boiled eggs at midnight

The menu options should improve once the house husband returns from his gallivants, but meanwhile, if you were wondering how I was doing, the title tells you basically as much as you need to know about my current hours and diet.

On the plus side though, I have learned that when you try to insert soundfiles into PowerPoint, it embeds them automatically unless they’re bigger than 100KB – then it just links to them. Which must be sooo handy, for all those occasions when you want to give a talk and present little samples of tiny files. Why does nobody tell you these things in advance? Why don’t you get a warning message when the file you think you’re inserting is actually in excess of the measly limit? It’s not like you can even edit the sound object once you’ve inserted it – you’ve got to change your settings for everything, then reinsert all the sound files. A warning message could hardly be any more annoying than the query about whether you want each and every single file to play automatically versus only when you click on it, after all.

(Just for completeness, if you wanted to fix it, it’s actually not that hard. Go to Tools, then Options, then click on the General tab, and put a more realistic value in the box called ‘Link sounds with file size greater than’; apparently the maximum is 50,000, so that’s what I’ve used. Easy when you know how.)

Apart from that, deadlines are fun at the moment, and travel arrangements don’t get any cheaper the longer you forget about booking things, and there are still mice in the office for company when you’re working after hours.


continuity and parsimony

Note: this is a series of excerpts from an essay I wrote a couple of years ago, as part of a discussion of two competing theories of how children acquire phonology. In the interests of avoiding plagiarism, if anyone wants to cite it or borrow it in an academic context, please contact me first so that I can give you all the relevant information (leave a comment and I’ll get back to you) .

The crucial point of division between constraint-based models of development and word-based models is whether they admit development of mental representations as well as development of production.

In the word-based account, in short, what stays constant is cognition, rather than grammar. This is how Tomasello (2000) characterises development:

“there is continuity not of structures – adults control a more diverse and abstract set of constructions than do children – but there is continuity of process in the sense that the processes of learning and abstraction are the same wherever and whenever they are applicable” (2000: 237, original italics).

Others emphasise the continuity that is to be found in the sociability of the child, their need to interact with people, which just becomes more sophisticated in its realisation over time:

“infants do not really set out to learn language. Instead, they study the movements of faces and voices – the observable displays of talkers – and gradually accommodate to and reproduce these behaviours. They do this not because they know about language and understand its importance, but because they have a deep biological need to interact emotionally with the people that love and take care of them.” (Locke 1993: 7-8).

There is supporting evidence for such continuity in some of the influences on speech processing identified in pyscholinguistic studies that seem to affect people in the same way throughout life. Storkel and Morrisette (2002) review studies that show that there are abilities that are present in infancy, continue through childhood and adolescence, and remain in adulthood – for instance, the ability to differentiate between frequently and infrequently occurring words (Jusczyk & Aslin 1995) as well as between words composed of common versus rare sequences (Jusczyk, Luce, & Charles-Luce 1994), and sensitivity to phonotactic probability (Messer 1976; Vitevitch & Luce 1999). Finding the same facilitatory and inhibitory effects for infants, children, adolescents, and adults is taken as evidence of continuity between these phases of the lifespan.

That the word-based model identifies this as the locus of continuity highlights the major point of disagreement with the constraint-based approach – while both accounts include ‘continuity’, they identify continuity in two separate areas. In their discussion of the word-based account the main reason of the two provided by Bernhardt and Stemberger (1998) for preferring to work in the constraint-based approach is that they want to uphold the continuity hypothesis. Their critique of the word-based model centres on the validity of the motivation for the continuity hypothesis, namely the resulting parsimony of accounts that adopt it.

However, although parsimony is frequently invoked in generative theories of grammar, there are limits to its application. When two models are being compared, and when both account for the data equally well, it is legitimate to prefer the one that posits fewest entities, only if the models are in all other respects the same. That is, parsimony cannot be judged simply by picking a feature that belongs to the first model and not the second, and concluding on that basis that the second is therefore more parsimonious.

