Learning From Words

Cultural anthropologists will tell you that simply learning about individual words in a language can teach you a lot about a people.  The fact that the Inuit and Yupik languages feature many different words for snow — words like “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled” — gives you a pretty good idea that the Inuit and Yupik live in a climate where snow is prevalent and minute differences in the form of snow can be really important.

li-24-schadenfreude-620x412So, what does it tell you about the German culture that Germans developed the words schadenfreude and gluckschmerz?  Schadenfreude refers to the sensation of feeling pleasure at the suffering of others, and gluckschmerz means feeling unhappy about the good fortune of others.  Neither of these words really has a close synonym in the English language.  That indicates that the Germans felt a need to capture and express precise sentiments that the English apparently weren’t experiencing all that often.

Schadenfreude and gluckschmerz suggest that the Germans are very emotionally sensitive, closely attuned to what’s happening to their perceived rivals, and deeply competitive with those people.  It’s worth noting that these precisely expressive German words seem to get borrowed most frequently when English speakers are talking about what has happened to rival sports teams or hated political opponents — which gives you a good sense of the intense, visceral feelings that Germans must be experiencing often enough to invent specific words for them.

So, are there words in the American idiom that would tell cultural anthropologists something meaningful about our culture?  Well, when you think about it, we seem to have a lot of words that describe, with subtle differences, people acting like jerks.


Speaking Mainish

America is a land of different accents. There’s the famous Southern drawl, of course, and the rapid-fire Brooklyn accent, and the quasi-Scandinavian inflections in the upper Midwest that were so effectively lampooned in the movie Fargo. There are so many regional accents in America, in fact, that the lower Midwest, where the Webner clan hails from, is reputed to be the most accent-free part of the country.

Lifelong Mainers have their own unique accent. In fact, calling it an accent really doesn’t do it sufficient justice — it’s like a slightly different language that should be called something like Mainish. When you’re first introduced to Mainespeak it takes some getting used to. It’s a combination of a slow, drawn-out, multi-syllabic cadence and different approaches to pronunciation that produce a way of speaking that feels ancient and deeply rooted. “There” gets turned into they-yuh. Nobody likes pronouncing the letter “r” at the end of words, either — it’s as if it is some junk letter that shouldn’t be part of the alphabet in the first place. So you can just call us the Webnahs. And there are undoubtedly other eddies and currents and backwaters in the river of Mainespeak that we haven’t even been exposed to yet — such as when a fellow I was talking to mentioned the lanch of a boat.

It’s curious and delightful being here among the Mainers and listening to them talk. You might say we’re getting an immersion course in Mainish.

Learning To Speak Chatbotese

So, two chatbots were learning to negotiate and were talking to each other.

(This sounds like the first line of a bad joke, doesn’t it?  And for those of you, like me, who aren’t exactly sure what “chatbots” are, they are computer programs designed to engage in simulated conversations with human beings, such as over the internet.  I think they also can be called “dialog agents.”)

Anyway, researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab were using “machine learning” to train these two chatbots to negotiate and deal with each other, through talking or engaging in “simulated conversations,” or whatever.

70720-the-terminator-endo-skeleton(“Machine learning,” for those of you who are clueless about it like me, is an artificial intelligence model in which computer behavior isn’t tied to specific, fixed programming.  Instead, it involves the use of analytical algorithms that allow computers to review and “learn” from data, with the computer programming changing as new data is assimilated, thereby hopefully allowing the computers to identify new insights or patterns in the data they are reviewing.  Got it?  Well, I’m not sure I really do, either, but at least I didn’t use the word “iterative” in describing it.)

So, anyway, the researchers were observing these two chatbots that were using machine learning to develop their negotiation abilities when the researchers noticed something odd:  the two chatbots had stopped using human language and started to use a language of their own.   And they also quickly picked up on standard techniques that allowed them to become pretty effective negotiators.

Interesting, isn’t it, that computers using techniques that allowed them to follow their own leads ended up realizing that human language wasn’t the most efficient way to proceed, and decided to  develop their own form of communication?  And, in so doing, they scratched off another of the former dividing lines that are supposed to differentiate humans from everything else — the ability to develop language.  It would be fascinating to know what the chatbot language was like.  What were the words used?  Did it involve any adverbs?

We’re on the far technology frontiers these days, where we’re inching closer to true artificial intelligence and computers that think for themselves and, presumably, will start to factor their own interests into what they are doing.  You can think of the Terminator movies, or 2001, or The Matrix, or any of a slew of sci-fi novels where computers go rogue and target humanity — or you can hope that computers will just be happy to acquire some form of self-awareness, without using their remorseless computer logic to judge the imperfect humans that created them and find them wanting.

Maybe the chatbots invented a word for that.


A few days ago, the word of the day on our word calendar was “knackered.”  It’s a British word that is synonymous for “tired.”

puppy-fell-asleep-in-dog-food“Knackered” is presumptively an excellent word, because all words that begin with a “k” are.  (Kish agrees with this point.)  It’s a fun word to say and kind of rolls off the tongue, too.  But it’s also an extremely useful word because, especially as you get older, it’s increasingly common to become tired as the work week progresses, and having another word that you can use to describe your condition is very welcome.

When you think about it, there are almost as many words that express being tired as there are for being drunk.  And, there are some fine gradations between them.  I would put “fatigued,” “enervated,” and “weary” at the less tired end of the spectrum, whereas “exhausted,” “dead on my feet,” and “bone tired” would hold down the opposite end, where you can barely stand and have to watch that you don’t nod off at the dinner table (or with your head in the dog food bowl).  “Beat,” “wiped out,” “shot,” “spent,” “worn out,” “bushed,” “tuckered out,” and (Mom’s favorite) “too pooped to pop” would be somewhere in between.

