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

January 2021: Linguistics, Language and the Public Award, end of Crash Course Linguistics, and a cappella song about Because Internet

I started off the year as usual at the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting, at which I was honoured to be the recipient of the Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award. I put up my acceptance speech as a blog post (and also a reminder that I wrote a series on how to have a career sorta like mine). Although this year was virtual and Word of the Year had been in December, it was still great to see everyone in the unofficial Gather space that I made for the conference (thanks to everyone who helped brainstorm ideas for what to call a fantasy linguistics coffeeshop). Also thanks to Christian Brickhouse and Lauren Collister for running the annual Wikipedia editathon with me, which we also did in Gather and it worked well there.

The final Crash Course Linguistics videos and accompanying resource posts on Mutual Intelligibility came out!

There’s also now a directory of all of the Mutual Intelligibility posts, a whole year’s worth of compiled resources, which we put up to conclude the project. Many thanks to everyone who read and contributed to the project, especially our editor Liz McCullough.

The main Lingthusiasm episode this month was about how writing is a technology (a companion to the final Crash Course episode), and the bonus was our 100th episode total, a “director’s cut” of excellent deleted scenes from previous episodes that we’d had to cut for time. It’s also the one-year anniversary of launching the Lingthusiasm patron Discord, which has since become a place that’s lively and active but not too much to keep up with, in my opinion an ideal state for an online community.

Someone made a musical tiktok video asking why adults over 40 use ellipsis so much, a lot of people tagged me in it so I tweeted about it, and then the delightful A Capella Science made an extremely catchy response video, also in music, with the answer:

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This month’s image is a screencap from the A Cappella Science video about Because Internet, which I still utterly cannot get over. Amazing.

December 2020: Words of the Year

I did several media things this month on the theme of trying (insofar as it’s possible) to sum up this year: The Coronavirus’s New Words in the New York Times, Words of 2020! (and Metaphors, and Interfaces of the Year) on the a16z podcast, and a Bonus 2020 highlights episode from The Allusionist.

The Crash Course Linguistics episodes which came out this month were:

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was about small talk and the bonus episode was a Q&A with lexicographer Emily Brewster of Merriam-Webster about the process of making dictionaries. Thanks to our patrons for their great questions! If you want to suggest potential future guests and ask questions of them (along with getting access to bonus episodes and chatting with fellow linguistics enthusiasts in the Lingthusiasm Discord more generally), you can become a patron. Someone also made a Sporcle quiz about Lingthusiasm episodes, which we thought was very cool!

I went to the American Dialect Society’s annual Word of the Year vote, which is normally in person in early January at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, but this year as both have moved online, we were able to have the WotY vote at the end of December instead. A bit weird, but still nice to see familiar faces in the chat! The winner was, surprising no one at all, “covid”, and you can see the longer (and in my mind, more interesting) list of nominees in each category here.

A video with Tom Scott on the complicated question of how many languages there are.

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Lots of people seem to have received copies of Because Internet for Christmas this year, as it’s now in paperback, and have been tagging me in them on twitter and instagram, which is lovely! Here are some of them:

May 2020: retronyms, schwa, Language Files videos, and my 8th blogiversary

I did an interview for the New York Times about the vocabulary of covid times. Here’s a portion of it:

Looking ahead, linguistic changes are yet to come, Ms. McCulloch said. She explained the concept of a retronym — assigning a new name for a default now dated by technology or social change; for example, with the rise of cellphones, non-mobile phones became “landlines.”

“We are still in the phase of naming the new things we’re encountering, but eventually we’ll get to the stage where we need names for what things were like before the virus hit,” she said. We’re still assimilating to “the new normal” and its accompanying word bank, while longing for “the before times.”

But when we return to the life we knew, forever altered as it may be, we may need new qualifiers: first dates that aren’t over FaceTime; IRL hangouts, unmasked and less than six feet apart; to-stay drinks at bars.

I also did an interview in Archiletras, a Spanish-speaking literary publication, about Because Internet and internet language in general (it was very fun to get to read my words translated into Spanish!)

I was on an impromptu panel about linguistics in science fiction/fantasy at the online version of WisCon (#WisConline) with a fun group of linguists!

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was about schwa, the most versatile English vowel and the bonus episode was about counting systems across languages. Lingthusiasm was also featured on the big Patreon accounts as part of #MadeWithPatrons and we released new schwa-themed merch with the (admittedly aspirational these days) slogan Never Stressed.

I hit my eighth blogiversary on All Things Linguistic, and it is frankly pretty absurd that I’ve been blogging this long. Here’s the traditional year-in-review roundup post, featuring some of my favourite posts of the past year.

Two new Language Files videos came out: the Hidden Rules of Conversation (about Grice’s Maxims) and schwa, product of the ongoing collaboration between me, Tom Scott, and Molly Ruhl. (It is, uh, maybe not a coincidence that Everything Was Coming Up Schwas this month, when you have a good idea you might as well just roll with it.)

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This month’s image is of the new schwa sticker pack, with art which we commissioned from Lucy Maddox of the schwa + Never Stressed slogan in multicoloured floral and black and white geometric designs.

schwa never stressed lingthusiasm sticker pack