This is particularly true of models that do not arise from the same theoretical background assumptions, as is the case for the models Bernhardt and Stemberger discuss – within the generative framework, for example, it may be valid to weigh up alternatives and accept or discard them on the basis of parsimony, but the word-based model they criticise for being non-parsimonious is not one of a kind with the constraint-based model they adopt. Both accounts have ‘representations’ and ‘cognitive development’ – one says the first changes but not the second, and the other says the second changes but not the first – in terms of parsimony it could be argued this is a tie, except that in order for parsimony to be a substantive term, the whole range of auxiliary assumptions and motivations need to be invoked as the basis for comparison.

Because its background assumptions are different, there are other differences between the word-based model and the constraint-based model, in particular significant qualitative differences, over and above the notion of continuity, such that the ‘continuity hypothesis’ outlined by Bernhardt and Stemberger does not apply to the word-based model. Inconsistency with the continuity hypothesis is just not an issue for models that are uninterested in symbolic mental representations.


Bernhardt, BH and Stemberger, JP (1998), Handbook of Phonological Development From the Perspective of Constraint-Based Nonlinear Phonology. London: Academic Press
Jusczyk, PW and Aslin, RN (1995), ‘Infants’ detection of the sound patterns of words in fluent speech.’ Cognitive Psychology 29: 1-23. Cited in Storkel & Morrisette (2002)
Jusczyk, PW, Luce, PA, and Charles-Luce, J (1994), ‘Infants’ sensitivity to phonotactic patterns in the native language.’ Journal of Memory and Language 33: 630-645. Cited in Storkel & Morrisette (2002)
Messer, S (1967), ‘Implicit phonology in children.’ Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour 6: 609-613. Cited in Storkel & Morrisette (2002)
Storkel, HL and Morrisette, ML (2002), ‘The lexicon and phonology: interactions in development.’ Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 33: 24-37
Locke, J (1993), The Child’s Path to Spoken Language. London: Harvard University Press
Tomasello, M (2000), ‘Do young children have adult syntactic competence?’ Cognition 74: 209-253
Vitevitch, MS and Luce, PL (1999), ‘Probabilistic phonotactics and neighbourhood activation in spoken word recognition.’ Journal of Memory and Language 40: 374-408

but there is forgiveness

Something John Owen says on Psalm 130.

There is then no cause why those who are under a call to repentance should question whether there is forgiveness in God, or not. … ‘Come,’ says the Lord to the souls of men, ‘leave your sinful ways, turn to me, humble yourselves with broken and contrite hearts.’

‘Alas!’ say poor convinced sinners, ‘we are poor, dark and ignorant creatures – or, we are old in sin, or great sinners, or backsliders, or have fallen often into the same sins – can we expect there should be forgiveness for us?’

Why, you are under God’s invitation to repentance; and to disbelieve forgiveness is to call into question the truth and holiness and faithfulness of God. … In the very fact that he has instituted this duty, God engages all his attributes to make it good, that he has pardon and mercy for sinners.

This comes from the part where Owen is expanding on the truth in the third and fourth verses of this short psalm – ‘If thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, o Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.’ It’s very strange that such a plain statement can be so difficult to accept, considering too that it should be such welcome news. But writers like Owen knew how hard our hearts can work, against our own interests and against the clearest revelations of the gospel, to avoid the force of statements like this, and that’s why his expositions are so full of demonstrations of why these things are certainly true, and so full of exhortations to therefore believe them.

‘Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ Isaiah 1:18

Practical Exposition on Psalm 130, by John Owen, first published 1668. Quote from p204 of the Religious Tract Society 1836 reprint.


Yes, today I not only dusted but hoovered. Ah, the luxury of not spending Saturdays doing work.

On the blog, I created a new page – something you can do in WordPress, unlike Blogger (tip: move to WordPress).

The new page is for talking about the books I’ve been reading. It’s currently fairly empty, but I promise to keep thinking about adding to it.

a noun, actually

Between tutorials the other day, I passed a noticeboard to which was affixed the following provocative slogan:

Church is a verb.

What are you doing with it?

Provocative, of course, as if you needed me to point it out, because ‘church’ is a noun.

Don’t you just shudder to think how many linguists must have passed that poster and vowed never to darken the door of said institution again? Outreach based on dodgy theology is, like, so passe. Now we have outreach based on trendy but utterly ignorant faux linguistic analyses.

