September 2022: WorldCon, xkcd on Lingthusiasm, and IPA lens cloths

This month, I went to Chicago for WorldCon (ChiCon 8), in which I was on the panels Ask A Scientist, That’s Not How That Works!, and Using SFF for Science Communication, as well as doing a Table Talk (where a small number of fans get to hang out and ask questions). It was very fun to see and hang out with lots of interesting people!

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Episode 72: What If Linguistics, in which Randall Munroe of xkcd asked us his very good absurd hypothetical questions about linguistics. Here’s a completely real and normal photograph of what that looked like:

The bonus episode was Bonus 67: Behind the scenes on making an aesthetic IPA chart – Interview with Lucy Maddox.

Speaking of which! We’ve heard excitement all month about the fun, minimalist design of the classic International Phonetic Alphabet chart which we released in August and which we’re printing on a massive order of microfibre lens cloths for Lingthusiasm patrons at the Lingthusiast tier or higher. (There’s still a few hours left to sign up for that from when this newsletter goes out, if that’s something you’ve been procrastinating on – it closes once it stops being October 5th, 2022 anywhere in the world, so a lot of folks may be able to sneak in a couple extra bonus hours.)

I also started a bracket on how people spell the clipped form of “usual” (spoiler: they’re all confusing)

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This month’s image is still the aesthetic IPA design because we’ve been doing a few final tweaks on it this month!

Demo of the minimalist lens cloth IPA chart by Lucy Maddox for Lingthusiasm's patrons. Blue background with green and white symbols in different combinations of green and white circles. Some are filled in blocks of color, some are just a line around the symbol. Lingthusiasm logo in bottom left corner.

August 2022: redesigning the International Phonetic Alphabet (to put in your pocket)

This month, we rethought the structure of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Okay, let me explain.

The IPA is typically presented in a chart that shows the sounds of languages of the world arranged in two dimensions: from top to bottom as the mouth is more and more open and from left to right as the sound is produced from the front of the mouth to the back. It’s elegant, it’s informative, it’s a highly familiar reference diagram for linguists. So my cohost Lauren Gawne and I thought it would be nifty to create a more aesthetically attractive version of this already really neat technical diagram which is typically presented in rather boring technical greyscale, as practical-yet-elegant merch for our podcast, Lingthusiasm. Almost a year ago, we sent off an email to our resident artist, Lucy Maddox….and now, finally, here we are.

In the process, we’ve learned a whole lot about the history of the International Phonetic Alphabet (longer version in the thread below!)

We’ve also realized that we have some questions about parts of the IPA chart layout that we’d been taking for granted. For example: why is there a third chart for the non-pulmonic consonants like clicks and implosives, when they have the same places of articulation as the main, pulmonic consonant chart and could surely just be rows there? And, wouldn’t it be sort of nifty to put the vowels back in the same chart as the consonants again, when they used to hang out there for decades? This started as an art project, but any good art also provokes…questions. Longer version and speculations in this blog post.

At any rate, here’s what it looks like when we put all of the symbols on the same chart!

An abstract, minimalist* rendering of the International Phonetic Alphabet as a grid of white, sans-serif letters on a midnight blue background, with no row or column headings. Bright green is used as an accent colour, for solid green circles around the voiceless consonants; white circles with green font for the rounded vowels, and narrow green borders around the lateral sounds. There’s a small lingthusiasm logo in the bottom corner and a translucent “demo” watermark splashed in the background.

*Yes, we know there’s a syntax theory called Minimalism as well, which this has no real relationship to because it’s a different subfield. Consider it a bonus easter egg!

We also thought, wouldn’t it be ideal if this eclectic nerd art IPA design came in a convenient format for carrying around with you? One that might even be useful for other purposes? So we’re getting it imprinted onto microfibre lens cloths (useful for cleaning glasses, sunglasses, camera lenses, and phone/computer screens). The thing is, lens cloth printing companies only take orders in the hundreds or preferably thousands, so we’ve decided to place one massive order for everyone who’s a patron at the Lingthusiast tier as of October 5th, 2022. This is our most popular tier, which also gets you our whole archive of monthly bonus episodes and access to the Lingthusiasm patron Discord server — if you’ve been on the fence about becoming a patron, now would be a really good time for it. (Higher tiers can get several lens cloths, if you want spares or to share with friends.)

