masters of communication

This sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie amuses me. Quite a lot. (Thanks to The Skwib for offering up these tasty nibbles, which are neither plain, nor prawn flavored.)

If you enjoyed that, you might also enjoy sketches by The Two Ronnies. I confess I’d never heard of them until reading the comments for the Fry & Laurie sketch on YouTube. (Which is usually a dangerous endeavor, as 99% of the comments on YouTube are written by 12-year-olds.) However, on this occasion I learned that the sketch above was likely influenced by this other sketch comedy pair. You can see a bit of their skillful timing below in “Crossed Lines.”

And one more from the Two Ronnies. This last one is chock full of fun with phonetic ambiguity. (You scream, I scream, we all scream for phonetic ambiguity.)

(This post actually relates to several of my candidates for categories of things I like, but I won’t count this post as one of my 40 since I don’t have time to say more. But can you guess what some of the things I like are?)

office balls and other fine treats

There’s this great bakery in Brookline (a town right next to Boston) that has an interesting fusion of French and Japanese treats. When we have lab meetings on the Boston side of the river, one of us will sometimes stop there to pick up things for lunch. One of my favorite things to get is Onigiri, a little blob of rice wrapped with sushi nori, and filled with vegetables or seaweed or plum. These are commonly called “rice balls.” (Even though the ones we usually get are triangular.)

A couple of months ago, in answering an email about what I’d like from the bakery, I requested a couple of rice balls. Or thought that’s what I’d requested. Instead I aked for “a couple office balls.” And office balls they will now always be.

I was a little embarrassed about this, but I hadn’t realized how easily I’d gotten off.¹ Apparently 98% of the planet has already seen it, but if you haven’t seen Damn You, Auto Correct, you must go there now. (Unless you are eating, drinking, or sitting someplace where you need to be quiet and/or solemn.) I laughed so hard I cried.⁴

It’s almost as if those developing predictive text took this video to heart, and then some:

So, what about you? Have you ever been embarrassed by autocorrect/autofill/spellcheck? If so, I want details.


¹ Some of you may remember that I have had a run-in with autofill in the past.²

² Okay, more than one

³ And remember that entertaining spell check error that was printed on the events calendar at the bookstore where I was working? I’m happy that I was not responsible for that one.

⁴ Thank you Kyla for sharing this, and your own near-miss story.

an ambiguous array of vegetables

Tonight we had dinner with my in-laws, and we had a lot of vegetable options: green beans or peas and carrots and rutabagas and potatoes or butternut squash. As you can imagine, it was difficult to keep track of them for serving, not to mention difficult to determine their syntactic bracketing, due to the combination of the coordinating conjunctions and and or. In the end, one person had green beans and potatoes only, one had green beans, potatoes, butternut squash and peas, one had peas and rutabagas and carrots and potatoes, and three of us had peas and carrots and rutabagas and potatoes and butternut squash. (Though one of those three did not actually eat any of the butternut squash, though it was on his plate. And one of us got a fair amount of butternut squash on her face. One of us attempted to feed a carrot to his pants. One of us enjoyed saying the word rutabaga.) It is important to mention that the peas and carrots were not bracketed together, as the carrots were roasted with the rutabagas and some of the potatoes. Some of the potatoes were therefore bracketed with the carrots and rutabagas, and some of the potatoes were mashed. While everybody ate potatoes, the potatoes were either mashed, or roasted with sage and bracketed with the carrots and rutabagas. Nobody who ate mashed potatoes and green beans ate rutabagas and carrots. (The green beans only came bracketed with ham, which is not a vegetable.) It is entirely possible that every person had peas. At least 2 peas ended up on the carpet, though the carpet was not given a fork.

I would attempt to diagram this, but then I might not be finished with this post before midnight. Instead, I will show you my plate.

My plate held many vegetables. Also tofurkey and a roll.

more carrots (and peas)

A few years ago, I was working on an intonation project with several people. As part of the research, we were annotating soundfiles for specific phenomena. One of the things we were annotating was the location of a the maximum f0, the point in a given region of speech where the pitch is highest. For the specific project we were doing, we were labelling this point with the symbol ^, also known as a caret. It came up along the way that in some examples, we also wanted to mark another point that was linked to the caret to indicate when the peak f0 formed more of a plateau in shape. It was decided that we should use p to indicate a plateau. In reviewing our decisions about our labelling scheme, one of the women on the project was stressing that while not every peak would have a plateau marker, every plateau should be marked also for the peak. My coworkers looked at me questioningly when I started to snicker at this review of our protocol.

