superlinguo
superlinguo
Superlinguo
A blog about language and linguistics by Lauren Gawne.
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superlinguo · 4 days ago
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Conversation, cooperation and dementia
I have had more than one grandparent with dementia. This post is a series of personal reflections about the way conversation changes when someone you know well loses the ability to remember, and how linguistics has given me a framework for dealing with this. I don’t know anything about dementia other than these experiences, and there are whole sets of emotional and logistical challenges of living with dementia, or a loved one with dementia that I’m not going to address here.
Dementia presents a challenge when you’re having conversations, because the person with dementia loses the ability to track what’s been covered in a conversation - perhaps over the course of 15 minutes, perhaps sometimes in 15 seconds. This creates loops and eddies in conversational topics. It also breaks down one of the fundamental features we require in communication; the belief that our conversational partner is a cooperative one.
Cooperation is important because otherwise a well-flowing interaction is, on the surface, a series of non-sequiturs as the person speaking makes a leap and their conversational partner(s) makes the leap with them. Why are we talking about Uncle Desmond? It must be relevant to the conversation about Aunt Muriel we were just having. A person with dementia can feel from their perspective that they’re being cooperative but from your perspective they’re telling you the same story about Uncle Desmond’s first wife for the 3rd time in 15 minutes.
I’ve noticed that different family members deal with the destruction of the facade of cooperation in various ways; the helpful one tries to turn the conversation to other topics, the sanguine one lets the story play out a fourth time, the pragmatic one tells my grandmother every time that she’s already told this story and that, in fact, she has dementia. Each is trying to rebalance the illusion of cooperation, and each has varying degrees of success which I’m sure relates to my grandmother’s relationship to them, her personal condition, and everyone’s mood on any given day.
Another group we see constantly breaking the sense of cooperation is children. Kids are tiny randomness machines and keeping them on conversational tracks can be a lot of work (and work that extends beyond the years of just learning to speak grammatically). The thing with children is that we expect this from them to some extent. The challenge with conversing with a family member with dementia is that we have years, often a lifetime, of conversational rhythm with them.
The ways in which we expect conversational cooperation were broken into four main categories by Paul Grice. He called these maxims, which I always think of in the ‘guide’ sense rather than ‘rule’. They can help clarify the ways that it can feel difficult to maintain a conversation with someone who has dementia. The first that comes to mind for me is always the maxim of relation, because it does not seem relevant to return to the same story of Uncle Desmond again without new reason, and because this might lurch suddenly into a new conversational track about a cousin you haven’t talked about for 15 years. I’m sure that if I made transcripts of conversations my family have with my grandmother I’d find examples of various different ways that our conversational expectations are challenged in these small talk moments. Knowing about conversational cooperation has made me far more relaxed about approaching these conversations, in one of the more unusual ways my linguistics training has giving me a weird sense of peace about a process I have no control over.
This is where my thoughts on this topic had arrived at. I was talking to my colleague Tonya Stebbins about these experiences the other day and she introduced me to the concept of validation theory. Validation theory is an approach to interactions with people who have dementia that starts from the assumptions that you need to consider the emotive content of what they’re saying, rather than the informational content.  This allows you to engage with their emotional state. There’s an overview at this website, but I’m yet to dig into any literature on the efficacy of this approach.
To illustrate validation theory with an example I still remember from when I was very young and we were visiting my great grandmother: When a person with dementia is worried about her young grandson getting off the bus after school, even though she’s sharing these concerns with that grandson who is actually a middle-age man visiting with his own small children, the idea is to not simply point this out to her, but to attend to the underlying anxiety that has surfaced as this particular and temporally disjunct concern. Regardless of the fact that it’s been decades since her grandson stopped going to school on the bus, taking a conversational approach that spoke to her concern would be a way to address whatever anxiety she had. 
What I immediately like about validation theory is that it re-balances the onus of cooperation in the conversation. In this approach, the conversational partner without dementia is responsible for ensuring they are not failing at the maxim of relevance by attending to the implicit anxieties, worries or joys in the conversational eddies of the interaction. 
Chatting to my grandmother is both one of the most normal and most challenging things. It is as once unremarkably familiar and exhaustingly surreal. I’m grateful that a linguistic perspective on conversation has given me some coping mechanisms for navigating the more surreal moments.
See also:
Lingthusiasm episode 11: Layers of meaning - Cooperation, humour, and Gricean Maxims
Hamilton, Heidi E. (2019). Language, Dementia and Meaning Making. Navigating the Challenges of Cognition and Face in Everyday Life.  Palgrave Macmillan.
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superlinguo · 11 days ago
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Linguistics Jobs: Interview with a Social Media Lead
Leaving graduate studies is usually not an easy decision. I appreciate that Brice Russ has taken the time to share with us how he weighed up the limitations of academic work/life balance and then took a thoughtful approach to volunteering and exploring alternative careers that reflect a range of his interests. Brice’s story includes many of the lessons that can be handy for your job search (internships, volunteering, LinkedIn good luck), but it also highlights something about modern jobs that isn’t always clear when you’re looking at jobs from the outside: many jobs involve working for a company that provides services to another company or business. Brice shares his experience of working for NASA while not actually being employed by NASA.  
You can follow Brice on Twitter (@BriceRuss) or check out his website.
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What did you study at university?
I studied sociolinguistics, particularly language variation on the Internet. My first grad school qualifying paper (at Ohio State) focused on using geotagged data from Twitter to map American English dialects—which was still a fairly new idea back in 2010, so it picked up a bit of press—and my second paper looked at how linguistic styles were perceived differently on Twitter vs. Facebook. I'd always known I was less than certain about following the academic career path, and I realized about halfway through my Ph.D. program that I was more interested in sharing cool studies with other people than actually doing the research myself. So I took a year-long leave of absence to pursue work in scientific communication, coming back for a semester in 2013 to write and defend my M.A.
My undergrad was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I majored in linguistics with a minor in English. I always liked to say that I majored in linguistics because it let me study everything—history, physics, psychology, etc.—but I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic professors, particularly Walt Wolfram (just down the road at NC State) and Connie Eble, who helped me fall in love with the field.
What is your job?
So right now, I'm a social media specialist for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center; NASA has about ten centers across the nation (you're probably familiar with Kennedy in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston), and Marshall specializes in developing rocket technology and propulsion systems, among other areas. Like most NASA centers, Marshall's workforce is split up between civil servants/government employees and contractors, and I'm in the latter group; I'm currently employed with Media Fusion as their Social Media Lead for our NASA contract.
