The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: English

Bespoke education and entertainment, or risk it?

bespokeTwo days ago, I was at work transcribing an interview one of the interviewees used the word “bespoke.” That was a word I haven’t heard in a while, and I just shared my thoughts on Facebook, “I think “bespoke” might be my favourite word of the day, today.” It’s a simple word that means something one would not associate with how it looks and sounds: it basically means something that is tailor-made to individual preference.

My friend Kevin Allison, who hosts a podcast and runs the live comedy show The Risk! Show, commented, “I tried to cut it from a recent RISK story because I didn’t know what it meant.” I asked if he could not have simply checked the dictionary and he said something that struck me: “If I don’t know what a damn word means, plenty of listeners won’t either!”

This forced me to think a lot about the role of those delivering informational content, be it via print or broadcast such as newspapers (print/online) or the radio. Is it our role to expand the vocabulary of those watching/reading/listening, or should we create a bespoke program easily digestible and understandable by readers?

I’ve always been impressed with the balance of hefty words and simple terms that the New York Time achieves, and constantly learn new words or remember old ones I’ve forgotten. English is a beautiful language, the bastard amalgamation of some many languages from continental Europe, that in its plenitude are niche, forgotten gems we should celebrate.

But in our consideration of the audience, especially here in America, we (content producers) amputate ourselves to fit the ready-to-serve boxes that the audience expects. As my journalism professor once said, “Why used ‘dollar words’ when a ‘fifty cent’ one suffices?” Maybe because sometimes there is beauty in the complexity contained within the brevity of “dollar words.” The best uses of difficult words are those placed supremely in a sentence where the context allows the readers to read and extract the meaning without having to stumble over it, and upon reflection on the use of the word, appreciates that that word is not run-of-the-mill. Where a “dollar word” is pivotal in the sentence, and the meaning known only to Webster-Merriam, that is untenable. We use many clues in context and morphology to help us understand words we don’t, harkening back to ye ol’ grade school days of “reading from context.” Morphemes like “un,” “mal,” “pro,” etc. contribute to the understanding of the word, even if the reader doesn’t know the word, and writers should take that into consideration when trying to achieve beauty with their words.

But ere we lose the readers in a mire of SAT vocabulary list, there is nothing more exhausting than having to refer to a dictionary every couple of sentences. I think content producers, in an ideal world, should challenge the limits of the audience’s knowledge every now and then, and achieve a balance between inspiration and information.

Answering the question, not the counterfactual

The above image made its rounds on Reddit the other day. The question asks “If you choose an answer to this question at random, what is the chance you will be correct?” The options are:

a) 25%
b) 50%
c) 60%
d) 25%

Since the randomly choosing one out of four answers is a 25% chance, so it’s a)… and d)? So since there are two correct answers, out of four choices, that is 50%, which is b). But there’s only one b), it’s 25%, so it’s a) and d)… ad nauseam.

STOP. You’re doing this wrong. Let semantics easily (and hopefully painlessly) tell you how to solve this question.

Let’s look at the question again.

“If you choose an answer to this question at random”

Let’s break it down:

IF [You] [choose 1 answer randomly] to [this] question, [percentage answer=TRUE?]

The secret is in the word, “IF”. It summons a counterfactual version of you, that you are able to discuss things in an “if” world, while not being constrained to answer by “if” rules. Thus, [counterfactual You] is supposed to pick 1 answer to [this], where [this] is self-referential to a world that has 2 correct answers out of 4. The answer is 50% for you in this world, not the world [counterfactual You] inhabits.

Hence, in your reality, not the [counterfactual You] in the question, just answer the question that they asked about counterfactual you, simple as that. An equivalent question, substituting counterfactual you with a third person, is:

Kevin has to randomly pick 1 answer out of four. However, 2 of the answers are identical and correct. What is the percentage that Kevin will pick a right answer?

Don’t sweat the counterfactuals, just stick with this reality. The right answer is B.

(No need to read the below if you don’t want technical explanations)

If you want a really convoluted discussion about semantics and counterfactuals and why we can discuss counterfactuals without being constrained by counterfactual rules, it’s simple. In counterfactual semantics we often discuss the death of Aristotle (or was it Plato?), such as “Aristotle might not have been a philosopher if he had died as a kid.” This relates to the topic of indices and what names refer to, largely researched and discussed by many linguists and philosophers, such as Kripke.

