Tag Archives: DARPA

The US Government’s Metaphor Program, and Lingodroids

Once every month or so, Carol Hills and I pick our five favorite language stories. Big stories, obscure stories, we love ’em all.  Here’s the latest rundown:

5.  Slangy Scrabble.  New entrants in the Collins Scrabble Dictionary include innit, grrl and thang.  The dictionary is called  Collins Official Scrabble Words, and for now it is only available in the UK . So, maybe you don’t want to use any of these words quite yet, if you’re playing on US territory. (Also, Brits and Americans appear to disagree on the extent of a certain r-roll: it’s usually grrl in Britain and an angrier grrrl in the US. I think we should go with grrrl. The word was invented in the US. ) Other “new” words now permitted in Scrabble include heatwave, catflap and inbox.

4. Origins of Japanese. Of the major global languages, Japanese is perhaps the most shrouded in mystery. No-one can say for sure where it came from, and how it initially developed. Among the many theories, two predominate.

The first is that it is a language indigenous to Japan, developed by the first people to settle there more than 12,000 years ago. The second theory is that the language came into being on mainland Asia, arriving in Japan some 2,000-2,500 years ago during a mass migration of farmers from the Korean Peninsula. There is some DNA and archaeoligical evidence to back this up. And now there may be some linguistic evidence. A new University of Tokyo study traced the roots of  210 key pieces of voculabulary. Today, those words vary across the 59 Japanese dialects that the researchers studied. But those words shared common roots dating back nearly 2,200 years ago, possibly coinciding with the migration from the Korean Peninsula.

3. US Intelligence and metaphors. A research arm of the US government intelligence establishment wants to decode foreign languages through their metaphors. The reasearch agency is called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It is inviting organizations to propose tools to analyze metaphors in foreign languages, as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of those languages and cultures.  Laudable idea, though some might wonder what federal spies might then do with that information.  That is assuming that the information will make any sense at all after it is put through the bureaucratic wringer of flow diagrams and metrics.

2. Barack Obama’s bilingual early years. The release of a new biography of the President’s mother, Ann Dunham, has shed further light on Barack Obama’s early schooling in Indonesia. Indonesian was the language of instruction at the two schools Obama attended in Jakarta. Ann Dunham’s decision to send him to Indonesian schools was in marked contrast to most English-speaking expats who sent their kids to English schools, and generally lived in an expat bubble.

Ann Dunham herself eventually spoke fluent Indonesian. According to Janny Scott’s biography,  Dunham loved to tell stories of how she mangled Indonesian in her early days  in Jakarta, when she was an English teacher. During one class, she tried to tell one of her students that he would get a promotion if he learned English. The correct way to say get a promotion in Indonesia is naik pangkat (literally: “go up rank”).  But Dunham said naik pantat (literally “go up buttocks”).

Obama’s parents, incidentally, met at the University of Hawaii in a Russian class.

1. An experiment to get robots to speak to each other in a language of their own invention. Ruth Schulz of the University of Queensland (Australia) has developed a language for robots. She has concluded that human language is too cluttered to be useful to robots. So she’s programmed her “lingadroid” robots to create vocabulary that works for them. This is mainly navigational language, mapped across simulated and real spaces: for each specific place the wheeled robots visit, they generate a certain set of programmed syllables that then becomes the agreed name of that place.

The place names are concise and sci-fi-y. And they don’t have caps: pize, kuzo, reya.

Watch the lingadroids in action here.

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The battle to own Bin Laden’s story

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, a new battle has begun: the rhetorical fight to frame his legacy. The White House got off to a bad start, with its initial claims about the circumstances of the killing. We offer two stabs at this story, one from the perspective of the US government, the other from a cultural point of view. There have been many other such stabs: I especially like this one in Slate. And here’s something on the inevitable memorabilia-exploitation of the moment (if not the man).

