Tag Archives: linguistics

What does Traditional Linguistics inform to Data Science and Policy?

Society chose to trust social media. The problem, over a decade after its mass adoption and with no need to list the transformations in the sector — from within the industry and outside, according to public perception — seems to be that we never really understood media or social movements. Maybe we didn’t like those. You’ll hear politicians talk about the media like some inherently corrupt system of rewards and distribution of misinformation. What’s less spoken about is the origin of the word, something that traditional Linguistics helps explain, as well as a multitude of other debates over which common people and powerful corporations have shown intense interest with a comparable set of intentions.

Nobody wants to known or be schooled about the printing press, but at the same time, we live by the sanctimonious and spread ideas that are known to date from thousands of years ago. The Greeks believed there was divine inspiration for producing art, and that had connections with power. Philosophy, on the other hand, benefited all of society and still doesn’t have the same kind of attention. We’re supposed to know what a platonic relationship is, but it seems we’re more interested in the apocalypse. As a reader and writer, I don’t exactly place myself in a neutral point. It is a duty I have to say that we must not dream of a better society without fighting for it, and sometimes lose so often that we’d rather keep things as they are. I just think there’s a difference, which is very clear, between attacking and defending. The powerful would love to see their challenges turned into mythologies, epic battles, a showcase of weaponry. The powerless seek to understand what is and why. Their challenge, very frequently, is to stay alive to tell the story; but there’s no time for a story, because real life has more objective principles, not the making of a hero. And so the rest of us seek for the outstanding and the pitiful, the wonderful and the repulsive. What drives this is Ethics, which in turn is what drives Justice. And the laws are made to preserve this beautiful concept, with little to no attention to its logical opposite: for everything that’s legal, there’s something illegal; from everything that’s just, there’s something unjust.

Society is organized by laws, rules, norms, culture and habit. The latter could be associated with the smallest things we don’t think about: “what made me click on that link?” From that alone, we can’t establish relationships between all other listed elements. Data analysis claims to be able to. Clicking on a link has no grand merit, but if you’re the one who gets clicks, you’ll get a few grand. How that mechanism operates is what everyone needs to be aware of, and it seems like a challenge that, again, interests many groups of people. Now, in terms of which side you’re on when investing your time in deciding what’s legitimate and what is not; what’s authentic and what is not; what’s true and what is not, observe the shades. Morphology is the recognition of patterns. So is data science. There’s a clear difference between “legitimate” and “legal”. I could steal someone’s identity, claim to have the documents that are indeed legitimate, and if nobody spotted me, I’d be right; but that’s illegal. And it seems like identity is a concept we’re struggling with, in a world where appearances matter more than most things we can recognize in our environment.

Corrupt and abrupt are associated by their morphology, but different in their syntax and their meaning: one can be a process; the other can be an event. Both are precisely associations, but only one of them can be a verb. To corrupt is to disturb as a mode of turning the aspect of something. This could be a process and an event. An illegal action, not illegal activity, could turn someone corrupt. Abruptly? It depends. It also depends of your involvement, which turns to social elements that the media will surely explore. But how did social media make its ways into our subconscious? Was it in a sudden manner? Or was it in a complex arrangement of situations that entangled opportunity, ambition, ego, motives, paybacks and a desire for creating a mechanism of power? Nobody’s judging: many of us have used the power of social media. But how has social media used us — and deprived us of our power? Maybe another area of traditional Linguistics might explain: Phonology. In practice, an alveolar, voiced fricative can turn what’s “just” into “dust”, but in theory, it’s the other way around. Sometimes it’s plosive, others not, depending on the language. But language has its intricacies, and so does its context, so adequately tied to identity.

