The Ballad of John Crawford

Following the success of our last game of Dialect the previous month and once again in a one-week hiatus of our usual Friday Dungeons & Dragons game, I hosted a second remote game of this strange “soft” RPG with linguistics and improv drama elements.

Thieves’ Cant

Our backdrop to this story was Portsmouth in 1834, where we were part of a group – the Gunwharf Ants – who worked as stevedores and made our living (on top of the abysmal wages for manual handling) through the criminal pursuit of “skimming a little off the top” of the bulk-break cargo we moved between ships and onto and off the canal. These stolen goods would be hidden in the basement of nearby pub The Duke of Wellington until they could be safely fenced, and this often-lucrative enterprise made us the envy of many of the docklands’ other criminal gangs.

I played Katie – “Kegs” to her friends – the proprietor of the Duke (since her husband’s death) and matriarch of the group. I was joined by Nuek (Alec), a Scandinavian friend with a wealth of criminal experience, John “Tuck” Crawford (Matt), adoptee of the gang and our aspiring quartermaster, and “Yellow” Mathias Hammond (Simon), a navy deserter who consistently delivers better than he expects to.

Thieves' Cant tableau at the end of a game of Dialect, with cards strewn around the table.
Our second tableau was somehow more-chaotic than the first, even after I accidentally removed several cards before taking this picture!

While each of us had our stories and some beautiful and hilarious moments, I felt that we all quickly converged on the idea that the principal storyline in our isolation was that of young Tuck. The first act was dominated by his efforts to proof himself to the gang, and – with a little snuff – shake off his reputation as the “kid” of the group and gain acceptance amongst his peers. His chance to prove himself with a caper aboard the Queen Anne went proper merry though after she turned up tin-ful and he found himself kept in a second-place position for years longer. Tuck – and Yellow – got proofed eventually, but the extra time spent living hand-to-mouth might have been what first planted the seed of charity in the young man’s head, and kept most of his numbers out of his pocket and into those of the families he supported in the St. Stevens area.

The second act turned political, as Spiky Dave, leader of the competing gang The Barbados Boys, based over Gosport way, offered a truce between the two rivals in exchange for sharing the manpower – and profits – of a big job against a ship from South Africa… with a case of diamonds aboard. Disagreements over the deal undermined Kegs’ authority over the Ants, but despite their March it went ahead anyway and the job was a success. Except… Spiky Dave kept more than his share of the loot, and agreed to share what was promised only in exchange for the surrender of the Ants and their territory to his gang’s rulership.

We returned to interpersonal drama in the third act as Katie – tired of the gang wars and feeling her age – took perhaps more than her fair share of the barrel (the gang’s shared social care fund) and bought herself clearance to leave aboard a ship to a beachside retirement in Jamaica. She gave up her stake in the future of the gang and shrugged off their challenges in exchange for a quiet life, leaving Nuek as the senior remaining leader of the group… but Tuck the owner of the Duke of Wellington. The gang split into those that integrated with their rivals and those that went their separate ways… and their curious pidgin dissolved with them. Well, except for a few terms which hung on in dockside gang chatter, screeched amongst the gulls of Portsmouth without knowing their significance, for years to come.

Crop from Fine View of 1798 The Gunwharf Portsmouth Dockyard by E G Burrows

Playing Out

Despite being fundamentally the same game and a similar setting to when we played The Outpost the previous month, this game felt very different. Dialect is versatile enough that it can be used to write… adventures, coming-of-age tales, rags-to-riches stories, a comedies, horror, romance… and unless the tone is explicitly set out at the start then it’ll (hopefully) settle somewhere mutually-acceptable to all of the players. But with a new game, new setting, and new players, it’s inevitable that a different kind of story will be told.

But more than that, the backdrop itself impacted on the tale we wove. On Mars, we were physically isolated from the rest of humankind and living in an environment in which the necessities of a new lifestyle and society necessitates new language. But the isolation of criminal gangs in Portsmouth docklands in the late Georgian era is a very different kind: it’s a partial isolation, imposed (where it is) by its members and to a lesser extent by the society around them. Which meant that while their language was still a defining aspect of their isolation, it also felt more-artificial; deliberately so, because those who developed it did so specifically in order to communicate surreptitiously… and, we discovered, to encode their group’s identity into their pidgin.

Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour by Ambrose-Louis Garneray

While our first game of Dialect felt like the language lead the story, this second game felt more like the language and the story co-evolved but were mostly unrelated. That’s not necessarily a problem, and I think we all had fun, but it wasn’t what we expected. I’m glad this wasn’t our first experience of Dialect, because if it were I think it might have tainted our understanding of what the game can be.

As with The Outpost, we found that some of the concepts we came up with didn’t see much use: on Mars, the concept of fibs was rooted in a history of of how our medical records were linked to one another (for e.g. transplant compatibility), but aside from our shared understanding of the background of the word this storyline didn’t really come up. Similarly, in Thieves Cant’ we developed a background about the (vegan!) roots of our gang’s ethics, but it barely got used as more than conversational flavour. In both cases I’ve wondered, after the fact, whether a “flashback” scene framed from one of our prompts might have helped solidify the concept. But I’m also not sure whether or not such a thing would be necessary. We seemed to collectively latch onto a story hook – this time around, centred around Matt’s character John Crawford’s life and our influences on it – and it played out fine.

And hey; nobody died before the epilogue, this time!

I’m looking forward to another game next time we’re on a D&D break, or perhaps some other time.

Entles (Gender-Neutral Aunts, Uncles, etc.)

Enfys published an article this week to their personal blog: How to use gender-inclusive language. It spun out from a post that they co-authored on an internal Automattic blog, and while the while thing is pretty awesome as a primer for anybody you need to show it to, it introduced a new word to my lexicon for which I’m really grateful.

The Need for a New Word

I’ve long bemoaned the lack of a gender-neutral term encompassing “aunts and uncles” (and, indeed, anybody else in the same category: your parents’ siblings and their spouses). Words like sibling have been well-established for a century or more; nibling has gained a lot of ground over the last few decades and appears in many dictionaries… but we don’t have a good opposite to nibling!

Why do we need such a word?

  • As a convenient collective noun: “I have 5 aunts and uncles” is clumsier than it needs to be.
  • Where gender is irrelevant: “Do you have and aunts and/or uncles” is clumsier still.
  • Where gender is unknown: “My grandfather has two children: my father and Jo.” “Oh; so you have an Aunt or Uncle Jo?” Ick.
  • Where gender is nonbinary: “My Uncle Chris’s spouse uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. They’re my… oh fuck I don’t even remotely have a word for this.”

New Words I Don’t Like

I’m not the first to notice this gap in the English language, and others have tried to fill it.

I’ve heard pibling used, but I don’t like it. I can see what its proponents are trying to do: combine “parent” and “sibling” (although that in itself feels ambiguous: is this about my parents’ siblings or my siblings’ parents, which aren’t necessarily the same thing). Moreover, the -ling suffix feels like a diminutive, even if that’s not its etymological root in this particular case, and it feels backwards to use a diminutive to describe somebody typically in an older generation than yourself.

I’ve heard that some folks use nuncle, and I hate that word even more. Nuncle already has a meaning, albeit an archaic one: it means “uncle”. Read your Shakespeare! Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for resurrecting useful archaic words: I’m on a personal campaign to increase use eyeyesterday and, especially, overmorrow (German has übermorgen, Afrikaans has oormôre, Romanian has poimâine: I want a word for “the day after tomorrow” too)! If you bring back a word only to try to define it as almost-the-opposite of what you want it to mean, you’re in for trouble.

Auntle is another candidate – a simple fusion of “aunt” and “uncle”… but it still feels a bit connected to the gendered terms it comes from, plus if you look around enough you find it being used for everything from an affectionate mutation of “aunt” to a term to refer to your uncle’s husband. We can do better.

A New Word I Do!

But Enfys’ post gave me a new word, and I love it:

Here are some gender-neutral options for gendered words we hear a lot. They’re especially handy if you’re not sure of the gender of the person you’re addressing:

Mx.: An honorific, alternative to Mr./Mrs./Ms.
Sibling: instead of brother/sister
Spouse: instead of husband/wife
Partner, datefriend, sweetheart, significant other: instead of boyfriend/girlfriend
Parent: instead of mother/father
Nibling: instead of niece/nephew
Pibling, Entle, Nuncle: instead of aunt/uncle

Entle! Possibly invented here, this is the best gender-neutral term for “the sibling of your parents, or the spouse of the sibling of your parents, or another family member who fulfils a similar role” that I’ve ever seen. It brings “ent” from “parent” which, while etymologically the wrong part of the word for referring to blood relatives (that comes from a PIE root pere- meaning “to produce or bring forth”), feels similar to the contemporary slang root rent (clipped form of “parent”). It feels new and fresh enough to not be “auntle”, but it’s similar enough to the words “aunt” and “uncle” that it’s easy to pick up and start using without that “what’s that new word I need to use here?” moment.

