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Category: interviews (page 2 of 2)

Talk the Talk: cougar

I’m going to start a new tradition for Good Reason readers. As I find the topic for next week’s ‘Talk the Talk’, I’ll post it here, and you can listen for it later on the RTRFM page, if you want to. You’ll probably know something I don’t about this or that topic, so comment away.

For next week, I’m curious about ‘cougars’. Sex & The City star Kim Cattrall just turned down a magazine cover because she would have been asked to pose with a real live cougar.

The actress insists she had nothing against the big cat but doesn’t like the term ‘cougar’ when it’s used to describe an older woman who likes dating much younger men.

She tells U.S. news show Extra, “I was asked recently by a significant magazine for women over 40 to pose with a cougar and I refused to do it because I felt it was insulting and they took away the cover.

“I think that ‘cougar’ has a negative connotation and I don’t see anything negative about… sexuality.”

Do you think ‘cougar’ has a negative connotation? When I hear it, I think ‘aggressively sexy’, two appealing qualities to my view. But I’m not the one being referred to. Anyone else care to comment?

I’ll also be talking about other animal names used to describe people’s sexual categories. If you’re over 40, you’ll remember the days when an attractive girl was a ‘fox’. And we all know about ‘bears‘ — big furry gay guys — but what do you call slightly smaller furry gay guys? Otters, apparently. What other animal terms am I missing?

You can like ‘Talk the Talk’ on Facebook, you know. Just hit the fan page.

Talk the Talk: Language mixing + Like

A couple of new episodes of ‘Talk the Talk’ on RTRFM.

We’ve thrown it open for questions, and here’s the first. It’s about language mixing. What’s the deal with those mixed languages like ‘Franglais’, ‘Chinglish’, ‘Singlish’, and ‘Portugnol’?

Well, some of them are full languages, some are just a general tendency to borrow words, and some are something else.
Check it out here.

I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through the stream. Watch out; it starts playing as soon as the page loads.
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The second episode is about the word ‘like’. Facebook recently changed its rules so that instead of becoming a ‘fan’ of things, you ‘like’ them instead. But what’s behind the word ‘like’? It has a past, you know.

This one is an mp3.

Do you have a question about language that we should address on ‘Talk the Talk’? Well, email the station at

Talk the Talk the Talk the Talk

Has a month gone by already? I’ve got a backlog on Talk the Talk, so here’s a load of links for your enjoyment and edification.

For the first three links, I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through the stream. Watch out; it starts playing as soon as the page loads.

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23 March 2010: American English

For this episode, I report live from the USA, and fittingly I’m talking about that special dialect known as American English.


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30 March 2010: Guys

Would you call someone a ‘guy’, even if they’re a ‘gal’? What about in mixed-gender groups? A recent article in the Boston Globe is raising issues about what to call people. Is there any better way of handling this in English? And what about other languages?

This time on ‘Talk the Talk’, we return to language and gender, with a look at this most peevish of language peeves.


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6 April 2010: The Munduruku

This week on Talk the Talk, we talk about numbers. In English, we have lots of names for numbers, but the Munduruku people of the Amazon have no words for anything higher than five. Experiments show that they’re good at estimating large numbers like English speakers are, but not so good at working equations using numbers they have no words for. Is it a case of language constraining thought? Or are both being constrained by culture?


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13 April 2010: Homer-nyms

We have the Simpsons to thank for such words as “D’oh” and “embiggen”. But what else do the Simpsons have to tell us about language? On this week’s ‘Talk the Talk’, we look at neologisms and derivational morphology. But don’t worry, I do explain what all that is. I’m also pleased to say that I managed to restrain my urge to overdo the Homer impersonation.

This link seems to be different. They’ve made Talk the Talk downloadable, so now you can take it on your listening device of choice.

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That’s a lot of Talk the Talk to listen to, so don’t overdo it.

For next week’s show, we’re taking your questions, so be sure to email your language questions to talks@rtrfm.com.au, and I might pick it for next time.

