on Irish! I am not one iota more inclined to read "On Language" now than I was before I accidentally stumbled on this guest post this weekend; quite the reverse, in fact.

(I hasten to add that I'm absolutely not any kind of Irish expert, either—but I at least know people who are.)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Newfoundland News

Hey! St. John's Newfoundland, essentially my hometown, got a write-up in the NY Times Travel Section today! They hit many high points, including Signal Hill, the LSPU Hall, cod tongues, Moo Moo's, Auntie Crae's, whales, icebergs and Cape Spear. They get the name of the Ship Inn wrong, probably because it's usually just called 'the Ship', so who knows if it's Inn, Pub, whatever. They do miss out a lot of great things you should catch if you're there for more than 36 hours: Cape St. Mary's (check out the caribou herd while you're down there, and don't miss the haunting eponymous song), the Fluvarium, the East Coast Trail, the Trinity Bay pageant, fish and brewis at the Classic Café (open 24 hours), fish and chips (proper chips!), traditional music, a ferry ride to Bell Island from Portugal Cove (my actual hometown), the Ediacharan fossils at Mistaken Point, the oldest multicellular fossils in the world, 560-575 million years old... you better stay for the whole summer, actually. There's lots of great events: the folk festival, of course, 30 years old this year; the Sound Symposium is usually weird and wild (dang, just missed it); the St. John's Regatta is highly traditional; the Peace-a-Chord is always a lovely event, especially in these troubled times, though apparently they've had to scale back a bit this year, wouldn'tcha know. If you're into unusual food, after the cod tongues and fish and brewis, you could try seal flipper pie or caribou steak, partridgeberry jam or bakeapple preserves, Purity molasses candies or hard tack. You can't miss the berries, everywhere in late August and early September... And there's some great linguistics available at my alma mater, MUN -- stop in and say hi, at least, if you're into that sort of thing!

Hmm. Maybe I'm feeling a little homesick. Not that the Arizona summer is without its charms. Really! But it's a bit different.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Confabulous robots

Today's NYTimes science section has an article about the state-of-the-art in AI, Brainy Robots Start Stepping Into Daily Life. I read it with an eye out for news about language-related developments. Tthe article was mostly a mishmash: computers imitating neural activtiy, artificial lifeguards, Turing tests, video games, Roombas, automatic phone-answering systems and the dream of putting a robot in every home. But sure enough, there was one guy working on an electronic butler that could "hold a coversation with its master, or order more pet food."

The butler researcher's name is Robert Hecht-Nielsen, and...
Last year he began speaking publicly about his theory of “confabulation,” a hypothesis about the way the brain makes decisions. At a recent I.B.M. symposium, Mr. Hecht-Nielsen showed off a model of confabulation, demonstrating how his software program could read two sentences from The Detroit Free Press and create a third sentence that both made sense and was a natural extension of the previous text.

For example, the program read: “He started his goodbyes with a morning audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, sharing coffee, tea, cookies and his desire for a golf rematch with her son, Prince Andrew. The visit came after Clinton made the rounds through Ireland and Northern Ireland to offer support for the flagging peace process there.”

The program then generated a sentence that read: “The two leaders also discussed bilateral cooperation in various fields.”
Pretty impressive, especially given the zeugma-inducing coordination in the first sentence ('sharing coffee, tea, cookies, and his desire for a golf rematch with her son, Prince Andrew"), and the backwards anaphora ('He' in the first sentence, 'Clinton' in the second.) This is confabulation? How's it working? And how's the sentence-generation working? Templates? Neural nets? Transitional probabilities? An actual PSG?

Judging from his bio, probably neural nets; he doesn't seem like he's much focussed on language. He's got a Darwinian view—or maybe it's a kind of optimality-theoretic view—well, neural-netty, anyway—of the solution to the abduction problem, which Jerry Fodor considers insoluble by current approaches to cognitive science. But it's not clear how the language-generation bit works.

His Wikipedia article ends with the following hardly believable quote:
"This new era, which as yet has no name, will be characterized by the eternal universal freedom from want provided by intelligent machines."
Wow! Those are some rose-colored glasses! Guess he hasn't seen Terminator. Or 2001. (In the article, his butler is explicitly compared to H.A.L., apparently without intending a negative connotation.) Or Westworld. Or the Matrix. Or I, Robot. Or... It's like he's chronoported1 here from a former life as a voiceover in a 1940s newsreel about Progress.