In a context where data science informs us that the tendency is for hikes in interactions to be observed, it might be useful to remember Martha’s Vineyard’s lesson: quality and quantity are not easily measured or separated. Context, however, a focus of Discourse Analysis (and we won’t have the time to address Linguistics as it is used today, by artificial inteligence and programming tools, with the “legitimate” cause of preserving interaction quality), informs that this location has been on the news for being a destination of immigrants in the United States of America. Just sent there. Like the immigrants of Ukraine found Poland, or the South American continent found its way in between Portuguese and Spanish: so many similarities, but quite a few differences. For an illegal alien working at a restaurant, maybe “muy guapo” or “hermosa” would sound different than “hot”, in case they exchanged messages with someone on social media; and while Portuguese speakers might hear gender opposing “gostosa” or “gostoso”, their lives would still be connected to the restaurant (and you’re smart enough to notice who’s to lose), not a home they own, sometimes counting with protection. But you see, this protection was granted because if laws, without a capital letter, hadn’t been passed to ensure the citizen (not the illegal alien) had the right to protect him or herself, some would call this protection a “regression”; they would say it’s “legitimate”; others would call it “illegal”. What traditional Linguistics has to offer is not what tradition has always presented us. We have to reimagine language. We have to look at communication in a movement of desire — desire to communicate, but much more than that. At the same time, we have to separate desire from intention, and those from action. So far, we’ve been walking towards the opposite direction, because of how “modern” Applied Linguistics can be. We talk to the wind, but they want a gag rule. Context will tell you: the wind will be stored somewhere, and there will be a storm, eventually.

We should say thank you, because every compliment is a small gift. But how?

First off, no, forget it, the story is old. It was this chick. But that’s one of the most memorable things of my life. I didn’t know how she was instructing me how to be more polite in a world where a lot of people were about to treat me like total fucking crap, but apparently, society has rules: if you want to be treated nicely, make sure others are happy with your response to something absolutely unsolicited and that was only purchased, arranged, decided or whatever be the case, to make them look good, not you. And the examples could span from flip flops to running shorts to peanut candy to… well, I like peanut candy. Thanks, Olivia. But Suzan, are you into linguistics? Suzan is the chick, everyone. It’s been 12 years since I met the girl who changed my entire life, a quasi-romantic relationship with someone in The Netherlands. Of course I won’t be talking about the city. Suzan and Olivia didn’t become friends or anything, but in fact, Olivia’s master’s thesis was a partnership between her academic advisor at the School of Pedagogy of the University of São Paulo and some Dutch researchers. Funny the way it is. Do I imagine Olivia saying: “thank you, Suzan?” No, I do not. First because they were essentially enemies: Suzan never wanted to steal her boyfriend, it just happened very, very innocently. The way I asked whether I could see more what was underneath her shirt after 4 hours of videocall could not be depicted in any film production — there were 4 hours of videocall before that moment, and who would watch 4 hours of video just to see boobs in the end? But the way things got entangled was more complicated. I do not wish to disclose anything else. Just what I’ve always told people, errant and sporadically: it was nothing hardcore, but sweet and almost childish. “I like this song, do you like it too?” She liked Nicki Minaj, but not for the songs: she was more interested in the fashion and the fact that she had the same stature. And Olivia, well, she was a big girl. That means in every way. My baby gained some weight over the years, but I never stopped treating her like a queen. Of course, the restaurants and shit like that were a rare thing, and maybe not so rare when we were finishing college and both had good jobs and all that, which I arranged to include her brother, and me being the guy managing that branch of the business, but that failed. It wasn’t Europe anymore, it was America. And Europe! But Americans… they have a certain kind of intrusive nature. They can tell you that this text is not appropriate because of the language, the intimate accounts, the theme proposal, but they’re going to fail to disclose they already know everything, because it’s on Microsoft’s servers. Funny, right? Well, thanks, Microsoft.

