Saturday, December 18, 2010

N-gram games

Google have announced a new toy to play with - actually, it's not really a toy, but the biggest searchable English language corpus in the world. 360 billion words from around 5 million books are at your disposal. That's over a thousand times larger than any existing corpus.

It's not as well structured as some university-based corpora - for example, they've side-stepped the issue of copyright with newer books by not showing you the context of the word you're searching for. There's also no ability to fine tune for genre, or anything other than "British" or "American" English. But it's still a lot of fun. There's a nice discussion about it here on good ol' Language Log, but if you're more interested in just playing you can head here.

I thought I'd use it on some old lexical friends of ours to see how it goes. First of all, after our recent discussion about "luck out" I plugged in that phrase. These are the frequencies I got:

Given that there wasn't much in the newspaper corpora from earlier than the mid 20th century this chart adds to the theory that "luck out" is a relatively recent phrase. Especially when we look at some of the examples from the 19th century and find things like:

we must not leave " good luck" out of the statement, as we feel assured that ' good luck' is a great point towards a fortune (Pierce Egan's book of sports, and mirror of life, 1832, p. 71)


Have yure eyes about you, and luck out for sparks
(Thomas Hood, Hood's own, or, laughter from year to year, 1939, p. 352)

The first being a different structure, but still picked up thanks to the OCR not picking up punctuation while the second appears to be an outdated way to spell 'look.'

The same types of mistaken reading occur up until the first reference I've found for the phrase as we know it. In George A. Meyer's 1975 book "The two-word verb: a dictionary of the verb-preposition phrases in American" where we find the entry for "Luck":

Used as a verb only in the expression "luck out", luck out I (9) Slang. John lucked out when his motorcycle crashed into the big truck. (He was not seriously injured.)

This adds weight to the earlier analysis that the 'positive' definition of "luck out" is more of a USA usage than a UK one - and with the earliest usage I could find was a quote from a baseball player in 1971 the time frame for this 1975 book entry is also about right. After that 1975 entry there are more that pop up, and it appears that the sharp upward curve in the frequency count is somewhat attributable to increase in this phrase

Another old friend of ours here is the pejorative term "douche bag." Here we see a spike in usage in the 1920s:

The 1920s peak in usage is from the heyday of the douche bag as a piece of medical equipment, and the search function provides you with a baffling and occasionally scary array of books and journals on the topic. These kind of references occur right into the 2000s, and are still more common than the derogatory usage, but this begins to creep in during the 1970s and 1980s. Still, these references are not nearly as common as to single-handedly explain the rise in usage of "douche bag" since the 1970s.

Strangely enough, our old buddy "awkward turtle" has not made it into a publication in the Google corpus. This is possibly because the corpus stops in 2000 and "awkward turtle" is newer, but also likely to do with the fact that only using published book corpora gives a limited type of language use. A reminder that while book and published material corpora are interesting and useful they're not always the final word on language use!

You too can play at home! The Lousy Linguist has a great little post today about how not to interpret n-grams, but have a play for yourself and if you find anything amusing let us know below!

Happy New Year!

After a lovely few weeks holiday I've sent my own personal Porter back home - with a chuck of my ever-growing book collection. Having time off over the Christmas and New Year period was lovely, and certainly a different experience to this time of year back home. I'll share a few of our adventures over the next week or so before I head back to the village and leave email behind me for a few weeks.

One of the social highlights of the holiday was New Years Eve, when we met up with some friends, and a few of their drunk friends and ended up at a jazz bar drinking cocktails until the small hours. Of course, the Western New Year isn't that exciting in Nepal - it's one of at least a dozen that crops up.

There's the Nepali New Year which is in mid-April - it's based on the Bikram Sambat calendar also used in India. We're currently in the year 2067, which actually makes 2011 seem a little behind the times.

Then there's the Newari New Year - Newars being indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley, and their calendar is the Nepal Sambat. For them, New Year falls in around Tihar, so some time in November and we're only in the year 1332 right now. There's a push among certain groups to get this recognised as the official calendar of Nepal.

