A Twitter of Speechies – and other Terms of Venery

As I write this, the 2015 Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists conference has just come to an end, and happy delegates are taking trains and boats and planes to wend their merry ways home. Some are taking an extra few days to enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the wonderful city of Dublin, a name derived from the Old Irish dubh meaning “black” and lind meaning “pool” – a reference to a point where the rivers Poddle entered the Liffey, giving the appearance of a dark pool.



Sadly the Dudes were unable to take the time out to make the trip but experienced it vicariously via the magic of Twitter and the hashtag #IASLTCon. And our sole contribution to the conference was in the form of a discussion that has been vexing Speech and Language professionals for years: what do you call a group of Speechies?

Being the sort of guys who care deeply and passionately about things of no great importance (if triviology [1] were the study of trivial things, we’d be Professors) we suggested that an appropriate collective noun would be “a twitter of speechies.” This has the advantage of tying in to a word already in use with an international acceptance. In contrast, a “natter of speechies,” while being perhaps my favorite after twitter, is not as universal. The word natter, meaning “to chat aimlessly, idly, or at length” is common enough in Scotland and Northern England (from where I hail and so I know it well) turns out to be less common outside the Sceptered Isle. I checked the Corpus of Global Web-based English (a corpus of over 1.9 billion words from 20 countries) and found natter scored highest in the UK at 161 instances, with Ireland and Australia lower at 32 and 37 respectively. In fact, it only scores a total of 333 from the entire 1.9 billion word sample, so that’s hardly “universal,” as opposed to twitter, which has a rollicking145,604 instances. Evidence-based vocabulary indeed!

A “decibel of Speechies” is yet another good candidate but seems a little clinical or scientific, whereas a twitter has a sense of humor and bonhomie about it. The same might be said of “an utterance of Speechies,” which while being another great candidate uses a term that means a lot to we clinicians but maybe less to folks outside the field – unless you’re a linguist or psycholinguist.

Whatever the outcome of a vote might be – and we’ve include a poll for you to take! – the “teachable moment” here relates to the idea of these things called collective nouns, which are essential phrases used to describe a group of things. More specifically, it’s typically a way of describing groups of animals (and SLPs are animals, are we not?) and it’s a descriptive form that’s been used in the English language for hundred of years. To be more specific, they can be traced back to a list of formal codifications found in a document from 1450 called The Egerton Manuscript. This contained a list of 106 terms to describe groups of animals for the purpose of hunting. They were called “terms of venery,” not collective nouns, and the word venery comes from the Old French venerie meaning “hunting,” and that in turn comes from the Latin venari meaning “to hunt [2].

These “terms of venery” were expanded upon in what might be the definitive volume called The Boke of St. Albans, a magnificent tome published in 1486 and dedicated to the Art of the Gentleman, who needed to be proficient at hunting, hawking, fishing, and heraldry; a sort of 15th century version of GQ  or Esquire for the sophisticated, urbane, man-about-town – and country.

Here we find such classics as “a school of fish,” “a pride of lions,” “a swarm of bees,” and “a barrel of monkeys.” There are also lesser known terms such as “an exaltation of larks,” “a rope of pearls,” “a run of poultry,” and “a shrewdness of apes.”

Since then, more and more of these collective nouns have been created, many of which are delightfully fanciful and brimming with wit and humor. “A parliament of owls,” “a peep of chickens,” “a prudence of vicars,” “a pity of prisoners,” and ” a kindle of kittens” are just mere drops in the collective bucket.

But assuming you don’t want to slog your way through the free PDF version of The Boke of St. Albans because Medieval English script is not your thing, if you want just ONE book on your shelf that can become you go-to reference on collective nouns, you can do no better than James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. At the time of writing, you can get a used hardcover in good condition from Amazon at the bargain price of $2.89 – and even with the $3.99 shipping it’s a marvelous investment.

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Once you get passed Lipton’s rather flowery, almost purple, prose, he does a great job of documenting over 1000 collective nouns (he prefers “terms of venery” but I’m happy with “collective nouns”), tracing them back, where possible, to their sources. And as Speechies were not around in the 15th century, alas there is no “definitive” label. However, other medical/educational professions get mentioned. some of which Lipton has coined himself, others he’s gotten from other people:

“A handful of gynecologists”
“A stirrup of obstetricians”
“A rash of dermatologists”
“A herd of otologists”
“A passage of rhinologists”
“A tray of dietitians”
“A gross of pathologists.”

He offers a set of six criteria into which collective nouns can be subdivided:

1. Onomatopoeic: Where there is a sound relationship, such as “a murmuration of starlings.
2. Characteristic: Where there is a relationship between the thing being described and its characteristics e.g. “a paddling of ducks” or “a destruction of wildcats.”
3. Appearance: Where there is a relationship based on how something looks e.g. “a knot of toads” or “a skulk of friars.”
4. Habitat: Where something lives, such as “a nest of rabbits.”
5. Comment or Point-of-View: Where the relationship is based on the perspective/opinions of an observer e.g. “a threatening of courtiers.”
6. Error: Where the word used is a corruption of something else, such as “a school of fish,” which comes from shoal.

I’m not sure this is necessarily the best way of categorizing but unless I find enough free time to collect all 1000 of Lipton’s examples and create a new set of criteria, I’ll bow to his suggestions.

So before you leave, help us out by taking our poll, where all you have to do is pick one out of four options. Doubtless you may have another collective noun in mind but we’re just going to focus on the four we’ve mentioned. There’s no right or wrong, and no prizes, just the satisfaction of taking part ;)

POLL: A group of Speechies is…

[1] A search for triviology on Google returned 8,850 hits (or ghits as they are sometimes called), which is pretty trivial. There’s a writer called Neil Shalin who has a series of sports-related books such as Red Sox Triviology and Steelers Triviology; there’s someone with the twitter handle @triviology; and there’s the nearest thing to a dictionary definition in the Urban Dictionary by way of the word triviologist, which reads “A triviologist is someone who specializes in trivia or who loves trivia for trivia’s sake.” Oddly there was no definition for triviology.

[2] Yes, this is indeed the origin of the word venison, which refers to the meat of animals killed by chasing and hunting. Although the modern-day usage tends to be specific to dead deer, originally it applied to deer, boars, hares, rabbits, and all other such cute, lovable little beasties that hunters want to shoot, skin, and eat. Yum.


“Scan Me and See!”: A New Presentation Technique

Most people seem to be more organized than I am. I’m pretty sure that on the organizational bell curve I come in at -3 standard deviations or more. Sadly, procrastination has not yet been defined as a legitimate pathology so I can’t claim it as being my “condition.” But if someone out there is doing drug trials to cure it, I’m up for the challenge!