Sticking to the topic: the way we say “thank you” changes in different cultures. In French, the word is “merci”. And I’ve always found that interesting. I’ve thought about it a few times, until the thing was such a puzzle that I just decided: “what the hell, I’m gonna blog about this!” There’s a level of analysis that takes morphology into account more than the rest. I just compared two words. Something I do very often, though I’ve tried to hide it for many years, is confusing, in speech, the words “always” and “also”. They’re completely unrelated, but it just slips. All the fucking time. And there’s nothing I can do about it, except deleting the video and recording again, or admitting that I commit mistakes too; but that’s fucking amateur. Among professionals, you’d have to say “excuse me”. For a slip of the tongue. Look at what people do when a president has a slip of the tongue. These things become memes liked by tens of thousands of people! Would you be able to handle that? Of course not. And if you’re on TV, you have to realize a lot of people are watching. So you have to really assimilate, maybe in front of a mirror, like a total fucking idiot: “also” is a conjunction; “always” is an adverb. That’s grammar; specifically, syntax. But the other thing is morphology. Whenever I thought about the word “merci”, I thought about rephrasing it, because it sounded more gracious, formal, classy or whatever, in French. I don’t really know the French people — and here I mean nothing in particular, please; it’s just a fact. As an American translator, say, I’d be translating “merci” as “I’m grateful”. That might not be too appropriate, that might not be “legit”. And that’s a big concern I have when it comes to translation. There’s works I’ve done in translation, or exercises, to be more realistic, that involved embelishing words. Making them more pompous than they actually were. One example was when I translated a British heavy metal song to Brazilian Portuguese (thanks for hosting, Tumblr; sorrry I left). My poetry started on Tumblr, and so did my writing. Before that, I taught language. And on the side (and doesn’t that mean many things?), I talked to some people. Courtney isn’t here anymore, unfortunately. Meaning, in my life, because I sure hope she’s doing fine. The girl whose baby had a Nirvana tiny t-shirt back in 2008 or something. I really can’t remember, but that dates back from before Facebook, and so does Suzan, because we talked over MSN Messenger. Courtney was on Bebo, with Iced Earth playing on her profile and a nice set of lip piercings — among other things. I think I gotta talk to Olivia. The influence, right? But let’s go back: look at the words “grateful” and “merciful”. They have different meanings… and I want to explore this, just so you can see what a linguist has to deal with. A traditional linguist who looks onto the post-modern world as a chance to actually reinforce the theories of conversation, discourse, identity and so on, for the benefit of society, not corporations. Important to stress.

The suffix “ful” really means you’re “full” of something. For example, “beautiful”, with a small change in spelling which few of us can really explain (but there’s people who try, in linguistic historiography, for example), literally means you’re “full of beauty”. You carry beauty in you. A person who is “vengeful” carries the desire for revenge, at least potentially, in terms of personality. A person who is “spiteful”, working a little with semiotics here, is similar to the vengeful person, but as Mikhail Bakhtin put it, “the multiplicity of meaning is the index that makes the word a word” (my translation). And that multiplicity is in these word clouds too, everyone. How close one word is to another (and that applies to data analysis, but never mind the tech) is determined by how strong your semiotics game is. Not Python or anything like that; but what do I know? Suzan’s right: I should be thankful that Python was created, because without it, how many things on the internet would be running? The detail is I have no fucking idea of what that is, beside the category of “programming language”. And I know YouTube uses a lot of that, because one day I read the Wiki. By the way, thank you, Wikipedia. Someone should do something about that hole in your logo. Now, back to traditional linguistics: we do realize that “merciful” and “grateful” are not connected words; they simply use the same morphological tool, so to speak. They have the same suffix, but they don’t have the same meaning. So here’s a problem for machines: don’t suffixes imply that you’ll add the same function? Well, not necessarily: look at “merciful” and “grateful”. Unless you assume that the person giving you a gift is somehow forgiving you for something and absolving you from your sins or whatever (which would definitely be going way too far with scientific analysis), merciful is the person who forgives; grateful is the person who thanks, or is thankful (this time, a closer correlation in terms of both semantics and morphology). We’re not supposed to make word salads just to be original: to say something is “meaningful” is not the same as saying something is “implicit”. These are two very different things, but because of the hurdles of learning a language through rules and not practice, our own identity is questioned when we try to reinforce the rules we learned when we were kids. See, Suzan? I’m really thankful.