Day-to-day, I create social content for Marshall's Facebook and Twitter accounts, highlighting NASA news features and promoting events like rocket launches or the recent Perseid meteor shower. I track notable social engagements and social post metrics, and work with Marshall's social media public affairs officer (on the civil servant side) to develop our overall social strategy and collaborate with other NASA centers. I've been working for home more or less continuously for the last 18 months, but in the Before Times, I'd be all around our center doing everything from taking photos of the POIC, "research central" for the International Space Station, to interviewing students on-camera for our Rover Challenge student competition.
By the time you read this, though, there's a good chance I'll be in a new role! I just accepted a position on NASA HQ's digital team (on contract with MORI Associates) to help support social media across the agency, which I'm incredibly excited about.
How does your linguistics training help you in your job?
I think the biggest way my linguistics background has helped me in social/digital media is in reminding me that communication is a two-way street, even when you're writing for a large organization or a major brand. Even small changes to your message can have a big impact on how they're perceived, so when you're putting together a tweet or a blog post or whichever, it's important to keep your audience in mind and style your content accordingly. I'm also a bit of an analytics nerd, and my quantitative/statistics work in linguistics definitely helped me get more comfortable with data on a day-to-day basis. You're probably not going to need an advanced stats background in most communications roles—I don't think I've ever run an ANOVA test or anything like that at work—but having that general data literacy is a huge help for studying your social products, figuring out how to improve them, and making the case to the folks above you in the org chart.
What was the transition from university to work like for you? 
Before I left academia, I'd been doing some volunteer work on the side to get some actual experience in science communication. I've been a life-long space fan and went to a handful of space advocacy conferences in undergrad (check out SEDS if this interests you!), so I started helping a couple of space non-profits, Yuri's Night and the National Space Society, with their social accounts, web content, etc. Even so, it took me a good 10 months on the market to find my first full-time job in science communication—through a post on LinkedIn, of all things. After that, I was able to build my networks a bit, which helped me get my foot in the door for a couple of my future opportunities (like doing digital media for the Science news team), but landing that first job was definitely the hardest!
One of the main reasons I moved out of academia (aside from the depressing employment prospects) was that I personally found it very difficult to maintain work-life balance; there was always another paper to read, another set of quizzes to grade. Working in communications (especially social media) isn't necessarily compatible with a predictable, 9-5 schedule, but I've definitely found it a lot easier to keep my free time to myself than I did in grad school.
Do you have any advice do you wish someone had given to you about linguistics/careers/university?
For NASA, specifically, I wish someone had told me to start looking for work with them earlier! I was aware in undergrad that NASA had a robust internship program, but I figured that all their internships were for engineers and scientists—when in fact, college students can pursue internships in public affairs, education/STEM outreach, and any other department that helps keep NASA running. I also wish I'd known that many (most?) jobs in NASA communications are with contractors, not just the civil service positions you see on USAJobs. Tracking those contractor positions down can be a lot harder sometimes, and they have their pros and cons, but if anyone's thinking about a communications job with NASA and has any particular questions, feel free to shoot me an email.
Any other thoughts or comments?
Now is actually a really interesting time to get involved in digital media. Many organizations are moving past the mentality that they have a website, they have a Facebook page, and never the twain shall meet. Instead, they're recognizing that there are a host of different platforms online, from email newsletters to messenger apps to news aggregators, that may or may not traditionally be classified as "social media" but are important to be aware of if you want to get your message out. There's an emerging discipline, often referred to as "audience editing" or just "audience", that harnesses this viewpoint to help news outlets and similar groups build a holistic digital presence that listens to its readers—Bobby Blanchard, with the Texas Tribune, has a great slide deck highlighting how he does this in journalism. It's been a tough decade for journalists and other publishers, naturally, so helping create strategies that get quality information out to the public (in my case, news on the benefits and promise of space exploration) can be really rewarding.
Related interviews:
Interview with an Internet Linguist
Interview with a Marketing Content Specialist
Interview with a Communications Specialist
Recent interviews:
Interview with a CEO of a SaaS company
Interview with a Communications and Engagement Assistant
Interview with a Technical Writer
Interview with a Stay-at-home Mom and Twitch Streamer
Interview with a Peer Review Program Manager
Resources:
The full Linguist Jobs Interview List
The Linguist Jobs tag for the most recent interviews
The Linguistics Jobs slide deck (overview, resources and activities)
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superlinguo · 18 days ago
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A lovely longform article from William Park at the BBC, on gesture and meaning and time. It features quotes from some gesture researchers I admire, and I’m also in there talking about one of my areas of research overlap at the moment, emoji and gesture. From the piece:
No hand gesture is ever read in isolation, with the exception of one kind: emoji.
The Internet has opened up this explosion of informal written communication and there's been this gap in what we can express in informal writing – Lauren Gawne
If you have ever struggled to express sarcasm in text you might have resorted to using emoji to help you out. Gawne says that our written language is distinctly lacking in ways to express sentiments like sarcasm because informal writing is a relatively new idea. For millennia, she says, informality was restricted to speech.
"The Internet has opened up this explosion of informal written communication and there's been this gap in what we can express in informal writing," she says, "An emoji is one of the resources people have taken to fill that gap."
This gesture has various meanings in different cultures, but the wider context can give us clues to deciphering it (Credit: Emmanuel Lafont/BBC)
Gawne has worked with linguist Gretchen McCulloch and Jennifer Daniel from Unicode to include a greater diversity of hand gestures in the official Unicode dictionary of emoji. What excites Gawne about encoding hand gestures in the Unicode dictionary is that they are so versatile. The fact that (like real hand gestures) their meanings can change is useful, she says. An image of a starfish is a starfish to everyone, but a hand shape can have whatever meaning the users want to ascribe to it.
Read the full piece: The hand gestures that last longer than spoken languages
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superlinguo · 25 days ago
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Ask Me Another (NPR)
Gretchen and I had a delightful time on Ask Me Another, where we had to decode book titles and figure out which were real emoji and which were fake.
Above is the link to the emoji segment, or you can listen to the full episode of Ask Me Another here.
I Get That A Lot
I also got the chance to chat to Jim Fishwick for I Get That A Lot. From the show blurb:
Lauren Gawne is a linguist and senior lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne. As a linguist, there's one (incredibly inappropriate) joke that comes up over and over again, and she tells us about it in this episode. She also discusses her collaborations with the Coen Brothers, the humanity of customer service jobs, and how much she appreciates have very boring and very interesting names.
Episode here.
ABC Melbourne Evenings with Brian Nankervis
On the 16th of August I joined Brian for a chat about emoji and intergenerational differences. Chat starts around 2h 10m into the stream.
