Age, sex, and f0

Mar. 25th, 2017 07:56 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

I've recently been working with Naomi Nevler and others from Penn's Frontotemporal Degeneration Center on quantifying the diverse effects in speech and language of various neurodegenerative conditions. As part of an effort to establish baselines, I turned to the English-language part of the "Fisher" datasets of conversational telephone speech (LDC2004S13, LDC2004T19, LDC2005S13, LDC2005T19), where we have basic demographic information for 11,971 speakers, including age and sex. These datasets comprise 11,699  short telephone conversations between strangers on assigned topics, or 23,398 conversational sides, with a total duration of 1,958.5 hours. The calls were recorded in 2003.

For this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I took a look at age-related changes in pitch range, as quantified by quantiles of fundamental frequency (f0) estimates. We have time-aligned transcripts, so after pitch-tracking everything, I can extract the f0 estimates for each speaker, combine them across calls if the speaker was involved in more than one call, and calculate various simple statistics. Here are the median values for the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentile of f0 estimates by decade of age from 20s to 70s. Values for female speakers are in red, and for male speakers in blue:

Here's the same data presented as semitones relative to 55 Hz.:

The basic trend is clear: pitch polarization by sex decreases with age, with male pitch quantiles going up and female pitch quantiles going down.  The effects are moderate in size, with female quantiles being 8-9 semitones above males for speakers in their 20s, whereas female speakers are about 5-6 semitones above males for speakers in their 70s.  A 3 semitone change is equal to about 19% ((2^(1/12))^3 ≅ 1.189).

Here are the Female – Male differences, in semitones

     20s  30s  40s  50s  60s  70s
Q90  8.40 7.64 7.05 6.87 6.52 5.47
Q50  8.93 8.23 7.63 7.67 7.15 6.10
Q10  7.82 7.26 6.85 6.61 5.93 5.00

Of course, the summary graphs above hide a lot of individual variation. Here are all the individual data points plotted for the same three quantiles as a function of age, with lowess lines added:

The more extreme scattering is probably due to octave errors in the pitch tracking — I set the minimum F0 to 50 and the maximum to 500 for all speakers, which permits or even encourages period doubling and halving.

As usual with data that shows age grading, we might be looking at a life-cycle effect — the behavior of individuals changes as they get older, whether due to biology or to culture — or at a historical development — gender polarization decreases over the decades, but the behavior of older people continues to be influenced by the norms they grew up with. The fact that the age effect for females and males goes in opposite directions makes it unlikely that some simple physical explanation like loss of tissue elasticity will work, though change in hormone levels remains a possible story.

Further technical details: I used a variant of the get_f0 pitch tracker, based on David Talkin's RAPT algorithm, set to generate 200 estimates per second. Widely varying amounts of speech were available per speaker, ranging from around 21 seconds (4156 frames) to about 38 minutes (460,832 frames), with a median value of 9.9 minutes (119,169 frames).

Some relevant earlier posts:

"Nationality, gender, and pitch", 11/12/2007
"Mailbag: F0 in Japanese vs. English", 11/13/2007
"How about the Germans?", 11/14/2007
"Sexy baby vocal virus", 8/15/2013
"Biology, sex, culture, and pitch", 8/16/2013

Update — Anne Cutler sends in a link to a longitudinal study: Alison Russell,  Lynda Penny, and Cecilia Pemberton. "Speaking fundamental frequency changes over time in women: a longitudinal study." Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 38, no. 1 (1995): 101-109. The abstract:

Archival recordings of the human voice are a relatively untapped resource for both longitudinal and cross-sectional research into the aging voice. Through the availability of collections of old sound recordings, speech pathologists and voice scientists have access to a wealth of data for research purposes. This article reports on the use of such archival data to examine the changes in speaking fundamental frequency (SFF) in a group of Australian women's voices over the past 50 years, and discusses the benefits and problems associated with using archival data. Recordings made in 1945 of women were compared with recordings of the same women made in 1993 to investigate the changes in SFF with age. The results demonstrate a significant lowering of SFF with age in this group of Australian women. The implications for the interpretation of cross-sectional data on the aging voice, the use of archival data in voice research, and the need for further research using archival data are discussed.