I’m totally going to start using entle. I’m not sure I’ll find a use for it today or even tomorrow. But overmorrow? You never know.

We Are The Martians

This week our usual Dungeons & Dragons group took a week off while our DM recovered from a long and tiring week. As a “filler”, I offered to facilitate a game of Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies, from Thorny Games, who I discovered through a Metafilter post about their latest free print-and-play game, Sign: A Game about Being Understood. Yes, all of their games about about language and communication; what of it?

Dialect

Dialect could be described as a rules-light, GM-less (it has a “facilitator” role, but they have no more authority than any player on anything), narrative-driven/storytelling roleplaying game based on the concept of isolated groups developing their own unique dialect and using the words they develop as a vehicle to tell their stories.

Dialect's rulebook and card deck.
It’s also super-pretty to leaf through and hold.

This might not be the kind of RPG that everybody likes to play – if you like your rules more-structured, for example, or you’re not a fan of “one-shot”/”beer and pretzels” gaming – but I was able to grab a subset of our usual roleplayers – Alec, Matt R, Penny, and I – and have a game (with thanks to Google Meet for videoconferencing and Roll20 for the virtual tabletop: I’d have used Foundry but its card support is still pretty terrible!).

The Outpost

A game of Dialect begins with a backdrop – what other games might call a scenario or adventure – to set the scene. We opted for The Outpost, which put the four of us among the first two thousand humans to colonise Mars, landing in 2045. With help from some prompts provided by the backdrop we expanded our situation in order to declare the “aspects” that would underpin our story, and then expand on these to gain a shared understanding of our world and society:

  • Refugees from plague: Our expedition left Earth to escape from a series of devastating plagues that were ravaging the planet, to try to get a fresh start on another world.
  • Hostile environment: Life on Mars is dominated by the ongoing struggle for sufficient food and water; we get by, but only thanks to ongoing effort and discipline and we lack some industries that we haven’t been able to bootstrap in the five years we’ve been here (we had originally thought that others would follow).
  • Functionalist, duty-driven society: The combination of these two factors led us to form a society based on supporting its own needs; somewhat short of a caste system, our culture is one of utilitarianism and unity.
Finished game board from The Outpost backdrop of our game of Dialect.
Our finished game board, or tableau.

It soon became apparent that communication with Earth had been severed, at least initially, from our end: radicals, seeing the successes of our new social and economic systems, wanted to cement our differences by severing ties with the old world. And so our society lives in a hub-and-spoke cave system beneath the Martian desert, self-sustaining except for the need to send rovers patrolling the surface to scout for and collect valuable surface minerals.

In this world, and prompted by our cards, we each developed a character. I was Jeramiah, the self-appointed “father” of the expedition and of this unusual new social order, who remembers the last disasters and wars of old Earth and has revolutionary plans for a better world here on Mars, based on controlled growth and a planned economy. Alec played Sandy – “Tyres” to their friends – a rover-driving explorer with one eye always on the horizon and fresh stories for the colony brought back from behind every new crater and mountain. Penny played Susie, acting not only as the senior medic to the expedition but something more: sort-of the “mechanic” of our people-driven underground machine, working to keep alive the genetic records we’d brought from Earth and keep them up-to-date as our society eventually grew, in order to prevent the same kinds of catastrophe happening here. “Picker” Ben was our artist, for even a functionalist society needs somebody to record its stories, celebrate its accomplishments, and inspire its people. It’s possible that the existence of his position was Jeramiah’s doing: the two share a respect for the stark, barren, undeveloped beauty of the Martian surface.

We developed our language using prompt cards, improvised dialogue, and the needs of our society. But the decades that followed brought great change. More probes began to land from Earth, more sophisticated than the ones that had delivered us here. They brought automated terraforming equipment, great machines that began to transform Mars from a barren wasteland into a place for humans to thrive. These changes fractured our society: there were those that saw opportunity in this change – a chance to go above ground and live in the sun, to expand across the planet, to make easier the struggle of our day-to-day lives. But others saw it as a threat: to our way of life, which had been shaped by our challenging environment; to our great social experiment, which could be ruined by the promise of an excessive lifestyle; to our independence, as these probes were clearly the harbingers of the long-promised second wave from Earth.