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superlinguo · 28 days ago
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Lingthusiasm Episode 59: Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Theory of Mind
Let's say I show you and our friend Gavagai a box of chocolates, and then Gav leaves the room, and I show you that the box actually contains coloured pencils. (Big letdown, sorry.) When Gav comes back in the room a minute later, and we've closed the box again, what are they going to think is in the box?
In this episode, your hosts Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne get enthusiastic about Theory of Mind -- our ability to keep track of what other people are thinking, even when it's different from what we know ourselves. We talk about the highly important role of gossip in the development of language, reframing how we introduce people to something they haven't heard of yet, and ways of synchronizing mental states across groups of people, from conferences to movie voiceovers.
Announcements:
This month’s bonus episode is about some of the linguistically interesting fiction we've been reading lately! We talk about the challenges of communicating with sentient plants (from the plant's perspective) in Semiosis by Sue Burke, communicating with aliens by putting babies in pods (look, it was the 1980s) in Suzette Haden Elgin's classic Native Tongue, communicating with humans on a sailing ship using a sorta 19th century proto-internet in Courtney Milan's The Devil Comes Courting, and taking advantage of the difficulty of translation in communicating poetry across cultures in A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine.
Join us on Patreon to listen to this and 53 other bonus episodes. You’ll also get access to the Lingthusiasm Discord server where you can discuss your favourite linguistically interesting fiction with other language nerds!
Here are links mentioned in this episode:
Wikipedia entry for Theory of Mind
Wikipedia entry for the Sally-Anne Theory of Mind test
Various Theory of Mind tests you can do with children
Do 15-Month-Old Infants Understand False Beliefs?
Theory of Mind in ravens
Theory of Mind in chimps
Wikipedia entry for Dunbar’s number
Evidentiality in Yolmo - Lingthusiasm Episode 32: You heard about it but I was there - Evidentiality
Definitions and Examples of Psychological Verbs
xkcd Lucky 10,000 comic
You can listen to this episode via Lingthusiasm.com, Soundcloud, RSS, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also download an mp3 via the Soundcloud page for offline listening, and stay tuned for a transcript of this episode on the Lingthusiasm website. To receive an email whenever a new episode drops, sign up for the Lingthusiasm mailing list.
You can help keep Lingthusiasm advertising-free by supporting our Patreon. Being a patron gives you access to bonus content and lets you help decide on Lingthusiasm topics.
Lingthusiasm is on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Email us at contact [at] lingthusiasm [dot] com
Gretchen is on Twitter as @GretchenAMcC and blogs at All Things Linguistic.
Lauren is on Twitter as @superlinguo and blogs at Superlinguo.
Lingthusiasm is created by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Our senior producer is Claire Gawne, our production editor is Sarah Dopierala, our production manager is Liz McCullough, and our music is ‘Ancient City’ by The Triangles.
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superlinguo · a month ago
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Gestures in podcasting
Podcasts are an audio-based genre. As someone who works with gesture, and often talks about gesture on podcasts, I’m acutely aware of the lack of visuals in podcasting. Audio-only communication is a radical departure from the way humans have communicated for most of human history, and while it is possible to communicate just using speech, this doesn’t mean that gestures are not contributing; people podcasting, doing radio or speaking on the phone will still gesticulate as they speak.
Occasionally I’ll notice that gestures ‘break through’, and will be explicitly mentioned as the person is talking. I’ve given three examples that I’ve noticed in podcasts, but I’m sure there are many more. I also have a hunch that gestures that are specifically mentioned during a podcast are of a specific kind, in that they’re important enough in the mind of the speaker to be worthy of comment. My guess is that these are gestures that are particularly illustrative, or they’re backchanneling gestures done by the other participants in the conversation.
If you also hear examples of people speaking about gesture in a podcast, let me know! I’ve set up a very short google form to collect examples: https://forms.gle/f1LbWEAWUTcX9uFq5
One of the biggest challenges of collecting examples of this is the fact that many podcasts still don’t make transcripts available, so it’s hard to pull together a large corpus to search. I hope to eventually do something with this, but if you’d like to use this as a research project, please get in touch!
Example 1: The Culture Episode: The Kardashians: Saying goodbye to America’s Royal Family (July 2nd 2021)
Brodie Lancaster, while talking about the mutual rise of the Kardashian family and the popularity of Kimye: "I'm making a motion of like braiding something together" (timecode: 28:54) [no transcript] Listening to this episode of The Culture on a long walk, it was this example that made me realise this was a thing I’d been thinking about long enough that it was time to turn it into a post. Example 2: The Vocal Fries Episode: Between Iraq and a Hard Place Transcript (12th December 2019)
Zach Jaggers: “We also see cases where there’s a loanword from another language used in a borrowing language where it’s not because there was some kind of, quote – hand quotes. Sorry, I gesture a lot. [Laughs]” [transcript]
In this episode there’s a string of examples where Jaggers uses tone of voice to indicate quotation, but also overtly marks that he’s doing handquotes as well. I like the reflexivity of acknowledging the limits of podcasting in this example.
Example 3: Lingthusiasm Episode: Why spelling is hard — but also hard to change (June 20th 2019)
Gretchen McCulloch: “This is what the primary function of the French accent circonflexe, which is the one that looks like a little hat – I’m making the little hat sign with my hands as I say this because that was how we always talked about it in school is you have to make the hat sign with your hands” [transcript]
Gretchen and I gesture all the time while we’re recording Lingthusiasm, but here Gretchen felt particularly compelled to share her gesture with everyone, because it’s so much a part of the story of the circonflexe for her.
Thoughts for now
Each of these examples shows the person who is speaking feels compelled to draw attention to what their gestures are contributing to the content of what they are saying. I’m sure there are other ways in which gestures manifest themselves in the final product of a podcast. There are also other features of face-to-face communication that have the potential to make themselves known in podcasts and other voice-only media. Liveshow audiences are something that particularly come to mind, especially since there has been so little opportunity for live recordings in the last 18 months.
Cite this blog post
All original content on Superlinguo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If this post has inspired you to think and write about gestures in podcasts, please let me know! You can also cite this blog post:
Gawne, Lauren. 2021. Gestures in podcasting. Superlinguo. https://www.superlinguo.com/post/659622302480318464/gestures-in-podcasting Accessed DATE.
A stable URL for this page at The Internet Archive will be generated shortly.
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superlinguo · a month ago
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All of the languages discussed and mentioned in Crash Course Linguistics
The list below outlines the languages that feature in Crash Course Linguistics (Nielsen 2020). For each episode we list both illustrative examples and other languages mentioned. We created a running list of languages used in the videos while writing, to help us actively move towards a greater diversity of language examples. This table might be of interest to you if you want to jump to a particular episode, or if you want to do some critical reflection on your own teaching or lingcomm work.