Here’s more about the IPA redesign and here’s the link to get it by becoming a patron if you’re already convinced.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm this month was Episode 71: Various vocal fold vibes (curious about what some of those circles mean on the IPA chart? This episode will help you with that!). The bonus episode was Bonus 66: Using a rabbit to get kids chatting for science.

Technically speaking, next month’s bonus episode is an interview with Lucy Maddox about the IPA chart redesign and being a linguist/artist but we’ve made that bonus episode free for a limited time until the IPA lens cloth special offer is closed on October 5th, so you should go listen to that now if you’re interested!

I also finished the #103papers project this month, reading 1 paper each for the 103 languages identified by Kidd&Garcia in the top 4 journals about child language acquisition. More on the big picture from what I learned later, but in the meantime, here’s a neat thing I learned:

LingComm, the International Conference on Linguistics Communication, has put out its participant/volunteer survey for the next conference in February 2023. I’m not organizing it this year, but this year’s committee is fantastic and I look forward to seeing there many linguists who do communication with broader audiences and journalists, podcasters, youtubers, and other communicators who do linguistics — if that’s you, do check it out!

At the end of the month, I headed to Chicago for a double feature: in August, participating in Ada Palmer’s Renaissance papal election simulation (description at Part 5) and in September, WorldCon/ChiCon8, about which more next month.

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This month’s image is a summary of what’s going on with the IPA lens cloth situation, for those who don’t like big blocks of text.

What if the International Phonetic Alphabet looked like weird nerd art? Get this design (arrow to previously-described abstract IPA demo) on a handy-to-carry lens cloth (image of those microfibre cloths you clean glasses with; these are not the actual cloths but just to give you an idea of the genre). (Tiny abstract drawing of Lauren & Gretchen silhouettes from the website.) We're placing one bulk order for everyone who's a Lingthusiast patron or higher as of October 5, 2022. Sign up at patreon.com/lingthusiasm

June 2022: Modals and a cool linguistics paper

This month I attended a local literary speculative fiction con, Scintillation, where I was on panels about swearing in science fiction and fantasy and the delightful Steerswoman books, as well as doing a dramatic reading from Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet book.

Some linguists got very excited about a very cool linguistics paper by the late Anne Cutler, which I won’t spoil (because it really does have spoilers, but trust me you don’t need any particular linguistics background to get why it’s cool) and as a result we also managed to track down Anne Cutler’s Christmas Letter, which is mentioned in the paper. (The full twitter thread, linked to from below, is also worth reading afterwards.)

The main episode of Lingthusiasm this month was What we can, must, and should say about modals. The bonus episode was There’s like, so much to like about “like”.

I did a thread about how we approach a topic like modals which traditionally has a lot of associated terminology for a Lingthusiasm episode:

I also spent the entire month in the Indo-European section of the #103papers reading project. (And then some – 39 Indo-European languages in this sample.) Here’s a paper about Italian with very charming examples:

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Written Chinese “Biang”

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This month’s picture is Because Internet hanging out at the staff picks section with some book friends at my local independent bookstore, Argo Bookshop! Argo’s owners were linguists in a previous life and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in Montreal.

A signed copy of Because Internet hanging out on the staff picks shelf of Argo bookshop.

May 2022: 10th blogiversary and Japanese translation of Because Internet

In May, I hit my 10-year blogiversary on All Things Linguistic. I celebrated with two linkposts, one of the usual highlights from the past year and another, shorter post of more zoomed-out highlights from the past decade.

I participated for the second year running as a contestent in Webster’s War of the Words, a virtual game show fundraiser for the Noah Webster House.

Promotional graphic of Gretchen as a contestant for Webster's War of the Words virtual game show, including logo, headshot, and bio.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Tea and skyscrapers – When words get borrowed across languages. The bonus episode was What makes a swear word feel sweary? A &⩐#⦫& Liveshow, an edited recording of our online liveshow from April.