Next is Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, and celebrated by various ethnic groups in Nepal that are Buddhists of the Tibetan schools. But, to make things complicated, there are no fewer than three different dates for Losar. The first is Sonam Losar, which follows the lunar new year. The thing I like most about Losar is that it is celebrated for two weeks - which sounds like a proper party to me! This is the Losar date that Tam speakers celebrate - and for 2011 the first day conveniently falls on my birthday. The second Losar, Gyalpo Losar, is celebrated on the 5th of March in 2011. It's celebrated by Buddhists from Tibet and several Buddhist ethnic groups in Nepal. Finally, the Gurung ethnic group celebrate Tamu Losar as a fixed date every year, as opposed to basing it on the lunar calendar. These guys actually kicked of the Losar season, with Tamu Losar falling on the 15th of Poush, on the Nepali Calendar - which this year was the 30the of December - meaning they were recovering from their hangovers just when Westerners were embarking on theirs.

The Tharu ethnic group in the Terai - the flat lands in the south of Nepal that are heavily farmed - also celebrate New Years on a different date, although I should find out more about them. And there is a small but not insignificant Muslim population in Nepal which means that they recently celebrated the Islamic New Year on the 26th of November.

Deck Nepal with boughs of holly

With the arrival of the Handsome Pen pal now only hours away I've decided to give the blog a bit of a rest over the Christmas break. I'm determined to try and do no work for the next couple of weeks - although I'm sure I'll find more language factoids to share with you, and crazy adventures always have a habit of finding me here.

While I'm away, I thought I'd use the break to take questions from the floor. If there's anything you've ever wanted to ask me, now is the time. Whether it's about life in Nepal, Tam and other specific languages, or just linguistics-y stuff in general feel free to put it as a comment below or, should you know my email address, write to me there and I'll answer throughout January.

Of course, this could backfire spectacularly if it turns out that my readership figures just come from my mother constantly hitting refresh on her browser to check I'm still alive.

Have a lovely Christmas and a great start to 2011!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Going Dutch

I've made friends with another resident-guest at the guest house I'm staying in while back in Kathmandu. He is form Holland and volunteering at the school next door - I shall refer to him as Jan for future reference.

Since hanging out with Jan I've met more Dutch people in Kathmandu that I did when I was in the Netherlands. They are all variously interesting people, I don't think either Kathmandu or Jan tend to attract dull people. Last night when we decided to venture out to a nice Newari place I found myself to be the only non-Dutch person at dinner.

It was a lovely dinner; the food was nice, the conversation interesting and we were in a lovely old building. When it came to the end of the evening, and paying the bill Jan turned to me and said - "we all pay for ourselves, that is how we do it at home".

In Australia the colloquialism for this kind of payment arrangement is "to go Dutch" - and so I went Dutch with a table full of Dutch people, and spent the next 5 minutes telling them how amusing it was that what I had always thought was a bit of a nonsense phrase really did appear to have its etymology in the bill paying practices of the Dutch.

"hmm, you really are a linguist, aren't you" one member of the party concluded, in what he assured me was a complement.

Hard to here sounds

For the last couple of days I've been adding new words to the dictionary from a list one of my consultants made for me. We've currently got about 1140 words, if you don't count affixes like the plural suffix, (which is -ya).

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to share with you one of the reasons that I find working with Tam is difficult, and that is the different sounds that it uses.

Different languages have different sound systems, that's one of the reasons they sound so different. Sure, most languages might have a vowel that kind of sounds like 'a' but there's every chance it's a little bit different.

We lock into these sounds very early on in our language learning, some research shows that we begin to pick up on some of it by listening to our mothers voices before we're even born. And we get very good very quickly at making the sounds in our own language. It's how Arabic speaking children have no trouble with all those glottal sounds that always get me, or how English speakers can say 'th' with ease.

So we tune into the differences that are found in our own language which means we stop paying attention to distinctions that can be found in other languages. this is why I can't hear the difference in Polish between three different sounds that all sound like 'sh' to me, or how some English speakers can't roll their r.

When it comes to Tam, the worst sounds for me all sound like 'ta' or 'da'... while in English we only perceive two sounds there's a lot more happening in Tam.

Firstly, in English we only have 't' and 'd' - which is a voicing distinction. Try saying each with your hand on your throat and you'll notice that it vibrates more when you say 'da' than 'ta'. In Tam, there is the voiced 'd' sound and the unvoiced 't' sound, and also an aspirated 't' sound (which gets written with a h next to it) - this third sound is a 't' but with more air coming out with the sound. So we have three sounds 'd', 't' and 'th' where English only has two.