Looking at the episodes in a single table, I can see the ebb and flow of our focus. It’s much easier to talk about phonetics using a range of examples from different languages than it is to talk about semantics, where you’re focused on the nuance of meaning. I can also see the interests of various members of the production team show through in some example choices, which is why I appreciated working with a team on this project.
The introduction of every video also included an opening animation that had facts about language in English, but also some facts in French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, German, Korean, Vietnamese and Klingon, reflecting the linguistic diversity and interests of the animation team.
We’ve made this table available as a document on FigShare as well:
Grieser, Jessi; Gawne, Lauren; McCulloch, Gretchen (2021): Languages mentioned in Crash Course Linguistics. La Trobe. Figure. https://doi.org/10.26181/61031a232e96e
See also:
Crash Course Linguistics full playlist on youtube
Crash Course Linguistics Mutual Intelligibility Resources
Crash Course Linguistics
Episode 00 - Preview On screen: Japanese, Auslan, Welsh, Swahili, Proto-Indo-European, Tzeltal, Basque, Xhosa, Arabic, English, Nicaraguan Sign Language, Tok Pisin, Inuktitut, Nahuatl
Episode 01 - Introduction Examples in: Spanish, Indonesian, ASL, Auslan, Swahili, English
Episode 02 - Morphology Examples in: English, Mandarin, Murrinhpatha, ASL, German, Malay, Old English, French, Arabic Mentioned: Hebrew
Episode 03 - Morphosyntax Examples in: English, Hindi, Irish, Latin, ASL Mentioned: Nahuatl, Portuguese, Malagasy, Czech, Tibetan, Korean, Hawaiian, Māori, Chatino, Turkish, Modern Greek, Yupik, South African Sign Language
Episode 04 - Syntax Examples in: English, Japanese
Episode 05 - Semantics Examples in: English, Polish, Portuguese, Norwegian
Episode 06 - Pragmatics Examples in: English, Malay, Mandarin, French, BSL, Mentioned: Tzeltal, Japanese, Lao, Danish
Episode 07 - Sociolinguistics Examples in: English (Appalachian English, African American English, Standardized American English) Mentioned: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, BSL, Auslan, NZSL, South African Sign Language, Spanish, ASL, French Sign Language, Irish Sign Language
Episode 08 - Phonetics, Consonants Examples in: ALS, English, Scottish, Spanish, Welsh Mentioned: Arabic, Basque, Navajo, Zulu, Xhosa Language families mentioned: Khoesan
Episode 09 - Phonetics, Vowels Examples in: French, English (General, Californian, Australian), Spanish, Italian, Mandarin Mentioned: German, Turkish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Tamil, Arabic, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish Language families mentioned: Germanic languages, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Afro-Asiatic, Kam–Sui
Episode 10 - Phonology Examples in: English, Hindi, Spanish, Nepali, Taiwainese Sign Language, Auslan, Old English, ASL Mentioned: BSL, ASL
Episode 11 - Psycholinguistics Mentioned: English, Mandarin
Episode 12 - Language acquisition Examples in: English, Italian Mentioned: Malay, Russian, Spanish, Japanese
Episode 13 - Historical linguistics & language change Examples in: Old English, Middle English, Modern English, Iberian Spanish, South American Spanish, Dutch, Icelandic, German, Proto-Germanic, Latin, Sanskrit, Mentioned: Nicaraguan Sign Language, Hatian Creole, Kriol, Tok Pisin, French, Tibetan, English, Hindi, Nepali, Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Semitic, Arabic, Amharic, Hebrew, Proto-Algonquian, Cree, Ojibwe, Massachusett, Proto-Austronesian, Javanese, Tagalog, Malagasy, Proto-Pama-Nyungan, Pama-Nyungan, Yolŋu, Kaurna, Dharug, Proto-Bantu, Swahili, Zulu, Shona, Basque, Ainu, Korean Language families mentioned: Khoesan, Bantu, Oceanic 
Episode 14 - Languages around the world Mentioned: Spanish, Latin, French, Italian, Greenlandic, Inuktitut, Tibetan, Nicaraguan Sign Language, French Sign Language, Kata Kolok, Central Taurus Sign Language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, Adamorobe Sign Language, ASL, Old French Sign Language, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, Hindi, Urdu, English (US, British), Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Turung, Karbi and Runglo, Hebrew, Wampanoag, Maori, Hawaiian
Episode 15 - Computational linguistics Examples in: English, Turkish Mentioned: ASL, Greek
Episode 16 - Writing system Examples in: English, Middle English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Inuktitut, Cherokee, Korean Mentioned: English, Finnish, Vietnamese, Swahili, Bulgarian, Russian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Sumerian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Olmec, Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan, Turkish
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superlinguo · a month ago
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Linguistics Jobs: Interview with a CEO of a SaaS company
Today’s interview is with Alyona Medelyan, CEO of a Thematic, a company that provides customer feedback analysis as software as a service (SaaS). The SaaS model means that they create software that people use regularly and subscribe to using, rather than just buying once-off (like getting a netflix subscription rather than buying a DVD of a single movie). Alyona’s story is a great example of how it’s possible to craft your own opportunities, rather than building projects for other people’s companies. You can get in touch with Alyona via LinkedIn, or Twitter, and you can check out the Thematic website.
An exciting development in today’s interview is that after 5 years... I’ve added another question to the standard question set! This new question asks about the transition from university to work, and I hope that it can help to demystify a period that can often be stressful. Thanks to Alyona for being the first interviewee to answer this new question.
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What did you study at university?
I did my undergraduate and Masters degree in Germany. My Major was German Linguistics, with two Minors were Computational Linguistics and Computer Science.
I ended up doing a PhD specializing in Natural Language Processing.
What is your job?
As a Co-Founder and the CEO of Thematic. I’m in charge of a young company. My job is to grow the company as fast as possible in a sustainable way (meaning building a solution people want and not running out of money). I do operations, company culture, focusing the most on Sales & Marketing. This means lots of meetings, strategic planning, looking at data, and also simply getting things done. I love my job, even though it has many ups and downs. If we win, it’s the team’s win. If we fail, it’s my failure as the CEO. And yet, building something from nothing and learning how to motivate a team to succeed has been transformative for me as a person.
How does your linguistics training help you in your job?
