Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

October 29, 2013

Warren Maguire, a linguist lecturing at the University of Edinburgh, has told me about a survey he’s conducting into accents of English in Britain and Ireland. It’s been running for a few years, and you can see some preliminary results mapped here.

Maguire is looking for more respondents, especially from Ireland, but you don’t have to be from Ireland or Britain to take part: though other varieties of English aren’t the main research focus, all information will be gratefully received. The more data, the better.

So if you have time, do answer the survey here. It’s not a test, and there are no wrong answers (so long as you’re honest!). It took me about 10 minutes, and it was fun. You’ll be given pairs or sets of words and asked if you pronounce them the same, or if they rhyme to you.

The survey is expected to be completed next year, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the results.


Living with Herds: a vocalisation dictionary

May 30, 2013

This short observational film (9 min.) by Natasha Fijn, research fellow at the Australian National University, will appeal to anyone interested in animal behaviour, interspecies communication, or biology or anthropology generally.

Fijn describes it as “a visual dictionary showing how Mongolian herders vocalise to their herd animals, followed by the response of the herd animal(s)”:

Read the rest of this entry »


Folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation

February 6, 2013

I’ve been stop-starting my way happily through Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales, two late-19thC collections by the great Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, combined in a plump Senate paperback and handsomely illustrated by John D. Batten:

Celtic Fairy Tales, ed. by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John D Batten

Read the rest of this entry »


ETAOIN SRHLDCU, or: What are the most common words and letters in English?

January 7, 2013

Most of us know that ‘e’ is the most common letter in English and the is the most common word. Many are familiar with ETAOIN SHRDLU, the nonsense string that used to appear in print because of early-20thC printer design and now serves as shorthand for the most popular letters.

Beyond prevailing lore and trivia, we’re generally less certain about the English language’s most common words and letters. Different studies over the years have produced varying results, depending on the datasets and methods used.

Now Google’s director of research Peter Norvig has used the vast data from the Google Books corpus – over 743 billion words – to produce updated word- and letter-frequency tables. Here’s his letter count:

Peter Norvig - English language letter count frequency table

As you can see, it violates ETAOIN SHRDLU only slightly, becoming ETAOIN SRHLDCU.

The 50 most common words, in order of frequency, are: the, of, and, to, in, a, is, that, for, it, as, was, with, be, by, on, not, he, I, this, are, or, his, from, at, which, but, have, an, had, they, you, were, there, one, all, we, can, her, has, there, been, if, more, when, will, would, who, so, no.

Norvig also investigated the most common word lengths, sequences of letters (“n-grams”), letters in various positions in words, and much more. It’s a fascinating page – a feast for data fiends and word nerds alike. (And they are often alike.)


The Mind is a Metaphor is a database

July 2, 2012

The Mind is a Metaphor is an extensive database of historical metaphors of the mind. Assembled and maintained by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, it serves as “an evolving work of reference, an ever more interactive, more solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics”.

The collection of metaphors – almost ten thousand and counting – is categorised by literary period, genre, type, and (where known and applicable) author’s gender, nationality, politics, and religion. Examples span millennia, from classical texts to more recent works, with a strong focus on the period 1660–1819.

Currently on the front page are several lines from Heraclitus. Clicking through each quotation, we are provided with additional context, strengthening a site that even on a brief visit is rewarding to browse. Every page offers a wealth of images; I plucked these from a few minutes’ meandering:

What an April weather in the mind! (Alexander Pope, 1713)

My heart is melting wax (Charles Wesley, 1749)

Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently. (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

The Mind, in peaceful Solitude, has Room / To range in Thought, and ramble far from home (Mary Barber, 1735)

Heads overfull of matter, be like pens over full of ink, which will sooner blot, than make any fair letters at all. (Roger Ascham, 1570, quoted by Samuel Johnson, 1755)

A letter always seemed to me like Immortality, for is it not the mind alone, without corporeal friend? (Emily Dickinson, 1882)

Flowers, rivers, woods, the pleasant air and wind, / With Sacred thoughts, do feed my serious mind. (Rowland Watkyns, 1662)

The back of the mind is a small hotel / And when the residents go on picnics / Or take buckets and spades down to the sea / The betrayals begin. (Michael Longley, 1980)

My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery–always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. (Virginia Woolf, 1932)

Pasanek describes the database as more a “heap or helter-skelter anthology” than an online archive, and invites readers to go looking for its “many strange and surprising metaphors”. You can search by keyword and by faceted browsing, dipping in at random or tracing patterns in intellectual and cultural attitudes through time.

I tweeted about this site back in March and meant to blog about it then, but my notes are a bit helter-skelter too, and I let it go until now. There’s also a Mind is a Metaphor blog, which analyses particular metaphors in more detail, but it hasn’t been updated in a few years.

For more on metaphorical language, see my previous posts about metaphor.


Memory of syntax and semantics

October 2, 2011

Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal describes and evaluates many interesting psycholinguistic experiments, one of which I want to draw attention to here:

a number of psychologists have found that all memory of syntax and vocabulary normally fades very fast indeed, unless subjects are specifically told that they will be asked to recall the sentence. Memory for syntax of any kind is near to chance approximately half a minute after a sentence has been spoken (Sachs 1967). In normal circumstances, it seems, people remember only the gist of what has been said, and they often confuse this with a number of extra beliefs and expectations about the topic under discussion (Fillenbaum 1973).

Jacqueline Strunk Sachs, speaking subsequently (PDF) about her experiment, said it showed that we forget “the specific wording of an utterance . . . within seconds”, though we might retain its meaning for a very long time.

Her 1967 paper (“Recognition memory for syntactic and semantic aspects of connected discourse”) was based on her doctoral dissertation and can be downloaded here.* It’s a short and clear account of a smartly designed study, well worth reading if you’re into this sort of thing and you don’t mind the Chomskyan terminology.

The abstract concludes:

The results suggest that the original form of the sentence is stored only for the short time necessary for comprehension to occur. When a semantic interpretation has been made, the meaning is stored. Thus the memory of the meaning is not dependent on memory of the original form of the sentence.

I imagine this rings true for most people. What say you? Have you noticed the rapid divergence between memory of what is said and memory of exactly how it is said?
 

* Typo fans will enjoy SpringerLink’s mangled paper title, “Recopition memory”, and the suggestion that some of the data were presented at a meeting held in April, 1066.


Tweetolife: visualising gender differences in language

August 8, 2011

Michael Rundell, a lexicographer at Macmillan Dictionary, wrote last year about a new area of linguistic research “based not on conventional corpora, but on Twitter feeds”. The demo website he linked to has since been updated, and is worth another look.

Now called Tweetolife (grandiosely subtitled “the science of human life in Twitter messages”), it offers a slick and simple interface that shows how words and phrases used on Twitter break down according to gender, or time of day. Like this:

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,785 other followers