Secondly, Tam has retroflexes, which English doesn't. A retroflex sound is where you curl your tongue up so the bottom bit touches the roof of your mouth. It's quite a common sound for this corner of the world - Nepali has it and it gives Hindi some of the rhotic (r-sounding) quality associated with it. There's a retroflex for each of the above sounds, which I'll write them in capitals. so there's 'T', 'Th' and 'D'.

Thirdly, Tam has tone. Tone is a feature of many languages - if you've learned Chinese or Vietnamese you've come across it. Basically the vowel sounds higher or lower. Fortunately Tam only has two tones, high and low. And, thanks to some complex historical reasons that I shan't bore you with, aspirated sounds only have high tone, and voiced sounds only have low tone, but unvoiced and unaspirated sounds such as 't' or 'T' can take either. So there's another distinction that English speakers don't make.

Finally, there is a vowel length distinction that's very hard to hear. While there's 'a' there is also 'aa'. English has long and short vowels too, but there is also a quality different, the throat area tends to be more tense for short vowel and lax for long vowel. But in Tam it's only length and can be quite hard to hear. So that doubles the amount of options that there were.

So in English we have 'ta' and 'da' - which means that we can hear the different between 'tag' and 'dag'. In Tam, instead of just a two way difference, all those variables give us sixteen different sounds. That means that Tam speakers hear the difference between 'tag' (with low tone), 'tag' (with high tone), 'Tag' (with low tone), 'Tag' (with high tone), 'dag', 'Dag' 'thag', 'Thag', 'taag' (high tone), 'taag' (low tone), 'Taag' (high tone), 'Taag' (low tone), 'daag', 'Daag', 'thaag' and 'Thaag'.

While my ear has gotten better the longer I listen to Tam, there's still a lot of times that I can't hear the difference, which can make writing up the dictionary rather hard!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Debate O'clock

Over at the Economist they're running an online debate about that old linguistic chestnut "does the language you speak shape the way you think?" Check out the fisticuffs here

I'm sure most of the comments will just degenerate into "I speak language X and in my personal opinion..." but it's always a great topic. It's subtle, and messy and, if argued with any sophistication, nuanced - but it goes right to the heart of why we use language, where (or if) the boundary should be drawn between language and culture and just what happens in our heads.

Also, it's always exciting for linguistics to get a gig in the mainstream media!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wedding: now with photos!

Now that I'm back in Kathmandu I've added photos to the wedding adventures. You can read about all the fun I had at a 3 day Nepali wedding here and here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Iron stomach

On this field trip I am cursed with the twin good fortunes of being well-fed by the friends I live with when I'm in the village, and also having a very robust digestive system.

Last trip I was also relatively well fed - but spent more time living alone in KTM where I had more autonomy as to what I would eat, and how much. Also, for most of last trip, I was - to a greater or lesser extent depending on the week - quite sick. It's not something I really mentioned on the blog partly to prevent unnecessary worry and partly because it was so persistent it wasn't worth mentioning. So even with an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise routine last year I still managed to come home not looking too different to when I departed (I did lose a heap of weight in the middle and ate a lot of cake to make up for that).

My iron digestive track has lead to the development of a stomach a little less solid and a little softer.

I have never eaten so much in my life as I do in the village here - and growing up with a Polish grandmother I can tell you that is not a flippant statement. How they eat so much rice is beyond me. The strangest thing is that after a week we had to sit down and have a serious conversation because my friend has been concerned that I'm not eating much. I pointed out that Nepalis eat a lot more rice than Australians - I didn't point out that since they won't let me do any work I'm not as hungry as she is after 8 hours in the fields.

Of course, having a more robust digestive system has made me much more cavalier about where I eat and what I eat. I still don't ever think I'll be able to eat the fresh coconut sold on the streets of Kathmandu, no matter how much my mouth waters every time I walk past - but I have eaten all manner of questionable things on this trip and remained unscathed.

I'll just have to hit the salads and bike riding when I get home.

A white christmas... in the distance

This year marks the second time in my life I'll celebrate Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere - and once again I'm not doing a very good job of a traditional Christmas.

Last time was in 1998 when my family celebrated with some friends in California. That involved poolside margaritas in the sun (well, margaritas weren't for me, given that I was about 13 at the time) making it much more like your average Australian Yuletide celebration.

