322: Sense of Direction (featuring Alice Gaby)

North and south? Left and right? Or something else?

Different languages have different ways of talking about space. Sometimes this has to do with the environment of the people who speak them. But what happens when the environment changes?

Daniel, Ben, and Kylie will try to get their bearings on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode

Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Rewi Lyall


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 322: Sense of Direction for everyone

Interview with Alice Gaby (complete) for patrons

Cutting Room Floor 322: Sense of Direction coming soon

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Helen
Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

Coming soon.


Show notes

Kokota grammar
Google Books link

Algorithms trace how stereotypes have changed
https://www.futurity.org/algorithm-word-embeddings-stereotypes-bias-1722542/

Algorithms reveal changes in stereotypes, according to new Stanford research
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-04/su-arc041818.php

Google Translate’s gender bias pairs “he” with “hardworking” and “she” with lazy, and other examples
https://qz.com/1141122/google-translates-gender-bias-pairs-he-with-hardworking-and-she-with-lazy-and-other-examples/

Word embeddings quantify 100 years of gender and ethnic stereotypes [$$]
http://www.pnas.org/content/115/16/E3635

Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker? Debiasing Word Embeddings (PDF)
https://arxiv.org/pdf/1607.06520.pdf

Dr Alice Gaby
http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/alice-gaby/

John Haviland: Guugu Yimithirr Cardinal Directions (PDF)
http://pages.ucsd.edu/~jhaviland/Publications/ETHOSw.Diags.pdf

5 Languages That Could Change the Way You See the World
http://nautil.us/blog/5-languages-that-could-change-the-way-you-see-the-world

When south is north and right is left
https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/05/29/when-south-is-north/

What We Can Learn from the Guugu Yimithirr Language
http://ourlanguages.org.au/what-we-can-learn-from-the-guugu-yimithirr-language/

Aikhenvald: The essence of mirativity (PDF)
https://research.jcu.edu.au/lcrc/storeroom/research-projects/evidentiality/folder-2-sashas-publications/the-essence-of-mirativity-2012

Hundreds of sharks and other fish discovered tangled in ‘ghost net’ drifting through Caribbean Sea
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/ghost-net-fishing-caribbean-sea-dead-sharks-fish-cayman-island-pollution-a8310806.html

‘Ghost gear’ killing hundreds of thousands of whales, seals, turtles and birds
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-05/ghost-fishing-nets-killing-marine-animals/8591020

Derelict fishing nets have turned the bottom of the sea into a death trap
https://qz.com/247942/derelict-fishing-nets-have-turned-the-bottom-of-the-sea-into-a-death-trap-2/

Swaziland king renames country ‘the Kingdom of eSwatini’
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43821512

Africa’s last absolute monarch renames Swaziland as ‘eSwatini’
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-swaziland-monarch-country/africas-last-absolute-monarch-renames-swaziland-as-eswatini-idUSKBN1HQ2NO

Swaziland king renames country Kingdom of eSwatini
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/19/swaziland-king-renames-country-kingdom-of-eswatini

‘Full Metal Jacket’ Seduced My Generation and Sent Us to War
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/magazine/full-metal-jacket-ermey-marine-corps.html

Video: What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tD4q3leE5Uw

Online Etymological Dictionary: kid
https://www.etymonline.com/word/kid

Goats Yelling Like Humans – Super Cut Compilation
https://youtu.be/PpccpglnNf0

Urban Dictionary: Googy Egg
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Googy%20Egg

Australian Word Map: goog
https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/resources/aus/word/map/search/word/goog/Tasmania/

Wiktionary: full as a goog
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/full_as_a_goog

Phrase Finder: As full as a Goog
https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/51/messages/967.html

Emoji ‘ruining people’s grasp of English’ because young rely on them to communicate
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2018/04/17/emojis-ruining-english-language-young-people-rely-communicate/


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

321: Language Face to Face (featuring Rachel Romeo)

Babies are linguistic super-geniuses!

They know a lot about their own language, and they’re able to infer things from other languages. But a new study shows that unloading bulk language upon them isn’t as important as the conversational turns that happen in the back-and-forth of interaction. What does this mean for linguistics?

Daniel Midgley talks to researcher Rachel Romeo on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode

Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Rewi Lyall


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 321: Language Face to Face (featuring Rachel Romeo) for everyone

Interview with Rachel Romeo (complete) for patrons

Cutting Room Floor 231 coming soon

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Helen
Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

Coming soon.


Show notes

Spanking Children Can Hurt Development of Social and Language Skills
https://saludmovil.com/spanking-children-can-hurt-development-of-social-and-language-skills/

Infants recognize foreign languages as a form of communication
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180124085553.htm

NYU: Infants Recognize Foreign Languages as a Form of Communication
https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2018/january/infants-recognize-foreign-languages-as-a-form-of-communication.html

Babies can spot language, even when it’s not spoken
http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/babies-can-spot-language-even-when-it-s-not-spoken

Three-month-old infants can learn abstract relations before language comprehension
https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2018/april/three-month-old-infants-can-learn-abstract-relations-before-language-comprehension/

Rachel R Romeo
https://gablab.mit.edu/index.php/14-sample-data-articles/212

Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180214145833.htm

Online Etymology Dictionary: awesome
https://www.etymonline.com/word/awesome

Arika Okrent: 13 Words that Changed from Negative to Positive (or Vice Versa)
http://mentalfloss.com/article/65987/13-words-changed-negative-positive-or-vice-versa

The Grammarphobia Blog: How “terror” gave us “terrific”
https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2013/08/terror-terrific.html

Language Log: Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=31383

Merriam-Webster Responded To A Viral Neil DeGrasse Tyson Tweet About The Word ‘Awesome’ & Their Clapback Was Pretty, Uh, Awesome
https://www.bustle.com/p/merriam-webster-responded-to-a-viral-neil-degrasse-tyson-tweet-about-the-word-awesome-their-clapback-was-pretty-uh-awesome-8785561

Optus posts job ad asking for Anglo-Saxon applicants
https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/optus-posts-job-ad-asking-for-anglo-saxon-applicants-20180413-p4z9f8.html

Optus removes online job ad calling for ‘Anglo Saxon’ staff at Neutral Bay store
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-13/optus-removes-online-job-ad-calling-for-anglo-saxon-staff/9653270

Optus investigating ‘racist’ job ad seeking ‘Anglo Saxon’ staff
https://www.sbs.com.au/news/optus-investigating-racist-job-ad-seeking-anglo-saxon-staff

The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Language
http://www.thehistoryofenglish.com/history_old.html

10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Anglo-Saxons
https://www.historyextra.com/period/anglo-saxon/10-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-the-anglo-saxons/

Old English Epic Poetry: Beowulf
http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405159630_chunk_g97814051596309

Old English – Wyrd biþ ful ārǣd – What does this mean?
https://www.duolingo.com/comment/20520288/Old-English-Wyrd-biþ-ful-ārǣd-What-does-this-mean

Common Newspaper Words
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CommonNewspaperWords

Newspaper Headlines
http://www.isabelperez.com/module4_tesis/headlines.htm

What Is Headlinese?
https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-headlinese-1690921


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

Image credit:

320: Love Your Larynx (featuring Thila Raja)

Are you looking after your larynx?

Your voice is your ability to speak, and for a lot of people, it’s how we earn a living. So it’s important to look after your vocal health. And with World Voice Day coming up, it’s a great time to show your larynx some love.

We’ll find out how on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Rewi Lyall


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 320: Love Your Larynx for everyone

Cutting Room Floor 320: Love Your Larynx coming soon

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Helen
Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

Coming soon.


Show notes

Meme explained: why do I keep seeing the same two angry men on social media?
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/apr/06/meme-explained-why-do-i-keep-seeing-the-same-two-angry-men-on-social-media

Computer system transcribes words users “speak silently”
http://news.mit.edu/2018/computer-system-transcribes-words-users-speak-silently-0404

The Challenges and Threats of Automated Lip Reading
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/530641/the-challenges-and-threats-of-automated-lip-reading/

World Voice Day
http://world-voice-day.org

Vocal folds
https://youtu.be/v9Wdf-RwLcs

Ted Baxter
https://youtu.be/Gl3o7Tc9xiI

Acrylamide in Coffee: Should You be Concerned?
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/acrylamide-in-coffee

Studies of acrylamide level in coffee and coffee substitutes: influence of raw material and manufacturing conditions.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24325083

Urban Dictionary: uwu
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=uwu

Know Your Meme: uwu
http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/uwu

uwu sketch
http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1088615-uwu

From the meme factory:


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

Image credit: https://thespeechpractice.com/childrenspeechtherapy/voice/

319: The Prodigal Tongue (featuring Lynne Murphy)

British and American English have always had a love-hate relationship.

British people (and Australians) often blame Americans for somehow tarnishing the language, and they fret about creeping Americanism. But people are terrible at identifying what the Americanisms actually are. How well can you do?

We’re talking to author Lynne Murphy on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Rewi Lyall


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 319: The Prodigal Tongue (featuring Lynne Murphy) for everyone

Interview with Lynne Murphy (complete) for patrons

Cutting Room Floor 319 coming soon

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Helen
Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

[INTRO]
DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM’s weekly show about linguistics, the science of language. For the next hour, we’re going to be bringing you language news, language variation, and some great music. Maybe we’ll even hear from you. My name’s Daniel Midgley. I’m here with Ben Ainslie.
BEN: Good morning.
DANIEL: And Kylie Sturgess.
KYLIE: G’day, everyone.
DANIEL: British and American English have always had a love/hate relationship. British people try to avoid Americanisms, but we’re not always great at identifying them. Are you? Well, we’re going to be talking to someone who’s bidialectal on this episode of Talk the Talk.
BEN: I used to be bidialectal.
DANIEL: What was your dialect? Australian and American?
BEN: Mhm!
DANIEL: Well, aren’t you still?
BEN: I am no longer bidialectical. I cannot pull off an American ac — Well, you tell me!
DANIEL: I don’t know.
BEN: Put me to the test. Give me a sentence.
KYLIE: Let’s give it a go.
DANIEL: Uh, the… “the eels are ready for broasting.”
BEN: [CLEARS THROAT] Uh… ooh… I’m on the spot.
DANIEL: I just made that up.
BEN: [VERY AMERICANLY] “The eels are ready for broasting.”
DANIEL: [ALSO VERY AMERICANLY] “The eels are ready for broasting.”
BEN: “The eels are ready for broasting.”
DANIEL: Well, bro, I’d say that you sound pretty American.
KYLIE: You do!
BEN: No, but would you believe it though, Daniel?
DANIEL: I would believe that you were Matt from Spokane.
BEN: Matt from Spokane?
DANIEL: Just… you know, just to pull a name out of a hat.
KYLIE: Why am I on a show with a bunch of American guys all of a sudden? This is really weird.
DANIEL: Go on, Kylie. Do it.
KYLIE: Um…
DANIEL: “The eels are ready for broasting.” I don’t even know it broasting is.
KYLIE: Uh…
BEN: Bro roasting?
DANIEL and BEN: BRO! Roasted! BRO! ROASTED, BRO!
KYLIE: Okay, now I’m definitely leaving this show.
DANIEL: Get back here!
KYLIE: Give me another one! I’ll give it a shot.
BEN: “Can you pass me this water bottle, please. I’m thirsty.”
KYLIE: [IMPROBABLE US SOUTHERN ACCENT] “Can you pass me this water bottle, please. I’m thirsty.”
DANIEL: No, you’re not [θɜsti], you’re [θɚsti].
KYLIE: Thirsty. Thirsty!
BEN: I’ll try it: “Can you pass me this water bottle, please. I’m thirsty.”
KYLIE: Wow!
DANIEL: See, it’s all in the r’s. But also I like how you gave me an [æ] in ‘pass’, right? We’re going to test you guys on some more.
KYLIE: Cool!
BEN: Excellent! But before we do, I think it behooves us to investigate what’s been going on in the world of linguistics in the week gone past.
DANIEL: I found kind of a cool study from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, India.
BEN: Ooo!
DANIEL: Let me ask you a question. Which do you think there are more of: words the begin with the letter E, or words that end with the letter E?
BEN: Ooo — end.
KYLIE: End.
DANIEL: Yeah, there’s a lot more that end with the letter E. What about words that begin with a letter Y, versus words that end with the letter Y?
BEN: Oh, has to be end.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: Yeah, it is. I mean, think about all those adverbs and all those adjectives that end in Y.
KYLIE: Gently, slowly.
BEN: Every, very.
DANIEL: Exactly. Now Peter Norvig quite a while ago did a huge study of words in a massive corpus. It was the Google Books Corpus, which is like seven hundred fifty billion words.
BEN: Squinty-million!
DANIEL: When you look at the first letter of a word — and this is for all the words in the corpus — it’s kind of all over the place. There’s no clear winner, although some letters are very rare.
BEN: Right. So there’s no winners, but there’s a couple of real noticeable losers.
DANIEL: Oh, yeah. The biggest letter is T, but it only starts like sixteen percent of words.
BEN: Okay.
KYLIE: Really? I remember the Sherlock Holmes short story where E was the most common letter.
DANIEL: E is the most common letter, but it’s not the one that begins the most words. T is.
KYLIE: Ah.
BEN: Right, right, right.
DANIEL: But when you look at the endings of words, there’s a small collection of heavy hitters.
BEN: Right, and so I’m thinking E, Y…
DANIEL: Mhm.
KYLIE: G.
DANIEL: Nope. You would think G, because of -ing.
KYLIE: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
DANIEL: It’s up there.
BEN: So E, Y… I’m trying to think of…
KYLIE: N?
DANIEL: Yep.
BEN: T?
DANIEL: Yes. Think plurals.
BEN: Oh, S!
DANIEL: There are eight letters that account for about seventy six percent of the endings of all English words: E, T, N, S, R, D, F, Y. F surprised me, actually.
BEN: Yeah.
KYLIE: F!
DANIEL: Anyway. here’s the surprising thing. According to this experiment, which appeared in PlosOne, this pattern doesn’t just hold for English. It holds for a lot of languages.
BEN: Wha…?
DANIEL: Well, Mohammed Izhar Ashraf and a team from B. S. Abdur Rahman University in Chennai looked at twenty five different languages, and they looked at their writing systems. And this included alphabetic writing systems like English, but it also included ones that don’t use alphabets like Chinese. It didn’t matter which language you were in; when you’re at the beginning of a word or a string, the things that can start are kind of distributed across the system. But then by the end, things tighten up and only a few heavy hitters come in.
BEN: Right. So even in writing systems like Chinese which have many characters, there’s a very small cabal of endings.
DANIEL: It narrows to a point.
BEN: Wow! Do they know why?
DANIEL: Well, that’s a good question. Let me answer that question by thinking about English. Can you figure out why English would do this? Why would it narrow to only a few characters at the ends of strings or words?
BEN: Because ending words in certain ways makes things flow far better.
DANIEL: Okay.
KYLIE: We have certain traditions and expectations — as you said, adverbs or -ing just gets tacked on the end all the time.
DANIEL: Right. We have a lot of prefixes, no doubt. But when you’re looking at the morphology of a language like English, you’re looking at the suffixes. That’s where it really comes down to.
KYLIE: Plurals, plurals, plurals.
DANIEL: Yeah, you’ve got plurals and you’ve got -en as in ‘eaten’ and you’ve got T, like -ist, and so on. So it really does come down to a few. Now, why it might this research be useful?
BEN: Um… knowing how words end could allow you to parse what people say far more effectively, because if you know that certain words are going to most likely end… seventy six percent of words are going to end in one of these eight things, you can basically have your natural language processor almost running a probabilistic, like, pass/fail test. Right? Like, person says phrase, computer turns phrase into words. Right? Then runs a probabilistic engine over the top and goes, “Do most of these words end in the things that we would expect them to end in? Oh, actually no, a bunch of these words have an — oh, maybe we need to double back on this one and give it a few more computer cycles to make sure we’ve got it right.”
DANIEL: Yeah. This could be something that you use with automatic speech recognition. Like, is this a likely ending or is it likely to lead on to something else?
KYLIE: A bit of language detective.
DANIEL: Tell me more.
KYLIE: Well if you’re finding, for example, languages that might have died out, for example, you only have small amount of evidence for, you can start making assumptions based upon, well, what have we seen in terms of patterns?
DANIEL: That’s what they did!
KYLIE: AAAA!
DANIEL: This is good for undeci–.
KYLIE: And I thought I was not as impressive as Ben who used a phrase like ‘natural language processing’! I thought, “Aw, man! He’s so cool!”
BEN: I just default to the computers. That’s my jam.
DANIEL: They took a look at the Indus Valley script. It’s about five thousand years old, nobody’s ever figured out what it means.
BEN: Right.
KYLIE: And I just guessed this! Oh my god!
DANIEL: Right? And one thing that’s tough about this script is that the strings are quite short, so it’s tricky to figure out sort of… what it is. But they were able to figure out that this was probably written from right to left.
BEN: Ah, because the end… Snap-a-doodle-doo!
DANIEL: Right, you start of the beginning of a line and there’s a lot of things that could happen there, but by the time you get to the end, it narrows down to a few things. So, probably right to left.
BEN: Wow.
DANIEL: There was somebody who figured this out as well. They noticed the handwriting on these things, and they found that at the right end of the page, the handwriting is really expansive, but then when you get to the left, it like squinches! Like they ran out of room.
BEN: Yeah, yeah.
KYLIE: Like preschoolers. “Oh no! Hang on! Eep!”
DANIEL: There’s another thing. If you have an unknown script that doesn’t do spaces, this could help you to figure out where in the stream the breaks are.
BEN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
DANIEL: Entropy is randomness, so you can calculate the entropy and say, “Hm! Lots of entropy here; must be at the beginning of a bit. Whoop — suddenly low entropy; must be the end of something. Hey! Lots of entropy again; must be the beginning.”
BEN: Yeah, right.
DANIEL: I love it when people find patterns in language like this.
BEN: It is pretty cool.
DANIEL: It tells us something about maybe the way languages go, but also the way our brains think.
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: I like it. I want to recognise a pattern during a track. Give me a track to recognise a pattern in.
DANIEL: Okay, well, why don’t we listen to Real Estate with their track ‘Holding Pattern’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: This week on Talk the Talk, we are casting our gaze into the nether regions.
DANIEL: What.
KYLIE: What?
BEN: Well, not those nether re– that’s not what I mean.
KYLIE: Oh my goodness, we’ve got filthy minds — I’m so sorry, Ben.
BEN: I’m talking about: we’re dropping ourselves directly in the middle of the Atlantic betwixt America and Britain, and we are trying to stop ourselves being torn in twain by the warring major English variants.
DANIEL: Can I just read you something. This was a letter to the editor by a British guy in High Wycombe. He says: “Open letter to the manager of Morrison’s in High Wycombe. I visited your supermarket last weekend in order to complete my weekly shop, and referred to the useful overhead signs to locate the required groceries on my shopping list, i.e. eggs, bread, etc. The last item on my list was a packet of chocolate Hobnob biscuits.” They’re yummy, aren’t they.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: “After searching the overhead signs, I failed to find an appropriate one to assist me in locating the said Hobnobs. I then spent a not inconsiderable amount of time frantically searching the aisles, and finally found a packet. With delight I placed them into my basket. I then noticed the sign above which stated ‘Cookies’. Bearing in mind that the High Wycombe supermarket is actually in Great Britain and not the United States of America, could you please explain why Morrisons have felt it necessary to bastardise the English language in this way. I look forward to your reply. John Ford, Warwick Ave., High Wycombe.” Harrumph!
KYLIE: I’m keeping track of that name whenever I make a complaining letter. It’s going to be by John Ford…
DANIEL: I actually like ‘Disgusted in Dalkeith’.
BEN: That is…
KYLIE: They’re cousins, I’m certain.
BEN: Wow. That… mmm. Mhm. All right, so we know — Daniel more than most — that people, when it comes to the words, get real funny.
DANIEL: Yeah, we’ve seen cookies, we’ve seen ketchup and tomato sauce. A lot of people complain about Americanisms. A lot of British people. Americans don’t seem to mind. They think that Britishisms are kind of cool.
KYLIE: Oh, get us another episode of, you know, Downton Abbey.
DANIEL: Exactly. So people feel like bringing in words from another place just undermines your culture seriously. But we’re actually lousy at telling the difference between Britishisms and Americanisms and I want to test you. Can you guess whether these are first used — whether the first appearance was British or American. Ready?
BEN: Ooo, this is going to be fun.
DANIEL: Kerfuffle. American or British?
BEN: British.
KYLIE: American.
DANIEL: Ben gets the point. This is a Britishism.
KYLIE: Ooh, well done.
BEN: Yess. It sounds… I know it’s like in pop culture it’s very American, but just the word ‘kerfuffle’ sounds silly and British.
DANIEL: Oh, so British words sound kind of silly.
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: Okay. I must say that there are lots of lots of silly American words, but let’s see what happens.
KYLIE: Okay.
DANIEL: To action, as in “Let’s action this.”
KYLIE: Oh, American.
BEN: I’m going to go with American as well.
DANIEL: It’s British!
BEN: Damn.
KYLIE: What?
DANIEL: No points at all. It was first in the Times of London in 1960. How about this one: the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’.
KYLIE: Oh, everyone thinks that’s British, so I might go American.
BEN: I’m going to say British.
DANIEL: It is American.
BEN: Damn.
DANIEL: But the British folks were enthusiastic adopters of the phrase.
KYLIE: Stiff upper lip, my lad.
DANIEL: It’s one to one, and this is the tie breaker. It’s a silly word. ‘Discombobulate.’ British or American?
BEN: American.
KYLIE: British.
DANIEL: It’s American and Ben gets it.
BEN: Yay!
KYLIE: Well done.
BEN: Yesss!
DANIEL: The reason I know this is because I was reading a book, and the book is ‘The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English’. It’s a really fun book by Lynne Murphy of the University of Sussex. We’ve talked to her before about Shakespeare.
BEN: We have.
KYLIE: She’s wonderful!
DANIEL: She has a blog, separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk, and she was kind enough to sit down with me and talk through some of the British and American stuff. I know that there are things that we all know about, but then I decided to ask her about some differences that are a bit under the radar.
LYNNE: There are various things like where you put the adverbs in a sentence, you know, that are below the waterline, you don’t necessarily notice or… I mean, for Americans, you wouldn’t necessarily notice that the British don’t use the simple past tense in the same way that Americans do, because what the British do do is use the present perfect. So instead of saying ‘I ate’ to say ‘I have eaten.’ And then there’s the mention that the British… many British people would say ‘I et’, but that’s another matter. But to say ‘I have eaten’ to Americans doesn’t necessarily sound strange, but it sounds strange to British people that Americans are saying ‘I ate’. So you know, what’s noticeable sometimes depends on where you are.
DANIEL: And what about adverbs? Where do they go?
LYNNE: A simple one would be, you know, Americans can put ‘already’ at the end of a sentence.
DANIEL: Hmm.
LYNNE: And that sounds very weird in Britain, so you know, ‘That’s enough already!’ That you would not hear in Britain. But in Britain what you would hear, which you don’t hear in America in the same way, is putting ‘then’ at the end of a sentence, so ‘Go on, then.’
DANIEL: Oh, right.
LYNNE: Things like that. So, you know there are just those little things that if you were just talking to somebody from the other culture, maybe it would strike you as not being the way you would say it, but maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it would just go past you. Maybe it would just sound like something *that* person had said. But if you look at enough data, you can see the differences.
DANIEL: I was thinking about the U in ‘colour’, which you know is thought of as typically British spelling. And I’m kind of amazed that American English dropped out the U, because so many people — very influential people in the USA — tried to reform English spelling: Mark Twain, you know, Teddy Roosevelt. George Bernard Shaw even. And it’s all come to nothing except for one person, Noah Webster, who was amazing at it. He was so influential. Why do you think he succeeded where so many others failed?
LYNNE: Well, there are a couple of things. One is that he wrote something called the ‘Blue-backed Speller’. It had a much longer official name. But it was the spelling book that was used in America for over a century by many many many schoolchildren. So he was influential because of his role as a textbook publisher, but also his dictionary. And so his main dictionary, the 1828 dictionary of the American language, he, in that one, put in various spellings, some of which, you know, have not survived, but some of which did, like the U in ‘color’ or spelling ‘center’ with an -er. And things like that. But it wasn’t like he immediately had an influence. He was fought tooth and nail throughout the first half of the 19th century. So, there was another dictionary maker called Worcester who had been a helper on Webster’s dictionary, but who went on to make his own dictionary which kept all of the British spellings. And there was what we called the Dictionary Wars in the 19th century, when those two dictionaries fought it out, trying to win the hearts and minds of the American people, you know, trying to prove that more churches used their dictionary, that more supreme courts and more states used their dictionaries. And so they had this big propaganda war about the two dictionaries. And in the end, Merriam-Webster — which is the company that bought Webster’s Dictionary — they won, because Worcester died. And they had a company behind them and Worcester didn’t so much. So that is essentially why we spell colour without the U, because there was that fight and because people became very conscious of which way to spell, and had to take sides.
DANIEL: Of course it’s not just spelling. There are some little things that I’ve noticed, little differences that are kind of driving me crazy. I wanted to ask about them. Ladybird? It’s not a bird.
LYNNE: It’s not a bird. And of course, there are many animals who are called things that they aren’t. ‘Ladybug’ comes from England as well.
DANIEL: Oh.
LYNNE: And so they were both used in different parts of England, and one survived in America, and one survived over here. And in large part, I think a lot of things that survive in Britain today do so in order to resist sounding American. So, an interesting case of that is what’s happened with ‘fall’, because there’s an interesting dialect survey that’s been done by Cambridge University, and in the 1950s there were pockets of people saying ‘fall’ in the UK, in England. The entire north of England was saying ‘backend’ for that season.
DANIEL: So we had ‘fall’, ‘autumn’, and ‘backend’.
LYNNE: And ‘backend’. And ‘backend’ was very strong in the north. And you know, here sixty, seventy, nearly seventy years later, everybody in England says ‘autumn’. And ‘fall’ is seen as an American incursion, you know, to be resisted. So you’ve got London being the real influencer of what words are successful in Britain. But you’ve also got the sense that we can’t say ‘fall’ because that’s an Americanism, even though it wasn’t originally American. Americans didn’t make it up.
DANIEL: So British people started saying ‘fall’, Americans kept doing it, British people stopped and then everyone says, “Oh, look at this thing that Americans have innovated,” but it wasn’t an American innovation.
LYNNE: Yeah. Absolutely.
DANIEL: Are there any other of those? I remember ‘mad’ when someone’s angry.
LYNNE: Yeah, there’s ‘mad’. There’s the use of ‘smart’ to mean ‘intelligent’. Lots of things. But sometimes the story is a bit more complicated. So for example, ‘smart’ went on to mean ‘intelligent’ in America in a way that it had never that strongly meant it in Britain. And the reason why it changed in Britain in part was because of how the word ‘clever’ was changing. So there’s a whole ecosystem of meanings, and if one meaning’s changing in one place, it’s going to push things around in the other place.
DANIEL: Yeah, okay.
LYNNE: But I think the big example of British resistance to Americanism is the spelling -ize, which used to be a perfectly fine British spelling, you know, within the twentieth century. So that was the way that Oxford Dictionaries told you to spell a word like ‘humanize’ or ‘realize’, with a z. Or a zed. And nowadays people in Britain perceive the zed as an American spelling, an American incursion. You know, they will say “I’m going to proudly spell with my -ise instead of my -ize.” Instead of that evil -ize! But in truth, it’s only been since the 1990s that people have been spelling -ise regularly that much more.
DANIEL: Oh my gosh. Okay.
LYNNE: And that is when spell checkers came along. And so rather than, you know, this idea that everybody’s spelling the same now because of technology, I think instead what happened there was it made people more aware of variant spellings and what they might mean, and influence their behavior in a way that took us further apart.
DANIEL: God, that is so human, you know. That’s so language.
LYNNE: Yeah. It is, absolutely. But it’s also, you know — because the people now spelling -ise — you know, my students in their lifetime, all they’ve known is -ise. They’ve only known -ize as an Americanism. And so, you know, the story that -ize was a legal Briticism is being lost, and people are telling themselves a very weird story about spelling.
DANIEL: Lynne Murphy, author of ‘The Prodigal Tongue’. Did you notice how technology doesn’t just bring us together? It also makes us consciously aware of how we talk. In the same way that we notice how everyone writes on the internet, and that’s a social division thing as well.
BEN: I really liked the idea that it was only in the ’90s that -ize was fought against, railed against! Like before that, everyone was like [NONCOMMITTAL NOISES] -ize, -ise, it’s a thing, whatever. And now it’s just like, “What? Clippy tells me to do what‽ I say no sir!”
DANIEL: This is exactly what happened with all of linguistic peevery. You know, before the Victorian times, everybody was like, “Oh, language. Okay, well, I guess people do it differently. Whatever. You know.” But then suddenly, mmm! no no no, this is a class thing.
BEN: Yeah. Do you reckon it’s kind of a thing where like the younger… the son will hear like, the quirky speech of the dad and be like, “Pssh! Man, dad’s crazy. Like, that’s cool. I like that random thing that he said from when he was a little kid. That’s hilarious. I’ll take that.” But then on the flip side, Dad hears, like, the new jive talk of the youth and he’s like, “Now you see here, young man.” And that’s kind of what’s going on with Britain and America. America is the kid! America is the one who, like, splintered off and wanted to do their own thing, and threw off the shackles of tyranny, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And meanwhile, Britain is sitting there being like, “Well, I say, that’s very disorganised.”
DANIEL: Look, that’s the way that we like to think of it. In fact, it doesn’t work that way. What happens is that when people leave a country, they’re actually more linguistically *conservative* than the original people.
KYLIE: I’ve certainly discovered that with certain diaspora. You have certain cultural groups that might cling to not only their language, but also the cultural mores of a particular time that they left their original country.
BEN: Wait, are you talking about the Jewish Diaspora?
KYLIE: This could be for anyone. Like a group of Greek people who immigrated here from the 1940s. It’s still very 1940 values, even though they might be moving into the ’50s, the 60’s, and suddenly even the Greece they left behind is no longer that kind of Greece anymore! You know, they’re still maintaining that kind of cultural niche as it were.
DANIEL: That’s the case with diasporic communities. They keep the old stuff. And that is why we do see this pattern where Americans keep doing stuff that British people were doing, the British people stopped, and then they encounter it again and they think, “Ugh! Look what those Americans have innovated.”
BEN: Fall? Fall‽ I say, sir, that’s backend season!
DANIEL: Well, tell you what, we need to take a track and when we come back, we’re going to listen to more of our chat with Lynne Murphy, author of ‘The Prodigal Tongue’. If you have any questions about what you’re hearing, then get them to us: 9260 9210 to get me in the studio.
BEN: If you need to discuss further ‘backend season’, and I understand completely why you would, you can also send us an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au
KYLIE: Or hit us up on social media, especially on Twitter: @talkrtr.
DANIEL: But now, since we’re talking about fall, let’s hear ‘Tripping Up to Fall in Love’ by The Bank Holidays on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: We are straddling the divide. We gaze across the Atlantic, and we look at all the weird things that people are saying on the other side of the Atlantic. And we’re like, ‘Those are weird things you’re saying!” And then we laugh at them. We’re talking about Americanisms and Britishisms on Talk the Talk today.
DANIEL: We’re talking to Lynne Murphy, author of a new book ‘The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English’. Unless you’re buying the book in America, in which case it’s ‘the Love-Hate Relationship Between *American* and *British* English.
[LAUGHTER]
BEN: Smart.
KYLIE: Well done! Nice one, publishers.
DANIEL: You know we talked about the -ize ending, which I had no idea was once acceptable in England.
BEN: I did. I did know this, because when I was doing my, like, doobly-do’s during my education and I kept getting corrected to -ize, I was just like, “I’m gonna find out what’s going on here.” And so I dug into some forums, and yeah, there was a bunch of people who were being like, I don’t know why everyone’s banging on about this. We spelled it with an -ize for, like, centuries. And no one cared. And now everyone’s like “Blauugh, -ize is like the devil.” It’s just like ‘programme’ in Australian English is technically supposed to be the accepted one. Except for the fact that we have been spelling it ‘program’ for all of Australia’s history.
DANIEL: I don’t know about Australian English, but I will tell you that in the Google Ngram Corpus if you look at just the British part of the corpus, you’ll find ‘theatre programme’, but you will find ‘computer program’.
BEN: There you go!
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: Right?
DANIEL: But I decided to ask Lynne Murphy about what the deal was with zee and zed.
LYNNE: Well, it’s that we didn’t have one word for it when the two countries split up. So when the English were going over and settling, in Britain there were lots of words for that letter, and so one took on popularity in Britain, and one took on popularity in America. What happened was we started having universal education. More people had to talk about the letters, and more people had to talk about the letters the same way. You know, having spellers and textbooks and things like that, so I think that’s what settled it down. But it did settle down in different ways in the two places, with the British going towards the French, and sort of respecting the ‘zeta’ Greek root of that letter, whereas Americans made it rhyme with other letters in the alphabet and therefore we’ve got an alphabet song that works.
DANIEL: And it doesn’t end with a clunk, like it does when you add zed, right?
LYNNE: Yup.
DANIEL: ‘Got’ and ‘gotten’. They’re not the same, are they? But I can never keep them straight. How can I remember this?
LYNNE: Well, ‘gotten’ is used — I mean, I say [gɒtən] now. I’d never say [gɒtən] in America; I’d say [gɒʔən] — but ‘gotten’ is what you use for the participle form of ‘got’. So I’ve ‘gotten’ used to speaking a bit British. And that has pretty much been lost in Britain. When I first moved here, I’d have people tell me, “Oh, they still say that in Yorkshire.” I never hear that anymore, and I’m not sure if they really did still say it in Yorkshire when I first moved here. But it is an old ending, you know, and English has been shedding endings for centuries. And British English had that ending, and now it’s stereotyped as sounding bad. You know, you’ll read these things in British style books about how ugly it sounds. But the same people write ‘forgotten’, so I’ve never understood why it sounds ugly in ‘gotten’, but not ugly in ‘forgotten’. But the nice thing in American is you can do two different things with it because of the got/gotten distinction. So you can say ‘I’ve got a cold’, which means ‘right now I have a cold.’ Or you can say ‘I’ve gotten a cold’, which means ‘I’ve come down with a cold.’
DANIEL: Mmm.
LYNNE: Whereas in Britain, we’ve lost that distinction. I mean, you can say it with different words, absolutely, but there’s a little thing that Americans can do that’s been lost.
DANIEL: The example that I like… I was thinking about ‘got’ and ‘gotten’ and I was thinking about this example. ‘I’ve got five complaints’ which means ‘I want to complain about five things.’ But if I say ‘I’ve gotten five complaints’, that means that five people have complained about me.
LYNNE: Yeah. Interesting case.
DANIEL: It’s a neat distinction.
LYNNE: Mmm. Absolutely.
DANIEL: Maths.
LYNNE: Maths.
DANIEL: In Australia they say ‘maths’, and in America it’s ‘math’. And British English goes with ‘maths’, I guess.
LYNNE: Yes, it is ‘maths’. And it’s one… I say ‘maths’ now, because it’s one of those ones that annoys people so much in Britain that you just sort of have to go along with it. But the reason why it’s ‘maths’ is that it was originally a written abbreviation. So in written abbreviations, you often take out the middle. So think about how you abbreviate ‘mister’ or ‘doctor’, you know, with the first letter and the last letter. Well, ‘maths’ was like that, and so the first examples that we have of ‘maths’ are in listings of courses that are being offered at universities, and so it was just a written form to start with. But then people started saying it because it’s completely pronounceable. And these days people will say, “Well, you have to say maths” — British people say “you have to say maths because, you know, it’s plural. If you take off the -s, what are you going to do?” That’s just wrong. It’s not plural. It’s absolutely not plural. You say things like ‘maths is really hard’ or ‘maths is really interesting’. And so it’s not plural. It never has been p — well, actually it has been plural, it was plural in Greek, and so it came over from Greek as a plural — but in English it’s become a singular. But people try to have a logical explanation for why they need that -s, and they fail because there isn’t a logical explanation for it. The reason why British people say ‘maths’ is because people around them say ‘maths’, not because it’s a better way to say ‘mathematics’.
DANIEL: I often say, you know, you’ve come up with a reason why it *might* be so, but then you’ve made the mistake of thinking that it therefore *must* be so.
LYNNE: Yeah. Yeah. And people love to come up with explanations that make sense of the way *they* talk, and somehow put other people’s talking in a nonsensical position. But you know, you can make sense of most things. You can make up an excuse for most things. And what’s interesting is how desperate we are to believe that how we talk makes sense.
DANIEL: It’s all just ad hoc, isn’t it?
LYNNE: Yeah, I mean, vocabulary is just a bin of things that don’t have rules. Vocabulary is the part of language that’s just allowed to do what it wants to do. And so that’s what we see with ‘math’ and ‘maths’.
DANIEL: Do you foresee a time when British English and American English become so different that they are unrecognisable to each other, like Spanish and Portuguese?
LYNNE: No. That’s what, you know, many of the people around the time of American independence thought — you know, they’d say it’s going to be as different as Dutch and German, or as different as Spanish and Portuguese. But Spanish and Portuguese separated out a long long time ago, at a time when language was not so standardised in the first place. So the Latin speakers going to Portugal and the Latin speakers going to Spain probably spoke rather differently. It was at a time when we couldn’t talk to each other, except face to face, so there was no getting to hear other people’s English — or in that case, Latin — in order to talk more like them. And another difference is that there wasn’t as much of a print culture, so Americans and British people have always been aware of how the other is writing. And so the vocabulary goes back and forth very easily because of that. Which is not something that they had way back when, when Dutch and German were separating.
DANIEL: So I guess we’ve got these two forces. We do have a strong differentiating tendency: oh, I don’t want to be like them. But then we’ve also got this very strong culture of transfer and swapping things across. I guess they have their different places. British English seems to have connotations of tradition and high class, whereas American English has connotations of being young and dynamic. So there’s an attraction on both sides.
LYNNE: Yes, but again, when we talk about those things, we’re stereotyping the other English in a very certain way. So when Americans think about British English, they’re thinking about a certain upper class southeastern way of speaking that they associate with education and refinement. And when British people think about Americans, they think about business people, they think about the people in sitcoms, they think about ‘Friends’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’. So we’ve got very specific ideas about the other country that are only a tiny tiny tiny sliver of what is actually there.
DANIEL: Lynne Murphy, author of ‘The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English.’
BEN: It’s so true that when an American thinks of a British accent, it’s not like they think of Essex.
DANIEL: Yeah, no, you don’t. And you know, then I…
BEN: [ESSEX ACCENT] I don’t want that one, I want the other one. It’s myyy-lder.
DANIEL: I go back to when I was a kid, right? We all had connotations of British English as Masterpiece Theater and Hugh Grant and that was attractive to… some of us.
BEN: [LAUGHS] You got a pocket flame for Hugh Grant there, Daniel.
DANIEL: And if you were a kid listening to music, you know, and you listened to — think about it, I mean, if you listen — if you were an American kid, you listened to like, Night Ranger and bullshit like that in the ’80s, whereas if you were cool, one of the cool kids, what did you listen to? You listened to Depeche Mode, you listened to ska, and like Madness and stuff.
KYLIE: [SINGS] We fade to gray.
DANIEL: Yeah, exactly, right? The whole synthpop thing. So there was that… it was just irresistible. So we knew that England was the cool kind of language, right? There’s a lot of stereotyping, but then there’s also a lot of swapping of language. But we still have these ideas about the bowler hat and the cowboy hat. So let’s talk about Australian English just for a second. I mean, it tends to stick pretty close to British English.
BEN: Kinda.
DANIEL: And is there a kind of a reaction against British English sometimes?
BEN: Um…
DANIEL: I feel like British people don’t mind Australianisms — if they’re aware of them — as much as they mind Americanisms.
BEN: No, because we… uh…
DANIEL: You still got the Queen on your money.
BEN: Exactly. We’re the Americans who didn’t revolt. You know. We’re the prisoners, sure. But we’re…
KYLIE: But we’re also the place where the horrible soapy stars come over and then become pop stars over there, and then they just love them. Ahem. I’m not thinking about my first name, no.
DANIEL: Well, I think there’s a lot of research that we could do on this topic, but I think we probably need to take a track. This is part of a much longer interview with Lynne Murphy, so if you want to check that out it’s available on our Pātreon page, or perhaps Patreon.
BEN: That is where you can see me dancing in a sultry manner.
DANIEL: Lynne Murphy’s from the University of Sussex. Her blog is separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk. And the book: ‘The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.’ It’s a ripping read. Lots of fun. Check it out. But now let’s get a load of the U in colour with this track by Crooked Colours. This is ‘Come Back to You’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: Mmm. Mhm. You feeling that?
DANIEL: [LAYS DOWN SICK BEATBOXING PORN GROOVE]
BEN: I’m feeling that. I’m feeling alllll… that.
KYLIE: Should I leave the room, guys?
BEN: I’m going to be talking about a thing. I’m gonna be talking about a thing and it’s going to be great. I’m gonna be talking about a thing and it’s going to be great. And that thing is Word of the Week.
DANIEL: Thank you, Ben.
KYLIE: I don’t think I can see that one going up the charts any time soon.
DANIEL: I like it!
BEN: And that’s why you won’t be a former Neighbours popstar, Kylie.
KYLIE: Yeah, I know. I miss out.
DANIEL: We’ve got three great verbs this week. Some of them are kind of new, and some of them are not.
KYLIE: Okay.
BEN: I have such time for doing words.
DANIEL: Okay, well, here we go. One is… you have to guess what this one means: plogging.
BEN: Plogging.
DANIEL: If you go plogging, what are you doing?
BEN: You are… picking up rubbish and jogging at the same time!
DANIEL: Oh! Yes!
BEN: I know this one!
KYLIE: Oh, well done!
BEN: YESSS!
DANIEL: How did you?
BEN: It’s Scandinavian, of course. I saw… I guess someone decided that my demographic was the one to be targeted by Facebook algorithmic advertising and this video popped up in my feed.
DANIEL: And you saw people plogging.
BEN: I saw… because of course I don’t enable sound in my Facebook feed. I saw a video, and because of course most people don’t enable sound, it had things at the top and like: Have you ever heard of plogging? I bet you haven’t, question mark. I was like, oh bro, I’m real close to scrolling past you. You know how I feel about them clickbaity titles! ‘I bet you don’t…’ You’re right. I don’t! And I don’t care. But no, I stayed with it because there was people exercising, and I like exercising. And plogging is when you jog and pick up rubbish at the same time.
DANIEL: That is correct. You bring a bag along with you, and into the bag it goes. ‘Plogging’. What’s the pl-? I understand the -ogging part; that’s just from jogging.
BEN: Plucking.
KYLIE: Plucking, or picking.
BEN: Plucking rubbish off the ground.
DANIEL: That is correct. This is a Swedish portmanteau. It is either plocka upp: to pick up, or plocka skräp: to pick up litter.
BEN: Okay. So that’s word number one. Hit me with number dos.
DANIEL: Número dos: ethering.
BEN: Ethering.
DANIEL: Ethering. I saw a tweet. This is great. This is by @SeanMcElwee, link on our blog talkthetalkpodcast.com. “lmao everything is awful but the parkland survivors ethering every conservative that fucks with them is the best thing thats happened in a while”
BEN: Turning… turning one into a substance so vapourous as to be like an ether?
KYLIE: Or winning on the internet? Is that what it means, because the internet is a sort of an… ephemeral place?
DANIEL: Okay, well, let’s talk about the cases first of all. Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate who was running unopposed for a place in the Maine legislature called Emma Gonzáles, one of the Parkland survivors, a “skinhead lesbian”.
KYLIE: Oh, she’s suddenly facing a lot of opposition, isn’t she?
DANIEL: Oh yes, she is. Because that’s all they know how to do, is go after the person. That’s all the conservatives know. So he was forced out of the race. The reaction was significant. Fox blowhard Laura Ingraham — she’s the one who criticised NBA players LeBron James and Kevin Durrant for using African-American English when they criticised Trump.
BEN: Classic.
DANIEL: Yeah, Durrant said “I feel like our team as a country is not ran by a great coach.” Her response was, “Shut up and dribble.”
BEN: Nice.
KYLIE: I’d like to give a shoutout to Laura Ingram who has been facing significant harassment after that comment because of people who don’t recognise, and they think it’s her.
DANIEL: Yeah, make sure you give shit to Laura Ingraham, not Laura Ingram.
KYLIE: Yes.
DANIEL: Telling people to shut up is kind of what she does. She did it with survivor David Hogg. She tweeted “David Hogg rejected by four colleges to which he applied and whines about it.”
BEN: Good move.
DANIEL: Up to about twenty advertisers dropped her.
BEN: Nice.
DANIEL: Including Johnson & Johnson, Hulu, TripAdvisor, and Nestlé.
BEN: Wow, those are not small things. I knew all of those companies.
KYLIE: That’s your boss calling you in first thing on Monday to go ‘Ahem’.
DANIEL: Yeah, apparently they did, because now she’s taking a little vacation.
BEN: Oh, nice one!
KYLIE: There’s a few people taking that vacation who never return!
BEN: Well, she’s probably not taking the vacation with TripAdvisor.
DANIEL: So that was her getting ethered.
BEN: So what is ‘ethered’, then?
DANIEL: It’s neither of those things. It’s actually a reference from rap.
BEN: Oh!
DANIEL: Everybody probably knows this except me because rap is not my main thing, but back in 2001, Jay-Z made a diss track. Or was it Jay-Zed?
BEN: Oh gawd.
DANIEL: Made a diss track against Nas and Mobb Depp called ‘Takeover’. So Nas’s response was a track called ‘Ether’ and from what I can gather, it’s generally thought that ‘Ether’ is much better than ‘Takeover’, but people can listen and draw their own conclusions. Nas named the song ‘Ether’ because as he says, “I was told a long time ago, ghosts and spirits don’t like the fumes from ether, and I just wanted to affect him with my weapon and get to his soul.”
BEN: Nice one!
DANIEL: ‘Ether’ was a very influential diss track, and lots of other rappers have cited it, made tracks based on it, and so ethering someone means ‘giving a comprehensive takedown’.
BEN: Oh, I love it! I ether students all the time. Great.
DANIEL: Nice. Now you know. The third one: versing. Love this one.
BEN: Versing, as in like singing verses?
DANIEL: Nope. The open source Mcmillan Dictionary has added ‘verse’ to its dictionary, but not the noun — the verb, as in ‘I’ll verse you.’
BEN: Oh, cool!
KYLIE: Oh!
BEN: Yep.
DANIEL: I love this one.
BEN: This is a thing that I’ve said all my life, I’m pretty sure. Like, if you play video games, you say this a lot.
DANIEL: Yeah, I’ll verse you, which means I’ll…
BEN: I’ll play you.
DANIEL: There isn’t really another way to say… I mean, you could say “I’ll play you”, which sounds okay, but it doesn’t have the ‘against’.
KYLIE: I’ll ‘challenge’, or ’bout’.
BEN: Exactly, like yeah, because if it’s in, say, tennis — right? — you could play a doubles match, so you could *play* with someone, and *verse* someone else.
DANIEL: Exactly. Oh, yeah. Really good point. This comes from…?
BEN: Versus.
DANIEL: Okay.
BEN: Right? Like vs.
DANIEL: The Latin proposition ‘against’. Which is actually related to ‘-vert’, as in ‘revert’ — that’s ‘turn again’; ‘invert’, which is ‘turn inside’; and ‘pervert’ — ‘per-‘ means ‘thoroughly’, so a person who’s a ‘pervert’ is ‘thoroughly turned’.
BEN: Oh, wow! That is a cool piece of information! Not as cool as the ‘backend’ season, but pretty cool!
DANIEL: So English speakers looked at ‘versus’, and thought ‘Oh, well…”
KYLIE: The turn.
DANIEL: That ends in a third-person singular -s. He versus someone else. So it got turned into a verb: to verse!
BEN: I love it.
DANIEL: This is a process known as back-formation. It’s one of my favorites.
BEN: What’s other examples of back-formation?
DANIEL: Oh, well, another classic case of back-formation is when you had the French word for cherry which was ‘cherise’.
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: You could have one ‘cherise’.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: But English speakers saw that -s on the end and thought, “Oh, well, they must be talking about cherries. What would one of those things be called?” Well…
BEN: A cherry!
DANIEL: A cherry.
BEN: There we go.
DANIEL: So it got back-formed.
BEN: Oh, that’s cool! I like that as well.
DANIEL: ‘Versus’ becomes a member of a small group of propositions that have turned into other words. I can only think of a couple: ‘up’, to up the volume; or ‘down’, to down your drink.
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: But I can’t really think of any other prepositions that turn into verbs. Maybe ‘like’. But that’s a little bit sketchy.
BEN: Oh, ‘like’s got its own weird thing going on.
KYLIE: Fascinating.
BEN: Wow — well, I really enjoyed all of that. That’s really interesting. So we had ‘ethered’, we had ‘plogging’…
DANIEL: Yup.
BEN: And we had ‘verse’. I love it.
DANIEL: Our three words of the week.
BEN: Kylie and I are getting out of here. Daniel is going to hang around and take your words into his brain, if you would like him to. And you can do that — you can inject your words into his brain via the furly-tone: 9260 9210.
DANIEL: You can also send me an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au
BEN: If you want to get the words into his brain through his eyeballs.
DANIEL: That is what language does, isn’t it? It puts words into my brain.
KYLIE: Or you could just be social about it, and hit us up on social media. Try Twitter: @talkrtr.
DANIEL: And of course our vibrant Facebook community. You guys still rock, even though Facebook is a festering garbage pile.
KYLIE: Yeah!
BEN: But the people on the Talk the Talk Facebook page float on the top of that garbage pile, like such delightful creatures. We love all of you.
DANIEL: But now let’s take a track, and speaking of verse, let’s listen to Khruangbin, off of their album ‘The Universe Smiles Upon You’. This is ‘Two Fish and an Elephant’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
DANIEL: You’re here at the tail end of Talk the Talk. Let’s get to some comments.
DANIEL: Nikki says: “I guess ‘at’ is also a proposition that has been verbed. I’m atting you on twitter right now.” Yes, indeed she is! How could I forget ‘at’? What a great proposition cum verb.
DANIEL: Holly says “I find the differences in increased syllable pronunciation between British and American English interesting. ‘Battery’ and ‘library’ being two syllables in Aus/UK English, three in American.” Batt’ry. Libr’ry. “‘Edinburgh’ being three in Australia/UK, four in American.” Ed-in-bur-ough. That is a very good example. Things get reduced.
DANIEL: Steele says: “I generally don’t mind differences between American and British English but I prefer zee over zed, only because when it’s called zed it’s the only letter name to end with a plosive, and I can’t live like that.” Hang in there, Steele.
DANIEL: A lot of people were obsessed by zee and zed. Anthony says “Big fan of zee, despite growing up with zed. It really does fit better in my opinion.” You know, that perception, Anthony, might be because it rhymes with other letters, like zee, bee, cee, plee, and skee… and of course w.
DANIEL: You knew that the song was going to come into it. Eli says, “If you learned your alphabet through the ‘now I know my ABCs’ song as I did, you will almost certainly dislike zed due to the fact that it doesn’t scan in a aesthetic way. But this is an issue of aesthetics above all else, it isn’t really crucial.” And Guy points out the song as well and says, “Rhyming songs don’t lie. It must be zee.” Yes, there is a common dictum: if it rhymes, it must be true.
DANIEL: Matthias says, “Danish, my native language, doesn’t use the voiced S, so cee and zee sometimes blend together when I speak. For this reason I prefer zed since it is not ambiguous.” Darf Maulen says the same thing for their native German.
DANIEL: And Jason says, “After moving from the US to Canada, I’ve settled on ‘izzard’.” Yeah, we didn’t talk about the regional differences in zed. There’s izzard, ezod, uzzard, zod, izzet, izzart, and even just zard. Man, that letter has a lot of names.
DANIEL: And as Adam says, “It’s zee beginning of zee end.”
DANIEL: Thanks to everybody who commented. That was a lot of fun. And thanks especially to Lynne Murphy. You should check out her book, ‘The Prodigal Tongue’. I’d like to think Jon Davidson, who’s going to be taking us Out To Lunch very shortly, and of course I’d like to thank you for being such a great listener. Don’t forget to check us out on Facebook and Patreon. Thanks for listening, and until next time, keep talking.
[OUTRO]
BEN: This has been an RTRFM podcast. RTRFM is an independent community radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. You can subscribe online at rtrfm.com.au/subscribe.
KYLIE: Our theme song is by Ah Trees, and you can check out their music on ahtrees.com, and everywhere good music is sold.
DANIEL: We’re on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au, and if you’d like to get lots of extra linguistic goodies, then like us on Facebook or check out our Patreon page. You can always find out whatever we’re up to by heading to talkthetalkpodcast.com


