Google Translate: the written word

Over at Google, the New Years present for 2012 is titled Sometimes it’s just easier to write. An update to the Google Translate app for Android in which one can enter characters via the touch screen:

Our goal is to break down the language barrier, all the time, everywhere. By adding handwriting input directly into our Android app we hope to help you get translation done even more quickly and easily. Sometimes you don’t know how to say what you want translated, sometimes you can’t type it, and sometimes it’s easier just to write it. We think of handwriting on the touchscreen as another natural input…

This is still an experimental feature. It’s available in Chinese and Japanese, and you can enable it for English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish if you like. (We currently only support single-character input for Chinese and Japanese.) Just as with speech recognition and our translations themselves, our handwriting recognition happens in the cloud, allowing us to continually improve accuracy without requiring you to download new versions of the app.

A list of almost every writing system

Boingboing recently posted a link to Omniglot, “an online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages” that looks very interesting. There’s the page of translated phrases (eg My hovercraft is full of eelsOne language is never enoughIt’s all Greek to me), the list of language names, an index of languages by writing system (who knew the Canadian aboriginals had a writing system, or that it was strikingly sharp), and a long list of curated articles about language.

On the fascism of Grammar

I don’t know who put me onto this two part essay on grammar yesterday (I feel like it was Superlinguo, but I could be wrong), but I’ve enjoyed reading/chewing on it. It starts as a piece on why grammar purism is annoying, distracting and misplaced:

When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you…

A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.

Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.

I’ve written previously on language mutability in the case of Indonesian punk rock band Punkasila and why I think it’s important. In Punkasila’s case we see language and art sitting side by side – and we while we see language moving, when the art doesn’t move, it loses all power to effect change. This piece attributed to Mark Twain, and Valerie Yule’s long career as an educator have been my two go to references, this will be my third.

As I write this, the music of artist Dual Core has come on and realise that hip hop threw grammar out the window over twenty years ago and hasn’t seen a reduction in popularity as a result. Criticisms of the genre have never been “that was poorly articulated”, quite the opposite in fact – when an MC can “make the words flow”, or express meaning in a clever and unique way, they are lauded.

While the headline I’ve chosen is overblown, my essential concern is one of conservative thought versus progressive thought. If we don’t sculpt our language in such a way that we can express new ideas, or old ideas and beauty in new ways, we run the risk of stagnation. A rusting on of ideas, an increasing boredom with beauty and difference. And that’s not the world I want to live in.

Part two of this essay is less rant, more literature – but has it’s own beauty. In particular, it address the idea of language formation moving between languages, in relation to Rushdie’s The Satanic Versus, and the richness that it provides

However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

It is for this reason that I don’t believe that translators and interpretors need worry about their working futures – computing has a long way to go before it can weave this magic.

Superlinguo – all things linguistic-y

I’ve been reading the Superlinguo blog recently, as one of those responsible, Georgia, also appears on Triple R‘s (my local indy radio station) tech show, Byte Into It.

I’ve been meaning to bring them up for a while – there’s an interesting post about the World Oral Literature Project that I thought was very interesting – they have helped fund a dictionary for Lamjung Yolmo, a Nepalese language or dialect.

The World Oral Literature Project are working with communities and linguists all over the world to try and make accessible records of languages that are dying out at a rapid rate. Their particular interest is in capturing those stories, poems and bits of cultural lore that are often lost when a community no longer speak their ancestral language. They have small grants to help people work towards recording these stories and tales, but they also do public lectures and workshops in developed countries to show people who might have never contended with the loss of a language exactly what is as stake.

Then of course, they forced my hand today by posting a cornucopia of linkage to all sorts of language and linguistic goodness that will no doubt make it hard for me to get any work done today. As you can see, a lot of our (well, my) favourite topics are covered – X number of words for Y, untranslatable phrases, crowd sourced translations and endangered languages:

Lynneguist spent a month looking at words that don’t really translate very well between American and British English, as an Australian I’m unsurprised that we share so many commonalities with both – but also amused at how many words from either language haven’t found their way to Australia. Johnson also investigated the great Atlantic linguistic divide, looking at just how Brits living in the USA have adapted to local pronunciation. Results come in colourful pie charts.

Fritinancy reintroduced us to some tech jargon already lost to history, and some that still survives. Stan Carey gives us an introduction to how Klingon was invented, and while still on something of a Scifi theme introduced us to the Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery. And while we are looking into the future, the folk at MacMillan reported on the future of dictionaries from the 2011 eLEX conference.

While the internet is having affects on the way dictionaries are being used, Piers Kelly at Fully (Sic) also showed us that crowd-sourcing can be great, with a project currently underway to translate ancient Greek texts. You don’t even need to know any Greek to help out. And on the topic of the internet making research more wonderful, the Australian Society for Indigenous Linguistics have made a large segment of their collection publicly accessible – Thanks to Jane Simpson at the PARADISEC Endangered Languages and Cultures blog for letting us know the good news.