That opening paragraph is really just a snippet of background information to explain why I missed the deadline for submitting a paper to the 2015 American Speech-Hearing Association (ASHA) conference to take place in Denver in November. This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t be there, but I always prefer to present a paper because it feels like I have “done something.”

But if I do end up there, I got to thinking about how I might be able to unofficially “present” a paper even though I’m not officially on the program. And hence the “Scan Me and See!” concept.

When you present a paper at a conference, what typically takes place? Well, you (a) have a scheduled time to appear at (b) a scheduled location, where you (c) orally present to a group of attendees followed by (d) handing out materials and (e) answering questions.

All of these things can be do asynchronously via a website and a link, which can be embedded into a QR code and printed large on a T-shirt. If you then wander around with this T-shirt inviting people at random to scan you, they can see your presentation at any time!

Scan Me and See QR code on a T-shirt

Click me and Scan me!

Once at my “Presentation Page” folks can watch a video, download any materials I have to offer, and ask questions and comment directly. Apart from losing the live element, I get to share my ideas.

Denver here we come!

“A” is for Apple®: Phonics for the Technological Toddler

It’s clear to most people that apples , balls, cats, and dogs are no longer the images of choice for alphabet primers. So here for the 21st century is a newer offering for your Technological Toddler.

A is for “Apple®,” whose products we need, and
B is for “Broadband” for downloads at speed.
C is for “Cursor” for drag, point, and click, while
D is for “Drop-down” with things we can pick.
E is for “Ebooks” we download for pleasure, and
F is for “Facebook®,” that most use for leisure.
G is for “Google®” a web-searching titan,
H is for “Hackers” who just love to frighten.
I is for “Ice-cream” – for Androids and toffee, and
J is for “Java™” – that’s software AND coffee!
K is for “Kindle™,” a popular reader, and
L is for “Linux™,” an Open Source leader.
M is for “Microsoft®,” still a big player, and
N is for “Nike®,” a sports goods purveyor.
O is for “Outsource” for work on the cheap, and
P is for “Playstation®,” stealer of sleep.
Q is for “QWERTY” where writing can start, while
R is for “Reading,” a fast-dying art.
S is for “Skyping” that’s video chat, but
T is for “Texting,” to type “where u @?”
U is for “Unfriend” for people you hate, while
V is for “Vote Up” for people you rate!
W for “Warcraft®,” a virtual land, and
X is for “XBox®,” a Microsoft brand.
Y is for “YouTube®” where egos are fed, and
Z is for “Zombies,” the flesh-eating Dead.

And as a special treat, you can download a FREE copy of The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium [1], a PDF version with pictures that you can print out and read to your kiddos!

The Speech Dudes’ Techno Toddler Abecedarium

Let us know what your young readers think.

[1] Oh yes, it’s a real word. An abecedarium is “an alphabetical wordbook or wordlist, usually elementary; esp. a primer for teaching the basics of reading and spelling.” It dates from 1440, along with its alternate form, an abecedary (1475). It’s one of those words that deserves its day in the sun now and again, and today is a sunny day!

Quinoa Salad and Literacy

Over the past month of so, the written word quinoa has been popping up in my life more than usual. Or should I say, in the interest of accuracy, my perception of the frequency of appearance of the word quinoa has been that its incidence has increased. For those of you who care about evidence-based assertions – and I like to think that’s almost all of you who read the Speech Dudes’ posts – there is a difference in those two statements. For example, if I mention to you now that the number 23 will haunt you mysteriously for the next few weeks, there’s a very good chance that it will. And is that because there is a spooky, paranormal force at work? No, it’s because I’ve just turned on your “Number 23 Detector” and from here on in, your awareness of it has been activated. In other words, the real frequency of occurrence of 23 hasn’t changed – you attention to it has [1].

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

Quinoa and alfalfa salad

The number 23 aside, what’s become apparent is that I’ve been able to read the word quinoa quite happily for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never made the link between how I think it sounds in my head and how it is really pronounced by the rest of the world! Up until now, I’ve imagined that the word is pronounced /kwɪ’nəʊə/ when it’s actually /’ki:nwa:/ [2]. This boils down to that other than the /k/ and the /n/ sounds, I’ve had everything else totally wrong. In my defense, the Merriam-Webster dictionary also includes the variant /kɪ:’nəʊə/, which is closer to my imagined pronunciation; but it’s still without the /w/ as part of the /kw/ blend.

So apart from learning that I’m wrong – a condition that causes me no end of shame and batters my already fragile ego – what else can I learn from this? How much lemonade can I squeeze from this mispronounced lemon?

Well, we can try to work out why I imagined the pronunciation that I did, and that goes back to the process of reading. When you see a word with which you are unfamiliar, you use your current knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to make a “best guess.” In this case, clearly when I look at the “qui…” I think of words such as quick, quibble, quiet, quirky, quins, quintuplet, quit, quip, quill, quintessential [3], quincunx, and the list goes on. In ALL of these words, the letters “qu” represent the blend /kw/, so when faced with “quinoa,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think /kwɪ’nəʊə/ is OK.

But this is based on an assumed etymology of “quinoa” being Latin, because in the Latin alphabet, the letters “qu” were used to represent the sound /kw/. English is heavily influenced by words of Latin origin, and its alphabet is also derived from the Latin alphabet. So if you were a betting person, when you see a word that starts with “qu,” you’d win more than you’d lose if you guessed it sounded like /kw/ at the beginning.

Unless the word comes from the South American language called Quechuan, pronounced /’kɛt͡ʃwən/ and not with a /kw/. And quinoa does.

The word quinoa comes from a grain plant native to South America and the grains from this have become popular in the Western world as a health food during the late 20th century. When Spanish colonists moved into South America in the 16th century, they not only brought with them a generous amount of guns, horses, and diseases, but their alphabet. And what’s special about the Spanish alphabet’s letter-sound correspondence it that the sequence “qu” is pronounced as /k/ and NOT the original Latin /kw/. So when they heard the word /’ki:nwa:/, it was a no-brainer to spell it using a “qui” and not a “k” at the beginning. Thus the word quinoa made its way into text along with its /k/-not-/kw/ pronunciation.

Quechuan in South America

Quechua in South America

This incidence of my public shame also serves to remind us of that the relationship between letters and sounds is not always as clear-cut as we might want or imagine. Whether the string “qu” is pronounced /kw/ or /k/ depends not just on the letter themselves but the history and origin of the word [4]. So if I’d known about the Quechuan language, my pronunciation error would never have happened [5], and servers in restaurants wouldn’t be giggling and pointing at me after taking an order.