Show notes

Peter Norvig: English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited or ETAOIN SRHLDCU
http://norvig.com/mayzner.html

Scientists Elicit Universal Pattern of Sound Use in Languages
https://thewire.in/science/scientists-elicit-hidden-universal-pattern-sound-use-languages

The “handedness” of language: Directional symmetry breaking of sign usage in words
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0190735

The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy: Available from Penguin / Random House
https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/552013/the-prodigal-tongue-by-lynne-murphy/9780143131106/

Lynne’s blog: Separated by a Common Language
http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com

Our common language, up to a point
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/bal-our-common-language-up-to-a-point-20180308-story.html

On the radar: plogging
https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2018/03/19/on-the-radar-plogging/

Urban Dictionary: ethered
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ethered

Genius: Ether lyrics
https://genius.com/8656

Advertisers – including TripAdvisor, Nestle, Wayfair and Hulu – are dumping Laura Ingraham after she slammed Parkland survivor
https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/29/tripadvisor-drops-laura-ingraham-after-she-attacked-parkland-activist.html

Macmillan: verse
https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/verse_2

Etymonline: lieutenant (n.)
https://www.etymonline.com/word/lieutenant

Etymonline: izzard (n.)
https://www.etymonline.com/word/izzard


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

318a: One for @talkrtr

Kylie notices interesting things on Twitter, and when she does, she tags them: One for @talkrtr

So today we’re poring over them. Is lab meat ‘meat’? How do you pronounce ‘scone’? What happens when we use dehumanising language?

Linguist Daniel Midgley wants to hear from you on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Coming soon.


Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Maggie

Coming soon.


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 319: One for @talkrtr coming soon

Episode 319: One for @talkrtr (with the music)

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Helen
Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

Coming soon.


Show notes

Should lab-grown meat be labelled as meat when it’s available for sale?
https://theconversation.com/should-lab-grown-meat-be-labelled-as-meat-when-its-available-for-sale-93129

Etymology of Meat
http://etymologynow.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/etymology-of-meat.html

Do you pronounce ‘scone’ to rhyme with ‘cone’ or ‘gone’? It depends where you’re from
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/23/how-do-you-pronounce-scone-answer-says-a-lot-english-language-day-shakespeare-birthday

Cambridge app maps decline in regional diversity of English dialects
http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/cambridge-app-maps-decline-in-regional-diversity-of-english-dialects

Dialects of American English Survey
https://www.dialectsofenglish.com

Mapping Words Around Australia
Mapping Words Around Australia

D&D Creatures Created By A Neural Network Are Weird
https://www.kotaku.com.au/2018/03/dd-creatures-created-by-a-neural-network-are-weird/

Dungeons and Dragons creatures, generated by neural network
http://aiweirdness.com/post/172170729017/dungeons-and-dragons-creatures-generated-by

‘The Snake’: How Trump appropriated a radical black singer’s lyrics for immigration fearmongering
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/02/24/the-snake-how-trump-appropriated-a-radical-black-singers-lyrics-for-refugee-fearmongering/

Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/30/why-the-language-we-use-to-talk-about-refugees-matters-so-much/

Swarms and marauders: the dehumanising language of migration
http://www.cafebabel.co.uk/culture/article/swarms-and-marauders-the-dehumanising-language-of-migration.html

“They’re not even people”: why Eric Trump’s dehumanizing language matters
https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/6/7/15755852/eric-trump-not-people-dehumanization

The dark psychology of dehumanization, explained
https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/7/14456154/dehumanization-psychology-explained

Duolingo: Klingon
https://www.duolingo.com/course/tlh/en/Learn-Klingon-Online

This Local Council Will Give Staff And The Public Gender Badges To Improve Trans Awareness
https://www.buzzfeed.com/patrickstrudwick/brighton-council-will-give-staff-and-the-public-gender


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

318: Mailbag of Awesome

We get mail. From you. And today, we’re answering your questions.

How has jazz influenced our language? And what if you like language diversity, but you’re not too keen on how it’s used?

Daniel and Kylie answer them all on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 318: Mailbag of Awesome for everyone

