The future belongs to small and weird languages

tlingit photo
Photo by David~O
Google Translate and other current machine translation programs are based on bilingual corpora, i.e., collections of translated texts. They translate a text by breaking it into bits, finding similarities in the corpus, selecting the corresponding bits in the other language and then stringing the translation snippets together again. It works surprisingly well, but it means that current machine translation can never get better than existing translations (errors in the corpus will get replicated), and also that it’s practically impossible to add a language that very few translations exist for (this is for instance a challenge for adding Scots, because very few people translate to or from this language).

My prediction is that the next big break-through in computational linguistics will involve deducing meaning from monolingual corpora, i.e., figuring out the meaning of a word by analysing how it’s used. If somebody then manages to construct a computational representation of meaning (perhaps aided by brain research), it should then theoretically be possible to translate from one language into another without ever having seen a translation before, by turning language into meaning and back into another language. I’ve no idea when this is going to happen, but I presume Google and other big software companies are throwing big money at this problem, so it might not be too far away. My gut feeling would be 10–20 years from now.

Interestingly, once this form of machine translation has been invented, translating between two language varieties will be just as easy as translating between two separate languages. So you could translate a text in British English into American English, or formal language into informal, or Geordie into Scouse. You could even ask for Wuthering Heights as J.K. Rowling would have written it.

Also, the computer could be analysing your use of language and start mimicking it – using the same words and phrases with the same pronunciation. In effect, it could start sounding like you (or like your mum, Alex Salmond or Marilyn Monroe if you so desired).

This will have huge repercussions for dialects and small languages.

At the moment, we’re surrounded by big languages – they dominate written materials as well as TV and movies, and most computer interfaces work best in them. It’s also hard to speak a non-standard variety of a big language, because speech recognition and machine translation programs tend to fall over when the way you speak doesn’t conform. Scottish people are very aware of this, as shown by the famous elevator sketch:

However, if my predictions come out true, all of that will change. As soon as a corpus exists (and that can include spoken language, not just written texts), the computer should be able to figure our how to speak and understand this variety. Because translation is always easier and more accurate between similar language varieties than between very different ones, people might prefer to get everything translated or dubbed into their own variety. So you will never need to hear RP or American English again if you don’t want to – you can get everything in your own variety of Scottish English instead. Or in broad Scots. Or in Gaelic.

Every village used to have its own speech variety (its patois to use the French term). The reformation initiated a process of language standardisation, and this got a huge boost when all children started going to school to learn to read and write (not necessarily well, but always in the standard language). When radio was invented, the spoken language started converging, too, and television made this even more ubiquitous. We’re now in a situation where lots of traditional languages and dialects are threatened with extinction.

If computers start being good at picking up the local lingo, all of that will potentially change again. There will be no great incentive to learn a standard variety of a language if your computer can always bridge the gap if other people don’t understand it. The languages of the world might start diverging again. That will be interesting.

Fastern’s E’en and Fastelavn

Today it’s Fastelavn in Denmark. The word comes from Low German vastel-avent, meaning the evening (and by extension the day) before the fast (Lent), which means that it always takes place on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday.

When I was a kid, we dressed up and went guising, and we took turns beating up a barrel containing sweets with a bat. I’m not sure many kids go guising any more, but the barrel smashing (“at slå katten af tønden”) is still very popular.

Interestingly, in Scotland Shrove Tuesday used to be called Fastern’s E’en, which is clearly etymologically the same word as Fastelavn. It was marked in various ways, but eating pancakes doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

In the Borders it was traditional to have a Baw game:

Here are a list of the various traditions I’ve managed to find on Tobar an Dualchais:

