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.)

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.

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

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.

June 2021: texting periods, LingComm21 meta posts, and finally a new bookshelf!

I’m quoted in a New York Times Wordplay piece about ending texts with a period. Now that Because Internet has been out for two years, I can attest that people have successfully used it as a way of opening up cross-generational conversations about changing texting norms.

Gretchen McCulloch, the Canadian linguist and author of “Because Internet,” dedicated an entire chapter of her book to “typographical tone of voice,” which explores not only periods and ellipses as signifiers of tone, but also TYPING IN ALL CAPS, which is seen as yelling; using *asterisks* and ~tildes~ for emphasis; the all lowercase “minimalist typography,” which can indicate a kind of deadpan, sarcastic monotone; and, of course, tYp1nG l1k3 th!z. (This is called “l33t [elite] speak,” and while it was once a sincere and popular way of spicing up texts, it is now employed almost exclusively in irony.)

No More Periods When Texting. Period.

For anyone else who’s been trying to figure out how to do virtual events that are actually social, the organizing committee of LingComm21 has written a six-part series on how we designed the conference:

  1. Why virtual conferences are antisocial (but they don’t have to be)
  2. Designing online conferences for building community
  3. Scheduling online conferences for building community
  4. Hosting online conferences for building community
  5. Budgeting online conferences or events
  6. Planning accessible online conferences

I was a contestant on Webster’s War of the Words, a virtual quiz show fundraiser for the Noah Webster House, and also attended two online conferences, the Dictionary Society of North America and the annual meeting of the Canadian Linguistics Association.

The main episode of Lingthusiasm was an interview with Jade Abbott and Bonaventure Dossou from Masakhane, a grassroots initiative to make natural language processing tools in African languages, for Africans, by Africans. The bonus episode was about the linguistics of Pokemon names, looking at highly important Pokemonastics research like what makes a name sound cuddly or powerful. Also, Lingthusiasm now has a LinkedIn page, in case that’s a thing that’s been missing from your life. You’re welcome?

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This month’s image is, finally, inside a new bookshop again! This is from Librairie l’Alphabet in Rimouski, admittedly definitely a linguistics section that overlaps considerably with “reference” but containing a few French-language books I hadn’t seen before.

A bookshelf containing linguistics and reference books in French, including 337 Expressions Quebecoises, Le tu et le vous, and Une Histoire des Languages.