Saturday, February 26, 2011

An attempt at systematizing the way in which increasing numbers of North Americans name their children

Different cultures use different strategies for naming their kids. I've always found these fascinating.

Some Mediterranean traditions dictate that the firstborn son must be named after his grandfather, and the secondborn after his father. Many Venezuelans split and combine the names of mother and father to create completely novel mashup names, so that my friends Harley and Lorna might name their child "Harla." In Colombia, at least as I've been told, every woman has the first name Maria, and they all go by their middle names.

Overall, though, in the modern western world, what we've done is to use the names of ancient warriors, poets, and religious figures, many of whom we can scarcely collectively remember, and cycle through these names semi-centennially with decades of hyper-elevated popularity.

And so we have our Jasons, unconsciously named for the argonaut, and our Elijahs, in unthinking honor of the prophet.

But during the past few years, I have been fascinated with the rise of a completely different paradigm of child-naming: simply combining sonorous syllables.

While I love to speculate about what this perhaps says about our culture breaking free of its cultural moorings and asserting the value of creativity over tradition, what interests me even more is that there seem to be some unspoken rules, or at least conventions, to the creation of new names, which people seem to have tacitly acceded to.

Among the children who I've recently seen come into this world bearing new-style names; Jayden, Layton, Gage, Keelee, and many others, each name seems to follow at least the majority of the following name-invention rules:
  1. The first syllable should be accented.
  2. The first syllable should be the "long A" sound (/eɪ/)
  3. Girls' names should have two syllables, and boys' names should have one(so that Jaycee is a girl's name, and Kade is a boy's)
  4. Established phonetic spelling patterns based on Greek and Latin influences which favor "ch" over "k", "en" over "yn", and "e" over "ee", are to be replaced with more Germanic patterns (so that even if a classical name is chosen, it is often with revised spelling, "Karen" becoming "Karyn", and so on)
  5. Certain initial consonants are to be preferred. Z and L are good. W is not.
There are probably a lot more conventions, and I figure that modelling these new trends in naming could very well be the topic of a fascinating dissertation. But armed only with my humble provisional observations, I think that I have now done a decent job of making an algorithm that produces good new-style baby names: try it out.

It's not perfect, but it's served up several names I've seen in the wild.

Now for the interesting question: decades from now, will invented names still be like the ones produced by my algorithm, or will the conventions have changed?

Perhaps in twenty years, some archeologist of the internet will discover this post, and apply these rules for fun and curiosity to the task of making "old sounding names."

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A hacker's guide to second language acquisition

I recently came across a blog post about learning languages that's been making the rounds (which I now cannot find for the life of me), and it inspired me to venture my own theoretically expert opinion about second language acquisition.

The author's primary insight was dead right: to learn a language, you should care about the language and its speakers. A xenophobe who wants to pick up Spanish to qualify for an automatic pay raise probably won't fare magnificently. An Islamophile who dreams awake of pyramids and prophets will shock you with his progress in Arabic. “Care” is probably the best piece of advice for language learners.

But as a seasoned practitioner, tantalized with the prospect of an audience that might care, I'm now all too eager to proffer my additional wisdom. Namely:

Ignore the hard rules. Ever wonder why we don't use the article with words like “air” and “concrete” in English? We say “a book”, or “a chair”, but not “an air” or “a concrete.” It's because nouns of the latter class represent things that are infinitely divisible without losing their essence. That's right. Generally speaking, if I cut a chair in half, what remains isn't a chair. The same does not apply for concrete. Now if you're a native speaker of English, I imagine you manage articles pretty well, but I also bet you didn't consciously know the rule. In fact, English learners who try to consciously apply the rule universally suck at it. There's just not enough time to pause before every noun and contemplate infinite divisibility. Linguists call conscious rule-application “learning”, and unconscious neural net programming “acquisition.” With really easy rules, conscious learning can work. With difficult ones, you'll just have to wait for the nets to kick in. Don't waste your time trying to “learn” anything hard. One day you'll just wake up to find that you somehow say things correctly.

Use chunks. Your brain doesn't process “I am going to go” (amanago) as five words. It's a single lexical item under the hood. Spoken discourse is dominated by these chunks (although language teachers and textbook writers seem not to have noticed). Learn them. Learn a hundred of them, and people will be spooked. It will appear to some that you've mastered Italian in two days. I'm serious.

Fantasize. This is my secret weapon. Mutter to yourself like a madman. Play out scenes where you impress the boss, win the girl, and kill the bad guy. Learn the appropriate phrases. “Fluent? Oh, of course not. I started studying yesterday—my God, what is that? Fetch my sword!” Affect an expression of courageous concern and play your part, whispering through your plots while the cab driver nervously tracks you through the rear-view mirror. Between my first Esperanto meet-up and my second one, I went from being a complete neophyte to something bordering fluent. “Wow Ken, how did you do it?!” they asked. I told them it was because I was a linguist. Really it's because I'm fucking crazy, and I talk to myself.