Even as new colonies were founded, the Martians of the Hub (the true Martians, who’d been here for yams time, lived and defibed here, not these tanning desert-dwelers that followed) resisted the change, but it was always going to be a losing battle. Jeramiah took his last breath in an environment suit atop a dusty Martian mountain a day’s drive from the Hub, watching the last of the nearby deserts that was still untouched by the new green plants that had begun to spread across the surface. He was with his friend Sandy, for despite all of the culture’s efforts to paint them as diametrically opposed leaders with different ideas of the future, they remained friends until the end. As the years went by and more and more colonists arrived, Sandy left for Phobos, always looking for a new horizon to explore. Sick of the growing number of people who couldn’t understand his language or his art, Ben pioneered an expedition to the far side of the planet where he lived alone, running a self-sustaining agri-home and exploring the hills until his dying day. We were never sure where Susie ended up, but it wasn’t Mars: she’d talked about joining humanity’s next big jump, to the moons of Jupiter, so perhaps she’s out there on one of the colonies of Titan or Europa. Maybe, low clicks, she’s even keeping our language alive out there.

Retrospective

The whole event was a lot of fun and I’m keen to repeat it, perhaps with a different group and a different backdrop. The usual folks know who they are, but if you’re not one of those and you want in next time we play, drop me a message of some kind.

CSS Logical Properties

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.my-element {
  margin-inline-start: 1em;
}

What this now does is instead of saying “add margin to the left”, it says “regardless of direction, put margin on the starting side”. If the language of the document was right to left, like Arabic, that margin would be on the right hand side.

This is clever. If you use e.g. margin-left on every list element after the first to put space “between” them, the spacing isn’t quite right when the order of the elements is reversed, for example because your page has been automatically translated into a language that reads in the opposite direction (e.g. right-to-left, rather than left-to-right). When you use margin-left in this way you’re imposing a language-direction-centric bias on your content, and there’s no need: margin-inline-start and its friends are widely-supported and says what you mean: “place a margin before this element”. I’ll be trying to remember to use this where it’s appropriate from now on.

Understanding Them (Pronouns)

I had a bit of a realisation, this week. I’ve long sometimes found it especially challenging to maintain a mental map of the preferred personal pronouns of people who don’t use “he”, “she”, or “they”. Further than that, it seemed to me that personal pronouns beyond these three ought to be mostly redundant in English. “Them” has been well-established for over six centuries as not just a plural but a singular pronoun, I thought: we don’t need to invent more words.

Over time – even within my lifetime – it’s become noticeably more-commonplace to hear the singular “they”/”them” in place of “he or she”/”him or her”, or single binary pronouns (e.g. when talking about professions which have long been dominated by a particular gender). So you might hear somebody say:

“I will make an appointment to see a doctor and ask them about my persistent cough.”

Venn-Euler diagram showing the "set of all people" containing the subsets "he", "she", and the singular "they".
This seemed a perfectly viable model.

It seemed to me that “they” was a perfect general-purpose stand in for everybody who was well-served by neither “he” nor “she”.

I’ll stress, of course, that I’ve always been fully supportive of people’s preferred pronouns, tried to use them consistently, ensured they can be represented in software I’ve implemented (and pressured others over their implementations, although that’s as-often related to my individual identity), etc. I’ve just struggled to see the need for new singular third-person pronouns like ze, ey, sie, ve, or – heaven forbid – the linguistically-cumbersome thon, co, or peh.

I’d put it down to one of those things that I just don’t “get”, but about which I can still respect and support anyway. I don’t have to totally grok something in order to understand that it’s important to others.

Venn-Euler diagram showing "he" and "she" as separate categories, but the name "they" shared between the subset (individuals for whom this is their individual pronoun) and the superset (one or more people whose genders are unspecified), causing confusion.
Hang on, there’s a problem with this model.

But very recently, I was suddenly struck by a comprehension of one of the reported problems with the use of the singular “they” to refer to people for whom the traditional binary pronouns are not suitable. I’ve tried to capture in the illustration above the moment of understanding when I made the leap.

