Miscellaneity from my desk drawer

Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve found that leafing through the contents of my desk can be a rich source of inspiration. My desk drawers contain records of my own creativity from the past, as well as other sorts of memories, and I’ve written many blog posts based on that material.

But there is a tendency for miscellaneity to fall through the cracks. If something is particularly significant there’s a good chance I’ve already blogged about it, whereas other items have always seemed too trivial to share even though they’ve been in storage for years.

Today I’m going to share three of them. They may be trivial, but there’s no telling what will resonate with the interests of readers and inspire an interesting conversation in the comments. That would make them well worth including on the blog.

1. A querying language invented while at university.

At university I majored in computing, which naturally included a subject or two about databases — SQL, relational algebra, and all that stuff. Elsewhere in the course I learned to read and write in EBNF notation.

For my own amusement I sometimes toyed with inventing my own programming languages — not implementing them (inventing and implementing are two very different things), but figuring out how the syntax would work and writing documentation for them as though they actually existed. In a sense it was my way of consolidating what I was learning, especially about trade-offs between different programming languages and things like that.

One of my inventions was a querying language with the same functionality as SQL, but a syntax based more consistently on relational algebra. I’ve uploaded a copy of my documentation. It may be complete rubbish, but over a decade later it hardly matters.

2. An email exchange about sensory integration.

This is another item from my university days, but not connected to my studies.

At an autism conference many years ago, I bought a textbook on sensory integration, which interested me enough to write an email to one of the authors. I described some of the games I played as a child, and speculated that (to paraphrase for the blog) there may be a correlation between people who are prone to motion sickness and people who find it hard to keep a tidy room.

My hypothesis was that since picking items off the floor involves continual head altitude changes, people who struggle with it might often be those who find it hard to modulate vestibular sensations while simultaneously concentrating on a goal-directed task.

The textbook author replied, saying: “I was also interested in your comments about tidying up and vestibular/modulation difficulties. I have certainly noticed that tendency in children but none has ever explained it quite so graphically. I certainly will think about that.

Or, as I once paraphrased it in a comment thread, she said that the idea was plausible and consistent with anecdotal observations.

3. A shortlist of aesthetically selected Arabic male names.

I’ve browsed the baby names website behindthename.com on numerous occasions. One time, on a whim, I decided to browse the section on male Arabic names, just to see what I liked the sound of. I was particularly looking for pairs of names that sound good together, consciously ignoring the fact that Western naming practices (first name plus middle name) are not usual in Arabic culture.

The three double names I liked best were:

I suppose these could be of use if you ever need an Arabic character for a work of fiction.

A cruel-coloured scathed crow

Audio pareidolia applied to song lyrics is a potent source of comedy. A single misheard line is often amusing enough, but the illusion is taken to another level when the imposed and original lyrics are in different languages. You may remember the Four Tuna video that went viral several years ago, in which a very well-known Latin song is given English captions that somewhat resemble the Latin phonetics. The result is simultaneously hilarious and fascinating.

I have listened countless times to the Youtube video of Karan Casey singing A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn O — an extraordinarily beautiful Irish song. I first linked to it in 2008, and it’s still a favourite. The lyrics, alongside an accurate English translation, are available here.

Recently I decided to give it the Four Tuna treatment, and my fake English lyrics are given below, underneath the original video. You can follow along and see how well my false lyrics fool your brain.


Moving hard down creek,
Nor the kid is still related;
I come back heaving gold.
Store the vine, though a cool work,
And your do will clearly fail all;
I come back heaving gold.
Laugh, ha-ha, yellow well,
Spoke a kind-hearted greybuck;
The gloam does swallow
The font of the layerer.
Oh, Grandma Creek,
It’s suet lower K, lol,
I come back heaving gold.

If stone grew barren
At a cruel-coloured scathed crow,
I come back heaving gold.
Through the last seven sewers,
Little heart’ll want a grainer;
I come back heaving gold.
Our fastest larrikin,
Here gone the pathed fields;
My wrath I show,
Let it show o’er the glazed fair.
Wrote a scar, penned and drew it,
And a new sort of spare art;
I come back heaving gold.

Nor veer sour or solar,
Shadowly we came, which
I come back heaving gold.
He knew we’d get fond
And yearn, let it stay here;
I come back heaving gold.
Our barber carried on,
Got a new sort of cradle;
If a heart got barred,
Fish can like a late shift.
It’s cost me a legion,
I flew a lot of leisure;
I come back heaving gold.

