Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When your texts control your register

I've been playing around with predictive text input in various cell phones of late. In order to predict the word you want to create with just a couple of key strokes, the phone uses a frequency list of most common words in the language that the user has selected.

Most of these frequency lists come from written sources that are known to employ a wide variety of vocabulary: newspapers and magazines. And the top of the list usually reflects spoken language word frequency accurately as well.

Except in Finnish. The problem with Finnish is that it comes in at least three variants:

First is the so-called "book language," that only politicians and news anchors actually speak--otherwise, you'll see it only in written form in newspapers, magazines and novels.

Then, there is the "standard spoken language," which is fairly close to the book language, except for the variation in personal pronouns and the way verbs are conjugated. Also, some slangy expressions might be included. Listen to Finnish teachers speak: this is probably the diction they will use in a classroom. It's not as stiff sounding as the book language, yet it still retains an air of authority and a subtle indication about the speaker's level of education.

On top of that we have all the regional dialects.

In English, people might pronounce the word "I" differently, but it will be typed like that, regardless of where you are from. That's why predictive text works really well in English. In Finnish, the "I" can look like this: minä, mie, mää, or mä. All depending on the register the speaker is using. And in personal, written communication between friends and family members, people tend to use their dialects or some spoken variant of the language.

The problem with predictive text in Finnish is that there is not a single dictionary that is able to include all of these variants in it. If the dictionary memory was large enough and they could include all words, it would simply create a mess: instead of now giving you multiple alternatives of different words, the dictionary would offer you five different dialect versions of the same word--just because they might have only one letter difference in them. And as a South Karelian dialect speaker, I really don't need to see Savo dialect options pop up as my alternatives.

In the past I would never use predictive text: the words from either standard spoken language or from my dialect were not recognized by it, and even worse, the dictionary would throw me words that were not even close to what I wanted. I'd input, say, "Hello!" and the output would be "Closet!"

Why would anyone write in dialect, by the way? The answer is in being economical. Some Finnish words are damned long, so people simply cut the endings off when they speak. Also, in a country where most text messaging and phone calls are handled with a pay-as-you-go plan, you can save money on texts by cutting out as many characters from your text message as possible to keep your story within the character count of one text message. Dialects do this already for economical speaking.

A lot has changed in the past ten years, and the predictive outputs are really good these days. The dictionaries include standard spoken language pronouns, and even dialect pronouns in them. I actually enjoy using the predictive text now, as it gets me better than ten years ago.

There's however one but. As soon as I start using the predictive texting method, I stop using my dialect. There are two reasons for this. First, the frequency dictionary will most likely give me a "book language" version of anything else except some pronouns. Second, it will give me that word in a split second.

So, now I need to weigh typing shorter words which both saves me money and time (because I don't have to type for so long) against inputting only three characters and immediately getting the word that I want--except that it's just not in my dialect but instead in the standard that everyone understands. And this is because it comes from the frequency list that has been lifted from written language.

To save even more time, I may simply begin to write in the book language without even attempting my dialect version, just because I know that the dictionary will definitely get the book language form.

Everyone will understand me, but it's not anymore I who is writing the message; it's some very uptight person who is talking like a robot! Yet, because it is so much faster to compose the message by using a good, predictive method, I will most likely opt to using the frequency list dictionary, and lose my voice. It's just less of a hassle that way.

When authors began writing books in dialect and slang, people grew concerned: is this now the death of Finnish "book language?" Will dialects all take over and soon we will have no common language? As everyone above 7 years old has a cell phone in Finland (only a slight exaggeration, by the way...), and texting is a ridiculously cheap and a quick way of getting touch with everyone, I wonder if the opposite will eventually happen; that predictive texting will create a generation of kids who prefer using book language when they communicate with their friends or family in writing. How long would it take for book language then to seep into the spoken variants?

Will there be a time when, just out of being too lazy to type out words and we'll just accept whatever the dictionary gives us, Finns will begin to speak a very proper version of Finnish?

I suppose that would be a day when learners of Finnish would rejoice: finally, the language taught in the textbooks matches what they hear on the streets.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

34. Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama by Tim Wise

Tim Wise (a white American male) reframes the question heard often during the previous presidential elections, "Is America ready for a black president" as "Under what circumstances is America ready for a black president?" As the elections showed us, the black president needs to be someone who "transcends race" (read: does not behave black) and "moves beyond race" in his topics (read: does not bring up race because it would be unpatriotic, make people feel guilty or just annoyed). In other words, the black president should do his utmost to make people forget that he actually is black (and although he is biracial, he is still regarded as black and not white, nor biracial.)

This small and very to-the-point book is a perfect read for people who either think that we should stop discussing racism now that there is a black president, as if having one was evidence enough that minorities have an equal standing in America with the rest of the people, while also being the perfect read for people who might think that having a black president will somehow educate people more about tolerance and racial prejudice, and open the gates to a post-racial society--a word that was thrown around liberally during the presidential elections.

As Tim Wise describes it, Obama's presidency is problematic because he has had to be this "model black person." This might cause white people to hold all black people, regardless of their social status or background, to the same regard before they are given a time of day. It might make white people think that if Obama was able to become a president, then that black kid who can't even get a job interview because his name sounds black is just being lazy and should pull himself up by his boot straps. Obama did it--why don't these lazy bastards do it? 