And here's their Figure 1, presenting the results:

The ages are comparable to the span in the Fisher data — in 1945 the women recorded were 18-25 years old, so in 1993 they would have been 66-73.

But the change that they report is much greater. The mean F0 for our 20-something women is 208.9 Hz, and for the 70-something women 190.1 Hz. Their "mean SFF" ("speech fundamental frequency") was 229.0 Hz for the 1945 recordings, and 181.2 Hz for the 1993 recordings.

What might explain these differences?

There are a few obvious candidates. The Australian women were reading sentences, not participating in conversations; and the 1945 recordings, dating from before the advent of tape recorders, were made on "acetate-coated steel discs". We're not told anything about the microphone placement and other recording configuration issues, but it's well known that physiological arousal, background noise level, and perceived interlocutor distance are associated with changes in vocal effort and thus fundamental frequency (see e.g. "Raising his voice", 10/8/2011;"Debate quantification: How MAD did he get?", 10/29/2016; "MLK day: Pitch range", 1/16/2017).  In 1945, the experience of reading into a fancy microphone in a sound-treated booth connected to a high-tech steel disc recorder would have been novel — most likely the subjects had never been recorded before and had never even seen recording equipment — and the effect might well have been exciting enough to raise F0 by 10% or so.

There might also be relevant cultural differences — see e.g. "Nationality, gender, and pitch", 11/12/2007. And the very different methods of F0 estimation might also have some consequences.

But anyhow, the direction of the effect is the same. And there are some other longitudinal datasets (e.g. LDC2013S05) that would be worth consulting, some other morning…

Archive - Coconino Cross Bedding

Mar. 26th, 2017 03:01 am
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Each Sunday we present a notable item from our archives. This EPOD was originally published March 27, 2003.

Provided by: Tim Martin, Greensboro Day School

Summary author: Tim Martin

This image taken along the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon clearly shows cross bedding in the Coconino Sandstone layer exposed by the canyon. The tan colored Coconino Sandstone is one of the most dominant features of the Grand Canyon. This erosion resistant layer forms a spectacular cliff of 300-500 feet (90–150 meters) not far below the Canyon’s rim. Dating to approximately 260 million years ago, the Coconino is composed of nearly pure quartz sand. The cross-bedded features indicate that the Coconino Sandstone is basically petrified sand dunes. Formed through aeolian (wind) deposition, sand dunes slowly migrate downwind. Sand grains are carried up the windward side of the dune then deposited near the peak. Angled layers are formed as the newly deposited sand avalanches down the leeward side of the dune. The strata of the Coconino Sandstone show some of the most distinct examples of cross-bedding on the planet.

Related Links:

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Posted by John Scalzi

I’m staying at the Opryland resort, which is immense and filled with waterfalls and inside gardens and I feel very fortunate not to have lost my way to my room. Today’s event at Parnassus Books was really wonderful, and overall I have found Nashville delightful and have been very glad that I finally managed to get here.

Tomorrow: Austin, and BookPeople, at 3pm (yes, another afternoon event). Please come see me!

The River | John Glenday

Mar. 25th, 2017 09:35 pm
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“The River”
John Glenday
This is my formula for the fall of things:
we come to a river we always knew we’d have to cross.
It ferries the twilight down through fieldworks
of corn and half-blown sunflowers.
The only sounds, one lost cicada calling to itself
and the piping of a bird that will never have a name.
Now tell me there is a pause
where we know there should be an end;
then tell me you too imagined it this way
with our shadows never quite touching the river
and the river never quite reaching the sea.

Fecal Intensifiers

Mar. 25th, 2017 03:42 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

[This is a guest post by Brendan O'Kane, written on the evening of 3/24/17]

At a friend’s dissertation defense this morning, a certain distinguished Dutch professor emeritus, explaining the appeal of prosimetric vernacular literature to audiences in late imperial Shandong, noted that “people before about 1950 were mostly bored shitless.”

This cracked the room up, naturally, but it also seemed slightly off: in my own idiolect, I might be scared shitless, but not much else. On the other hand, something that scared the shit out of me might bore the shit out of a more jaded spectator, or cause an onlooker with a meaner sense of humor to shit themselves laughing.