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM’s weekly show about linguistics, the science of language. For the next hour, we’re going to be bringing you language news, language questions, and some great music. Maybe we’ll even hear from you. My name’s Daniel Midgley. I’m here with Kylie Sturgess.
KYLIE: G’day, everyone.
DANIEL: We get mail. From you. And today we’re answering all your questions. How has jazz influenced our language? And what if you like language diversity, but you’re not too keen on how that language is used? We’ll get to them all on this episode of Talk the Talk.
DANIEL: Kylie, how’s it going?
KYLIE: It’s going wonderfully. It is fabulous to see so many people enthusiastic about the show, and who are just jumping up and down going, “Oh! Have you thought about…” or “That episode was fascinating” or “I disagree with you, and I have to be heard,” and here’s your chance.
DANIEL: We are without our Ben today.
KYLIE: Aw.
DANIEL: But we are with you, so let’s get to some of these questions.
KYLIE: Let’s do it.
DANIEL: Alek starts out: “How should I pronounce ‘event’?” Well, I just did.
KYLIE: Well done. That was the easiest question ever!
DANIEL: But actually it’s not because this is…
KYLIE: Eee-vent?
DANIEL: This is one of the hard ones. Yeah, you could say [i] as in ‘beat’: event. How else?
KYLIE: EV-unt?
DANIEL: Well, you’ve got to put the stress on the rights syl-LA-ble, right?
KYLIE: Oh.
DANIEL: You could say ‘event’ like with an [ɛ], as in ‘red’.
KYLIE: Oh.
DANIEL: You could say ‘event’ with an [ɪ], as in ‘bit’. Or you could even say an [ə] sound, as in ‘uh-vent’.
KYLIE: Uh-vent.
DANIEL: Event.
KYLIE: Uh-vehhh… I’m never going to look at this word the same way again.
DANIEL: Right? This is what happens with linguistics madness. You think that you know how to pronounce a word and then somebody asks you a simple question: How do you pronounce that word? And suddenly you have no idea how you pronounce that word. This is what I call linguistics madness, and when you’re studying phonology, you do a lot of it. Your roommates come home and they find you on the couch going ‘ev… uhv… eevent.”
KYLIE: And they say, “I thought you were going to go to the gig.” “Don’t get me started!”
DANIEL: “No, it’s not a gig, it’s an ee-vent… it’s an uh-vent… it’s an oh-vent.” Pretty soon you’re defending weird stuff, like you’re saying “No, I know that I say it ‘oh-vent’, I swear to you.” Sometimes it depends on the surrounding words, like ‘th[i] event sounds better than th[ə] event.
KYLIE: Mhm.
DANIEL: What’s going on? Well, I will bet you dollars to donuts, Alek, that if you look this up in the Macquarie Dictionary, they will use a little beast called a schwa (ə). Are you familiar with schwa?
KYLIE: Yeah, it’s one of those nice curly ones that we have spoken about before when we’re talking about symbols that seem to pop up everywhere in dictionaries, and we’re not actually aware we’re using them when we talk.
DANIEL: Right. Well, it’s kind of like an upside-down letter <e>. That’s what it looks like: a lowercase <e> upside-down. And it has the sound of ‘uh’. But not the ‘uh’ as in ‘hut’. It’s the ‘uh’ as in ‘event’. Did that sound the same to you?
KYLIE: Hu…t… uh… I sound like someone about to practice for the opera.
DANIEL: That’s how I know that you’re doing it right.
KYLIE: Oh.
DANIEL: So there’s a difference between the ‘uh’ in ‘hut’ and the ‘uh’ in ‘about’, even though they sound quite similar to me. The difference is stress. When you say ‘hut’, the stress falls on that syllable. “I’ll just be in my hut.”
KYLIE: Hut.
DANIEL: Whereas when you say ‘about’, where’s the stress?
KYLIE: A…bout… It’s on the ’bout’. Yeah.
DANIEL: That’s the thing about the schwa: it’s never stressed.
KYLIE: Oh!
DANIEL: Right. So how do you say the first sound in ‘event’? Well, you could say that [ivɛnt] or [ɪvɛnt] or [ɛvɛnt] if you want to. But usually I think what we’ll find is we probably just say [əvɛnt] with our good friend the schwa.
KYLIE: Oh, cool! I learned something new.
DANIEL: And if you want to check it out in a corpus, you should check out youglish.com. In fact, I really recommend that everybody try it out. You can type in a word or a phrase and it will take you to every YouTube video…
KYLIE: Brilliant!
DANIEL: …that has that word in its annotations. And it takes you to that spot! So you can just listen to two hundred people saying ‘event’, and you can just tick off… I’m going to do this with ‘gif’ or ‘jif’. I’m going to see how people actually say it. But it’s a good tool for people who are learning English. It’s a good tool for people who are trying to figure out just how in the world you say a word. So youglish.com. Recommended.
KYLIE: How do you spell ‘youglish’? Here we are.
DANIEL: It’s English, but it’s you. So Y O U glish dot com. Next one! Bill by email, talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au. He says “Listened to Ben and Daniel’s discussion of ‘shooketh’.” You weren’t there for this episode. Have you heard this term?
KYLIE: N… oh… No.
DANIEL: ‘I was shooketh’, which means I was shocked, I was surprised. It’s a word that is coming up in the world. Bill continues: “I wondered if they realise it’s a play on the AAVE ‘shook’ (I.e., ‘shaken’). It became popular to say things like, ‘I just realised that Jack on “This Is Us” is Jess from “Gilmore Girls” and I AM SHOOK.’ Then people began saying ‘shooketh,’ which is a pretty fascinating fusion of AAVE and pseudo-archaism. Now that I think about it, ‘shooketh’ is slyly subversive because it elevates a ‘nonstandard’ English word (‘shook’ as past-perfect) to the level of highfalutin Shakespearean language. Anyway, enjoyed the show as always.”
KYLIE: Adding an -eth at the end of….
DANIEL: Isn’t that funny? Of course, that isn’t actually how you would have used -eth. Let’s use ‘speak’ as an example: I speak. Thou speakest. He, she, or it speaketh. So you wouldn’t have used it on ‘shook’. But it’s a funny way of using archaic language to be funny.
KYLIE: Hm!
DANIEL: That’s what it is. Thanks, Bill, for that email. Wolf of the Wisp asks us: “Has the meaning of ‘sanction’ completely flipped? If so, where, when, and how?” Kylie, what do you know about the word ‘sanction’?
KYLIE: What we’re looking at here is an interesting phenomenon called contronyms: words that can mean two different things, two opposites at the same time!
DANIEL: It’s weird, isn’t it.
KYLIE: And I never knew this before, until Wolf of the Wisp brought it up, and I went, “Oh, bloomin’ heck! I actually know a lot of these, and I never realised it before.”
DANIEL: Okay, well, what other ones do you know?
KYLIE: Well, how about if I give you a quiz, and people who are listening can play along as well.
DANIEL: I’m ready.
KYLIE: Number one: this is a word that means “to offer advice” or “to obtain it”.
DANIEL: The word is ‘counsel’.
KYLIE: ‘Consult’.
DANIEL: Oh, dang! Okay.
KYLIE: ‘To add fine particles’ or ‘to remove them’.
DANIEL: Ah, I do know this one. This one is ‘to dust’.
KYLIE: Yes.
DANIEL: You can dust the furniture, which could mean you remove the dust, or you put the dust on.
KYLIE: Yes.
DANIEL: Okay, one for me.
KYLIE: This is a word that means ‘completed’ or ‘ended or destroyed’. So, in one way it’s something that is completed, or it is to completely destroy something.
DANIEL: Ah, it’s ‘finished’.
KYLIE: Yes.
DANIEL: Yes! Two for me.
KYLIE: Number four: This is when you can read something thoroughly, or you can glance at it.
DANIEL: Is it ‘peruse’?
KYLIE: ‘Scan’.
DANIEL: Oh! Very good. Okay. Didn’t get that one.
KYLIE: Number five: ‘visible’, as in stars showing in the sky, or ‘invisible’, in reference to lights.
DANIEL: I got no idea.
KYLIE: ‘Out’. The stars are out, or the lights are off.
DANIEL: Oh, that’s so good. My gosh.
KYLIE: Wonderful contronyms.
DANIEL: Well, I can think of one contronym, and it is ‘literally’.
KYLIE: Yes!
DANIEL: It’s not exactly a contronym, but you know, there are two senses. One is it means ‘exactly that’, and the other one means… it means ‘approximately that’. And you know, people are unaware that they use words like ‘sanction’ and ‘dust’ and even ‘fine’, right? Which means ‘super super good’, but it also means, eh, just ‘okay’.
KYLIE: Yeah, ordinary weather. It’s fine.
DANIEL: It’s fine! So why do people pick on ‘literally’ so much? I don’t know. I have a feeling that it’s one of those peeves that people hand around. Anyway, what’s the deal with ‘sanction’? Which one came first? Well, the ‘sanction’ meaning ‘to permit’, ‘to authorise’ dates from 1797, and to ‘impose sanctions’ comes only from 1956.
KYLIE: Wow, that’s a big gap!
DANIEL: But they both share a sense of ‘something being permitted’ or ‘the law asserting itself’ in some way. So that’s what’s going on there. Whew! So contronyms, or Janus words. Love those things.
KYLIE: It’s something new that I learned, so thank you so much Wolf of the Wisp for bringing that to our attention. And yeah, ‘sanction’ not only flipped, but there’s lots of flipping going on out there.
DANIEL: Well, let’s listen to a track, and this one is the one where Father John Misty is being a jerk about the word ‘literally’. This one is ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
KYLIE: This is a Mailbag episode. We’re going through the questions that you have about language, linguistics, all kinds of things. It’s amazing what people come up with after listening to our episodes, or questions that have never occurred to anyone here before, and you just want to have them answered. Let’s give it a shot.
DANIEL: Zoe listened to our numbers episode recently, the one with Caleb Everett. We were talking on that episode about base-six systems. You know, we use a base-ten system because we have ten fingers. Some people use a base-six system, and I thought it had to do with yam pyramids — three yams on the bottom, two yams on top of that, and then a little yam on top.
KYLIE: I’ve no idea where you came up with that, but it sounds so cute that I was like, “Yeah, okay, fine. Yams.”
DANIEL: I’m a freakin’ genius, that’s where I came up with it. Zoe says, “About base six, I have an alternate theory to the yam pyramids. My dad was super excited about this when I was a kid. He said that base six was super sensible because you counted one two three four five on the fingers of one hand, and the other hand became tens — that is, you count the number of groups using six using the other hand’s fingers. So this way, you can count to thirty five only using two hands. All your fingers become five lots of six, plus five. That makes base six way more useful for counting than base ten. Where he learned this, I don’t know, but it seems more logical than yam pyramids to me. Then again, how many things are based on logic rather than being wacky cultural artifacts ***cough cough*** French numbers.”
KYLIE: It kind of reminds me of the tradition of using your knuckles to remember the months of the year. Have you ever tried that?
DANIEL: I have tried that! You tell me. Go ahead.
KYLIE: What you do is: you have counting the months on your knuckles and the grooves between your knuckles. Leave out your thumb knuckle. Every month that lands on the knuckle is thirty-one days, but every month it lands on a groove between the knuckles is thirty days — or twenty-eight for February.
DANIEL: I love this one. So I’ve got my fist up here, and I’m counting my first finger. It’s got a knuckle, right? So that’s January. And then I put my finger in the valley between my two fingers — that’s February.
KYLIE: Yep.
DANIEL: Knuckle is March. Valley is April. Knuckle… And the knuckles are long months, and the valleys are short months. That’s awesome.
KYLIE: Yeah, it works. Yeah.
DANIEL: You know what it reminds me of: It reminds me of the Chisanbop method of counting.
KYLIE: Oh, what’s that?
DANIEL: Well, I take my right hand and I use my fingers to count one two three four, and then for five, I put all those fingers away and stick out my thumb.
KYLIE: We also see this in Auslan, as well. This is six.
DANIEL: The thumb is six?
KYLIE: Yeah. You shake the hand and the thumb is six.
DANIEL: Oh, okay. Well, for this one, thumb is five, and then for six, I just add another finger — five plus one. Seven eight nine — nine is all my fingers together. And then my left hand is for tens. So…
KYLIE: See if you can keep track of them.
DANIEL: So if I have four fingers and four fingers, that’s forty-four.
KYLIE: Yep.
DANIEL: If I have all my fingers out, that’s ninety-nine, because the the left thumb is fifty. And that’s how I count to ninety-nine on my fingers.
KYLIE: Cool.
DANIEL: Let’s see. Oh, Simon says, “Hi, guys. I’m just listening to your episode about numbers. Very interesting. Welsh has an interesting counting system, well two systems actually. One is vigesimal and the other is decimal.” Apparently the vigesimal system, which we’re going to describe, is the old kind and the decimal is the new kind. “So sixteen is…” and I’m not going to try the Welsh. Sorry about this. Sixteen is one on fifteen. Seventeen is two on fifteen. Eighteen is two nines — wow! And then twenty is twenty. But if you do it the new way, sixteen is one ten six. Seventeen is one ten seven. And so on. So thirty nine in the old school is four on fifteen on twenty — add ’em up — but now it’s three ten nine, which makes sense. And ninety nine is — get ready — four on fifteen on… four twenties!
KYLIE: I’m so glad Ben’s not here; he’d be freaking out.
DANIEL: He would be! But it does let us know that this four-twenties thing is not unique to French. It’s a strategy that other people have hit on. But if you’re being modern and everything, then it’s just nine ten nine. And Simon that sent us this is Simon Ager. He’s the guy behind omniglot.com! I love that website. It’s got information on all the writing systems that all humans use, even fictional ones.
KYLIE: Really!
DANIEL: Yeah.
KYLIE: Oh, Simon, that’s a lot of work!
DANIEL: It is! It’s an amazing site. And I have recommended to my students many times, and I’m recommending it to you: omniglot.com. Actually, when Simon sent his message, I got a little funny.
KYLIE: I can imagine! This is such a cool site. Well done, Simon!
DANIEL: It’s great. Paul says, “In one of your recent episodes, you touched on the rule against beginning sentences with conjunctions like ‘and’ or ‘but’.” You’ve heard this one, haven’t you? Don’t begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: “It got me thinking: one of the correct ways to use a conjunction is to introduce an independent clause.” Ohh, terminology alert; don’t worry — I’ll make this all clear. “But I struggle to actually perceive any semantic difference between this correct use and the incorrect one. Is there a difference?” All right, Kylie, what do you know about conjunctions?
KYLIE: Oh, dear. Just don’t use them. All the time.
DANIEL: [LAUGHS] But can you tell me what one is?
KYLIE: It’s essentially a joining word.
DANIEL: A joining word, like ‘and’, right? So I can say ‘I got up AND I went to school.’ I’m joining those two sentences with ‘and’, right?
KYLIE: Dah di dah di dah di dah, BUT do di do di do di do di do.
DANIEL: Right. Now there’s two kinds of conjunctions that I want to talk about. You got coordinating conjunctions like ‘and’ and ‘but’, and the way I remember them is by the acronym FANBOYS: For, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. All right? And you can go ahead and begin a sentence with those all you want. It’s no big deal. Even the crankiest crusty just fustiest old grammar police say that that’s probably okay. In fact, I’m looking at the transcripts of our shows, and I’m noticing that especially our interview guests frequently — in fact, more often than not — use conjunctions to start a sentence. The coordinating kind. But there’s another kind.
KYLIE: Okay.
DANIEL: There’s the subordinating kind. And these are things like ‘because’ or ‘when’ or ‘if’. So, for example: “If the phone rings, I’ll answer it.” Right? Now, it’s okay to begin a sentence that way, or “Because…”
KYLIE: “Because I said so!”
DANIEL: Okay, well, that’s probably what you don’t want to do.
KYLIE: Oh!
DANIEL: The reason you don’t want to do that is because what you’ve done is you’ve taken “I said so”, which could stand on its own, and you’ve added a ‘because’ to it, and what that ‘because’ does is: it turns it into a thing that can’t stand by itself. It turns it into a dependent clause: “Because I said so.” Okay, now you could say it all by itself if you’re talking to somebody and they say. “Why?” “Because I said so!” Okay, there’s an implied thing. But the current wisdom is: it’s probably not a good idea to leave a dependent clause helpless all by itself. And one way to do that is to start with ‘because’. Now that’s not a very good rule — don’t start a sentence with ‘because’ — in fact, I remember getting this advice as a kid because I did the thing where I left… I wrote, “Because I think the leaves are pretty.” And the teacher said, “Try not to start a sentence with ‘because’.” That was bad advice. It’s okay to start a sense with ‘because’, like “Because I missed my plane, I didn’t get to my appointment.” That’s fine. The advice should be: don’t leave dependent clauses out there on their own. Put them with something else. “Because I think leaves are neat, I decided to collect them in my closet.”
KYLIE: Well, that makes sense.
DANIEL: Yeah. Thanks, Paul. Well, I feel quite becaused out. So let’s take a track, and this one is ‘Because Before 2’ by Ulf Lohmann on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
KYLIE: You’re listening to Talk the Talk, the language and linguistics show that is now open to all kinds of questions and comments about previous episodes, and even a few new comments about things that you think we should investigate. So now’s your chance to be a part of the Mailbag. We’ve got it open.
DANIEL: Here’s one from James via Facebook. “Have you done any research into how jazz music has infiltrated our vernacular?”
KYLIE: I was one of the door people — I’m not gonna use the b-word to describe myself — but I was one of the door people for the International Jazz Festival a couple of years ago and I got to hear some amazing jazz.
DANIEL: Cool.
KYLIE: And I never realised how much of the vernacular I was familiar with. Do you know about Lindy Hopping, for example?
DANIEL: I’ve heard of the Lindy Hop.
KYLIE: Lindy Hopping. It’s a kind of rock ‘n’ roll rockabilly dance style that is quite popular.
DANIEL: Named after Charles Lindbergh?
KYLIE: Yep, hopping across the Atlantic. And anyone out there who is a Lindy Hopper, g’day! I’m a ballroom dancer myself, and it is an amazing style of dance. And it very much draws upon the jazz music era. Hipster, or hepcat, referring to aficionados of jazz.
DANIEL: That one’s interesting because ‘hip’ and ‘hep’ were both popular at different times. I remember this this lyric from a Blossom Dearie song: “I’m hip / I’m in step / When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.”
KYLIE: And now ‘hipster’ seems to mean something completely different as well.
DANIEL: But that all goes back to that time period.
KYLIE: Yes, absolutely.
DANIEL: Before we go too much farther, we need to acknowledge where this comes from.
KYLIE: Yes.
DANIEL: This comes from the language and the slang that was used around Harlem in New York City at the turn of the last century. We’re pulling a lot of this from the Online Etymology Dictionary, etymonline.com. We support them on Patreon, and I think you should too.
KYLIE: Mmm.
DANIEL: But what about the word ‘jazz’ itself?
KYLIE: Oh! Good question.
DANIEL: I got a quiz for you. Does it come from baseball, from music, from perfume, or from sex?
KYLIE: I am tending towards the latter! Simply because it sounds like the sort of thing that might… is it about sex?
DANIEL: Well, the word ‘jazz’ did actually mean that. “They were jazzing it,” right? Which meant they were having sex. But that was a later usage. That one was acquired later. It’s not where it comes from.
KYLIE: Okay.
DANIEL: And there was also a word ‘jasm’, which was a slang term going back to the 1860s, which means ‘pep’ or ‘energy’.
KYLIE: Right.
DANIEL: And don’t forget there’s also ‘jism’. That was an older word and that didn’t mean semen, you know, at first it meant vitality and virility. But it wasn’t used as slang for seminal fluid until later. So we’ll just wipe jism off the table.
KYLIE: Oh, thank you for that. Thanks.
DANIEL: But it turns out it comes from baseball.
KYLIE: Oh, really?
DANIEL: This was not a Black American term. This was a White American term.
KYLIE: Wow.
DANIEL: Very surprising. So here’s what happened. About 1912, baseball’s Pacific Coast League had a pitcher, Ben Henderson, and he invented a pitch that he called the jazz ball. And he said, “I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” Like nobody can hit it. It’s a wobbly pitch. And so he was using that term in 1912, and so that got popular. And baseball writers were using that all through 1913.
KYLIE: Mmm.
DANIEL: Then, musicians picked it up, especially a band leader called Art Hickman. And his band started calling their music jazz. And then they traveled all over the place and spread that. And so you saw the baseball references to jazz about 1913, and the musical references to jazz around 1915, a little bit later. There’s all kinds of stories about how ‘jazz’ the word got to be, but that’s the best research we’ve got, and if you want to follow those sources down the rabbit hole head over to our blog talkthetalkpodcast.com. They’ll all be there.
KYLIE: And now it’s opening up a whole new question: how much baseball vernacular has infiltrated American language. That’s going to have to be a question for another time.
DANIEL: Oh, no! Have to do that one later.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: Great question. Thanks so much, James. We’ve got Heron sending us an email. “Hi, there, Kylie, Daniel and Ben! As a language enthusiast, I have been listening to your podcast for quite a time now. Well, trying to be brief, I believe ‘Sounds of awesome’ — which was a phrase that annoyed you at one point —  ‘Is it enough to podium’ and the other examples of zero derivation you gave are all totally acceptable.”
KYLIE: Incorrect! End of show. Thank you! Goodbye.
DANIEL: Aaa! Stop it, Kylie! Heron says, “The point of language is to communicate that is to get your message across and be understood. Many people believe these are grammatically wrong sentences only because the categorisation we humans invented to create rules to language.” I agree with this, actually.
KYLIE: In fact, this is one of the big messages that we come up with on the show all the time.
DANIEL: That communication is the thing?
KYLIE: Yeah, but how you use it and — getting back to the jazz analogy — how it can improvise and develop and evolve over time.
DANIEL: I always like to give my students an exercise. I give them some data in a language called Agta of the Philippines. They have to look at some data and figure out how the language works. You know, like if you have ‘beetle’ how do you say ‘a little beetle’. So they have to invent a hypothesis to explain how the language works, and if their hypothesis is wrong — if it doesn’t match what people actually say — then they have to change it, right? Now, that is a sensible approach. But when it comes to English we throw all that stuff out the window, and if we invent some kind of grammar rule that doesn’t explain what people actually do, then we say that people are wrong and my hypothesis is right.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: Right? So I do agree that communication is very important and it takes me back to Wittgenstein. You’re a philosopher sort of person. You like Wittgenstein.
KYLIE: Good old Humpty Dumpty. It means what I want it to mean.
DANIEL: Exactly, right? But Wittgenstein pointed out that in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: When people say things, that’s what the word — in a community of speakers, that’s what it means. So I agree with you, Heron. I think that’s some really good points.
KYLIE: Even though ‘Sounds of Awesome’ is dreadful!
DANIEL: Do you know what we’re calling this episode?
KYLIE: No.
DANIEL: Mailbag of Awesome.
KYLIE: Oh, go away!
DANIEL: Toby says, “Being a native English speaker, and having learned to speak Spanish fluently, I can totally see and appreciate the advantages of not recycling nouns as verbs.” You know, we say “I like this” but then we can turn around to make it a noun like ‘like’.
KYLIE: Mmm.
DANIEL: “In Spanish this never occurs.”
KYLIE: Wow.
DANIEL: Strong claim. “Therefore, one must first of all learn way more verbs and understand them better. I’m not sure of the implications of this neurologically but it does make speech more emotive and dynamic, as the same words don’t pop up all the time.” Well, Toby, I got to say that, while they do tend to alter words a little bit, like you know, ‘hablar’ is ‘to speak’ and then you could say ‘el habla’ — that’s the speech of someone. I’ve got to say that we sometimes do turn around and say ‘Me gusta tu hablar.’ I like your speaking or your ‘to speak’. So it does happen a little bit. Toby, thanks for that email. Hey, I think we need to take a track, and since we’re talking about zero derivation, let’s listen to Fazerdaze with ‘Zero’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
KYLIE: You’re listening to Talk the Talk. It’s Kylie here with Daniel, and we’re waiting to hear what you have to say, and get those answers to you.
DANIEL: We had a recent episode about Mother Language Day and Alessio has hit us up on Facebook. “Hi, guys! Happy Mother Language Day! I wanted to ask a question related to your second language learning chat. Why not include the national — Australian in your case — sign language or Aboriginal languages — again in the case of Australia — in the curriculum, instead of a foreign language? I think that would be politically feasible, and especially in the case of sign language probably have a very good reception on the wider political spectrum.”
KYLIE: I think that’s a great idea. What you have to recognise is that there’s many Indigenous languages in this country. So I would be wary of just choosing one.
DANIEL: Ah. Well, how about the local one?
KYLIE: The local one sounds great. I learned sign language for a short time at TAFE in order to get an understanding about Auslan, and I think this is extremely useful as well. And yeah, as far as I’m concerned, if you have a passion for a language, or an interest in a language, or you can see how you can support a language — particularly one that has relevance to your particular community — yeah, go for it! Why not?
DANIEL: I think we have to be super careful though. I love the idea of learning a language, like the local Aboriginal language, because we all should know something about the language where we’re at, and it has a lot to do with place names and there’s a lot of history back there. I think we need to make sure that this is done with the approval of the people to whom the language pertains.
KYLIE: Definitely.
DANIEL: I can tell you that I might feel a little bit funny if I really applied myself and learned lots and lots of Noongar, and then I became a better speaker of Noongar than some people who actually are Noongar. I feel like I would feel that’s funny.
KYLIE: I think that we would have to find and support the educators of these languages out there.
DANIEL: Now that I love.
KYLIE: Yeah, and I know that there are more and more examples of using technology in order to encourage people to use… like apps. These days it’s a lot easier — particularly for Auslan — to actually visually see it rather than going through a paper dictionary in order to find out signs.
DANIEL: I love the idea of hiring loads of Aboriginal language consultants or Auslan teachers for schools. I think that would just be brilliant. I just would like to be careful about it. And I don’t want the story here to become “they took everything and came back for the language, too.” Right?
KYLIE: Yeah, and I also know that there’s many people out there going, “Oh, geez, we’ve got a crowded curriculum already. How many languages…?” So, yeah, it’s going to be a bit more of an issue than just: Hey, let’s just do it. But the spirit of it: absolutely on board with that.
DANIEL: Nicola says, “Hello, Talk the Talk. It’s been more than a year I’ve been following the podcast, and every time you talk about the positive sides of linguistic diversity and dying languages, I can’t help thinking about a language I’m not a native speaker of, but I can understand and translate from: Venetian, the language. Even though here we call it a dialect of the Veneto region of Italy. I am recently having mixed feelings about its decrease in use in the last thirty to forty years. I’ve always seen it as the language of old people, of the bigot, the sexist, the racist, and the homophobic.”
KYLIE: Oh.
DANIEL: “I know that if someone’s speaking Veneto, especially the younger, there’s a much higher chance I’ll be hearing someone talking about pussy (an extremely common conversation topic), telling people of color to go back to their home country, and so on. Even understanding it’s a mere correlation, probably subject to a frequency bias, I couldn’t help thinking that if this is the way my peers, the native speakers, use this language to communicate — well, it’s not a great loss.” What do you think, Kylie?
KYLIE: I think that’s incredibly sad.
DANIEL: Me too.
KYLIE: It’s a real shame to see the language being used in that fashion, but I also wonder if this is not also a great opportunity. I’m thinking about how when I attended — back in my university days! — I attended a class on Renaissance Italy and modern Italian language. And it was mostly about culture and history. I didn’t pick up Italian at all. Quite frankly, I’m sorry it was mostly about literature works and historical works. But one of the things that the teacher pointed out that she was part quite proud of: she said that Italian rap at the time was undergoing a huge transformation, and they were having more and more musicians using the rap form which they knew was often incredibly sexist or homophobic or aggressive and about battling.
DANIEL: Had connotations of toughness.
KYLIE: Yeah, yeah, and very male-dominated. They were using the rap music to challenge the crime families.
DANIEL: Interesting.
KYLIE: And they were saying, you know, don’t be involved in crime. Stand up for yourself. If you see violence in community, report it. And they were using Italian rap music in order to do that.
DANIEL: That’s kind of awesome.
KYLIE: And I think that might be something that could be a solution here. Start seeing if we can encourage the language use in such a way to challenge those stereotypes. Is that something that you think might be possible?
DANIEL: I like that idea. I was thinking also… you know, I was thinking about the Italian elections just last week, where far-right parties and anti-immigration parties were doing unfortunately really well. And I was thinking, you know, people are just saying this kind of stuff to each other in Veneto, all right?
KYLIE: It’s not an uncommon problem unfortunately, even in Australia.
DANIEL: Nicola also says, “I just realised: I forgot the one thing that people from Veneto do even more than using racial slurs: Cursing against God or saints with an incredible variability and creativity.” So here are some slurs, some religious-based swears, in Veneto. You could say ‘Porco Dio’. Dio is god, and porco… God is a pig. You could even say ‘God is a dog.’ ‘Dio cane.’ That’s the kind of thing that you would just say under your breath sometimes. Wow! ‘Dio sorcio’: God is a rat.
KYLIE: See, I see amazing passion in that kind of language!
DANIEL: Oh, and by the way, the anatomical reference that Nicola was mentioning is probably ‘mona’ which means literally a vagina, but it’s also “What an idiot.” That kind of thing. So that’s your Italian swearing for the day. Well, I think we need to take a track and you’re going to make me find some Italian rap, aren’t you?
KYLIE: Oh yeah, you bet!
DANIEL: But I don’t understand it.
KYLIE: That’s okay; just get down with the beats.
DANIEL: Okay, well, we’re going all the way back to 1992 for this one. This is the song where Frankie Hi-nrg MC took on the Mafia. This one is Fight da Faida on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
KYLIE: You’re listening to Talk the Talk with Daniel and myself. We’re hopping into our Mailbag episode, answering the questions and queries that you have about the show, and even some things we haven’t tackled on the show, and you think we should.
DANIEL: Ryan on Twitter says, “Have you done a show about gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender?” You know that languages have grammatical gender, right? Like the table is female, or….
KYLIE: Mm!
DANIEL: Yeah. He says “I feel like any movement toward widespread acceptance has the potential to fundamentally change the language. Could such a change even happen that quickly?” How much do you think language can change? Can it do it?
KYLIE: Change is always going to be gradual though, isn’t it?
DANIEL: Mmm.
KYLIE: It’s going to be something that has to have community acceptance. It’s not just a matter of putting up signs and posters everywhere, or popping a new dictionary into the children’s hands.
DANIEL: Long term, any kind of change is on the table, but change of that magnitude — like, if you want to see how well change has been accepted in gender and language, let’s take a look at things that we’ve already talked about.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: We had a chat with Sophie Richard, our French correspondent. She mentioned that people are putting dots in words that were gendered. So for example, if you have a male friend, that’s an ‘ami’. But if you have a female friend, you have to stick a letter on the end: ‘amie’. It sounds the same, but looks different. And if you have all male friends, that’s ‘amis’. But if you have all female friends, then it’s ‘amies’. And so what people have started doing is they started sticking dots in there. Bullets. Option-8 on your Mac keyboard. So it would look like ‘ami•e•s’. And that’s how you include all your male friends and all your female friends, and it’s like I’m not specifying.
KYLIE: Mmm.
DANIEL: Well, the Academie Française, since that episode aired, they have come down hard on this usage.
KYLIE: [GASPS] Ohh…
DANIEL: Oh, yeah.
KYLIE: I shouldn’t be surprised, but still something in me is cringing like, “Oh, in trouble!”
DANIEL: Yeah, they said it creates “confusion which borders on illegibility and a “disunited language”. It said that “the French language is now in deadly danger”…
KYLIE: Oh, dear!
DANIEL: Yeah, and that such usage was “an aberration”. So they’re not fans. And because the Academie Française holds some degree of authority in the minds of French speakers, this means that this kind of inclusive language — even just this, even just to this extent — is going to have an uphill climb. Took a look at German. Looks like German is doing the same kind of thing. Just recently, the Equal Opportunity Commissioner for Germany said that the national anthem’s lyrics be made gender neutral. Instead of Fatherland, it could be changed to Homeland. And the Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Yeah, no, I think the current lyrics are fine.”
KYLIE: Oh!
DANIEL: Here’s what I think. It seems like everyone hates language change. And a lot of people aren’t too keen on equality of men and women. A lot of other people think that equality of men and women is a pretty good idea, but language isn’t a good way to do it. So that’s kind of where it’s at.
KYLIE: What about Spanish? Is there hope?
DANIEL: Spanish is interesting. The letter <x> is working its way into words. Instead of latino or latina you got latinx. I’m not sure how to pronounce it, but I know it when I see it in writing. There’s also other ways of doing this, like compañeros or compañeras — people are writing compañerxs. Or they’re also using the @ symbol, because you know, the difference between a male compañero and a compañera is that one is an <o> and one is an <a>. Well, if you use the @ symbol — shift-2 — you got an <o> and an <a> there together.
KYLIE: Oh, cool.
DANIEL: And so, people are using that as well. But again, other people don’t like it. They say, “What are you doing? You’re tampering with language.” And this is something that has to be taken into account. This can hamper adoption of a thing. So.
KYLIE: Man.
DANIEL: I don’t see a lot of change happening. If it does happen, it’s not going to happen because people say “Let’s change language,” because that almost never works. It’s going to be gradual that they relinquish the gender.
KYLIE: It’s a lot tougher than you you might think. Yeah.
DANIEL: Yeah, people hang on to that stuff. Ryan, thanks so much for your question, and I would just like to thank everybody who had a question. There were some we didn’t get to, but we will try to answer those in due course. Gee, we got through a lot of questions, didn’t we?
KYLIE: We have so many people sending in their questions. And there’s so many people I know who probably have even more burning questions on their mind right now. Here’s what you can do: you can hit us up on social media. We’re on Twitter as @talkrtr. We’ve got an amazing Facebook page, where many of these questions are coming in.
DANIEL: You can also get us an email, talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au. We love to hear from you. Thanks for listening and to get us to the news, let’s hear Em Burroughs with her track ‘Boy’ on RTRFM 92.1. Thanks for listening, and until next time, keep talking.
[OUTRO]
BEN: This has been an RTRFM podcast. RTRFM is an independent community radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. You can subscribe online at rtrfm.com.au/subscribe.
KYLIE: Our theme song is by Ah Trees, and you can check out their music on ahtrees.com, and everywhere good music is sold.
DANIEL: We’re on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au, and if you’d like to get lots of extra linguistic goodies, then like us on Facebook or check out our Patreon page. You can always find out whatever we’re up to by heading to talkthetalkpodcast.com


Show notes

The conjugation of the English verb speak
http://www.majstro.com/Web/Majstro/taleninfo/CompEng/onregww_speak.php?gebrTaal=eng

Omniglot: Numbers in Welsh
https://www.omniglot.com/language/numbers/welsh.htm

Wikipedia: Welsh numerals
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_numerals

BBC: Welsh at Home
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/welshathome/textversion/nw_e_bedroom_clock_time1.shtml

Auslan Signbank: Six
http://www.auslan.org.au/dictionary/words/six-1.html

World Wide Words: Jazz
http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-jaz1.htm

Where Did ‘Jazz,’ the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter
http://wbgo.org/post/where-did-jazz-word-come-follow-trail-clues-deep-dive-lewis-porter#stream/0

The baseball origin of ‘jazz’
https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/04/06/jazz-baseball/

Etymonline: jazz (n.)
https://www.etymonline.com/word/jazz

Agta puzzle
http://lingclub.mycpanel.princeton.edu/challenge/agta.php

Italian profanity
http://www.scuolitalia.com/1/wiki/profanity.htm

Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language
https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/meaning-is-use-wittgenstein-on-the-limits-of-language/

Wikipedia: Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_neutrality_in_languages_with_grammatical_gender

No more middots: French PM clamps down on gender-neutral language
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/21/no-more-middots-french-pm-clamps-down-on-gender-neutral-language

French language watchdogs say ‘non’ to gender-neutral style
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/03/french-language-watchdogs-say-non-to-gender-neutral-style

Déclaration de l’Académie française sur l’écriture dite “inclusive
http://www.academie-francaise.fr/actualites/declaration-de-lacademie-francaise-sur-lecriture-dite-inclusive

Germans try to get their tongues around gender-neutral language
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/24/germans-get-tongues-around-gender-neutral-language

Could Germany get a gender-neutral national anthem?
http://www.dw.com/en/could-germany-get-a-gender-neutral-national-anthem/a-42823170

Germany’s gender-neutral anthem alternative met with resistance
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43285299


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

Image credit: http://nolayingup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Mailbag.jpg

317: With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility (featuring Seán Roberts)

That study about language looks interesting. Can you trust the results?

Lots of researchers are using big data to discover amazing things about language. But big data can bring big trouble if researchers don’t look out for some common traps. What should they — and all of us — be watching out for?

We’ll find out on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 317: With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility for everyone

Cutting Room Floor 317: With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility for patrons

