Story generation systems

How did I not read about story generation systems before?! My dad normally points out linguistic articles in New Scientist for me, but he missed this one.

From how I’ve seen programs, such as the computer program in the Turing test, handle semantics before, I’m quite impressed by the extracts in the New Scientist article. The article is about various computer programs attempts at writing ‘stories’. Often it seems programs strongly rely on collocations ( “a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance”), but just because ‘merry’ is often found next to ‘Christmas’, it doesn’t always, and if a program is working on a ‘most of the time’ basis, there are going to be times when the program gets it wrong. The stories here seem, for the most part, to avoid this. I’d like to see the ‘stories’ that didn’t get selected for publication and find out a bit more about how the programs work. While halting, I was quite impressed by the seeming creativity.



Linguistics Olympiad and language learning

I was always a bit rubbish at learning languages at school (and when I started learning British Sign Language a few years ago I wasn’t much better), but I find languages utterly fascinating. Otherwise I suppose I wouldn’t have spent four years on a degree studying linguistics! I saw a news article this week about the UK Linguistics Olympiad.

In this competition, the contestants are given some sentences or words from a foreign language along with an English translation and they need to use these to decipher some untranslated sentences. I remember having a similar task for Japanese while studying a module on teaching English as a foreign language. I loved it. There’s something really fun about deciphering bits of a language by analysing a few sentences’ grammatical structures and words.

Why, when I was so useless with languages at school, does this appeal to me? I guess the idea of cracking a code is intriguing for most people, and analysing language structures is always fun. Would someone ‘naturally’ good with languages be better at this kind of task than someone like me, who’s useless at language learning, but who has experience analysing grammar (even if mainly English grammar)?

This reminded me of this post from Tim Ferriss’s blog in 2007, which talks about how to get a grip on a language in an hour. The idea is similar: deconstruct the grammar. While I realise language learning has more components than this, this approach appeals to me. Maybe one day I’ll test it out myself.


A few Scottish words and slang

Last week my Facebook feed was filled with posts about the vote for Scottish Independence. I spent three years at university in Glasgow and I thought I’d write a little post about a few of the Scottish words and slang I remember from living in Scotland.

Braw: attractive. After arriving in Glasgow I was confused when I heard friends talking about “braw guys” and having no idea what it meant! The word doesn’t have connotations of brawniness (as I first assumed it might), but essentially just means attractive. This originated from the Scot’s form of the word brave, coming from an old pronunciation.

Craic: essentially something that’s fun (although it’s a hard word to define!). Students in Glasgow seem to do a lot of things “for the craic”. I’d always thought of it as being an Irish term, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says that it came from the English word crack (meaning brisk talk or conversation) and was actually likely introduced from Scots into Irish English in the mid 20th century.

Close: a communal hallway. In England, a close is a courtyard like space so when I started flat hunting in Glasgow I was confused why so many house ads mentioned a close. All the houses my friends and I lived in were tenement flats with tiled walled closes. I was always reminded of swimming pools.

Dreich: cold, rainy. Not a term heard that often, but as clichéd as it sounds it is the perfect word to describe the Glaswegian weather. I couldn’t find the origins, but perhaps from the middle age’s word dreich meaning “a long duration of space or time” and “tediousness, annoyance.”? I remember it raining solidly for a fortnight.

Ned: a pejorative term meaning a young thuggish person. Essentially used to describe the same people we’d call a chav in England. While I didn’t pick up much Scottish slang, this was one of the words I did use while living in Glasgow. Its first recorded use is in 1910 and while the origins are uncertain, it might come from the name Edward. The term neddy (a donkey or a stupid person) comes from Edward and so ned might also be from the same source. Chav isn’t recorded until 1998 so is considerably more modern.

Pal: an address term, used like mate. Where I come from in the West Country we get lots of mates, muckers, lovers and loves, but very few pals or hens. Suddenly in Glasgow I was a pal. Taxi drivers would now ask, “Where are you going, pal?” rather than “Where are you going to, love?”. Apparently pal comes from the English Romani word, phal, meaning brother.

Wee: little. From Middle English word wei. The OED notes that although found as early as in the 1400s it was rarely used by Scottish writers before 1721, although was known to the English a century before and used by Shakespeare. While it’s a Scottish stereotype that everyone says wee instead of little, I found it to be fairly true.

There are lots of Scottish words and slang, but these are a few that I remember being characteristic of Scottish speech when I was in Glasgow. It’s been a few years since I last visited Scotland and I’d absolutely love to go back. I really want to take my boyfriend up to see Glasgow (where I spent so much time), beautiful Edinburgh, and to explore the Highlands. It always takes me a few hours to adjust my ears to the dialects again, but then I’m fine.


Language in the eye

I’ve had a busy few weeks so sorry for the lack of posts. I spent a weekend in London and while I was there I saw an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition. It had a small display based on every letter of the alphabet (A for Acts of faith, B for Birth, etc.) related to what makes us human. It wasn’t the best exhibition I’ve seen at the Wellcome Collection (I LOVED the exhibition Brain: Mind as Matter a few years ago) but it had some interesting artefacts.

One that draw my attention was a poster called the symbolical head and phrenological chart. In the past, it was thought that different areas of the brain dealt with different faculties and that the faculties could be measured by feeling lumps or indentations in the skull. A lump or large area meant that part of the brain was used frequently. Phrenological charts were popular in the early 19th century and showed the various faculties (such as secretiveness, hope, sense of time, or self-esteem) that were associated with parts of the brain. Feeling and measuring the skull was used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an individual.

Image from the Wellcome Library, London.

