Search Ace Linguist

August 22, 2016

Dialect Profile: Taylor Swift

I'm a pretty big fan of pop music, and as a linguist, I like to pay attention to the particular language singers use when they sing. I've noticed a couple of interesting trends over the years, but I didn't really have anywhere to post my observations. Well, I've decided to scream into the abyss and just talk about it on YouTube!

The first video is about Taylor Swift. Her dialect is pretty standard when she's speaking, but she often purposefully changes how she pronounces words between different songs. Some of this has to do with vocal range, some with genre, and some seem to have no rhyme or reason other than "this sounds cool."

In the future, I'm going to delve into some celebrities that deviate more from the standard, like Kesha. This video also focused on phonology, because that's most of what varied in Taylor Swift's speech, but future entries will devote more time to syntax and morphology. I'm trying to keep them as short as I can since most people won't want to watch a 30-minute video about celebrity dialectology, so unfortunately I won't always be able to include every observation.

If you watched this video, let me know what you think! Are there any celebrities you think deserve a linguistic analysis?

May 13, 2016

What do you mean when you "beat" a game?

I always viewed the expression "to beat a game" as being equivalent to "to watch a movie" or "to read a book;" in other words, a simple expression of completion. But on further examination, it's really just an extension of the meaning "beat" in sentences like "I beat Johnny (at checkers)." Johnny is the challenger (and the one who was beaten) and checkers is the challenge. When you say "I beat the game," "the game" is the challenger and the challenge. Notice that "beat" has two internal arguments: there's what I'm going to be ad-hoc calling the <challenger> argument and then there's an optional <challenge> theta role. You can just say "I beat Johnny" - it's not required to express what it was you beat him at. You also can't express the <challenge> role by itself: "*I beat at checkers." As such, when you say "I beat the game," "the game" itself is occupying the <challenger> role. This is interesting; perhaps the fact that, in video games that are 1-player, you face up against an AI, contributes to viewing the game itself as a challenger.

But what about the <challenge> role? Notice that you can't really express it with video games: *I beat Super Mario 64 at the game. That's a borderline nonsensical sentence. It seems redundant, like saying *the town mayor of Mobile. Since you cannot overtly express the <challenge> role like that, I'm suggesting that "the game" is somehow also occupying the <challenge> role. It would make sense to consider the game itself the challenge, and that's probably the more intuitive view of what a game is as opposed to considering it a challenger.

Not all games can be beat, however. It's weird to say something like "I beat Tetris."* Assuming a player who was perfect at playing the game, you could play Tetris into infinity. There isn't what I'm calling a "natural end" to the game. Now, if you were playing a version of Tetris that had some sort of a 1P mode that had 10 levels and you finished that final level, you could say something like "I beat Tetris." But notice that we had to specify a special version of Tetris - Tetris, as we normally think of it, is not "beatable." A lot of arcade games like this. As an example, I love Galaga, and I once spent an entire card of Dave & Buster's points on getting the high score at Galaga. I played for so long that the game stopped introduced new levels and started repeating old levels.  Every time you got a game over, you could continue from where you left off if you put in more points. In this case, the only thing stopping you from playing was the amount of points you had. Given an infinite amount of credits, you could play Galaga forever - the game will simply continue repeating old levels. As such, you cannot beat a game like Galaga.

Compare this with Super Mario Bros. This game, no matter how good you are at it, must come to an end. Once you beat Bowser and rescue the princess, the game is over - it is in a "beaten" state. All it takes for a game to be "beatable" is for the game itself to end after you win. The winning is important - Tetris ends if you lose, but that doesn't count because "beating" requires that you win, that you complete whatever requirements the game is making of you. Causing the game to end because you fail the requirements it makes of you does not count as "beating" it anymore than losing at Super Mario Bros. counts as "beating" it.

You can't beat non-video games. "I beat Monopoly" isn't really acceptable either because the game itself can't be a challenger. You can beat someone at Monopoly, of course, but Monopoly itself can't be beaten (once again, exceptions made for a video game version of Monopoly that has some kind of a story mode with a concrete end). You can't beat "Red Light Green Light." Even in games where there is no other challenger, like Solitaire, it doesn't work: #I beat Solitaire. Playing with real cards or the Windows version makes no difference. And "I beat baseball," once again, is nonsensical.

You can win at all of these games. If you win at Monopoly, or Red Light Green Light, or Solitaire, it means that you are good at these games - you habitually win at them. "I won at Solitaire," you can say. "Winning," however, seems less restrictive than "beating." You can metaphorically extend the meaning to non-game things like "to win at cooking," despite cooking not being a game and not having rules that determine winners and losers.