Clearly there are idiomatic subtleties regarding the scope of fecal intensifiers. Here is a survey of my own shit headcanon, compiled over the course of my walk home tonight:

As noted above, I might be scared shitless, but am unlikely to be amused, bored, delighted, outraged, or annoyed shitless. This is curious, since shitlessness would seem to be the natural result of something scaring, boring, or annoying the shit out of me — all distinct possibilities, according to my understanding of the idiom.* In particularly unexpected circumstances, one might even shit oneself — as a response to fear, outrage, amusement, or surprise, rather than delight or (unless as a last resort) boredom.

*I don’t believe anything has ever delighted the shit out of me, but readers are certainly welcome to try in the comments below.

cornbread waffles

Mar. 25th, 2017 12:57 pm
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Posted by deb

American breakfasts are predominantly sweet: yogurts with fruit sauces and overnight oats with more fruit sauces and lattes with caramel syrup and whipped cream and our secret household love, that flaky cereal with the dried strawberries, but most especially the baked goods, muffins and quickbreads and cinnamon buns. I love them all but more Saturdays than not, I wake up craving something savory I can plop a wobbly egg on top of and it’s for this reason that knew the second I saw cornbread waffles in Joy Wilson’s, aka Joy The Baker’s, new brunch cookbook that they’d be the first thing I was going to make.

making cornbread waffles

Brunch has become a cultural punching bag over the last several years — “The meal brings out the worst in restaurants and their patrons. ‘Chefs bury the dregs of the week’s dinners under rich sauces, arranging them in curious combinations.'” “Less satisfying than the two things it purports to replace.” — but this, like most food things people like to complain about, are bothersome at restaurants. At home, brunch is everything: loosely scheduled and relaxed, exactly the way weekends should be, and pretty much anything you like to eat can be easily reformatted for a lazy midday meal.

Read more »

"Watch the predicate"

Mar. 25th, 2017 09:24 am
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Posted by Mark Liberman

From Jonathan Lundell:

Can't think of anyone to ask but LL… what on earth does this mean?

The word predicate here is clearly not the grammatical term, but rather seems to be a version of OED sense 4, "U.S. Law. A basis or foundation on which something rests", or "U.S. Law. Of, relating to, or designating a crime that influences the sentencing, prosecution, etc., of a subsequent offence; (of a person) that is considered to have committed such a crime."

Some clear examples from recent news, with emphasis added —

Blake Broesch, "Congress Introduces Bill to Change FDA Predicate Date", Cigar Aficionado 2/23/2017:

The bill, known as the "FDA Deeming Authority Clarification Act of 2017," would change the predicate date for premium cigars from February 15, 2007 to August 8, 2016, the day the FDA officially took over regulatory control of the cigar industry. The lawmakers have argued that makers of "newly deemed" products have been unfairly required to "look back over nine years" for grandfathered or "predicate brands" that could be used for a Substantial Equivalence application.

Douglas Berman, "Argument analysis: Justices struggle with interplay among federal sentencing statutes", Scotusblog 3/1/2017:

At issue in Dean is whether a trial judge, when sentencing a defendant convicted of firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that carry lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms, may significantly reduce the sentence for underlying predicate offenses because of the severity of the mandated consecutive sentences. During the oral argument, several justices endorsed the government’s contention that allowing a judge to give a nominal sentence for the underlying predicate offenses in these circumstances would largely negate Congress’ purpose in enacting Section 924(c). But, echoing statutory interpretation principles that Scalia often championed in federal criminal cases, the justices also stressed that the text of the applicable sentencing statutes did not clearly foreclose the trial judge’s exercise of judicial sentencing discretion. This textualist point may carry the day for the defendant.

So apparently something that Nunes did is to be construed as the basis or foundation for finding a "way out" of something, presumably the hearings that Nunes' committee was committed to holding:

Some context, from an L.A. Times editorial "Nunes’ freelancing threatens an investigation into Russian meddling", 3/25/2017:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, complained that Nunes’ decision to share information with the White House before he provided it to the committee was a “profound irregularity.” He warned that Nunes “cannot conduct a credible investigation this way.”

He’s right: Nunes shouldn’t be briefing the president whose election campaign his committee is expected to scrutinize. Unless the chairman can reassure the public and his colleagues, including the panel’s Democrats, that his freelancing days are over, the public may look elsewhere — the Senate Intelligence Committee or a proposed 9/11-style independent commission — for a trustworthy account.