What I thought was odd was that the faculty of language “the ability to talk; to communicate ideas; to use appropriate language; versatility of expression; memory of words” was attributed to the eyeball. Around the eye there are attributes I can understand as seeming eye related (e.g. colour, size, form, etc). However I was surprised to see language as the eyeball. Perhaps it’s related to reading, picking up body language and conveying expression, but surely near the ear would make more sense?

According to this site Franz Gall, the pioneer of phrenology, was at school with two pupils who were good at memorising Latin and also had noticeably large eyes. Later in his career he associated large eyes with strong language abilities.

The whole idea of being able to tell traits from lumps on the head is so bizarre now (thankfully), but it was interesting to see what part of the brain they thought were related to different faculties.


First words

I follow the Humans of New York Facebook page – if you don’t know it, check it out! – and the photographer is currently exploring other parts of the world in partnership with the United Nations and posting the stories and pictures of people living in the places he visits.

While there are similarities in a child’s first words across languages (for example mummy, daddy, hello, bye, uh oh and woof-woof are typical first words in English, Cantonese and Putonghua), there are also differences in the types of words that are first said. However, I imagine for nearly all cultures and languages a child’s first word is memorable. While not as deep as some of the stories posted by Humans of New York I really liked this story today from Nairobi, Kenya.

“Do you want to hear a funny story from when he was a baby? We were a little worried about him, because the neighbor’s children were the same age, and they were already walking. So we tried to encourage him by buying some tiny shoes and putting them on his feet. He didn’t walk, but he did say his first words: ‘Take them off!'” (Nairobi, Kenya). From the Humans of New York Facebook page.

(This picture isn’t on the HONY website yet, when it is I’ll try to remember to link it to there instead of the Facebook page).

My first word was “gone”. Apparently I used to sit in a high-chair in the kitchen while mum pottered around. I used to play with my toy cars and sometimes launch them off my high chair with a “gone!”. Mum would pick them up and put them back on the high-chair for me to launch them off again. I imagine mum used to say something such as “The car has gone again!”, which baby me picked up on. Before I could talk, I used to imitate the sounds of motorbikes and crows. Why just motorbikes and crows and not other vehicles or animals I don’t know. I do still love crows though, they’re intelligent, awkward and beautiful. Curious to read about other people’s first words.


Swiss rolls

It’s a rainy day today and I’m having a break drinking Earl Grey with a slice of chocolate Swiss roll. I love the BBC show The Great British Bake Off, so inspired by their Swiss Rolls last week I made one for myself on the weekend (if you want to see my post about it, you can on my crafting and baking blog here). I was going to write a little post on baking word etymologies, but then realised how many words just the Swiss roll has to describe it in English.

My first attempt at a chocolate Swiss roll

My first attempt at a chocolate Swiss roll

The name Swiss roll has its first recorded use in 1897 and the name might have originated in England. It’s an odd name choice as the Swiss roll isn’t from Switzerland. The OED describes it as “a ‘sweet’ consisting of sponge cake rolled up with a layer of jam”, although I’d probably use it to describe any sweet sponge roll around a filling and a search online seems to confirm this more general use.

The oldest name I could find for it in English is roulade, which was first recorded in English in 1702 and came into the language from French. This is a more general term and refers to savoury and sweet rolls. Apparently it was originally filled with meat.

If a Swiss roll is filled with jam I grow up calling it a (jam) roly-poly. But it seems that this term specifically refers to rolls made of suet and served hot. Roly-poly has its first recorded use in 1821 and according to the OED is also in extended use for other sorts of filling.

The word has other meanings, such as used to describe a plump person. While I imagine the pudding’s name came from the way it’s made by rolling up a filling, I’d quite like to think it was called roly-poly because of its satisfactory plump appearance! The roly part of the word likely comes from the verb to roll, meaning to sway. Poly doesn’t seem to have an inherent meaning and the OED says that apparently roly-poly seems to be formed from a reduplication of roll (with the -y suffix) with a p substituting for the r. In all the historical spelling variants listed (rowle-powle, roley-poley, etc) roly and poly are spelt the same except for the initial consonant. However the OED notes that in the first sense of roly-poly (a now obsolete meaning referring to a rascal) poly could come from the word poll (the part of the head on which the hair grows).

In America a Swiss roll seems to be commonly called a jelly roll. This term dates from at least 1895 – around the same time as Swiss roll – and is still used in America. Jelly roll is also now sexual slang, apparently. I’m guessing that the term jelly roll comes from the common jam filling, jelly being the American term for jam.

If made from chocolate and specifically eaten near Christmas it can be called a Yule log, whether decorated like a log or not. I’d also know it as a Bûche de Noël.

In this list there seems to be French-English alternatives: Swiss roll/roulade, Yule log/Bûche de Noël. I once talked to a French woman about what we traditionally ate at Christmas in our countries. She referred to something she said translated as ‘English cake’ (or something similar) and described it as a Swiss roll. I can’t seem to find anything about this online so I’m not sure if we’d become lost in translation, but I’d like to find out if this was true. With our borrowed French terms it would be strange if in France they actually called it something else!


Birthday presents!


I visit the library about once a fortnight so rarely buy books unless they’re textbooks. If I do buy a book I usually hunt for a second hand version, however, my sister gave me book tokens for my birthday! Eee!

I usually dislike shopping (especially among weekend crowds), but once I was in the shelves I completely forgot about everyone else and got down to hunting out books!

After lots of deliberation (my main criterion was if a book had a waiting list at my library, but I saw so many books I just wanted) here are my spoils 🙂 I’m saving some of the tokens in case I can’t find a second-hand textbook in September, but wanted to treat myself to some birthday fiction now.

A successful forage!