Career interviews: Linguistics Project Manager at a branding firm

working wugs_cropped

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. 😛

An upstream battle: Revitalizing Umónhon

TheOmahaSpeaking

I could spill a lot of ink (well, use a lot of pixels) writing about endangered languages, and the reasons why language revitalization, or at least preservation, is crucial. But I’ll spare you today, dear readers. I will say in summary that linguistic diversity is both culturally/anthropologically important, and significant to the study of human cognition. It’s culturally important because speakers of a particular language have stored within it their traditions, history, social norms, and scientific knowledge (e.g. medicine, botany); when their tongue dies, many key aspects of their cultural identity and world knowledge disappear. It’s important for studying the human cognitive capacity, because the more languages we can examine, the better informed are our conclusions on cross-linguistic universals and differences – conclusions which, in turn, help us understand how the mind works.

Today, instead of a lengthy psycho-socio-historical dissertation, I want to give a short  example of one currently endangered language and the revitalization efforts around it. This language is Umónhon, of the Omaha Tribe in Macy, Nebraska.

Here is a 2015 article in the Omaha World-Herald: Omaha Tribe members trying to revitalize an ‘endangered language’.

Highlights from the article:

  • The Omaha Tribe has more than 7,000 members.
  • Only twelve fluent speakers of Umónhon are left (and none of them are under age 70).
  • Umónhon means “upstream people” or “against the current” (this particular tribe traveled north up the Missouri River). Umónhon morphed into Omaha, the name given to them by white settlers.
  • People of the tribe spoke Umónhon widely until the mid-20th century, when boarding schools began forcing students to speak only English.
  • Recent educational efforts have been difficult. The language barely has a written form; there are no textbooks; funding to develop materials and programs is scarce; and interest and retention among young students is low.
  • While the tribe waits for further funding or help from other tribes, some parents are taking the initiative to teach their children Umónhon.

Since 2015, efforts have ramped up. Last year, the community held a language bootcamp.

And now there’s a new documentary out about the tribe’s language and culture. No info on the film’s release yet, but you can watch the trailer: “The Omaha Speaking”.

The Omaha may never go back to speaking Umónhon as extensively as they once did. Still, these achievements make my language gland tingle with hope.

 

Foreign accent syndrome and speech understanding

Maybe you’ve heard about people who, due to a stroke or accident, can no longer speak or understand speech normally. Aphasia is a condition where damage (usually from stroke or head trauma) to particular regions of the brain causes a person to lose specific language production and comprehension abilities. Aphasia studies are remarkable, and have taught us much about how language works inside the brain. Recently, however, I learned of a strange condition kind of similar to, but not as debilitating as aphasia: Foreign accent syndrome.

Here’s the article: The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents.

You should read the full piece, but a few highlights follow.

“Foreign accent syndrome (FAS for short) is a real thing, though it’s very rare — fewer than 200 cases diagnosed since it was first described in 1907. It may sound like it’s just a delusion or fantasy, but fewer than 10 percent of cases have a psychological basis (for example, related to schizophrenia). Nearly all of the rest are of neurological origin: They are caused by damage or impairment to a specific area of the brain.”

“The short explanation is that FAS (possibly excepting the few psychological cases) is a disorder of speech planning and execution.”

“Naturally, when we hear speech tweaked on one or several of those parameters, we associate it with an accent that has a similar feature set. And if we hear an accent that sounds somehow different but we’re not sure, we make our best guess at what it is. The less familiar we are with an accent, the less we’re likely to notice things that aren’t quite right about it: Many Americans can’t tell Australian accents from English ones even though people from England and Australia have no trouble telling the two apart. Researchers studying cases of FAS have sometimes tested samples of the speech with listeners who didn’t know its origin to see if they could identify where it was from, and, unsurprisingly, opinions varied considerably. But when they tested “controls” — samples of native speakers with unimpaired speech from several countries — listeners couldn’t always identify their accents accurately either.”

Videos of people with FAS:

Texan woman with “British English” accent
English woman with “Chinese” accent

What does the author mean by feature set in the quote above? Each language has its own unique set of phonemes or word-distinguishing units of sound (called its phonemic inventory). This set is pulled from a larger set of all possible speech sounds. We recognize different languages and accents by these feature sets. And yet, the FAS article had me thinking about our general ineptitude when it comes to identifying accents. Because the speech of the person with FAS in the first video is close enough to a British English accent from an American English point of view, we lump it in that category…while to a native British English speaker, they’re noticeably dissimilar. Even in our native accent, speech can be hard to disambiguate. The recent viral “Laurel/Yanny” debate is a good example.

“Laurel”/“Yanny” makes you wonder how we understand each other at all. I’d say that pragmatics, i.e. context, plays a vital role. When communication is stripped of context, it’s significantly more difficult to interpret. My current work has made this very clear to me. We’re listening to and transcribing 2-to-4-second audio clips of users’ commands (and other speech) to their smartphone voice assistants. Knowing the contexts of “voice assistant-directed speech” and “things one might want to do on their phone” helps some. But outside of that, because the sound clips are so short and we’re not actually there, interacting with the speaker, a part of the conversation – it’s often a challenge to resolve (i.e. accurately transcribe) certain categories of words. Proper nouns are especially tricky. Contacts’ names, product or app names, names of unfamiliar towns and musicians, et cetera.  If we were face-to-face with the speaker, we’d have the entire conversational, situational, and interpersonal background at our disposal, which helps resolve such unknowns.