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM’s weekly show about linguistics, the science of language. For the next hour, we’re going to be bringing you language news, language technology, and some great music. Maybe we’ll even hear from you. My name’s Daniel Midgley. I’m here with Ben Ainslie.
BEN: Good morning.
DANIEL: And Kylie Sturgess.
KYLIE: G’day, everyone.
DANIEL: Lots of researchers are using big data to discover amazing things about language. But big data can bring big trouble if researchers don’t look out for some common traps. What should they — and all of us — be watching out for? We’re going to find out this episode of Talk the Talk.
BEN: Daniel, you do know how to touch me in all the right places.
DANIEL: What are you talking about?
BEN: I mean, you know… you know I love stories about the inevitable machine overlords. I love them! I love them so much and, like — let’s put it out there — Big Data is definitely one of the pillars of the coming digital apocalypse. Like, there’s just no two ways about it.
DANIEL: I was thinking something a little different. I was thinking of the way that academics in all fields, not just computer science and not just linguistics, are starting to turn to big-data techniques. I’m thinking the digital humanities and lots of other things as well. So it’s a good idea for us to know what to watch out for.
BEN: Indeed. But before we delve too deeply into the concerning trends of the digital decline, let’s find out what’s been going on in the world of linguistics in the week gone past.
DANIEL: This is surprisingly topical. Kylie, you alerted me to this story.
KYLIE: I thought it was hilarious. Apparently, a bot has gone a little bit wild, sending people into fits of rage because they just won’t do what it’s supposed to do when you phone up and say “I want to speak to a human being.”
BEN: Ah, yup. Okay, we’ve all been here.
DANIEL: This is in the news especially because it happened with Telstra, the Australian telco. Telco? Telecom?
BEN: Telecommunications company. For those outside of Australia, the thing to remember about Telstra, as it is now known, is: Australia used to be huge — huge —  on nationalised industries, nationalised utilities in particular. So Telecom, which was what Telstra used to be, was government-owned and it controlled all the phones in Australia. Right? Like, that’s just the way it was. So then they privatized it, introduced competition, allowed other telecommunication companies into the mix, and Telstra is what’s, like, left of this first granddaddy of telecommunications.
KYLIE: And now we all get together at barbecues, and complain about whose provider is the worst. “Oh, my god, you wouldn’t believe… my phone won’t work!”
BEN: We definitely have a first-world-problem-off. “I was taking a dump, and I couldn’t play my game!”
KYLIE: “It kept ringing! I didn’t know what to do!”
BEN: It was really difficult!
DANIEL: Socialist Corner with Daniel. My version of the story is the they had a functioning industry, and the Liberal Government wanted to sell it off and get the money for their friends. So they did. That belonged to us and we owned it. I’m going to come out for a programme of aggressive renationalisation.
BEN: [LAUGHS] Oh, that’s going to be popular!
DANIEL: Utilities. I’m talking banks. Let’s get it all back.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: Thank you.
BEN: I’m on board.
KYLIE: Let’s see if we can recreate the experience of Codi. Codi is Telstra’s way of connecting with people. It’s a chatbot.
BEN: Right, it’s just the name they’ve given to their version of the, like: “To talk to a whatever, please say what you want.”
KYLIE: “Hello, this is Codi.” Many people were unimpressed, and they were throwing shade at Telstra’s efforts to make use of this artificial intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of customers have taken to social media to complain. Here’s an example: A script that I’ve taken from @parisba. So, ParisBA on Twitter. You be Paris, Ben.
BEN: Okay.
KYLIE: And I’ll be Codi, the helpful assistant. From the top.
BEN: So, I have a feeling that we’re starting mid-conversation here, because this does not sound like when you start.
KYLIE: You’ve been doing this for a while, Paris.
BEN: Human. Human! Human!! Human human human.
KYLIE: If you need help with anything else, please let me know.
BEN: Human! Please give me a human. Please?
KYLIE: I’m here to help with your Telstra inquiries. Try asking me a question.
BEN: Human. Could I speak to a human? Please?
KYLIE: Sorry, I wasn’t able to help. I’ll connect you to a human chat consultant now.
BEN: Human.
KYLIE: So I can transfer you to a human chat consultant, please provide your name.
BEN: Paris.
KYLIE: I can help with roaming, if you like. To help you further, I’m going to have to pass you on to one of our human chat consultants. Is this okay? Looks like I might need some more training on this.
BEN: Yes. Pass me to a human.
KYLIE: While I’m usually pretty good with my yes and noes, I’m not quite sure what you mean here. Let me know what else you’d like to know. Sorry I wasn’t able to help. I’ll connect you to a human chat consultant now. So I can transfer you to a human chat consultant, please provide your name.
BEN: Paris.
KYLIE: I can help with roaming, if you like!
BEN: [ANGUISHED SCREAM]
KYLIE: And so on and so on and so on.
BEN: I’m going to cop to ad-libbing the final scream. I just felt that’s where the character’s impetus took me. That is horrific. That is terrible, and that is why, whenever I’m on a chat tree of any kind like that, I just zero. I just press zero over and over and over again, and I’ve never once had it not work.
DANIEL: I often say ‘operator’. I don’t often say ‘human’. Do you think that was one thing that went wrong?
KYLIE: I spoke to someone who has worked in voice recognition software and has done this kind of coding for other companies, and their response was, “Well, yeah, this is just bad coding.” ‘Operator’ is a much more forthright word to use, rather than ‘human’. If the computer is going into too many errors, what it should be doing is, rather than responding, is recording so the operator can get an example of the audio. So poor old Paris going, “Human human human! I just need to know *this*”, they take that data and the human operator is able to act on it.
DANIEL: I think there’s another problem with the name Paris, because of course that has a couple of meanings. It could be a name, but it also could be the name of the city.
BEN: That’s why ‘roaming’! I didn’t even cotton on to that!
KYLIE: Really?
BEN: No.
KYLIE: Ah. “I can help you with roaming!”
DANIEL: I think the take-away from this is that automatic speech recognition has gotten actually really really good.
BEN: Anyone with a phone knows that.
DANIEL: What is terrible here is the dialogue management. It just doesn’t seem to figure out where the flow should go, and that’s where they need to put their effort. There is something else that’s happening, as far as Amazon’s home computer thing Alexa.
BEN: I don’t know a lot about these things because I have an Android phone, a Google phone, and I’ve had the ability to, like, ‘okay Google’ my way through whatever for a couple of years now, and I don’t use it. Not because I’m averse, but just because I don’t feel like it helps me.
DANIEL: It’s fun to play with. My sister had one. I was at her place and I was like, “Hey Alexa, play something by the Beatles,” and it would play ‘Something’ by the Beatles.
BEN: Ah, right.
KYLIE: I had some opportunities to speak to people who were visually impaired, and they said having Alexa or Google home devices were incredibly useful around the house. You just shout out, “Hey, I want to hear the top five news stories of the day.” Boom — it will give you the BBC rundown. Or: “What’s the weather going to be like?” Boom — it would immediately give it to you, rather than you having to search it.
DANIEL: Useful though they be, Alexa has been giving users fits lately.
BEN: Fits of laughter?
DANIEL: Fits of fear.
BEN: Oh.
DANIEL: It’s been… laughing… for no apparent reason.
BEN: Oh, that’s creepy as hell.
KYLIE: MUHUHAHAHAHAHA.
DANIEL: Let’s listen.
BEN: Oh! Okay. Oh, no — I don’t know… I don’t want to hear this all!
[DISEMBODIED HUMAN LAUGHTER]
[THE SAME DISEMBODIED HUMAN LAUGHTER]
[DIFFERENT DISEMBODIED HUMAN LAUGHTER]
BEN: Okay, well, that’s legitimately terrifying.
KYLIE: [LAUGHS]
DANIEL: Yes. Gavin Hightower on Twitter tweeted, “Lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on my Amazon Echo Dot lets out a very loud and creepy laugh. There’s a good chance I get murdered tonight.”
BEN: No — see, I feel like getting murdered tonight is the good outcome! Right?
DANIEL: What’s the bad outcome?
BEN: The bad outcome is Alexa is now sentient! Right?
DANIEL: Thinking about a joke.
BEN: The people who laugh loudly randomly as you’re falling asleep are not people who are there to kill you. They’re people who are starting a years-long process of psychological warfare.
KYLIE: Just ask any toddler!
BEN: You’re gonna get, like, random pizzas just delivered to your door that you didn’t order. You’re going to have people calling up and just like asking random questions, and it’s just all Alexa slowly making you…
KYLIE: Ben! What do you think of spoons?
BEN: Exactly! Right? Killing someone in the night is not fun. Breaking someone psychologically until they do something drastic is way better.
KYLIE: Ben! Snowmen! Got an opinion?
DANIEL: So why was Alexa doing this? I think what’s happening is probably that people are saying something that sounds like ‘Alexa, laugh’.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: And it’s interpreting it that way. But what sounds like ‘Alexa, laugh’?
BEN: Especially when you’re falling asleep?
KYLIE: Well, Amazon did acknowledge that just for some rare circumstances, it mistakenly heard the phrase ‘Alexa, laugh’, and so they’ve changed it to ‘Alexa, can you laugh?’
BEN: Right. Yeah, that’s more words.
KYLIE: In order to have less false positives.
BEN: To have less murderbots in people’s houses.
DANIEL: But if you really want trouble, skip the bots and go straight to a human. When it comes to spreading fake information, humans have bots beat.
BEN: Yes. Yeah, we are really good at being terrible.
DANIEL: The MIT Media Lab published an article in the journal Science. They examined about a hundred twenty and six thousand stories shared by three million people on Twitter over a period of ten years, and they found that fake news was more likely to be retweeted then true news by about seventy percent.
KYLIE: Are we talking about, like, Onion articles I mean you know, I retweet those all the time.
BEN: No, you’re talking about deliberately fake news, aren’t you.
DANIEL: Yes, I’m talking about the fake fake news.
BEN: Deceptful news.
KYLIE: Fakey fake news.
BEN: Deceptive news.
DANIEL: People are a problem. Kylie, what should people be doing before they hit that share button? Got any tips?
KYLIE: Obviously, you have to look around to see if it’s corroborated by any other sources.
BEN: UGH! That sounds like work, Kylie. I don’t wanna read things! I don’t even want to read the article. I want to read the headline and look at the picture and SHARE IT.
DANIEL: You know, I did this once. I got an article by some natural health person. The article was about a seven-year-old that got breast implants.
KYLIE: What? NO!
DANIEL: And it had a photo of a very busty looking seven year old. So I did a couple of things. Number one: I looked at the article to see the names, because if this is true, it would be a big deal.
BEN: Big huge news, yeah.
DANIEL: So I did a search for the names and the only article that came up was that one.
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: And it was World Net Daily. So that’s another strike.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: But also, I took the photo and I figured it was photoshopped. I just did a reverse Google Image search.
KYLIE: You can do that with tineye.com. That’s a great way if you know what…
BEN: You can also just do it with Google.
KYLIE: Really?
DANIEL: Yeah, Google Image search. And I found, thankfully, an adult woman upon whose body somebody had photoshopped a child’s face.
KYLIE: Geez.
DANIEL: And it all fell apart.
BEN: Yeah. Pro tip: Like, if someone like Kylie didn’t know about it, then I feel like we need to educate the world. Any image on a computer, you can like basically right-click ‘Reverse image search’ — if you’re using Chrome, anyway.
KYLIE: Oh, cool.
BEN: Yeah.
KYLIE: I was using science, because I thought, okay, there’s a couple of places out there. I mean, snopes.com is a classic one. Even though you should even check Snopes on occasion. Always make sure that you do your own research and look around.
BEN: Mhm. Except that’s boring and dumb and hard, and I don’t want to do it, Kylie.
DANIEL: I know, but we need to get some sort of idea as to whether a source is good or not. And before we share things and spread them around, we have to do our due diligence to tamp down the spread of fake news.
BEN: I always go by boringness.
DANIEL: Truth is boring?
BEN: Yeah. If an article is super-duper long and boring, it is definitely not fake, because no one is writing that to make money. You know what I mean?
DANIEL: Yeah.
BEN: I was talking about it at a barbeque earlier today. The least sellable thing on this earth, publishing-wise, is a long thoughtful, pensive, measured piece that, like, meaningfully explores a topic. It is the worst thing you can possibly write!
DANIEL: It’s just death.
BEN: Yeah, it’s like, no one wants that!
DANIEL: So probably right!
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: So there you go. If you’re a human — and you probably are if you’re listening to this… although…
KYLIE: Hello, Alexa!
BEN: Everyone else: I just want you to know, I’m scared of you but I welcome you.
KYLIE: And Codi wants to know if Paris will ever call back ever!
BEN: No, Codi wants to know if we need any help with roaming.
[LAUGHTER]
DANIEL: Let’s roam over to a track and this one is Delivery Buoy with ‘Our Last Phone Call’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: If you are just tuning in, it is Talk the Talk, our weekly exploration of linguistics here on RTRFM, and today we are going to be deep-diving into big data, and how it applies to the field of linguistics. It’s something we’ve kind of looked at before, but we’re really going to get into the nitty-gritty today.
DANIEL: There is one story that we’ve been looking at a lot when it comes to big data. We’ve talked to Caleb Everett from the University of Miami a number of times about his work in something called geophonetics: the idea that the climate has a very subtle effect on sounds in the world’s languages, but one that we can see if we take a look at a lot of languages.
BEN: I.e. Big data.
DANIEL: There we go. It’s a controversial idea, but I have to say it’s one that linguists are kind of into. Like when I went to the Australian Linguistics Society meeting late last year, there were some linguists who really liked the idea that non-linguistic factors can influence language. And I remember that two different researchers specifically pointed to Caleb Everett’s work.
BEN: Now is this because it’s kind of sexy? Because it’s like… in the same way that if you’ve been in a relationship for a really long time, and then like a cool new thing comes along, and just because it’s cool and it’s new, you kind of go just like, Oh, man, okay it’s pretty cool. Is that what’s going on here?
DANIEL: Now you’ve put that meme in my head. [LAUGHTER] Well, there is somebody who has gotten in touch with us, and was interested in sharing his aspect of the story and maybe give us some tips on how big data can be used responsibly. We are talking to Seán Roberts of the University of Bristol. Seán, hey, thanks for talking to us.
SEÁN: Hi, thanks for having me on.
DANIEL: Tell me about where you’re coming from with the Everett work. I know that you collaborated on one of the papers.
SEÁN: Yeah, it’s a bit of a strange story. I think you’re right that it is a very sort of exciting time for linguistics. There’s now a lot of data and not just on linguistics, but we’re able to link it to things outside of linguistics, like the climate, or aspects of culture, or economics, or anything. And so there’s a lot of possible discoveries out there to be made, sort of a bit like a gold rush; there’s more data than there are people to analyse it. So people get very excited when they see these sort of patterns.
DANIEL: And that makes it tough because almost nobody is good at linguistics *and* economics *and* sociology.
SEÁN: Yeah!
DANIEL: So everyone’s kind of operating at the limit of their expertise, I think.
SEÁN: Sure. No, that’s true, and I think an important aspect of the sort of traditional approach to linguistics is getting the details right. So you argue from case studies, you make sure all of your data is accurate, and if you’re focusing on one language or group of languages, you can kind of do that. But once you start analysing a thousand languages, you can’t be an expert in each. Some of that data is going to be wrong. And so how do you cope with that? That’s the big question.
BEN: That’s a really fascinating point which hadn’t occurred to me as the, like, the dummy lay person on the show, is this idea that you’ve got all of these people who have sort of made their living making sure that the nitty-gritty is exactly right. But when you’ve got datasets of the scale that you guys are talking about, I mean the precedence for error is much higher. Now I’m operating on the understanding that that’s fine in big data because there’s just so much data that the patterns are really really clear. But it’s sounding like you’re saying, oh, maybe not so much.
DANIEL: The analogy that I like to use is playing sudoku. And the linguists are looking at the the grid and saying, okay, well this box needs a nine, and there’s only a couple places where that can go. It can go here or here… and then they work out the puzzle that way. But it’s like the big data folks are going: All right, we took a look at three million sudoku games and we found out there’s a very strong tendency for a three to go in this box. And so we were able to induce the entire puzzle to an accuracy of eighty-five percent. So that’s very good.
SEÁN: I totally understand that point. And I can understand why someone who spent their whole life working on a language… we reduce their life’s work down to one number, and then that number is wrong. They are obviously going to be upset by that! But I think there are two approaches to that. One is to be very defensive, and say that, no, the statistics is objective, it’s better, it’s more scientific. I don’t think that’s really the right answer, either. I think there’s a middle ground: what I’ve been calling the maximum robustness approach to statistics. It’s that kind of thing: to try and look at as much data as you can, as many different sources as you can, and be continuously open and honest to accepting new sources of information.
DANIEL: So let’s talk about the Everett paper. Now I mentioned that you worked with Caleb Everett on the second one. That’s the one that showed that when it’s really dry, we don’t see very many tone languages.
SEÁN: Yeah, sure. So actually I came on to the paper about tones and climate as a skeptic. Caleb had written this post about high-altitude phonemes.
DANIEL: Yeah, there was his round one.
SEÁN: And I was very skeptical about this. I wrote a blog post. He got in touch with me, and said, “Do you want to work on this other paper together?” And I was convinced we’d disprove this pattern, but we built the statistical analysis and the pattern seemed like it was there in that particular dataset.
DANIEL: I just want to say something at this point. He does this! Right? Like, because we talked about that same paper at first, and we were like, “No, this is not a thing.” And he got in touch with us and said, “Hey, do want to talk about it?” So he really does engage. I so respect that!
KYLIE: It is so unlike what you might expect from people on the internet, where they might just jump in to your blog conversation: “No, it’s not!” Actually, let’s look at it further! Come on, let’s collaborate. Wow.
SEÁN: Yeah, I think that’s one thing that… so, people who look at big data have quite a lot of distance from the data. And if one data point, they’re told that something is wrong, that’s fine. We change it. We redo the analysis. If some part of the statistical analysis is wrong, and someone tells us… great! We can revise things. We don’t need to protect our own particular theory. I don’t really have much of a stake in this hypothesis, apart from being interested in testing the general idea of whether you can find whether languages adapt to things outside of language, using big data.
DANIEL: So my understanding is that you grabbed a different dataset, re-ran the experiments, and the pattern wasn’t there.
SEÁN: Yeah! So it’s been very entertaining watching your reactions to this as the theories have been coming and going from sort of like, “Oh, that’s interesting! Oh, that’s definitely not right. Oh, that’s interesting!” And now I’m here to tell you that, “Oh, it might not be right!”
DANIEL and BEN: Yay! Whoa! Aaaa! Oh!
DANIEL: I am having all the feels about this. I’m having emotional whiplash.
KYLIE: It’s the best roller coaster you can imagine. A science one.
SEÁN: Yeah, and so in the original data set, it looks like there was a pattern there that you wouldn’t expect by chance. But the big question was: does that replicate? So in psychology, this is a really important thing now. If you come up with an explanation for something, you also want to go away and grab a bunch of new people from the same experiment, and see if you get the same result. But that’s kind of tricky in linguistics because we only have something like seven thousand languages to start with. Once we use those up, that’s it. And it’s very unlikely that you’re going to get multiple datasets that are independent from each other, and are big enough to run the same analysis.
BEN: So then how did you do it?
SEÁN: Well, in this case we’re lucky, because there are two datasets that cover thousands of languages and measure the number of tones in a language. The original one we used came from the Australian National University, and the new one I’m using is the PHOIBLE database (phoible.org), which is a big database for phonetic inventories… phoneme inventories… and that has the number of tones. So we could just rerun the same statistics, and see whether the pattern was there. And obviously if the theory is right, then we should be able to replicate the same results. But in fact, we didn’t. We reran the statistics and it wasn’t significant. The effect was much smaller, the pattern was much weaker than it was before.
BEN: So is that down to the dataset? Is ANU’s data set restricted? Is it insufficient? Like, I guess my question is: do we just expect little hiccups like this when running big dataset… like, is it an anomaly, essentially?
SEÁN: That’s a really good question. So what I did was, I compared the two datasets, and actually they disagree on how many tones a language has.
BEN: Oh.
SEÁN: The correlation between the two datasets is pretty small. And I think that’s understandable, because measuring the number of tones a language has is very difficult. You have to look at the system, your analysis of what counts as a toneme, the background of the researcher might differ. And then on top of that, there might be coding errors or extra errors that the people who put the database together made on top of that.
BEN: Well, I mean that begs the question then — because it just keeps getting deeper really, doesn’t it? — like, there’s nothing — again to the lay person — there’s nothing that I’ve heard so far that suggests ANU’s data set is the wrong one, necessarily. So if they disagree on the number of tones, and that’s kind of what’s sitting behind the difference in the outcome of this hypothesis run — like, do we know that ANU’s data set has got it wrong?
DANIEL: It just depends on your analysis, in some cases.
SEÁN: No, no! So, I guess there will be errors in some cases. But I think they’re just two different analyses of the same language.
DANIEL: And that shouldn’t matter that much. I mean, you could have slightly different analyses, and it would still work out okay as long as you’re following some kind of method.
BEN: But it hasn’t worked out okay in this instance, right? Because it spat out two fairly different answers.
DANIEL: And that tells us that this hypothesis — that climate influences tone — is not very robust. The significance fell on the other side of the line this time, I guess.
SEÁN: Yeah, that’s right.
DANIEL: So is that it for geophonetics? Is it done?
SEÁN: [LAUGHS] Not at all, no. It just means that, in this case, measuring the concept is pretty hard. We just don’t have a reliable way to measure the number of tones.
DANIEL: This is really fascinating stuff. We need to take a little break and listen to a track. When we come back, I would like to talk more generally about: if I’m doing experiments, which I do, how can I avoid certain kinds of problems? So can you hang out and listen to a song with us?
SEÁN: Sure, great.
DANIEL: Since we’re talking about big data, let’s listen to ‘Big House Waltz’ by Deerhoof on RTRFM 92.1. Now remember, if you have any questions about what you hear, you can get those to us: 9260 9210 in the studio.
BEN: You can send us an email talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au or jump on to Facebook and get in touch with us on our page.
KYLIE: Or you can go onto twitter, #RTRFM or @talkrtr.
[MUSIC]
BEN: We are talking big data in this week’s episode of Talk the Talk. We just spoke about a specific example of where big data was used to suggest — and then de-suggest — a new thing in linguistics. But now we’re talking generally. What can we do with big data, and be responsible and safe users?
KYLIE: Our guest on the show is Seán Roberts. He’s the author of ‘Robust, Causal, and Incremental Approaches to Investigating Linguistic Adaptation’.
DANIEL: Now, let’s talk about your ideas for how we can do slightly better. What suggestions do you have if I’m somebody who’s handling tons of data? We mentioned using alternative data sets. You’ve got to sort of try it with one set, then try it with another, if you got it.
SEÁN: Yup. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, one thing you might find is that your measurement is robust. So that in two different datasets, you look at the same language and you get the same measurement. Now, that turned out not to be the case for the number of tones. So maybe we can look at another measure that’s also predicted by the theory. So you go back to the theory, you ask more generally: okay, we think that properties of the language might be related to climate. What other predictions are there? Is there other data out there where we can test this general idea? And what Caleb did was look at the proportion of vowels. So instead of looking at tones, you’ve got like: languages in drier climates should rely less on vowels to communicate which requires the vibration of the vocal folds, compared to consonants. And so I really like his new paper because it’s a sort of creative way of getting around this problem with tones — is by saying, okay, here’s another prediction. Here’s a different data source. And we can test that.
BEN: Seán, can I ask you: It brings to mind, though, a concern that people who might read a bit about science might have, in that the way — I don’t think you presented it this way just then, but it’s very conceivable that a person could put the cart before the horse. Right? And run a big old analyses on a big old dataset and see, “Oh there’s a thing here, and there’s a thing here, and there’s a thing here. I wonder what those things are.” And have a look at them and go, “Oh, that thing! We… could construct a hypothesis like this for it!” And I think that gets called p-hacking, as in ‘p’ as in like probability. So how do we stop that happening, because it doesn’t seem very sciencey.
SEÁN: Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. The sort of gold standard for science is to have a theory, generate a prediction, *then* collect your data and test where the theory is right. But I mean, it doesn’t always work like that, we find. Any theory starts with someone noticing patterns. Even if you’re a sociolinguist looking at… and you spot that certain types of people use a certain type of linguistic structure, that will then lead you to propose a theory, and then you gather data as to your hypothesis.
BEN: That’s true.
SEÁN: And you’re absolutely right. There is a lot… I get very excited when I get handed a big dataset, because of course the first thing you want to know is: what’s correlated with something else? Is there some big discovery here that we’re not looking at? And I think a lot of the problems that linguists had with the relationship between tone and climate was that it looked like a very left-field idea. And it looked like someone had spotted a pattern, and come up with a theory to fit it. Which… well, it’s sort of very hard to tell whether that’s true because of course we’re all experts in linguistics. We’ve all seen maps and data. All that information is there, ready to be used, to turn into theories. But from another perspective, the link between climate and language from… if you’re someone who studies laryngology and the sort of physiology of speech, that’s kind of a natural hypothesis to make. And if you look at animal communication studies, it’s quite well accepted that the environment that an animal lives in will affect the sounds that it makes. This general geophonetics sort of applies to animals, like birds and bats and primates, even. But it’s not a very mainstream thing in linguistics. So from someone’s perspective, it might look like it’s a very big jump in logic. From another perspective, it might look like a very small progress on the theory.
KYLIE: One of the things I really enjoyed about this paper was the conclusion, not only covering what you just said there in terms of… the aim is to provide many alternative viewpoints, not just to discover the most convenient statistic, which is something we’ve talked about in terms of fake news. We don’t just go for what’s convenient out there. But also at the end about how communication of research, especially to non-specialist audiences is such an important thing. And being clear and collaborating with people is so important. So I really enjoyed that summing up of the paper at the end.
SEÁN: Yeah, and it’s quite difficult task, because this robustness approach means theory and lots of statistics… lots of data thing and it’s really hard to summarise on that. What I said was, people should be very quick to take on board new information.
DANIEL: One thing that I really liked: You looked at the output of Larry King, the radio host. What was up with that?
SEÁN: Yup. Well, so the basic idea is that it’s very easy to spot patterns in big data, and then come up with a hypothesis based on that. And I think that’s fine, as long as you then go and test the hypothesis in a different database from the one you spotted it in. So here’s an alternative prediction based on Caleb’s work. Caleb would predict that Larry King would use more vowels when it’s more humid, and fewer vowels when it’s dryer. That’s the basic idea. And Larry King is interesting because he’s recorded a radio show nearly every day for a very long time. And there are transcripts of these for ten years. That’s a huge amount of data on one individual person. And if there was an effect, this would be the database where we could see it. I looked at the proportion of vowels that Larry King used every day, and then I looked up the actual humidity of LA on the day that he used them, and tested whether there was a correlation. But there wasn’t a correlation. In fact, the correlation went in the opposite direction than the one predicted.
BEN: Now, it needs to be noted though, that it could be, like, a million degrees outside and a hundred percent humidity, and right now in my studio it would still be comfortable.
SEÁN: Exactly. Yeah, there’s air conditioning. Those are problems with the study. But I thought it was kind of interesting, the general idea of the sort of toy example, you can make predictions from the general theory. You can test them in new creative ways with different datasets trying to converge on the same thing.
DANIEL: So the advice that I’m getting from your article goes something like this. Make sure that you have really robust associations by using alternative datasets. Don’t rely on ad hoc hypotheses. Don’t hack around in your p-values. What else?
SEÁN: Well, I guess one thing is the effect size. So you might get something… a very statistically significant correlation between two things. But if the effect size is small, then maybe it’s not really worth pursuing academically. So actually the relationship between the climate and vowels is quite statistically robust. But the effect size is tiny. Between the whole range of climates on earth, the effect of climate on language is really only one or two vowels in the phoneme inventory.
BEN: Whoa.
SEÁN: So the pattern is there, but it may not be the most important thing that we could focus on. Hopefully, you know, the big data gives us the chance to spot interesting patterns, or test really important theories in many ways. And I hope that’s what’s going to be the big contribution of big data.
DANIEL: The paper is ‘Robust, Causal, and Incremental Approaches to Investigating Linguistic Adaptation’. I really liked it. I wish that all people who go with big data have a chance to read it. And thanks so much for talking the talk with us today, Seán.
SEÁN: Thanks for having me on.
DANIEL: That was Seán Roberts from the University of Bristol talking about big data methods. What do you think?
BEN: Pretty interesting. I’m still a little bit concerned.
DANIEL: Concerned about what?
BEN: Look, human beings, as we know, are endlessly disappointing creatures. And so I worry that with this big juicy, like, academic steak sitting in front of people — that just goes, “Analyse me! Analyse me for all the *best* correlations that you could possibly find!” — it just seems like it’s too good, and a lot of people will be tempted. Because… look, academics are human beings; publish or perish. They’re going to be looking in there, being like, “Oooo, can’t find anything… oh, I found something! …I could just construct a hypothesis after.” And I’m still concerned. I’m still really concerned about p-hacking.
KYLIE: I was really enthusiastic about the paper because it challenges exactly those kinds of things in the entire make up of the paper. It’s saying you have to be able to take a step back. You have to remove the ego. You have to start realising, “Okay, well, what can the data show us?” even if it isn’t something that you think it is tending towards. You have to start moving out and collaborating with other people, and realise that communicating the data is incredibly challenging. We’re having non-specialists picking up this information, you’ve got the media diluting it in order to make a new story, and it’s something that needs further work. And that’s something that happens all the time in science communication. So I would use this as a model paper in terms of what is going on out there in terms of studies, and how to take a step forward for science and say let’s do it right.
DANIEL: It is. It’s so tempting to say, “Oh! I found a great correlation!” and then stop. And he’s saying that’s not good enough. You need to approach this from multiple angles. You need to use different datasets. And you need to not rely on ad hoc hypotheses in case you fail.
KYLIE: Talk to people from other specialities. Make sure that everyone’s on the same page in order to get the information out there. We’re talking about economists and linguists and people in the science communication field, statisticians. So yeah, how can we all work together in order to make it right?
BEN: Sounds like registration’s the key to me.
DANIEL: Registration?
BEN: Yeah, put your money where your mouth is. Put your hypothesis on the table, then you get the data, not before.
DANIEL: I like. I like.
BEN: They’re doing it in psychology. I don’t know if registration’s the right word, but you essentially register your intent as a researcher. You go, “I would like to test the following hypothesis,” and you date it, and then you get access to the candidates or the study or whatever.
DANIEL: That is a really brilliant idea. I love that idea. But it can only work if interesting negative results are valued.
BEN: Yes, absolutely. And we haven’t valued them.
DANIEL: No, we haven’t.
BEN: Not at all. Which is really criminal. Like, I really want to find out if caffeine is actually not a big deal or whatever, right? Like, things not being true? Really, really important.
DANIEL: I would love that! I would love to know. You know, it’s… I don’t have a dog in this fight. Does climate make a difference in language? Let’s just find out.
BEN: Yep.
DANIEL: No, we didn’t find anything? Cool! That’s an awesome answer.
BEN: Like, that’s just as valuable as finding a yes!
DANIEL: Yeah! Well, look I think we have a lot to think about here. Let’s listen to something, and this is Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings with Inspiration Information on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: [VERY QUICKLY] Hey, everyone, it’s Talk the Talk, and it’s time for Word of the Week. BAM!
DANIEL: The Word of the Week this week is one that was just recently added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s from the Simpsons.
BEN: Ooo! Okay, wait. Stop.
DANIEL: Yes?
BEN: Hammer time. I want to figure out exactly what this word is, okay? I feel like, as a person the age that I am, I have watched literally every Simpsons episode multiple times.
KYLIE: Really?
BEN: Of course! You’ve got to remember, the Simpsons was on every single night, every night, for like ten years of my life. Right? Every night. Not every week. Every *night*. So, many many repeats. Anyway. I feel like “d’oh” is too easy. Too obvious.
DANIEL: That one did make it into the Oxford English Dictionary. The realisation that someone has done something foolish.
BEN: It’s not going to be cowabunga. It’s not going to be, like, have a cow.
DANIEL: This is going to be something that was invented specifically for the show.
KYLIE: It also happens to be the name of one of my favorite bookstores ever.
BEN: Oh… um…
DANIEL: And it was spoken by a certain teacher, Mrs Edna Krabapple.
BEN: Oh! Dah! I want to know this so bad but I want to guess it!
KYLIE: Ben’s tearing himself to pieces here in the studio!
BEN: [SOUL-WRENCHING SCREAM] Nah. I don’t know. I don’t know!
DANIEL: Let’s hear it.
MRS KRABAPPLE: Embiggens? Hm. Never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
MISS HOOVER: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
BEN: I… aaaugh! I use embiggen! I use it! I use it all the time. I always use it when I refer to, like… when you’re scrolling through stuff on someone’s phone and it’s dumb and far away, and I’m like, just embiggen it!
DANIEL: Could you just embiggen that?
BEN: Oh, my goodness.
DANIEL: But now here’s the funny thing. The word ’embiggen’… it’s older than the show.
KYLIE: Really!
BEN: Yes, here we go.
DANIEL: The first time we see it is in 1884.
BEN: Wha…? To mean what we think it means?
DANIEL: I’ll read the original quote. This is from a book called ‘Notes and Queries’. “Are there not, however,” says this writer, “barbarous verbs in all languages. But the people magnified them to make great, or ’embiggen’ if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all,” says this author, “use is nearly everything.”
BEN: Ah, so it didn’t mean exactly the same thing, but there were using it as a burn.
DANIEL: Yeah, it was saying, “This is a really ugly word that I’m going to make up: embiggen. Ha!”
BEN: But you all understood it.
KYLIE: I liked the bit at the end where it said that use is everything. We’re getting the context.
DANIEL: Use is nearly everything, right? A word doesn’t just mean what a dictionary says it means. It means what that person intended it to mean when they used it in a community. People are starting to use ensmallen, as well.
KYLIE: Really?
BEN: Oh, that’s cool. Can you ensmallen it?
KYLIE: Cool.
DANIEL: You can ensmallen something. And the other big news in dictionaries is that emoji are being defined.
BEN: Yes! Oh, this is good. Can you give me an example though? Because we’ve discussed previously how there is a lot of semantic ambiguity around some emojis.
BEN: There is.
KYLIE: I’ve got one here. Nail-polish emoji. “Aside from tagging nail- and beauty-related images online, the nail polish emoji can serve as a tone marker indicating sass, fanciness, nonchalance, or self-confidence across a variety of digital contexts.”
BEN: So you might use the nail polish if you were just like…
KYLIE: Yeah, whatever, Ben!
BEN: Oh, I was actually thinking something different. So like, if you were sharing a post like, “Just at work today, boss told me that I’ll be moving up in the company, got home, home-cooked meal waiting for me by, like, the wonderful person and tonight my favorite movie just happens to be on TV. 💅 – nail-polish emoji.” Like just… like, man this person’s a queen!
DANIEL: I think it’s when you’re trying to play it cazh, as well.
BEN: Yeah, right.
DANIEL: I’m going to give you another one. You have to guess the emoji.
BEN and KYLIE: Okay!
DANIEL: Dictionary.com defines this as: “Represents an array of abstract and concrete concepts. Some of these are positive like gratitude, spirituality, and hopefulness. It may also be representative of pleading, asking for something….” Kylie’s got the gesture.
KYLIE: It’s the hands together in prayer.
BEN: Prayer hands.
DANIEL: Kylie’s got it. It’s the folded hands emoji. Very nice. How about this one: Dictionary.com defines this as: “It’s variously used across digital contexts to express a fun, party-loving spirit, communicate festive and friendly sentiments, and mark content dealing with adult entertainment.”
BEN: Sassy waiter lady?
DANIEL: No.
BEN: Not eggplant?
DANIEL: Nope.
KYLIE: It better not be upside-down smiley, because I put that on a lot of my messages and it might be highly inappropriate, now that I think about it!
DANIEL: Nope!
BEN: Smiley devil horns?
DANIEL: This is one with two people in it.
BEN and KYLIE: Oh!
BEN: I don’t know!
KYLIE: Are they dancing?
DANIEL: They are dancing.
BEN: Dancing people!
DANIEL: And they’re wearing the bunny ears.
BEN: What?
KYLIE: What? Okay, look, I don’t use that one. I’m looking at up.
DANIEL: Yep, it’s the ‘people with bunny ears’ emoji, which you have never seen before!
KYLIE: Yeah, where is it? Where is it?
DANIEL: Imagine the challenge of trying to define what these mean by looking at their use in situations.
BEN: Oh, that seems really challenging, but also kind of fun, a little bit! Like, you’ve got to imagine the person who works in a dictionary place is not necessarily the life of a lot of parties.
DANIEL: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve met them and they are awesome.
BEN: Are they the life of linguistic parties?
DANIEL: What are you saying?
BEN: I think you know exactly what I’m saying.
DANIEL: I think you better define that.
BEN: Yeah, like a dictionary person!
DANIEL: If you have any questions for us or anything you want to add, go ahead and give those to us. I am watching the email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au
KYLIE: You can phone Daniel on 9260 9210.
BEN: I will never stop encouraging you to come to our Facebook page, because all of the people who are already there are tremendous human beings, and you are also a tremendous human being, so you should be in good company. And if you want, you can also tweet @talkrtr.
DANIEL: But now, let’s take a track. This is Ibeye with ‘No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
DANIEL: It’s the tail end of Talk the Talk. I’m still sort of sitting here, kind of ruminating on what we’ve been talking about. I can’t help but feel that what I do — the science communication — is part of a problem, because there’s a need to have your results be very sexy. If your results aren’t sexy enough they get ignored, but if your results are too sexy, then you’ve probably done something wrong because, as Ben mentions, truth is very boring. So I wonder if there’s a way that we on Talk the Talk and other linguistics podcasters can help to tamp down the sexiness to find the interest in the real story. Ah, it’s a constant challenge.
DANIEL: I was also thinking about Caleb Everett’s idea of geophonetics. We found that in experiment two, humidity and tone, Seán Roberts found that the effect was not very robust. And with humidity and vowels, he found that the effect size was not very big. And it left me with a lot of questions. So I got in touch with Caleb Everett. I just wanted to know what he thought about the Roberts work and he sent me back an email. I’ll just read a bit of it.
CALEB EVERETT: “Seán’s paper is a really nice addition to the discussion, overall. One of the things I appreciated about my collaboration with him and Damian Blasi on this topic is that we’re all interested in the story the data have to tell. Whatever picture the data ultimately paint, hopefully we avoid theoretically-driven but data-weak accounts of this topic.
“What is great about Seán’s paper is that he offers several new ways of analyzing the data. There are some minor weaknesses, as with most papers. One weakness is not Seán’s fault and it is a weakness shared by the PNAS paper he and Damian and I co-wrote: The limitations of the extant databases on tone. It is unclear why there is such disagreement across these databases but ultimately the disagreements may stem in part from the difficulty of doing fieldwork on tonal languages. For instance, I know of a language in Amazonia (where I’ve done fieldwork) which one fieldworker described as having twelve phonemic tones, and another fieldworker described as having two tones. So, depending on the sources utilized, one can see how tone databases could offer very disparate results…. Again, though, in general I quite like the paper because it offers many useful ways that we can continue to shine light on the relevant data, wherever they lead.”
DANIEL: Well, that is, I think, the right sort of thing. Whether this idea is ultimately right or wrong is the thing that matters, and not who is right or wrong. So hats off to everyone engaged in the good work of science.
DANIEL: I’d like to thank you also for listening to this episode of Talk the Talk. I’d like to thank Seán Roberts especially for getting in touch, and if you are a sciencey person, please — we are listening! I hope that you’re listening to old episodes. You can find those on our blog, talkthetalkpodcast.com, we are on Patreon, and we are also doing lots of stuff on Facebook, so get in touch with us there. Thanks for listening, and until next time, keep talking.
[OUTRO]
BEN: This has been an RTRFM podcast. RTRFM is an independent community radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. You can subscribe online at rtrfm.com.au/subscribe.
KYLIE: Our theme song is by Ah Trees, and you can check out their music on ahtrees.com, and everywhere good music is sold.
DANIEL: We’re on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au, and if you’d like to get lots of extra linguistic goodies, then like us on Facebook or check out our Patreon page. You can always find out whatever we’re up to by heading to talkthetalkpodcast.com


Show notes

‘Virtual moron-idiot’: Telstra’s support chatbot backfires
https://www.smh.com.au/technology/virtual-moron-idiot-telstra-s-support-chatbot-backfires-20180309-p4z3jm.html

Alexa randomly laughing compilation
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8phGxzUC_Y

Alexa’s Creepy Laughter Is a Bigger Problem Than Amazon Admits
https://www.fastcodesign.com/90163588/why-alexas-laughter-creeps-us-out

Video Compilation of Alexa’s Creepy Laugh Goes Viral
http://twistedsifter.com/videos/alexa-creepy-laugh-video-compilation/

Amazon has a fix for Alexa’s creepy laughs
https://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2018/3/7/17092334/amazon-alexa-devices-strange-laughter

Fake news spread by humans more than bots
http://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/fake-news-spread-by-humans-more-than-bots

What Those Cornell Pizza Studies Teach Us About Bad Science
https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2018/03/what-those-cornell-pizza-studies-teach-us-about-bad-science/

Roberts: Robust, Causal, and Incremental Approaches to Investigating Linguistic Adaptation
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00166/full

Simpsons: Embiggen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcxsgZxqnEg

A made-up word from a 22-year-old ‘Simpsons’ episode has finally made it into the dictionary
https://www.businessinsider.com.au/embiggen-simpsons-2018-3

A Major Dictionary Has Officially Added Emoji
http://time.com/5186512/emoji-dictionary/

What does 💅 nail-polish emoji mean?
http://www.dictionary.com/e/emoji/nail-polish-emoji/

Embiggening the role of a playful neolexeme
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2677


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

Image credit: https://www.slideshare.net/JimGrange/10-recommendations-from-the-reproducibility-crisis-in-psychological-science

316: Numbers and the Making of Us (featuring Caleb Everett)

When we got numbers, things really started to happen.

How do other languages handle numbers? How do pre-linguistic children conceptualise them? And how did the development of numbers influence our development as humans?

We’re talking to anthropological linguist and author Caleb Everett on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Rewi Lyall


Patreon extras for this episode

316: Numbers and the Making of Us for everyone

Interview with Caleb Everett (complete) for patrons

Cutting Room Floor 316 for patrons

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

Many thanks to our great patrons. We’d especially like to credit:

Termy

Jerry
Matt

Thanks for keeping us talking.