Do your mind a favour and visit the Language Log. Geoff Pullum has some very choice things to say about this very problem. It’s about as coherent as saying “church is an atom!” “Church is a chromosome!” “Church is a sine wave!” “What are you doing with it, mmm?”

just for info

Since it fits so well with the other stuff I’ve been linking to here recently, I’m more than happy to provide this link all over again. Back in December 2005 I referenced an article by Kate Smurthwaite on the BBC site titled, ‘What are lad mags doing to us?‘ and wondered aloud whether the author had a blog of her own.

Turns out she does – here, so go and have a look around. Quotes from the article itself:

Lad mags like to give the impression that women are desperate to slip between their covers, with pages of readers’ photos, many said to have been sent in by the women themselves.
And one magazine runs a “Street Strip Challenge”, asking passers-by to pose in their pants. The message is clear – normal women know it’s just a cheeky bit of fun, and if you don’t think so, you’re prudish.

Sure, if I don’t like them, I don’t have to read them. But they are impossible to avoid – at newsagents, on flights, trains and in the doctor’s waiting room.

These magazines should be consigned to shuttered shops, away from the general public who may not want to read them for religious or moral reasons. Or just because they are in poor taste.

praying without ceasing

If only reading it and agreeing with the advice could help with putting it into practice.

We are lacking always, and therefore we have need to be praying always. The world is always alluring, and therefore we need to be always a-praying. Satan is always a-tempting, and therefore we need to be always a-praying; and we are always a-sinning, and therefore we need to be always a-praying; and we are in dangers always, and therefore we need to be praying always …

Certainly prayerless families are graceless families, and prayerless persons are graceless persons.

Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven. Banner of Truth 2006 edition, p80. First published as The Privie Key of Heaven, 1665.

serendipitous soup

I’ve just spent the morning making my ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ carrot soup.

It sprang into being one time I went to make soup, and discovered we had no onions.

So instead I used a couple of rashers of bacon to give it some flavour. I did the bacon in butter and added a potato, some tomato puree, and lots of herbs and seasoning.

Then loads of carrots and perhaps a parsnip or anything else available to hand. Simmer it in vegetable stock until the carrots are just tender – they should still have a bit of bite to them – and then whizz it up with a blender.

I’m still working on this one, but I think you get different results if you put the whole lot in the blender at once, or strain out some of the liquid first. But don’t quote me on that.

no more coffee for a while

At last, the submissions for ICPhS are in – phonetics departments worldwide are breathing a sigh of relief.

I nearly got there without resorting to coffee, but had to admit defeat this afternoon when the choice was between humiliatingly dozing off at my desk in front of a pile of first year assignments to mark (and my very studious colleagues), or reaching for the cafetiere.

Well, I say cafetiere – it’s actually one of those thermal insulated mugs which keep your beverage too hot, in fact, to drink, thus necessitating much messy transference of liquids between cups.

Anyway, having made it this far, I’m buying Einaudi’s new CD, Divenire, to celebrate. Funny how he keeps writing beautiful things at very opportune moments – Le Onde got me through a difficult patch a couple of years ago, so maybe Divenire will do the same for the next lap.

the KJV’s built-in dictionary? there’s no such thing

[Originally posted with the title ‘Collective howls of derision’]

Among my spam today was something promising “a wonderful study in and of linguistics,” with a message addressed “Dear Linguist Enthusiast” from someone in Michigan saying he’s sure it would be a blessing to me to take a look at some website.

As it happened, there were three of us checking emails in the office at the same time, discovering we were all the happy recipients of the same invitation. On the principle of safety in numbers this allowed us to visit the site – and on the principles of common sense it allowed us to be aghast together at its desperate misguidedness.

Basically, it’s a self-important advertisement for a book which makes a number of somewhat astonishing claims. [1] It claims you can find the meaning of each Bible word inside the Bible itself. [2] It claims that leading computational linguists from the world’s leading universities have discovered the fountainhead of letter meanings. [3] It claims that research tools from Edinburgh University prove “the purity of the King James Version and the depravity of the new versions.” And in case you’re not suitably aghast yet, it claims [4] that only the King James Version can teach and comfort through its miraculous mathematically ordered sounds. (It’s here, by the way, just to prove I’m not making it up.)