Knackered would be more toward the “exhausted” end of the spectrum, because in some parts of the former British Empire it’s also slang for “broken” and is derived from a word for “to kill.”  And, because it’s of British lineage, you can sound classy when you express the depth of your fatigue.

Feel free to use it the next time you drag yourself home from work and somebody asks how you’re doing.

Speaking Dogese

Researchers in Hungary have found evidence that dogs do process and, to a certain extent, understand human speech.  Using brain scanning technology, the researchers determined that the right parts of canine brains process words and the left parts process pitch, the same way that human brains work.  And the study confirms what any dog person already knows:  dogs react to the particular combination of speech and pitch.

gingerOne interesting aspect of the study is that is provides some insight into how animal brains react to human speech.  That’s hard to test, because most animals try to avoid humans and have no interest in listening to humans yammer on or trying to understand what we’re talking about.  Our canine friends, on the other hand, have been connected with humans for tens of thousands of years and have evolved to welcome, and provide, companionship for humans.  They basically have to care what the humans in their lives are saying to them, so they pay attention when other animals just ignore our blather.

I have no doubt that Kasey understands some of what we say.  When we speak to her, her ears perk up, her head tilts a bit, and her tail starts wagging if the message is a happy one.  Of course, we don’t try to discuss the fine points of philosophy or quantum theory with her, but her limited vocabulary is quite sufficient to cover the basics of her existence.  I’d guess her working vocabulary consists of about ten words, all typically spoken in the same way with exaggerated tones and grouped into five functional life categories that allow her to live a pretty happy dog life:

  1. Self-awareness:  Kasey
  2. Eating:  food, breakfast, dinner, hungry
  3. Basic discipline and interaction:  Good girl!, Bad girl!, No!
  4. Fun:  Walk
  5. Sleep:  Bed

As I type this, I realize that I have probably never said “yes” to Kasey or, for that matter, any other dog.  Fortunately, they aren’t craving positive reinforcement.  They’re just happy to hang out with us.

Down The “Sunday Throat”

Yesterday I took a drink of water that caught in my throat.  I spluttered and did a bit of a spit take, and in my mind I distinctly heard by mother saying that the drink must have gone down my “Sunday throat.”

71887260_25268180_clothesintheearly1900s_getty_90775467“Sunday throat”?  It’s a curious expression.  Of course, when you’re a kid and it’s something your Mom says as she’s pounding you on the back, trying to dislodge a piece of hamburger lodged near your Adam’s apple, it doesn’t seem weird.  Kids tend to assume that every word their Mom uses must, by definition, be commonplace.  It’s only when you get older and start to get weird looks when you use phrases like “Sunday throat” or “elbow grease” that you begin to realize that maybe the Momisms that you know so well aren’t widely used at all.

“Sunday throat” falls into that category.  A Google search doesn’t turn up much; the World Wide Words website, in response to a question from a fellow Midwesterner, found only a few uses of the phrase in literature to describe choking, and concluded that “Sunday” is being used in the sense of “special” or “alternative,” as in “Sunday best.”  I think that’s not quite right.  I always assumed that the “Sunday throat” was the throat that didn’t work — as in Sunday being the traditional day of rest.

Mr., Ms., Or Mx.?

Recently the New York Times used the honorific “Mx.” — pronounced “mix” — at the request of one of the subjects of an article.  “Mx.” is a gender-neutral title, and thus some transgender people, or people who would rather not be assigned a gender at all, prefer it to references like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”

The Times‘ use of Mx. caused many of the current and former journalists among us — those who have had to worry about complying with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or the local paper’s version thereof — to wonder whether we’re on the verge of a change in how we treat courtesy titles.  The Times‘ associate masthead editor for standards says, “not so fast!”  In a piece about the issue, he says that “Mx.” isn’t in the stylebook — yet — but that the issue is an evolving one and the Times likely will change with the times.  (Pun intended.)  The article adds:  “In this as in other areas of language and usage, The Times is not looking to lead the way, set the rules or break new ground. Our hope is to reflect accepted, standard usage among educated readers.”

309863-53677-mr-mxyzptlkIs adding “Mx.” to the honorific mix (pun also intended) a big deal?  Nah.  I’m old enough to remember when newspapers added “Ms.” to the then-existing line-up of “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Miss,” after women understandably objected that using titles that reflected marital status in news articles was somewhat silly.  Some wags made dire predictions about breakdowns in social order, but “Ms.” entered the lexicon and the republic survived — and now, does any newspaper ever use “Miss” to refer to an adult woman anymore?

As the Times’ style piece points out, unlike “Mr.” and “Mrs.” — and “Ms.” which was a cross of “Mrs.” and “Miss” — “Mx.” is not an abbreviation of an accepted English term.  In a way, this is a liberating development.  Why should we forever be saddled with stodgy references that gained currency during Victorian times?  In fact, why shouldn’t we be able to use honorifics that have no reference to gender at all and instead more precisely suit our immediate mood and current position in the world?  As the Times noted, some think we should move to even more ambiguous honorifics, like “xe” or “ze” — but even if you stick with terms that start with “m,” and therefore will more likely be recognized as an honorific, you’ve got a big choice.

Consider some of these options to select from:

Mo. — When you’ve just converted on a third-and-long

Me. — When you’re feeling self-centered

Max. — When you’re feeling on top of the world

Mud. — When you’ve just done something incredibly embarrassing

Mem. — When you’re a white collar worker

Mug. — When you’re in the mood for a frosty adult beverage

Mxyzptlk. — When you’re a powerful and mischievous being from the Fifth Dimension here to torment Superman for entertainment.

There’s a lot of options to throw into the mix.