I vaguely entertain the notion that a skilled satirist could weave some story around these words — as another layer of pareidolia, that would be somewhat fitting. They’re utterly meaningless, of course, but it does no harm to caution readers in Ireland to watch out for the cruel-coloured scathed crow, just in case.

Does it work for you?

[I originally shared this on Google Plus — which is sometimes useful for sharing things that are still taking shape in my mind, with minimal attention to presentation or how they might seem in retrospect — but I’ve decided it merits a place on the blog.]

If conversation were chemistry

Today’s blog post is for the geeks. Seriously, if you don’t think frequency analysis for its own sake can be fun, you probably won’t enjoy this much.

Stan Carey has a blog post about the length of the chemical name of the largest known protein, considered as though it were a word. It takes three and a half hours to read aloud, so it would easily be the longest word in the English language were it not for the fact that it doesn’t count.

I decided to play around, so I started by taking the chemical name, and (after removing hyphens/whitespace from raw text) ran it through a character frequency analyser. This told me that the letter L occurs 14645 times, accounting for 22.9% of the text. At the low end, the letter D occurs a measly 238 times, which is just 0.4%. Letters not present at all are B, F, J, K, Q, W, X and Z.

Noticing that the chemical name contains a multitude of components ending in ‘yl’, I inserted a space after each occurence of that pair, then fed the result through a word frequency analyser. It gave me the following totals for each component word. Read the rest of this entry »

The Gzarondan language

Among the blog posts I’ve revised in my current archive clean-up is my 2006 article on conlanging. That blog post discusses artistic language invention in a general way, but makes only a passing mention of my own conlang, Gzarondan.

That’s because I didn’t have any documentation ready to share. Last time I’d worked on the language, I’d left a lot of details in flux, so the documentation I had was a bit of a mess. But although I have no plans to do any more conlanging in the future, I did always want to publish an official documentation of the language I created. Sometimes it just takes a few years of cold storage.

To that end, I published a short article about it near the end of 2012. This document has been sitting quietly in case further editing proved necessary, but I’m ready to share it now. First, though, a few words on what this documentation is and is not, because many conlangers are used to documentation written by other active conlangers, and this governs their expectations.

I spent a lot of time working on the Gzarondan language back in the day, but for most of the decisions I made (or periodically changed my mind on), I simply don’t care anymore, so I have no interest in documenting them. What I’ve written therefore documents only the aspects of the language that I feel some attachment to: The Best Of Gzarondan. Everything else has been discarded.

To make this possible, I’ve taken the perspective of an outsider, describing the language as if it were something I’d read about in an old scroll or something. That way, if I don’t wish to document some feature, I can simply describe it as “unknown”. Other conlangers are welcome to build on my creation, or to simply pinch some ideas here and there for their own art.

You can read my five-page article on the Gzarondan language here.

[Minor corrections made to PDF document on February 9]

Some thoughts on synaesthesia

I’ve been planning to post about synaesthesia for some time, not because I have a lot to say, but to share the little I do have. This is part of a plan to write shorter posts about smaller topics, but hopefully more of them.

I’ll assume the reader has some idea of what synaesthesia is. One important aspect is the distinction between projective vs associative synaesthesia, which I first read about here. Usually when people think of synaesthesia, they think of the projective type, in which a literal experience of one sense is triggered by information detected by a different sense. In the associative type — which has less of a ‘wow’ factor and gets less press time — what is triggered is an abstraction rather than a literal sensory experience. It’s the difference between seeing the colour blue and thinking of the colour blue.

I am no synaesthete, as such. But people sometimes make the case that there is a continuum from the average person and a clear-cut synaesthete, and for the associative type I am inclined to believe this. I can certainly point to experiences of my own which might be dubbed ‘sub-synaesthetic’, in which I detect a certain rightness in complementing one sensory experience with the thought of another, even if I can’t say that one triggers the other. My impression is that most people can do the same, to differing degrees.

If you have either true synaesthetic or sub-synaesthetic experiences, please share them in the comments. Below are some of mine.

  • I have long felt that if written Dutch were a colour, it would be hot pink. There is just something inescapably hot pink–ish about written Dutch.
  • I’ve been known to connect music with certain tastes. For example this piece harmonises with the thought of soft toffee from an old-fashioned sweet shop, and this one (Ebb Tide by John Coleman) evokes a glass of chardonnay. Given how French the latter sounds it probably doesn’t surprise much, but there you have it. Other music evokes more complex associations, but that’s outside the scope of this post.
  • Certain vowel sounds seem best complemented by certain colours, if I think about it at all. I’ve long felt the only colour that properly belongs with the eeee vowel (that’s [i] to linguists) is yellow — possibly because yyyyellow — tending through orange to red as more open front vowels are considered. Sometime last year I asked myself whether I could similarly associate colours with the back vowels, and while this required a deliberate effort I found I was able to consider a candidate and say, “Yes, that’s the one”. Here is my sub-synaesthetic (and interpolated) vowel diagram:
  • That’s all I can think of, but I have a nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something. If so I can always add it later.

