Sunday, February 28, 2010

Interactive IPA

Hands up who loves the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)? Maybe not many outside the phonetics and phonology specialisations. It probably isn't my favourite part of linguistics either. All those difficult names to remember related to teeth and lips, tongue and throat.

I am very jealous of people who are learning the IPA in the computer age. No more are linguistics students required to sit alone making absurd noises and imagining they can see clearly the difference between a close-mid front and an open-mid front vowel sound. It isn't that we can't all hear the difference, it is just that it is really hard to feel it. Newcomers to the IPA can now have clearly pronounced interactive charts that clearly show how the sounds are made and the differences between them.

I came across the first one looking at extra pages from O'Grady et al.'s "Contemporary Linguistics". I think they took the idea from Paul Meier and Eric Armstrong. All you have to do is click on a chart which offers explanations by pointing the mouse at the different terms. Then click on a phonetic symbol to hear how it sounds.

I found another version prepared by the good people in University of Victoria in Canada (but I couldn't get the sounds to work).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Software for Phonetics

Perhaps the best software available for examining speech is the PRAAT freeware developed by Paul Boersma and David Weenink at the University of Amsterdam. (Also available from here.) You can now download version 5.1.26. This programme was used extensively in Halliday and Greaves' Intonation in the Grammar of English. If that isn't a top rate recommendation, I do not know what is.

PRAAT offers
Speech analysis:
•spectral analysis (spectrograms)
•pitch analysis
•formant analysis
•intensity analysis
•jitter, shimmer, voice breaks
•excitation pattern

Speech synthesis:
•from pitch, formant, and intensity
•articulatory synthesis

Labelling and segmentation:
•label intervals and time points on multiple tiers
•use phonetic alphabet
•use sound files up to 2 gigabytes (3 hours)

Speech manipulation:
•change pitch and duration contours

•multidimensional scaling
•principal component analysis
•discriminant analysis

and much, much more.

What else can it do? Take a look at the screenshot:

The question should be: What can't it do?

I expect Paul and David would love to hear it if you have further challenges for them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Lowest form of Punctuation?

If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, what does that make the SarcMark?

A bargain at just $1.99, you can make sure that your ironic and sarcastic messages in e-mails or other forms of written English do not get misunderstood. Just add the SarcMark© to the end of the sentence and your Uncle is Bob. Apparently, the correct selection of words is just not enough to ensure a giggle at the other end, and now you have to tell people when you are being sarcastic.

But, maybe I'm being a little unfair. Maybe we understand that someone is being sarcastic because of the look on their face, their tone of voice or the incongruity of the situation and what they say - all those things that are lost when writing.

Perhaps one day the SarcMark will be as frequent as the exclamation mark and we will all wish we had bought shares in I know this is not especially new, so you can review other people's comments in the Guardian.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Literature, Language Teaching and Hype

I was reading a paper today - very similar to another conference paper I sat through about a year ago - which makes a wide range of claims about asking language learners to study "Literature" (the big L is intentional).

For instance, the paper quoted research that claims there is value in discussing the unusual use of language typical of much of the greatest literature because it stands in contrast to the typical patterns of non-Literature. This seems to me to be an irresponsible empirically-unverified assertion that could easily lead to wasting the time of a large number of language learners. It may be true that part of the value of Literature is its contrast to typical linguistic patterns, but this can only be understood if one is in the position of comparing Literature to the typical patterns. Clearly, a major aim of second language learning is to guide students to the typical patterns of a language. Without the typical patterns in place, how can one "appreciate" the use of atypical patterns?

Only after intensive and extensive reading has helped students reach an advanced level will a study of literature - for those that have an interest - benefit some students.

THE OTHER Linguistics Joke

Q: Two linguists were walking down the street. Which one was the specialist in contextually indicated deixis and anaphoric reference resolution strategies?

A: The other one.

[Unashamedly stolen from Geoffrey K. Pullum's blog. Unlike the excellent apology offered by Professor Pullum for posting a joke on his blog, I feel no such compunction. Unashamed, unrepentant and unapologetic.]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stefanie Posavec

Stefanie Posavec provides us with one more way of visualising language - well, actually quite a few ways.
The picture you see here, which has been exhibited at a number of art galleries, is an anlysis of Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road'. The "Literary Organism" represents simultaneously the basic structure of the book (as a tree structure), the length of sentences (as 'thickness' of strands), and the main themes and protagonists (as colours). And, IMHO, it looks lovely, too.
Posavec uses other methods and produces similarly strking work by representing other aspects of a literary piece. She has also worked on Darwin's "Origin of Species" and the lyrics of various albums.
You can find out much more on her home page.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tag Cloud

Tag Clouds have been all the rage since New York Times published 'Dubya's' State of the Union Speech because it demonstrated visually just how paranoid a speech it was.
So, what is a Tag Cloud? Well, if I were to do one of this blog it would look like this.
This image was produced using
Here's another example:


created at

This one was created by copying one of my articles into the website at Tagcrowd which produces a tag cloud with the top 50 items. Can you guess what the article might be about?
As you can see, the words are sized according to their frequency. The colouring can also be semanticised so in the State of the Union versions, newer words are in darker colours than older fading words.