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM’s weekly show about linguistics, the science of language. For the next hour, we’re going to be bringing you language news, language and cognition, and some great music. Maybe we’ll even hear from you. My name’s Daniel Midgley. I’m here with Ben Ainslie.
BEN: Good morning.
DANIEL: And Kylie Sturgess.
KYLIE: G’day, everyone.
DANIEL: On this episode, we’re talking about numbers and how they contribute to the way we think. How do other languages handle their number systems? How do pre-linguistic children conceive numbers? You might think they’re straightforward — but don’t count on it — on this episode of Talk the Talk.
BEN: Hey, everyone.
DANIEL: Hi.
KYLIE: Hello.
BEN: Why don’t we catch up on what’s been going on in the world of linguistics in the week gone past?
DANIEL: Has anyone seen this meme going around? There’s a guy who sits at a table sort of thing. He’s a conservative dude. So he’s got the sign that says “Male privilege is a myth. Change my mind” at a university. Have you seen this guy?
BEN: I have not seen this meme.
DANIEL: Okay, this is a meme only a couple of weeks old.
BEN: What a provocateur!
DANIEL: I know, right? Really edgy. So the internet went nuts and photoshopped lots of things for him.
KYLIE: Oo!
DANIEL: Here, I printed some of these off for you. Go ahead, read some.
BEN: “Pineapple goes on pizza. Change my mind.”
DANIEL: Yep.
BEN: “Pop tarts are ravioli. Change my mind.” That’s bloody dangerous thinking.
DANIEL: They need to listen to our sandwich episode.
BEN: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
KYLIE: “Pluto is not a planet. Change my mind.” It’s got Calvin from ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ with a sign saying “Bats are bugs. Change my mind.” That’s the kind of thing that’ll get him sent to the corner at school, as I recall.
DANIEL: There was also one where someone had photoshopped Tommy Wiseau from ‘The Room’ and it said “I did not hit her. I did not. Change my mind.”
KYLIE: [LAUGHS] Oh, hi Mark.
DANIEL: This got me thinking: how do you change someone’s mind?
BEN: Aw, it’s so hard!
DANIEL: You can’t really, can you?
BEN: It’s so hard. What in our evolutionary history led us to the position of going, “Oh! My understanding of the known universe is super fluid and changes all the time”?
KYLIE: Mine definitely did. If I fall in love with a person, oh yeah! I will be willing to change my mind in order to fit in with that person. I am such a sucker for the heart.
BEN: Are you talking about you? Or just humans?
KYLIE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, that works for me and I don’t know if that works for anyone else out there, if they’ve…
BEN: Absolutely not!
KYLIE: …had the experience where they’ve fallen in love with someone, and realised that they’ve had a particular viewpoint, it’s led them to reflect upon it because they respect the person. They say, “Oh, you know… I want to have shared values and experiences,” and it’s led them to think, “Well, actually, yeah, I think I have changed my opinion.”
BEN: I think you have a drastically different response to a lot of people I know, for whom the literal exact opposite thing happens!
KYLIE: Well, the conflict leads to building up the relationship.
BEN: Absolutely! To the point of like, “Yeah, we agree on most things, except for this one minor thing. Well, I definitely definitely think you’re wrong.”
DANIEL: But how about this: I seem to remember someone — when they deconverted from their religion, It was because they looked at people who were doing science, and they just found out they respected the way those people thought a lot more. And it was kind of instrumental to changing their mind.
BEN: You know what I hate? Nachos. Change my mind.
DANIEL: Okay, now I don’t know if I can change your mind because I don’t think that you can just walk up to somebody and change their mind on something.
BEN: Nachos are amazing. It’s going to be pretty easy. Come on. Damn! I’m already halfway there.
DANIEL: I remember this old saying: A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still.
BEN: Ah, I like that.
DANIEL: I don’t think you can change somebody’s mind against their will, but if you can find a way in, then maybe you can do it. So let me ask a question: what do you think are some good techniques?
BEN: To back-door into people’s psychology?
DANIEL: Is it reason… just giving good information?
BEN: No, absolutely not! Oh, my god! No! Like, don’t get me wrong, humanists. Like, reason is amazing. It has a terrible success rate!
DANIEL: Yeah, terrible track record. If anything… we’ve talked about research where, if you give somebody information that they disagree with, the backfire effect makes them believe the wrong thing harder.
KYLIE: Yeah. It’s actually multifaceted, and you have to change your approach, according to the situation that you’re facing. There are some people out there who are never going to be convinced.
BEN: Mhm.
KYLIE: But you might be able to create little hooks that can create cracks in the surface on occasion.
BEN: Okay.
KYLIE: For example, the work I admire of science communicators, Susan Stocklmayer and Léonie Rennie. There’s a couple of things that can be hooks. First of all, you’re reflecting the values. You’re looking at each other and seeing for shared norms. So for example, you and I might disagree on stuff, but we discover that we have an intense concern about benefits to family. We might be very concerned about profit to society or personal profit. We share that.
BEN: Sure.
KYLIE: We just have a different approach to it.
DANIEL: So, common ground.
KYLIE: Yeah. You structure your message to arouse curiosity. Interest, with elements of surprise and discrepancy, and we do that in our show all the time, for example, when we’re talking about controversial issues — like, for example, grammar rules, like we were doing last week! We said, “Okay, let’s have a look… you know, what makes us curious?” We have a clear and simple narrative. And finally audience interaction. You’re not just commanding your presentation and being aware of it. You structure and design your presentation ahead of time.
DANIEL: I ran across some old research that I thought I would just run through. This was about the Reddit CMV, or change my view, where people say, “I think that nachos suck. Change my view.”
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: The thing about this subreddit is that if the person actually does change their view, then they say so.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: And they get a delta, meaning change. So they were able to look at the ones where someone changed their mind and where they didn’t, and what they did.
BEN: What the commonalities were across the mind changes, and so on and so forth.
DANIEL: So here is just the quick version. When a lot of people tried to change a person’s mind, it happened more often.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: Bandwagon effect. Conversational turn taking is good, but if there’s like five back-and-forths, it’s probably not going to happen.
BEN: It’s… ah, okay, so contrary to my, like, home-brew approach, long comment threads: not so great.
DANIEL: Not so great.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: Using different words than the original posts do. That means you’re bringing in new ideas.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: Longer replies, and arguments that use calmer language are more convincing.
BEN: Man, I love me a comment, when you expand comments on a thing and each comment has like three or four paragraphs. I’m like, “Oooh, we’ve hit flavour country now!” That’s always a good thread because no one who is angry and BLAGHMBLAGH!!! writes four paragraphs. Right? Ever.
DANIEL: Here’s another strategy that seems to work according to this research: hedging. If you use a softer lead-in like, “It seems to be the case that this works.”
BEN: “There is some evidence that would suggest” kind of thing. Yeah, right.
DANIEL: It makes you not look like a hardened ideologue.
KYLIE: “Some people might say” is something I always use.
DANIEL: So that’s where the research was until this new piece of work by Christopher Skurka of Cornell University, published recently in the Journal of Communication. They made videos about climate change, and they used three different videos: one that was funny, one that was ominous, and one that was informative. Now, Ben, we’ve already said that informative… ha! probably the worst strategy!
BEN: LOL people hate knowledge!
DANIEL: Is it better to make them laugh or is better to scare ’em? What’s your view here?
BEN: I really want to say ‘laugh’ obviously, because I like the lolz. But I actually have a feeling — I think the data will show that laughing is infinitely more effective than fear, but I’m really interested to know exactly how limiting humour is. Right? Because there’s… I have a feeling that research in the not-too-distant future is going to show us that it is more effective, but that it glass-ceilings like a mother. Right? Like it’s just like, “Yeah, it’s working really g—[BMMF] and it cannot go past a certain point. But… am I right? Is humour more effective?
DANIEL: What they found was that humour was more effective for college-age adults between eighteen and twenty-four.
KYLIE: Yeah, age!
BEN: [LAUGHS] Okay — it turns out the making stoners laugh is more effective.
DANIEL: Who knew?
BEN: Wow, stop the presses!
DANIEL: However, fear worked for everybody.
BEN: Ah! Interesting.
KYLIE: It also has to be strategic as well, and this is something I’ve noticed within my classes. Research from Marter from 2007 said that less recalled and less power to motivate further engagement. You remember the lesson was funny. You’re less likely to remember the content.
BEN: This is the glass ceiling I was talking about.
KYLIE: That Ben — he’s a funny teacher! What did you learn in class today? Don’t know, but he’s freakin’ funny!
BEN: I always found that with the Daily Show, as well. Like, it was so insightfully cutting. But if you really thought back to the funny show you just watched and the information that you would want to retain to try and convince other people in the general public about why the Republican Party was terrible or whatever… it’s not there.
DANIEL: Yeah, but you’re hoping for information, and that’s not the thing that convinces. What seems to happen is that if you can get somebody to laugh with you, then you bring them into your group.
BEN: “With you”, though. And making people laugh with you is actually super hard.
DANIEL: Okay, fair enough but if you can get somebody on side…
BEN: Or scare the shit out of them!
DANIEL: Then they’re on your side.
BEN: [LAUGHTER] Yeah.
DANIEL: So what have we learned here?
BEN: Changing people’s minds is super tough.
DANIEL: There are a lot of factors and it’s complicated.
KYLIE: It’s going to be multifaceted and you’re going have to change your context and approach, according to what the need is. Talking to someone who’s a conspiracy theorist is going to be different to talking to the five-year-old who says, “I will never touch vegetables ever again.”
DANIEL: Remember also, though, you’re not always trying to convince the committed, hardened opponent. You’re also trying to convince the other people who are watching.
BEN: That’s true.
DANIEL: Try to stay positive where appropriate. It’s not always appropriate. And try to build relationships.
BEN: Sounds hard. We should take a track.
KYLIE: Something friendly!
DANIEL: Yes, indeed. Let’s do. And this one is AM and Shaun Hill with ‘Persuasion’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: If you are just tuning in to Talk the Talk, RTR’s show about linguistics, the science of language, this week we’re talkin’ numbers.
DANIEL: We’ve talked about numbers before. We know that there are people and languages that don’t use them. And then we know that there are also languages where they don’t use the typical sort of base-ten system.
BEN: Now Daniel, if a person just heard the phrase “there are people and languages who don’t use numbers”, and their mind is now going [HEAD ASPLODY NOISE], where can they go to catch up on that little revelatory nugget?
DANIEL: They can go to Episode 256 numbers, where we talk about a lot of different languages that are anumeric, and also that use quite different systems besides base ten. Numbers seem really straightforward and it may seem strange to deal with languages that have nothing but vague and nonspecific quantifiers, but actually we all have experience with this. For example, how many is several?
BEN: It’s greater than five and less than eight.
DANIEL: How do you know this?
BEN: Because I talk to people about this all the time!
[LAUGHTER]
DANIEL: You WHAT?
BEN: I do.
KYLIE: Well done!
BEN: A couple, a few, several, some — I have worked through this with a lot of people.
KYLIE: This is starting to sound like Terry Pratchett and the trolls — yeah, many, many, some, lots.
DANIEL: Hang on, I’m getting this down: a few, several…. I know a couple; couple’s easy, but…
BEN: You would think a couple is easy, wouldn’t you?
DANIEL: I would.
BEN: You would think that. I know people who definitely use ‘a couple’ to mean three or four.
KYLIE: Really! Not two.
BEN: Mhm.
KYLIE: Wow.
DANIEL: So, if you say “I’m part of a couple…”
BEN: Yeah, no, obviously, but I mean we know that the world ‘bank’ has like fifty bajillion senses, right? So it’s not like ‘couple’ has to mean ‘two’ because ‘a couple of people’, or ‘people who are in a couple’. Just that linguistic… you know, ‘a couple of people’, and ‘people who are a couple’ — that creates a different image in my head.
DANIEL: It’s different: “We had a couple of drinks”.
BEN: Yes! Yep.
DANIEL: Right? which could be anywhere from six…
KYLIE: One each! And that’s it. “Oh, so you had one drink.” “No!”
BEN: That actually would be the only time that ‘a couple’ and ‘several’ could be broadly interchangeable, is Australian drinking culture.
DANIEL: Kylie, do you have any difference in your mind between ‘a few’ and ‘several’? Any sense of this?
KYLIE: Few and several…
BEN: A few is three or four for me, and when you get to five, five’s a bit murky. When you get to five, you’re into ‘several’ territory.
KYLIE: I think I agree with that.
DANIEL: Isn’t that funny, though. We think of ourselves as very precise in English, but then we also have, sitting on top of that, this range of vague non-numerical quantifiers. I mean, we haven’t even gotten into things like ‘a lot of’, ‘loads of’, ‘oodles of’…
BEN: Even just cooking: A pinch.
DANIEL: When I was a kid, I thought that ‘several’ was like ‘seven’, for etymological reasons.
BEN: Yeah, and I mean, it’s not like the dumbest thing in the world to think, is it? Seven, several.
DANIEL: It seems that the word ‘several’ actually comes not from seven or anything like that but from latin separ, which is also where we get the word ‘separate’. A bunch of discrete units, I guess.
BEN: Interesting.
KYLIE: So you’re able to distinguish it as separate.
BEN: But we know how not-at-all-relevant the root word can potentially be.
DANIEL: That’s true.
BEN: It could have meant ‘horse’ once upon a time, and now it just means ‘a bunch of stuff’.
DANIEL: Well, I had the chance to talk to somebody who knows a lot about numbers. It’s Caleb Everett. He’s a cognitive scientist, or perhaps we should say an anthropological linguist, at the University of Miami. You might remember him because we talked about his work a bunch of times on climate and sounds.
BEN: Yes.
DANIEL: He’s also written a book called “Numbers and the Making of Us.” He’s uniquely capable in this area because, when his father Dan Everett was working with the Pirahã in the Amazon and learning their language, he was a kid. He was running around with the other kids learning Pirahã. So he’s got a lot of experience.
BEN: Having a great time.
DANIEL: And they don’t have any numbers. They have maybe quantities, like ‘some’ and then ‘some more’. And that’s really weird for me because, as I explained to Dr Everett, as a kid, numbers were the first thing…
BEN: Yes.
DANIEL: Like, “What’s your name? My name is Daniel. How old are you?”
BEN: “How old are you? I am three.”
DANIEL: “I’m this many.”
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: It’s like the first thing you know. So I asked Caleb Everett for an analogy. How could I understand what this is like?
CALEB EVERETT: The truth is I don’t know, and I don’t think any of us, even those people that have done field work on Pirahã, like my parents or other people that have — you know, other missionaries had lived there for a long time or my siblings and I were kids in the village —
I think even to us, it’s still a really puzzling thing. Right? Because, you see, as I mentioned in the book, you know, you can see these people excelling in doing things that you don’t know how to do, or at least I didn’t know how to do, and — you know, outfishing me for instance, or doing things in their their native ecology that they’re really good at. But then, in some basic tasks of distinguishing quantities, you see that they are not doing so well. And that’s a really puzzling thing, and it is I think for us impossible to really think of life without numbers, or to really totally grasp that because, as you just pointed out with your own personal anecdote, this is something that we do from such an early age, right? It’s not just something that we learn in school. It’s not just something that we learn, you know, before we get to school from teachers and so forth. This is something that’s sort of inculcated in our minds from a really early age, and it sort of shapes our identity too, because “how old are you” is one of the fundamental things about your identity, and it’s one of the fundamental things that you ask kids from a really early age. So I’m not totally convinced that we can totally grasp what it’s like not to have numbers.
But yet if we look at populations like the Pirahã and a few other populations in the world, we see that it’s not a fundamentally human thing, right? And from the archaeological record and so forth, the evidence suggests that, you know, numbers haven’t always been around, right? That’s not really that shocking. Language hadn’t always been around, so of course numbers haven’t always been around either. So this is not something that’s just sort of inherent in the in the human condition.
DANIEL: Okay, so numbers are kind of a cultural thing, and they’re also kind of a new thing. When are we talking about?
CALEB: Yeah, there it’s a little speculative, but what we can do is — and I do in the book — is look at the archaeological record and say, okay, looking at this piece of evidence, we can be pretty confident that humans had numbers then, right? Or that at least some populations had numbers then. So I’ll give you one example. There’s a reindeer antler that dates back over ten thousand years that was found by some colleagues here in my department at the University of Miami, and the reindeer antler seems to have been used as a calendar, right? I mean, in a very basic sense where there are twenty-nine lines, and you can tell that people were cycling back and counting over these twenty-nine lines, probably presumably because they were counting the days in the lunar cycle. Right? To do that… that ability to sort of precisely recognise and symbolically demonstrate twenty-nine things, that doesn’t seem to be something that anumeric populations are capable of. We see that experimentally today. So we’re pretty confident that populations like that had numbers, and then when we see artifacts like that in the archaeological record, people had numbers. So there’s some evidence of that in Africa going back over forty thousand years. But the truth is we don’t really know. There’s some evidence I discuss in the book from the Blombos Cave in South Africa that I think suggests pretty tantalisingly that people had numbers there maybe ninety thousand years ago. But again, that’s admittedly a more speculative thing. We can’t discern definitively, but it’s fair to say we’ve had them for tens of thousands of years. But not all populations, and that’s one of the key things. Even today some populations lack numbers. So I imagine that numbers, once they’re developed and refined in a particular culture, they spread across cultures really easily and very quickly because they’re very useful technology. And we see that even today, that numbers spread very quickly and there are a lot of economic pressures to adopt numbers. But that doesn’t change the fact that for the bulk of our history as a species, we probably did not have numbers.
DANIEL: And the same thing seems to apply to writing. You know, something that’s so incredibly useful that it just spreads. But there is a bit of a connection between numbers and writing. I even talk in my classes about how numbers maybe led to the development of writing. Like, the first things written down were probably numbers. Have I got that right?
CALEB: Yeah, yeah, and… well, I’m glad to hear someone thinking along the same lines, because I say that in the book and it’s not something… you know, I’ve seen that one or two places, and then I’ve seen some sort of speculative responses. But I agree with you completely, because when we look at the few places that writing developed — you know, we say it was invented, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer — where writing developed gradually, we see that in all these cases, whether you’re talking about Central America or Mesopotamia or the Far East, you see that numbers were pretty critical to the first examples of writing that we have. And I discuss in the book some reasons why I think that numbers might have led to the invention of writing, or I should say helped lead to the development of writing systems.
DANIEL: Because you’ve got to count stuff for, like, business purposes, and then from there it’s writing quantities, to maybe thinking about writing other stuff, I guess.
CALEB: Yeah, and I think we see this really clearly in Mesopotamia in the archaeological record, where the oldest sort of symbolic tokens that are the precursors to writing were quantitative tokens that were used to denote quantities of things that were traded, you know, or quantities of things like beer. And so out of those symbolic denotations of quantities, we gradually go from this three-dimensional token-based representation of quantities to two-dimensional representations of quantities and other items that were being denoted by the quantities during trade. And then eventually, it sort of develops into two-dimensional writing in clay that includes not just quantities but lots of other symbols and that eventually becomes phonetic, and through a long series of accidents basically is the writing system that we have today, and developed into many other writing systems also.
DANIEL: Dr Caleb Everett, anthropological linguist and author of ‘Numbers and the Making of Us’.
BEN: I think more fancy-pants researcher types should say, “And through a series of accidents, led to the writing system we have today.”
DANIEL: “And it involved beer.”
[LAUGHTER]
DANIEL: The title of the book I think is well-chosen: ‘Numbers and the Making of Us’ because, gosh, you go from counting and then to writing and then from there… wow!
BEN: I have a radical proposition to throw forward.
DANIEL: I like your radical propositions.
BEN: What if we converted our entire numerical system to base twelve?
DANIEL: That’s pretty radical.
BEN: Mhm. Here’s my thinking.
DANIEL: Okay.
BEN: Right? Half of twelve.
DANIEL: I’m going to say six.
BEN: Good. Right?
DANIEL: Yep.
BEN: A third of twelve.
DANIEL: Ahh, I see where you’re going with this. It’s four.
BEN: Quarter of twelve?
DANIEL: Yep. You take two six packs and you can split it up with any number of friends.
BEN: AAAAA — This is the thing, right? Like, if we had a base-twelve system, we would get rid of all of this dumb recurring nonsense. Right? Like fractions would just work way better.
KYLIE: So you’re going to be a member of the Dozenal Society.
BEN: Is this a thing?
KYLIE: This is a thing.
BEN: WHAAAT? What?
KYLIE: It is indeed!
BEN: Did I accidentally find tinfoil-hat people?
KYLIE: You have found your people, Ben!
BEN: YAAAYYY!
KYLIE: The Dozenal Society advocates ditching the base-ten system we use for counting, in favor of a base-twelve system.
BEN: I can’t believe I got…!
KYLIE: Yeah!
DANIEL: There are some like-minded souls.
BEN: Oh, my goodness.
DANIEL: People as sick as you are.
BEN: Yes. Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
KYLIE: Uh, shout out to any of the Dozenal Society who might be tuning in!
BEN: There’s a good chance that they listen to us.
KYLIE: Ben’s on your team.
DANIEL: High-six to you.
KYLIE: High-six, yes.
DANIEL: Tell you what, let’s take a track, and then keep going with our chat with Dr Everett.
BEN: I got my favorite funky number representation coming up. And it’s just super weird.
DANIEL: Great.
BEN: And you know who it is, don’t you?
DANIEL: It’s the French?
BEN: It’s the French.
DANIEL: I knew it. Hey, if you got any questions about anything you hear, why don’t you get those to us? 9260 9210, you’ll get me in the studio.
BEN: You can also feel free to share any funky number goodness that you know from any languages you might speak. talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au. Email it through to us.
KYLIE: And hit us up on social media. You can find us on Facebook or on Twitter: @talkrtr.
DANIEL: Let’s listen to Severed Heads with ‘Three Doors Down’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: We are talking about numbers this week on Talk the Talk. It’s not the first numbers show we’ve done, but this time we’re digging into the archaeological? the evolutionary history, and how essential numbers are to us… to being.
DANIEL: We’ve been speaking with Dr Caleb Everett, who’s written a book called ‘Numbers and the Making of Us’. Now, let’s just have a second where we talk through some of our favorite numerical systems. I’m kind of partial to English with its base ten, but I’m aware that not everyone does it the same way. Kylie, what you got?
KYLIE: Here’s one that I quite like: Tzotzil, a Mayan language spoken in Mexico. Something called a vigesimal system — base twenty. Why might a base-twenty system come about? Fingers and toes.
DANIEL: So that’s Tzotzil; what else?
KYLIE: There’s another one: Oksapmin? Base twenty-seven body part counting. They’re from New Guinea.
BEN: Whaaat?
KYLIE: And I’ve got a picture here. The words for numbers of the words for the twenty-seven body parts they use for counting. So it starts with the thumb of one hand.
BEN: Yup.
KYLIE: It goes up to your nose, and then down the other side the body to the pinky to the other hand. So you got…
BEN: I’m looking at this diagram and I’m looking at thumb, forefinger, other finger, finger, finger, finger…
KYLIE: One is thumb, six is dopa, twelve is nata, sixteen is tan-nata, the tip on the other side, all the way down to twenty-seven: your pinky on the other side.
DANIEL: Wow. I am aware also that lots of Australian Aboriginal languages use a system like this. Body part counting. It’s not true that they lack numbers. They have a lot of numbers, but they just use body parts.
BEN: It makes a fair bit of sense if you aren’t people who like yummy down on writing things down. Right? Like, what you got? Well, I’ve always got my body on me. So it makes a lot of sense. Here’s my favorite! This is how French works. Sixty seven. Sixty eight. Sixty nine. …Sixty ten. Sixty eleven. Sixty twelve. Sixty thirteen. That continues for a while until you get sixty sixteen. Cool. It’s following an internal logic. So sixty sixteen, sixty ten seven!
DANIEL: Mmm.
BEN: Wait — we’re not done yet though. Sixty ten eight. Sixty ten nine. Four twenties!
DANIEL and KYLIE: Yay!
BEN: What?! Four twenties! When was twenty involved? What is even? I don’t understand!
[LAUGHTER]
BEN: Like, I get it — in the sense that I don’t at all get it — but I respect the fact that it’s allowed to be like, weird as heck to my cultural understanding.
KYLIE: There’s a whole bunch of languages in Papua New Guinea, for example, which uses different bases. Bukiyip uses base three and base four together, so depending on what you’re counting. So coconuts, days, and fish: base three.
BEN: Damn.
KYLIE: Betel nuts, bananas, and shields: base four.
BEN: Woah, that sounds complex.
KYLIE: Yeah, imagine doing the groceries and you got different… oh, god… you know. Don’t put the bananas and the coconuts together — you get trouble.
DANIEL: That may seem strange, but there’s another language called English that uses base ten system for some things, but a base sixty for our time units.
KYLIE: Yes! Time is irritating.
BEN: Yeah, no, time is super dumb. Time has been wrong forever.
DANIEL: It’s not wrong.
BEN: It IS wrong. It is wrong — look, but…
DANIEL: Then stop using it.
BEN: Look, okay: the French, who I just spent ages bagging out, gifted the world the metric system. But I ask you this. Why did you turn a blind eye to time, Frenchies? Why was that left off the…
DANIEL: Too hard.
BEN: Milliliter? Cubic centimeter? Right? Gram. Beautiful!
DANIEL: Thing of beauty.
BEN: It’s like the greatest thing ever. Could you not — could you not have just chucked a hundred somethings in a day. Was it that hard? Was it that bloody hard?
DANIEL: What else we got, Kylie?
KYLIE: Ndom uses base six, which is another language of Papua New Guinea, or senary number system. It has basic words for six, eighteen, and thirty-six, and other numbers are built with reference to those.
BEN: Wow.
DANIEL: Now I can understand ten. I can understand twenty. I can even kind of understand fifteen a little bit. But six was a mystery.
BEN: Six is hard, isn’t it? because like the…
DANIEL: What’s there six of?
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: Well, I think we found out.
BEN and KYLIE: Ooo!
DANIEL: In my chat with Dr Caleb Everett who’s an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami. He’s written a book called ‘Numbers and the Making of Us’. I wanted to ask him about Ndom. What was up with that?
CALEB EVERETT: Yeah, those are actually more unusual, those languages in New Guinea that have the senary based systems. These are actually a little harder to wrap our brains around, I think, because base sixty, it’s actually been argued it still comes back to our hands, right? So, if you take your four fingers on one hand and you have those three lines on each finger, as your palm faces you…
DANIEL: Oh, yeah.
CALEB: …that’s twelve. And then you have five fingers on the other hand, and twelve times five is sixty. And there’s been some strong suggestions that sort of multiplicative property of our fingers led to finger-counting systems that led to base sixty.
DANIEL: Wow.
CALEB: But, so a lot of the system can be reduced, sort of, to our fingers. But in the base-six systems of New Guinea, that doesn’t seem to be the case, right? It doen’t seem to have anything to do with our fingers, and their… I think in some cases, for instance, it relates to how yams are stored in groups of six. And so it’s a very specific thing about the culture that’s leading to arithmetic being done in a certain way that seems very unfamiliar to us. There are some other really interesting examples, I think. You know, in Amazonia, for instance, where a lot of the unusual cases crop up, there are some languages where they’re very limited numerically, but the numbers that they do have are based on references to siblings, right? if memory serves correctly. So three is “without a partner”, four is “with a partner” — or that’s part of the modifier that goes with the number term. And so a linguist by the name of Patience Epps has documented this for a couple of languages — she and a few others — and to me that’s another example of the really fascinating system.
DANIEL: Why would you store yams in groups of six? Is this like a yam pyramid or something?
CALEB: You’ve got me there! My knowledge of yam storage is too modest to be able to answer that question.
DANIEL: No, but I totally get that because, you know, you put three down on the bottom, put two on top of that. Because they’re kind of long, and they roll around, so you could just, like, you can put three down, put two on top of that, and then one. Yam pyramid!
CALEB: Yeah, I never thought of that!
DANIEL: You can’t do that with potatoes. You could do with carrots.
CALEB: Good point, yeah, yeah! So, something inherent about the… Anyway, you see something about the culture of the region is impacting, you know, how they get this unique number system.
DANIEL: Let’s go back to babies. You’ve mentioned in the book work that shows that very small babies — actually they have some quantitative skills. My daughter’s six months old, going on seven. Surely there’s not a lot going on for her number-wise. But what are quantities like for her at this age?
CALEB: Um, fuzzy, I think the research suggests, right? So I would agree with the way you put it. There’s not a lot for her going on numbers-wise. But quantity-wise there is, and this is one of the distinctions I try to make in the book, and I’m happy to see some other cognitive scientists are also making these days, which is: there’s a distinction between recognising quantities in a fuzzy way, and having numbers to precisely represent quantities, to having numbers like three, four, five, and six. So your daughter presumably does not have any recognition of the words for one, two, three, four, or five or the precise quantities that they represent. However, in certain experimental contexts, if your daughter is like most infants, then she will be able to… she will stare longer, for instance, at four dots on a screen if she has four syllables played for her repetitively. So that’s one experiment that was done fairly recently, right? So for a couple of dozen infants, they played syllables, audio files of a particular quantity, say twelve or four, and they played them over and over and over. And then they presented the infants with dots on a screen, either four or twelve, and they saw a sort of… that there was this pattern. Actually it wasn’t “sort of” — it was a pretty neat pattern in how the infant stared, where they tended to stare longer at the quantity that matched the quantity of what they had heard. Which is interesting in a couple of different ways. That shows, not just that infants seem to be picking up on these quantities at least in rough ways, but they’re also matching them across modalities. So they’re recognising that a quantity in something that they hear can be similar in terms of quantity to something that they see. So I suspect that these kinds of properties are at work with your daughter, if she perceives the quantities around her. But the key point, to me anyway, is that even though we have these things at a really early age, these abilities, they’re quite fuzzy, you know. Four from twelve — yeah, that’s quantity differentiation, but that’s pretty rough stuff, right? That’s not going to get us very far, you know, in a math class or something. But after we acquire numbers, we see this with kids way down the road at three, four, and five years old. Then they start to make these precise quantitative distinctions. But what’s interesting is that it’s actually a pretty painstaking process that takes years, recognising basic numbers and learning numbers. But I think because so many — like you pointed out earlier, when you were three and four, saying “I’m three”, or “I’m four” — when you’re doing that at such an early age, and you’re having that ingrained in your mind, it’s almost… it’s hard to remember times before you learn numbers, right? But nevertheless, they were there and they’re ahead of your daughter, where she has to go through that process of matching these words that she hears to precise quantities, and realising that they match to precise quantities. And there are a couple of stages that kids go through as they get to that point, but it’s not a really straightforward easy process. It’s not just a matter of learning, “Oh, ‘four’ goes with what in my head is four.” It’s not just a matter of labeling concepts. It’s a matter, as — I borrow this phrase from another linguist — it’s a matter of confecting labels. So you have these labels around you. You don’t really know what they mean, and you have to sort of fill them in, rather than just label things that are already in your head.
DANIEL: Yeah, and in fact the names for numbers are already around her. Like, we do things like, you know, “Okay, here we go…” — when I lift her off the changing table — “One, two, three!” And she knows that when she hears ‘three’, something happens.
CALEB: Exactly!
DANIEL: But there’s no way that she’s actually connecting that to any quantities in her head or anything.
CALEB: No, but she’s realising, even with that kind of stimulus, that there’s a sequential pattern. And the reason I say ‘exactly’ is that, you know, kids learn numbers kind of like they learn letters. So my son, who’s now almost nine — I remember when he was, I think it was around two or three, he was learning “one two three four five six seven eight nine ten”. But like all kids at that age, he just knew these were words that came in a predictable pattern, right? In a predictable order. And kids at some point make this realisation that psychologists refer to as the successor principle, where they recognise that, “Oh, four isn’t just something that comes after three. Four is one more than the thing that comes before it. And five is one more than that thing.” And this is a transformative thing in the thought of kids and of humans. But it’s a stage I would suggest that we don’t go through — at least not predictably — if we don’t have numbers around us and if we’re not, like your daughter, constantly being spoon-fed numbers.
DANIEL: Dr Caleb Everett of the University of Miami and author of the book ‘Numbers and the Making of Us’.
BEN: Good job spoon-feeding your daughter numbers, Daniel.
KYLIE: Well done.
DANIEL: I spoon-feed her a lot of things these days, actually.
KYLIE: Does it end up on the well most of the time?
DANIEL: Yes, it does.
BEN: I did not know there was numerical soup as well as alphabet soup.
DANIEL: But it really does go through how numbers contributed to us as a society, but also how it makes up the furniture of our cognition.
KYLIE: I’m just astounded that anyone manages to tackle that subject and not be completely and utterly bamboozled and overwhelmed, because numbers is such a huge topic. And being able to dig back into the past and develop: “Okay, well, where did this come from?” and the news that, well, it’s not as necessary as you thought. We ended up developing this over time, and it’s changed our minds and how we see things. It’s just fascinating.
DANIEL: These categories don’t preexist.
KYLIE: Yes!
DANIEL: We had to construct them, and when we do that, we do it according to certain strategies. And sometimes we don’t have the same strategy. And that’s why different languages do it differently. So you just sort of stand in awe and look at these systems that we’ve created.
BEN: And then sometimes look at French, and just hold our heads in our hands going, “What are you doing, friends?”
DANIEL: The book is ‘Numbers and the Making of Us’, and it’s available from Harvard University Press. This was part of a much much longer interview with Dr Everett and if you want to hear that, head over to our Patreon page, and you can hear the entire thing even now.
BEN: And so many other juicy tidbits of extended interviews that Daniel has done, because he likes pestering people with a microphone.
DANIEL: It really does work. It’s amazing.
BEN: Hey, why don’t we take a track, and then on the other side we’ll come back, and it will be Word of the Week time.
DANIEL: Great. Let’s listen to Eleventeen Eston with Indian Blue on our RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
BEN: [VARIOUS NOISES: CLIMBING. GRAPPLING HOOK. MORE CLIMBING. DUSTING OFF OF CLOTHING. KEY CODE ENTERED. DOOR OPENING] Word of the Week.
KYLIE: You’d better clean that up after you’ve made that. I mean, really! It’s a mess!
DANIEL: The sound effects are impressive.
BEN: I just wanted to see if I… and you know what? A bunch of listeners are like, “I have no idea what just happened there.” I’m hoping the narrative was clear.
DANIEL: I think I know why you did that.
BEN: [LAUGHS]
DANIEL: Let’s talk about a few words that are going around in economic language.
BEN: Aaay! Economics is my favorite!
DANIEL: It is?
BEN: Absolutely! I love econs, man!
KYLIE: [GROANS] It terrifies me! This is not a subject I’m into.
BEN: HOW? could you not be interested in the things that make us make the decisions that we do?
DANIEL: And here’s a term that arose last week. The zombie economy.
BEN: Mmm — it’s interesting, isn’t it?
DANIEL: Have you heard this one?
KYLIE: No.
BEN: I have.
KYLIE: Really? Okay.
DANIEL: What do you know about it?
BEN: The zombie economy is the thing that I’ve only seen headlines about. I haven’t actually done reading on this yet. But from what I saw, the zombie economy is sort of… the things that are happening within our sort of broad economic system that have no human impetus at all.
DANIEL: ‘Zombie economy’ can mean a couple of different things. Here’s how I imagine it, from what I’ve read. In a normal economy, people make stuff and people buy stuff, and then that results in productivity and trade.
BEN: This is like Keynes’ idea of how economy works, right?
DANIEL: Yeah, I mean, it’s very basic, right?
BEN: Back when people worked in factories.
DANIEL: Okay. But now we are seeing a situation where there’s a lot of debt. Debt is driving the economy, and a lot of economic behavior is actually just sort of propping up this mountain of debt. And banks are sort of going on interest payments, instead of on productivity.
BEN: So, debt has been essential to our economy forever.
DANIEL: You’ve got to have debt. If you don’t have debt — like, nobody has the money to build a factory.
BEN: Yeah, and mitigating risk via debt has been a thing that has existed since, like, the Dutch East India Company and all that kind of stuff. But where we find ourselves now is this exponential growth of financial instruments that have nothing to do with the creation of anything, as far as I can tell.
DANIEL: That’s the zombie economy. There’s another term here and it’s a ‘zombie bank’. A bank with actually negative net worth. It’s not solvent but is able to continue [ZOMBIE GROAN] because the government is propping it up.
KYLIE: Makes me concerned if there’s such a thing as a zombie country. A country that’s so overwhelmingly in debt that there’s just no product that will benefit.
DANIEL: Well, this is the concern. That Australia might be heading into a ‘zombie economy’ phase, as people take on too much debt.
BEN: We’ve got an incredibly high ratio of household debt, don’t we, globally speaking?
DANIEL: We do. It’s something like two hundred percent of GDP. That’s for households.
BEN: That’s huge. That’s massive.
KYLIE: I haven’t even finished watching the box set of ‘Walking Dead’ yet. How am I going to know how to act if the whole country becomes a zombie?
BEN: Bikes. The answer to all shuffle zombies is bikes, you guys. They’re quiet, they go faster than a zombie, and you expend less energy. Like, it’s really not challenging.
DANIEL: Also, the bicycle can’t be picked up and used by a zombie because they shamble too much.
BEN: And guess what? Only mode of transport you can pick up and carry if you need to.
DANIEL: What’s the deal with zombies? What is their allure in pop culture?
BEN: I think it’s tied into the mechanisation of war, from World War One onwards. Right? So we really just made destruction, like, a complete inevitability. We wiped entire demographics out of the bulge. And I think the zombie kind of represents that. It’s this growing dangerous thing. It might not necessarily be actively attacking at any given moment, but you just know that it’s coming and that you will definitely die.
KYLIE: And it’s a good philosophical concept to talk about as well, you know. Is this human? Can we consider ourselves living?
BEN: That is definitely what Romero was doing when he was making these films, is making a deep philosophical question!
KYLIE: I think it’s more ‘Shaun of the Dead’, where at the end of it: Can I still play PS4 with my mate, if he’s a zombie? Gling! Yes, you can. Here we go!
DANIEL: Well, I remember reading that, when those actors are working on ‘Night of the Living Dead’, in between takes they would talk about what was going on in politics at the time, and it was McCarthyism, and how this creeping dread was sort of seizing everything. So I think maybe zombies speak to a kind of existential…
BEN: …ennui, maybe.
DANIEL: Yeah, or…
KYLIE: Monsters are great for that sort of cultural meme, cultural…
BEN: But zombies are a very different kind of monster, because every other monster is an active threat. Right? Like a werewolf prowls the town. It’s a traditional bad guy, right? Frankenstein’s monster, in pop culture at least, is like a big scary, like, heavy-hitting thing. Whereas zombies aren’t like that at all. Zombies are the things that would, like, just be in closets and a horde of them will just be like around the corner.
KYLIE: Digging out from under the ground. Here we go! Dig, dig, dig.
BEN: Yeah. Like, you don’t have to worry about like the alien in from the Aliens franchise. You just have to constantly worry all the time about this ever-present malaise that might get you.
DANIEL: And that’s very political for our times. Just the way that we talk about zombie memes that just never die. And the way that we feel this medium-level unease. And it’s kind of agentless. You know, zombies are villains, but they’re not… they have no agency.
BEN: Exactly.
KYLIE: There’s apathy. What happens if you just end up going with the dead herd? You have no control of your future.
BEN: And there’s also something far more terrifying, I think, about completely benign trauma and horror. The zombie is not scary because it wants to rip you open and eat you alive. The zombie is scary because it’s going to do it, just because it is.
DANIEL: And it’s always coming.
BEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
KYLIE: And you can become one.
DANIEL: And you can become one.
KYLIE: And so can your loved ones.
DANIEL: That’s political, too. I mean, we’ve all had to watch somebody we know suddenly revealing themselves to be not who we thought they were. Let’s wrap it up, though, with one more word. You know the Oscars were held just recently.
BEN: Of course.
DANIEL: Remember last year?
BEN: ‘La La Land’ and ‘Moonlight’?
DANIEL: Yeah, a bit of a mistake by — well, it wasn’t BY Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They were just given the wrong card by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
KYLIE: Those darn accountants! Weren’t paying attention. They were too busy getting selfies backstage, I think it was.
DANIEL: Really?
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: Oh, my gosh.
KYLIE: I’ll find the exact account if you want.
DANIEL: The word that keeps coming up in connection with this is ‘flub’.
BEN: Oh, yeah. Flub.
DANIEL: Flub.
BEN: It’s a bit of a flub!
DANIEL: I thought that was a great word.
BEN: I like that! It’s like… it’s like a less snooty faux pas.
DANIEL: Or a slightly more frumpy mistake.
BEN: Yeah! Okay, I like that. Like, there’s a higher level of penalty than a faux pas. But it’s not a full-blown mistake in the, like, stakes sense. Like ‘Moonlight’ still got their Oscar, right? It was just… you know what it is? A flub trades in awkwardness.
DANIEL: Hey, yeah! It’s an awkward mistake.
BEN: Like… the stakes are low, the awkwidity is high.
[LAUGHTER]
KYLIE: What a nice way of putting it.
DANIEL: I tried to look up the origin of ‘flub’, but I could not find anything.
BEN: Ooo!
KYLIE: Really?
DANIEL: The trail goes cold.
BEN: Where?
DANIEL: Well, we know that it goes back to the 1920s. But everything that I’ve seen just says “orig. uncert.”.
BEN: Wow.
DANIEL: It could be that it is imitative. Like, imagine that you’re trying to catch something big and rubbery, or a giant fish. That might be the sound that it makes. FLUB! And there are other words that are kind of flubby, like…
BEN: Could it be onomatopoeic?
DANIEL: That’s the idea. Or maybe not onomatopoeia, but something called sound symbolism. We’ve talked about this before, where words that start with gl-, they tend to glisten and gleam and glow. They all cluster around a set of meanings. Or things that start with sl- in English. They are slippery or slimy, sometimes sleazy. So words… we just have this feeling like sl- means that. And so we might have a sense that fl- means something awkward and mistaken — or like, what other words with fl-?.
BEN: Flubber.
DANIEL: Flubber, an invented word, as well.
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: Sometimes you might feel flummoxed.
BEN: Flummoxed… uh…
KYLIE: Flabby.
BEN: A floozy.
DANIEL: Oh, yeah. And sometimes if you make a good mistake it was a fluke.
BEN: Yeah, that’s true.
DANIEL: So this fl- thing might be an example of sound symbolism. Perhaps we’ll never know. However if you’re a shlub, don’t make a flub.
BEN: Hey, if you’ve got any questions for Daniel, be sure to drop him a line. You can send him an email at talkthetalk@RTRFM.com.au.
DANIEL: Why don’t you give me a phone call? 9260 9210.
KYLIE: Hit us up on social media. It’s @talkrtr on twitter, or our fabulous Facebook page where you can find all the information, all the notes, all the extras that we do. Just hit us up.
DANIEL: But now, let’s hear Aphex Twin with ‘Flim’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
DANIEL: There was one term that broke in between recording the show with Ben and Kylie and today. During the Oscars, Frances McDormand finished her speech by saying “I have two words for you: inclusion rider.” Which meant that everybody had to go ahead and search for what it was. It’s a clause in an actor’s contract that says that if you want to retain the actor, the cast and crew has to be diverse. And you can specify: fifty percent diversity in the casting, fifty percent diversity in the crew. And this is something that I think we might need in a business like Hollywood or anywhere else really — maybe in music — where so few directors are African-American or Asian. This is something that could happen.
DANIEL: I want to take you behind the scenes on my own process when I’m deciding who… whom to interview. I look at the last few people that I’ve interviewed and I say, “Okay, am I getting a fifty-fifty ratio?” And if it starts to look a little bit dude-heavy, then I ask myself, “Why is that? Why am I interviewing so many men? Do I think that men are better linguists?” Well, no, I certainly don’t think that. Then why does my interviewing choice seem to show that? And so then I decide that it’s time to, you know, even things out a little bit and be a little more inclusive. Now, I notice that I have not played a song by a single female artist on this show. I’m going to end that. I’m going to shoot for fifty-fifty. I want you to hold me to that. Okay, so ‘inclusion writer’: our other word of the week.
DANIEL: Noisy Andrew gave me a call, talking about the dozenal system — base twelve instead of base ten — and he says that actually it still works in the building trade. If you buy gyprock sheets or plywood sheets, it’s going to be some multiple of twelve, like twelve hundred by twenty four hundred. And that just makes things easier for building folks. In fact, it used to be before decimalisation, Andrew tells me, that houses were kind of modeled on three hundreds. If you have three hundred centimeters or whatever, then it makes it easy to divide by twenty, or twelve, or a hundred, or thirty, or whatever. Three hundred is just a wonderful sort of number, and that’s the way it used to be. How sad that that’s not continued. Thanks, Andrew, for that little insight.
DANIEL: I would just like to thank Dr Caleb Everett for that great interview about numbers. Check out the book if you’re interested. And I would just like to exhort you to check out what we’re doing on Facebook, if you’d like great linguistic tidbits. And of course, we’re doing great things on Patreon. Keep listening because Matt is going to be doing the Out to Lunch show. New music, and that’s going to be a lot of fun. Thanks for listening, and until next time keep talking.
[OUTRO]
BEN: This has been an RTRFM podcast. RTRFM is an independent community radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. You can subscribe online at rtrfm.com.au/subscribe.
KYLIE: Our theme song is by Ah Trees, and you can check out their music on ahtrees.com, and everywhere good music is sold.
DANIEL: We’re on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au, and if you’d like to get lots of extra linguistic goodies, then like us on Facebook or check out our Patreon page. You can always find out whatever we’re up to by heading to talkthetalkpodcast.com