  • On Shrove Tuesday they had a big bannock with a ring, a sixpence and/or a button in it.
  • Up till about the First World War, a ba [handball] game used to be played on Fastern’s E’en (Shrove Tuesday). People ate currant dumplings on that day.
  • On Shrove Tuesday children went round the houses for bannocks containing a ring or a button. The one who got a ring would be first married.
  • Fastern’s Een [Shrove Tuesday] was celebrated with the baking of special cakes.
  • In the Melrose marriage ball game, which replaced an earlier Fastern’s Een handball game, the bride kicks off a rugby ball in the square and the young men scramble for it. There has been an attempt to stop the tradition because of the danger from traffic. In the earlier game, there were no teams, just small groups trying to run away with the ball. It had to be hidden (not in a house) for three days in order to win the game.
  • On Shrove Tuesday Mrs Hailstones’ mother, who was English, used to make big pancakes and sugar them and roll them up. Scottish families did not do this, but Mrs Hailstones used to do it for her own children.
  • Shrove Tuesday was the day before Lent started. There used to be a big feast on the evening of shrove Tuesday. It was believed that something bad would happen during Easter if Shrove Tuesday was not properly celebrated.
  • The contributor’s great-grandmother (who lived to be 120) was once without a chicken for Shrove Tuesday. A pigeon came in, and so it was killed instead.
  • On Shrove Tuesday children went round the houses for bannocks containing a ring or a button. The one who got a ring would be first married. A button meant an old maid or a bachelor. They had a half day off school on Shrove Tuesday.
  • On Shrove Tuesday a sheep was killed and there was a feast. A broth was made with barley that had been threshed with a ‘cnotag’, a stone with a hollow in the middle.
  • The contributor explains how a bannock was made with barley meal, butter, eggs and sugar, to celebrate Shrove Tuesday. She has never seen it made, but her father saw it in Barra.

It would be nice to see a revival of some of these traditions!

What happens to grandparents in the Harry Potter universe?

Portrait of the artist as Augusta Longbottom, a character from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.
We were all (re-)watching the Harry Potter films over the holidays, and at some point I suddenly noticed something I’d never paid attention to before: There are very few old people, and in particular almost no grandparents in the wizard world.

The old people we see are mainly school teachers (like Dumbledore and McGonagall) or authors like Bathilda Bagshot, and they’re all single. The only prominent grandparent I can think of is Neville Longbottom’s grandmother (and she’s of course a widow).

At the same time, it’s clearly the case that wizards and witches have children at a very young age, typically starting in their early twenties. In other words, the grandparents that are missing aren’t old at all (they should be in their late fifties or early sixties when their grandchildren go off to Hogwarts for the first time).

So what’s happening? Here are some possibilities:

  • Perhaps magical abilities wear out the body quickly. That would be biologically plausible, but it doesn’t explain why unmarried wizards and witches can live for a long time, perhaps longer than muggles.
  • Maybe older ones get clumsy and die due to magical accidents (a bit like the way Luna’s mum died). Again, it doesn’t explain why the ones who remain single can live so long.
  • Another possibility is that it’s the magical equivalent of a midlife crisis that kills them, either by making them kill each other or by committing suicide. But again, why should this only affect married couples?
  • Perhaps the children murder their parents a few years after having their own. I’ve no idea why they would do this, but it would explain why the childless ones survive.
  • An intriguing possibility would be some sort of slow-acting magical STD that kills people around 30 years after having sex for the first time. Again, this would fit a lot of facts, but perhaps not how Neville Longbottom’s granny managed to survive.
  • Finally, it could be that there is some sort of magical retirement home that is so wonderful that nobody who goes there ever wants to come back. Perhaps the children need to pay for it, which is why the ones without children cannot go.

I’m not really sure which option I prefer, and it is of course much more likely that Rowling just thought that grandparents would be an irrelevance to the story.

Scots-medium schools

Bokmål and NynorskIf Scots is a language – and it’s almost universally accepted today that this is the case – why is it treated as a regional accent by schools?

The typical approach is to learn a few songs in Scots, and perhaps even to read a short story or a play in high school, but not much else. There’s also now an awareness that kids shouldn’t get told off for talking Scots or using Scots words when speaking English. Surely this approach only makes sense if Scots is some variety of English.

If Scots is a language then it should be taught in separate classes, not as part of English lessons. And using Scots words when speaking English should be regarded as a case of code-switching – something which is common in all bilingual areas, but hardly a thing to be encouraged.

And last but not least, we should have Scots-medium schools. It’s absolutely wonderful that we have so many Gaelic-medium schools in Scotland now, but surely we should have Scots-medium ones, too. Schools where Scots is the language of tuition, apart perhaps from the English lessons.

It could be similar to the situation in Norway, where all pupils have to learn both Bokmål (similar to Danish) and Nynorsk (based on the dialects). However, some schools are Bokmål-medium and teach Nynorsk as a separate subject, and others are Nynorsk-medium and teach Bokmål as a subject.

Surely we could do the same here? Of course it will take a while to get there – the teachers will need training (even if they’re native speakers of Scots), and a lots of text books would need to get translated – but it would be do wonders for the Scots language.