Or from Matt Flegenheimer and Emmarie Huetteman, "In Washington’s Daily Trump Wars, Devin Nunes Becomes a Human Shield", NYT 3/24/2017:

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the committee’s top Democrat, suggested that once again the chairman had acted unilaterally, this time to scuttle the hearing. And in a sign of how far their relationship has fallen, Mr. Schiff — who for weeks stood by Mr. Nunes’s side before reporters and defended him — accused him of taking that action because the White House had told him to.

Update — some further evidence that "predicate" is current pol-speak for "foundation" or "basis":

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EPOD_EncoreRainbow_2011_07_21_Raab (3)

Today, and every Saturday Earth Science Picture of the Day invites you to rediscover favorites from the past. Saturday posts feature an EPOD that was chosen by viewers like you in our monthly Viewers' Choice polls. Join us as we look back at these intriguing and captivating images.


Photographer: Herbert Raab 

Summary Author: Herbert Raab; Jim Foster

September 2011 Earth Science Picture of the Day Viewer's ChoiceThe photo above shows a jaunty rainbow stretching over a cornfield near Piberbach, Austria. My shadow clearly shows the direction of the antisolar point -- the only direction where rainbows can be observed. Note that the fainter secondary bow is also visible (at left). This bow is caused by two internal reflection of sunlight in raindrops. Since some light is lost with each additional reflection, secondary bows are only 43 percent as bright as the primary bow. Photo taken on July 21, 2011.

Photo Details: Canon EOS 550D camera; ISO 200; Peleng 8mm fisheye lens; f/8; aperture mode, corrected by -1 stop, resulting in 1/60 sec. exposure.

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Posted by Victor Mair

You've probably heard sentences like this a thousand times:  "Picture it in your mind's eye".  How literally can we take that?

"What Does it Mean to 'See With the Mind's Eye?'" (Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic [12/4/14]):

Imagine the table where you've eaten the most meals. Form a mental picture of its size, texture, and color. Easy, right? But when you summoned the table in your mind's eye, did you really see it? Or did you assume we've been speaking metaphorically?

From Hill Gates*:

Learned a couple of years ago of this condition, which explains a lot about my pathetic capacity to retain characters (perhaps also to retain friends!). Aphantasia is the incapacity to visualize — the mind's eye. I've seen you many times, Victor, and couldn't call up an image of your face to save my soul (although I can say things that describe your face — you have light eyes and fine nose, for example). Nor can I visualize Arthur [VHM:  Hill's late husband], my Mother, the keyboard of my computer, anything. Certainly not one of the few complex characters I can reliably reproduce, because it is "double man, cross eye lion [line] hearted" 德 [dé — "virtue"] in words.  At one time I might have had a few dozen such mnemonics, but ran out of bandwidth after that.

Why I write about this is that there are probably as many aphantasics in a Chinese population as in a Western one (assumption), and for them, fluent reading and writing would never be possible. Does the Chinese Min of Ed know such things? If they did, would they care?

I've made no secret of my feeble control over the Bronze Age chickentracks, …[and yet] I've been able to do a fair amount of work using only oral Chinese….

I was SO excited when I first ran across this research, because I really did try to learn characters, and finally had Harriet Mills [VHM:  Hill's Chinese teacher at the University of Michigan] tell me I was never going to get anywhere in Chinese studies because I was so poor at writing.  Figured I was doing something wrong, but never knew what. So I used what I had; I'm no genius in oral Chinese, either, but do have ears that seem to catch on to the many idiolects encountered as I spent time in many places while doing oral interview/surveys.


*Author of China's Motor: A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism (1996), Footbinding and Women's Labor in Sichuan (2014), Chinese working-class lives (1987), and other important works on Chinese anthropology.

Until I received the above paragraphs from Hill, I had never heard of "aphantasia"; it is, after all, a new term.  I had certainly heard of "mind's eye" — one of my father's favorite expressions — but I never dreamed that it might have implications for the (in)ability to picture Chinese characters in one's mind.