He probably grew up reading Asimov, where robots ultimately really do have the best interests of humanity at heart. Maybe it's productive to return to that kind of relentless optimism.

Maybe linguists can name this nameless era. I hereby throw the floor open to Nominations for the Name of the New Era. I always liked "The World of Tomorrow", but that'll hardy do as a name for an era. Deixis. Any thoughts?

Update: Thanks to Nikolas for providing a link to the following short paper outlining the confabulation idea: Cogent Confabulation. It's pretty interesting! The sentence-completion algorithm does in fact seem to be based on a transitional probability calculations. In short, it's a complicated example of linguifying -- the machine is computing what words in a sequence are likely to co-occur, given a big training set of natural English. It returns a null answer if the sequence is a nonsense string (and also sometimes if it isn't). Sadly the article doesn't explain how the complete-sentence cases were generated, but probably it's just more of the same, with the power cranked up an exponent or two. I think the machine isn't processing the sentences, or representing their meanings and drawing inferences, or anything similar.
But it is an exciting time to be doing this kind of thing. Maybe Asimov was right. The Foundation could be Microsoft's kinder, gentler offspring, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, if it got seriously into this kind of thing.

1How about this coinage? I was fairly pleased with it. But Google tells me someone's already named some time-management software that, and it's appeared in a couple of sci fi stories with the 'time-travel' meaning. Not many hits, though, considering how obvious a form it is. Maybe it'll take off.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mt kgmd ,gkj kjd h.soav vdtnsaoh

So, three years ago I invested three weeks in becoming a proficient user of the Dvorak keyboard.

Why? I was a very proficient typist on Qwerty, as someone who spends a minimum of 50 per cent of her useful hours (and plenty of the non-useful ones) in front of a keyboard can hardly help being. I didn't need any of the extra speed reputed to be possible with Dvorak. And I could hardly spare the time, that pre-tenure summer.

But I'm a fan of good design, and the Dvorak is a very well-thought-out tool. (The Qwerty keyboard was too, but its design goal wasn't to promote efficient typing -- it was to prevent the keys of a manual typewriter from jamming.) Plus it has a geek coolness factor that seemed attractive. Plus I'd just been reading about how trying to execute well-rehearsed behaviors in some unusual way (e.g. with your off hand) is good mental exercise, promoting cognitive flexibility that can stave off symptoms of senility. I went around doing things left-handed a lot that summer. I figured that learning a new keyboard layout could be worth an extra three months of lifetime cogency. Finally, having your keyboard produce gibberish when a stranger sits down to it is a pretty good security feature (until they switch it back).

Some of the features of the Dvorak keyboard include distributing the work better between the left and right hands, placing the most commonly used keys on the home row, and planning for the efficient typing of common English digraphs. All the vowels are under the fingers of the left hand: a-o-e-u-i, rather than a-s-d-f-g. The 't-h' sequence is placed where the 'k' and 'j' are in a normal keyboard--very easy to type.

I've enjoyed being a member of this exclusive club, and I certainly was able to achieve typing speeds equal to or better than my old times with the Qwerty keyboard.

But -- I'm switching back, this summer. This may be permanent, or temporary, depending on whether my right arm finds it relaxing or not. I've started to find that my right forearm tendons are acting up. I'm thinking that my right hand already had enough to do in the other parts of my life, and the Dvorak layout, with its increased workload for the right hand, may have just pushed it over the edge. I had noticed while learning that my right arm got tired, when it really never had before. That went away with proficiency, but came back after prolonged typing. (Probably it's not rational to think that Qwerty will help, slince Dvorak is in fact thought by its proponents to be more ergonomic than Qwerty).

There are a couple of other reasons, too. When I'm visiting a foreign keyboard, or looking over someone else's shoulder and want to lean in and type a password or something, it's inconvenient to have to go into the relevant control panel and make my special keyboard layout available (and on some networked machines access to such things can be limited anyway). But if I don't switch it, it's pretty sad to be hunting and pecking and explaining defensively about how I'm actually a good typist on the Dvorak keyboard ("The what?"). (My cognitive flexibility did not extend to maintaining proficiency on two keyboards at once, sadly.)