I should have paid more attention to languages at school.

[1] This type of effect is called Selection Bias, Observational Bias, or, more memorably, Cherry Picking. It can happen both unconsciously, such as my believing that “quinoa” has suddenly become popular, or consciously, such as when I only read articles that support my long-cherished beliefs and ignore/trash those that challenge them. Only in the fruit distribution industry in “cherry picking” a good thing; in Science, it’s bad.

[2] I sometimes forget that some of the folks who read the Speech Dudes blog are unfamiliar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or at least don’t use it very often. So here’s another way of writing those pronunciations using a different type of phonetic spelling: [kwih-noh-uh] versus [keen-wah].

[3] I can’t resist this but the word quintessential derives from the Latin quintessence, which translates as “the fifth element,” and which in turn is the title of a delightfully campy and visual stylish sci-fi movie with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. In classical and medieval philosophy, the fifth element was the stuff of stars and something hidden within all things. I guess Moby had the same idea when he produced “We Are All Made of Stars” back in 2002. Once again, you learn the quirkiest of things on a trip to the Dudes’ site!

[4] My modest obsession with etymology as a hobby (and yes, I carry around a little notebook and scribble words down when I hear them – or use Evernote if I’m in a digital mood) is actually usually pretty helpful when it comes to deciphering new words. It’s also a source of pleasure when looking at how words evolve and change over the years. For example, did you realize that the word amazing originally meant “causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay; stupefying, terrifying, dreadful,” and not “wonderful and astonishing.” From 1600 to today, it’s pretty much flipped its meaning from something bad to something good. I find that amazing!

[5] In a last-ditch effort to dig myself out of the hole, I should point out that the Oxford English Dictionary does, in fact, include my [kwih-noh-uh] articulation along with the more common, “correct” version. Alas, I suspect this merely reflects that I’m not the only Englishman whose attitude to foreign language is that if English were good enough for God, it’s good enough for the rest of the world. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a polyglot in so far as I can speak British English, American English, and a smattering of Canadian English, Australian English, and possible South ‘Efrican and New Zealand English.

Stop With the “Change Your Password” Ritual

In the past few months, we heard over and over how big corporations such as Sony and Anthem have been hacked and customer information stolen. It’s not just information for one or two folks but thousands, even millions. And you know what? This happened regardless of what YOUR personal password was! In fact, what I’m going to suggest is that whenever someone with whom you have an account asks to keep changing your password “for security reasons,” you should change it to “Bullshit!”

Hackers are not interested in my password for the Speech Dudes site. They really are not. Any hackers who are going to spend hours and hours trying to break into this account so as to upload a picture of a skull-and-crossbones and say “Yah boo sucks, Dudes, you’ve been hacked” are one card short of a deck; two fries short of a Happy Meal; three sandwiches short of a picnic. Their lights are on but no-one’s home; their elevator doesn’t go to the top floor; and their cheese has slid so far off the cracker that their collective intelligence can only be matched by that of a shed-load of broken garden tools.

Password entry screen

Just last week I wanted to check my recent health insurance bills from United Medical Resources (UMR) only to find that before I could, I have to change my password “for security reasons.” Fair enough – except that this is the third time in a year I’ve had to do it. And what’s more, I can’t use ANY of the past 10 passwords I’ve used, which means I have to invent new ones every time.

This “you cannot use any of your previous 10 passwords” is also an irritation because it (a) forces me to create yet more mindless character strings than I need to remember and (b) tells me that the Grand Keeper of the Passwords at UMR has a list of all my previous ones. “Someone” is tracking my passwords! And if “they” are keeping my passwords, and “they” are hacked, I’ve not just lost my current password to hackers but all my previous ones – which may in turn include ones that I am still using for other accounts.

Some sites have now introduced not just the password but some stupid picture that is supposed to help; by making you now remember both a password AND a picture! And hey, hey, hey, it’s not just pictures: my friend Kara has an account where they also include what they call a “personal security phrase,” which in her case was “devoted corn.” Devoted Corn! I’d love to stuff that devoted corn down the throat of the person who came up with that idea!!! So now she has to remember her password, “devoted corn,” and her “personal image.”

All I can take from this madness is that I bet the sale and use of sticky notes has gone up significantly over the past five years because let’s get real and acknowledge what people actually do with regard to passwords:

They make a list.

Sure, you might have a list that you store in an encrypted format using a piece of software (presumably written by the folks who have developed these password/image/personal-phrase systems) but you’re still making a list. And when folks like UMR and Apple stop you using previous passwords, you can’t even have the option to have just one “open sesame” for all your accounts. Apparently that’s a bad thing. But that didn’t help all the folks who had accounts in 2014 with Sony, Target, Anthem, Neiman Marcus, AT&T, eBay, PF Chang’s…

It’s the hacking of all those big, international corporations that points to where the real danger lies. It’s not from some guy in Russia [1] trying to get MY personal password for Chase Bank, but from some guy in Russia trying to get ALL the passwords for Chase Bank at a corporate level. The personal password might make me feel safe but the evidence is that I’m no safer having the word “password” for all my accounts than someone who has “XX345Xbbg$3iOO” and anagrams thereof for every single account they use. During my recent trip the ATIA 2015 conference at the Caribe Royale Hotel in Orlando, Florida, myself and a number of other colleagues had their credit card numbers stolen, with all evidence pointing to someone having access to the desk at the on site Cafe (the only place where we all used a card). No passwords were involved, just the opportunity for someone to see numbers in a hotel system [2], and opportunist theft is something that can happen to anyone.

The Emperor's New Clothes

“But the Emperor has no clothes!”

The danger I face from having “Captain Danger” as my one and only password for all my accounts is not that some hacker will work it out. The danger is from having an account in the first place with a company whose security system is lacking. If they employ highly paid so-called “security experts” whose answer to breaches is to tell all their customers to change their passwords, I suggest they recognize them for what they are – Naked Emperors. Get them to do their job and make the system secure or sack ’em and employ some East European hacker to bolster up your website and pay them with a subscription to XBox live for a year and a free download of Grand Theft Auto 6 – although there’s a good chance they’ll hack a pre-release freebie long before the product is released to paying customers.