Your turn now.

P.S. I used this colour interpolating tool to make the above chart. Note that it has a bug that means it won’t work if the Red value is set to BB, but apart from that it’s a very nice tool.

Kán yu andastánd wot aim seiing?

Whatever you think of the complexities and ambiguities of English spelling, reforming it is not a realistic prospect this side of an independently-governed moon colony.

Or, to put it another way: Woteva yu think ov dhi kompleksitíz ánd ámbigyúitíz ov Inglish speling, rifōming it iz not a rialistik prospekt dhis said ov an indipendentli-gavand mún koloni.

Because however unattainable reform might be in the real world, everything is possible in the imagination. Only very boring people permit their actions to be governed by the question, “Is it practical” when they could be asking, “Is it fun?”. So here’s my question: Suppose you were the governor of that moon colony. How would you propose a more-or-less phonemic English could be spelt?

Bikoz haoeva anateinabul rifōm mait bi in dhi rial wǎld, evríthing iz posibul in dhi imájineishon. Ounli veri bōring pípul pǎmit dhe ákshonz tu bi gavand bai dhi kweschon, “Iz it práktikul” wen dhei kud bi āsking, “Iz it fan?”. Sou hiaz mai kweschon: Sapouz yu wǎ dhi gavana ov dhát mún koloni. Hao wud yu propouz a mo-o-les fonemik Inglish kud bi spelt?

In this blog post I’ll present a system of my own, and for comparison also refer to a quite different system I designed a number of years ago.

In dhis blog poust ail prizent a sistem ov mai oun, ánd fo kompárison ōlsou rifǎ tu a kwait difrent sistem ai dizaind a namba ov yiaz agou.

— Where to Start —

To begin, you need to make a number of decisions. These include:

Tu bigin, yu níd tu meik a namba ov disizhonz. Dhíz inklúd:

  • Which dialects is your system intended for? Perhaps all of them (good luck with that), perhaps only your specific accent, or perhaps something in between. The system herein aspires to work for most non-rhotic dialects of English.
  • Wich daialekts iz yo sistem intended fo? Paháps ōl ov dhem (gud lak widh dhat), paháps ounli yo spesifik aksent, o paháps samthing in bitwín. Dhi sistem hiarin aspaiaz tu wǎk fo moust non-rotik daialekts ov Inglish.
  • Do you wish to exploit familiar spellings to keep your system easy to learn, or do you want to give English spelling a clean start by building a consistent, sensible system from the ground up? Herein, I’ve gone for the familiarity approach, up to a point.
  • Du yu wish tu eksploit familya spelingz tu kíp yo sistem ízi tu lǎn, o du yu wont to giv Inglish speling a klín stāt bai bilding a konsistent, sensibul sistem from dhi graond ap? Hiarin, aiv goon fo dhi familíáriti aprouch, ap tu a point.
  • Will there be a symbol reserved for schwa, and if so, which? You could re-use an existing letter to ensure it flows easily under the pen, but at the cost of making the remaining letters work that much harder to fill the gap. If not, people will go on misspelling separate as they always have. In this case I’ve chosen not to represent schwa.
  • Wil dhe bi a simbol rizǎvd fo shwā, ánd if sou, wich? Yu kud ríyúz an egzisting leta tu ensho it flouz ízili anda dhi pen, bat át dhi kost ov meiking dhi rimeining letaz wǎk dhat much hāda tu fil dhi gáp. If not, pípul wil gou on misspeling separeit az dhei ōlweiz háv. In dhis keis aiv chousen not tu reprizent shwā.
  • Will you have exactly one spelling per pronunciation, or will you build in some redundancy? Also, perhaps you’d like to use spelling to indicate which syllable is stressed. Here I’ll keep things simple for the most part, but discuss possible extensions at the end.
  • Wil yu háv egzáktli wan speling pǎ pronansíeishon, o wil yu bild in sam ridandansi? Ōlsou, paháps yúd laik tu yúz speling tu indikeit wich silabul iz strest. Hia ail kíp thingz simpul fo dhi moust pāt, bat diskas posibul ekstenshonz át dhi end.

