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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

How Speech-Recognition Software Got So Good

Short answer: statistical modelling, based on corpuses of digitised text. “Words do not appear in random order, so the computer does not have to guess from (say) a vocabulary of 20,000 words for each word you speak. Instead, the software guesses at the possibility of a given word based on the surrounding words, drawing on statistical models derived from digitised documents and the previous utterances of other users” (490 words)

The Impossibility Of Being Literal

On the auto-antonymic properties of literally. We are taught that it means, ‘not metaphorically’. But hold on. “The word’s oldest meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘Of, relating to, or of the nature of a letter, or the letters, of the alphabet’. It is only by extension that ‘by the letter’ has come to mean ‘real things in the real world’. And that jump makes ‘literally’ — are you sitting down? — a metaphor” (Metered paywall) (750 words)

A Language With Too Many Armies And Navies

Is Arabic one language or many? “A rural Moroccan and a rural Iraqi cannot have a conversation and reliably understand each other. An urban Algerian and an urban Jordanian would struggle to speak to each other, but would usually find ways to cope, with a heavy dose of formal standard Arabic used to smooth out misunderstandings. They will sometimes use well-known dialects, especially Egyptian, to fill in gaps” (1,400 words)

Think Similar

On the nouning and adverbing of adjectives. It’s OK. “Advertisers love to push at the edges of taste in language. If this slogan — ‘Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should’ — from 1954, doesn’t bother you, you’re like most modern folks. But every educated Anglophone knew, when this came out, that ‘like’ couldn’t be used as a conjunction, and that this should be ‘Tastes good, as a cigarette should’” (730 words)

Who Says America Doesn’t Have Castles?

On violence in America, Montana’s “castle doctrine”, and Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature”. Murder rates aren’t all about gun laws. Places that disdain government and champion self-reliance are likely to be more violent

Award For Nerdiest Preposition

Class of prepositions is small and well established. But here’s one that you probably don’t know. What is it? A clue: According to the OED it means “taking into account a particular consideration, aspect, assumption, etc”

Facebook: Like?

Super essay on how Facebook is affecting everday life. “It’s not just a technological marvel, a youth movement or a business story. After just eight years of existence, Facebook is the biggest social phenomenon since the telephone”

Which Is The Best Language To Learn?

Assuming you already speak English. Mandarin jumps out as an obvious choice, but complexity of its written form suggests it would be the wrong candidate. Spanish? Arabic? Both are contenders. But Greene plumps for French. Here’s why

You Are What You Speak

Book extract skewering language myths, many of them spread by Bill Bryson. Among the culprits: Arabic has six thousand words for camels and related equipment; “muscatel” means wine with flies in it; Maoris have 35 words for dung

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