Here’s a great blog post on Language Log on how 9/11 changed The Pentagon’s language priorities. Which transitions nicely into the next item…

The Big Show’s Alex Gallafent tries out a couple of instant translation devices. This comes as The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, prepares to decide on one or more devices to equip military personnel in combat and other field situations.  (This is the second of a two-part series on The Pentagon’s history of language training and interpretation. Part One is here).

Finally, a quixotic attempt by a retired government accountant to lighten up the lyrics to Peru’s national anthem. And these are some truly grim lyrics. Translated into English, the first verse –the only verse that’s usually sung– goes like this:

For a long time the opressed Peruvian
the ominous chain he dragged
Condemned to a cruel servitude
for a long time, for a long time
for a long time he quietly whimpered
But then the sacret shout
Liberty! in its coasts has been heard
the slave’s indolence beats
the humiliated, the humiliated,
the humiliated neck raised up,
the humiliated neck raised up, neck raised up.

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Packing flashcards, Pandas and Polyglotty Olympics

So it’s another edition top five language stories of the past month, with The World’s cartoon queen and podstar Carol Hills.

5. The End of Bo.  As repeat readers and listeners know, I’m on the fence when it comes to recording the death of  languages.  No, it’s not that. It’s really that I can’t come up with a storyline that isn’t just a repeat (in a tediously predictible public radio way) of the last time a language died. You know the drill:  elderly speaker of said language passes on, leaving a the very last speaker without a linguistic buddy. Cue  scratchy audio of aforementioned last speaker reciting a poem or prayer. That’s certainly also the case with Bo. Boa Senior (pictured left) was about 85 when she died earlier this year. You can listen to the scratchy audio of Boa Senior here. The difference though, with Bo is that it’s far, far older than most languages. Some linguists claim it is among the world’s original languages, possibly 70,000 years old. That’s where in this case, the storyline differs. RIP Bo.

4. Canada’s polyglot Olympics. The Vancouver Olympics were broadcast all over the world in hundreds of languages. But even in Canada they were broadcast in more than twenty languages, including Cree and seven other native languages.  (That’s Cree in the picture, rendered in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabic characters). We hear from Cree commentator Abel Charles who must have had occasion to yell Kitahaskwew pitikwataw! (“He shoots! He scores!”) a few times on the way to Canada’s gold medals in both men’s and women’s hockey. Cree is not an economical language: pretty much everything takes longer to say in Cree than in English, so Charles has his work cut out for him.

3. Bilingual Pandas. So two giant pandas that have been on loan to the United States have been returned to China. They were actually born in the U.S. but had to be “returned” to China under an agreement between the two countries.  In the U.S. they learned a few words of English. But what good will that do them in China? More importantly perhaps, will the body language and gestures of their Chinese keepers confuse them? Will they feel comfortable enough in the new — and, species-wise, original — environs to think about mating? Pandas being pandas, maybe not.

2. Two disturbing lawsuits. Americans’ appetite for suing each other sometimes takes my breath away. But– I know —  there can be good reasons for litigation. Consider these linguistic lawsuits: #1: Nicholas George, an American studying Arabic at Pomona College, California has teamed up with the ACLU to sue the Transportation Security Administration over his detention at Philadelphia’s airport. TSA officers grew suspicious when they saw the student’s Arabic flashcards, which included the words bomb and terrorism. The suit contends that the officers asked George whether he was Muslim or “pro-Islamic.” Lawsuit#2: School secretary Ana Ligia Mateo, hired in part because she was bilingual, is suing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina.  A new principal at Mateo’s school had issued an English-only policy that banned Mateo from speaking Spanish, not just with students but with their parents. Mateo refused to comply with the new policy was “effectively terminated.”

1. Wartime translator. The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, is working on that holy grail of handheld translators: a device that can recognize up to 20 languages and  translate them with 98% accuracy. Previous attempts have met with  mixed success. Remember the Phraselator? The new device will have to do better with dialects: Arabic, for example, has a ton of them.  And even though this is military research, its application will be greatly felt in the civilian world.

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