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

July 2022: In which I get my brain scanned!

This month’s Lingthusiasm episodes were a special double feature from my trip to Boston to get my brain scanned and finally discover whether I am one of the extremely special left-handed people who has their language centres on the right or both sides of the brain instead of the left. Spoiler: I am not, mine is on the right, just like most other people, left- and right-handed.

However! It was still really neat to take off all my metal items and go in the massive magnet that is an MRI machine and hear about language in the brain with Ev Fedorenko and what specifically was being tested in the experiments I participated in, with Saima Malik-Moraleda. (You can listen to the episodes in either order, depending on how much you like ~suspense~)

The #103papers reading project is still (still!) going on, in which I finally got through the enormous Indo-European section and learned some things about languages like Lazuri:

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This month’s image is a picture of my brain doing language!! Okay, admittedly, it looks a lot like all of the other brain scans that people get, but this one’s mine!!!

Left hemisphere of Gretchen's Brain from an MRI observing language and the brain. (Assorted red and yellow blotches around the top curve of the temporal lobe, on a grey brain scan image.)

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.

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.

October 2021: Unicode Conference!

I finally went to some physical conferences again this month!

More specifically, I went to California for two conferences, Sotheby’s Level Up in Los Angeles and the Unicode Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I did a keynote called “Taking Playfulness Seriously – When character sets are used in unexpected ways” (slides here!).

Here’s a meme-ish slide I made for my Unicode talk, about how tech tools need to work with and support users’ desires to be playful with language and symbols rather than pretending that people aren’t going to repurpose official tools for entertainment purposes, because ignoring this technological “desire path” just ends up creating a bad experience for users.

A park with two paths through it. The paved path is labelled "stop using our serious unicode characters for your fun games" and then there's a dirt path that clearly a lot of people have used instead.

If you want to watch the Unicode talk, it’s not online as itself, but a few days later I did a talk on the same topic for Bay Area NLP, for which the video is here.

I also gave a virtual talk for some internal folks at YouTube, which is not online.

It was so great to see and meet a different assortment of people from my usual this month! I also got to do fun things like drop in on Spectator Books Oakland, which I happened to be walking by when I was in California so I signed their copy of Because Internet! (I think this signed edition has already been claimed by now, but they said they’d get more copies in later if you happen to be in the area. And as ever, you can always order signed Because Internets via Argo Bookshop in Montreal, if having a signed copy makes you excited enough to want to pay for shipping.)

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was Corpus linguistics and consent – Interview with Kat Gupta. The bonus episode was Lingwiki and linguistics on Wikipedia. We also saw a lot of people sign up for the limited-time Lingthusiastic sticker pack!

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This month’s image is from the Unicode Conference, which put U+1F637 (the Unicode encoding for the masked face) on its masks instead of like, a logo. I just. I’m so pleased about this. Plus my esoteric symbols scarf which everyone at Unicode did appreciate as much as I’d been hoping for, thank you.

September 2021: virtual university talks and a new portrait!

I did some back-to-school virtual university talks this month! I talked about The Internet is Making English Better at Yale with Claire Bowern and about Internet Linguistics and Memes as Internet Folklore with a student at the University of Oklahoma.

In fun internet crossover moments, Cecil Baldwin, host of Welcome to Night Vale (the podcast that got me into podcasts!), discovered the Welcome to Night Vale crossover in Because Internet, which he had evidently been reading!

Peeking face, palm up, and palm down – the emoji I proposed with Lauren Gawne and Jennifer Daniel are now officially in Unicode 14.0 and will be coming to your devices in the next few years!

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was That’s the kind of episode it’s – clitics. The bonus episode was Q&A with Emily Gref from language museum Planet Word. We also debuted a time-limited Lingthusiastic Sticker Pack special offer for people who support the podcast on Patreon. Finally, Lauren and I commissioned a portrait of the two of us hanging out together as cohosts, since international travel restrictions mean we won’t be taking a photo together anytime soon.

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Here’s the portrait of me and Lauren again, I’m so pleased with how it turned out! We also got individual versions to use as social media avatars.

July 2021: fun facts and fricatives

I asked people for their favourite fun fact about linguistics and ended up with a delightful thread of replies! (Click through to read them.)

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was A Fun-Filled Fricative Field Trip (transcript), and the bonus episode was on language under the influence of alcohol and other substances. We also released new Lingthusiasm merch! You can now ask people which shape is kiki and which one is bouba from the comfort of your own scarf, tshirt, mug, and other items. And…did we do a whole episode on fricatives just so that we could release “what the fricative” merch? In the immortal sounds of another fricative: Shhhhhhh.

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This month’s image is a delightful miniature tea and book display from a tea shop in Montreal.

Wooden bookshelf with compartments for tea and shelves for books against orange wall.