Career interviews: Linguistics Project Manager at a branding firm

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Wugs go to work

Something I’ve been planning to post occasionally are interviews with career linguists and related language folk – especially those working outside of academia. Yes, they (we) exist! Until recently these were rare birds, but lately the numbers are growing. I credit several factors: the growth of the discipline generally; the growth of technology industries trying to wrangle natural language; globalization; and (sadly), the increasing impracticality of landing a faculty position that pays a living wage, at least in the U.S.

Another (more popular!) language and linguistics blog has been running a job interview series over the last several years as well. I encourage you to also take a look over there: Superlinguo Linguist Job Interviews.

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I met Noah on our team of linguists at Samsung Research America. For this interview, I asked him to talk about the job he had previous to Samsung – which was at Lexicon, a branding agency based in Northern California. Lexicon has come up with brand names for some of today’s most popular products, including Blackberry, Febreze, (Subaru) Outback, Dasani, Swiffer, Pentium, and ThermaCare.

noah

  1. What kind of work did you do at Lexicon?

I was a linguistics project manager, which basically meant that I coordinated with Lexicon’s network of linguists worldwide (85 countries with something like 50 or 60 languages represented). I basically sent them lists of names for real-time evaluation and also helped coordinate with another linguist in Quebec to prepare reports for deeper dives into particular names in order to ascertain particular issues a name might face in a target language or culture. Basically, you learn a lot of multilingual profanity doing this, and realize you shouldn’t name a company Zinda.

  1. Describe a typical day at that job.

It was a small company, so I wore whatever hats necessary. I prepared real-time and comprehensive reports, editing and working with the linguists to determine whether or not a given name that either a client had brought to us or one that we had brought would work well in a particular language, and also trying to read between the lines to figure out whether we should take a linguist’s comments at face value or do a little more digging and cross-checking, including interviews with native speakers. This was mostly done by our network, not in-house. But aside from the linguisty side, I also created names. Lots of names for lots of projects. Most of which didn’t actually make it through, but still it was a creative pursuit that stretched creativity. I also helped write a program to categorize and classify and try to ascertain good brand names using NLP [Natural Language Processing] techniques. Things like consonance, assonance, alliteration, etc. It was pretty helpful for going through our backlog of names and finding viable names to use going forward.

  1. How did your linguistics background inform that work?

Well, my fascination with language itself inherently got me the job and kept me entertained, though it would have easily, I think, been doable with some other kind of background. But creating a good name, actually looking into the science of sound symbolism, helping with a few linguistic studies. Pretty cool stuff.

  1. What did you enjoy most and/or least about the job?

I most enjoyed getting to see what kinds of things big clients were trying to market and create next. Some pretty cool things there, with an insider’s perspective as to what the market was going to look like in the future. Issues were managerial in nature, in combination with the claustrophobia that a small company can engender, but overall it was a very good way to get some experience in the field.

  1. What did you study in college and/or grad school?

Major: Linguistics. Minor: English. Minor: Business Administration (useless). Interest: everything else.

  1. What is your favorite linguistic phenomenon?

Splicing. Or whatever that thing was that we came up with as an inside joke that you should write a fake blogpost on.[1]

  1. (If you had the time) what language would you learn, and why?

ASL [American Sign Language]. As a monolingual, sign language has always fascinated me the most, oddly enough. Alas, those CSD [Communication Sciences and Disorders] students and their required classes.

  1. Do you have any advice for young people looking to pursue a career in linguistics?

Be overzealous, and marry linguistics to another discipline. In industry, you’ve got for the most part three choices: linguistics + [design, management, or computational]. Or astrobiology and linguistics if you happen to work with NASA. Might be cool. But yeah, linguistics is interdisciplinary by nature, so I assume everyone who studies it must enjoy the interplay of different subjects like I do. Oh, maybe start a computational linguistics club in undergrad when you don’t know anything about computational linguistics. It’ll make you learn, if nothing else.

 

 

[1] Noah sent me his responses long enough ago now that I cannot for the life of me remember what this was. Not that I would explain it even if I could remember, to preserve the opportunity of writing said fake blogpost. 😛

Semantics 101 for Caterpillar Inc.