The essence of this particular problem is: the singular “they” already has a meaning that is necessarily incompatible with the singular “they” used of a nonbinary subject! By way of example, let’s revisit my earlier example sentence:

“I will make an appointment to see a doctor and ask them about my persistent cough.”

Here, I’m saying one of two things, and it’s fundamentally unclear which of the two I mean:

  • I do not know which doctor I will see, so I do not know the pronoun of the doctor.
  • I will see the same doctor I always see, and they prefer a nonbinary pronoun.

The more widespread the adoption of “they” as the third person singular for nonbinary people becomes, the more long-winded it is to clarify specifically which of the above interpretations is correct! The tendency to assume the former leads to nonbinary invisibility, and the (less-likely in most social circles) tendency to assume the latter leads to misgendering.

Venn-Euler diagram showing the superset "they" (all people) containing subsets "he", "she", and an unnamed subset.
Okay, so I guess we do need a third-party singular pronoun that isn’t “they”.

The difference is one of specificity. Because the singular “they” is routinely used non-specifically, where the subject’s preferred pronouns are unknown (as with the doctor, above), unknowable (“somebody wrote this anonymous message; they said…”), or a placeholder (“when I meet somebody, I shake their hand”), it quickly produces semantic ambiguities when it’s used to refer to specific nonbinary individuals. And that makes me think: we can do better.

That said: I don’t feel able to suggest which pronoun(s) ought to replace the question mark in the diagram above. But for the first time, I’m not convinced that it ought to be “they”.

Ultimately, this changes nothing. I regularly use a diversity of different singular pronouns (he”, “she”, and “they”, mostly) based on the individual subject and I’ll continue to acknowledge and respect their preferences. If you’ve you’ve told me that you like to be referred to by the singular “they”, I’ll continue to do so and you’re welcome and encouraged to correct me if I get it wrong!

But perhaps this new appreciation of the limitations of the singular “they” when referring to specific individuals will help me to empathise with those for whom it doesn’t feel right, and who might benefit from more-widespread understanding of other, newer personal pronouns.

(and on the off chance anybody’s found their way to this page looking for my pronouns: I’m not particularly fussy, so long as you’re consistent and don’t confuse your audience, but most people refer to me with traditional masculine pronouns he/him/his)

Word Ladder Solver

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It’s likely that the first word ladder puzzles were created by none other than Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), the talented British mathematician, and author of the Alice’s adventures. According to Carroll, he invented them on Christmas Day in 1877.

A word ladder puzzle consists of two end-cap words, and the goal is to derive a series of chain words that change one word to the other. At each stage, adjacent words on the ladder differ by the substitution of just one letter. Each chain word (or rung of the word ladder), also needs to be a valid word. Below is an example of turning TABLE into CROWN (this time, in nine steps):

TABLE → CABLE → CARLE → CARLS → CARPS → CORPS → COOPS → CROPS → CROWS → CROWN

In another example, it take four steps to turn WARM into COLD.

WARM → WARD → CARD → CORD → COLD

(As each letter of the two words in the last example is different, this is the minimum possible number of moves; each move changes one of the letters).

Word ladders are also sometimes referred to as doublets, word-links, paragrams, laddergrams or word golf.

Nice one! Nick Berry does something I’ve often considered doing but never found the time by “solving” word ladders and finding longer chains than might have ever been identified before.

The British-Irish Dialect Quiz

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What is your name for the playground game in which one child chases the rest and anyone who is touched becomes the pursuer?

Pretty accurate for me, although my answers to some of the questions – representing the diversity of places around Great Britain that I’ve lived and some of the words I’ve picked up along the way – clearly threw it off from time to time!

What If English Were Phonetically Consistent?

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YouTube (youtube.com)

I’m reminded of an old joke (best read aloud), which I’ll repeat for your amusement:

The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short).

In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c.” Sertainly, sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also, the hard “c” will be replaced with “k”. Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced by “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20 persent shorter.

In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the languag is disgrasful, and they would go.

By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” by “z” and “w” by ” v”.

During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.

After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer.

Ze drem vil finali kum tru.

From the Collection: Blissymbolics

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Blissymbolics was conceived by Austro-Hungarian expatriate Charles K. Bliss (1897–1985), born Karl Kasiel Blitz to a Jewish family in the town of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi in modern-day Ukraine). He was introduced to signs and symbols at an early age in the form of circuit diagrams – his father’s many occupations included mechanic and electrician – which he understood immediately as a “logical language”. Bliss (then Blitz) attended the Vienna University of Technology for chemical engineering and went on to become chief of the patent department at the German TV and radio company Telefunken, a career that was cut short in early 1938 when the Third Reich annexed Austria.

