Monday, May 16, 2011

MIT 7: Wiktionary, the Dictionary, and a whole lot of awesome people...

Friday, May 13th was a lucky day for me. 

Not only did have the opportunity to present my paper, The Wiki-fication of the English Dictionary, at MIT's 7th Media in Transition Conference, but I was also fortunate to be  seated on a panel of truly fascinating scholars:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Find me at MIT7: Media in Transition

Here's the abstract for a paper I'll be presenting at the Media in Transition 7 Conference, to be held May 13-15, 2011 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, USA.

The Wiki-fication of the Dictionary:  Defining Lexicography in the Digital Age
The future of lexical reference books, such as the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is going to be determined, in part, by the emergence of free on-line dictionaries, such as Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary.

Specifically, we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift of authority in which users, rather than editorial boards, are making decisions concerning the content associated with a lexical entry’s definition. In effect, an exclusive privilege formerly enjoyed by professional lexicographers is ­now being extended unequivocally to laypersons. It is pertinent to ask, therefore, what effect this state of affairs will have on the ways that dictionaries are compiled and used.

For some, including Jill Lepore of the New Yorker Magazine, online collaborative lexical references are “Maoist” resources, “cobble[d]…together” by non-experts who “pilfer” definitions (2006, p. 79). This paper rejects such a characterization and seeks, instead, to provide a description more suitable for critical inquiry.

By contrasting the entry “bomb” as it appears in the OED, Wiktionary, and Urban Dictionary, and by making use of contemporary linguistic theory, the author posits that: word meanings are highly constrained by popular usage; and, in providing users the flexibility to modify entries in real-time, user-generated dictionaries are uniquely practical as catalogues of the current state of language; and, users regularly provide semantically and pragmatically significant, and grammatical accurate, definitions. It is concluded that, whereas traditional dictionaries may be the better resource for diachronic analyses of words, Wiktionary and the like may prove better for synchronic analyses. Finally, if traditional references are going to remain relevant, they may need to incorporate collaborative functionality.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

You Know My Steez: Google Translate and Black Language

The first thing I have to say is that, if you own and iPhone or Android phone and don't already have it, go download the free Google Translate Application. Google has not paid me a cent for saying so, nor do they endorse me... but I'm recommending it anyway.

This brilliant little app will translate what you to say into one of many languages AND allow you to hear that phrase in the language of your choice. I've used it to translate English into Korean, Italian, and Chinese, and can say that it was accurate to a remarkable degree (of course, one cannot expect that every utterance will translate neatly from one language to the next). 

Yet, I do have to make the observation that one language is conspicuously absent from the list of choices, and that language is Black language, also called African American Vernacular English, Black English, and Ebonics. 

Let's get it right out on the table: By linguistic standards, Black language meets the criteria of a language, which is to say that it is predictably rule-governed and passed down from generation to generation. This fact has been advanced by many in the discipline of linguistics, evidenced by the adoption of a "Resolution on the Oakland Ebonics Issue" by the Linguistics Society of America.
Scholar H. Samy Alim at UCLA has written extensively and thoughtfully on this issue; anyone interested in seeing how Black Language works may enjoy reading Alim's book, "You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community" (buy the book here). 

Having said this, there is no question that a host of people, including Bill Cosby, have criticized Black Language and its speakers as degenerate and degenerates, respectively. I tend to disagree with these critics in every respect. 

Moving on: If we do accept Black Language as a language, then perhaps it is time for Google Translate to incorporate it as such. This might prove useful to speakers of the language, educators, or even the CIA, who have recently enlisted the help of individuals in hopes of translating Black Language into Standard American English.

Such a move would certainly provide some outward validation of a language that has been too often marginalized and misunderstood. Here's hoping... 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Woop Woop! It's Da Sound of Da Police!

KRS-ONE, period. Not only has this guy been rocking microphones and crowds for the past three decades, but he has literally secured his position as the de facto rap scholar / ambassador of record, defining hip hop culture both in theory and in practice, from the offices of the United Nations, to the lecture halls of Harvard University. (Here's a video of him at the latter discussing the "9 Elements of Hip Hop).

In any case, when it comes to hip hop music, you can't throw a peace sign without hitting a KRS lyric embedded as a loop or sample in the songs of his peers, so catchy are his phrases.

One classic example of KRS , sampled by Jay-Z in "Takeover," is "Sound of Da Police"--- a song that I've always appreciated for its biting social commentary, not to mention its fine wordplay.

In this song, KRS drops some meta-linguistic science on us:

"Take the word 'overseer,' like a sample
Repeat it very quickly in a crew for example
Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer!
Yeah, 'officer' from 'overseer.'
You need a little clarity?
Check the similarity!
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patrolling all the nation..."
©1993 KRS-ONE

Until recently, I had just sort of accepted this highly-plausible description of the origin of the word "officer." Etymologically speaking, it is not at all uncommon for a word or phrase to derive from an alternate pronunciation of another word. Examples abound in the English language, but one of my favorites is the name "Shakespeare," which may be an Anglicized pronunciation of the name "Jacques-Pierre." (Just as in the song above, if you repeat these words very quickly, you can almost feel the pronunciation change.) It's also not that unbelievable that the word "overseer" would have historically been used in English to denote that which is associated with the word "officer" today.

As it turns out, however, KRS's analysis wasn't exactly right. 

The Anglo-Norman word "officer" has been in use in English since the late 14th century, represented in Middle English by any of a dozen variations in spelling: offessere, offesour, officiere. This likely came to England in 1044AD with the Normans of modern-day France, whose language was heavily rooted in Latin. In fact, the root for this word comes directly from the Latin officium (office) and the suffix -arius, corresponding to the suffix -er in Modern English. The meaning then, as now, referes to someone who holds a particular office (according to the OED).

The word "overseer," on the other hand, whose roots are decidedly Indo-European, came into use around the same time as "officer," and referred to someone who served as a superintendant or manager of a labor force. Both the prefix over- and the root see have cognates in other Germanic languages, including German, Dutch, and Icelandic. 

Although we can easily discern a possible semantic overlap in these two words, each has its own unique history in the English language, and neither was derived from the other. It is interesting to note, though, that the word "sheriff" was, in fact, formed through a change in pronunciation from the original word, scirgerefa, or shire reeve. In defense of KRS, the word "sheriff" is much harder to work into a rap than the word "officer."  Despite his less-than-successful foray into historical linguistic analysis, KRS remains a master of contemporary English, and for that, I forgive him!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blinguistics: It's like what would happen if Noam Chomsky had an iced out grill.

Like most people, I get annoyed by spam.

Not the processed meat product--- though, I don't suppose I have many good things to say about that kind of spam either. The spam I'm referring to is the kind that overtook my last blog and completely discouraged me from continuing in that endeavor. Based on the staggering volume of comments I received on my former blog, TechESL, I learned that my writings about second-language learning and technology were, apparently, quite popular among discount pharmaceutical companies,  sex-traffickers, and high-ranking foreign officials eager to help me turn my $10,000 advance into £10,000,000. I also learned that, once your blog has been commandeered by spam, there is little you can do to salvage it.

After being invited to beta-test some of Google's blogging products a few months ago, I started thinking it might be time to write again. So here I am... again.... and I'm happy to be back.

I spend a lot of time thinking about language, particularly the way that it works in things like hip hop culture, video games,  and interactive digital media. So, I thought I'd use this blog to talk about language in terms more general than in TechESL. I'd like to give myself permission to write about topics that interest me--- like, for example, the fact that the word "bling" made it into the Oxford English Dictionary Online; my hope is that they will interest you too.

So stay tuned. And welcome to Blinguistics.