If you do a Google search for the term “isn’t a word” and throw in the term “grammar” to sift out the silliness, you’ll get a lot of hits. Most of them are people saying that some word isn’t a word. Or that some other person said that some word isn’t a word. “Impactful,” “irregardless,” “snuck” and so on — they simply don’t qualify, people say, and anyone who uses them is making a terrible mistake.
Every year, new words get added to dictionaries around the world, while other words slip from our lexicon. A recent study looked at the rate at which languages pick up or lose vocabulary. The researchers found that, similar to biological evolution, languages evolve at different speeds depending on the size of the population that speaks them. To tease out the relationship between population size and evolution, the researchers--a group of linguists and evolutionary biologists from the Australia National University--compared 20 different Polynesian languages. Polynesian languages are ideal because they're relatively new; Polynesia was settled relatively recently in human history. The languages diversified quickly across different islands, and the relationships between the languages have been thoroughly studied in the past. This way, the researchers could compare languages with different population sizes and see where the vocabularies differ. The team compared pairs of languages that share a recent common ancestor. These are called “sister” languages. By seeing how much each sister language changed since the two island populations separated, the researchers found that languages with larger populations gained new vocabulary faster than smaller languages. At the same time, languages with smaller populations tended to lose vocabulary faster than those with a larger population. These changes occurred more often than the scientists predicted would happen by chance alone. The results are similar to biological evolution, where smaller populations lose genetic diversity rapidly, while larger populations have more opportunities to develop new mutations that generate more diversity. The findings are just the first step for the researchers: Biologist Lindell Bromham, one of the paper's authors, tells Popular Science that “Until we can analyze other language groups, we can’t be sure whether the patterns we have seen are a general feature of language evolution or peculiar to the Polynesian language group.” The study was published February 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While many of us tap out these symbols to our family and friends, there are no universal usage rules for emoji: no grammar, no meanings. No syntax.
But Fred Benenson, the visionary who gave you “Emoji Dick,” is trying to change all that. In fact, Fred Benenson is trying to turn emoji into a bona fide language.
“Emoji are now an essential component of how we’re talking to each other,” Benenson said. “And experimenting with them gets us to a better understanding of what they actually mean to us and how we can use them.”
On Kickstarter, the platform where Benenson first launched his “Moby Dick” translation – and where he now works, as the site’s data lead – the unlikely linguistic visionary is raising funds for an online tool that could translate even complex English sentences into emoji.
Unlike other efforts in this vein, Benenson’s “Emoji Translation Project” won’t just match keywords to their equivalent symbols and sub the symbols in. Instead, it will work much like Google’s high-powered translation engine: first gathering texts in English and emoji, produced by human translators; then running those texts through a machine-learning algorithm, which searches the two data sets for patterns; then waiting and watching as the algorithm spits out a synthesized, codified grammar.
Or . . . not.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Arika Okrent, a linguist and the author of the 2009 book “In the Land of Invented Languages.” “Emoji are fun. I like emoji. But they’re not a language – they’re a game of charades.”
Okrent, it’s worth noting, is not someone you’d expect to be skeptical about made-up tongues: She actually speaks Klingon.
But Klingon – the fictional language of an alien warrior species, for the non-Trekkies in the audience – was set down with both rules and a writing system from its beginning. Emoji, Okrent says, are fundamentally different: Even as people begin using them to express complex ideas or full sentences, they’re using them in arbitrary, individual ways. We haven’t agreed on the meaning for the “prayer hands” emoji – forget the intricacies of expressing abstract thoughts or the present perfect tense.
That variance, Okrent says, will make machine learning impossible. (“In order for the algorithm to discover a pattern, there has to be a pattern to discover,” she explains.)
And that’s not the only obstacle Benenson and his vision face: There are literally no other image-based languages.
The last real push to invent one ended semi-tragically. A concentration camp survivor named Charles Bliss attempted to launch a universal, pictorial language, called Blissymbolics, because he believed it would decrease intercultural misunderstandings. Blissymbolics’ basic pictures are, indeed, pretty easy to figure out, which has made them popular among a small set of language therapists. But as you try to express more complex ideas, the language gets less intuitive and more confusing. Ultimately, it never caught on – a great disappointment to Bliss.
Of course, there’s a momentum around emoji that there never was around Blissymbols. An emoji — the humble — was named 2014’s “word” of the year. Instagram recently enabled emoji hashtags, a nod to some kind of mainstream desire to use the symbols instead of words.
According to Emojitracker, a tool the logs each emoji tweeted out on Twitter, emoji use has risen more than 50 percent since December 2013, from roughly 11 million tweeted emoji per day to almost 17 million now.
“I think as we use them more and more, a certain emoji lingua will emerge,” Benenson said, “and that’s what we’re interested in capturing with this project.”
Benenson isn’t naive to the challenges of the project: He knows he’ll need a huge team of English-to-emoji translators to get enough material to run past an algorithm. (Currently, he’s fundraising $15,000 to pay these translators: at 5 cents a translation, that’s enough for roughly 300,000 lines of text.) Even then, he admits, the translator might not work: There will be words or sentences it gets wrong. There will be gobbledigook.
Still, if “Emoji Dick” taught Benenson anything, it’s that there’s value in probing emoji and their cultural applications. That project was met with derision when he launched it in 2009; six years later, the Library of Congress has a copy – and emoji translations of half a dozen other books are now available online.
Benenson thinks his Emoji Translator could be put to similar use, translating books or other texts. He also envisions an API that would let other Web sites and apps integrate emoji translation.
If nothing else, he said, “we have faith that the results will be at least funny.”
It’s not a linguistic revolution – but it is something.
In our latest update to the dictionary, we added more than a thousand new and modified definitions including gaming words like esports, permadeath and completionist, terms to prepare you for the 2016 elections like slacktivism, and gender-related terms agender, bigender, and gender-fluid. But how do lexicographers (the people who compile and update dictionaries) stay on top of language change? Luckily, we have a number of tools—both traditional and new—available to us. The oldest tool of all for dictionary writing is reading widely. From literature to scientific journals to new media outlets, these sources allow us to find and pinpoint both completely new words as well as words that are shifting in meaning and need new definitions. We also look to our users—both directly in reviewing user suggestions and indirectly by analyzing words they look up that do not yet have definitions. In 2014, for example, our users were searching for microaggression and dox, but they weren't finding any
"Welcome to About Words, a blog from Cambridge Dictionaries Online. We publish posts discussing different features of the English language, as well as dictionary entries for words and phrases that are new to English or that have new meanings. We hope you enjoy the blog, and that you’ll post your own comments and vote on the new words. Keep checking back here over the weeks for a fascinating range of posts."
Dopo le abbondanti nevicate di questi giorni, nelle prime pagine dei quotidiani di ieri e di oggi mi sarei aspettata titoli ad effetto sul maltempo e invece la parola scelta quasi ovunque è gelo, senza alcuna esagerazione.
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