“No Ps without carets,” I said, by way of explanation.

Here are some multi-colored carrots I got at a farmer’s market in July of 2009. I took the picture then, too. I don’t think the carrots would still look this attractive if we still had them.

Here’s one last serving of vegetables for you:

Eat every carrot and pea on your plate.

Try saying that one out loud to a small child (or to an adult with the mind of a 12-year-old).

peas and carrots or green beans

Imagine that I say to you, “Tonight for dinner we’ll be having peas and carrots or green beans.”

What do you think our menu options are? Can we be having both peas and green beans? Are just green beans an option? If we have peas, do we have to have carrots?

What I’m trying to get at is that the phrase peas and carrots or green beans is ambiguous. How you interpret it depends on what syntactic structure, or bracketing, you assign to it.

In this case, there are two different ways you can bracket it. You can have:

So, with the one bracketing you can either have both peas and carrots or you can have both peas and green beans. With the other you can have both peas and carrots or you can have just green beans. I’m afraid that if you want only carrots, you are out of luck. You are only allowed to have them with peas, or not at all. And if you don’t like peas, you’ll have to hope that you’re getting the bracketing on the right, because at least then you stand a chance of getting just green beans. Artichokes are completely out of the question, which is a shame, because I really like artichokes.

Why am I telling you this? Because I like vegetables. Also because this actually relates to my research. The project I’m working on right now is looking at how people produce and perceive ambiguous coordinate structures like these, especially with respect to intonation. Because when you speak, you generally (but not always) give cues to the structure you intend. You may not even realize when you’re saying it that your menu options are ambiguous, but chances are that if you are offering peas and carrots or green beans, you will use aspects of your speech–specifically the timing of what you say and the patterns of the pitch of your voice as you say it–to indicate which structure you mean. Your prosody acts to group the words you say into meaningful chunks so we know what our vegetable options are.

So, what will it be? Do your options look like this?

Or this?

Images by John. Vegetables prepared by me.

(This confusing bit of a post is brought to you by a tired brain, and was in part prompted by a two-month-old request from Nora that I write more about linguistics. I just hope she likes peas.) (At some point, I’ll try to tell you a bit more about what I’m actually looking at, when it doesn’t involve vegetables.)

talking tomatoes

We’re in the kitchen eating breakfast. Phoebe gets up to use the bathroom.

Phoebe: Don’t eat all the pear while I’m gone!
Me: I won’t. What if I eat all the oatmeal?
Phoebe: Don’t eat all the oatmeal! I want some.
Me: What if I eat all the sassafrass?
Phoebe: I don’t think we have any sassafrass.
Me: What if I eat all the… tomatillos?
Phoebe: I don’t think he would like that.
Me: [?] Tomatillo is a kind of tomato.
Phoebe: …that they eat in Spain?
Me: Does it sound like a Spanish word to you?
Phoebe: Yes.
Me: You’re right. It is a Spanish word.
Phoebe: Then they must be in Spain!
Me: I’m not actually sure. You know, there are other places in the world where they speak Spanish.
Phoebe: Tomatoes don’t speak!

Phoebe enjoys her breakfast with pears, oatmeal and reference-resolution adventures.

Do you know the nipple song?

I made a discovery a few weeks ago that I’ve been meaning to share. And what with Sunday’s nipple-related post, I thougt now would be as good a time as any. This is a music video from India, which has been captioned/subtitled for English-speakers:

Apparently a new tradition has blossomed across the internets to add English subtitles to videos that are not translations of the lyrics, but what the non-English lyrics sound like to an English speaker. I somehow had missed this, even though it has clearly gone viral, judging from the over 9 million YouTube views on a video called “Crazy Indian Video” since it was posted just over a year ago:

I stumbled across this phenomenon when following a link from Ashley Awesome to an Indian video, which I found strangely compelling. Then I found that same video, “buffalaxed.” (Go see Tunak Tunak Tun for yourself!)