Show notes

Best Hot Takes From the ‘Change My Mind’ Campus Sign Meme
http://www.smosh.com/smosh-pit/memes/best-hot-takes-change-my-mind-campus-sign-meme

How to change someone’s mind, according to science
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/10/how-to-change-someones-mind-according-to-science/

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
https://archive.org/details/psychologyofhumo00martrich

Tan, et al.: Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions
https://arxiv.org/pdf/1602.01103v1.pdf

Study: Rational arguments and ridicule can both reduce belief in conspiracy theories
http://www.psypost.org/2016/12/study-rational-arguments-ridicule-can-reduce-belief-conspiracy-theories-46597

Orosz: Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01525/full

No laughing matter, yet humor inspires climate change activism
https://phys.org/news/2018-03-humor-climate.html

Everett: Numbers and the Making of Us
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674504431

The Dozenal Society of Great Britain
http://www.dozenalsociety.org.uk

12 Mind Blowing Number Systems From Other Languages
http://mentalfloss.com/article/31879/12-mind-blowing-number-systems-other-languages

The Number System of Ndom
http://www.sf.airnet.ne.jp/ts/language/number/ndom.html

Does Australia have a ‘zombie economy’ that is at risk of a crash?
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-01/australias-zombie-economy-sleepwalking-into-danger-gfc-china/9492868

Beyond the Zombie Economy
https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/austerity-media/johnna-montgomerie/beyond-zombie-economy

Why Zombies Are Taking Over the Economy
https://www.cnbc.com/id/45032576

What is the origin of the word ‘zombie’?
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/what-is-the-origin-of-the-word-zombie

Best Picture Flub Boosts Interest in 2018 Oscar Telecast (EXCLUSIVE)
http://variety.com/2018/film/news/oscar-poll-best-picture-flub-1202716280/

We were there: How the worst flub in Oscar history went down
https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2018/02/28/we-were-there-how-worst-flub-oscar-history-went-down/377305002/

The Word Detective: Flub, et al.
http://www.word-detective.com/2007/06/flub-et-al/

Oscars 2018: What did Frances McDormand mean by ‘inclusion rider’?
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-05/oscars-2018-what-did-frances-mcdormand-mean-by-inclusion-rider/9511956


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

Image credit:

315: Grammar Day

Grammar Day is coming soon. Which rules can you safely ignore?

Is it okay for nouns to become verbs and vice versa? What’s wrong with passive voice? And how can you have a healthy grammar outlook?

Daniel, Ben, and Kylie are going back to the books on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Jane Hebiton


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 315: Grammar Day

Cutting Room Floor 315: Grammar Day for patrons

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

Our Patreon patrons keep us talking! For this episode, we are indebted to:

Termy

Jerry
Matt

Thanks to all our patrons!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

[MUSIC]

DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM’s weekly show about linguistics, the science of language. For the next hour, we’re going to be bringing you language news, language myths, and some great music. Maybe we’ll even hear from you. My name’s Daniel Midgley. I’m here with Ben Ainslie.
BEN: Good morning.
DANIEL: And Kylie Sturgess.
KYLIE: G’day, everyone.
DANIEL: On this episode, we’re talking about grammar rules. Should you be concerned about them? Is it okay for nouns to become verbs and vice versa? What’s wrong with passive voice? Some rules are just made up, but they can tell us interesting things about language and the history of English. We’re going to explore them on this episode of Talk the Talk.
BEN: Gee, I feel so animated this week.
KYLIE: Wasn’t it beautiful? I love those vi — I’m so glad so many people have being checking them out on our social media. Those are amazing.
BEN: For listeners who might not be aware, a particularly enthusiastic listener has animated small segments of our show.
DANIEL: And we’re pretty cute in these segments too.
KYLIE: I immediately made it my profile pic on Facebook. So beautiful.
DANIEL: Yes, I noticed.
BEN: If I were to use the parlance, I believe we have been chibi-fied. We are chibi in, like, anime language.
DANIEL: Oh, I like that. Gosh.
KYLIE: So cute.
BEN: I eagerly await more animated tidbits.
DANIEL: I do too.
KYLIE: If not by them, maybe it might inspire other people. I’m hoping that this starts a trend.
DANIEL: Derivative works.
KYLIE: Yes.
BEN: But wax lyrical about animation I can do all day, but we’ve got some news to get through. Daniel, what’s been going on in the world of linguistics in the week gone past?
DANIEL: I ran across a really interesting story coming from the world of neurolinguistics.
BEN: We love neurolinguistics.
DANIEL: A little too much. I wonder if I’m hitting it too hard.
BEN: No, you lay it on me.
DANIEL: I look like the hungry child through the window at the feasting family.
BEN: Nose pressed up against the glass.
DANIEL: Let me ask a question. This is kind of a deep question. What does it mean to understand language?
BEN: Ooo.
DANIEL: Maybe a better question. Let me ask an easier question. Can you tell when someone has misunderstood you?
KYLIE: Well, yes, generally they give physical cues.
DANIEL: Like what?
KYLIE: They go, “aroo?” [CONFUSED DOG HEAD TILT NOISE]
[LAUGHTER]
DANIEL: So the head tilts.
BEN: Yeah, not always would be my answer. I’ve certainly had students that, months down the line, I’ve kind of gone, “Oh, yeah, we’ve we’ve been operating on different different wavelengths for a while now.” Like, I’ve had — and I’m sure we all have — a misunderstanding come to light much further down the trail and you’re just like, “Ohh.”
DANIEL: I’ve had this discussion lots of times. My partner will say, “Why don’t you tell me when you don’t understand me?” But…
KYLIE: Because I thought I did!
BEN: Yeah, that’s the thing, right? You can’t know what you don’t know.
DANIEL: All right, but when it comes to light immediately, as it often does, how did you know the person didn’t understand you?
BEN: Well, like Kylie said, there could be a range of nonverbal cues. There could be the very obvious verbal cue of the person saying “I don’t understand.”
DANIEL: Could be.
KYLIE: Or they try to tell you back what they thought it meant, and you realise, “No, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick all together.”
DANIEL: I like to imagine that we’re all constructing a picture of what’s going on in our heads while someone’s talking.
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: And sometimes it will come to light that the two pictures that we have — my picture and your picture — just do not match.
BEN: We have picture dissonance.
DANIEL: We have diverged.
KYLIE: I had an example where Pamela Gay the astronomer was going to lectures with the rest of the astronomy group that she was with, and the professor kept talking about this symbol called Zed. And all the astronomers were like, “We’ve never heard of — oh. Is this an interesting new kind of symbol?” And they were like looking around, and going through the books.
DANIEL: What is the Zed?
KYLIE: And then they realised about two weeks later that it was actually what the USAans call zee.
DANIEL: Just a Z.
[LAUGHTER]
KYLIE: “Is this something they forgot to tell us, you know, in quantum physics? What?”
DANIEL: The mysterious Zed.
BEN: It does, to be fair to Americans, it does sound like an off-brand bad guy from a superhero film. Right? Like Zod was busy, so they got in Zed. You know…
DANIEL: Zod’s brother.
KYLIE: We continue to look for Zed. You know he’s out there somewhere.
BEN: Anyone who does the ABCs and ends in a zed feels the inherent weirdness of that letter. Like X Y Zed. It doesn’t work.
DANIEL: Now, if you were a neuroscientist, and you wanted to look for some kind of brain signal that someone had misunderstood, what would you look for?
BEN: Oh, dang! I am going to say that this is like the language thing where understanding is not a thing. There’s no, like, magical little bull’s-eye that you can just [BOW AND ARROW SOUND EFFECT] and just find it and measure it, and if understanding has happened that bit fires off. I reckon it’s like a big, like one of those houses where people spend way too much money on Christmas lights, and there’s like eleven different programs, and they can all go off in different ways. I reckon it’s more like that.
KYLIE: And the kids think it’s great, but yeah the adults are like, “Oh, geez.”
BEN: It’s like a CHRISTMAS RAVE! I reckon it’s a Christmas rave in people’s heads when they understand it.
DANIEL: What do you think, Kylie?
KYLIE: I think we make connections. When we understand something, we link it to prior knowledge. So if you were looking at the brain patterns, maybe there would be gaps. It’s not clicking and linking, like blocks of lego.
BEN: Dead ends. I’m hearing dead ends.
KYLIE: So it’s like… PLINK! like, you know, one lego brick falling, and none of the other lego bricks hooking up to it.
DANIEL: Okay, well, the story here is that neuroscientists have discovered such a brain signal that indicates whether speech has been understood.
BEN: Oh, so there is a target! There’s a bulls-eye!
KYLIE: So, there is a signal like, “Aroo?”
DANIEL: Well, let me describe what it is. This is work by Michael Broderick and a team from Trinity College Dublin. They got volunteers to listen to audiobooks — other work used made-up sentences, but this is just straight from the stream — and then they used and EEG to measure the brain patterns of the volunteers while they were listening.
BEN: Mhm.
DANIEL: The thing about words is that some words are semantically related to other words, and other ones not so much. Let me demonstrate. I picked out two news stories — just very short news items — and I’m not going to tell you when one story switches to the other story. You have to just tell me to stop.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: The next time you inhale the vapor of an e-cigarettes, consider this: there may be toxic levels of metals, including lead, that could be leaking from the heating coils of your device. A new analysis of data from two lunar missions…
KYLIE: THERE! HA HAA! I win!
BEN: How did you do it, Kylie?
DANIEL: You noticed at the word ‘lunar’.
KYLIE: Yeah, yeah, it was the word ‘lunar’. It was like ‘smoking’ and ‘lunar’ — what?
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: ‘Lunar’ is not related to the words ‘vaping’ or ‘smoking’ or anything like that. At some point, it changed to words that had no semantic relation, and then when that happened you noticed.
BEN: Yep.
DANIEL: So these experimenters measured brain activity, and they matched it to the semantic similarity of the words that they were listening to. They were using a technique that helped them to know that ‘lunar’ and ‘e-cigarettes’ were not related really very highly.
BEN: Go over that bit again. So, what they were deploying was deliberately using semantic breaks like the one you just demonstrated to measure what, like… ‘huh?’ looks like in the brain.
DANIEL: That’s it, and the place that went ‘huh?’ was in the centro-parietal region.
BEN: Oh, the old centro-parietal region. You old dog!
DANIEL: Oh, you know a lot about that region, do you?
KYLIE: It’s at the front here, at the front. That’s the pre-occipital lobe, so it’s up here.
DANIEL: And do you know what it does?
KYLIE: Um…
BEN: It totally tells researches whether you’ve understood something or not!
DANIEL: Apparently!
[LAUGHTER]
BEN: Whoa! Two accidental wins in a row!
DANIEL: It’s a place where lots of inputs come together and it’s pretty important for language processing.
BEN: It’s a hub.
KYLIE: It’s a hub. When people get, yeah, the front of their head smacked into like when I [ahem] fell down the stairs of the Cultural Center, for example, yeah, I ended up feeling myself quite muddled in terms of what I had to say.
DANIEL: Oh. Oh, gosh.
KYLIE: Because I had a concussion. But yeah, that’s a biggie for people who get hit there.
DANIEL: So they noticed a correlation between semantically not-as-related words and brain activity in that region. They also gave them a test afterwards to see if they really had understood. And so, putting all that together, they found a very clear signal for when the volunteers noticed semantically unrelated words, which is tied to understanding.
BEN: So if I’ve got you right, they didn’t so much identify what understanding looks like. They identified what the ‘huh?’ moment looks life. Right? So, which is not necessarily the same thing. So they’re not seeing a clear signal of what understanding is, but they are seeing a clear signal of what understanding isn’t. What not-understanding is.
DANIEL: That is a really interesting point, and there was something else that this made me think of. They were able to measure comprehension — or non-comprehension, as the case may be. But that’s not quite the same as noticing when words are semantically unrelated. It’s a bit more complex than following a chain of words. It’s also following a chain of meaning, and a chain of inference. Sentences can be ambiguous like the famous: “Would you like some coffee?” “Coffee might keep me awake.” That could be a refusal.
BEN and KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: Or it could be a good idea. And another thing is that implication is an important part of understanding. Like if I say, “Unlike SOME people I could mention!” I would love to know how to model this kind of understanding, but until then, this is an interesting look at what the brain is doing when words are going past in real time.
BEN: The brain be cray. Like straight up. Just… just mapping the brain with all of the words that we have for the brain already loses ninety nine percent of the population, right? As soon as you get, like, more than three region names in, people are just like [COMPUTER SHUTDOWN NOISE] BYOOOOOOOP. Like you just switch off! You do!
DANIEL: It takes practice.
BEN: The brain is nuts, man!
KYLIE: It’s the wonderful thing about it. We’ve all got one. Er, well, I hope we all have one, because we’re listening to the radio right now. But it’s just so fantastic and we keep learning new things about it and that’s that’s what makes it so extra special.
BEN: Well, I’m going to have to ruminate on understanding for a while. Should we take a track?
DANIEL: Yes, let’s listen to Husband with ‘Understand’ on RTRFM 92.1.

[MUSIC]

BEN: This week on Talk the Talk, we are delving into matters of grammar. That very favorite thing that everyone totally remembers from primary school, not really at all.
DANIEL: Not really at all.
[LAUGHTER]
DANIEL: I think it causes people a lot of distress, which is why there’s Grammar Day coming up.
BEN: Oh, that could be the best and the worst thing ever.
KYLIE: Are we going to wear, like, t-shirts and something? Or come up with slogans?
BEN: No, but you know what, you… YOU, Daniel… I’m pointing at Daniel right now.
KYLIE: Yeah, oh, he’s jumping up and down.
DANIEL: You, Daniel, know what my fear is here, because you do a show on the ABC, so you know what some people are capable of. Right? And if someone hears, “Oh, it’s Grammar Day,” they’re going to have a very different connection to that statement.
KYLIE: [OLD WOMAN VOICE] This is Disgusted of Dalkeith phoning up again for that American who thinks he knows everything about the English! What’s he telling the Australians?
BEN: Oh, no. Goddamn it, I’ve got to stop mentioning the ABC. She trots her out every time!
KYLIE: Aughhh…
DANIEL: You know, it’s coming up on March 4th, which is Sunday, I believe. And so this is prime time to start talking about grammar rules. We have already talked about grammar, and is it elitist? That was show number 300. Some of the grammar rules that people have are just really pointless and silly. There’s the one about ‘decimate’.
BEN: Oh, yeah, like you… you technically can’t use it because it actually only means killing one in every ten people.
DANIEL: But of course, that’s not how the word got that way anyway.
BEN: Oh.
DANIEL: Here’s another one from the AP Style Guide on the word ‘collide’. “Two objects must be in motion before they can collide.
A moving train cannot collide with a stopped train.”
KYLIE: Oh, wow!
BEN: Boo! Boo boo boo.
DANIEL: That is dumb, and they are committing the etymological fallacy. A word doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Also ‘dilapidated’. Can a wooden house be dilapidated?
BEN: Uh, yeah.
DANIEL: You’d think so. But if somebody were being a grammar crank, they would say no no no. ‘Lapid’ means stone. Only a stone house can be dilapidated.
BEN: Oh my god, that’s like next level d-baggery!
KYLIE: Like ‘lapiz’. Oh, I get it.
DANIEL: And yes, I do realise that these peeves are not strictly about grammar. They’re more about semantics. But I’m kind of lumping all the language peeves into grammar in this case, so just be aware of that. Well, Kylie, you got me on this topic because you pointed out to me something that really bugs you. Would you like to…
BEN: Kylie, did you get your grammar grouch on?
KYLIE: It’s something that’s bothered me for a while. When I was a…
BEN: I would have thought, after this many years of Talk the Talk, you would be above this, Kylie! Come on, name and shame. What’s your gripe?
BEN: It’s just something I keep noticing, strangely enough, around Perth. But this goes back to the day when I was a radio student, and one of the other students in the class, when we had to come up with a slogan for our student radio station, kept on saying “Sounds of awesome! Sounds of awesome!” And it irritated the bejeezus out of me! because it didn’t seem to make sense.
BEN: Pause. Pause, pause, pause. First of all you were definitely that kid in school. Second of all.
KYLIE: It was just irrita— I think it was because she kept on going on and on.
BEN: Sounds of awesome. I actually kind of like that! Look, don’t get me wrong.
KYLIE: GRRRRR
BEN: To sit in a round table at a marketing pitch meeting and that was floated, it would definitely not be going on the top of my list. But at the same time: ‘Sounds of awesome’… like the tinkling sounds of awesome emanating from the speakers.
KYLIE: NO
BEN: I’m on board.
KYLIE: NOO
BEN: What is your gripe? What is your actual problem, though?
DANIEL: Can we describe what is wrong with this, grammatically?
KYLIE: She’s using ‘awesome’, which is an adjective, and she was trying to use it as a noun.
DANIEL: Right. Okay.
BEN: The sounds of awesome, awesome being a thing.
DANIEL: Yeah, she was trying to sort of convert that. I heard a lot of examples of this watching the Olympics, and one of the announcers said “It’s a solid run, but is it enough to podium?”
KYLIE: Yes!
DANIEL: Okay?
BEN: So good.
DANIEL: I know!
BEN: So good. I’m so on board with this!
KYLIE: No, no!
DANIEL: ‘Podium’ is a noun. It’s a thing, right?
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: But this person was taking it and using it like a verb.
BEN: Yep.
DANIEL: To podium. And don’t forget: also, ‘run’, you know.
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: ‘Run’ we think of as a verb, but here it’s being used as a noun.
KYLIE: You had a good run. Yeah.
BEN: It’s a solid run.
KYLIE: Yes, and it’s not something that’s unusual. It’s just sometimes it really grates on me. And there’s a long history of it. Shakespeare has done it. If you have a look at Hamlet: “My sea gown scarfed about me.” “Dog them at the heels.” “Season your admiration.” You know, it’s probably just as bad as the… “Season your admiration: try the chicken!”
BEN: Well, if it’s good enough for old Bill, like, what’s up?
DANIEL: I noticed this with the UWA slogan a while back: Pursue Impossible, which I think we talked about on the show.
BEN: It’s… look, it’s good marketing insofar that it’s, like, ambiguous enough to be entirely meaningless, but yet vaguely aspirational.
DANIEL: Doesn’t your university do this as well with their slogan?
KYLIE: Well, that’s the thing. I’ve got something for the both of you. Have a look at some of these, and tell me if any of these grate on you because I know what it is. It’s something called ‘anthimiria’, where you get one particular part of speech or sentence, and it’s been flipped over to use something else. So verbs as nouns, adjectives as verbs.
DANIEL: I’ve heard a lot of names for this process. Some people call it ‘conversion’.
KYLIE: Yep, that’s another one.
DANIEL: Some people call it ‘nominalisation’, or verbing if it’s going the other way.
KYLIE: ‘Zero derivation’ is another way of calling it.
BEN: Oh, that’s fun. That’s sci-fi.
DANIEL: That’s a good one. Because you’re not adding anything like -ment as in ‘development’, or…
BEN: Zero derivation.
DANIEL: Yeah. You’re just taking that noun, not adding anything, making a verb.
KYLIE: So you’re going to see a lot of it in advertising. People trying to mash it up.
BEN: It’s vaguely poetic, isn’t it? You take this noun and you create a verby verby verb out of it! Because a scarf, right, is such a idiosyncratic noun, right? A scarf is a scarf, and so ‘to scarf around you’ is just so evocative.
DANIEL and KYLIE: Mmm!
KYLIE: Have a look at these, guys, and tell me if any of them jump out to you as “hey, that’s useful” — “hey, that’s crap.”
BEN: Should we do it one at a time?
DANIEL: Sure, you go ahead.
BEN: I’ve got a couple of ‘fabulous’ ones, so I’ll run through them. So from Thai Tourism, “Find your fabulous.” From California Lottery, “Go directly to fabulous.” ULTA: “Welcome to fabulous.” And Mindtree, “Welcome to possible.”
DANIEL: Nutella had “Spread the happy.”
KYLIE: Ugh! [LAUGHTER] You see, some of them just make you go ugh!
DANIEL: I wasn’t sure about that one. There was Sungevity with: “Generate positive.” Not ‘positivity’, but ‘positive’. And Xfinity with “The future of awesome.” Hey, they took her slogan.
KYLIE: I know. Awful exists everywhere.
BEN: You know what, I actually frickin’ love this one: “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”
DANIEL: That was a song.
KYLIE: No!
BEN: I love it.
KYLIE: Labyrinth. It’s a song by Labyrinth.
BEN: Especially in our idiom of Instagrammed falsery, that I think has become ever more relevant.
DANIEL: Hmm. And then Carvel has “It’s what happy tastes like.” Not what ‘happiness’ tastes like, but what ‘happy’ tastes like.
BEN: I’m… see, I’m fine with that because I’m like, “okay, happy’s a thing and it has a taste.” I’m down.
DANIEL: I find that that one is a little bit more acceptable than this one from Fiat: “Unlock your more.”
BEN: Yeah, that’s just… it’s too ambiguous.
DANIEL: ‘More’ seems… what is ‘more’ anyway?
BEN: More is SO vague though, isn’t it? Like ‘more’ can be so much better and so much worse.
DANIEL: Is it Roger Moore? What is… what is ‘more’ as a part of speech?
BEN: More is a multiplier?
KYLIE: Yeah, it’s amounts, isn’t it?
DANIEL: Okay, so what part of speech does that?
BEN: It’s not a verb.
DANIEL: It’s not a verb.
BEN: It’s not an adjective.
KYLIE: A nominal?
DANIEL: I want to ‘more’ some pizza? No.
KYLIE: No, no!
DANIEL: It’s not a noun, because…
BEN: I want more.
DANIEL: So what is that doing?
BEN: I want more water. I want more love.
DANIEL: Mmm. It’s being a quantifier.
KYLIE: Quantifier. That’s it.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: Okay! Interesting, so — wow, what an interesting lot of slogans. And your feels about this are strained?
KYLIE: [DEEP BREATH]
BEN: WHY? Why do you care? We have spent so much time…
KYLIE: It’s just jarring at times. It’s really jarring at times, and I think to myself, you know, must I really ‘free my think’ or…?
DANIEL: You know what? I’m glad that this has come out, Kylie. Thank you for sharing this with us.
KYLIE: I’m not so sure if I really enjoyed where it went, but anyway.
DANIEL: That’s all right. I feel like there are three phases that all of us need to go on, and I’m kind of borrowing this from Grant Barrett of ‘A Way with Words’. But Phase 1 is where you say “Ugh! I hate when people say thing!”
BEN: Yup.
DANIEL: Phase 2 is sort of like “I know I should not hate when people say thing but I still kind of do.”
BEN: Kylie’s there.
KYLIE: That’s me! Phase 2! Phase 2 girl.
DANIEL: Nice! Good! You’re almost there. And then…
KYLIE: Oh man, do I have to…?
BEN: Brutal.
DANIEL: Phase 3 is like “I think it’s kind of cool when people say thing.” Or even better: “I wonder what people are trying to accomplish when they say thing.” That’s when you’re asking interesting questions. So.
BEN: Yeah, I just… I dig it. I just… all the funny changes that have come our way of late have just been really fun. Have been really delightfully fun.
DANIEL: There’s nothing wrong with nouns becoming verbs, or verbs coming nouns…
BEN: Unless you’re Kylie.
KYLIE: Thanks, yeah. Pick, pick, pick, pick.
DANIEL: English has a long history of flexibility with parts of speech, and in fact it’s not even easy sometimes to tell which one came from which. I wonder if the two of you can tell me…
BEN: Oh… SHIT! WE KNOW WHAT THIS IS!!!
DANIEL: …whether these words were first nouns or first verbs.
BEN: [IMPROVISES EXCITING MUSIC] I love a good competition.
DANIEL: Are you ready?
BEN: Yep.
KYLIE: Okay.
DANIEL: Okay, think to yourselves: was this a verb first or a noun first? Impact.
BEN: Verb.
DANIEL: Kylie?
KYLIE: I’ll go noun.
DANIEL: Ben has the point. [DING]
BEN: Yesss.
KYLIE: Well done.
DANIEL: You could impact a thing — that’s the verb — round about the 1600s, but something had impact — the noun — no sooner than 1738.
KYLIE: Wow.
BEN: There you go.
DANIEL: Okay, how about this one, noun or verb: access. Which came earlier, that you could access something, or you had access to something?
BEN: Uh, I’m going to go verb again.
KYLIE: Had access to something. Noun.
DANIEL: So it sounds like you think that the noun is the earlier one. Kylie takes this one! [DING]
BEN: Ooo!
DANIEL: You could have access around the early fourteenth century.
BEN: Wow.
DANIEL: But as a verb, to access something: only since 1962, as far as we know.
BEN: Dang!
DANIEL: Yeah. How about ‘inconvenience’? I hate to inconvenience you — the verb. Or it’s such an inconvenience — the noun. Which one came first?
KYLIE: Verb.
BEN: Um… no, I’m going to go noun.
DANIEL: The inconvenience?
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: Ben takes the point! [DING]
BEN: Yeah!
KYLIE: Well done.
DANIEL: Two to one.
BEN: It’s just… it’s too… This might be a very silly thing that I just did in my head, but it strikes me that verbs tend to be a bit shorter.
DANIEL: Interesting!
BEN: Whereas in-con-ven-i-ence… like, there’s not a lot of five syllable words in English really — not in regular usage.
DANIEL: Interesting, well, let’s…
KYLIE: Let’s test it with the next one.
DANIEL: Okay, the word is ‘quiz’.
BEN: Welp, I feel like I’ve kind of hoisted myself on my own petard here, so I’m going to go with verb!
DANIEL: Kylie, do you like verb or noun? To quiz somebody, or to have a quiz.
BEN: Let’s try verb.
DANIEL: You both make the point! [DING]
KYLIE: Yay!
BEN: Yesss.
DANIEL: But it’s a very narrow one. You could quiz somebody from about 1847, but you would take a quiz around 1852. Very soon after. Demand. Do you think that you made a demand, or do you think that you could demand something first?
BEN: I’m going to let Kylie answer this one first.
KYLIE: Demand something first.
BEN: Demand… no, I’m going to say noun.
DANIEL: Ben takes it! [DING]
BEN: Yeah!
KYLIE: Well done!
DANIEL: Okay, so…
BEN: It sounded very French, and they’re very nouny people.
DANIEL: It could be a question from the late thirteenth century, but you demand things round about the late fourteenth century. Well, let’s see, I’ve got one more here. Kylie, this is your chance to tie it up.
KYLIE: Okay.
DANIEL: This one’s a fun one. Orange. Which came first — orange the colour, or orange the fruit? We’re talking adjective versus noun here.
KYLIE: Ben’s wiggling in his chair in discomfort.
DANIEL: Kylie, you first. Which came first: orange the colour, or orange the fruit?
BEN: Colour.
KYLIE: Fruit.
DANIEL: Fruit it is! [FANFARE]
BEN: Come on! Really?
DANIEL: Yes, it turns out the word was ‘narancia’.
BEN: ‘Naranja’ is Spanish.
KYLIE: I see it on those little bottles of juice sometimes.
DANIEL: The fruit came about around the 1300s, but we wouldn’t see the colour orange until 1540ish.
BEN: I can’t believe that…
KYLIE: Colours are weird! They come a lot later, don’t they?
BEN: That’s really bizarre to me though, because I thought for sure I had it locked up with just the fact that that food didn’t hit Europe for a while. I thought it might be like potatoes and that. But actually, if it’s in the 1300s, that’s in Europe a lot earlier than I thought it would be.
DANIEL: I actually had a hard time finding words for this quiz because so many words arose as nouns and verbs in Old English at the same time.
BEN: Simultaneously.
DANIEL: Like ‘plant’ and ‘walk’ and ‘book’ and ‘love’. And you know, why wouldn’t they? I mean, why invent two separate words for closely related things?
BEN: It is pretty dumb.
DANIEL: Well, well done. It was a tie, but the point is: there’s no point getting worked up over conversion or zero derivation because it can be really difficult to tell the difference. That’s just how English goes. So instead of peeving, maybe a better idea would be to start thinking about what they were trying to do by saying that. When you ask yourself “I wonder what this can tell me about language”, then you’re very close to Stage 3. And you find yourself looking forward to the next opportunity. But now I think we need to take a track. This one is Orbital with ‘Impact (The Earth Is Burning)’ on RTRFM 92.1. Remember, if you have any questions or comments about anything you hear, why don’t you get those to us? talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au
BEN: You can tweet us @talkrtr. And of course, we have a wonderful page where people on Facebook — and animators on Facebook — can share all sorts of great fun ideas and thoughts and feelings and mmm — it’s just a great time.