Yes, it's like this...I want three, maybe four, passwords for all my accounts. I want them to last forever. I want to be allowed (yes, it’s my choice, after all) to use whatever characters I want no matter how simple, stupid, or “obvious” some over-hyped security expert thinks it is. And I want my health insurance company (to whom I give lots of cash), my bank (to whom I give lots of cash), and my wireless phone company (to whom I give ever-increasing amounts of cash), to get their acts together and stop trying to blame me for being unable to handle passwords when they seem unable to protect their own systems.

Rant over. Let the flames begin!

[1] Before any Russian readers decide to hire a hacker to crash this blog because they think I’m being unkind to them, I use the example of Russian hackers because according to a 2013 article from the Gartner Group, it is “fairly well-known  by most security professionals that the best hackers on the planet often originate from Russia.” Deutsche Telekom has a fascinating little site that tracks real-time hacks across the world (http://www.sicherheitstacho.eu) and during January 2015, China took first place by a wide margin, with the US taking silver, and Russia slipping down to a mere bronze. Another fascinating “live attack” site comes from the company Norse, and if they were to create a live wallpaper based on their http://map.ipviking.com map, I’d be using it!

[2] I’d be curious to hear if any other fellow attendees experienced card theft. I wrote to the hotel to alert them to the multiple thefts but heard nothing back – which may be expected because no-one wants to admit to having lax security.


The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 2 – Of Powwows and Portmanteaus

The day before the Dudes left for the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference happened to be Lewis Carroll’s birthday. Folks who know me well – and maybe some who just happened to have heard me in presentations – will be painfully aware that I recommend Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to anyone with the slightest interest in language. In fact, both books should be on the required reading list for all Educators and Speech and Language Therapists/Pathologists – seriously. Read the following single sentence as spoken by the Duchess in Wonderland and savor the complexity:

Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

Now parse it. There’s glory for you [1]. The books are just overflowing with words, phrases, and sentences that can provide enough material for several seminars on morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Time for a Powwow

Time for a Powwow

Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, on the same day a Twitter colleague, @TactusTherapy, posted that she was about to take part in an appathon, which is clearly a blend of the words application and marathon. This is commonly referred to as a portmanteau word, a term first used by Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty is explaining what the words in the poem Jabberwocky mean:

“Well, slithy means ‘lithe and slimy.’ Lithe is the same as active. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

He then gives another example of a portmanteau with mimsy, which is a jamming together of miserable and flimsy. Linguists call these blends, or perhaps more specifically lexical blends – as distinct from, say, phonological blends where two or more sounds run together to end up as one. Other examples include positron (1933: positiveelectron); guesstimate (1936: guessestimate); skort (1951: skirtshorts); modem (1958: modulatordemodulator); metrosexual (1994: metropolitanhetero/homosexual); and hacktivist (1995: hackeractivist). My @TactusTherapy colleague also pointed out that she’d just come across a new portmanteau, listicle, to refer to one of those “5 Ways to Drive Your Lover Wild” or “10 Words Guaranteed to Get You a New Job” articles, where it’s basically a list modified into prose. Hence it’s a portmanteau of list and article.

ATIA15 Powwow 1

Moving ahead to Day 2 of the conference, I spent some time over lunch with a group of AAC/AT folks who had at some time attended one of the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series, or PALSS [2]. It’s a good excuse to get together with a group of like-minded folks for an informal powwow. Curiously enough, the word powwow (or pow-wow) may be another example of a portmanteau except from a non-English source. It can be traced back to the Narragansett language and pawwaw meaning a priest, shaman, or healer. It’s suggested that this in turn came from an earlier language, Proto-Algonquian [3], and the phrase *pawe-wa, which means “he who dreams.” The two words were blended into one by the elision of the middle syllable, and became the portmanteau, powwow.

During this powwow, yet another new portmanteau made its way into the discussion: the spamference. It’s clearly derived from spam and conference, and represents a relatively new concept in the field of academia – the junk conference. Basically, it’s a conference created not for the “free exchange of ideas and research from leaders in the field” but “a way of generating revenue for conference organizers by way of inviting folks to exotic and faraway places for a good time.” The typical invite goes along the lines of:

“Dear Speech Dude

As a recognized leader/expert/authority in the field of AAC/Linguistics/Toad Husbandry, our panel of professionals invite you to chair a session at our upcoming prestigious conference in Maui/Maldives/Vegas/Fiji (insert name of any place in which you’d love to spend a week).

As a conference chair, your registration fees will be discounted by 75% and hotel rooms by 25%. You will also be acknowledged as an Editor/Reviewer in the conference proceedings.”

And so on, and so on. The first hint of bogosity is the unsolicited nature of the invitation from someone who you’ve probably never heard of, and also that slightly hard-to-avoid-but-it’s-probably-true realization that you are maybe not quite the leader/expert/authority that you’d like to think you are!

Of course, if you want to beef up your resume and can get someone to fund you for your trip to Hawaii for “the conference,” then there’s nothing actually illegal going on here. Nothing. Like the whole “Open Access Journals” discussion – where you can get published so long as you stump up some cash – it’s a fundamentally grey area with advocates both for and against.

But spamference is definitely a portmanteau.

[1] This comes from a discussion between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass about unbirthday presents. It ends with a classic definition of “the word” that’s beloved by linguists around the globe:

“There’s glory for you!’

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

See what I mean about great seminar material?

[2] The Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series is a 2-and-a-half day event run by Semantic Compaction Systems in, no surprise, Pittsburgh. It’s focus is on implementing the Unity/Minspeak language system, with each seminar having a nationally recognized guest speaker. The seminars are monthly and registration is free but there are limited numbers – only 24 folks per seminar. It’s pretty cool because food and lodging is free AND you can get $150 towards your flight or mileage. Oh, and you get to meet me on Thursday morning – and that’s gotta be worth the trip! If you’re curious, here’s the link:

[3] A proto-language is one for which there is no direct evidence but can be (re)constructed, hypothesized or inferred on the basis of the structure and behavior of words that are verifiable. Algonquian is a genus of languages spoken primarily by Native American in north-eastern regions of North America, and Proto-Algonquian is thought to be the version spoken around 3,000 years ago. Here’s a link to a map of the family of Algonquian should you be curious – and if you’re still reading, you are ;) THE ALGONQUIAN FAMILY

Valentine’s? President’s? Whose Day IS It?

On a singularly dull day in Hell, when the screams of tortured souls no longer gave Lucifer a thrill, he came up with a new form of torture: the apostrophe [1]. It’s a brilliant piece of evil engineering because it takes up less than the merest dab of ink to pop it onto a piece of parchment, yet placing it in the wrong place can wreak maximum havoc on the sensibilities of gentle readers. And over-worked copy editors. It’s possible one of Satan’s most wickedly powerful dividers of nations ever invented.