Let me hold my hands up and admit that the King James Version is my own bible version of choice – but please also allow me to make it very clear that each of these things that are claimed for it are simply not true. They’re either incoherent, or misleading, or both, and I can only hope that the people who wrote this are only clueless, as opposed to being deliberately deceptive.

[1] For one thing, it doesn’t make sense to say that you can find out the meanings of words from the words themselves. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading: words don’t have inherent meaning, as you can tell as soon as you start learning another language (or indeed thinking calmly about your own). The word ‘dog’ has an arbitrary relation to its meaning, if you’ll excuse me resorting to the textbook example – there’s no reason why we couldn’t use the word Hund or chien just like they do in Germany and France. In addition, supposing the bible happened to contain a verse which mentioned ‘dogs and canines,’ this would not define ‘dog’ for you (contra pretty much everything said in the pdf about the KJV’s so-called built-in dictionary, which I’m enough of a sucker to have browsed far enough to have read). You can’t define words by other words – at some point, you come full circle and discover you’ve ‘defined’ it by itself. This much is fundamental.

[2] It’s also pretty easy to dispute what’s said about computational linguists. Without being one myself, I’m still fairly sure they don’t make it a large part of their research endeavour to discover the fountainhead of letter meanings. Letters, for one thing, don’t have meanings. Fountainheads, meanwhile, are a hitherto unknown technical term whose use may in fact be restricted to the domain of Either way, it doesn’t inspire confidence in their scholarship.

[3] Nor am I familiar with the research tools provided by Edinburgh University for deciding what bible versions are pure or depraved – especially not on the basis of age. This may be a good place to say that while I prefer the King James Version, it’s generally recognised that it is not “pure” in any absolute sense – it has unfortunate translations, it hasn’t benefited from any scholarship subsequent to the 17th century, and in any case, it is only a translation, one which the translators themselves fully realised was as error-prone as any other human effort, however carefully undertaken. Alternative versions, some of which are, indeed, “modern,” vary both in terms of the manuscripts they’re based on and in their closeness to those manuscripts, but the mere fact that they’re (a) modern or (b) not the King James Version is no reason to dismiss them all as depraved. And I’m still not sure what kind of “tool” you’d be looking at in order to reach a conclusion on this, one way or the other.

[4] Finally (from me – there’s plenty more on the website) – it isn’t remotely instructive or comforting to think of the KJV consisting of “‘miraculous’ mathematically ordered sounds.” Note: printed texts don’t consist of sounds. They’re only audible when you turn the pages, or perhaps when they’re being used to bash people. Note 2: the only mathematical ordering I’ve found in the bible is that of the positive integers used to number the pages, chapters, and verses. Note 3: the words which the King James does consist of were put together by a series of honest men who used their scholarly knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to bring the scriptures within the reach of people whose native language happened to be English. If arcane mysteries emerge from some distortion of the words or their letters, that’s neither here nor there in terms of getting teaching or comfort from the bible: you’d uncover pretty much the same wondrous revelations by applying the same techniques to any other tome of your choice.

By making such grossly over-inflated claims (not to say dishonest ones) these people make themselves a laughingstock – whether you have an academic interest in linguistics or not. But they also don’t care about dragging other Christians down with them. It’s not absurd to prefer the King James version for your daily readings – but it is most decidedly absurd to believe it’s inspired, or infallible, or somehow linguistically “pure”. Again, it’s not absurd to believe that the scriptures are inspired and infallible and (morally) pure – but you can’t equate the King James version with inspired scripture. God’s word is perspicuous and compelling, and God’s word is perfect, converting the soul, and God’s word is living, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword – but these things are not true in any absolute sense of any translation, including the King James. The claims of King James Onlyites, regrettably, do far more damage to the reputation of the bible by their hyperbole-not-to-say-fraudulence than the plain confessions of ordinary Christians can do in its favour.