Successful communication must rely on many factors. And language doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Of Kanji and Kana

jap_fabric_writing

The Japanese writing system, like other aspects of Japanese culture, is complicated and fascinating. Its three main character sets are a notorious struggle for second-language learners and young native speakers alike. While many tongues have what is called synchronic digraphia (where two or more writing systems for the same language coexist), Japanese is famous for having three main character sets within one single writing system.[1] Of interest to linguistics-minded folks, these three character sets systematically express different areas of the language’s grammar (word classes, for instance). Below is my attempt at a fun, informative introduction to the system.

The three main character sets of Japanese are kanji, hiragana, and katakana.

漢字 | KANJI

Kanji characters are logographic, meaning they cannot be spelled (sounded) out, but instead must be memorized whole. As many know, they were taken from the Chinese writing system. The term kanji literally means “Chinese characters”. If you’ve ever complained about the obtuse nature of English orthography, or remember the pain of memorizing weird word spellings as a child, consider this: a Japanese person of average education knows (i.e. has memorized) about three thousand kanji. Dictionaries contain about ten thousand kanji.[2]

Kanji are used for content words – nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, adverbs, personal names and place names. They’re composed of radicals, graphical pieces that often have either a semantic or phonetic quality (they indicate part of the meaning or the sound of the character, respectively). There is a particular stroke order for each character, which everyone is expected to follow when writing. And as if all that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there are also two separate pronunciations – on’yomi and kun’yomi – that depend on context or conjugation.

Here are some examples of kanji:

東京 – Tokyo (place name)                                   長谷川 – Hasegawa (surname)

薔薇 – bara (a noun, means “rose”)

違う – chigau (a verb or adjective, means “to be wrong” or “wrong”. Only the first character, the verb stem, is kanji; the second character, or conjugation, is hiragana)

Kana characters include the two sets hiragana and katakana. They’re both phonetic, meaning they can be sounded out. Kana also originally came from Chinese, but the characters are so altered and simplified that their sources are not apparent today. Japan adopted Chinese writing in the third century, and ran into trouble since the two spoken languages were completely unrelated. They began using characters not for their meanings, but for their sound values only. Both modern-day kana sets have an inventory of 46 characters (along with two types of diacritics), and these constitute a syllabary[3] of consonant-vowel pairings.

ひらがな | HIRAGANA

Hiragana has rounded symbols, smooth curves. The hiragana syllabary is used for native words, and grammatical elements like particles, auxiliary verbs, and inflections (e.g. verb conjugations, noun suffixes). Japanese children’s books are mostly in hiragana since younger kids haven’t yet learned many kanji. When books do include kanji, they have small furigana by the side – hiragana or katakana to help with pronunciation.

Here are some examples of hiragana:

               ありがとう – arigatou (“thank you”)                ください – kudasai (“please”)

               です – desu (auxiliary verb, “is”)                           の, は, を – no, wa, o (particles)

カタカナ | KATAKANA

With katakana, you’ll notice similarities to hiragana, but the symbol shapes are clearly more angular. Katakana is used for foreign names and words, loanwords, onomatopoeia, and emphasis.

Here are some examples of katakana:

アメリカ – amerika (foreign name, “America”)

サラリーマン – sararii man (“salary man”, i.e. office worker)

テレビ – terebi (loanword, “television”)

ニャンニャン – nyan nyan (onomatopoeia, sound of cat meowing)

* * * * *

The Japanese system has TWO directions for writing: vertical (tategaki), and horizontal (yokogaki). Vertical is the traditional form, running from top to bottom, right to left on the page. Books written with vertical text open the opposite way from Western language books. Horizontal is the direction Western language readers are used to – left to right on the page. This Western style is used in more modern applications, like websites. To maximize space, newspapers, magazines, and signs frequently use both directions![4] Then, because we still haven’t juggled enough variables, Japanese text doesn’t include spaces between words, so readers must infer based on context where divisions are to be made.

Cool Japanese literature tangent: The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 – Genji Monogatari), written by noblewoman Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is frequently considered the world’s first novel or first modern novel.

I’ll leave you with some marvelously idiosyncratic Japanese words and concepts, for which there are definitely no concise words/phrases in English. You can observe how the three character sets interact in various ways. (Most of the words come from this site).

Enjoy!

Japanese Pronunciation     (in rōmaji) Character set(s) Definition Literal meaning
教育ママ kyouiku mama kanji + katakana A mother who is obsessed with her children’s education
バーコード人 baakoudo jin katakana + kanji Men with ridiculous comb-overs “barcode people”
横飯 yoko meshi kanji Western food “horizontal rice”
侘寂 wabi-sabi kanji An aesthetic that sees beauty in the ephemerality and imperfection of things both natural and manmade
ぽかぽか poka poka hiragana Feeling warm throughout one’s body
口寂しい kuchi sabishii kanji + hiragana When you’re not hungry but you eat anyway “mouth lonely”
猫糞 neko baba kanji To steal/pocket and pretend innocence “cat feces”
ありがた迷惑 arigata meiwaku hiragana + kanji “An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude”[5]

 

[1] I say three “main” character sets because there are actually more, if you count Arabic numerals, rōmaji (i.e. the Roman alphabet), punctuation, etc. Also, this person argues that the focus on three+ character sets in Japanese is silly and that English and other writing systems have multiple sets as well (capital and lowercase letters in English, for example), but in order to keep things succinct here, I didn’t go into that level of detail. Additionally, I disagree with them that capital vs. lowercase Roman letters possess the same grammatical significance as kanji/hiragana/katakana and so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

[2] https://nihongoichiban.com/2011/05/24/the-japanese-writing-system/

[3] Where each symbol represents a syllable.

[4] See this nice article with lots of illustrative pictures.

[5] https://sobadsogood.com/2012/04/28/25-words-that-simply-dont-exist-in-english/