After these initial questions, Tim Wise takes the reader on a short trip to the black American experience, including plenty of research and statistical evidence to back up his stories. Black high school graduates are less likely to be selected for a job than a white high school drop-out, even if they are exactly the same in manner, dress and qualifications. In fact, a black person needs to have 8 years more of work experience than a white person with same qualifications before he or she is treated equally; black people are more likely told to get a sub-prime mortgage than their white counterparts, even when they have the same income;  doctors are less likely to suggest heart surgery for black people than white people, although they complain of the same symptoms (one doctor said he didn't recommend the surgery because the "woman seemed lazy and would not have followed care instructions"--she was an actor who was instructed to act exactly the same way as the white patient).

It's like telling someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while handing the boots without any bootstraps on them.

Wise discusses two types of racism, which is the reason why we can easily say that we are now a post-racial society and still behave racist. There's Racism 1.0, which we all know: the Ku Klux Klan, school segregation, black people at the back of the bus, the openly-racist person who thinks minorities are worthless. That is a rarity, but that's what many think when they hear the word "racist." But then there is also Racism 2.0, which allows exceptional black people like Obama to succeed; it might even let people think they are not behaving in a racist manner. But whenever racism is brought up by minorities, white people are still eager to discredit another person's personal experience even when they do not have the experience themselves--"he probably didn't mean it… are you sure he's not just lazy… maybe he triggered that encounter somehow… aren't you being a bit racist yourself by suggesting that?" Racism 2.0 is thinking that now that cross-burning has ended and we all have the right to have schooling and jobs and a happy life, that the work of an anti-racist is done, and people really should just shut up about race already. Or even better, they think that black people have it too easy these days. They think it's hurtful for the national psyche to be reminded of the fact that the United States was built up by slave labor; an act that has left scars to all of its subsequent generations, either through using black people for medical experiments even until 1970s, to believing that a black person is not really as intelligent and hard-working as a white person with the same credentials. This triggers the bias effect, where if a person is told that they suck because they are X, they are not going to succeed in whatever they are doing as well as people who were told nothing like that (same experiments have been done with women, who performed better in math tests when they were not told "women are bad at math" before the test.)

I'd love to talk about this book more, but I'll let you read it yourselves. It's a quick read, and goes very quickly to the point. I have read Tim Wise's blog before, but none of his books. I should take a look at the other ones. 

 34. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Ya'll know already what I think of these book covers, so let's skip that rant. 

The third installment of the Sookie Stackhouse novels deals with the disappearance of Bill the Vampire, Sookie's boyfriend. In her search for Bill's captor, Sookie needs to cooperate with the slick vampire Eric Northman, and a werewolf whose ex-girlfriend--a human--has gotten engaged to a really bad-ass werewolf and is obviously taking vampire blood as a drug. Somehow the vampire king of Louisiana is also messed up with the werewolves, and he might just be the key to Bill's disappearance.

It's hard for me to keep these books straight, because I keep on getting the stories of the TV show and the books mixed up. The most recent season of True Blood dealt exactly with the storyline from the third book, but it ended up with events and a cliffhanger that are coming up later in the books. Which is why I just bought novels 4 and 5... 

These books are so much fun, and always quick reads. I guess Charlaine Harris is my Danielle Steele. 

Books that I have worked on but never finished 

The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations & a Variety of Helpful Indexes by Adam Thirlwell

I barely managed to read the title before I had to get it back to the library! I got it because I thought it would be an interesting look at how people translate books, and... in a way, it is. But at the same time, the book meanders from one story to another, from one author to another, and it takes a while before the first translators and their work is produced. The writing style is oddly dry compared to the promisingly witty title, and it just did not work for the current state of my attention span. Maybe another time!

The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors by Nicholas DiFonzo, Ph.D.

Again, a promising premise. I've been interested in rumors since I took a class on pragmatic linguistics, where we spent some time on Deborah Tannen's wonderfully pop-sciency books on communication between men and women, and especially on the topic of rumors. I was interested in reading more from a psychologist's point of view on why people believe even the bizarrest, sure-to-be-untrue rumors, and what is the function of telling rumors (Tannen: building rapport between people, in general.)

I did not get very far in the book as I got fairly tired to its pattern, which was this:
1. Author introduces a question about rumors, such as "But why do people believe crazy rumors?"
2. He gives an example of a crazy rumor, such as the "Paul is dead" rumor about the Beatles in the 60s.
3. The author says something akin to, "Isn't it crazy that people believe this??"
4. Does not really dedicate any space for answering or analyzing the question he has posed. 
5. Asks another question, "But how do rumors begin?"
and the same cycle begins again. 

Within the 30 or so pages I did learn many a rumor that has made the rounds in our inboxes, but no analysis on them. Even Tim Wise's tiny book gave a more analytical look at the crazy rumor about black people murdering and raping each other in New Orleans after Katrina (which turned out to be completely untrue, yet many people happily believed it, including news reporters--Wise discusses what allowed this to happen, DiFonzo just goes, "Crazy, huh?" Not a direct quote, by the way.)

I guess I'll just need to re-read that Tannen book.

EDIT: Ugh. This is the last time I compose these entries in a Word processing tool that Blogger apparently can't handle.