31 December 2012

New Quarry Norms

The modern-day extra-long noun-phrase build-up phenomenon for newspaper headlines has been observed for articles in English (see here). Sometimes, these long noun phrases are rather hard to parse, and they can give rise to what we call 'crash blossoms'.

This style of writing newspaper headlines also occurs in Brunei. Here is the headline from page 1 of The Brunei Times of Sunday, 30 December 2012:

The verb appears to be eye, and the article is about new norms for quarries. (It could, of course, be about norms for new quarries; but it appears to be the other interpretation.)

I find such headlines hard to parse, so I don't understand why journalists use them so often.

28 December 2012


However often I read the Malay newspaper, I still find it hard to parse text where the words are compacted together with little space between them. Take this paragraph, from page 2 of the Media Permata of 6 December 2012:

The first line reads:

Sebagai mengenang jasa dan membantu
  act as   remember service and   help
but I find it very difficult to parse with no spacing between the words.

Do English-language newspapers have similar compacting of the text that I don't notice as I am more familiar with English? I'm not sure. But it seems to me that the text-processing software is not working too well when dealing with Malay in this situation.

One other word of interest in this context is sumbangan ('contribution') in line 4. It is printed with a hyphen in it, which is not appropriate. It seems clear that the hyphen was added manually as a means of breaking up the line, and then was not removed when the paragraph was re-arranged. This seems to confirm that line-end hyphenation is done manually, which suggests that the text-processor cannot handle Malay very well.

19 December 2012

Digital Image Processing

A colleague asked me: what is meant in English by 'Digital Image Processing'? Is it the digital processing of images (i.e. 'digital [image processing]', with the adjective 'digital' modifying the compound noun 'image processing'? Or is it instead the processing of digital images, (i.e. '[digital image] processing', with the compound 'digital image' modifying the noun 'processing'?

I had to say: I don't know. As far as I can see, it is ambiguous, and it could be interpreted either way.

In fact, this kind of ambiguity is commonplace in English. Does a 'red chair cover' refer to a chair cover that is red, or is it a cover for red chairs? Does 'best train timetables' refer to timetables for the best trains, or to the best timetables for trains?

13 December 2012

secara umum

In my last two posts, I have been discussing common phrases in English (such as 'freezing cold') and how they can be said quite fast without disrupting intelligibility, while less common phrases (such as 'flaming hot') may be more problematic. Furthermore, the understanding of some phrases such as 'terminal degree' may depend on which variety of English you are familiar with.

Understanding common phrases spoken fast is, of course, important in learning all languages. I often listen to the Singapore news 'Berita Suria' on YouTube, mostly because it is has subtitles which are exceptionally valuable for me. In this extract (available here), the speaker ends his utterance with 'secara umum' ('publicly'), which he says quite fast as [Κƒara umum], eliding one syllable in the first word.

I have considerable difficulty decoding this phrase; but my colleague Adrian Clynes had no difficulty understanding it the first time I played it to him, which just confirms how far I have to go in learning Malay. It also demonstrates how important it is to become familiar with the fast pronunciation of common phrases.

(Actually, there is an error in the subtitles here, as the speaker says 'masyarakat' ('society'), not *'masyarat'; but never mind. Most of the Berita Suria subtitles are excellent.)

08 December 2012

terminal degree

In my previous post, I discussed the fact that 'flaming hot' uttered by a male speaker from Hong Kong was not understood by a female listener from Malaysia, mostly because this is not a common phrase in English.

In the same conversation, the Malaysian could not understand the speaker from Hong Kong when he used the phrase 'terminal degree', even though he said it quite clearly so there was nothing about the pronunciation that caused the problem.

In this case, the phrase 'terminal degree' is a common phrase in the United States to refer to the final degree one studies — it occurs 40 times in the COCA Corpus of American English. However, it is not a common phrase outside of the United States. I checked with my colleagues, and only one of them had heard it before.

This illustrates that problems of intelligibility can be affected by a range of different factors: not just pronunciation, but also familiarity with typical phrases that occur in the variety of English being spoken.

04 December 2012

freezing cold and flaming hot

I have recently been doing quite a bit of work on intelligibility, and some of my data comes from a male speaker from Hong Kong talking to a female speaker from Malaysia. My research is concerned with places where they failed to understand each other, and specifically with what causes those misunderstandings.

In one place, the male speaker says that he likes the steady climate of Brunei as, in previous places he has been, it has been 'either freezing cold or flaming hot'. And, as is common for speakers from Hong Kong, he simplifies the consonant clusters at the start of freezing and flaming, omitting the [r] in the first and the [l] in the second.

What is interesting from these examples is that his listener understood him perfectly well when he said 'freezing cold' but could not understand him when he said 'flaming hot'. In fact, she transcribed it as 'fuming hot' instead of 'flaming hot'.

The explanation for this is, of course, that 'freezing cold' is a common phrase (it occurs 197 times in the COCA corpus of American English ‑ see here), but 'flaming hot' is much less common (it only occurs 2 times in the COCA data).

What this tells us is this: when you are using a common phrase, then you don't need to articulate it too carefully to be understood; but if you are sayng something less common, then you need to say it very carefully.

The other thing to note is this: loss of intelligibility does not just involve pronunciation, as we have to consider other factors as well. Both of these phrases involved the same kind of non-standard pronunciation, but one was understood while the other was not.

02 December 2012


What does 42 represent?

Well, we all know it is 7 times 6. And some of us know that it is the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. (See here). But what else is it?

Here is something useful for you to know: row 42 on aircraft is the emergency exit.

Now, that may not be of much help to you as the plane goes down in flames. But it is jolly useful to know when you are booking your seat, because row 42 always has extra leg-room.

Job Opportunities

There is a recent analysis in Language Log (here) of linguistics dissertations submitted and job opportunities advertised, based on work done by Stephanie Shih and Rebecca Starr. The results look like this, where the blue columns show the number of dissertations in each field and the orange and yellow columns show job opportunities.

Basically, for someone starting their academic career, you want the blue column to be low (you don't want too many competitors) and the other two columns to be high (lots of jobs).

Guess what: for mainstream linguistics, you are best off in phonetics (the leftmost category). Morphology, syntax and semantics are not so good, and sociolinguistics is also not good. Psycholinguistics looks OK, though.

Phone Usage

Did you know that texting is the second most common use of a mobile phone? (See here).

So, you might ask, what's that most common use?

No, it's not talking. It's checking the time.