A quick answer, without going too in-depth, is that if we are bound by the indices of the counterfactuals we refer to, we will be unable to talk or respond because the counterfactuals are in an infinite loop. Thus, we can talk about Aristotle’s death without having to go back in time to kill him, or talk about what would happen at the end of the world without destroying the world to be able to talk about it. Take the following multiple self-indexed sentence.

If I were you, I would kill me

There are two people involved in the conversation, “you” and “me”, yet to our minds there seems to be a conventional understanding of what the sentence means. It means that “I am such a terrible person that if there were another person, and that person were talking to me, he would hate me so much that he would kill me.” For such a short sentence, it takes such a long sentence to elaborate. Thank goodness for indices! This is how the above sentence works with indices:

IF [counterfactual I][sees]me, [counterfactual I][wants][kill] me.

There you go.

The persistence of comprehension

chinesefup

Some time ago, Instagram user jumppingjack posted the above image of a note she left to her mum. She said that her brother secretly added extra strokes to the characters in the note. The result is interesting though: even though extra strokes were added, the note is still readable to most competent Chinese speakers. This phenomenon is very similar to one not too long ago in English, coined “Typoglycemia,” a portmanteau of “typo” and “glycemia” and a pun on “hypoglycaemia,” where as long as the first and the last letter of the word is preserved, the middle can be scrambled and the words are still understandable.

This is an interesting case in what I call persistence of comprehension, where comprehension of words persists despite efforts to thwart it.

The Preamble

Unlike English, which uses the alphabetic system where each letter is a phoneme, or Japanese, a syllabary system where each character is a mora, Chinese uses a logographic system, using “pictures,” or logographs to represent words. So unlike the other two systems where there are things to scramble, it is hard to “scramble” a picture, and scrambling a picture is no different from adding or subtracting strokes from a character, which is what jumppingjack‘s brother did.

Before I go further, let me type out what the note intends to say:

妈妈,明天的午餐因为
人数不够,他们把这个
活动换到下一个星期
(可是下个星期六中午我的
公司有个午餐)

谢谢 🙂  (我明天应该有吃午餐)

Mum, for tomorrow’s lunch because
there aren’t enough people, they have
changed this activity to next Monday.
(But next Saturday afternoon my
company has a lunch event)
Thanks 🙂  (I should be eating lunch tomorrow)

So how does persistence of comprehension occur in Chinese? I shall illustrate some of the characters that are easily understood despite the scrambling and the ones that threw me off (and my friends) the most. (Also, note that the person mis-wrote the character for 期 where he switched the 月 and 其 around, not of her brother’s doing. But the brother added an extra radical as well)

chinesemessy

The image above sorts some of the words in the note in order of persistence of comprehensibility from top to bottom, with top being easiest to understand despite scrambling and the bottom being the hardest. The scrambled word is on the left and the proper word is on the right. Note that the bottom four scrambled words are all actual Chinese words, which I will talk about shortly.

The scrambling of the 的 character is one of the easiest to understand, because despite the additional stroke, it still mostly resembles its original character, and does not resemble any other words in the language. The added stroke is a not a radical, a graphical component of a word that is often semantic, unlike the scrambling of the character 明 (tomorrow). Similarly for 因, the added stroke turns the 大 in the 因 into a 太, but on the overall the word is not a real word and mostly resembles its original.

Now we look at the addition of a stroke in 明, turning the 日 (sun) radical, usually used for weather-related words, into a 目 (eye) radical, usually used for vision-related words. The resultant scrambled word is still not a word, but the morphing of a semantically-relevant radical into another makes one pause when reading the sentence. Also, the addition of a stroke to the 月 (moon) component turns it into a 用 (use) character, making comprehension even more difficult.

One step after the 明 character is the 们 character, where not a stroke but an entire 中 (middle) word has been inserted in the middle (haha) of 们. Some of my friends disagree that it is harder than the scrambling of 明, and I’m inclined to agree, and I’d put it as a toss-up between the two. However, I feel that the insertion of an entire word as opposed to a stroke or radical morphs the word enough to the point that it becomes alien enough not to even resemble its original, but does not resemble any other word in Chinese.