[MUSIC]

BEN: On this show, we are allowing Kylie the space to get all of her grammar grouchiness out on the table.
KYLIE: Oh sure, just pick on me.
BEN: Hey — you’re the one who brought the hell-fire to the show! You were like, “I’ve got a complaint to make!”
KYLIE: ‘Sounds like awesome’. Yeah.
DANIEL: But I’m glad that we heard it though, because you know you’ve got to get these things out in the open. It’s a supportive environment.
BEN: Unless people break grammar rules, in which case it’s: SurPRAAAHHHHH!
DANIEL: Grammar Day is on March 4th, and I just thought we could take the roll call of language pedants in the past, and the silly grammar rules they invented.
BEN: Oh, yay!
DANIEL: We’ve already talked about Robert Baker, who decided that ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ were a thing.
BEN: Ugh! People still bang on about this.
DANIEL: It’s weird, isn’t it? Another one: John Dryden, the poet who decided that he was not going to end sentences with propositions anymore. He wasn’t going to end them with ‘of’ or ‘to’. He was going to rework his poems to get rid of all those stranded propositions at the end of sentences.
BEN: Who did the: “you can’t start a sentence with ‘because'”? Because I got a major beef with this person. I assume it’s a dude. I got a major beef with this dude.
DANIEL: The one I’ve heard is starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’. And what I’ve noticed is that just about nobody really cares about that. Even the crustiest style guides call this a superstition.
BEN: Ah, okay.
DANIEL: It seems to have been during the nineteenth century. It seems to have originated with schoolteachers who thought that students were beginning sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’ too much, and so they put a blanket ban on it. And some people believed it, and that worked its way into a grammar superstition. But it’s okay. I’m a big and-er at the beginning of sentences. Absolutely huge. I do it a lot.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: Jonathan Swift, the writer.
BEN: Right, as in…
DANIEL and KYLIE: ‘Gulliver’s Travels’!
BEN: Oh, yeah.
DANIEL: He was a humorless pedant. He hated new words. He didn’t like clipping the ends of words, and he also wanted to establish an academy of English so that they could stop language change.
BEN: Oh, good. Just like the French.
DANIEL: Then there was Robert Lowth, who in 1762 wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Enormously popular. He hated double negatives.
BEN: Would you have said that he… Lowthed it?
DANIEL: I think I might. He said, “Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative.” He’s the guy behind the double negative.
BEN: Ugh!
DANIEL: And he hated ending sentences with propositions like ‘of’ or ‘to’, as well. And then there’s that funny old rule about the split infinitive.
BEN: What is a split infinitive? Catch me up.
KYLIE: To boldly go where no man has gone before.
DANIEL: That’s it.
BEN: I don’t get it.
DANIEL: The infinitive form is ‘to go’, ‘to do’, anything with ‘to’ in it.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: Now the idea was that you shouldn’t stick any words between the ‘to’ the ‘go’. That was probably because people thought that Latin was the coolest language in the entire world.
BEN: Oh, but it really wasn’t.
DANIEL: It really wasn’t, no.
KYLIE: I think we agree on that.
BEN: Super wacky rules.
DANIEL: But the thing with Latin is that the infinitive forms are just one word.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: You can’t stick anything in the middle.
BEN: Gotcha.
DANIEL: So there’s this person who, in a letter to the New England Magazine in 1834 — they signed themselves only as P, the letter P — they said that they don’t know any rules against splitting your infinitives, but they didn’t like it. They didn’t like it one bit.
BEN: “I don’t care for these split infinitives at all!”
DANIEL: Now, there was a market for this stuff. Because of the Industrial Revolution, some people were becoming very very wealthy and they wanted to separate themselves from the working classes, including in language. So they were just looking for all kinds of ways that they could…
BEN: Right, just… almost… it’s verbal table manners. Right? Like, let’s construct a set of rules — highly specific, highly difficult to remember set of rules — that we will teach our children, but other idiot children won’t know. Ma-ha-ha-haa!
DANIEL: That’s kind of how it was! They weren’t trying to document English. They were trying to make it the way that they wanted. Our friend Steele on Facebook asks a question: Why do teachers hate passive voice so much?
BEN: I actually have this question as well, because I have noticed that the war against passive voice has actually been ramping up.
DANIEL: Really?
BEN: Yeah.
KYLIE: Really? Huh!
BEN: I’m seeing people whom I respect going through and, like, rewriting their theses and dissertations to just like obliterate passive voice from it entirely, on the behest of some like, “I’m an important writer person, and I reckon passive voice ferrken serrrxx.” And it just like… I don’t get it! I don’t! Can you explain it to me?
DANIEL: Well, let’s first of all talk about what passive voice is. I’m going to give you a sentence in active voice and you turn it passive. Ready?
KYLIE: Ready.
DANIEL: “A snake bit Aunt Alexandra.”
KYLIE: “Aunt Alexandra was bitten by a snake.”
DANIEL: That’s passive. So, what you do is you swap the two participants, and sometimes you can leave out “the snake” entirely. And then you usually add in a form of ‘be’ and a participle, like “was bitten”.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: Okay? Now this aversion to the passive voice is actually kind of a new thing.
BEN: Yeah!
DANIEL: Geoff Pullum, in an article that he wrote — link on our blog, talkthetalkpodcast.com — he points out that nobody mentions it until the twentieth century.
KYLIE: And that’s when Word started doing little squiggly lines underneath all of the little word processing documents, saying “It’s passive voice. Are you sure you don’t want to rephrase it?” No, bugger off, Clippy!
DANIEL: I totally think that Microsoft Word and its hatred of the passive got everybody thinking about it, and like, “Oh, what is passive voice, and why should I write…?” And so, everybody is like, on it now, and that’s why I think this is ramping up.
BEN: It’s very weird because I see zero differentiation. Like when I read something in passive voice, until it was pointed out to me — even with — do you know what it’s like for me? It’s like songs with lyrics. Unless I am, like, leaning all the way forward and really almost studying a song, I don’t hear lyrics. Right? I just don’t ever hear them. And passive and active voice is the same way for me. I’ve had exactly what that is explained to me a bunch of times, often by people who are like, “Stop doing this,” and I go, “Okay, cool, I can identify this.” But to actually hear it in my head as I’m reading it, I would have to lean forward. Like, I would have to really say, “Uh… passive voice! Passive voice.”
DANIEL: Because it sounds fine.
BEN: Because if I just read a book or whatever, it makes no difference at all.
KYLIE: I just keep reminding myself when I’m editing over, I tell myself, “Is it active? Is it action filled?” Are we seeing something happen that goes here instead of, “Oh, she was bitten by the snake.” That sounds floppy to me. The snake bit her!
BEN: But does it only sound floppy to you because you’ve had a series of people you respect tell you that that’s a thing?
KYLIE: I’ve had enough little wiggly lines in my Word documents telling me I’ve got it wrong.
DANIEL: You know it’s possible to have a floppy sentence that isn’t passive voice. For example: “There were many snakebites that day.” You know. It’s a bit floppy. It doesn’t say who’s doing what. But it’s not passive voice. And this is one thing that I think people don’t like about it. You can actually use passive voice to be evasive and shifty.
KYLIE: Bit of weasel words happening.
DANIEL: You can say “Mistakes were made” (but not by me), instead of saying “I made a mistake.” And a lot of people feel like a good sentence should be, you know, somebody doing something.
BEN: Definitive.
DANIEL: But there are lots of times when passive voice just sounds a lot better than active voice. But look, grammar rules, the kind that are delivered from on high, you can often just ignore them.
BEN: They’re nonsense.
DANIEL: You know what, in writing I think this is a weird area because generally when we’re speaking we have instincts about what sounds good, and we just adhere to them. But when we’re in the writing mode, now we feel a little insecure because maybe we don’t have a lot of experience, and writing is a higher-register sort of thing. So we might feel intimidated, and we look to advice from others.
But then we’re sitting ducks for stupid made up superstitions. So in that case, be a good noticer, read a lot so you can absorb the patterns…
KYLIE: Oh, always read a lot! You never know when you’re going to learn something new.
DANIEL: And find a style guide you trust. One of my favourites: Nicolas Hudson’s ‘Modern Australian Usage’. He’s got his head on straight. And you know what — I will soon be releasing a video on Patreon that will show you how to use freely available corpus tools to answer your own questions about grammar.
BEN: Boom. So you can use the software in your head, and you can also use the free software that Daniel provides.
DANIEL: There you go.
BEN: Hey, that’s pretty cool.
DANIEL: Well, I hope you all enjoy International Grammar Day on the fourth of March.
KYLIE: Wear something completely inappropriate on your t-shirt. It’ll be brilliant.
BEN: Emojis.
KYLIE: Yeah!
BEN: Just to really just cheese the pedants off.
DANIEL: Yeah, that would do it.
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: Let’s take a track, and this one is the Clientele with ‘Voices in the Mall’ on RTRFM 92.1.

[MUSIC]

BEN: [SOFT HONKING NOISE]
BEN: [SOFT HONKING NOISE AGAIN]
DANIEL: What is this?
BEN: [SOFT HONKING NOISE WITH MODULATION]
BEN: It’s Word of the Week.
KYLIE: I thought it was that peacock coming in to be herded by you again.
DANIEL: I was kind of thinking peacock, as well.
BEN: Well, apparently, according to you guys, peacocks are ferocious, disgusting creatures that make awful sounds, and everyone hates them, so I’m not bringing peafowl up again.
DANIEL: I’m glad we established this.
KYLIE: One of them stole the end of my ice cream at the Perth Writers’ Festival!
BEN: You guys said peacocks. I didn’t even bring it up this time.
DANIEL: That was a lovely solo. Thank you, Ben.
BEN: Thank you.
DANIEL: In the wake of yet another US school shooting, we’re going to take a moment and descend into the fever swamp of the paranoid American right wing.
BEN: Oh, must we?
KYLIE: Sorry.
DANIEL: Well, there are a number of terms that have come out of this week’s event. So there was a school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But in the aftermath, a number of survivors — high school students themselves — stepped up as eloquent and passionate critics of US politics and US gun culture.
BEN: I hear watching your friends be murdered by guns will really make you anti-gun.
DANIEL: Yeah, what’s the deal with that?
BEN: Weird.
DANIEL: There was Emma Gonzales, who gave a rip-snorter of a speech in Fort Lauderdale. David Hogg turned out to be a capable spokesman.
Cameron Kasky destroyed Florida senator and part-time ferret Marco Rubio by saying, “Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the National Rifle Association?” So the right-wing response has been to go after them, dismissing them as plants and — here’s the term — ‘crisis actors’.
BEN: Cool. So like, just really quickly though, we know that this is an actual thing, right?
DANIEL: Being a crisis actor?
BEN: Yeah, so it’s a job you can do.
DANIEL: Tell me more.
BEN: So when you are learning how to be a police officer, or a firefighter, or even… My particular favorite of this example is a thing that we do here in WA called the Street Smarts program. So what happens is, in our big basketball stadium which seats like fifteen thousand people, the central court gets taken away, right? And every Year 11 student — so like, sixteen-year old student in the metro area — gets brought to this stadium.
KYLIE: Really?
DANIEL: Gosh.
BEN: All the lights go down, right? They hear some funny noises, and then they hear the soundtrack of, like, a horrific screeching metal car crash. Lights come up, and a car that has been in a horrific car crash is now in the middle of the stage. Inside that car are like four young people — actors, crisis actors — who now act out the two-and-a-half–hour-long stage play of what exactly happens.
DANIEL: Wow.
BEN: So this stuff is so heavy, they have psychs in the wings for all the participants who are just, like, traumatised by this. I think it’s amazing. So crisis actors are a thing. They exist.
KYLIE: The closest I’ve ever got to anything like that was first aid training, where we just have a neat sign pinned to our shirt which said, “I hurt my head.” And that was it. And they come up to you with bandages and say, “Oh, you’ve hurt your head.” Or “Oh, broken leg, here we go.” Geez, man!
BEN: So, for people listening, there are actual crisis actors out there and they’re just role players and they do great work.
DANIEL: Okay, well, the right wing in America…
BEN: …Is not talking about these people!
KYLIE: No.
DANIEL: Has picked up this term ‘crisis actor’ and has used it to refer to the young people themselves. One pundit said that David Hogg was “heavily coached on lines and is merely reciting a script.” Others have dismissed them because they’re young. Donald Trump Jr liked two such tweets. By the way, can I just point out that dismissing political opponents as paid shills goes all the way back to the US civil rights struggle.
BEN and KYLIE: Oh, really?
DANIEL: Yes: “Oh, they were driven in from out of town. They were paid.” Etc, etc. This has been going on in America for a long time.
BEN: So we’ve got ‘crisis sector’. Have we got some more?
DANIEL: There’s another one: ‘false flag’.
BEN: Ah. Now, this goes back quite a way, doesn’t it?
DANIEL: Tell me more.
BEN: Well, false flagging is like Age of Sails stuff.
DANIEL: Yes, it is.
BEN: Yeah. So like you’re flying the wrong flag on your boat to try and evade tarrifs, escape notice.
KYLIE: Oh, really?
BEN: Whatever it happens to be.
DANIEL: To get close to an enemy ship under pretext of being with them.
KYLIE: Oh, pirates!
DANIEL: That’s right. And then when you’re just about close to them, then you fly your real flag.
KYLIE: Jolly Roger! Here we go.
DANIEL: Your true colours, right. And then make a false flag attack. So Google searches skyrocketed for this term in April 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing, where some people started the conspiracy theory that this was a false flag. They claim to be this, but they were actually that. And then there’s this term: ‘deep state’.
BEN: Now, this is interesting. I’ve heard about this before and it’s kind of fringe. Like it’s… even amongst conspiracy theorists, this is like far down the rabbit hole.
KYLIE: So the conspiracy that even the conspiracy theorists go, “Yeah… what?”
DANIEL: Oh, the weird stuff is normal now.
KYLIE: Oh, geez.
DANIEL: The ‘deep state’ refers to US law enforcement, other sorts of government agencies like the military or the intelligence agencies.
Basically, anything that gets in the way of the president. You see, the Trump presidency is shambolic and incoherent, but his followers can’t admit that, so they have to say that the deep state is trying to bring him down. They’re all conspiring against him.
BEN: Like non-elected governmental functionaries, essentially, is the deep state.
KYLIE: Do you think we’ll end up having lizard people being to blame? I want lizard people, because then everything is just going to go ‘snap’.
BEN: I gotta be straight up with Donny T as president — that actually is a conspiracy theory I’m closer to accepting.
DANIEL: I’m up for anything at this point.
BEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DANIEL: Kylie, as a skeptic, can you give me any insight as to why people would need to invent conspiracy theories or why they love them so much?
KYLIE: People invent conspiracy theories for many different reasons. One of the big ones is a feeling of control. You also get a feeling of community. You get a sense of unity that’s occurring when people share this particular belief.
BEN: I know what’s really going on.
KYLIE: A sense of comfort. It also gives you a goal, as well. You as a community that now feels like you’re in control of something says, “Right, well, now we’ve got something to fight against or act for, or prevent happening, due to this conspiracy.” And we can all be subject to these things. We all look for patterns. We all look for sources that will confirm our biases that we have out there. But when you’ve got a lot of people around you saying, “Why, yes, that’s true, president! And let’s all tweet in unison in regards to it,” it’s going to become quite solid. And unfortunately, anything that seems to challenge it can be seen as fueling that conspiracy, as well. So it takes a lot of effort to break these things down.
BEN: I would a hundred percent be okay with the deep state being a thing. Like, I’d be fine with them being right — the people who support Trump being like, “Oh, the deep state’s trying to bring him down!” Good. Good! Please succeed.
DANIEL: I wish conspiracy theories were real, because then we could find out who’s doing it, and stop them, you know.
BEN: We could cut the head off the hydra.
DANIEL: But the real problem is that reality is messy and uncertain and hard to understand, and lots of different actors are trying to achieve different goals that cut across our own. And everybody thinks that what they’re doing is good in some way. It’s just that no one is totally evil or totally wrong.
BEN: And some of them are bloody crisis actors, you know!
DANIEL: Mmm, exactly. So, these are terms that are used to prop up a right wing ideology in the face of contrary evidence. Crisis actors, false flag, deep state. Things that people rely on to make sense of their world.
KYLIE: I would like to finish off with one fantastic debunking by one of the students, Casky, who during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, when asked, “Well, what would you say to the conspiracy theorists who think you are just a crisis actor?” he said, “Well, if you’d seen me in our school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, you would know that nobody would ever pay me to act in anything.”
BEN: Zing! Zing zing zing zing zing! Although it’s like, having that good a line ready for that moment disproves — like, it works against him almost!
DANIEL: He would say that, wouldn’t he?
BEN: Yeah, he would. Crisis actor…!
DANIEL: Hey, let’s listen to a track, and this one is iTAL tEK with ‘Challenger Deep’ on RTRFM 92.1.

[MUSIC]

DANIEL: Lots and lots of great responses. Let’s hear them.
DANIEL: Aaron sends an email. “It’s the new promotional age! Exacerbate your tedious. Seemingly the popularization of a grammatical dead ends?” Good point.
DANIEL: Garth sent me an email, studio@rtrfm.com.au “This seems to be a common issue for me in my favorite discipline of motor sport rallying slogans. Like, ‘I love rally’ — used by the promoters of the World Rally Championship no less — shit me to tears. To me, you enter a rally to go rallying because you are a rallyist.” Garth is insisting on the morphology. I think that’s really interesting.
“‘That’s rallying’ is a timeless quote and used to justify about any misfortune experienced in or around an event. But some people are starting to say ‘That’s rally.’ What is wrong with the world?” All right, well, remember, this is English we’re talking about so it’s not such a problem. This has been going on for thousands of years.
DANIEL: Steele says, “One year, the Christmas time marketing slogan for Starbucks where I work was ‘Let’s merry.’ It’s Christmas time. Merry, right? “If I didn’t want to get fired, I would have called corporate and be like, ‘Can you fire the entire marketing department? kthxbai.’ The marketing department is useless because they didn’t make a drink called the covfefe.” He continues: “It’s not the word class changing that I object to.” That’s good, because if you had, you would have been in trouble when you said that you want to ‘fire’ people. “I just object to it sounding stupid.” And I think that is actually a legitimate complaint. People think that if it sounds vacuous or if it sounds put on, they mind that a lot more than they actually mind the shifting of lexical categories, so that’s interesting.
DANIEL: Mike gives me a poser. He says, “Try expressing ‘He was born in 1987’ in active voice.” Okay, well, it’s got the ‘was’ and it’s got the past participle ‘born’. But what is the main form? Would you believe ‘to bear’? So I guess, if we add that participant back in, “He was born in 1987” becomes “His mother bore him in 1987.” Which is — you can see why that would be passive voice, right? because the person who — I mean, I know mothers are an important, right? Come on — but the person who was born really is the subject of the sentence, and so I can see why passive voice sounds a lot better. So Mike is making a fantastic point.
DANIEL: John on Facebook says “The only rule that matters in English is English will do what it wants when it wants with no prior precedent making a difference. Case in point: Arkansas English giving no f’s about Kansas.” I remember as a kid saying Are-Kansas and being corrected. Why? Why is it a ‘saw’? Silent s. Weird thing.
DANIEL: Matt chimes in: “Rules I would like to happily be rid of.” Nice infinitive split, Matt. I appreciate what you’re doing. Love your work.
DANIEL: Simon wanted to know if I could comment on this sentence: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” Ah, yes. A very famous sentence by… Trotsky. Leon Trotsky, who was a secret linguist but also a secret environmentalist who had lots of green ideas but they weren’t very exciting, so they were kind of colourless. Nobody liked them. Those ideas would have to wait for many more years, during which time they would sleep. But they would arrive with a vengeance, so I guess these colourless green ideas must have been sleeping furiously. Good old Leon Trotsky. Let’s take a moment and remember his linguistic achievements.
DANIEL: That’s all for today’s episode of Talk the Talk. I’d like to thank you for listening. Thanks to Matt for taking us Out to Lunch very shortly, and I would also like to exhort you to check out our Facebook page, and we’re doing great stuff on Patreon.
Thanks for listening, and until next time, keep talking.

[OUTRO]
BEN: This has been an RTRFM podcast. RTRFM is an independent community radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. You can subscribe online at rtrfm.com.au/subscribe.
KYLIE: Our theme song is by Ah Trees, and you can check out their music on ahtrees.com, and everywhere good music is sold.
DANIEL: We’re on Twitter @talkrtr, send us an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au, and if you’d like to get lots of extra linguistic goodies, then like us on Facebook or check out our Patreon page. You can always find out whatever we’re up to by heading to talkthetalkpodcast.com


Show notes

Neuroscientists discover a brain signal that indicates whether speech has been understood
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180222125736.htm

Broderick, et al.: Electrophysiological Correlates of Semantic Dissimilarity Reflect the Comprehension of Natural, Narrative Speech
http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30146-5

Potentially Toxic Levels Of Lead And Other Metals Found In E-Cigarette Vapor
https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2018/02/23/potentially-toxic-levels-of-lead-and-other-metals-found-in-e-cigarette-vapor-study-finds/#7333ba757dcc

NASA reports the Moon’s Water maybe widely distributed across the Surface
http://www.clarksvilleonline.com/2018/02/25/nasa-reports-moons-water-maybe-widely-distributed-across-surface/

John E. McIntyre: Prepare yourself for National Grammar Day
http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/bal-prepare-yourself-for-national-grammar-day-20150227-story.html

Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/oct/06/steven-pinker-alleged-rules-of-writing-superstitions

Superstitions
http://drmarkwomack.com/a-writing-handbook/superstitions/

A Word, Please: Superstitions of the grammatical kind
http://www.latimes.com/tn-dpt-me-0306-casagrande-20140304-story.html

Grammar Superstitions: The Never-Never Rules (PDF)
https://wac.colostate.edu/books/grammar/chapter6.pdf

Grammar Girl: Can I Start a Sentence with a Conjunction?
https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/can-i-start-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction

Does Verbing Impact the Language?
http://blog.editors.ca/?p=4679

How Long Have We Been Avoiding The Passive, And Why?
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/003380.html

Stroppy Editor: What’s wrong with the passive voice?
https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/whats-wrong-with-the-passive-voice/

Robert Lowth’s ‘A short introduction to English grammar’, 1799.
https://archive.org/details/shortintroductio00lowtrich

Geoff Pullum: Fear and Loathing of the English Passive (PDF)
http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf

To Split or to Not Split?: The Split Infinitive Past and Present
http://linguistics-research-digest.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/to-split-or-to-not-split-split.html

Crisis actors, deep state, false flag: the rise of conspiracy theory code words
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/21/crisis-actors-deep-state-false-flag-the-rise-of-conspiracy-theory-code-words

Marco Rubio finally went to a town hall meeting, which is his job, and was aptly roasted
https://www.orlandoweekly.com/Blogs/archives/2018/02/22/marco-rubio-finally-went-to-a-town-hall-meeting-which-is-his-job-and-was-aptly-roasted

How rightwing media is already attacking Florida teens speaking out
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/20/how-rightwing-media-is-already-attacking-florida-teens-speaking-out

Crisis Actors Uncovered?
https://www.snopes.com/same-girl-crying-now-oregon/

Donald Trump Jr. Liked Tweets Promoting A Conspiracy Theory About A Florida Shooting Survivor
https://www.buzzfeed.com/tasneemnashrulla/donald-trump-jr-conspiracy-theory-florida-shooting-survivor

Where the ‘Crisis Actor’ Conspiracy Theory Comes From
https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/pammy8/what-is-a-crisis-actor-conspiracy-theory-explanation-parkland-shooting-sandy-hook

Facebook and Google Struggle to Squelch ‘Crisis Actor’ Posts
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/23/technology/trolls-step-ahead-facebook-youtube-florida-shooting.html

‘Crisis Actor’ Isn’t a New Smear. The Idea Goes Back to the Civil War Era.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/24/us/crisis-actors-florida-shooting.html

Donald Trump: Is there a ‘deep state’ in America and is it trying to take down the President?
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-09/donald-trump-is-there-a-deep-state-in-america/8327826

There Is No Deep State
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/20/there-is-no-deep-state

Coup Clucks Clan: Rightbloggers Blame ‘Deep State’ for Trump’s Woes
https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/08/07/coup-clucks-clan-rightbloggers-blame-deep-state-for-trumps-woes/


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

314: International Mother Language Day (featuring Ingrid Piller)

How do we keep mother languages alive?

Governments, organisations, and the public are starting to recognise the importance of maintaining home languages as a way of preserving language diversity. But how do we do this? Where are we falling short?

We’ll find some answers on this episode of Talk the Talk.


Listen to this episode

Download this episode
Listen on our Patreon page
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe on Android
Click here for more options: How to listen to Talk the Talk


Promo with Antonino Tati


Patreon extras for this episode

Episode 314: International Mother Language Day

Interview with Ingrid Piller (complete)

Cutting Room Floor 314: International Mother Language Day

Become a Patron!


Patreon supporters

We’re very grateful for the support from our burgeoning community of patrons, including

Termy

Jerry
Matt

You’re helping us to keep the talk happening!

Become a Patreon supporter yourself and get access to bonus audio and video, extra blog posts, Talk the Talk merch, our infamous Cutting Room Floor posts, and more!