And if that isn't enough for you the TagCloud Generator offers a 3-d dynamic all-singing and dancing version (ok, it doesn't actually sing). It also offers the chance to download and keep the swirling dynamic cloud you have made.

You can use web-based versions, and get fairly good results, or you can download your own Tag Cloud generator for use with any text from Chirag Mehta's website - look for the Download Tagline Generator link, but you will need some IT technical background to get it working.
Another good thing about this website is that Chirag shares some of the methods for creating Tag Clouds - without having to "reverse engineer" the software. Basically, a list of each unique word in a text is created and each word is counted. Then some words, like common grammatical words (the, this, is etc.) and words for organising text (thus, notwithstanding), are removed. From the frequency list, words are selected and then displayed so that font size increases with frequency. It's that easy!!

Visual Thesaurus

I have been a fan of Thinkmaps' Visual Thesaurus for a long time (since about 2001 by my reckoning which, in software years is, like, forever, man!!).
I have used their outputs a number of times in my teaching because I think they are fabulous combination of software know-how, visualisation and knowledge of language.
Revisiting the Visual Thesaurus homepage after a long absence (sorry, guys) I find that they have added a lot of ideas and links for teachers.
The basic deal is still the same: you can try it out for a few words, but if you want all the options - and there a more than enough to put a smile on any lexicographer's face - them you need to subscribe to a full version.
Basically, just like a thesaurus, you start with a word for which you want a replacement. The Visual Thesaurus (VT) does not just provide you with semantically related alternatives, it colour codes them for part of speech, and visually represents 'closeness of fit' by varying the distance between the search word and its alternatives. It provides definitions, will pronounce the word for you and gives the type of semantic relationship between words. From here you can find out how it works - or at least how you work it, cos they probably won't let you know their trade secrets.
The really fun part is to then just surf through the thesaurus, by clicking on a new word which becomes the central node in a new network. As you see your original word pushed to the boundary and then fade into the distance you are taken on a semantic journey of related ideas and connections. VT will even do this for you in "Autopilot" mode. Sit and watch the connections fly.
A few examples from the limited sampler will give you an idea of what they offer:

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Language of Blogs Blog

Here is a link to a blog about the language of blogs by a great linguist - Greg Myers.

The blog has developed into a new book which, if his previous work is anything to go by, will be an interesting read about how meaning is negotiated online and how traditional relations of power are challenged by new modes of publication.

I first noticed Greg Myers' work from his article in Applied Linguistics called 'The Pragmatics of Politeness in Scientific Articles' in which he discussed how scientific knowledge is transformed at least as much as the result of pragmatic, social factors as so-called scientific factors.

Also on Greg's blog is a list of linguistics and language-related blogs. I will try to find some time to see what other linguists have to say on their blogs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Go Tom Go

"Big up" to friend, colleague & nutty boy Tom.

Tom was interviewed by the local rag in their "Me, Myself, I" feature, and spent most of the interview trying to move the subject away from himself on to the issue of making more people read.
Tom has spent a lot of his time trying to initiate coherent action towards improving reading habits. This does not apply to the rates of literacy in the UAE (which have grown miraculously over the last 3 generations), but to the love of reading, which does not seem to be very prevalent in the region as a whole. Tom plans to apply the lessons learned from the literacy campaigns in the UK, such as the The National Literacy Trust and campaigns such as Reading Champions.

In the Reading Champions campaign, role models and heroes of young people are portrayed engaging with their favourite books and interviewed about their reading experiences. The rationale is that by seeing reading as in important part of their heroes' lives, children will be more encouraged to read, and to see reading as 'cool'.

I wish Tom success in this attempt and in his work towards setting up a SIG (Special Interest Group) with TESOL Arabia to promote good practices in teaching reading - but more of that another day

Language Analysis Software for Free

I do not know where I would be without UAM CorpusTools (currently on version 2.4.2).

This free software allows you to create categories which you then apply to texts (or images). The results can then be searched, sorted, analysed and exported. Great for discourse analysis of any kind, but ideal for systemic functional linguistics.

Thanks to Mick O'Donnell for his hard work in constantly updating the package so that it consistently performs better and offers more functions.