Lastly, the last four words, 公,午,伞,and 下, have strokes and/or word components added to them, that they actually resemble other words in the language, 翁 (old man), 牛 (cow), 伞 (umbrella), and 卡 (card). With such resemblance to real words, little wonder people have difficult understanding the words as they read them.

The Analyis

How is it that we are able to understand the note with little difficulty?

In the English “Typoglycemia,” it has been suggested that we identify words not solely by letter position in a word, but by context, shape of the word, and position of word in the sentence. I’m going as far to suggest that in English seeing the individual letters of a scrambled word draws upon our stored memory of the word, further aiding comprehension of a scrambled word. Compare:

  1. Adcnirocg to rrasceeh at a ptaruilacr ureitnvisy
  2. Aoincdrg to rcseerh at a plaaicutr uesvtniiy
  3. Aroindg to rearech at a pluiraacr utrisveiy

Example 1 is classic “typoglycemia” where persistence of comprehension is strong, example 2 removes one non-essential letter from each word, and persistence of comprehension is still relative strong. Example 3 removes what I consider an essential component to the memory of the word, which are usually consonants and not vowels. Take this example:

  • I cnt blve u dd tt!

In English, vowels can be removed quite easily and the comprehension of the word is still possible. This suggests that consonants play a slightly more important part in the reading of words. In that aspect, comprehension of written English has some similarity to comprehension of written Arabic or Hebrew, where typically vowels are not included in the writing (in the way English does anyway). Thus, it is harder to understand “aroindg” as “according” because

  1. An essential component has been removed (3 syllables, essential components in bold: a-cc-r-dng). This might be so because consonant representations are tied up with its phonetic properties. This is why “cc” or has to be removed as opposed to just “c” from “according” for comprehension to fail, because “cc” in the word correlates to the /k/ sound in /əˈkɔː(ɹ)dɪŋ/; even with just one “c” or it is sufficient to clue us in that there might be a /k/ or sound in the scrambled word.
  2. It is the first in the sequence of essential components, suggesting that perhaps we process essential components sequentially in our head. It could be that when we see the word “according,” we could be drawing upon the idea that “according” has the components “a-cc-d-ng” in that order. Hence removing the first component “cc” impedes comprehension as it cannot give the subsequent components context of what the word might be (compare understanding: “aroindg” (“cc” removed) with “aocrcdg” (“in” removed)).

How does this relate to Chinese? If we can say that we draw upon essential sequences of components in the comprehension of written English, perhaps there is an equivalent of that in the comprehension of Chinese. I believe that in reading Chinese, there is a stored visual memory of what the character looks like in general, and also an idea of what strokes the character should contain (“legal strokes”), and what it should not (“illegal strokes”).

First, we address whether modifying a Chinese character sets off alarm bells to the reader. Adding legal strokes to scrambled characters should stand out less to the reader, causing him to accept the character as a real word visually. We look at the following example where this is demonstrated:

chinesemessy2

In the note, a floating shuzhe (vertical-bend) stroke is added to the 够 character, and in the Chinese language there is no such occurrence of a floating shuzhe; they are always attached to other strokes, such as in 喝 (with some exceptions, like 断, which may or may not be attached). Being visually alerted that there is something wrong with the character, we immediately visually discount the scrambled 够, and are able to extract the original word. In the example of 他, the pie (leftward-slant) stroke is added on top of the 亻radical, creating a 彳(step) radical, which exists. Thus when reading the scrambled word of 他, it does not jump out at the reader visually as the shuzhe stroke in 够 does, and we are likely to gloss over it and accept it as it appears to us and are less likely to question whether the character is out of place contextually or not.

Next, adding a legal stroke to scrambled words causes more confusion when the stroke turns the original word into a semantically different word. There is extra confusion when the meaning of the new word does not fit in the context of the sentence, especially when the word has been accepted as it is, as explained in the previous paragraph. These can be seen in the following examples:

chinesemessy3

If my premises are right, in example 1, readers should be able to identify the error most easily and yet still read the sentence in its original context. In example 2, they should gloss over the wrong character, and since it still resembles very much like the original, is not a new or any word at all, persistence of comprehension should still be strong. In example 3, this is where comprehension begins to be thwarted, where 他能够卡去吃午餐 (He is able to card go eat lunch) and 他能够下去吃牛餐 (He is able to go down and eat cow meal) don’t make any sense as the scrambled words have both legal strokes and are real words, and the meaning of the scrambled words are contextually out of place in the sentence.