Evil apostropheWithin the space of one week, we’re about to experience the full force of an apostrophe debate that will also generate more examples of that malevolent little mark all over the internet. February 14 and 16 are all set to become a grammatical confluence of biblical proportions. Perhaps.

Let’s start with the easier one: the case of St. Valentine and a celebration of card sales love. According to one version of the legend, St. Valentine was a priest who was martyred by the Roman emperor Claudius II for being a Christian, and for performing marriage rites. In one of the more lurid descriptions of his death, he was first stoned and clubbed but when that failed to kill him he was beheaded. I’m not sure that’s ever been part of a Valentine card illustration – though in the interest of accuracy, I think Hallmark need to consider it.

His performing of marriages seems to fit in with the idea of love, but oddly St. Valentine is also the patron saint of epilepsy, fainting,  plague, and bee keepers. Again, potential new avenues of exploration for the folks at American Greetings.

St Valentine

Can you look after these bees for me, Val?

When we celebrate St. Valentine, we do so on St. Valentine’s Day, where the apostrophe comes before that final “s.” Why? Well, it’s because one of the accepted norms for using an apostrophe is that you use it before a final “s” to indicate the notion of possession; the idea that the preceding succeeding noun belongs to the apostrophized previous thing. In this instance, this is a special day that “belongs” to St. Valentine. So you can have “the cat’s whiskers” because the whiskers belong to the cat; “the man’s coat,” because the coat belongs to the man; or “my brother’s wife,” because the wife belongs to my brother [2].

A second rule says that if you have more than one possessor, and the plural form ends with an “s,” you still put the apostrophe after the word but you can ignore a following “s.” Hence we can have “the dogs’ bone,” which is a bone shared by multiple canines; “the bishops’ fund,” which is a fund administered or used by a bench of bishops [3]; or “my brothers’ wives,” which is a clumsy way of referring to the collection of women owned by my brothers.

Valentine’s Day is, therefore, a pretty easy one. There is only one Valentine; it’s a day that is in some sense “owned” by him; so the apostrophe can happily nestle itself between the “e” and the “s” and copy editors can sleep at night. Sanity 1 – Satan 0.

But the Prince of Darkness is not yet done with us. He’s fully aware that although some folks will have trouble with Valentine’s Day, those who find it relatively easy have been lulled into a false sense of security. Lurking in the wings – or in this case, two days later – there is the day that even such luminaries as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) disagree on; Presidents Day or Presidents’ Day. Sanity 1 – Satan 1.

I know that our readers don’t come here to be subjected to stress, pain, or irritation (other than the mild form suffered when we say something outrageous or wrong) so let me take away any worries you’re having about which form to use here and now. The Associated Press Stylebook says “Presidents Day” with no apostrophe; the Chicago Manual of Style says “Presidents’ Day” with the apostrophe right at the very end. So the Dudes say; so go with the one you prefer!

DIfferent ways of spelling Presidents Day
Yes                                                    Yes                                                No

So why the confusion – apart from Beelzebub’s delight in watching us all squabble and bicker? It’s really because of the way that nouns can, in some circumstances, behave as if they were adjectives. Specifically, it’s a type of noun called an attributive noun, which sounds like another Mephistophelian invention. For the most part, nouns are pretty solid, stalwart parts-of-speech, happy to be just what they are – low-frequency, limited meanings. A dog‘s a dog, a cat‘s a cat, and that’s about it. However, sometimes a noun will have the urge to buddy up to another noun to make a compound, and the one that goes first can change its behavior and act, temporarily, like an adjective.

Here are some examples of attributive nouns, where the first noun is being used to enhance the meaning of the second:

football player: Just using the noun player on its own may not be sufficient, so adding the noun football helps specify the type of player. Similarly we could have a baseball player, hockey player, and so on.

business lunch: Again, lunch on its own is OK in a generic sense but if you’re having lunch for the purpose of discussion business-related issues, then adding business as an attributive tightens up the meaning.

apple tree: Fairly obvious and by now needs no explanation.

If you want to do a quick check as to whether you’re seeing an attributive noun or an attributive adjective, try the following test:

Change <WORD 1><WORD2> to “The <WORD2> is <WORD1>”: does it make sense?

“The player is football,” “The lunch is business” and “The tree is apple” sound wrong. But if we had “aggressive player,” “free lunch,” and “tall tree,” applying the test would result in sensible sentences, therefore they are attributive adjectives, not attributive nouns.

All of this brings us back to why Presidents/Presidents’ Day is a challenge. If it is a day that “belongs” to Presidents, then the apostrophe should be used to indicate possession and therefore needs to be included at the end of the word. But if it’s a day “about” or “for” Presidents [4], then it’s being used as an attributive noun descriptor to enhance the meaning of “day,” and so needs no apostrophe.

The distinction is fine, and so is the interpretation – hence the disagreement between CMS and AP. But it is an instructive example of how words can shift not only their meaning but function, and even a humble noun can aspire to adjectivehood!

[1] Apostrophe comes from the Greek ἡ ἀπόστροϕος meaning “of turning away, or elision.” Often the apostrophe is used to mark where something is missing (elided) such as in can’t for cannot, the poetic o’er for over, or singin’ as a colloquialism for singing. It’s this sense of “missing something” that gave rise to its name as a punctuation mark.

[2] You’re right to guess that I put that one in on purpose, knowing full well that it’s somewhat un-PC. I could, of course, have used “My sister’s husband” and explained it as “because the husband belongs to my sister,” but that wouldn’t be as forceful in showing how grammar and punctuation rules regarding “possession” don’t care for social norms. Doubtless there are folks out there who would be all for having us change the language so as to avoid that notion of “owning” someone but that’s not going to happen. Grammatical possession is a little different from social possession.

[3] The  most frequently cited collective noun for bishops is, indeed, a bench. Others include a sea of bishops and a psalter of bishops.

[4] The Presidents in question are apparently George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are Feb 22 and Feb 17 respectively. I say “primarily” because there is also the notion that it is a celebration of all US Presidents, and that this extended meaning is accepted by many people.

1. Eagle-eyed reader, Trish, pointed out I used preceding rather than succeeding in the original sentence. Whoops!

The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 1 – Of Wealth and Water

Economics, when all is said and done, is based on some pretty simple principles, which we can summarize as follows:

1. People want/need stuff.
2. There is only so much stuff available.
3. Rare stuff has more value than common stuff.
4. Economics is about how stuff gets moved around from person to person.