My previous system was tailor-made for my specific dialect, was considerably more radical at the expense of being hard to remember, reserved the letter i for schwa, and included a rather convoluted system for marking stressed syllables.

Mai prívios sistem woz teila-meid fo mai spesifik daialekt, woz konsidarabli mo rádikul át dhi ekspens ov bíing hād tu rimemba, rizǎvd dhi leta i for shwā, ánd inklúded a rādha konvolúted sistem fo māking strest silabulz.

[The self-translations will cease at this point. They’ve been proofread a few times, but errors may remain.]

— Consonants —

In English, n becomes a velar nasal when followed by g or k (as in anger, angle, ankle, anchor, etc), and in those cases it makes sense to spell the combination ng or nk as we normally do (since the velar nasal can be regarded as an allophone of n). But we also use the spelling ng to represent a velar nasal on its own, leading to the ambiguity whereby the g in anger is pronounced but that in hanger is not.

In my old system, I decided that a velar nasal not followed by g or k would be spelt yn, resolving the ambiguity and taking advantage of the fact that the letter y (always a consonant) cannot occur immediately before another consonant. This time, however, I’ve decided that the anger/hanger ambiguity is a tolerable one, and to simply spell the velar nasal ng as English speakers are used to.

Similarly, in English the spelling th sometimes denotes the unvoiced fricative of thieves, sometimes the voiced fricative of these, and sometimes simply the sequence of sounds represented by the letters t and h (the famous-to-the-point-of-being-a-cliche example being pothole).

In my old system I used the spellings hs and hz for unvoiced and voiced th respectively, taking advantage of the fact that the h sound never occurs immediately before another consonant, and having the second half of the digraph be something that normally represents a sound of the some phonological category (unvoiced and voiced fricatives respectively). This time I’ve decided to spell the unvoiced th simply as such, and (borrowing from some other languages) to use the spelling dh for its voiced equivalent.

In this system, the letter j has the pronunciation that English speakers would expect, and the same goes for the digraphs ch, sh and zh. The letter c never occurs on its own (as its two main pronunciations are spelt s and k), but only as part of the digraph ch. One can envisage a later reform of the reform in which the surplus h is dispensed with, but for the sake of familiarity I’ve decided to leave ch alone. The letters q and x do not exist in my alphabet at all.

— Vowels —

That’s enough about consonants. The real fun is with the vowels, which I’ll describe with reference to John Wells’s lexical sets.

In my dialect, the PALM/BATH/START sets are merged, as are the LOT/CLOTH sets, and THOUGHT/NORTH/FORCE sets. If your dialect has slightly different mergers (e.g. BATH merged with TRAP instead of PALM), you might have to modify the system slightly and use alternative spellings for some words, but we’d still be able to understand each other. If you dialect has significantly different mergers, then my system may not be suitable for your dialect. I expect that nearly all non-rhotic dialects of English would — with minor adjustments — find it workable.

Here’s my list of vowel spellings and the corresponding lexical sets:

á … TRAP
ǎ … NURSE [was ü in earlier drafts]
i … KIT
u … FOOT
ai … PRICE
ao … MOUTH
ei … FACE
ia … NEAR
ou … GOAT

In my old system. I chose spellings for vowels and diphthongs that closely mirror their pronunciations in Australian English (e.g. reserving certain symbols for front, central and back vowels respectively). In this new system, I’ve stuck more closely to traditional and familiar values that are not tied to a specific accent. That said, I’ve referred to accents I’m familiar with in order to make sure diacritics change vowel quality in reasonably consistent ways.

There is no symbol for schwa. To represent schwa, one should choose the vowel best suited to the role in the context (taking into account the pronunciation used when the word is overarticulated or sung, the pronunciation used in more conservative accents, the traditional spelling, the etymology, and so on). I do have one rule, though: to keep things simple, vowels that are frequently reduced to schwa should normally be represented with one of the basic five symbols a, e, i, o, u — no diacritics, no digraphs. For example, the re in reform contains the FLEECE vowel (í) when clearly articulated, but because it is often reduced to schwa, we compromise and use the KIT vowel symbol (i) instead.

(The indefinite article a would be spelt ei when there is a reason to emphasise it, but otherwise I favour a rather than e for several reasons. These include familiarity, maintaining the similarity between a & an, and avoiding confusion with the word air. Even the most consistent languages in the world have exceptions for some of their most common words. The word and maintains its diacritic because, although the vowel is often reduced in a sentence, it is always articulated when the word is spoken in isolation.)

