file under carnal knowledge

August 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

You may have heard the explanations of the terms fuck and posh  not their meanings … I assumed you looked those up the first time you got your hands on a dictionary. I’m talking about proposals that these words are acronyms. For example,  file/found/fornication under carnal knowledge  for the first, and portside out starboard home for the second are often argued to be the sources. The second refers to the shadier cabins that the elite British would take on board ships bound for India during the Raj.

Neither of these are accurate. Fuck is a bog-standard Germanic word with origins deep in the past of our and related languages. Posh is a little harder to get to grips with. The Raj theory falls down in that the first printed reference appears as late as 1935. … the Raj had been going since Victorian times. Alternatively, the Merriam Webster dictionary cites more possible sources, university slang and the usage of a homophonous term as a noun meaning dandy.

So what we are dealing with here, are false etymologies, or folk etymologies, assuming an acronym origin where none exists. Some wit came up with the term backronym/bacronym for this. Perhaps the finest example of this is the Agpar score, a system designed by Virgina Agpar to assess the health newborn babies. Some time later, her family name was made into an acronym for some of the features of the score, Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity Respiration, making a name a useful memory tool.

Bacronyms also appear in particularly cruel humour. I remember two examples from my own growing up. Jokes that went around after the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up killing all crew, included: What does NASA stand for Need Another Seven Astronauts …. and during the early period of the AIDs era. What does gay stand for Got Aids Yet? Appalling.

see and sign?

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the posts and pages of bling, you will have noted how frequently we have examined data from dictionaries. Obviously many linguists, not just ones who call themselves lexicographers are interested in compedia of words, their forms and meanings, but not many have commented yet on the possibilities of new media dictionaries. You ahve seen here reference to the wiki, The urban dictionary, which is a valuable source of not only new slang but also social attitudes behind new word formation, but perhaps more interesting than that intriguing site is the possibility of new ways of making dictionaries for signed languages. Obviously capturing movement would make the mechanics of the sign much easier to acquire  -you can see handshape, facial arrangement and most importantly the movement elements (phonemes) of the sign.

A project is already underway to make a video dictionary of NZSL, lead by linguists at the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Victoria University. There they have carefully thought out and canvassed stakeholders what the dictionary should contain and what it should look like. 

There are already many examples of signed language dictionaries, and inevitably a phone app or two. Have a look at a video dictionary of American Sign Language.

alpha charlie tango … cockiness

August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

many of you readers will be familiar with the International civil aviation organisation alphabet from the movies. These are words representing the letter names used to spell out words over the air designed to distinguish sounds in contexts where there is a lot of static or interference. It is used in all international air to tower communications where speakers do not share the same language.

The full alphabet currently stands as follows:

A - Alfa
B - Bravo
C - Charlie
D - Delta
E - Echo
F - Foxtrot
G - Golf
H - Hotel
I - India
J - Juliett
K - Kilo
L - Lima
M - Mike

N - November
O - Oscar
P - Papa
Q - Quebec
R - Romeo
S - Sierra
T - Tango
U - Uniform
V - Victor
W - Whiskey
X - X-ray
Y - Yankee
Z - Zulu


The origins of such alphabets are in the military. Note the non-standard spelling of alpha and Juliett. Presumably, this is to accommodate non=native speakers of English who may not be aware of the pronunciation of the diagraph <ph>. The ‘extra’ <t> is to ensure that French speakers produce a word final consonant. Various branches of the armed services in the English speaking world had developed their own system of rendering the alphabet and it is interesting to see some of the letter names in these precursors. The Royal Navy, for example system, devised during WW1, employed a number of first names of which only Charlie survives … Juliett interestingly, replacing Johnny, and her paramour, Romeo steps in for Robert. Also gone are Edward, Freddy, George, Harry, Tommy, Willie.  Surprisingly in some of these precursors, some nonsense forms are found, Ack and Negat for example.

Given that these letter names are designed to survive the presence of static ensuring the ability to disambiguate perceptually similar sounds, lets have a look at a few sets where the sounds they represent may be hard to distinguish over noise:

The voiceless stops have to be distinguished from each other and their voice pairs.

  • B - Bravo
    D - Delta
    G - Golf

  • P - Papa
    T - Tango
  • K - Kilo

<G> stands out as having a totally different word shape to the others, a single closed syllable. Three forms end in the same diphthong represented by <o>, but the preceding consonants are different enough to aid in the disambiguating the intended letter names. Bravo and papa seem at first glance uncomfortably close, given the same number of syllables, the finals both being open.  The interovocalic consonants /v/ and /p/ are rather similar, in being labials, and follow the same vowel, /a/. Perhaps the disambiguation is saved by the presence of the liquitd /r/ in bravo. However, this segment can form clusters with any one of the English stops.  It would be interesting to know if this does produces problems in actual usage. It is intesting also to see the this cluster in bravo  is the only one where the target letter is inserted in a cluster. I wonder too, if the replacement of Royal NAvy zebra with zulu for <z> was because of the matching of the the two syllables in bravo and zebra.

Systems based on this idea are also in use with other languages. New letter names had to be developed for graphemes unknown in English representing sounds not distinguished in this languages. Here we see names re-enter the alphabet, Õnne and Ärni in Estonian, Åse in Danish. But my personal favourite is the representation of Übermut meaning ‘cockiness’ for the umlauted <u>.

Obama, iphones and acoustic phonetics

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Manufactured pop is not new. The 80s saw the assembling of pop acts …. boy bands, spice girls and their ilk … and their subsequent mass production and mass marketing to us the people. But since the nineties another trick up the music industry speed is the auto-tune gadget. Auto-tune essentially works by smoothing out the pitch of a singer’s voice. For those of you who have had a look at a/your voice using praat software will be familiar with the wiggling line know as pitch. To stay on tune, the line must not wiggle so. Auto-tune irons out or flattens the little wavers in that line, a perfecting of the pitch of the singer’s voice.

image from

The use of auto-tune has become ubiquitous if not controversial in the music industry. Many commentators argue that something of the voice is lost in the production of perfect pitch. Some musicians too explicitly reject electronic ‘plastic surgery’ on their voices. However, equally some musicians have made a name for themselves by openly adopting the aut-tune as part of their musical and vocal style. Perhaps the most well-known of these artists is T Pain.

And this is where the iphone comes in. In the land of apps it wouldn’t be long before an iphone app would replicate the pitch perfecting software of auto-tune. Called I am T Pain, the app allows iphone users to auto tune voices.

Here we can see a comedic sequence where T Pain auto-tunes President Obama producing a catchy tune about healthcare ..

So acoustic phonetics-loving, hip-hop loving, iphone owners are able to manipulate the human voice uncovering the musicality of just talk …pretty cool huh?

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