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It seems that the world’s largest manufacturer of construction equipment, Caterpillar Inc., is in serious need of a basic semantics lesson. I came across this article a couple days ago:

“Santa Cruz coffee shop with ‘cat’ in its name hit with cease and desist from Caterpillar Inc.”

Beyond the ridiculousness of a giant corporation going after a tiny local café, what struck me as even more absurd was the following:

  1. Even if the trademarked ‘CAT’ of Caterpillar Inc. was an oft-used clipping (shortening) of the full word ‘caterpillar’ (and so indicated that wriggling, butterfly-metamorphosing insect), it would not be the same word as the ‘cat’ of the café’s name – “Cat and Cloud Coffee” – which refers to the common feline house pet. These would be homonyms – words which are spelled alike, but have different meanings.[1]
  2. As it is, no one ever calls the aforementioned insect a ‘cat’ (not that I’ve heard, anyway). So the trademarked term is something else entirely. It has its own unique sense, which can in fact refer to at least two related things: (a) a particular machine produced by the company, or (b) the company itself. Obviously, neither of these are that purring, internet-beloved animal either. They are yet another set of homonyms.

Totally different words. Totally different senses. The news piece doesn’t say this explicitly, but most people possess an intuitive understanding, as evidenced by quotes from café customers:

“’I don’t think anyone correlates the Caterpillar company with their big yellow massive trucks with a small café,’ said Rick Tawfik, of San Jose. ‘I mean, I never thought about Cat and Cloud and Caterpillar in the same sentence until we heard about this lawsuit.’

‘I don’t think they have a legitimate case,’ added Emma Davis, of San Jose. ‘I don’t think I would ever confuse the two of them. It doesn’t make sense to me.’”

Caterpillar’s trademark lawyers apparently lack such common sense, or are (more likely) willfully ignoring it.

 

[1] Etymologically, hundreds of years ago, the terms could have been related, in that (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) the Middle English word for ‘caterpillar’ catyrpel may have derived from the Old French chatepelose (literally “hairy or downy cat”)…but enough time has elapsed between now and the 11th century that it’s not reasonable to claim a modern meaning connection. Does anyone you know think of caterpillars as “hairy cats”?

*Photo attributions: CAT excavator; Caterpillar; Pet cat

Accents and dialects (part III): Black English

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This last post on accents and dialects summarizes an editorial by linguist, academic, and popular writer John McWhorter. McWhorter’s linguistics research focuses on sociohistorical language change and creoles, but he has published multiple articles and books about race relations as well. Here, he tackles a combination of those subjects with Black English (taking a particular and somewhat controversial stance towards a recent event involving the dialect).

Article: “There’s Nothing Wrong with Black English” (The Atlantic)

A short poem published not long ago in The Nation sparked outrage due to the fact that its homeless narrator speaks Black English, while the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, is white. In response, The Nation editors added a warning to the poem calling it “disparaging,” and the poet apologized profusely.

“The primary source of offense, in a poem only 14 lines long, is passages such as this, in a work designed to highlight and sympathize with the plight of homeless people: ‘It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.’ The protagonist is referring to the condescending attitudes of white passersby who give her change.”

America certainly has a long history of parodying black language (minstrel shows being a prominent example), and our past inevitably influences the unease people feel when artists use Black English today. But the dialect that Carlson-Wee employs is not caricatured; it’s “true and ordinary black speech”.

One reason for the anger provoked by the poem could lie in the too-common perception that Black English is a degraded form of the language – so if a white person uses it to portray a black person, it’s obviously condescending and offensive. But Black English is simply a dialectal variety (just like “standard” English is another dialectal variety).

“If a sentence like People be lookin’ at him funny seems unsophisticated because the be isn’t conjugated, try wrapping your head around the fact that the be also expresses, overtly, a nuance that the standard sentence would not—that this looking in question happens on a habitual basis. You wouldn’t say People be lookin’ at him funny if it were happening at the moment. Black English jangles with things that we are trained to hear as ‘slang,’ but which foreign learners would struggle to master, in the same way as they would with pluperfects and subjunctives.”