Talk the Talk Twofer: Cave signs

Two scintillating interviews for your enjoyment, all featuring me, and the charming and talented Jamie MacDonald.

First, from the 23 February show: Stroke patients, unable to speak, have re-learned to say words and phrases by singing them instead of speaking.

It’s already been shown that speech and music operate somewhat independently, and some linguists think language might have evolved via music.

Click to listen:

Next, from the 2 March show, a look at cave signs. Why should cave art get all the attention? Researchers from the Uni of Victoria have noticed that some non-representational markings turn up in caves all across Europe. Did they have an agreed-upon meaning? If so, it would mean that the beginnings of a writing system (and the cognition needed to power same) would have happened far earlier than heretofore supposed. When researching this topic, I expected to find a language myth ripe for debunking, but I think it’s pretty solid and the claims are presented fairly modestly.

Click to listen:

I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through the stream. Watch out; it starts playing as soon as the page loads.

Talk the Talk: Retarded

On this week’s “Talk the Talk”, we discussed the use of the word ‘retarded’. Do you use the r-word? Would you ever describe someone as a ‘retard’?

The issue has come to the fore in recent weeks as Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, used the word to describe Democrats that criticised other Democrats — and subsequently apologised. “Rosa’s Law” has been introduced as a bill to the federal legislature, which would prohibit the use of the r-word in federal documents. And if you’re willing to never use the word again, you can take the the ‘r-word’ pledge.

Or you can just listen to me talking about it on RTRFM.

I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through the stream. Watch out; it starts playing as soon as the page loads.

Teenagers getting by on 800 words a day?

I’m used to hearing people complain about the language of Them Dern Kids, but this rationale is a new one.

Here’s the claim:

800 words won’t get job done

LONDON: A generation of teenagers risks making itself unemployable because its members are using a vocabulary of only about 800 words a day, according to the British government’s first children’s communication tsar.

Communication tsar? Are they sure she’s not a czar?

I wonder what’s causing the supposed paucity of vocabulary? Could it be the Internet and mobile phones?

The teenagers are avoiding using a broad vocabulary and complex words in favour of the abbreviated “teenspeak” of text messages, social networking sites and internet chat rooms.

Thought so.

Jean Gross, the government’s adviser on childhood language development, is planning a national campaign to prevent children failing in the classroom and the workplace because they cannot express themselves.

“Teenagers are spending more time communicating through electronic media and text messaging, which is short and brief,” she said. “We need to help today’s teenagers understand the difference between their textspeak and the language they need to succeed — 800 words will not get you a job.

Gee, 800 words doesn’t sound like a lot. Or is it? How many words do most people say? Let’s check.

First, keep in mind that the 800 words claim is about daily vocabulary, not total vocabulary. That is, young people are using the same 800 words over and over again in a typical day. I’m not sure if that’s true, but let’s accept it for now. The question is: how many different words do adults employ in a day?

We’re going to use a dialogue corpus to find out. I’m pulling words from Verbmobil-2, a corpus of appointment scheduling dialogues. But we don’t know many words to use until we know how many words someone speaks in a day. This is a scary prospect, laden with assumptions.

I had a read through the corpus and found that I can read about 250 words out loud in a minute. Of course, in a dialogue you’d only be speaking about half the time unless you’re rude, or a lecturer. (Or, like me, both.) So let’s say I’d rip through 7,500 words in an hour. Most of us spend some time alone or watching TV, so I doubt we’d spend the equivalent of 4 full hours of every day talking. But let’s say 30,000 words as an upper boundary. (I admit this is highly speculative. Stay with me.)