Bliss was sent to Dachau concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald, before escaping to England in 1939. The eight-month German bombing offensive against Britain known as The Blitz began only months later, prompting him to change his surname “from the war-like Blitz to the peaceful Bliss”, as he recalled in a taped interview. Bliss fled to Shanghai by way of Canada and Japan, where he was reunited with his wife. Claire, a German Catholic, had used her connections to get Bliss out of Buchenwald, but her relatively privileged status was not enough to spare her a fraught journey to safety across Europe and Asia. Even in Shanghai, the couple was forced into the Hongkew ghetto following the Japanese occupation.

Bliss became enraptured with written Chinese, which he mistook initially for ideograms. (Chinese characters are, in fact, logograms.) Nevertheless, certain Chinese characters have pictographic qualities, and it was the symbol for “man”,  that sparked Bliss’s epiphany. As he learned enough to read Chinese newspaper headlines and shop signage, he soon realized that he was reading the symbols not in Chinese, but in his native German. At the age of 45, Bliss was inspired to develop a non-alphabetic writing system that could be mastered in a short period of time and read by anyone regardless of their spoken language. This work remained the focus of his life, even after he and Claire emigrated to Australia in 1946 and despite the general apathy and indifference with which it was met.

Mr. Symbol Man

Fascinating article about the little-known “language” of Blissymbolics: coming from a similar era and background to Esperanto, Blissymbolics failed even more to gain widespread traction but encompasses some really interesting ideas (about graphic notation and design, about linguistic concepts, about communication theory) that we can still learn from. Read the full article…

Authority and Usage and Emoji

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Authority and Usage and Emoji (Dan Cohen)

Maybe it’s a subconscious effect of my return to the blog, but I’ve found myself reading more essays recently, and so I found myself returning to the nonfiction work of David Foster Wal…

A variety of emoji faces representing "astonished face"

Maybe it’s a subconscious effect of my return to the blog, but I’ve found myself reading more essays recently, and so I found myself returning to the nonfiction work of David Foster Wallace.1 Despite the seeming topical randomness of his essays—John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, the tennis player Tracy Austin, a Maine lobster fest—there is a thematic consistency in DFW’s work, which revolves around the tension between authority and democracy, high culture intellectualism and overthinking and low culture entertainment and lack of self-reflection. That is, his essays are about America and Americans.2

Nowhere is this truer than in “Authority and American Usage,” his monumental review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.3 DFW uses this review of a single book to recount and assess the much longer debate between prescriptive language mavens who sternly offer correct English usage, and the more permissive, descriptive scholars who eschew hard usage rules for the lived experience of language. That is, authority and democracy.

Neural nets respond to pranks like children do

A recent article by Janelle Shane talked about her recent experience with Microsoft Azure’s image processing API. If you’ve not come across her work before, I recommend starting with her candy hearts, or else new My Little Pony characters, invented by a computer. Anyway:

The Azure image processing API is a software tool powered by a neural net, a type of artificial intelligence that attempts to replicate a particular model of how (we believe) brains to work: connecting inputs (in this case, pixels of an image) to the entry nodes of a large, self-modifying network and reading the output, “retraining” the network based on feedback from the quality of the output it produces. Neural nets have loads of practical uses and even more theoretical ones, but Janelle’s article was about how confused the AI got when shown certain pictures containing (or not containing!) sheep.

A foggy field, incorrectly identified by an AI as containing sheep.
There are probably sheep in the fog somewhere, but they’re certainly not visible.

The AI had clearly been trained with lots of pictures that contained green, foggy, rural hillsides and sheep, and had come to associate the two. Remember that all the machine is doing is learning to associate keywords with particular features, and it’s clearly been shown many pictures that “look like” this that do contain sheep, and so it’s come to learn that “sheep” is one of the words that you use when you see a scene like this. Janelle took to Twitter to ask for pictures of sheep in unusual places, and the Internet obliged.

An AI mistakes a sheep for a dog when it is held by a child.
When the sheep is held by a child, it becomes a “dog”.