This time Kathmandu is sunny, if a little chilly in the mornings. The good thing is that as long as it's a clear day (smog permitting) and we go somewhere with a good view we should be able to see snow covered mountains in the distance.

This year is the first time I'm spending Christmas anywhere other than a Christian-heavy Western country. To date, the festivities consist of one scraggy Christmas tree in the trekker's supermarket, and Sufjan Steven's Christmas EPs on repeat. This doesn't upset me too greatly - I find Christmas in Australia faintly nauseating, possibly a hangover of too many years working in retail. Also, this year I'm more excited about the countdown to the arrival of the Handsome Pen pal rather than Santa Claus. Still, I love spending time with my family at Christmas, I think in the next week or so it'll dawn on me that I'm missing that, and my grandmother's Christmas pudding.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tech Dramas pt. 2

First of all, let me say I am enjoying being back in Kathmandu

After my first bout of tech dramas earlier in the trip the small problems keep trying to trip me up.

Firstly, and most frustratingly, my own portable hard drive has decided to stop working, but only with my PC - it's still talking to my Mac (perhaps it's a snob) but that makes backing up and transferring something of a pain. Also, because I only had my PC with me for the last month it meant wasting my 16GB SD card as a temporary back up facility.

Secondly, I've been left with a giant terrabite hard drive to deliver to someone, as well as use for myself. First of all, it's annoying because KTM currently has 4-6 hours without electricity a day, so thanks to its external power requirements it's useless for large chunks of the day. Also, someone has done something to the settings and now I can't copy to it, so it's become completely useless to me as a back up option.

Third woe is that my little GPS tracker I was so excited about has stopped working. Most annoyingly, it tells me with its deceptive little blinking light that everything is ok, and then when I stick it into my computer it tells me there's no data there. The only thing more annoying than tech failing you is tech failing you after 8 hours of walking up and down hills.

I'm still getting stuff done, but if there's one thing that freaks me out it's having insufficient back up. I may sound like I'm being hyper-sensitive on the issue of backing stuff up, but I had a very traumatic experience a few years ago where I lost three different back ups of my work in the space of a week (laptop stolen, thumb drive error and then bag stolen) and would have lost all my work had I not left a backup CD at my parents place (huzzah for off-site storage!) so I'm kind of a bit highly strung about this stuff. Thankfully I've still got everything it an least 3 different places!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Farewell sleepy little town

Tomorrow I'm heading back to Kathmandu to count down the days until Christmas, and eagerly await the arrival of the Handsome Pen pal/faux-Husband.

Living in a small town has been a very different experience from big-city KTM and also very different from living in a small village. One thing you notice very quickly is it's small enough for everyone to recognise you, but unlike a small village they won't come and talk to you, only look at you.

I've made myself some friends here - the cook place where I go for lunch most days, a woman from a beauty shop who I purchased some shampoo from the first day has become someone I chat with every day.

Also, having nothing to do here besides leave the house for lunch and a walk around town (which takes approximately 25-30 minutes to do a lap) it's also proven to be a rather productive place to work. Still, I'm very eager to be getting back to KTM. High on the list of things to do are eat salad, have a shower with warm water and get a massage. I'm not sure what order to do those things, but probably not at the same time.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wedding (pt. 2): Taking your new wife home

[note: now with photos! 13/12/10]

Part one can be found here.

To date: the 7 hour party trek to the bride's house ended in celebrations, eating, dancing, singing, and all-night carousing.

The party was in no way over. Once again, we joined the celebrations when they reached our village, the band was heard long before the party arrived. When I say the groom was taking his new bride home I mean it quite literally. The bride was covered in a large blanket and carried all the way to her new village by her new husband. That's a good 7 hours of walking, a large part of which included steep ascents and descents on poorly maintained stone paths.

The groom's village was a place I hadn't visited, so I quite liked the walk. The pace was set to something between meandering and wandering and there were lots of stops along the way. The groom lived down in the valley near the river, and closer to a large town, so when we arrived there was a much larger open space as well as plastic chairs and electric lighting.

By this point I had perfected my mantra of answers I would repeat in every conversation “Australia”, “yes, he's in Australia”, “no children yet” and “2 ½ months” conveniently I'm half way though my trip so this does for both questions “when did you arrive” and “when are you going.” Answering such questions in Nepali provoked the usual response of amazement and wonder, but answering them in Tam left most people utterly bewildered. There were lots of people there that hadn't met me yet, and none of them had ever heard someone from beyond their own social group, let alone a foreigner, speak their language before. I was instantly adopted by more than a few old women over the course of proceedings.