Because the DRESS, KIT, LOT, CLOTH and FOOT vowels (also TRAP, but that’s unimportant here) never occur word-finally in English, you may omit the diacritics on ē, í, ō, ú when they occur as the final letter of a word (i.e. spell them e, i, o, u respectively).

A comment on my use of diacritics. Although I’ve tried to keep the spellings of phonemes reasonably familiar, I think this can be taken too far. A system based entirely on the most common correspondences between spelling and sound in English (say, komyoonikayshun for communication) risks being perceived as juvenile. I think diacritics are widely perceived as sophisticated, so may help counteract that effect. However, they do place an extra burden on handwriting and risk being confused with commas from the line above, so it pays not to overdo them. That’s why I’ve outlawed diacritics on reduced vowels, advised omitting most of them from word-final vowels, and made a point not to include them in digraphs.

— Extensions —

As an optional extra, here’s a suggestion for how my system might be extended to include stress marking:

  • Add a h or y between the nucleus and coda of the stressed syllable (aesthetically, I generally favour h after ao, u, and y after e, i). For example, communication without stress marking is komyúnikeishon. With stress marking, it becomes komyúhnikeiyshon.
  • To mark stress on a syllable that lacks a coda, represent the coda with an apostrophe. Without stress marking, ambiguity would be ámbigyúiti. With: ámbigyúh’iti.

This could be used routinely, or only when potential for confusion exists. Redundant stress marking might be used to differentiate between homophones.

(Note: I do not use apostrophes in other contexts, e.g. no apostrophes for common contractions or possession. Apostrophes and diacritics seem a little too fly-specky in conjunction.)

We might use etymological spellings as well as redundant stress marking to differentiate between some homophones. Perhaps dhe for there, dhēy for their, and dheia for they’re, for example. If a system such as this were actually used, the community would soon develop some conventions.

— Postscript —

I’d like to end by reiterating what I said at the beginning: that this is not a serious proposal for an English spelling reform, but is intended as entertainment. Please feel free to use the comments section appropriately as a playground.

Results of punctuation experiment

Thanks to everyone who took part in my punctuation experiment. I got more responses than I thought possible, thanks largely to Stan Carey spreading the word on Twitter.

To begin this discussion of the results, here is a photograph of all the books I took quotations from. The full-size image is large enough to read most of the small print.

Read the rest of this entry »

Punctuation experiment rehearsal

Over on Stan Carey’s blog there’s talk of conducting a punctuation experiment sometime. It’s an idea that I tried out on something he wrote, after which we agreed that we should try it on a more organised scale, with more people involved.

Now, there’s only one reason for me not to have a turn at conducting such an experiment — namely that I just don’t have the readership to make it worthwhile. I would be lucky to get one response.

But it occurs to me now that this doesn’t feel like a problem if we call my version a rehearsal. Let Stan conduct the experiment proper, but in the meantime a rehearsal may be a good way to better determine the number, nature and length of quotations that should be used. (In other words, I would like a turn . . . and a little post-hoc justification never hurt anyone.)

[UPDATE: The experiment has now ended, and the results published here, although that needn’t stop you from submitting your answers anyway if you want to.]

So if you would like to take part in this rehearsal, here are your instructions:

Read the rest of this entry »

Two nodable challenges

Here are two challenges that are completely unrelated except that both involve nodes in some way.

The first challenge is different for every reader, and is one example of a whole family of challenges you can invent for yourself.

Sometimes, in idle moments, my mind is drawn to the geometic layout of buttons on remote control devices. Considering the buttons simply as nodes and abstracting away all extraneous detail, you can invent puzzles for yourself that involve partitioning these nodes according to set rules.

For example: see if you can partition the remote control into multiple rectangular grids, such that there’s a grid containing one button, a grid containing two buttons, a grid containing three buttons, and so on, until there aren’t enough buttons left for another grid. A grid is an n×m rectangle with a node at every point. It’s most elegant if you make each grid as “square” as possible (i.e. better 2×2 than 1×4, better 2×3 than 1×6, etc). Are yours solveable?

Read the rest of this entry »

Highlights of the Christmas season

This post was originally a fairly long account of miscellaneous events between 10 December 2011 and 14 January 2012. But in a 2015 review of this blog’s archives, I’ve decided that most of it is not of long-term interest.

Among other things, it described:

  • My participation in Austalk, a nation-wide study of how Australians speak. At the time, the entire study was expected to take about a year, after which data would be made available to participants. But even now, in late 2015, that hasn’t happened, to the great annoyance of everyone.
  • The mini Christmas puddings that we often make at that time of year, according to the following recipe:
  • Read the rest of this entry »