I’m not sure why it took Adam Smith over 1000 pages to explain this in his canonical Wealth of Nations in 1776, or Thomas Picketty close to 700 pages in his 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I guess one paragraph with 4 bullet points wouldn’t sell as a book,

But if you want an example of simple economics, you need look no further than the price of a humble bottle of water. Here’s your “Dudes Economics 101” courtesy of our trip to the 2015 Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, Florida.

Bottles of water

$4.98 and $5.00 water: which is which?

1. People Want/Need Stuff

Water is one of those commodities that folks need in order to live. You might think your life would come to a screeching halt if your smart phone disappeared, but surprisingly it wouldn’t because a phone is a “want” not a “need.”

When you stay at a hotel, you need water, and often not just the water contained in a beer. Typically hotels provide a coffee machine in your room so you can make a hot beverage but from experience, many hotels have faucet water that tastes of chlorine, sulfur [1], metal, or anything other than the standard watery taste of “nothing.” In fact, the stuff that comes out of the tap is only “water” in the sense that it’s wet and clear (although the latter is not always the case.) Which leads us to the notion that…

2. There Is Only So Much Stuff Available.

Gold, diamonds, platinum, tigers, honest politicians; these are all examples of things that, on a global basis, are in short supply.  And in the tiny world that is the Caribe Royale Hotel in Florida, when it’s 11:00 PM and you’re thirsty, water is also in short supply. Given that the tap water is undrinkable, this means the bottle of filtered artesian Norwegian spring water [2]  lovingly provided by the hotel becomes an example of “only so much stuff is available.” And because your alternative is to go to the all-night on site store or get in a car and drive “somewhere else,” the next lesson in economics is that…

3. Rare Stuff Has More Value Than Common Stuff

If something is in short supply, it can be very expensive. Being rare in of itself doesn’t mean something is valuable – it has to be desired or necessary in order to be worth something. Diamonds are only valuable so long as someone, somewhere wants them, otherwise they are just highly compressed pieces of coal; a Rolex is worth several thousand dollars – if you like Rolexes; and a Starbucks grande non-fat latte is worth on average $3.80 – if you like coffee.

So when your mouth is as dry as the bottom of a bird-cage, $5.00 for a bottle of water seems like a bargain. In other places and at other times, you’d sooner shoot yourself in the foot than spend $5.00 for just water but in this place and at this time, the value of that colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid can be jacked up to near obscene levels.

You are probably aware of the phrase “location, location, location” as the answer to the question “What’s the most significant factor to take into account when opening a store?” or “Which factor will play a critical part in determining the price of a house?” but the same phrase applies to all economic transactions at some level. This is because…

4. Economics Is About How Stuff Gets Moved Around From Person To Person

The hotel can charge $5.00 for a bottle of water because it’s sitting there in the room so you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything other than twist off the cap. What they include in the price is the shifting of the stuff (water) from one person (themselves) to another (you).

Purely as an exercise in Economics (well, and perhaps as a demonstration of how cheap the Dudes are) on our way back from dinner at the Dakshin, a wonderful Indian restaurant, we stopped off at a Wal-Mart store and found, to our fiscal delight, that there was a special sale of Aquafina bottled water – $4.98 for a pack of 32 bottles. That’s 15 cents a bottle, and a significant saving when compared to the $5.00 hotel water – sorry, “filtered Norwegian Spring Water.” On that basis, we reckoned that if we drank ONE bottle each and threw away the other 30, we’d still be $5.02 ahead of the game! In terms of the “Dudes 4-Point Model of Economics,” we’d moved stuff ourselves (point 4) and bought from a place where stuff wasn’t rare (point 2) and so was not a premium price (point 3).

Image of economic axes

So there you have it. Proof that attending a conference can be an educational event above and beyond the overt content. Other bloggers will have details about the sessions and the exhibition and all that stuff, but only the Dudes will create a complete fiscal model based on having to spend $5.00 for water. Pedants and doryphores [5] might want to quibble with some details regarding our admittedly simple 4-Point Model of Universal Economics but we like to think that it’s in its naked simplicity where the value of the model lies. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

[1] I have to work hard to be able to spell sulfur like this, rather than sulphur, which is what I learned in school when I was a lad in England. The latter gets flagged as “wrong” on WordPress, and Microsoft words also gently scolds me with it little red line. It derives from the Latin sulfur(em) or sulphur(em) and is found in Middle English with a number spellings, such as sulphre, sulphure, sulfur, sulphur, soulphre, solfre, sulphyr, and others. The sulphur spelling appears to have become the more common by the end of the 17th century but other European languages opted for using an “f” (Spanish azufre, German schwefel, French soufre, and Italian zolfo). Even the American Lexicographer in Chief, Noah Webster, used sulphur, with the switch to sulfur occurring in the US relatively recently – the early 20th century. It has now become one of those US/UK differences that folks love to talk about. In a 1988 article, Mitchie and Langslow note that, “Together with driving on the left, the use of ph in sulphur, be it in acid rain or human metabolism, has remained an English prerogative.” Michie, C. A., & Langslow, D. R. (1988). Sulphur or sulfur? A tale of two spellings. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 297(6664), 1697-1699.

[2] In the world of Marketing, adjectives are important. If you want to sell a product, you can’t just offer “water” or “beer,” you have to  stick some lipstick on that pig by using adjectives. “Spring Water” sounds better than just “water,” but “Crystal-clear, Fresh Spring Water” sounds even better. “Crisp, Cold-Filtered Beer” invites you to part with more money than just “Cold Beer.” Restaurants teach their wait staff to use “suggestive selling,” which is simply having them to use adjectives whenever they recommend food; “Would you like some of our fresh, crispy fries with that?” or “We have a delicious, spicy chili that’s popular with all our diners.” Adjectives make money – and so does providing lists of these for copywriters, the best of whom will have Richard Bayan’s popular Words That Sell on their bookshelf. Actually, I would recommend this book to educators and Speechies who are teaching vocabulary because it’s chock-a-block with synonyms for many words, and the “Key Word Index” makes it easy to find them.

[3] I’ve posted this definition before but it’s worth repeating because it’s interesting: A doryphore is defined by the OED as “A person who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.” It comes from the Greek δορυϕόρος, which means “spear carrier,” (a δορο is a “spear” and ϕόρος means “to bear or carry”) and it was originally used in the US as a name for the Colorado beetle – a notable pest. This beetle was known as “the ten-striped spearman,” hence the allusion to a spear carrier.  To then take the noun and turn it into an adjective by adding the -ic suffix meaning “to have the nature of” was a piece of cake – and a great example of using affixation to change a word’s part of speech. As always, you leave a Speech Dudes’ post far smarter than you entered it!