Use flashcards. Find a corpus of the most common words in spoken discourse in your target language, and make decks for the top one thousand words. Pull out groups of five or ten words and drill them till you've got them down, and then put them in your “know” pile. Repeat. Periodically quiz yourself on your “know” pile. Did you miss any words? Put them in a new “whoops” pile, and drill those until they're ready to rejoin the party. Drill the cards both ways, translating to and from your target language. Say every word out loud. Visualize yourself at a bar, and use them in appropriate sentences. Do the muttering madman thing while you whittle through your decks.

Recast. When someone asks you a question and you get “blah blah blah you blah blah restaurant?” Come back with “You mean, Do I want to go to a restaurant?” If you're right, they'll say “Yes”, and you can keep rolling. Otherwise, they'll try their question again, probably more simply. Recasting is a dynamite alternative to saying “what” a thousand times, and keeps the conversation going naturally.

Be shameless. If you worry too much about looking like an idiot, learning anything will be an uphill battle. Could you feasibly expect to learn to paint without first pouring hours into “What is that supposed to be?”-type paintings? Yes, you will talk like a caveman. People may laugh. You will be confused, and misunderstood. Resign yourself to it. Accept your stammering and stumbling as the part of your new foreign persona's charm. Go boldly.

. . . and unless you're bold enough, you should probably ignore my final piece of advice:

Learn Esperanto.

Studies have shown that people who study Esperanto can tackle their next language especially fast. In fact one year of Esperanto study followed by one year of French has been shown to produce better results than two years of French. In a way, Esperanto is Language Herself, abstracted, and free of the centuries of accumulation of contradictions piled upon exceptions that natural languages exhibit. Learning Esperanto will acquaint your mind more clearly with the true meanings of grammatical tenses, giving you an elegant, almost perfect blueprint of Deep Structure as a foundation upon which you may build your future edifices.

You may even find that you fall in love with its Vulcan-like logic, its extensibility, its multi-paradigm architecture, and its rich history replete with anarchist martyrs and true believers crushed by the rising tide of nationalism in a world that was not yet ready for so noble an idea.

Or maybe not. As they say, it helps to be passionate about the language's speakers.

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

My new political affiliation (Or how the Kickstarter model can replace politics)

I hate that hippies are forced to pay for the War on Drugs. And I'm not a hippie.

I also hate that Mormons should have to pay for abortions, pacifists for wars, atheists for religious charities, or Catholics for condoms.

I fall into none of the aforementioned categories, but I just can't square with diverting the fruit of someone's labor to a cause that's abhorrent to them. It creates a situation in which a conscientious objector's only recourse is to completely withdraw from the system, and make no money so she will pay no taxes. Yeah yeah, I'm silly and naive, I know.

I used to think this made me a libertarian. (And by "used to", I mean up until last week, and by "a libertarian", I mean that I ran for statewide office last November on the Libertarian ticket and garnered 12% of the vote.)

I simply accepted the fact that the only way to stop using people as a means to ends in which they were not included was to vote "no" to everything and shut down virtually all taxes. This effectively meant parting with all kinds of noble causes which I truly loved. Sure, I would pay double, triple, or even quadruple my share for a robust and heroic space program that would establish colonies on every scrap of rock we could find, but I can't in good conscience spend the money of an objector on my dream, so it's got to be "no."

Then, yesterday, my eyes were opened.

I started to browse Kickstarter.

When Kickstarter launched, I thought it was about getting people to fund your sock puppet videos or experimental fiction. And that it is. But it is so much more. Yesterday, I discovered that the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU has been raising money on Kickstarter for a variety of things, including an open source lion tracking collar. I gasped.

Here is a project that screams "institutional funding." Lion collars? For real? Isn't the university supposed to apply for government grants for this kind of research?

It's a small thing really. Small like a uranium-235 atom in a fission bomb's core.

At the very least, this is a cool Kantian-ethics-friendly way of raising money. At the most, it could be the end of politics as we know it.

I want a Mars mission and you don't? No problem, because I'm committing 6X the minimum pledge. (I firmly believe NASA would be drowning in cash if they opened a Kickstarter account.)

You're some radical "unschooler" who doesn't believe in public education? Awesome. Most of the citizenry buys in and sends their kids to public schools anyways. In fact, given the choice, most people more than double the minimum pledge. We had less money when we had to compromise with you.

I suspect that the Kickstarter model can't be the answer to everything. I imagine that I'll still oppose certain wars on moral grounds, even if you're happy to fund them.

But I see enough potential in this to give me a weird feeling in my knees.

And in the next election, you can bet I'll be making a Gold Level pledge to the Kickstarter accounts of the candidates who can feel it too.

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