Here I’ve listed the number of word types (different words) for various numbers of word tokens (each separate word we say) in the Verbmobil-2 corpus. If you think you’re more laconic or loquacious, you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

Word tokens Word types
10,000 words 814 types
20,000 words 1,080 types
30,000 words 1,342 types
40,000 words 1,510 types

So if you’re an adult on the lower end of the talking scale, you’re going to use about 800 different words, over and over. And even if you quadruple the number of words you say, that still won’t quite double the daily vocabulary. Keep in mind that 40,000 words represents hours and hours of transcripts. The fact is, 800 words is quite a lot. Even if teens only use the same 800 words over and over, that’s certainly not a sign that their vocab is sub-standard. That’s just the way word frequencies fall.

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UPDATE: I’ve just discovered this article in USA Today about a study that saw people wearing tape recorders all day long.

Both sexes say about 16,000 words a day, a study in Science magazine says.

He and colleagues analyzed conversations recorded from 1998 to 2004 of 396 students in the USA and Mexico, 210 women and 186 men, ages 18-29. The study examined word count, not vocabulary or word use. Pennebaker says two-thirds of participants spoke 11,000 to 25,000 words a day; the average for both sexes was about 16,000.

So there it is. Sixteen thousand words of dialogue would probably be comprised of under 1,000 word types a day, not too far from 800.
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Let’s take a look at another claim in the article.

Ms Gross said her concerns were supported by research by Tony McEnery, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, who found in a study that the top 20 words used by teenagers, including “yeah”, “no” and “but”, account for about one-third of the words used.

Twenty words is not a lot. Is it possible that it could account for a third of the total?

Fortunately, we have frequency statistics for many corpora. If we take a look at the top 1000 words from COLT, the Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language, we can see that the top 20 words account for 35.6 percent, or about a third. (Some words are excluded from this count, but that just means that the real proportion will be a good deal smaller, which makes the teens seem even more erudite.)

Now we head over to this data from the BNC, or the British National Corpus, a large and wide-ranging collection of spoken and written language. Here, the top 20 words account for around 32 percent of the total, or… about a third.

I decided to run a counter over some works of literature. I tried George Orwell’s 1984. Nobody’s going to accuse Orwell of having a tiny vocabulary. But here the top 20 words account for only 33.7 percent of the total. And for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the top 20 words make up, again, 33.1 percent of the total. Somebody better tell Pseudonym Boys that they’ll never get jobs with that kind of vocabulary.

Gross’s claims sound impressive until you break them down. Most people don’t do this because it’s easier to just accept claims that you already believe. But it’s just another way to complain about young people in a way that’s socially acceptable. It’s a shame people try to enlist linguistic data to confirm their prejudices.
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If you want to hear me say about the same thing on the radio, you can listen to last week’s RTRFM interview. For some reason, I was talking pretty fast. I bet I could have clocked 60,000 words per day at that rate.

I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through the stream. Watch out; it starts playing as soon as the page loads.

Talk the Talk: The language of global warming

A timely interview on RTRFM, this time about the hidden persuaders in language about global warming.

Watch out for that link; it plays immediately, so make sure your speakers are at the right level. As always, I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through.

Talk the Talk: unfriend

In my latest ‘Talk the Talk‘ interview on RTRFM, I discuss the Oxford Word of the Year for 2009: ‘unfriend‘. Does anyone remember their pick from last year: ‘hypermiling‘? ‘Unfriend’ has a better chance of getting remembered, I’d say.

I also discuss ‘teabagging’, and why I am an amonokerist.

Watch out for that link: it starts playing immediately. I’m on about 5/6ths of the way through.

All part of a plot to expand my media empire

I’ve been having fun on Perth radio station RTRFM. For the last few weeks, I’ve been appearing on their show ‘Talk the Talk’, which happens on Tuesdays at about 11:30 am. I get to talk about linguistic things, and people in Perth get to listen.

You can find streaming broadcasts on the RTRFM Morning Magazine site. Here are links to the broadcasts.

11 August: Metaphors of time
18 August: Is your dog as smart as a two-year-old?
25 August: Not about language; this one’s for plugging RTR-FM and getting people to subscribe.

If you want to skip all the other stuff, I’m on pretty close to the end of each broadcast.

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