28 Words to Boost Your Client’s Vocabulary – Maximum Bang for Buck

When developing a vocabulary set for an augmented and alternative communication (AAC) system – or indeed when deciding on what vocabulary to teach anyone – one of the most fundamental of measures you can use is frequency count; how often is a word used in a language? No-one can predict with 100% accuracy which words will be “best” for an individual, but if you’re going to take bets, you’re pretty safe to assume that words such as that, want, stop, and what are going to be used by everyone from ages 2 to 200. By the same token, you’d not be missing much if you didn’t spend too much time on words like ambidextrous, decalogue, and postilion [1].

In the field of AAC, this type of high frequency vocabulary that is used (a) across populations and (b) across situations is referred to as core vocabulary and it’s often contrasted with the phrase fringe vocabulary, which refers to words that are typically (a) low in frequency and (b) specific to isolated activities or situations. For a refresher on core and fringe – and an introduction to keyword vocabulary – check out my article entitled Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary from two years ago.

The core/fringe distinction is now so embedded in the world of augmentative communication that it is rare to see any new app appear on the market that doesn’t use the phrase “core vocabulary” somewhere in its marketing blurb – even if it isn’t actually making good use of the core! And as core vocabulary is, by definition, common across ages, activities, situations, and pathologies, it’s not surprising that many AAC software offerings look the same, particularly with regard to the words being encoded [2].

But it’s worth taking a look at another level of frequency measurement, and that’s at the phrase level. Specifically, one area of research that seems to me to offer some value to Speech and Language pathologists and Educators working in vocabulary development is in the study of how phrasal verbs (PVs) are distributed.

PV 3

So what’s a phrasal verb? Well, simply put, it’s a phrase of two to three words that are yoked together, which include a verb and a preposition and/or adverb. Examples include, “I ran into Gretchen at the ATIA conference,” “I backed up my hard drive,” and “I came across an interesting article on phrasal verbs.” The English language is stuffed to the gills with these type of verbs, and a feature of them is that they tend to have multiple meanings.

To find out how polysemous a phrase can be, you can use the excellent WordNet online tool, a huge database of words and phrases that let you check out noun, verb, adjective, and adverb meanings. For example, would you believe that the simple phrase “give up” has 12 different meanings? Or that “put down” has 8 variations? It’s not surprising that learners of English find phrasal verbs quite challenging.

The other fascinating feature of phrasal verbs is summarized in a 2007 paper by Gardner and Davies, who point out that of you look at the 100 million word British National Corpus you find that;

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Read that again and see if you get the same tingle I did seeing those numbers. Over half the entire phrasal verbs found in the corpus can be accounted for by combining 20 verbs with 8 particles. In short, if you learn just 28 words, you’ve learned 50% of all the phrasal verbs you’ll need to use.

Let’s take a look at those Top 2o verbs first:

20 most frequent verbs in phrasal verbs

Table 1: Top 20 Verbs in PVs

And now the Top 8 particles:

Eight most frequently used particles in phrasal verbs

Table 2: Top 8 particles in PVs

All the verbs and prepositions as individual items are already high frequency, with the exception of perhaps the verbs point and set, which wouldn’t be on my list of “first words to teach.” However, the real bonus here is that not only do you get the benefit of teaching your client 28 high frequency words in isolation but if you then use them as phrasal verbs, your “bang for buck” is significant!

Here’s a link to a PDF of those 28 words: https://app.box.com/s/17lc4fngm4cric6ob3400tty7ctuuz1h

This frequency analysis of phrasal verbs by Gardner and Davies has recently been supported by and extended upon by Dilin Liu (2011) and by Mélodie Garnier and Norbert Schmitt [3] (2014). In their paper, The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, they point out that a limitation in Gardner and Davies’ analysis is that they failed to take into account the polysemy inherent in the phrases – like the 12 meanings of “give up.” In fairness to Gardner and Davies, they did, in fact, talk about the polysemous nature of PVs but didn’t offer any measure of the different frequencies with which the various meanings are used. They wrote that:

For instance, the list-high 19 senses of the PV break up … could be arranged from highest to lowest semantic frequency, thus prioritizing them for language learning. We acknowledge, however, that corpora of this nature are much easier talked about than constructed. (p.353).

Garnier and Schmitt are interested not just in identifying the frequency with which a phrasal verb occurs but also the most common senses of those PVs. They say that;

…our main purpose for creating the PHaVE List, which is to reduce the total number of meaning senses to be acquired to a manageable number based on frequency criteria.

On a pragmatic level, they want a learner not to have to learn every meaning of each PV but just focus on the most frequent, and therefore most useful meanings. Using the original list from Gardner and Davies, along with additions by Liu (2011), and including data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008), the duo created the PHaVE List; a list of the 150 most frequently used phrasal verbs, and 280 of the most frequently used meanings. So on the 12 potential meanings for “give up,” they use the following:

Stop doing or having something; abandon (activity, belief, possession) (80.5%)
Example: She had to give up smoking when she got pregnant.

The general entry starts with a rank (in this case, 16th out of 150); the basic phrasal verb; a definition; a percentage frequency; and a specific example use. The complete list is made available as a download from the Sage journals website [4]. If you can get access to it, it is well worth the read and the download. And all the articles referenced in this article are good examples of how we can use corpus linguistics to help guide our practice of developing the vocabulary of our clients with language challenges.

Davies, M. (2008-). The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available from Brigham Young University The Corpus of Contemporary America English, from Brigham Young University http://corpus.byu.edu/coca

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2007). Pointing Out Frequent Phrasal Verbs: A Corpus-Based Analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 339-359.

Garnier, M., & Schmitt, N. (2014). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 1-22.Published online before print http://ltr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/08/1362168814559798.abstract

Liu, D. (2011). The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination. TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 661-688.

[1] A postilion is the driver of a horse-drawn carriage, who sits posterior to the horses. The sentence “The postilion has been struck by lightning” is the basis of a wonderful little paper by the linguist David Crystal, published in 1995 in the journal Child Language Teaching & Therapy. Simply titled “Postilion Sentences,” Crystal defines a postilion sentence as “one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote.” In the design of AAC systems, using pre-stored sentences may have some limited value but many “pragmatic utterances” turn out to be nothing more than postilions; unlikely to be used. This is why teaching sentences is neither language nor therapy.Download Postilion sentences article

[2] The now-common practice of using core vocabulary also makes it much harder to prove plagiarism – or as we Lancastrians would say, “nicking someone else’s ideas.” People, of course, don’t “steal” ideas – they are “inspired” by the work of others. But such inspiration inevitably leads to systems appearing almost clone-like in their structure. It’s only when you get to the fine details of how words are organized and encoded that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff out there.