Our solution is a customer feedback analysis platform. We analyze feedback that people leave through reviews, surveys and contact center, e.g. chat or support tickets. The core technology and our IP is about analyzing text. So, it’s built on the core principles of linguistics. Having linguistic training gave us a critical advantage over many competing solutions. Where others treat words like numbers, our technology treats them semantically. We use the notion of concepts when analyzing data. Because we use this approach, we can also automatically create taxonomies of concepts and themes from text. Interestingly, another key feature of our product, sentiment analysis sits at the intersection of linguistics and computer science. It’s both through my training at university, but also internship at Google, where I gained useful skills to now apply in my job.
What was the transition from university to work like for you?
Straight out of university, I joined a startup as a Software Researcher. Our team implemented new ways of analyzing documents and search queries. After building a few sales demos, I was invited to present them at trade shows. Luckily, I already did this during my internship while studying Linguistics, so it wasn’t new. I quickly got promoted to lead the R&D department and was invited to participate in sales and strategy meetings. This all happened within a year or so, so I had to quickly adapt to new things. Ultimately, I decided to become a consultant. I founded Thematic after keep getting requests to analyze customer feedback.
Do you have any advice do you wish someone had given to you about linguistics/careers/university?
For me, internships were a key factor to my success. I ended up doing 3 different internships. One at a 15 people company, another at a research institute, and a final one at Google. You get exposed to many different ways of building a career and get to learn what’s the best fit. You also meet many different people and make connections that will be valuable in your career going forward. In all cases, my internships were paid, but it wasn’t much. This was a while ago, but for reference, in one case, I got paid 700 Euros for a month, more than half of which was my rent. What’s more important was the amount of time experienced folks at the company spent supervising and training me.
Any other thoughts or comments?
One skill that I learned during my studies that benefited me was writing. You end up writing your research papers, your thesis, I even wrote a blog about my research. This has been useful when starting my own company and writing content pieces to educate others about what we do and why it matters.
Related interviews:
Interview with a Communications Specialist
Interview with two Communications Professionals
Interview with an Editor and Copywriter
Recent interview:
Interview with a Communications and Engagement Assistant
Interview with a Technical Writer
Interview with a Stay-at-home Mom and Twitch Streamer
Interview with a Peer Review Program Manager
Interview with an Associate at the Children’s Center for Communication, Beverly School for the Deaf
Check out the full Linguist Jobs Interview List and the Linguist Jobs tag for even more interviews  
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superlinguo · a month ago
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Goodbye By Lingo
After 8 years and 197 editions, it’s time for me to say goodbye to my regular By Lingo piece in The Big Issue.
I started writing By Lingo for edition 436 (the word was ‘wisdom teeth’). Condensing the story of an everyday word into a 140-word column has been a wonderful opportunity to learn to write concisely. I’m grateful to Alan Attwood, who gave me a chance when he was editor, and Amy Hetherington, who continued to be a supportive and enthusiastic editor. Thanks to the Big Issue team over the years, for letting me follow the story of many words. I’ve made a word cloud of all 197 words I’ve written about for the column.
I’ve posted some of the By Lingo pieces to this blog over the years, you can find them under the By Lingo tag.
Edition 641 of The Big Issue in Australia was my last piece, which was about ‘melodrama’ for a somewhat dramatic exit. By Lingo is now in the excellent hands of Lee Murray.
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superlinguo · 2 months ago
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Relevant kiki bouba links:
Lingthusiasm Episode 21: What words sound spiky across languages? Interview with Suzy Styles
When does maluma/takete fail? Two key failures and a meta-analysis suggest that phonology and phonotactics matter: New article in i-Perception
Kiki Bouba image for linguistic experiments (under a CC-BY license)
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New Lingthusiasm Merch! Kiki/bouba scarves, “What the fricative” shirts, IPA backpacks, and more! 
A new round of Lingthusiasm merch is here! Lingthusiasm the podcast transforms your boring commute or chores into a lively, nerdy conversation, and we also help you wear your linguistics fandom on your sleeve, on your feet, and surrounding your notes!
Kiki and bouba on scarves, mugs, notebooks, and more!
If I give you a rounded, lumpy shape and a sharp, spiky one, and tell you that one is called kiki and the other bouba, which name would you attach to which shape? It turns out that people’s responses are surprisingly consistent! This classic experiment in cross-modal perception featured in Lingthusiasm episode 21: What words sound spiky across languages?, has become a favourite subject of linguistics memes, and is now available as Lingthusiasm merch! 
You can now ask random people at a conference, in class, or at work which one is bouba and which is kiki, in black, red, green, yellow, pale blue, pink, or white. (We’ve also released the bouba/kiki images under a CC-BY license, should you wish to use it in linguistics experiments of your own.)
“What the fricative?” on t-shirts and more!
You know how some pieces of technical terminology just really sound like they moonlight as minor swear words? “What the fricative” totally looks like something you exclaim when you stub your toe, and yet it actually just refers to the entirely innocuous class of sound that is produced by creating friction with the stream of air as it comes out of your mouth, such as /s/, /z/, /v/, and yes, /f/ itself. Fricatives were featured in Lingthusiasm episode 58: A Fun-Filled Fricative Field Trip.
Now you can confuse people by not actually swearing and secretly give yourself an excuse to chat linguistics with them, thanks to our What the Fricative items in black or white text! (Is this your first time hearing about fricatives? We’re going to have a whole episode about them next week, you’re just finding out about this early because you’re a patron!)
Our classic International Phonetic Alphabet print on backpacks, duffel bags, and phone cases!
The original merch item that started it all, our print with all of the characters of the IPA on it, is now available on more items beyond the scarves, socks, mugs, masks, and notebooks that you might already be familiar with!
The earlier merch is all still around, if you’ve been vaguely thinking about getting an IPA scarf, lingthusiasm logo sticker, NOT JUDGING YOUR GRAMMAR, JUST ANALYSING IT tote bag, or just having a browse. Check out our linguist-turned-artist Lucy Maddox’s website for more of her ridiculously charming work.
All of the Lingthusiasm merch makes a great gift for the linguist or linguistics fan in your life! Check out the merch page at lingthusiasm.com/merch for the previous rounds of Lingthusiasm merch.
As ever, we love seeing photos of any Lingthusiasm merch in your lives! Tag us in them @lingthusiasm on social media! 
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superlinguo · 2 months ago
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Lingthusiasm Episode 58: A Fun-Filled Fricative Field Trip 
What do the sounds fffff, vvvv, ssss, and zzzz all have in common? They’re all produced by creating a sort of friction in your mouth when you constrict two parts against each other, whether that’s your lips, your teeth, your tongue, the roof of your mouth, or in your throat. This whole class of sounds that are produced using friction are known as fricatives! 