But what about Portuguese? “Grateful”, “thankful”. “Merci”, “thanks”, or even “thx”. Soon enough, they’ll have the wide eyed, open mouthed and showing teeth emoji in the same semiotic framework. And that’ll be a mess. What if the emoji, having a mouth and teeth, starts eating up the actual words? It reminds me of Adam Sandler. Who in turn reminds me of spitting and sucking it back, but that’s gross, isn’t it? I mean, he made a lot of money with that movie way back in 1999, but let’s just not talk about that, alright? Si vous plait. Well, how do we say “thank you” in Portuguese? It turns out today we say “brigado” or “brigada”. Now, Americans and other foreigners, this might sound crazy. But “brigado” is the past participle of “fight”, but you’d have to use an idiom like “not to be in good terms with someone”, if you want a dictionary definition. But of course, that’s the dumb translation, which suprisingly has access to all the dictionary registers on the planet; the actual meaning is “thank you”. But it gets more interesting: “brigada” is the feminine, ending with an “a” (and morphologically, that’s not even an article; it’s a marker of gender). What that word means in a different context is “brigade”, like in the military (Merriam Webster says it’s a large body of troops). Now I want you to close your eyes and imagine a French man, an American girl and a trans Brazilian walking into a bar. Not likely? Yeah, probably not appropriate; making jokes with trans people is definitely not in the policy book. But let’s say it’s 3 girls from whatever nationality you want, ok? They order some drinks, and when they’re sitting close to the bartender, a guy says, maybe with a Russian accent: “I like your boobs!”, no retroflex, with that distint alveolar fricative going silent unvoiced instead of voiced. But the girl is furious and promptly gets up to say: “A LARGE BODY OF TROOPS IS COMING YOUR WAY, MOTHERFUCKER!”

Of course, jokes with war aren’t funny either. I studied humor, you know. But the thing I want to insist on is that little “third party”. Okay, we understand that the words “grateful” and “thankful” have practically the same meaning; we know that the suffix that makes the word “merciful” does not imply the same meaning as in the word “thankful”; we’d have to see about prefixes. But not necessarily will you find a big conclusion: “unexpected” can be something good; “unpleasant” is something essentially bad. You see? Areas converge in linguistic analysis. Now, the formal word in Portuguese (because I had to save that for last) is actually “obrigado”. And that has a phonological explanation, which is disputed, by the way, as it always is in the case of Phonology (and few people have even heard of William Labov). What the word means, in English, is “obliged”, or “forced”. Say you want to tell someone you were forced to do something. Here are the sentences in English and in Portuguese (excuse me, I don’t speak French):

“I was forced to do it.”

“Eu fui obrigado a fazer isso.”

There are so many differences between the languages that we could explore. Some words are just different, but notice how the past participle varies a lot also in Portuguese: “done” would be “feito”; in another meaning, “acabado” or “finished”; in yet another meaning, “pronto”, or “ready”. Notice how the conjugations of verbs have three different forms in Brazilian Portuguese (-ar, -er, -ir, as in “falar”, for “to speak”; “comer”, for “to eat”; “dormir”, for “to sleep”). In this case, we have “fazer”, for “to do”; but in English, you can say many other things using do (as an auxiliary verb, the possibilities are nearly endless). Also, the relative pronoun could change, because we know English allows you to either ommit or use the word “it” and “that” interchangeably, depending on the context, but also not ommit it, depending on the context. Now, again, the word in question? “Obrigado” means “forced”. But that’s one of the meanings of the word. You wonder why, don’t you? One has to. Someone has to. Of course it would ring a bell when you say Brazilian populations have been foced to do things. But what if we came up with a theory that, because we were let to believe that every compliment was a small gift, we were forced to accept compliments (and everything that came afterwards) by saying “thank you”, and later, “daddy”? That would be wild, wouldn’t it?