I admit it. These crack me up. Does this prove to the world that I am actually a 12-year-old masquerading as an adult?

early intervention (part 4): getting up to speed

This is part of my series about our experiences in getting Early Intervention services for Phoebe’s expressive language delay. Phoebe started receiving services in January of this year, which consisted of one-on-one meetings with a speech pathologist, and weekly attendance of a parent-toddler group. For background, you can refer back to parts 1, 2 and 3. This post is a bit about the course of Phoebe’s language progress, and a bit more about what went on during the services she received.

(I should make it clear that the rapidity of Phoebe’s progress is not typical, and most likely not due solely to the EI services she received. I also can’t say how the service she received compare to those of other locations, and other kids. But here is what we experienced, for what it’s worth.)


When Phoebe started EI services in January, she would primarily use single word utterances, with occasional utterances of 2 words or longer. Through the next couple months, we would get plenty of the 2 word utterances, like “eat cake” or “candles hot”, with more and more 3-word strings.

She was getting more and more comfortable making requests (which became more and more like demands). We tried to encourage her to request using a sentence, such as “I want X,” like the more advanced speakers at the playgroup would do, but she would only produce this reluctantly. She must have been giving this a lot of thought, though, as there was one early morning in March when she was apparently practicing in her sleep. I was startled (and amused) to hear the words “I want a cookie” ringing out loudly and clearly from the baby monitor. (And then she went back to sleep.)

By April, 3- and 4-word sentences were the norm, with more and more of the adult-like grammatical elements showing up. (She would regularly produce plurals and articles, for example.) More helpful to us, though, was that we were getting to the point where Phoebe could really communicate. She could tell us not only her wants and needs, but more information about her state of being. After she had been sick, it was really thrilling for us to hear her produce the sentence “tummy feel better now.”

In spite of all this progress, it was like she was a different child at the playgroup. She would often not say a peep for the first half hour of free play, aside from occasional single word responses to questions. Then at snacktime, she would only whisper her request, which was often only a single word even after she could make longer requests at home. Over the months, she would more and more often make the full-sentence requests that she’d make so readily at home, but very very quietly. Whenever Phoebe was particularly tired, such as after we’d returned from a weekend trip, she’d get even more quiet. Likewise when a new child (and accompanying adult) started in the group, or when a substitute group leader took the place of our regular person.

Things were different with the speech pathologist, J, when we’d meet with her for our one-on-one sessions immediately after the group. Phoebe would need a few minutes to warm up, but would gladly respond to questions and use her words. Our meetings continued to be play sessions, centered around various toys, and Phoebe showed no signs of believing them to be anything other than sitting around and playing with J. I’d sit with them and watch, and play, and sometime encourage Phoebe to tell J about something we’d done since our last visit. Phoebe tended not to speak in quite as complex ways as she did at home, but even so, J never failed to hear evidence of Phoebe’s rapid progress. Each week, I’d have some new bit of language development to report, and Phoebe would usually obligingly produce that construction, if not during that session, within the next one or two. Plurals. Articles. A range of negatives. Multi-word constructions. Past tense. Then full sentences with all the right bits in place. And then, suddenly, complex sentences with subordinate clauses.

Each week, J would write up a report for us of her observations of Phoebe’s progress, and recommendations for things to work on. She’d include a few samples of Phoebe’s longer utterances, which will be nice for me to look back at. She also would give me various handouts about activities we could do to encourage speech, and information about development stages. After the first few weeks, J said that Phoebe’s progress was steady enough that weekly one-on-one sessions were no longer considered necessary. However, seeing as Phoebe enjoyed these sessions so much, and I got a chance to observe the process in action, I asked if we could keep up the weekly meetings. J was happy to continue. (I also got her assurance that there wasn’t some other child waiting in the wings for an opening in the schedule, though.)

I don’t remember when it came up first, but the speech pathologist let me know that come our next assessment, which would be scheduled 6 months from the date we started services, Phoebe would no longer qualify for services.


I’m still not done with this yet, though it’s getting closer. Next time, I’ll talk a bit more about Phoebe’s progress in the playgroup setting, and perhaps also about our 6-month assessment. I’d also like to share more about what I think that Phoebe got out of the Early Intervention services, and how it may or may not have affected her language development.