In this episode, your hosts Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne get enthusiastic about fricatives! We take you on a tour from the front of your mouth to the back (sadly, you’ll have to imagine the tiny cartoon schoolbus for yourself), and tell some of our favourite fricative-related stories along the way, including how the printing press is responsible for Ye Olde Teashoppe signs, the Extremely Welsh clothing chain LL Bean, and Gretchen’s erstwhile student days playing IPA Scrabble. 
If you have fricative stories of your own to add, feel free to talk about them in the Lingthusiasm Discord, or tag us in them on social media @lingthusiasm and we might share them!
Announcements: 
We have new merch! Have you always wanted to recreate the classic psycholinguistics  experiment of cross-modal perception wherever you go? With our bold coloured kiki/bouba merch you can!
Kiki Bouba If I give you a rounded, lumpy shape and a sharp, spiky one, and tell you that one is called kiki and the other bouba, which name would you attach to which shape? It turns out that people’s responses are surprisingly consistent! This classic experiment in cross-modal perception featured in Lingthusiasm episode 21: What words sound spiky across languages?, has become a favourite subject of linguistics memes, and is now available as Lingthusiasm merch!
You can now ask random people at a conference, in class, or at work which one is bouba and which is kiki, in black, red, green, yellow, pale blue, pink, or white. (We’ve also released the bouba/kiki images under a CC-BY license, should you wish to use it in linguistics experiments of your own.)
What the fricative You know how some pieces of technical terminology just really sound like they moonlight as minor swear words? “What the fricative” totally looks like something you exclaim when you stub your toe, and yet it actually just refers to the entirely innocuous class of sound that is produced by creating friction with the stream of air as it comes out of your mouth, such as /s/, /z/, /v/, and yes, /f/ itself.
Whether you’re having a fricative hard day or you’re just fricative surprised, now you can confuse people by not actually swearing and secretly give yourself an excuse to chat linguistics with them, thanks to our What the Fricative items in black or white text! Check out our cheeky ‘What The Fricative’ merch for all your almost-sweary needs!
Updates to current merch We’ve also updated our IPA range to include some great new products, like this snazzy backpack, this cosy bath mat, and this fitted 3-layer facemask. Lingthusiasm the podcast transforms your boring commute or chores into a lively, nerdy conversation, and we also help you wear your linguistics fandom on your sleeve, on your feet, and surrounding your notes!
As ever, we love seeing photos of any Lingthusiasm merch in your lives! Tag us in them @lingthusiasm on social media!
Announcements:
In fiction, we can often tell when a character is drunk or high by their way of speaking: when someone’s slurring sounds together or jumping erratically from topic to topic, the audience is meant to assume that they’re under the influence. But how accurate are these fictional portrayals?
In this episode, Lauren and Gretchen get enthusiastic about two fun studies of how people talk differently when under the influence of alcohol or cannabis: the German Alcohol Language Corpus and the delightfully named “Dude, What Was I Talking About? A New Sociolinguistic Framework for Marijuana-Intoxicated Speech”.  We also talk about the logistical complications of setting out to study intoxicated speech, from setting up fake pubs and recording in a “vehicular environment” to the ethical issues around how to make sure that impaired people are giving informed consent to participate (tip: ask them when they’re still sober).
Join us on Patreon to learn more, and get access to 52 other bonus episodes! You’ll also get access to our Discord server, where you can chat about your favourite Pokémon names with other language nerds!
Here are the links mentioned in this episode:
Wikipedia entry for Fricative
Wikipedia entry for Voiceless Bilabial Fricative
Wikipedia entry for Voiced Bilabial Fricative
How to make your own IPA Scrabble set on All Things Linguistics
IPA scrabble in action on All Things Linguistics
Fricative prevalence across language on Superlinguo
Crash Course Linguistics #10: Phonology
Gretchen’s LL Bean in Welsh anecdote
Wikipedia entry for Welsh Phonology
Understanding fricatives with gifs on All Things Linguistic
You can listen to this episode via Lingthusiasm.com, Soundcloud, RSS, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also download an mp3 via the Soundcloud page for offline listening, and stay tuned for a transcript of this episode on the Lingthusiasm website. To receive an email whenever a new episode drops, sign up for the Lingthusiasm mailing list.
You can help keep Lingthusiasm advertising-free by supporting our Patreon. Being a patron gives you access to bonus content and lets you help decide on Lingthusiasm topics.
Lingthusiasm is on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Email us at contact [at] lingthusiasm [dot] com
Gretchen is on Twitter as @GretchenAMcC and blogs at All Things Linguistic.
Lauren is on Twitter as @superlinguo and blogs at Superlinguo.
Lingthusiasm is created by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Our senior producer is Claire Gawne, our editorial producer is Sarah Dopierala, and our music is ‘Ancient City’ by The Triangles.
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superlinguo · 2 months ago
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LingComm21: a case study in making online conferences more social (blog post series)
In April 2021 I was part of the organising committee for the International Conference on Linguistics Communication (LingComm21). In putting togehter this conference we learnt a lot about running online events, and condensed everything we learnt into a series of blog posts. Some of these posts were written by Gretchen on the All Things Linguistic blog, and the others were posted on the LingComm website. Below I link to each post with a short paragraph of content.
Why virtual conferences are antisocial (but they don’t have to be)
Physical events come with decades and centuries of social infrastructure disguised as practical necessity and conference ritual that organizers have never really had to think about as social. Organizers put coffeebreaks in the schedule because every other conference they’ve been to has coffeebreaks and because of a vague assumption that people need caffeine, without considering the social benefits of giving people a reason to move around and shared objects to strike up conversations about. Imagine if every conference organizer also had to take on the architecture and interior design and urban planning of the conference space, and we can understand why the pivot to online conferences has gotten off to a rough start.
Designing online conferences for building community
Physical conferences that move online are beholden to the expectations of the attendees from previous years, expectations which may not map particularly well onto an online domain. A new online-first conference can set an entirely new pattern, potentially providing a model for useful features to be added onto other kinds of events as well.
Scheduling online conferences for building community
When people don’t have to travel for a conference, there’s sometimes a temptation to spread conference events across an entire month, or to assign conference homework of watching talks in advance, which makes it difficult for people to have a shared joint conference experience as an event that’s bounded in time. Pre-recorded talks and/or allowing talks to remain available after the conference may make sense for some conferences, but we’ve observed that watching talks as homework plus a live Q&A part often leads to live Q&A audiences who haven’t watched the talks, making presenters either deliver a short recap of the talk or else suffer in silence, and in any case not accomplishing our goals for this conference of encouraging participants to interact. Instead, we debuted each talk as a live presentation with live breakout groups and Q&A, and recorded only the larger sessions, which were available to attendees for a week following the conference (but not forever, to encourage more candid conversation).