Around the world, people use one language variety in their private lives, and a different one in public – and don’t consider their private variety to be “broken.” This is the case with Arabic speakers – national/more local dialects like Moroccan and Algerian Arabic are quite different from the Modern Standard Arabic on the news (and from each other), but speakers understand it’s just context-dependent.

Another problem is that white people may operate under the prejudicial misconception that black people can only speak Black English, and that Standard English is beyond them. Educated whites today, though, often seem aware of the bidialectalism of black Americans – that individuals can speak one way or the other depending on context. Attesting to this, Carlson-Wee’s narrator dips into and out of Black English in the poem.

Ultimately, we should evaluate each work on a case-by-case basis, and shouldn’t necessarily shun all nonblack artists from depicting the valid bidialectalism of black speakers, when those artists do it accurately and gracefully.

 

[Note: The article touches on several other aspects which I left out of the summary, such as cultural appropriation – if interested in more, definitely give it a read.]

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I’ll wrap up with a few points that I hope these “accents and dialects” posts (and the full articles, if you’ve read them) have conveyed:

  • Just like everyone has a language, everyone has an accent; everyone has a dialect.
  • The diversity of dialects is a fascinating aspect of our humanity – something to be celebrated!
  • Judgements we have around accents and dialects are socially-motivated, and not linguistically-based (see also a somewhat related Linguamonium piece, “Literally cray: A linguist’s attitude towards speech errors and slang”).
  • Every dialect, including Black English (also called African American (Vernacular) English – AA(V)E) has regular linguistic patterns, i.e. a systematic grammar. A dialect being non-standard doesn’t mean that it’s “slang” or that it’s not as rule-governed as the more standard dialects. You’re probably just not familiar with the rules.

Accents and dialects (part II): Only the faceless speak accent-free

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In this second of three posts on accents and dialects, I summarize a relatively short article about the universality of accents.

Article: “Everyone Has an Accent” (The New York Times)

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually possible to speak a language without an accent. What’s more, our approval of certain accents and scorn of others means that individuals with the “wrong” accents face discrimination across a variety of scenarios – job interviews, medical care, at the bank or in a restaurant or in a classroom.

“An accent is simply a way of speaking shaped by a combination of geography, social class, education, ethnicity and first language. I have one; you have one; everybody has one. There is no such thing as perfect, neutral or unaccented English — or Spanish, for that matter, or any other language. To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features.”

What we usually mean by “they have an accent” is that the person has either a non-native or a “nonstandard” accent. The “standard” is often a high-status accent, but it could also just be the dominant one – thought of as neutral, used in politics and the media. Like non-native accents, nonstandard native accents are frequently typecast and ridiculed as well. It’s important to keep in mind that these judgements are social, the distinctions linguistically arbitrary. In the context of learning or teaching a foreign language, the goal of understandable communication is still key, but we should lose the notion of “a single true and authentic way to speak.”

“English is a global language with many native and non-native varieties. Worldwide, non-native speakers of English outnumber natives by a ratio of three to one. Even in the United States, which has the largest population of native English speakers, there are, according to one estimate, nearly 50 million speakers of English as a second language.”

Accent itself is far from the best way to gauge a speaker’s language proficiency. A “strong” non-native accent doesn’t necessarily indicate the speaker’s vocabulary size or grasp of the grammar. Instead of focusing solely on accent, it would be better to consider a fuller account of how they communicate – do they participate comfortably in everyday interactions? Can they go into detail when telling a story? Looking at the broader communicative picture, as well as examining our own linguistic biases, will help mitigate the many negative stereotypes attributed to those with non-native accents.

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If you want to actually listen to some accent diversity, check out the speech accent archive. It contains around 2,800 recordings of native and non-native English speakers all reading the same paragraph. Also included are biographical data for each speaker, and a phonetic transcription of each recording (for linguists / anyone familiar with IPA). The number of language backgrounds represented there is impressive!