Many of the experiments resulting from this – such as the one shown above – work well to demonstrate this hyper-focus on context: a sheep up a tree is a bird, a sheep on a lead is a dog, a sheep painted orange is a flower, and so on. And while we laugh at them, there’s something about them that’s actually pretty… “human”.

Annabel with a goat.
Our eldest really loves cats. Also goats, apparently. Azure described this photo as “a person wearing a costume”, but it did include keywords such as “small”, “girl”, “petting”, and… “dog”.

I say this because I’ve observed similar quirks in the way that small children pick up language, too (conveniently, I’ve got a pair of readily-available subjects, aged 4 and 1, for my experiments in language acquisition…). You’ve probably seen it yourself: a toddler whose “training set” of data has principally included a suburban landscape describing the first cow they see as a “dog”. Or when they use a new word or phrase they’ve learned in a way that makes no sense in the current context, like when our eldest interrupted dinner to say, in the most-polite voice imaginable, “for God’s sake would somebody give me some water please”. And just the other day, the youngest waved goodbye to an empty room, presumably because it’s one that he often leaves on his way up to bed

Annabel snuggling one of Nanna Doreen's cats.
“A cat lying on a blanket”, says Azure, completely overlooking the small child in the picture. I guess the algorithm was trained on an Internet’s worth of cat pictures and didn’t see as much of people-with-cats.

For all we joke, this similarity between the ways in which artificial neural nets and small humans learn language is perhaps the most-accessible evidence that neural nets are a strong (if imperfect) model for how brains actually work! The major differences between the two might be simply that:

  1. Our artificial neural nets are significantly smaller and less-sophisticated than most biological ones.
  2. Biological neural nets (brains) benefit from continuous varied stimuli from an enormous number of sensory inputs, and will even self-stimulate (via, for example, dreaming) – although the latter is something with which AI researchers sometimes experiment.
John looking out of the window.
“Ca’! Ca’! Ca’!” Maybe if he shouts it excitedly enough, one of the cats (or dogs, which are for now just a special kind of cat) he’s spotted will give in and let him pet it. But I don’t fancy his chances.

Things we take as fundamental, such as the nouns we assign to the objects in our world, are actually social/intellectual constructs. Our minds are powerful general-purpose computers, but they’re built on top of a biology with far simpler concerns: about what is and is-not part of our family or tribe, about what’s delicious to eat, about which animals are friendly and which are dangerous, and so on. Insofar as artificial neural nets are an effective model of human learning, the way they react to “pranks” like these might reveal underlying truths about how we perceive the world.

And maybe somewhere, an android really is dreaming of an electric sheep… only it’s actually an electric cat.

My Sammelband has Frisket-Bite: A Short Glossary of Delightful Library Terms

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Von Frieling Sammelband, Accession #MS-65, Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

Two weeks ago I asked Twitter if anyone had favourite obscure and/or delightful library or archival words. Here are some of the best replies:

Tête-bêche: From philately, meaning printed upside down or sideways relative to another. (Tara Robertson)

Respect des fonds: A principle in archival theory that proposes to group collections of archival records according to their fonds — that is to say, according to the administration, organization, individual, or entity by which they were created or from which they were received. (Ed Summers)

Realia: Objects and material from everyday life. (Deb Chachra)

Odd One Out?

While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:

Which is the odd-one out: gypsiesturkeysfrench fries, or the Kings of Leon?

Gypsies, a Turkey, a pan of French Fries, and the Kings of Leon
If you answer “turkey, because it’s the only one that’s a bird,” then you’re somewhat missing the point.

In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:

A ginger and white kitten.
Aww.

Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.

A Persian cat.
Interestingly, this Persian cat could easily be another candidate for the odd-one-out.

Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:

Gypsies

The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The migration of the Romanies
The migration of the Romanies. The arrows show that they stopped in France for some French Fries before continuing to Britain.

Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.

Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.

Turkeys

When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.

A wild turkey
Gobblegobblegobblegobble.

Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.

Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.

French Fries

As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.

Friet Museum, Bruge
They may find it hard to prove that they invented fries, but the Belgians certainly hold the claim to the world’s only museum dedicated to the food.

So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.

The Kings of Leon

For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).

The Kingdom of Leon (circa 1210)
Leon, sandwiched between the other kingdoms of the 13th century Iberian Peninsula.

The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.

The Odd One Out

The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.

The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).

And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.

Orange

Which came first, orange or orange?

Let me try that again: which came first, the colour or the fruit?