You can certainly win at video games, but the context in which it is used is not the same as "beating." If you won at Super Smash Bros., it means you won some particular battle, either against an AI or another player, but it does not - and cannot - mean you beat the game. You can't "win at" a particular mode, either, although you can "beat" a mode. For example, Bayonetta has a difficulty level called 'Infinite Climax'. you can beat Infinite Climax, but if you "win at Infinite Climax," it can only mean that you're good at playing on that difficulty level, not that you finished the game on that difficulty level.

The talk of difficulty levels also notes something interesting about "beat." You can say you "beat hard mode," but you can also say you "beat the game on hard mode." You can extend this even further by having separate challengers and challenges: "I beat Anna at Ultra Game on hard mode." Is this "on X" an adjunct or an argument? It seems to me that in "I beat Anna at Smash on Hyrule Temple," on Hyrule Temple is an adjunct expressing (virtual) location. Can on hard mode be considered an adjunct expressing manner? I'm not entirely sure, and the difference between arguments and adjuncts can be pretty hard to tell sometimes.

Another neat thing: boss battles (and enemies in general) are treated the same as games. It's "I beat Zangief," not "I beat Zangief at a battle." AI opponents are also both the challenger and the challenge (compare "I beat Johnny at Street Fighter").

March 30, 2016

Forensic Morphology & Zootopia

One of the motivating factors behind making this blog is that I often have these small observations about linguistic phenomena in song lyrics, movies, whatever, but none of my other social media are really fit for talking about this sort of observation. Twitter is too short to allow me to fully geek out, Tumblr too poorly designed, Facebook too "no one cares." I have no choice but to go Web 1.0 and make... an actual blog.

One of these observations came from the movie "Zootopia," which I may or may not have seen three times.  So our protagonist, the rabbit police officer Judy, sees a fox do something horrible and unbelievable - he walks into an ice cream shop. She gets her little fox pepper spray ready but when she walks in, she sees the fox, named Nick, is actually trying to buy a popsicle for his son but is being refused service by racist (speciesist?) elephants. She buys it for him because she believes she is a paragon of virtue and totally not prejudiced (the racially coded language of Zootopia could be its own post). Later on, she sees him and his "son" melting the red popsicle to make many other smaller popsicles, which he sells to lemming businessmen at a profit. His "son" collects the recycled popsicle sticks and they offer them as lumber to some kind of hamster construction company.

Here's the important part. Since the popsicles were red, the sticks were obviously stained red. The hamster questions this red color. Nick thinks a moment and then claims it's "redwood." A few minutes later, Judy angrily confronts him about his deception and tries to arrest him for health violations. He actually has all his permits in place, so he's done nothing illegal. She then says he committed fraud, by saying he was selling "redwood." He responds "yes, red wood. With a space in the middle. As in 'wood that is red.'" She has no response.

Except if Judy had taken a morphology class, she would've known that he did not, in fact, say "redwood." "Redwood" and "red wood" have different morphological properties which result in their being pronounced differently. "Redwood" is a compound of "red" and "wood." In English, compound words like this are pronounced with just one stress, and here the stress is on redwood. "Red wood," on the other hand, is an adjective modifying a noun. Since they are both independent morphological units, they each get stress. In IPA, we could represent this as ['ɹɛdwʊd] vs ['rɛd 'wʊd]. In other words, Judy was correct that he was committing fraud, and Nick was lying about having said "red wood" as opposed to "redwood."

(Not convinced? Try a different pair, like "blackbird" and "black bird." Notice how in "black bird," bird gets just as much stress as "black" and there's also some sort of prosodic boundary marking that a different word has begun. In "blackbird," "bird" has a lower pitch than "black" and is a bit shorter in duration as well.)

Unfortunately, our heroine does not appear to have ever taken a morphology class, so she can't refute his linguistically unsound argument. A shame, because she even had a pen that can record audio, and she later uses this pen to record his speech and blackmail him into working for her (this time she gets him on tax evasion), so if she had been recording that conversation, this movie could've taken a different turn pretty early.

March 22, 2016

Let's get it started

I've been wanting to make a blog like this for a while now. A space to talk about linguistics... an old-school blog, you know? Today I finally took that step. So - welcome to Ace Linguist. I am the eponymous Ace Linguist. I'm a university student majoring in Linguistics who really wants a space to geek out about it. A lot of concepts from linguistics can be applied to real life, and you can, of course, find examples of linguistic concepts all around you.