From Wikipedia:

The phenomenon was first described by Francis Galton in 1880 in a statistical study about mental imagery.[2] Galton described it as a common phenomenon among his peers.[7] However, it remained largely unstudied until 2005, when Prof. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter was approached by MX, a man who seemed to have lost the ability to visualize after undergoing minor surgery.[8] Following publication of MX's case in 2010,[9] Zeman was approached by a number of people claiming to have had a lifelong inability to visualise. In 2015 Zeman's team published a paper on what they termed "congenital aphantasia",[3] sparking renewed interest in the phenomenon now known simply as aphantasia.[4] Research on the subject is still scarce, but further studies are being planned.[5][6]


2. Galton, Francis (19 July 1880). "Statistics of Mental Imagery". Mind. Oxford Journals. os–V (19): 301–318. doi:10.1093/mind/os-V.19.301. Retrieved 26 April 2016.

3. Zeman, Adam; Dewar, Michaela; Della Sala, Sergio (3 June 2015). "Lives without imagery – Congenital aphantasia". Cortex. 73: 378–380. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.05.019. ISSN 0010-9452. PMID 26115582. Retrieved 24 June 2015. (subscription required (help)).

4. Gallagher, James (26 August 2015). "Aphantasia: A life without mental images". BBC News Online. Retrieved 26 August 2015.

5. Zimmer, Carl (22 June 2015). "Picture This? Some Just Can't". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 June 2015.

6. Grinnell, Dustin (20 April 2016). "My mind's eye is blind – so what's going on in my brain?". New Scientist (2070). Retrieved 9 July 2016.

7. "To my astonishment, I found that the great majority of the men of science to whom I first applied, protested that mental imagery was unknown to them, and they looked on me as fanciful and fantastic in supposing that the words 'mental imagery' really expressed what I believed everybody supposed them to mean. They had no more notion of its true nature than a colour-blind man who has not discerned his defect has of the nature of colour." (Galton, 1880)

8. "You might not be able to imagine things, and not know it". The Independent. 2016-04-25. Retrieved 2016-12-16.

9. Zeman, Adam Z. J.; Della Sala, Sergio; Torrens, Lorna A.; Gountouna, Viktoria-Eleni; McGonigle, David J.; Logie, Robert H. (2010-01-01). "Loss of imagery phenomenology with intact visuo-spatial task performance: A case of 'blind imagination'". Neuropsychologia. 48 (1): 145–155. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.08.024.

The perception of the elements of writing is not constant from one individual to the next nor is it constant from one writing system to the next.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I came to know that some people experience color sensations when seeing letters or characters:

"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)

Then there's aphasia, dyslexia, and, of course, character amnesia, about which we here at Language Log are familiar:

All such psychological conditions that have a bearing on human ability to read and write ensure that there is no single model for literacy in different writing systems and for different individuals.


Mar. 25th, 2017 12:35 am
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Posted by Ben Zimmer

There's a wonderful new podcast on linguistic matters that I highly recommend to all Language Log readers. It's called Lingthusiasm, and it's appropriately billed as "a podcast that's enthusiastic about linguistics." The podcast is co-hosted by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. You may know Gretchen from her All Things Linguistic blog or her posts on The (dearly departed) Toast about Internet language. Lauren is a postdoctoral fellow at SOAS and blogs at Superlinguo. There have been six episodes so far, and they're all worth a listen.

You can listen on iTunes, SoundcloudYouTube or other podcast apps via rss. Lingthusiasm is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

New Books and ARCs, 3/24/17

Mar. 24th, 2017 09:13 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

I may be on book tour, but that’s not reason not to show off a stack of new books and ARCs! What here calls to you? Tell us in the comments.

Dust | Dorianne Laux

Mar. 24th, 2017 09:35 pm
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Dorianne Laux
Someone spoke to me last night
told me the truth. Just a few words,but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor –
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simple rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes –
God comes to your window,
all bright and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it. 
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Posted by John Scalzi

You know, I lived in the Commonwealth of Virginia for four years, but in that time I never managed to get down to Richmond, its capital. I came here for the last stop of my very first book tour in 2007, and now I’m back, a decade later, and happily so. If you’re in or around Richmond, please come visit me tonight! I’ll be at Fountain Bookstore tonight at 6:30, and I would love to see you there.

