Tag Archives: Scrabble

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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Census-taking, volcano-pronouncing, and why Thais win at Scrabble

Robert Groves, Director, U.S. Census Bureau. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lccr

The U.S.Census Bureau is firing on all linguistic cylinders to ensure that non-English speakers are counted in this year’s census. It has been getting the word out via ads, PSAs and handbills translated into 28 different languages (compared to 17 in the 2000 census). Now Census workers are starting to knock on the doors of households, many of them non English-speaking,  that haven’t yet mailed in their forms.

Much of the linguistic outreach seems to be working, but not all of it: in Vietnamese, the word census was translated to something closer to investigation.  Among some Somalis, the very notion of being counted is taboo.  And then there are the southern border states, home to millions of Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants. Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant law has put them on edge: the last thing that many there would do is voluntarily offer up information about themselves to the government.

Next, a BBC news announcer gives us an Icelandic lesson. It’s a very specific lesson: how to pronounce Iceland’s most famous landmark, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may think, why bother now? The volcano is no longer  spitting ash into the air and planes are back in the sky. Well, volcanologists believe Eyjafjallajökull isn’t done belching yet.  More pronunciation tips here and here.

Another item recently in the news:  Scrabble. It turned out to be a faux story: as initially reported,  proper names were about to be permitted under new Scrabble rules. But that wasn’t the case. The proper name rule affected only a new spinoff game that won’t be sold in North America. But given how wrong the news media, including the BBC and NPR, were in their initial reporting, it’s no wonder Scrabble affionados reached for their botttles of Jack Daniels and other proper name beverages. All of which got me wondering what Scrabble obsession is all about  (I don’t play the game). After I heard a lively BBC discussion on the subject, I got it. I also came to understand why English Scrabble is so popular among so many non-English speakers, especially Thais.

Finally, five unique Japanese expressions. They are provided by kanji supremo (or perhaps suprema?), blogger and author Eve Kushner.  Here they are:

病床日誌 【びょうしょうにっし】  byōshō nisshi diary written while ill in bed:

日照権 【にっしょうけん】 nisshōken the right to sunshine

日向水 【ひなたみず】 hinata mizu water warmed in the sun

三日酔い 【みっかよい】mikkayoi hangover (that still lingers two days after drinking)

日猶同祖論 【にちゆうどうそろん】 nichiyū dōsoron hypothesis that Jews and Japanese are of common ancestry

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