A variety of shades of orange.
Oranges

Still not quite right – one more try: which came first, orange, the English name of the colour, or orange, the English name of the fruit? What I really want to know is: is the fruit named after the colour or the colour after the fruit? (I find it hard to believe that the two share a name and colour simply by coincidence)

Orange fruit and blossom hanging from the tree.
Oranges

It turns out that the fruit came first. Prior to the introduction of oranges to Western Europe in around the 16th or 17th century by Portugese merchants, English-speaking countries referred to the colour by the name ġeolurēad. Say that Old English word out loud and you’ll hear its roots: it’s a combination of the historical versions of the words “yellow” and “red”. Alternatively, people substituted words like “gold” or “amber”:  also both words for naturally-occurring substances whose identity is confirmed by their colouration.

Bitter oranges growing in Prague (they don't naturally occur there; these ones are in a botanical garden).
Green oranges. These oranges are what are now known as ‘bitter oranges’, the only variety to grow naturally: the ‘sweet oranges’ you’re used to eating are entirely a domesticated species.

There wasn’t much need for a dedicated word in English to describe the colour, before the introduction of the fruit, because there wasn’t much around of that colour. The colour orange isn’t common in nature: a few fruits, copper-rich soils and rocks, a small number of tropical fish, a handful of flowers… and of course autumn leaves during that brief period before they go brown and are washed away by Britain’s encroaching winter weather.

A "rainbow" of the visible spectrum, with key colour "areas" marked.
The names for the parts of the visible spectrum are reasonably arbitrary, but primary colours tend to cover a broader “space” than secondary ones; presumably because its easier for humans to distinguish between colours that trigger multiple types of receptors in the eye.

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay theorise that the evolution of a language tends towards the introduction of words for particular colours in a strict order: so words to distinguish between green and blue (famously absent in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai) are introduced before brown is added, which in term appears before the distinction of pink, orange, and grey. At a basic level, this seems to fit: looking at a variety of languages and their words for different colours, you’ll note that the ‘orange’ column is filled far less-often than the ‘brown’ column, which in turn is filled less-often than the ‘green’ column.

Electromagnetic spectrum with visible light highlighted
Of course, from a non-anthropocentric perspective, the “visible spectrum” is just a tiny part of the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation that we, and other animals, make use of.

This is a rather crude analogy, of course, because some languages go further than others in their refinement of a particular area of the spectrum. Greek, for example, breaks down what we would call “blue” into τυρκουάζ (turquoise) and κυανό (azure), and arguably βιολέ (violet), although a Greek-speaker would probably put the latter down as a shade of purple, rather than of blue. It makes sense, I suppose, that languages are expected to develop a name for the colour “red” no later than they do for other colours (other than to differentiate between darkness and lightness) – a lot of important distinctions in biology, food, and safety depend on our ability to communicate about red things! But it seems to me that we’ve still got a way to go, working on our linguistic models of colour.

The CIE 1931 colour space.
Factor in the ability of the human eye to distinguish between different colours, and you get a far more-complex picture that a simple linear spectrum.

If we’d evolved on Mars (and were still a sighted, communicative, pack creature, but – for some reason – still had a comparable range and resolution of colour vision), our languages would probably contain an enormous variety of words for colours in the 650-750 nanometre wavelengths (the colours that English speakers universally call “red”). Being able to navigate the red planet based on the different ratios of hematites in the rocks, plains, soils and dusts would doubtless mean that the ability to linguistically distinguish between a dark-red feature and a medium-red feature could be of great value!

Photograph of Mars as taken by a rover.
Mars. It’s pretty damn red.

The names we have for colours represent a part of our history, and our environment. From an anthropological and linguistic perspective, that’s incredibly interesting.

A rainbow (middle), compared to its computed calculation (below) and a sample of the EM spectrum (top).
All six colours of the rainbow. No, wait… nine? Three? A hundred? It’s all about how you name them.

If it weren’t for the ubiquity of, say, violets and lavender in the Northern hemisphere, perhaps the English language wouldn’t have been for a word for that particular colour, and the rainbow would have six colours instead of seven. And if I’d say, “Richard Of York Gave Battle In…”, nobody would know how to finish the sentence.

In other news, I recently switched phone network, and I’m now on Orange (after many years on Vodafone). There is no connection between this fact and this blog post; I just thought I’d share.