Nashville, you’re up tomorrow! I’ll be at Parnassus Books, early — 2pm (I’ll likely be coming there directly from the airport, in fact). See you soon!

Race, Gender, and Book Reviews

Mar. 24th, 2017 03:39 pm
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Posted by Lisa Wade, PhD

Flashback Friday.

In a post at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Steve Rendall and Zachary Tomanelli investigated the racial breakdown of the book reviewers and authors in two important book review venues, the New York Times Book Review and C-SPAN’s After Words.  They found that the vast majority of both reviewers and authors were white males.

Overall, 95% of the authors and 96% of the reviewers were non-Latino white (compare that with the fact that whites are just over 60% of the U.S. population as of 2016).

Women accounted for between 13 and 31% of the authors and reviewers:

This is some hard data showing that white men’s ideas are made more accessible than the ideas of others, likely translating into greater influence on social discourse and public policy.  These individuals certainly don’t all say the same thing, nor do they necessarily articulate ideas that benefit white men, but a greater diversity of perspectives would certainly enrich our discourse.

Via Scatterplot.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

(View original at

Profile: Em

Mar. 24th, 2017 04:00 pm
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Posted by Vlad

You can call me… Em

I identify as… Both, I recognize that I am female biologically, but sometimes I feel like ignoring that particular physical aspect of myself.

As far as third-person pronouns go, … She would be fine, but I’m not against he at all — just as long as I’m never an “it”.

I’m attracted to… People

When people talk about me, I want them to… Talk about me in regard to my personality rather than my actual gender preference, with is both — and neither at the same time — if that makes any sense.

I want people to understand… I’m not Trans, Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual, If I ever get comfortable with the idea of dating someone, it will be my choice what I am — nobody else’s.

About Em
19 year old college student doing a little self exploration — the kind I’ve never been able to do with my parents watching my every decision.

» Define yourself. «

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Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Welcome to Andover, where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, whom Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.

Add your review of "Not Your Sidekick" in comments!

Osorno Volcano

Mar. 24th, 2017 03:01 am
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Osorno_IMG_4348 (2)

Photographer: Gabriela Carvalho

Summary Author: Gabriela Carvalho

Shown above is a beautiful springtime view of Osorno Volcano as seen from Lake Todos los Santos in the Los Lagos Region of Chile. Though quiescent for over a century, Osorno erupted at least 11 times between 1575 and 1869.The symmetrical shape and snowcapped summit (8,701 ft or 2,652 m) of this stratovolcano is renown in Chile as a geographic symbol. It's also known for its resemblance to Mount Fuji, Japan.

As a result of its maritime (marine west coast) climate, Osorno's flanks receive abundant snowfall during the colder months. Glaciers cover its upper slopes -- above approximately 5,900 ft (1,800 m). Photo taken on November 21, 2016.

Photo Details: Camera Maker: Apple; Camera Model: iPhone 7; Focal Length: 3.99mm (35mm equivalent: 72mm); Digital Zoom: 2.287x; Aperture: ƒ/1.8; Exposure Time: 0.0002 s (1/4808);

ISO equiv: 20.

Cantonese sentence-final particles

Mar. 24th, 2017 03:01 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

Even if you don't know any Cantonese but listen carefully to people speaking it, you probably can tell that it has an abundance of particles.  For speakers of Mandarin who do not understand Cantonese, the proliferation of particles, especially in utterance final position, is conspicuous.  Non-speakers of Cantonese, confronted by all these aa3, ge3, gaa3, laa1, lo1, mei6, sin1, tim1, and so on naturally wonder why there are so many particles in this language, what are their various functions, why they are often drawn out (elongated), and how they arose.

Cantonese speakers, on the other hand, just take them in stride as a natural part of their expressive equipment and don't think that there is anything unusual about them.

So essential and integral are particles to Cantonese composition that they are even imported into English sentences of e-mails written by Hong Kong students:

James, Gregory.  "Cantonese particles in Hong Kong students' English e-mails."  English Today, 17.3 (July 1, 2001), 9-16


With the popularisation of the Internet, the use of e-mails and computer-based chats (CBCs) has increased dramatically among university students. An interesting feature of such communication, however, is that a written medium is treated like speech (cf. Maynor, 1994). Conversations turn into notes where grammatical accuracy and conventional formalities take a backseat to instant communication. In the case of on-campus CBCs, informality and a certain disregard of the conventions of standard English are all the more manifest.