The traditional East Asian seasons work really well in Scotland

Just to escape from all the Brexit madness, I read a couple of Wikipedia articles about the traditional East Asian calendars that divide the year into 24 solar terms instead of 12 months.

The solar terms are defined in terms of celestial longitude, and the same is true for the four seasons:

  • Spring (315°–44°): 4th February–4th May
  • Summer (45°–134°): 5th May–6th August
  • Autumn (135°–224°): 7th August–6th November
  • Winter (225°–314°): 7th November–3rd February

(The dates are approximations – they can vary by a day. And I haven’t really sussed why the four seasons aren’t exactly the same length.)

The funny thing is that these seasons seem to work much better than the traditional ones in Scotland. Phyllis and I have often said to each other that spring seems to start around our birthdays (4th and 8th of February), and my mum’s birthday (5th of May) is often the first warm day with green leaves on trees. Also, this year – without having read the Wikipedia article – I posted this on Facebook on the 7th of August: “Here in Scotland, hairst is in the air the day. Haste ye back, summer!”

It’ll be interesting to see whether winter starts on the 7th of November this year!

Tesla’s model doesn’t work

Testing the Tesla autopilot (self driving mode)
Testing the Tesla autopilot (self driving mode).
It’s been revealed that the first person ever has been killed in a crash by a self-driving car:

The 7 May accident occurred in Williston, Florida, after the driver, Joshua Brown, 40, of Ohio put his Model S into Tesla’s autopilot mode, which is able to control the car during highway driving.

Against a bright spring sky, the car’s sensors system failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway, Tesla said. The car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer, “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”, Tesla said in a blog post.

In spite of this, I still believe self-driving cars will take over. However, it does highlight one fallacy, namely the idea that a human driver can be expected to supervise a near-perfect self-driving car.

Just think about it: If your car has been driving perfectly for a whole year, would you find it easy to keep your eyes glued to road and your hands to the steering wheel, just in case the car’s computer has a nervous breakdown? Wouldn’t you start playing with your smartphone, eat a sandwich or even doze off for ten minutes?

What this accident shows is that Google’s model (where the car is fully autonomous and the passengers don’t have access to a steering wheel) is correct, and Tesla’s is doomed. If a car is driving on its own, nobody should pretend that a human is ultimately in charge.

No normal person will ever own a self-driving car

Google prototype self-driving car
Google prototype self-driving car.
A few things I’ve read recently have convinced me that the average punter will never own a self-driving car.

The main reason for this is that they’re going to be significantly more expensive than an old-fashioned car, mainly because of all the sensors. As pointed out recently in the New York Times, “[a]dding self-driving technology — at least as it stands now — into regular passenger cars could make them absurdly expensive for anyone without the cash of a Silicon Valley mogul. Until recently, the laser sensor used on the Google car project cost $75,000 [£50,000].” Even though that price is clearly going to come down, it’ll always be more expensive to produce a self-driving car than an old-fashioned one.

The additional costs mean that they need to be used much more than normal cars in order to recoup the cost. HGV lorries might (as mentioned in the article linked to above) adopt the technology first, because it means a lorry can then be on the road 24/7 with only one driver, which mean that the additional cost will be recouped quickly.

Normal, old-fashioned cars are just not used enough to make it worthwhile to make them so expensive. According to the RAC, the “average car is parked at home for 80% of the time, parked elsewhere for 16% of the time and is only on the move for 4% of the time.”

Because of this, a self-driving car only really makes economic sense if it’s being used as a taxi, so it’s no surprise that Uber are very interested in this area — they already have put self-driving cars on the road in Pittsburgh.

Even if some crazy individual were to buy a self-driving car, it would be a bit silly to park it when they’re not using it rather than letting it make some money on its own working for Uber or similar. Only multi-millionaires will buy a self-driving car and then leave it in the driveway.

So we aren’t going to replace our old car with a self-driving model. Instead, we’ll simply start using self-driving taxis more and more until we don’t see the point in owning a car any more. It probably won’t be long before young people can’t see any point in getting a driving licence, but I imagine companies like Uber might need to introduce subscription services covering all you transportation needs for a fixed monthly fee in order to tempt current drivers to give up their car.

The move to self-driving cars is of course going to be bad news for the majority of car manufacturers. If normal people don’t buy cars, there is absolutely no reason to have so many brands and models to choose from. It’ll probably be more like the situation in the aviation industry, where companies buy hundreds of planes and then decide how they want them to look.