Transcript

[MUSIC]
DANIEL: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Talk the Talk, RTRFM’s weekly show about linguistics the science of language. For the next hour we’re going to be bringing you language news language diversity and some great music. Maybe we’ll even hear from you. My name is Daniel Midgley. I’m here with Ben Ainslie.
BEN: Good morning.
DANIEL: And Kylie Sturgess.
KYLIE: G’day, everyone.
DANIEL: On this episode we’re talking about mother languages. Governments, organizations, and the public are starting to recognize the importance of maintaining home languages as a way of preserving diversity. But how do we do it? We’re going to be talking to an author who has some answers on this episode of Talk the Talk.
BEN: What is that voice that I hear?
KYLIE: [LAUGHS]
BEN: What is that cackle? From whence does that sonorous tone emerge?
KYLIE: [RADIO NOISE] I’m calling from the Space Station. There’s aliens up here! Help!
BEN: Kylie, you’re back.
KYLIE: I am indeed.
BEN: It’s good to have you back.
KYLIE: I’ve been busy. Thank you. You’re such a sweetie.
DANIEL: I told you not to do a PhD. I warned you.
BEN: Shall we find out what’s going on in the world of linguistics in the week gone past?
DANIEL: There’s been a debate in language and it’s been a really long standing debate.
BEN: How long-standing?
DANIEL: This debate is kind of eternal, and the question is: is there something special about the way our brains handle language, or do our brains do language using just the same facilities, the same abilities that we use to do other stuff?
BEN: Right. So, is language a function of the bits that are lying around, or is there a special tool in the kitchen of our brain, like those dumb egg slicer things that can only be used for that one thing — language — and cannot be used for any other thing?
DANIEL: Well, you’ve got to admit if we have that thing and other animals don’t, it would sure explain why we do language. Like all of us.
BEN: Mm-hmm.
DANIEL: And other animals don’t.
BEN: Because they don’t have an egg slicer.
DANIEL: They don’t have an egg slicer.
BEN: Exactly.
DANIEL: Mmm. But if animals do do sorta languagey things, it would mean that we have sort of the same brain capacity and things.
BEN: Or they might just be using a knife to cut eggs wonkily.
KYLIE: As we all do when we can’t find the damn egg slicer.
BEN: I feel like people of an international audience are listening to this all like, “What is an egg slicer?” It’s like a hemispherical dish with like five bits of wire that are designed to cut down through a hard-boiled egg to make like flat disks so that you can put ‘em in sandwiches and stuff.
DANIEL: Well, there’s been a study by Philip Hamrick and a team of Kent State University. They decided to tackle the question of what kinds of memory language learning relies on.
BEN: I seem to recall that previously we had heard that a whole bunch of weird stuff goes on in the brain. Like the idea that there’s one bit that you can stab and all language goes away is not a thing.
DANIEL: It’s not a thing, and we looked at brain mapping when we say individual words, and it turns out that when we say a word, different parts of the brain light up, as though a network were being stimulated. It’s not like there’s one place in your brain that has the word ‘fish’ or something.
BEN: Right, yeah.
KYLIE: I have also seen studies into conditions like hydrocephalus where you get brain fluid, and fluid where the brain ends up being pressured and to some extent damaged by what’s going in, and where people will have capacity to do certain things that doctors might have thought, “Oh, you won’t be able to do that because of this certain amount of damage that’s gone on due to the pressure,” and yet the brain… I’m not sure if the word ‘adapt’ is the right word.
DANIEL: I think it is.
KYLIE: But it facilitates.
BEN: It’s plastic.
KYLIE: It’s very plastic. The brain is weird, man! It is able to get up to all sorts of interesting things and so to think to yourself, “Oh, it’s going to be X is where the spot this is gonna… Broca’s region, that’s this!” That’s kind of misleading.
BEN: So what did they find out?
DANIEL: Well, they they looked at language learning and how it ties into two kinds of memory. We have declarative memory, where we say “Madrid is the capital of Spain” and you can recall facts and things like that.
BEN: Sure.
DANIEL: And then there’s procedural memory — stuff like, well when I wash the clothes I have to do thing one, then thing two, and then thing three in that order. Or tying your shoes or something. They found that learning the words of a language — remembering those words — goes very well with declarative memory.
BEN: Makes sense.
DANIEL: Doesn’t it? But then they found that grammar, especially for second languages, is extremely procedural…
BEN: That also makes sense.
DANIEL: …just like the procedural things that we do. In their experiment, language and procedural memory go hand in hand.
BEN: Grammar is just procedure. It’s the procedure of the language.
DANIEL: You’re lining up words in the right order and you’re saying them.
BEN: Exactly! So, yeah, okay cool. That makes sense. But I guess that means we’ve got two egg slicers in the brain.
DANIEL: Two egg slicers?
BEN: Yeah, like well, we’ve got declarative language memory, and then we’ve got procedural language memory.
DANIEL: And the lexicon seems to tie into the first one, and grammar seems to tie into the second one. But the important thing is that the facilities we’re using for language and language learning are just the same as the ones we use for other stuff that we do. There doesn’t have to be a special language device to explain how we use language.
BEN: Well, I guess then if we take it back to the animals, surely they have declarative and procedural memory. They’ll have memory that will allow them to be like, “This tree with this scent has bees that make honey, and that is delicious.”
KYLIE: “And in order to get the bees out, I have to find the stick, poke it down, make sure the bees are out of there before I go,” and so that’s more procedural.
DANIEL: Well, this actually brings us to another idea about how language arose, because we’ve talked about two: the gestural hypothesis where we started making gestures, and that worked its way into language, and the spoken hypothesis where we started saying stuff.
BEN: And then attached meaning to it later.
DANIEL: Kinda. And according to Dan Everett in his book ‘How Language Began’, he thinks it was, like, both at once.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: But we haven’t addressed a third idea, and that was the technological hypothesis: that we started off making tools, and making tools is very procedural.
BEN: Goddamn it, the wheel just was our undoing, wasn’t it? There we were, happy in the trees, and then someone made a round thing and noticed that it just kept on going, and then everything went downhill.
KYLIE: “Ogg! Ogg! It’s gone down the hill! Help!”
DANIEL: But what seems to have happened is that we developed the ability to make tools, and then language piggybacked on the things that we learned in tool making, and sort of took that over. And that makes sense because both tool making and using language is very procedural.
BEN: Sure.
DANIEL: Not only that: you’ve heard of Broca’s area.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: Okay, that’s the one where if it’s damaged, you… can’t… seem… to come up with words. But if you do a brain scan of somebody who’s making an old-style stone axe, you know, chipping away bits of obsidian.
BEN: Knapping, I believe it’s called.
DANIEL: What’s that?
BEN: If you’re knapping an axe.
DANIEL: Really?
KYLIE: Mmm.
BEN: K-N-A-P-P-I-N-G.
KYLIE: Flint knapping.
BEN: Yeah, you like hit off shards and it makes a sharp edge.
DANIEL: I’ve never knapped.
KYLIE: Jump on World of Warcraft. You’ll pick it up in no time.
DANIEL: Well, people who are making stone tools when you give them a brain scan — or at least when they imagine making stone tools — they show activity in Broca’s area.
BEN: Ah!
BEN: Which is usually thought of as just a languagey thing.
KYLIE: Exactly what I said. The brain is freaking weird!
DANIEL: The brain is weird. In fact, we often say the brain is too difficult for us to understand because if the brain were simple enough for us to understand….
BEN: We wouldn’t be able to understand it.
DANIEL: We wouldn’t be able to use those simple brains to understand it. So this makes total sense evolutionarily, don’t you think?
BEN: It does. But lots of things make sense to me, and then have been wrong.
DANIEL: Okay.
BEN: So.
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: I’m cautious about my own ability to be like, “Yes, this idea pleases me!” Do you know what I mean?
DANIEL: I do. And yet we know that there are other cases where things have been picked up and used. Like, wings for birds are modified gills from when they were fish. Evolution takes things and just uses them, and I think it’s really cool, the idea that language arose out of existing abilities.
BEN: Stuff that was lying around. Human beings just slicing eggs with a knife like nobody’s business.
DANIEL: Well, we should take a track now.
BEN: I think so.
DANIEL: And this one is Heathcote Blue, ‘Memory Is Kind’ on RTRFM 92.1. Remember, if you have any comments or questions about the show, please get them to us. We would especially love to hear your experience with a home language, if you spoke one.
BEN: You can get in touch with us via Twitter @talkrtr.
KYLIE: You can give us a call: 9260 9210.
DANIEL: Send me an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au.
BEN: And our Facebook community is the bestest, so check out Talk the Talk on Facebook. We do some really cool stuff there.

[MUSIC]

BEN: [IMPROVISES A SONG] We’re talking about mums on Talk the Talk. They are the best… Nah, I can’t keep it up.
KYLIE: [MUM VOICE] Are you talking about me again, Ben? I told you about that.
BEN: Oh, my god, my mom could not sound any less like what you just sounded like.
DANIEL: Mums are the best. It turns out the 21st of February of every year is International Mother Language Day, so as we go to air, it’s tomorrow, Wednesday 21st of Feb.
KYLIE: Is everyone expected to go out and buy a present for their mother language now? What would a card look like?
BEN: A card to English: you’re the very best language virus of all.
ALL: Awwww.
DANIEL: Mother languages or home languages are important in maintaining language diversity. They hold a special place for a lot of people. In fact, they’re able to survive very often, even when they aren’t the dominant language in a place.
BEN: Like we discussed with the language that white people recently realised was a language, which has of course been a language for thousands of years. The one from Malaysia.
DANIEL: Jedek. Jahai is very popular, everyone speaks it, but most people also speak Jedek. So these languages are disappearing, and so the UN is trying to call attention to this, especially in the international domain.
KYLIE: Well, apparently there’s about more than 50% of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations. And 96% of these languages are spoken by a mere 4% of the world’s population. That’s tiny!
DANIEL: Precisely. Which is why we need to have more education and better skills at teaching them and preserving them and maintaining them. Well, I decided to talk to somebody who knows a lot more than I do about this, and this is Ingrid Piller of Macquarie University. She’s the author of a book: ‘Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice.’ And I started by asking Dr Piller: is linguistic diversity automatically good?

DANIEL: Like sometimes when I’m talking about language death in my sociolinguistic classes, I struggle a little bit to explain why language diversity is a good thing. I mean, there is a cost to language diversity, isn’t there?
INGRID: Oh, absolutely. Look, and that’s a key point I’m actually making in the book. I think linguistic diversity is just a fact of life. It’s, in a sense, value free. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It just is, right? So there certainly is a cost, and that cost is usually paid by the weaker members of a society and those who do not have, let’s say, access to the kinds of services and opportunities that the people who speak the majority language or dominant language have. So language diversity certainly results in a lot of social challenges, but at the same time there is nothing we can do about it. So it’s not like, “Let’s give up on language diversity, and let’s all speak in the same way” because that’s just not happening, right?
DANIEL: Hmm. I mean it wouldn’t be good to do that even if we could, really.
INGRID: Look, I totally agree. I mean, one of the beauties of human languages is, of course, that they do, you know, give us access to all kinds of points of view and different cultures, and it’s part of what it means to be human, really, to be diverse. And, in a sense the way we speak is very similar to other aspects of our identity. And again, they are neither good nor bad they… they just are. All of us are different in different ways. And I think it’s only with linguistic diversity really that we ask this question. So is it really a good thing, or should we maybe try and create some more homogeneity? I mean, well, you know, no one’s saying “Oh, you know, we should get away with differences in size” because it’s impossible to do. And the same is true of linguistic diversity in a sense.
DANIEL: What I was thinking also was that, you know, this is the nature of discrimination. If we did all speak the same language, then we would just find something else to discriminate about. Because language, like you say, is a proxy.
INGRID: Absolutely, and in fact, many of the examples in my book are actually not about people speaking different languages but discrimination happening on the basis of everyone speaks English (for instance), but then you speak English with a particular accent. And you know standard varieties are more esteemed, or allow you more opportunities, whereas if you use non-standard varieties, if you have an accent that shows that you’re a second language speaker, or that kind of thing, then you know, that becomes the means of discrimination.
DANIEL: Well, that was one weird conclusion I got from the book, because going in, I expected to see lots of cases of linguistic discrimination.
INGRID: Mmm.
DANIEL: And I did. But a lot of the discrimination wasn’t based on language; it was based on other stuff like skin color or gender. I mean, a German speaker speaks a different language, but they won’t have the same expectations placed on them, and they won’t face the same roadblocks. I mean, language is a proxy again.
INGRID: I think it’s both. On the one hand, we can certainly identify forms of discrimination that are specifically language based. You know, for instance, the example that I have of the tourists on the Melbourne tram who gets shouted at by some mobsters: “Speak English or die!”
DANIEL: Hmm.
INGRID: And so that’s clearly an incident of abuse based pretty much only on speaking another language than the one that is expected on a Melbourne tram, apparently. But in most cases — and you know that’s the truth I think of all of us in sociolinguistics that we discover regularly — it’s more complicated, and different forms of disadvantage very often intersect. So the experience of being a minority speaker, or speaking a particular language in a non-standard way, in a non-dominant way, is not the only aspect of your being. It may intersect with being racially disadvantaged, with gender discrimination, and so on and so forth.
DANIEL: I want to talk about education for a bit. One of the things I do as part of my job is I teach English teachers. So I give them the skills, I hope, and then I send them out to teach English. Which is good in some ways because you know, when people learn English, that helps them to join the global conversation, blah blah blah. But I also feel like I’m part of a problem. Like, you know, I’m sending them out to homogenise everywhere linguistically. As someone who does what I do, what should I keep in mind? What would help me the most to prevent becoming part of this evil force.
INGRID: [LAUGHS] Look, I think we sort of really have to be very clear that English per se is not the problem. English is not an evil force or something. In fact, the spread of English certainly has created lots of opportunities, has….
DANIEL: Opportunities for English speakers, yes.
INGRID: Yes, for English speakers obviously, but not necessarily only for native speakers of English. So I think there are many advantages to learning English. In fact, English has become in a sense a basic skill around the world. So I think it’s like you know like being literate and numerate. In the same way, you also need some English language proficiency in order to consider yourself an educated person. You know, the basis of your question, like what should I do to mitigate my participation of this evil TESOL empire? I was trying to say, well, look, that basis is probably wrong. I don’t think English per se is good or bad. In fact, I’m a huge fan of English. You know, I learned it as a second language. I studied it. I loved the literature and whatnot. Having said that, as English language teachers, I think one thing that the whole TESOL enterprise often does is value only particular ways of speaking and devalue other ways of speaking. So learning to speak English, learning to communicate in English should not come at the cost of other languages, should not come — in the case of Australia — at the cost of children’s home languages or, in the international context, at the cost of national languages and the languages that the learners speak. And that’s what is happening very often, and that is of course where the problem comes in. So what we can do as educators, I think, is in a sense be more open to the value of multilingualism, model multilingualism ourselves, and contribute to a greater valorisation of linguistic diversity.

DANIEL: Ingrid Piller from Macquarie University.
BEN: Good news! You’re not an evil person.
DANIEL: You could see, though, how I unleash wave after wave of teachers.
BEN: I called it a virus earlier. Like, I wasn’t joking.
DANIEL: Like Dr Piller said, it’s okay for English to be out there, just as long as it’s not at the expense of other languages. But too often this this does come at the expense of home languages.
BEN: It absolutely does. Yeah, for sure. I would so dearly love to speak another language, right? So dearly. And the number of students who have come my way who are in the process of losing their mother language… right?
DANIEL: You’re watching it.
BEN: Exactly.
KYLIE: Mmm.
BEN: And you can see that there’s just there’s no relevance for them. There’s no value attached to the language that they’re sort of discarding.
KYLIE: They’re missing the context. They may be missing the community that used to exist or exists in their family.
BEN: Even if they have the community.
KYLIE: Yeah?
BEN: Often it’s just like, “Man, that’s what the old people do.” Like and I sit there kind of going, “I’m an adult, man. Oh, man, it’s super sucky and hard to learn a language. Hold onto it. It’s so good.” It’s such a good thing. Like all of the data suggests that being bilingual is just such an asset to you cognitively, professionally, interpersonally.
KYLIE: And yet it doesn’t move into popular culture. The only book that I recall which pointed out that, “Hey, this is something that you should be valuing” was your books like ‘Looking for Alibrandi’, where the lead character Josephine would talk about the struggle of being told, “No, you’re Italian, you should be valuing your culture,” and then being told “But you’re Australian! Why aren’t you focusing and building your English skills?” and the pull between those two. There’s not many examples of that out there that I think are being pushed hard enough.
BEN: Not in American-centric Western culture, which is what I describe us as.
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: You see it in European culture all the time, where people are regularly trilingual.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: We do seem to lack — as we’ve seen in other shows — we seem to lack a culture of language learning.
BEN: Oh, absolutely.
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: Surely we’d have to be really far up there on the monolanguage sort of scale, right? Like we’ve got so many home languages kicking around there.
DANIEL: It’s a funny old thing, because there are a lot of us who are multilingual in this country, but for some reason that just doesn’t seem to translate into the public area.
BEN: At all! Like at all! It’s at the point where foreign languages on signs in touristy spots are kind of like, “Oh, okay, so we must get a lot of tourists here.” Right? Like that’s the only reason that we’ve ever done it, as far as I can tell.
DANIEL: Yeah. Well, we’re going to have more of a discussion with Dr Ingrid Piller of Macquarie University, talking about what to do about this educational difficulty, and how we can help with home languages. But first, let’s take a track. This is the Dirty Projectors and Björk with “Beautiful Mother” on RTRFM 92.1.

[MUSIC]

BEN: We are in the midst of discussing mother languages. For those of you who don’t tune in to Talk the Talk very often, and you’re like, “What’s this weird linguistic stuff?”, mother languages is that idea that the language at home is not the dominant language of the society in which a particular person finds themselves in. We’re big-upping mother languages because it’s Mother Language Day tomorrow.
DANIEL: We’ve been talking to Dr Ingrid Piller of Macquarie University, author of the book ‘Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice.’ We’ve alluded to the educational problem. We’ve got one in three school kids in Australia who speak another language at home.
BEN: That’s so cool.
DANIEL: One in three!
BEN: That is just so dope.
DANIEL: It is! It’s fantastic.
BEN: I’ve never once told that statistic to people and not have them be surprised, unless they are from one of those families.
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: And even then a lot of those people are surprised as well, because like you were saying it just doesn’t translate to pop culture, so a lot of these different home language speakers — or no longer speakers, as the tragic case may be — feel isolated in their second language-ism, right? They don’t realize that a whole third of the school they’re at potentially is also going through what they’re going through.
DANIEL: So I decided to ask Dr Piller about the educational angle. How do we encourage language learning?

INGRID: Oh, look, it’s a big problem, and the problem really is we take multilingual kids and turn them into monolingual English speakers, and then we take those same monolingual English speakers and try to teach them French or Indonesian.
DANIEL: Yeah.
INGRID: And we don’t do that very well. So we give them, you know, like a couple of hours of French, Indonesian, Japanese, Italian, whatever, in year seven and year eight, and then that’s it. And they go away with this sense like, “I’m totally hopeless at languages, and you know, I’ll never get anywhere.” They kind of don’t consider that they only had one hour or two hours per week over — let’s say — a semester, or maybe in the best-case scenario two years, and obviously that’s not enough. That’s not going to do much for their language proficiency.
DANIEL: So how do we fix that problem?
INGRID: I think there are two approaches that really are needed in the Australian education system. One is to actually value the home languages that children bring to school, and support children from bilingual backgrounds to actually develop their home languages. Also into literate proficiency, so that they learn how to read and write in their home languages, and to develop academic proficiencies in those languages. Mostly we talk in multilingualism studies about the “kitchen language”. You know, they learn kind of home language that is very reduced and that, you know, works well within the family, but can’t really be used for any academic purposes or any professional purposes. And in particular they often don’t know how to read and write, and that really limits your opportunities to communicate in a particular language. So that’s one part of the approach we need to take – support home languages to high levels of proficiency. And the other one needs to be actually compulsory language education in school, and the way we do it at the moment, that you know languages are mostly optional, and they are only compulsory for two years, and then really no one takes them seriously — that’s just not good enough, you know. And excuses like the the crowded curriculum, or the fact that they need to learn English first, and that they need to learn math, and that they need to learn whatever whatever — that all doesn’t really cut it because so many other school systems around the world actually do manage to teach the national language, and to teach at least one foreign language, if not two or three or more. And so why shouldn’t we be able to do it here in Australia?
DANIEL: I’ve noticed that if you are a heritage language speaker, it’s really not worth it to take a language, to take your home language as an ATAR subject because it’ll be steeply discounted.
INGRID: Absolutely, and that’s really another disincentive, another huge problem because one thing that we know about migrant kids is that they are often academically ambitious. You know, they want to get good marks. They want to go to university. They want to succeed.
And if we organise our scaling and our scoring in a way that tests or disadvantages taking your heritage language and scales them down and what not, then of course they will not take it. And that is just like a really silly kind of aspect of our language in education policy that we have here in Australia. And it’s also I have to say a somewhat racist policy, because it only affects certain languages. So the difference between a heritage and non-heritage speaker — in New South Wales at least — only applies to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian I think, but not for other European languages. So not all languages have the scaling discrepancy between background speakers and non-background speakers.
DANIEL: Holy crap. I did not know that. That is really off. [LAUGHTER] It just goes on and on, doesn’t it?
INGRID: It does.
DANIEL: I want to give you the magic wand of policy in Australia. Fix everything. Go.
INGRID: Well, so look, I’ve already mentioned the language in education problem, and that isn’t that difficult to fix, in fact, because as I said we’ve got good models around the world of how languages are valued and taught in the education system. If we actually got to fix our language and education policy, I think that would be a huge step forward because not only does that actually mean we maintain home languages and can then, you know, use that multilingual population for all kinds of human resource and development benefits in a sense — you know, it’s always good to have multilingual speakers who can make connections, who can do business around the globe and whatnot — and it’s also just good in terms of, you know, cultural connection and understanding and education. And if we can also fix the problem of actually teaching everyone who goes to school in Australia a foreign language to intermediate to high level of proficiency, we’ve also done all of us a service. And again, there are the obvious economic and social benefits. There are also the kind of mental health benefits. And there’s also just the benefit that education should be a holistic enterprise, you know. And we learn lots of things in school that we consider to constitute an educated person. And many of us you know never need chemistry again in our lives, but still it’s something that you need to know about, I think, to, you know, be able to function in the modern world and we all agree on that. And in the same way we need to agree that in order to function in today’s globalised society, you need to speak more than one language. If we fix our education system, then I think that would be a huge step forward also in terms of the problems of adult migrant discrimination that we spoke about earlier, because if we all learnt another language in school and had gone through the experience, I think we would be much more sympathetic to some of the challenges and trials that migrants face. Very often I see people dismissing like, you know, oh you know, “Anyone can learn another language,” like it’s an easy thing, and it’s not an easy thing. And to study content at the same time that you try to improve your English, or to work a job in a good and efficient way at the same time that you try to improve your English is always an extra burden and an extra challenge. And I think many of us who’ve been through that experience just feel that a bit of additional sympathy would really go a long way to keep the motivation going. And so again, if we had that kind of empathy, then that would certainly also just broaden our multilingual imagination and our imagination around what the challenges and opportunities of a linguistically diverse society are. And recognition of the challenges is certainly a first important step towards actually solving those problems, because at the moment many of the challenges that I describe in my book — they weren’t even recognized as challenges, and that’s what makes them so hard.

DANIEL: Dr Ingrid Piller of Macquarie University. She’s the author of ‘Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice’, a book which by the way won the British Association for Applied Linguistics Book Prize for 2017. It’s a good read. Highly recommended.
BEN: Brava.
KYLIE: Well done.
BEN: So, cool… our curriculum is racist. I mean, I kind of already knew that with the whole, like, “white people came to Australia and brought laws”, but I did not know the structural discrimination against Asian languages and not against European languages.
KYLIE: I knew a little of that because of the amount of number of students I had who were discouraged from going in to study academically. I thought it was intriguing how she used the term “kitchen languages” and that struck a chord with me. I mean, how many of us might be handed a book: “Okay, let’s study the novels of Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan series — in the original Italian, you know — and then let’s discuss it.” Where it’s more likely to be something that’s just spoken around the house in a more casual situation.
BEN: Rudimentary. You’re not gonna know the word like your mother language for ‘vicissitude’ in the kitchen, because you don’t need it.
DANIEL: You can see how this ties into a lot of things. It ties into education. It ties into prestige of languages. It ties to things like social injustice and discrimination.
BEN: Yeah.
DANIEL: And these are threads that are not easy to unwind.
KYLIE: I would love to hear what other people have in terms of their magic wand of being able to change things.
BEN: Yes! What do you do with the magic wand?
KYLIE: Let us know.
DANIEL: Why don’t you send me an email: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au, and remember this is part of a very much longer interview with Dr Piller. Fascinating stuff, I’ve got to say, so if you want to hear the whole thing unexpurgated and untrimmed, go ahead and head over to our Patreon page.
BEN: Shall we take a track? and then we’ll come back for a word of the week.
DANIEL: Yes, please. Let’s listen to Kardajala Kirridara with ‘Ngabaju’ or ‘Grandmothers Song’ on RTRFM 92.1.

[MUSIC]

BEN: We come together as one body. One group of humans.
KYLIE: [REACHES FOR PHONE]
BEN: Don’t touch the phone! Touch my hands. Touch them!
KYLIE: I don’t know…
BEN: TOUCH THEM!!
DANIEL: I think he wants us to hold hands. Here. There. There we go. There we go.
BEN: One group.
KYLIE: Oh god.
BEN: One body of humans united in a single holy purpose.
KYLIE: This feels so icky.
BEN: To come together and ruminate on Word of the Week.
KYLIE: I need hand sanitiser. Anyone got any hand sanitiser?
DANIEL: I felt like we had a spiritual connection, and it was profound.
KYLIE: [LAUGHS]
BEN: I felt… I felt like one of the corners of the triangle wasn’t trying very hard.
KYLIE: PBTHBPTHBP!
BEN: Yeah, that corner.
DANIEL: Yeah, that was the one.
BEN: So, what do you got? What do you got for me? Come on.
DANIEL: Our Word of the Week this week is ‘emotional support animal’. There have been a few stories in this week about this concept, and in fact it’s even going through some extension. You can have emotional support dogs. You can have emotional support cats. What about an emotional support peacock?
KYLIE: [SIGHS]
BEN: Peafowl?
KYLIE: I’m sorry. I know there’s probably people listening who are like, “But I love my hamster!”
BEN: Well, actually…
KYLIE: There’s something in me that just goes, “PBTHBPTHBPHHH!” I’m sorry.
DANIEL: You’re skeptical.
BEN: I gotta put this out there. Kylie’s, like, one step from being a cat lady.
KYLIE: It’s not my fault. It’s my family’s fault.
BEN: Pfft, don’t you give me your excuses, cat lady. But you got to admit like you are one step from being a cat lady, and you love your cats so hard.
KYLIE: There is no way I would be taking my cat on the plane because they’d be absolute little brats the entire time. Sod it! They stay at home. They are house cats, end of story. I’m not inflicting that not even one-year-old kitten on anybody. It’d be just chaos.
BEN: However…
KYLIE: However.
BEN: Were I to come to your house…
KYLIE: Yeah.
BEN: …and murder your cat, you would be very unhappy.
KYLIE: Well, yeah, but I’d save on cat food.
BEN: You say that, but I remember the last one dropped off the perch, and Kylie was not a happy chappie.
DANIEL: Destroyed.
KYLIE: But there’s a difference between, you know, my personal relationship in my own personal space, and then bringing a peacock on a plane!
DANIEL: Let’s talk about the peacock.
BEN: I 100 percent put my hand up and say I would like to go on a plane with a peacock. Not my own peacock.
KYLIE: Have you heard them!?
BEN: Yeah. Just imagine that. You’re just like…
KYLIE: [SCREECHING NOISES]
BEN: No, they’re way nicer than that.
KYLIE: They are not way nicer!
DANIEL: Those of us who have been to UWA.
KYLIE: Yes, hands up, everyone! All of us.
DANIEL: In the Arts Building.
BEN: No, they sound like this: [PLEASANT CALL].
DANIEL: Ah, they do sound like that. Actually, peacocks have about three different calls. One of them is as you have described. Another one is the horrifying scream [HORRIFYING SCREAMS] and then….
KYLIE: Hey, I think I know what I’ll do. I’ll just hop up onto the window and completely disrupt Daniel’s lesson in the middle of what he’s doing.
DANIEL: It’s happened.
KYLIE: Yeah.
DANIEL: The third call is one that I only heard when I was called upon to wrangle peacocks in the Arts Building.
KYLIE: [GASPS] Really?! They said, “Oh, no, no, no — the peacocks are naughty! Let’s get Daniel to deal with them.” Oh, shoot!
DANIEL: It wasn’t exactly like that. It was more like one bird needed to be transported to the peacock farm, where they sometimes… it’s like a spa for them. They go on holiday, away from the rigors of university life.
KYLIE: So the peacock needed emotional support.
DANIEL: It did. So I wasn’t going to be one of the guys that grabs the bird. I was just gonna be standing there, so that it wouldn’t try to escape in my direction.
BEN: Right. You were, you were a… what’s it called? You were shepherding.
DANIEL: I was.
KYLIE: You were herding it.
DANIEL: Other peacocks were watching. As we closed in on the bird, they started making noise that sounded like this: [FOOOOT]. They were trumpeting [FOOOOT] as a warning sign to the bird.
KYLIE: Oh, wow!
BEN: Interesting.
DANIEL: So they are noisy friggin’ birds.
BEN: True.
DANIEL: Imagine trying to take one on a plane. And yet that’s what happened at the Newark airport. A conceptual artist by the name of Ventiko — so already, you know this might be….
BEN: We are fringe.
DANIEL: This might be somebody who doesn’t quite…
KYLIE: This is someone who would have fitted in really well in the Arts area of UWA.
DANIEL: Someone who doesn’t quite live in the real world.
BEN: Someone for whom social norms are suggestive at best.
DANIEL: Someone who you wouldn’t describe as down-to-earth.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: Brought the peacock along, and by the way the peacock’s name was Dexter.
KYLIE: Mm-hmm.
DANIEL: And said that this was an emotional support peacock. Dexter did not get on the plane.
KYLIE: Aww…
BEN: Pause. Pause, pause, pause. Is an emotional support animal a thing? Is it a legal thing?
KYLIE: The National Education for Assistant Dog Services says that there’s no such thing as a service dog registry. There is a service dog training program.
DANIEL: Okay, but I feel like there are two different things going around here. One is registered service animals, which is totally a thing.
BEN: Okay.
DANIEL: And then there are emotional support animals. And registered service animals have more legal standing than emotional support animals, but even that can be a bit loose.
KYLIE: There is a federal law in America, the Air Carrier Access Act, where airlines are required to accept emotional support animals if there’s a note from a doctor or a licensed therapist.
BEN: Okay.
KYLIE: However, it’s a bit of a cottage industry. There’s all these online sites where for about $50 to $200, you can get your certificate. They can even throw in — there’s a leash and a vest, or you know an extra laminated element that says, “Oh, yes, this is a service animal.” But there’s another law, the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects people from having to produce any documents. Now these laws don’t require proof because they’re meant to protect people with disabilities who need service animals from harassment, because when they take the animals into public spaces. But there’s people who are starting to use that leeway, and start bringing in what is essentially the breaking of an honor system in order to get things like peacocks on the plane.
BEN: So people are potentially flirting with the idea of feigning a kind of disability in order to….
KYLIE: It’s an honor system. I mean, they trust that people are going to be doing the right things by the airlines. But for some people if it means a cheaper way of getting their pet on the flight rather than sticking him in cargo, or if they do believe that, you know, a peacock needs to have its own seat — which apparently Dexter did have, it’s got its own ticket — people might give it a shot, and people as we can see are giving it a shot.
DANIEL: But yeah, this notion of emotional support animal fill-in-the-blanks — could be a horse…
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: …according to the Americans With Disabilities Act.
BEN: And in fact I imagine many of them would be, because riding for the disabled is a massive massive program.
DANIEL: And so a lot of people feel like people are pushing it. It’s trivialising the idea and it’s making it difficult for people who maybe do have a legitimate need, because support animals can do some good.
BEN: I’ve got one at my school.
DANIEL: Okay.
KYLIE: Is it a peacock?
BEN: No, it’s just a dog.
KYLIE: Damn!
BEN: Kaiser, the therapy dog. And he just… he’s there for the sort of emotionally higher-needs kids.
KYLIE: We have one that pops into our university library in order for people to have a chat to and have a hug with, yeah.
BEN: Now, what do we do about our held beliefs that mental illness is a disability, a person with depression has a disability. That person might be able to find support in an animal, right? Where’s the line there?
DANIEL: Well, maybe it’s the kind of animal, and the size of the animal, and the inconvenience of the animal.
BEN: Right.
DANIEL: Dogs and cats….
BEN: …most people tolerate.
DANIEL: Even hamsters. There was a sad story about a hamster, but I can’t even go there. So people are starting to celebrate the silliness and talk about emotional support sandwiches.
KYLIE: What?
DANIEL: I know. “You can’t bring that food in here.” “It’s my emotional support sandwich.”
BEN: Ugh. That’s no good.
DANIEL: No. We don’t want to trivialize the concept, but at the same time, sometimes we wish that people were a little more sensible about things.
BEN: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I feel like there’s a middle ground here that we can find. We just need to find it, and strike it.
KYLIE: I’d be very interested in hearing other people’s take on this, because I’m skeptical. I’m along the lines of “pop it into a crate, carry the pet in the back, and just say g’day to it when it gets to the other end of the line,” as it were. But I’d be intrigued to see what other people feel about it. So hit us up on social media.
BEN: Yeah, for sure.
DANIEL: Our Facebook page is vibrant and interesting. Twitter @talkrtr.
BEN: You can email us: talkthetalk@rtrfm.com.au.
KYLIE: Or give us a call: 9260 9210.
DANIEL: But now here’s Mercury Rev with ‘Emotional Free Fall’ on RTRFM 92.1.
[MUSIC]
DANIEL: You’re in the closing minutes of Talk the Talk. Great talking to June who phoned up. She spoke Polish as a home language, and even today she feels like English is kind of meh, and Polish feels like home. Which I think a lot of people feel like with their home languages. It would make sense. Her brother, a little younger, stopped speaking it and just would only respond to parents in English, which I think is a very common thing. I keep hearing that this is what kids do. She finds that she’s still fluent in Polish but a little rusty sometimes and she has to get back into it. But she mentions that she was really glad that her parents took the effort and gave her that. And for some parents it’s not an option. Some parents are marginal in English at best, so the home language is the one that they speak most fluently and that’s the one they communicate with. Great to talk to you, June.
DANIEL: Nikki says, “Man, I really wish we had the same sort of second language education they have in Europe. I studied Japanese for seven years in school and still wasn’t even conversational. It’s so disappointing, like I wasted those prime language learning years.” Well, yeah. What I always say with that is: you know you can’t go back and do it again, but you can do it now. And it’s a bit of a myth that you can’t learn if you’re not a child. Adults do come with certain advantages in the learning game. But it does help if there’s a tie-in. If the affinity with the culture isn’t your parents, then it will have to be your own enthusiasm that you bring.
DANIEL: Aaron on Facebook says the same thing: “Wish I was raised bilingual. Trying to make up for that by learning Dutch and French as well as I can.”
DANIEL: To parents: keep it up. I’m not a native speaker, but I’m speaking to my young one in phrases at the level that I feel comfortable with. Don’t feel bad if they knock it back, and don’t worry about implementing it the best way. There are no disadvantages to this.
DANIEL: Thanks for listening to this episode of Talk the Talk. Check us out on Patreon, and until next time… keep talking.

 


Show notes

Language is learned in brain circuits that predate humans
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180130094713.htm

PNAS paper: Child first language and adult second language are both tied to general-purpose learning systems
https://brainlang.georgetown.edu/sites/brainlang/files/documents/hamrick_et_al-pnas-17_0.pdf

Child first language and adult second language are both tied to general-purpose learning systems
http://www.pnas.org/content/115/7/1487

Stone tools, language and the brain in human evolution
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3223784/

Silica Stories: Language co-opted neural structures originally used for tool making
Google Books link

Ingrid Piller – Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics
http://newbooksnetwork.com/ingrid-piller-linguistic-diversity-and-social-justice-an-introduction-to-applied-sociolinguistics-oxford-up-2016/

International Mother Language Day: 21 February
http://www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday/

FAQs on Emotional Support Animals
https://www.animallaw.info/article/faqs-emotional-support-animals

What Has Changed For Emotional Support Animals in 2018?
https://therapypet.org/emotional-support-animal-information/

Can Peacocks Be Emotional Support Animals? It’s Complicated
https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/woman-brings-peacock-plane-emotional-support-animal-explained-spd/

Woman Was Prohibited From Bringing Emotional Support Hamster on Spirit Airlines Flight, So She Flushed It Down a Toilet
https://jezebel.com/woman-was-prohibited-from-bringing-emotional-support-ha-1822858677

A hamster is the latest victim in the row over emotional-support animals
https://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2018/02/flushed-failure

Student says she flushed ’emotional support hamster’ after Spirit Airlines denied passage
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/08/spirit-airlines-emotional-support-hamster-flush-toilet-florida


Show tunes

Find the tracks we play on the RTRFM webpage for this episode.

Image credit: http://greece.greekreporter.com/files/828.jpg

« Older posts

© 2018 Talk the Talk

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