The Conclusion

What I have coined “the persistence of comprehension” is a seemingly little-researched area in English, much less Chinese. I offered the following reasons explaining the persistence of comprehension in English “typoglycemia,” where through the combination of context, length of word, letter position, shape of word, word position in a sentence, and (what I have demonstrated with examples) identifying the letters, which draw upon phonetic representations of the word in our head, we are able to read English.

In the more interesting case of Chinese, which is logographic, I posited that there are legal and illegal strokes which can be added to a character. Legal strokes are less likely to be noticed than illegal ones. If the scrambled word is a real actual word, the effect of having legal strokes masks the fact that the word has been scrambled, and when we read it, the sentence doesn’t make sense because we do not suspect a character has been tampered with.

All in all, more extensive research must be done, than what this blog can provide. I don’t know if I will be able to do so, but if anyone wants to hear my notes on this topic, feel free to reach out to me at ws672[at]nyu[dot]edu.

Note: In the original version of this post, I wrote that jumppingjack was male, when she is female. Corrections have been made.

Speaking fake English, or any other fake language

What qualifies the English language to sound “English” enough? Very often, people in the English-speaking world have impressions of what foreign languages sound like. Chinese (excluding stereotypical “ching-chong” variants) sounds like “Xie shi hao ni jing ling ping dao” to many English speakers, replete with its tonality, French has its velar R’s and lots of Z’s and nasalities, “Le beton est un plus morraise il a son telle fusontique des mon,” Italian has its inflections on certain syllables, and so forth.

What about fake English? Were a foreigner to make fun of what English sounds like to them, how would they reconstruct it?

Turns out faking a language at least requires the basic knowledge of morphemic and phonetic structure of that language. Why do people in the least go “ching-chong” when talking about Chinese and rattle their throats and noses trying to speak fake French? It’s because that they know these languages feature these consonant and vowel relationships.

Knowing the phonetic map is only one part of speaking a fake language, the other, to make the fake language sound convincing, is knowing how they fit together to form words.

The video above speaks fake Chinese, and as a Chinese speaker, I find it very far off, simply because he does not understand the tonal system of Chinese, nor can he reproduce certain syllables.

The video below shows a somewhat convincing fake English, as it imagines what English would sound like to foreign person who does not speak the language.

Any English speaker would realise that in that clip, it actually uses a lot of real English words, but for the most part is unintelligible, yet it still sounds distinctively English. I feel that the writers of the script relied too much on real words and simply garbling the rest, when they could have pushed the boundaries further of words they can change up using English phonomorphemic rules to create a convincing and clear fake English conversation.

I wrote previously that we can extract semantic meaning from nonsense words, through parallel sounds and morphemes attached to them. Likewise, for fake English, to sound most convincing, we need to preserve morphemes, because for some reason, English morphemes are very English to any English speaker. So much so that we attach them to foreign words when we attempt to Anglicise them. For example, we can say a person “kamikaze’d” or that perhaps something could be “taco-licious”. What that means exactly, I’m not sure, but we often use English affixes to bring foreign words to make them fit into our language.

Likewise, if we were to create nonsensical, fake English conversation, we must preserve these affixes, for they give words their purposes. For example, we use “-tion” to turn something into a process, such as “crown” to “coronation,” “investigate” to “investigation.” If I used a word like “hakilimation,” chance are, a competent English speaker can probably draw inferences that the root word would be “hakilimate.” If I said a person is “taffing,” the root verb is probably “to taff.”

Here’s my attempt at speaking fake English, using the rules I have highlighted. I think if someone weren’t paying close attention and heard this in the background, it could pass for real English. Also included are fake Chinese and Japanese, that, in my opinion, sound a lot more legit than those without knowledge of how the language is structured.

Here’s an example of a Microsoft ad that uses fake Chinese convincingly. Granted, a lot of the words are slurred, given its more conversational nature, but to those who know the language, some actual Chinese can be teased out from that blur of words.