It’s delightfully surreal when an author whose books you’re enjoying also likes your book!

The #103papers project continued, in which I read one paper per language for the 103 languages identified as having papers published about them in the four major child language acquisition journals, based on a survey paper by Kidd&Garcia. Here’s a bit from a paper about Greenlandic showing that kids love morphology!

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This month I received my author copies of Because Internet in Japanese, translated by Toshio Chiba, which kept the bright yellow/blue cover. You can get it at Filmart or Amazon.co.jp.

Image of Japanese editions of BECAUSE INTERNET on top of blue fabroc covered in symbols. One copy is in its yellow dust jacket; one shows the blue cover inside the jacket.

April 2022: #103papers, Lingthusiasm liveshow, and LingComm Grantees

This month, I started a new reading project! It’s inspired by a paper by Evan Kidd and Rowena Garcia that came out last year, and which surveys the languages represented by all of the papers published in the four main child language acquistion research journals. Kidd & Garcia find that these journals contain papers about 103 languages; while this number is small compared to the total number of languages in the world (over 7000) and even the number of languages typically found in other cross-linguistic studies (the language maps at WALS often report data from 400-1200 languages), it does make for a relatively manageable reading list.

So that’s what I’m doing: reading one paper per language from this list, and posting a screenshot of the abstract and a my own tweet-length summary in this thread on twitter. At the rate of one paper per day, not quite every day, it’ll probably take me about four months. I’ve been missing going to conferences and finding out what people are working on in an informal fashion, which is different from diving in the literature to try and find out something specific for a lingcomm project, so this is an attempt to “refill the well” a bit.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was What it means for a language to be official. The bonus episode was Bonus 62: Approaching word games like a linguist – Interview with Nicole Holliday and Ben Zimmer of Spectacular Vernacular. We did a Lingthusiasm liveshow online via the Lingthusiasm Patron Discord! It was great to see everyone (about a hundred people!) in the chat in real time, as well as everyone who messaged us questions and sweary anecdotes beforehand.

We also announced the winners of the LingComm Grants, giving out a total of 5 Project Grants (including the Kirby Conrod Project Grant for projects related to gender and lingcomm) and 12 Startup Grants. You can see the full list of grantees here, and stay tuned for more about their exciting linguistics communication projects as they get to work on them in the coming months.

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This month’s image is from a short trip to Boston this month, featuring Because Internet hanging out the media section of Porter Square Books.

A well-stocked bookshelf labelled "media" featuring Because Internet in the bottom left corner and other many books (A few: The Hype Machine, How to Do Nothing, Twitter: A Biography, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information)

March 2022: PIE Day and Memory Speaks

Here are some Pi Day (3rd month, 14th day) facts about the PIE (Proto-Indo-European). Both of these guys were named William Jones, confusingly enough.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Word order, we love (transcript). The bonus episode was Behind the scenes on how linguists come up with research topics. The deadline for the LingComm Grant applications was March 31st, so next month we head into reviewing the proposals!

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This month’s image is of the excellent book Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self by Julie Sedivy, which I greatly enjoyed reading! It’s a really interesting combination of pop science book and memoir, which we don’t see enough of in pop linguistics.

February 2022: Teaching with Because Internet survey and Lingthusiasm liveshow in April

I set up a survey for anyone who’s been using Because Internet for teaching – put in what you’ve been doing and I’ll compile and share it with other instructors!

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Knowledge is power, copulas are fun. The bonus episode was Emoji, Mongolian, and Multiocular O ꙮ – Dispatches from the Unicode Conference.

We also announced a Lingthusiasm liveshow in April, a sweary liveshow about swearing, taking place on the Lingthusiasm Discord. Plus: a longer descriptive post about the LingComm Grants, of which there are now several more thanks to people who supported them!

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This month’s image is brought to you by linguistics takes on the Roses are Red poem.