Some quick links – Language Hat asked about the history of movie pidgins, Arnold Zwicky puzzles over some tricky alphabetising and that guy over at Dialect blog talks about guy, as do those guys at Lingua Franca. Ben Zimmer discovers that Kate Bush shows remarkable creativity in her list of 50 words for snow but as Geoff Pullum, over at Lingua Franca, discovers not everyone is as well educated when it comes to knowing how many words Eskimos have for snow (clue: it’s not fifty).

It’s now a solid part of my morning reading ritual through my RSS reader. Recommended reading.

Artatak: Remapping words

While I was living in Yogyakarta in 2008 I had the pleasure of sharing the space at the now defunct (sads!) Mes56. Katerina Valdivia was also staying there at the time. I will always remember the Argentinian/German New Year’s eve feast she cooked on my first night there  - I was just recovering from Dengue fever, having spent Xmas in a fevered stupor – and it was one of the greatest feasts I’d ever tasted.

I got an email from Katerina last week advertising her latest show, titled Remapping Words. Instant attention grabbing headline in my book:

Sometimes words become the staging of symbolic spaces, that attempt to change reality. This is one of the aims of the piece Resignation by Lisha, a work that follows a strategy of redirecting a meaning by altering or adding words. The artist intervenes in the public space subverting the rules that organise it.

With the work Investir, Valeria Schwarz created a participatory and dialogic piece based on three month of Facebook and online chats with people from North African countries. Taking some of the  phrases of their conversations, the artist inserted them in daily life situations in the city of Murcia, Spain. With this, these sentences acquired another meaning through the new geographical context in which they were presented.

Using subtitles, Stine Eriksen creates in the video Choreography #1 a tension between the word and its display, showing the impossibility of words to fill the absence on which language is based.

I can’t make it (wrong side of the planet), but if you are near Berlin – check it out and let me know!



Translating large numbers

Is trillion the new billion? in the BBC news magazine looks at various aspects of the large numbers. Historically, they were first documented in French:

The words billion and trillion, or variations on them, were first documented by French mathematicians in the 15th Century.

Then bought to England via John Locke in 1690:

as a useful term for avoiding “the often repeating of millions of millions of millions etc”. The French had purposely coined “billion” a 100 or so years earlier to denote the second power of a million (“bi” being the standard prefix for two)

But it’s usage was morphed separately by the British and Americans to mean the second power of a million and one thousand million respectively until

in 1974, Harold Wilson pledged that the British government would adopt the “short scale” naming system used in the US to avoid ambiguity. As a result, the value of billion is now generally understood to mean a thousand millions.

Most probably because it’s hard to imagine even needing a number as large as a million million. But of course, with the advent of advances in computing in particular, things that were once easily measured in the thousands – like MBs of storage available for instance – are now measured in much much larger numbers.

One way to enhance understanding is to divide a big number by the number of people affected, he says, so if the population of the eurozone is about 330m, then a trillion shared represents about 3,000 euros for each person. Another way is to count the numbers one at a time, one per second. A million seconds is 11 days, a billion seconds is about 32 years and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years.

Traditionally trillion was used as a euphemism for “a shockingly large number”, but that usage no longer has resonance given that it can be used in regular conversation without batting an eye – as seems to happen when discussion trade deficits or governmental budgets these days.

As well as the mathematical reality that numbers really are getting bigger, there is also a wilful repetition of words like trillion, says lexicographer Susie Dent.

“The use of ‘trillions’ in our general conversation is part of a trend towards linguistic inflation or ‘bigging up’.

“Some words are used to the point of exhaustion and need replacing with others in order to maintain the strength of expression. So ‘heroes’ are now ‘superheroes’, we’re not just angry any more, we are ‘incandescent with rage’, and ‘tragedy’ is losing its power because it’s used for less than tragic events.

And words which previously had sufficient power in themselves are attracting prefixes such as uber- or mega- in order to re-energise them, she adds.

For reference, the short scale represents numbers as follows:

The new trillions

  • Trillion – 1 + 12 zeros (1 000 000 000 000, the “long scale” “billion”)
  • Quadrillion – 1 + 15 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Quintillion – 1 + 18 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Sextillion – 1 + 21 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Septillion – 1 + 24 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Octillion – 1 + 27 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Nonillion – 1 + 30 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)
  • Decillion – 1 + 33 zeros (1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000)


Ask/Tell: A carnival of things

My friend Richard is frankly amazing – his breadth of reading and understanding, thoughtfulness and imagination are quite simply unparalleled by anyone else I know, or know of. Having lived together, on and off, for the best part of the last decade we know each other, and each other’s likes and dislikes, well. Inevitably, this leads to a couple of email’s a week between us, with links of note, youtube videos, memetic images and the like. Occasionally they all come together in one big pastafarian mess – late last week he pointed me to a blogpost I’ve only just got around to reading, an interview with the metaphysical philosopher Graham Harman (Harman’s Wikipedia entry) on a blog called Ask/Tell. The interview is quite long, but worth the effort – covering a number of ideas like language, translation, understanding and the philosophical/political interface with deft finesse. It’s well worth the read:

TB: The world is not made of propositions. Yet any person’s experience can be conceived as being made of language. What is your sense of the limits of language in terms of your practice as a philosopher?