It is commonly believed in Hong Kong that this general freedom to write ‘bad English’ has encouraged the habit of randomly incorporating Cantonese words into English e-mails. Yet an examination of students' e-mails and icq (‘I Seek You’) communications reveals that far from ‘polluting’ their English by substituting Cantonese words haphazardly for English ones, or by applying Cantonese structures to their English writing, students tend to incorporate certain kinds of Cantonese words systematically into their texts for specific identifiable purposes.

Just as we saw that there is great latitude of opinions about how many tones there are in Cantonese, so do opinions differ concerning the number of sentence final particles in the language:

From Gregory James, "Cantonese particles in Hong Kong students’ English e-mail":

Yau (1965) lists 206 forms
Yau, S. C. 1965. ‘A study of the functions and of the presentation of Cantonese sentence particles.’ MA, University of Hong Kong.Ball (1924:122–25) 77 forms

Ball (1924:122–25) 77 forms
Ball, J. Dyer. 1883, 1924. Cantonese made easy. 4th edition. Hong Kong: Kelly and Walsh.

Egerod (1984) gives 62
Egerod, S. C. 1984. ‘Verbal and sentential marking in Indo-European and East Asian languages.’ In Computational Analyses of Asian and African Languages 22, 71–82.

Neidle (1990) claims between 35 and 40
Neidle, C. 1990. ‘X|-structures and sentence-final particles in Cantonese.’ Syntax Workshop at the Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, 29th May. Abstract in CSLI Calendar, 24 May, vol. 5, 29.

Kwok (1984:8), 30
Kwok, H. 1984. Sentence particles in Cantonese. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, Centre of Asian Studies.

Matthews & Yip (1994:340) list 36
Matthews, S. & Yip, V. 1994. Cantonese. A comprehensive grammar. London & New York NY: Routledge.

So the number is variously estimated at 30 to 206.  One wonders:

(a) what the reasons are for the variation — pronunciation variation? different social or geographical varieties? uncertainty about the boundaries of the category? more or less complete scholarship by different authors? All of the above?

(b) what the historical situation is — e.g. Cantonese has more particles than Mandarin — is this because Mandarin has lost some or because Cantonese has invented some? — and if they were invented, what their history/etymology was?

(c) a good description not on the list above….

When I was teaching at the University of Hong Kong during 2002-2003, after a public lecture that I gave on the place of topolects within Sinitic, someone in the audience suggested that many Cantonese particles are derived from substrate Austroasiatic languages of the region.  I later tracked down a few articles by the questioner, and after reading them I felt that what he said made sense.  I forget the man's name now, though I think it might have been Yau Shun-Chiu, and I have not been able to relocate the articles I read (as I recall, they seem to have been published in local newspapers and journals).

I believe that Yau Shun-Chiu has been based in Paris for some years now, but he has a web presence here.  Since his thesis was on particles, he may have been the questioner at my talk and the author of the interesting articles that I am no longer able to locate.

There is some discussion of an Austroasiatic substrate in Ann Yue-Hashimoto's The Dancun Dialect of Taishan (she says that it's possible but premature, whereas the Tai substrate is likely).

Stephen Matthews remarks:

I don't think we have a good explanation for the profusion of particles in Cantonese, but the best clue may be to observe how new particles come into being. For example there is now a particle /lu33/ which Virginia [Yip, Stephen's co-author,] does not use and which we only began to notice in the 21st century. There are now one or two theses on it and the consensus seems to be that it is a variant of /laa3/. If so, this illustrates how families of related particles such as wo33/wo21/wo23 develop.

One of the sources cited by James Gregory above takes us back to 1883, so we have some historical depth for further study of these issues:

Ball, J. Dyer (James Dyer) (1847-1919)

Cantonese made easy: a book of simple sentences in the Cantonese dialect, with free and literal translations, and directions for the rendering of English grammatical forms in Chinese.  Hongkong: Printed at the 'China Mail' office, 1888

If you want to hear some of the Cantonese utterance final particles in vivid action, listen to the clips here:  "Cantonese intonation" (4/20/15).

[Thanks to Mark Liberman]


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