There was more singing (the same songs), more dancing, more eating and more drinking. Some people again celebrated throughout the night, but I once again accepted an offer of a bed and a chance to sleep.

I thought the next morning would be a low key, sober end to proceedings – but realised I was probably wrong when I was a woman preparing a large saucepan full of chang (home made millet beer) at 7:30 am. There was another feeding and more of the kind of carousing I was becoming used to. I could even join in on a few of the songs by this point.

When we left at 12:30 pm the party showed no signs of stopping, more than 48 hours since it commenced. I loved how easy-going everyone was. I didn't even know the families but nobody thought to question why I was there. Everyone and their whole family were there. Even the bride wore socks and sandals.

Wedding (pt. 1): Collecting your wife

[note: now with photos! 13/12/10]

A Nepali wedding, like most things in Nepal is exuberant, has the appearance of being shambolic, involves a large, complex web of relatives and takes on an organic life of its own. I've split this post up over a couple of days, partly because there's so much to mention and partly because I'm still recovering.

The basic format of the wedding was like most in Nepal. First, the groom's family walk from his family's house to the bride's family's house. There is a ceremony and then they return to the groom's place, or a party destination, to celebrate. As it was a country wedding, the walk from the groom's village to the bride's was a 6 hour walk up and down hills and the whole wedding went for two and a half days.

We joined the celebrations as the groom's party passed through our village at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was quite easy to tell when they arrived given they came with their own processional band:

There is nothing quite like a Nepali band. Comprising of a variety of woodwind instruments and percussion the noise is distinct. To the Western ear here is something distinctly atonal about the melodies – which meander around to a never-ending improvised tune. The party had left at 11 am that day, and there was much drinking and merriment along the way:

That guy clearly isn't drinking Sprite... it's like the guys hold the buck's party on the way to the wedding.

And so we set off with them. There was something distinctly magical about walking along the edges of terraced mountains as the sun set and the band played on.

The descent into the bride's village is one I've made before – it's steep, and the stairs are small and prone to slipperiness. Factor in that the sun had just gone down at there were few flashlights and it actually became a rather stressful walk. People who know me well know that I'm not great with stair-based situations (which is, of course, why I work in Nepal) and while I've gotten better negotiating paths around here this was particularly stressful. It amazed me that people were capable at negotiating the path and they weren't even sober.

We arrived at the bride's village at 6 pm. Several of the terraces had been given over to a massive mass-dining area, where people lined up and were fed in batches from giant pots. The process went on for over an hour, and was repeated again the next morning by the bride's family and again that evening and the following day by the groom's. I was surprised that I flummoxed them by not eating meat. It appeared that I was the only vegetarian among 300 Buddhist guests – but thankfully someone rustled up some daal for me. This was repeated for every meal for the rest of the wedding, and most people were mystified by my strange dietary preference. Most people here can't afford to eat meat more often than once a week or fortnight, so to pass up the rare opportunity seemed to them a folly.

While we were eating there were some formalities that were taking place. The groom and his family entered the bride's house, where the local Lama was waiting to bless them all. This happened again at the groom's house, and I got to watch that time. It appeared, on the whole, that these proceedings weren't actually that important to anyone but the immediate family and everyone else was much more interested in eating, dancing, singing and drinking.

Which is what we busied ourselves with too. Impromptu groups of singers would strike up a tune, and happily sing along to the same song for up to an hour. Some men and women would get up to dance, and they received money from the other guests. I'm not sure what the money was for, or where it went.

A friend had found a place for me to sleep, and given that there were several hundred people and not many beds I took the offer gratefully. I fell asleep to the sound of singing, and woke up throughout the night as singing gave way to drunken singing and then was joined by the crowing of roosters. They had partied all night and when I woke at 6 am some were drinking morning tea while others were starting the morning with more home-distilled alcohol.

We sat around, sang some more, visited friends in neighbouring houses, ate once again at the mass serving area and then took our leave ahead of the main party. They would catch us up in our village on their way back to the groom's house, but the kids needed to be sent to school and some of us needed a nap.

While that would be the end of a great party at home, it was only the first half of proceedings. The wife still needed to be taken to her new house, which will form the second part of the story tomorrow.