So now I'm re-training on Qwerty (this post is typed in it). I'm progressing a bit faster than I did when learning the other direction, but not as fast as I would have thought, considering that I spent the first 20 years of my life typing in this keyboard! I think it's because the Dvorak layout really is way more sensible, linguisticaly and functionally. My fingers have a hard time reaching for all those commonly-used letters that used to be right underneath them.

So far it's not helping out with my right forearm — all this laborious conscious thinking about the correct motions is leaving it as tired as ever. It may be that I'll just have to ration my typing, like a normal repeitive stress injury victim. If that's the case, maybe I'll switch back. But it probably won't be worth it, really.

But — if I was handing out advice to someone learning to type for the first time (how young on average would I have to catch them these days, I wonder?), I'd still absolutely recommend just skipping qwerty altogether. Go straight to Dvorak. It really is a better system, and I think anyone'd find it more sensible to learn and more efficient to use, starting from zero. And if enough people go for the gusto, then the visiting keyboard inconvenience will ultimately be a non-issue.

The Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor is my teaching software of choice, by the way. It works great.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Too much negation to fail to confuse

Here's a cartoon that made my head hurt this morning:

So, the third panel is very parseable. There is no degree of badness such that it would prevent someone from coming into church. But the fourth panel, with a completely parallel structure, boggled me.

Presumably, it conveys a meaning expressible with the same kind of paraphrase: There is no degree of goodness such that it would prevent someone from staying out of church.

Ouch! Even the paraphrase hurts!

I felt like I had the right parse there for a minute -- surely the intent of the comic is to say, no one is excluded from belonging to the church, i.e. everyone can come in. The intent, then, is to say that bad people, no matter how bad, can come in, and good people, no matter how good, can't stay out. But I don't think it says this. I think it says that good people, no matter how good, CAN stay out.

That is, the reverend seems to be saying that good people don't need to come to church.

Is that right? Do you extract the same message? Is that supposed to be part of the joke? ('Herb and Jamaal' is not usually that devious, seems to me, not that I've read it a lot.)

The problem is the cartoonist is mixing all the degree semantics (what *do* you call those 'too X to Y' constructions? They're not comparatives -- what's the word?) and opposites (good vs. bad, come in vs. send out), and negatives (never). He's thrown in two opposites when it should have just been one ('too good to come in' vs. 'too bad to come in'). Maybe it is supposed to be part of the joke.

Anyway, more evidence of the confusability of negatives. (...less evidence of the comprehensibility of positives?)

Update: Check out the comments for more attempts at interpretation! also this post from Micheal Kaplan...seems like there's a substantial number of people out there who can get the intended reading out of this structure! I'm still buffaloed, though. Could this be a semantic microparameter? Or just a failure of imagination?

Update Update: I'm inclined to agree with Neal and Lance (see the comments). That is, I do understand the 'so X you don't need to Y' interpretation of the 'too X to Y' construction (what is it called??) — but I don't think it helps the cartoon at all. Take an exchange like the following:

Teacher: Did you practice this week?

Student: I don't need to do that any more! I'm too good to practice.
( = '[so good that I don't need to practice]') Student is saying he won't practice anymore, right?

Teacher: You're never too good to practice!
( = 'you're never [so good that you don't need to practice]') Teacher is saying student does need to practice, right? Indeed, Teacher is saying that Student will always need to practice.

By the same token, our religious leader above is literally saying, 'you're never [so good that you don't need to stay out of church].' That is, you will always need to stay out of church.

Not the intended message, I think, no?

I haven't done anything tricky in the above, just substituted the predicate 'stay out of church' for the predicate 'practice'. The entailments of the construction should remain constant modulo that change. So if the student/teacher exchange above makes sense to you (modelled on the 'swimming' scenario suggested by the riger in the comments section), then I think you ought to find that the cartoon doesn't say what it thinks it's saying.

On the other hand, if the teacher/student exchange says something else to you, or is just infelicitous, then maybe there's something else going on! :)