Hosting online conferences for building community
We wanted attending this event to be as simple as walking into a conference center and being handed a paper program, rather than regularly leaving the conference platform to check on an informational email, to view a separate video feed, and so on. In addition to being frustrating technologically, frequent program-surfing would increase the number of potential distractions each attendee might face. Thus, as much as possible, we embedded things within Gather, including the programming schedule, the editable list of meetups, and video feeds of larger panel sessions. The physicality of the schedule, meetups, and intros documents also gave people an object of joint attention to use as an excuse to move around the space and interact with fellow attendees.
Budgeting online conferences or events
Physical conference budgets are massive, and that’s even taking into account that the conferences outsource most of the costs of travel, accommodation and feeding people to the participants. People are used to getting things for free on the internet, and online conferences are much, much more financially accessible than physical events, but for a good conference to be run well, people should expect there to be some cost.
To keep up to date with LingComm news you can subscribe to the LingComm feed or follow LingComm on Twitter.
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superlinguo · 2 months ago
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Linguistics Jobs: Interview with a Communications and Engagement Assistant
Your social media prowess is actually a job skill, you might just not know yet that those jobs are out there. Maggie is a Communications and Engagement Assistant at a disability peak body. Their work includes traditional and social media communications channels, and a need to think about who your audience is. You can follow them on Twitter (@vonbees) or Tumblr (@ritavonbees).
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What did you study at university?
BA in Communications (Writing & Cultural Studies). I actually studied at a weird "technology" university and had to go through a totally different uni to do my linguistics electives. By the time I dealt with the forms and unit conversion and everything, I only had time for 101&102, which made me sad as I loved them! If I had been able to start in first year I might have changed my major.
What is your job?
Communications Assistant covers a really broad range of work! Like it says on the tin, you have to assist your organisation in whatever sort of communications it needs to do. Mine is a disability rights representative and advocacy nonprofit, so my job includes advertising, political campaigns and direct member communication. I am one of the people who tweets from our official account (including sometimes live-tweeting something like a public inquiry into systemic neglect or discrimination), updates our website, edits blog posts and media releases, creates flyers, surveys and infographics... I do a lot of "translating English to English" - explaining legalese, bureaucratic jargon and policy terminology in plain language. We need to be as accessible as possible, so aside from code-switching between Plain English and bureaucratese I do a lot of image descriptions and liaise with specialists to get really important content captioned or translated into Auslan, Easy English, etc. One of my colleagues is currently in charge of our fortnightly newsletter, but when I used to do it I would also record an audio version, sort of like a mini podcast, for members who didn't have screenreader access (usually older folks who had trouble with technology).
How does your linguistics training help you in your job?
Semantics, pragmatics and a descriptivist approach to grammar are all relevant when trying to write about things like UN resolutions and discrimination legislation in plain English! (Sometimes I imagine turning a particularly stuffy government document into a series of tree diagrams, which is at least good for a laugh). Descriptivism also dovetails neatly with an anti-ableist approach to how other people speak and write, so it's helpful to have linguistic references when pushing back against harmful ideas in that department.
Do you have any advice you wish someone had given to you about linguistics/careers/university?
Yes, I wish someone had convinced me not to half-ass it! See, I got into a really great creative writing course and then couldn't attend the university that taught it for logistical reasons (would have been an interstate move). I tried to do the most similar degree I could find at a local uni, but it wasn't a good compromise - it only had two writing classes each year and I was much less interested in the other parts of the course. I should have done a full pivot to something I liked in its own right, like linguistics, instead of stubbornly clinging to a shitty version of my number one choice. I guess the most useful advice without the benefit of hindsight would have been that a degree is a big commitment and it's okay to take a gap year and give yourself more time to think about how you want to go about it. Oh, also if someone had told me I have ADHD that probably would have been helpful.
Any other thoughts or comments?
I've often thought about going back for some linguistics post-grad, but it would probably be for the love of learning - none of my plausible future career moves really need one. So I'm really glad people like you make linguistics knowledge more accessible to lingthusiasts outside academia! Clinically proven to reduce symptoms of FOMO xD
Related interviews:
Interview with a Communications Specialist
Interview with two Communications Professionals
Interview with an Editor and Copywriter
Recent interview:
Interview with a Technical Writer
Interview with a Stay-at-home Mom and Twitch Streamer
Interview with a Peer Review Program Manager
Interview with an Associate at the Children’s Center for Communication, Beverly School for the Deaf
Interview with a Metadata Specialist and Genealogist
Check out the full Linguist Jobs Interview List and the Linguist Jobs tag for even more interviews  
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superlinguo · 2 months ago
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By Lingo: Beforetimes
The last year or so has brought a lot of COVID-related terms into our daily vocabulary, some are brand new (like COVID), and others are old words we’ve blown the dust off and put back to work. One word that’s been given a new lease on life is beforetimes, which first showed up in the middle of the 1400s. Talking about the beforetimes has become common because we are all referring to the same before - rarely does an event radically alter everyone’s lives so quickly and profoundly. If you want to mix things up you can use one of the other old of the word, including aforetimes and foretimes. The Oxford English Dictionary lists beforetimes as ‘archaic’, but that was in, well, the beforetimes.
This piece originally featured in The Big Issue in Australia (Edition 631).
By Lingo is found on the puzzles page in every edition. Every so often I drag out at old favourite to share here on Superlinguo. If you’re in Australia you can pick up a copy of The Big Issue from one of the street vendors every fortnight!
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superlinguo · 2 months ago
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Lingthusiasm Episode 57: Making machines learn Fon and other African languages - Interview with Masakhane
When you see something on social media in a language you don’t read, it’s really handy to have a quick and good-enough “click to translate” option. But despite the fact that 2000 of the world’s languages are African, machine translation and other language tech tools don’t yet exist for most of them. 
In this episode, your host Gretchen McCulloch interviews Jade Abbott and Bonaventure Dossou of Masakhane, a grassroots organisation whose mission is to strengthen and spur Natural Language Processing research in African languages, for Africans, by Africans. We talk about how they started working on language tech, Bona’s machine translator in Fon, and alternative models of participatory research and collective co-authorship.  
Announcements:
This month’s bonus episode is about the linguistics of Pokémon names! Which sounds cuter, a Pikachu or a Charmander? Which sounds like it would be more likely to win in a fight, a Squirtle or a Blastoise? Even if you’re not familiar with these pocket monsters, or if you’re encountering new Pokémon you haven’t heard of before, you might still have a vague sense of which names sound big or small, cuddly or powerful. This has lead to the creation of the delightful and entirely real linguistic subfield of Pokémonastics. 