Valingtine Poem on a gradient green to blue to purple background. 
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Ideas are green
And colourless too
#valingtines

January 2022: LSA, LingComm Grants, and spectrograms

I started the year at a rather surreal LSA 2022, the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, which I’d hoped to attend in person in Washington DC but moved online at the last minute, along with what seemed to be most of the other attendees. It was nonetheless nice to see people virtually as well as help judge the Five Minute Linguist competition again.

This month we also announced the return of the LingComm Grants, small grants to help fledgling linguistics communication projects get off the ground, sponsored by Lingthusiasm and several other generous contributors. We first ran these grants in 2020, and it’s been great to see that people are still enthusiastic about them.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Making speech visible with spectrograms, for which we did a special video segment where you can see the spectrograms as we make them! The bonus episode was a chat where we interview each other about seasons, word games, Unicode, and more updates coming on Lingthusiasm.

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This month’s photo is Because Internet hanging out in the history and culture section of Librarie Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal.

BECAUSE INTERNET sitting atop display books.

December 2021: pigeon calls and a bookmas tree

This month, I did a virtual event with Argo Bookshop where I talked with Rosemary Mosco about her book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching (I am especially pleased with the “linguistic tie-in” portion of the event where I got Rosemary to teach me how to make various pigeon calls and the audience played along, very much vibes of intro phonetics class).

I did an interview on the Notion podcast with Devon Zuegel. Here’s a quote from that:

“If you see it as, okay, language is always a moving target, it’s a living thing that exists in the minds of living beings, and nothing about human life or human society, or human culture is exactly the same from one generation to the next, and language just comes along as part of that.”

Notion: Gretchen McCulloch talks about why we talk the way we do online

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Where to get your English etymologies. The bonus episode was Linguistics puzzles for fun and olympiad glory.

I also went to WorldCon in Washington DC this December, which I didn’t join in time to be on any panels but I did meet several people who liked Because Internet and signed books for them!

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This month’s image is a charming bookmas tree from Etat de Style, a bookstore in Montreal.

Stacked book tower covered in holiday lights, pinecones, and ornaments.

November 2021: 5th anniversary of Lingthusiasm and a new website

It’s Lingthusiasm’s fifth anniversary! I’ve officially been making a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics with my cohost Lauren Gawne and our linguistically enthusiastic team for five years now!

In celebration, we redid the Lingthusiasm website to make it work better on mobile and so it would be easier for both new and recurring listeners to find things like where to start, transcripts, bonus episodes, and more. It looks so good now thanks to the tremendous behind-the-scenes efforts of Liz McCullough (different spelling, no relation!) and the new icon art by Lucy Maddox!

I also wrote an incredibly long meta post about the website design process for Lingthusiasm, which…you probably already know if you’re the type of person who likes long meta posts about the implicit social functions of things in everyday life.

Podcasts have what’s often called a discoverability problem: it’s hard for prospective listeners who might like a particular podcast to know what’s out there.

I propose, however, that this problem is not unique to podcasts, and that we could understand the nature of this problem better by calling it opacity: the degree to which you’re able to try before you buy without committing a substantial chunk of time, money, or effort.

For example, books have a higher opacity than newspapers, despite both being text, because it’s easier to read through some news articles before buying a physical paper or online subscription. Books, even when you can leaf through the first few pages, are often designed to be a unified rather than a modular experience, so you don’t know before committing to it if the premise that seems intriguing on page 1 is going to pay off well a few chapters later. Even if you’re getting access to the book itself as a gift or a loan, the time that it takes to figure out whether you’re enjoying it is still rather daunting. 

How we made a better podcast website for Lingthusiasm

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Cool things about scales and implicature. The bonus episode was Linguistic 〰️✨ i l l u s i o n s ✨〰️ (like optical illusions but for language!). We also sent out the Lingthusiastic sticker packs in the mail!

Also, we put some Lingthusiasm transcripts into a neural net and apparently the robots think I do linguist standup now.

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This month’s image is from the website redesign: our artist Lucy Maddox did this exceedingly cute sketch of me and Lauren as the icon for our new “about” page!

Colored silhouette line art of Gretchen and Lauren from Lingthusiasm website redesign.