GH: The only limits of language in philosophy are the same limits found everywhere else– language cannot make the things directly present. The things cannot be transmuted directly into language. The attempt to set up rules for how to use language logically to refer to the real world rather than referring to mere illusions is hopeless. We need to be as inventive in our language as Picasso in his depiction of solid objects.

Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.

My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.

There are too many calls in philosophy for clear writing, but rarely any calls for vivid writing. I agree that writing should be clear, but if this is your first priority, it means that you think the real problem with most philosophy is obfuscation, muddiness, evasiveness, and so forth. But the real problem with much philosophy is that it simply takes a position in some pre-existing trench war without innovating as to the terms of the problem. The result is an increasing supply of rational but boring assertions, not a fresh rethinking of the problem.

Philosophical language should be primarily vivid, and only secondarily clear. We should be clear when things are clear, but when we reach the edge of what is known, why pretend to know more than we do? I like a philosopher with a sense of when to use chiaroscuro. There are shadows in the world, and good writing should contain corners of shadow as well.

While this isn’t easy reading, there is encouragement from within the text:

TB: I tend to read a difficult long poem—Pound’s Cantos, say, Zukofsky’s “A” , or Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation—in the same way that I read a challenging philosophy text. I suspend any pretence of total understanding and forge ahead. I’m “studiously unprepared” to borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams. I’m most engaged when I’m at least somewhat textually uncertain. I like having room for improvisational thought. But, you’re right, what sustains me as reader in such situations is vividness.

And this text has vividness in spades:

(GH) To answer your second question, the reason to focus on objects rather than on “language, social change, sexuality or animals” is because philosophy is obliged to be global in scope. If philosophy were to give one of these other entities a starring role, it would have to reduce the rest of the universe to them. “Language is the root of everything.” Here, you are choosing one specific kind of entity to be the root of all others, and there is no basis for this. Sociology tends to view all reality in terms of its emergence from human societies and belief-systems. Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena. Physics deals with tiny physical objects and says that everything is made out of them, except that physics is useless when trying to explain things like metaphors, the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of dreams, and so forth.

All these other disciplines focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world. Only philosophy can be a general theory of objects, describing Symbolist poetry and the interaction of cartoon characters just as easily as the slamming together of two comets in distant space.

TB: … I find myself stuck on your idea of “philosophy installations” and imagining a room full of simultaneous translators amidst a giddy “carnival of things.” …

(GH) … language may still loom large in object-oriented philosophy even though it must be stripped of its transcendental-ontological constitutive power for everything else that exists…

But at the end of the interview, the philosophy is still grounded in the here and now, despite, it could be said, demanding an end to “the trench warfare” of the concept of “here and now” in some ways – a refreshing, self deprecating, perspective:

(GH) There is undeniably a certain banality to the world in our time, a demoralizing commercial hustle. But I’m extremely suspicious of the near-unanimity that prevails in political views in world intellectual circles right now. The price of admission to these circles is a series of expected denunciations that reassure everyone that you’re on their team. This is why I don’t respond immediately to demands to provide a politics of OOO, because I suspect that I’m just being asked to provide the usual, predictable denunciations, just as if I were being ordered to wear a flannel shirt and beard stubble at a grunge music party. That’s not intellectual debate, that’s just group solidarity, and I don’t care how good you think your group is– group solidarity is not a form of thinking.

For example, I’m writing this response from Istanbul, where I saw the 2011 Biennale yesterday. The theme was art and politics, and I was disappointed to find that all the political messages were exactly the same! Everything is America’s fault, Israel’s fault, capitalism’s fault. So, is the answer really that easy, and all we need to do is join forces to fight all the stupid and greedy corporate interests that prevent the truth from prevailing? Maybe, but this smells too much like trench war to me. It looks too much like the very “failure of imagination” of which everyone is so quick to accuse the current system.

There’s a wise old saying: don’t become worse than what you’re fighting. I would put a twist on that and say: don’t become less imaginative than what you’re fighting. This is the big danger for the political Left right now. I’m not interested in its moralistic self-congratulation, but only in what it can build. This is why I loved Žižek’s speech at the Occupy Wall Street protest; he hit the spot and said exactly what needed to be said. Maybe this Left will be able to build quite a lot. We will soon find out, because they are probably on the verge of seizing the upper hand. What is now called neo-liberalism is a little over thirty years old: the California property tax revolt in 1978, Thatcher in 1979, Reagan in 1980. Like any way of looking at the world, it has turned into a robotic application of clichés and no longer seems to be up to the challenge. We are about to undergo a big Leftward swing. When that happens, let’s see what people can do other than critique and oppose. They’ll have about thirty years of leeway before they start to become completely banal themselves, and then we’ll swing in the other direction again in about 2045, just as my own life is coming to a close.