Join us on Patreon to learn more, and get access to 51 other bonus episodes! You’ll also get access to our Discord server, where you can chat about your favourite Pokémon names with other language nerds!  Here are the links mentioned in this episode:
Masakhane website
Masakhane on Twitter
Participatory Research for Low-resourced Machine Translation: A Case Study in African Languages - by Masakhane
Masakhane keynote presentation - “Low-resoursedness” Beyond Data
Masakhane wins the 2021 Wikimedia Foundation Research Award of the Year
Speech recognition programme for Fon
Making books and tools speak Chatino - Interview with Hilaria Cruz (Lingthusiasm Episode 24)
You can listen to this episode via Lingthusiasm.com, Soundcloud, RSS, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also download an mp3 via the Soundcloud page for offline listening, and stay tuned for a transcript of this episode on the Lingthusiasm website. To receive an email whenever a new episode drops, sign up for the Lingthusiasm mailing list.
You can help keep Lingthusiasm advertising-free by supporting our Patreon. Being a patron gives you access to bonus content and lets you help decide on Lingthusiasm topics.
Lingthusiasm is on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. Email us at contact [at] lingthusiasm [dot] com. Gretchen is on Twitter as @GretchenAMcC and blogs at All Things Linguistic. Lauren is on Twitter as @superlinguo and blogs at Superlinguo.
Lingthusiasm is created by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Our senior producer is Claire Gawne, our editorial producer is Sarah Dopierala, and our music is ‘Ancient City’ by The Triangles.
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superlinguo · 3 months ago
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New Publication: The Past and Future of Hand Emoji
As part of my work looking at the hand shapes and gestures found in the emoji set, I’ve published a short paper with Jennifer Daniel, looking at the range of functions of hand gesture emoji. This paper was part of the Emoji 2021 workshop at the 15th International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media (ICWSM).
The original hands
One of the fun parts of this paper was diving back into the history of emoji, looking at what hands had been included over time. The earliest Japanese emoji sets included a few hands in the 100 or so images that were encoded.
Across the two earliest sets from Softbank and Docomo, we see the Thumbs Up (👍) as well as the three emoji that are now known as Raised Fist, Raised Hand and Victory Hand (✊✋✌️). According to early Unicode documentation (see PDF here) these were originally encoded to be Rock, Paper, Scissors as per the game. Only when emoji were being encoded in the Unicode standard did they change names.
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Abstract
Human handshapes have been encoded as emoji since the earliest implementations. The flexible and accessible semantic domain of human gestures has continued to provide a source of new emoji. We provide an overview of the history of hand gestures in the Unicode emoji set. We then discuss the utility and challenges of encoding hand emoji, as well as the current direction being taken by Unicode.
Publication
Gawne, Lauren & Jennifer Daniel. 2021. The past and future of hand emoji. Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media (Emoji 2021). [Open Access PDF] [full citation and conference proceedings coming soon]
See also:
Emoji as Digital Gestures in Language@Internet [Open Access]
Gesture emoji: contributing to the Unicode standard
New draft emoji include 3 proposals I co-wrote!
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superlinguo · 3 months ago
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Linguistics Jobs: Interview with a Technical Writer
One thing I love about the Linguistics Jobs interview series is that each interview has relevant information about a specific job, but also lots of wonderful general advice about looking for work. Today, I really appreciate Alex Katz’s insight into the importance of building up a portfolio of work that you can share with potential future employers. Trying your hand at technical writing, or audio production or any other job you think you might be interested in, is a great way to see if it suits, and have something to show potential future employers. You can follow Alex on Twitter (@WizardOfDocs) and they’re also on Mastodon (WizardOfDocs@wandering.shop).
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What did you study at university?
For my bachelor's I did a double linguistics and Chinese literature major, and an honors thesis about how characters in old Doctor Who stories address each other. Then I did a Master of Arts degree in linguistics, focusing on pragmatics, and my thesis took John Searle's speech act theory and Brown & Levinson's politeness theory and combined them into a new set of speech act categories. The idea for my master's thesis came from reading Searle's original paper in my discourse analysis class and thinking "I can do this better." So I wrote a paper about it for the class, and that turned into the first draft of my thesis. So don't prevent yourself from doing something if the only reason you want to do it is to do it better than someone else. It gets results.
What is your job?
I'm a contract technical writer for a shopping website. My day-to-day work is improving the documentation of how to use/add to the code that keeps the website running: I'm editing the existing documentation one page at a time, but I'm also taking edit requests and proposals for new pages, and even planning a major restructuring of my team's internal website to make sure our customers can learn what to do better.
How does your linguistics training help you in your job?
Studying linguistics, and especially pragmatics, has made me a better writer and a better editor. I can figure out why a particular phrasing or formatting decision is better or worse in context, and explain it to my teammates. That skill isn't just useful for the actual documentation--understanding pragmatics also helps me write emails and Slack messages to make sure members of my team are talking to each other and can give me the information I need.
Do you have any advice you wish someone had given to you about linguistics/careers/university?
If you want to get into technical writing, start building up your portfolio as soon as possible, especially in your chosen subject area. Ask your professors if they have syllabi or lab procedures that need updating. Start a blog. Document open-source projects. I didn't realize I wanted to be a technical writer until a couple of years after I graduated, and now all my best work is proprietary and I can't work on open source projects without jumping through lots of hoops. So I'm feeling kind of stuck. If I'd realized sooner that I could just (for example) send the developer of a Minecraft mod a pull request to improve their in-game tutorial book, my portfolio would look a lot better.
Also, expect to spend at least a few years as a contractor before any company decides you're worth hiring for real. That means a lot of short-term jobs, and probably some bad employers at the staffing agencies. But it's a good way to figure out what kind of company you really want to work for, and a great way to build up your resume--even if I don't get to go full-time at this job, I can now say I've worked at three different big tech companies.
Any other thoughts or comments?
It's not exaggerating to say studying linguistics has made me a better person. I was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in college, just as I was starting to study linguistics, and those things together gave me a wonderful opportunity to study how people talk to each other and learn how to present myself as someone people want to spend time with.
Related interviews:
Interview with a Standards Engineer
Interview with a Product Manager
Interview with an Editor and Copywriter
Recent interview:
Interview with a Stay-at-home Mom and Twitch Streamer
Interview with a Peer Review Program Manager
Interview with an Associate at the Children’s Center for Communication, Beverly School for the Deaf
Interview with a Metadata Specialist and Genealogist
Interview with a Developer Advocate
Check out the full Linguist Jobs Interview List and the Linguist Jobs tag for even more interviews 
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