[3] If I haven’t mentioned it before, Norbert is the author of an excellent book on vocabulary research methods. Here’s the full reference: Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary : a vocabulary research manual. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. It’s full of useful information and lots of web links worth exploring, and worth the $30 you’ll spend on Amazon US – or the £20.99 in the UK.

[4] Just a reminder to all members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that you membership benefits includes access to a number of Sage journals online, and Language Teaching Research is one of those. In fact, you have access to over 700 (yes, count ’em!) titles, including my personal favorites Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, English Today, and the riveting Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. OK, so I lied about the last one being a “favorite” :)

The State of the Union Address 2015: “We Are Family…”

Within seconds of a President turning off the autocue, political pundits stop trembling, wipe the drool from their lips, and spend the next 2 years talking incessantly about what was said. A single speech that clocks in at just under 6,500 words can single-handedly generate more web pages than the callipygian [1] Kim Kardashian can generate page clicks. Being a dude, you might think that this post is now about to become an excuse to share a picture of the ample Ms. Kardashian’s gluteus  maximus in all it’s shiny glory – but you’d be wrong! What I’m actually more interested in doing is taking a more detailed look at the vocabulary that Barack Obama used from the basis of corpus linguistics and concordance software. At this point, 90% of the guys who found this post by googling “Kim Kardashian’s ass” will leave. Sorry, dudes.

The data came from a transcript available from Time.com, which I then used as input for WordSmith 6.0 software, a corpus analysis tool. Of the many things this software will let analyze, the ones we’ll look at here are word frequencies, keywords, and concordances.

Keywords are those words that appear in a sample as being used significantly more or less than they are typically used in the general population. In the case of WordSmith, the “general population” is a list know as the British National Corpus, a sample of some 100 million words used in British English (BrE).

The “teachable moment” here is to think about why I chose this sample. Now I know – because I have a ear for these things – that Barack Obama does not use British English; his accent is also a bit of a giveaway. However, for the purpose of this analysis, I don’t think the frequency differences between BrE and American English (AmE) are significant enough to warrant worrying about it. I could have used a different sample called the American National Corpus but that’s only good for 14 million words, which is much smaller than the BNC. Therefore, I chose to go for the larger corpus, knowing that there may be some variations between the two but not, in my opinion, enough to skew the analysis.

Top 25 words by frequency

Fig 1: Top 25 words by frequency

If we take a look at the most frequently used words in the speech, you’ll see that they are pretty much what you might expect on the basis of typical distributions. The word the is the most frequent in the English language and seeing it atop the President’s list is uninteresting. What is interesting is that the pronouns we and our are right up there above I and you. Pronouns regularly score high on frequency lists, and it’s one of the reasons practitioners in the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) should make sure these words are targeted. But the fact that we and our appear so high up the list (at #4 and #8 respectively) made me wonder; is this what we might expect to see in general? And that, my friends, is why we turn to a keyness list.

Top 25 words by keyness

Fig 2: Top 25 words by keyness

Take a look at that keyness column and notice how both we and our are way up there at #2 and #3. Ignoring for now the intricacies of how those keyness figures are calculated [2], what is significant is that the Pres is using those two pronouns significantly more than how anyone else would use them in general, and that reflects a conscious effort to come across as one of “us” and not an “I” or “me” who is doing things. He’s appealing to a “Spirit of Unity.”

You can see more evidence for this appeal if you simply look at the keyness of # 4 and #8 – America and Americans. He’s certainly using the words with more frequency than you’d find in a regular sample but we can perform one more kind of analysis in order to see just how he’s using them; and that’s to create a concordance.

A concordance is a list that shows instances of a word in context, along with the words that go before and after it. Below is a concordance for the word Americans as used alongside our:

Concordance of instances of the words americans and we

Fig 3: Concordance showing WE and AMERICANS

Given that there were 19 instances of the word Americans being used in total, this pairing accounts for over 30% of the use of Americans and we. So as well as using the pronouns themselves to paint a picture of unity, he’s yoking one of them with Americans to further that underlying message.

Casting your eyes just a few more lines down the keyword list you’ll see the words jobs and the economy coming in at #11 and #12, not too far above families (#14) and childcare (#16). Here we see Obama invoking notions of family and economics, both of which are important to voters because we are all involved at some level with both! But take a look at the concordance for how the word family is being used and see if you can spot some familiar words:

Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Fig 4: Concordance of the word FAMILIES

Notice how our and American are also used along with families, further reinforcing that Spirit of Unity. In fact, Obama even makes that relationship between families and the United States in the following few sentences:

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.

So not only do we hear this explicit appeal to family but by analyzing the words he uses throughout the speech using keywords and concordances, we can tease out those subliminal nods and pointers toward an underlying message: We are family [3].

[1] Callipygian is one of my favorite words and, like many of them, deserves to be used much more than it is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as, “of, pertaining to, or having well-shaped or finely developed buttocks,” which in turn comes from the Greek words kalli meaning “beauty” and pygi meaning “buttocks or rump.” Incidentally, an old word for someone who engages in anal intercourse is a pygist, and the adjective dasypygal means “having hairy buttocks.” Try using the last one next time you want to insult folks – especially if they’re making asses of themselves!

[2] So for that one person out there who has less of a life than I have, you basically count the number of times your target word occurs out of a sample of X words in total, then match that against the number of times the same word occurs in your reference corpus of Y words in total. Here’s the word we in a little 2 x 2 box:
Measure of usage of the word WEBecause I always prefer an easy life when it comes to all things numerical, I used an online calculator to take these figures to calculate a “log-likelihood” figure – the “keyness” number. You can find that site here: http://sigil.collocations.de/wizard.html

When the site works its magic, you see the score expressed as G-Squared below:

SOTUA2015 LogLiklihood
Take a look at that G-Squared figure and then look back at the Fig 4 and you’ll see the keyness figure is (almost) the same. You can try this with any of the value in Fig 4 and you’ll see that the online calculator scores match those of the WordSmith software.

[3] It was the end of the 70s and tight spandex leggings were all the rage – for the ladies – and Sister Sledge had a monster hit with “We Are Family” from the album of the same name. Apparently the Sisters are still touring to this very day – although I’m not sure if they’re still wearing spandex.