Search Results for: language

Death of Writing, Writing of Death: A Reading List on Artificial Intelligence and Language

The other day, I saw a tweet of an obituary, seemingly written by a bot. The obituary’s odd but delightful phrases like “Brenda was an avid collector of dust,” “Brenda was a bird,” “she owed us so many poems,” and “send Brenda more life” were hilarious to some people — send me more life too, please! — while others couldn’t help but wonder: Is this really a bot?

You didn’t have to fall too far down a rabbit hole to learn that the obituary, in fact, was not written by a bot, but a human — writer and comedian Keaton Patti — as part of his book, I Forced a Bot to Write This Book. Some commenters, perhaps proud of their human-sniffing capabilities or just well-versed in real machine-written prose, were quick to point out that there was no way a bot could write this.

This had 20x the feel of a human trying to write a funny thing than a bot

Pretty sure a person wrote this without any technology more complicated than Microsoft word

not a bot! the punchlines are too consistent

For everyone afraid that AI is taking over, the bot said Brenda was a bird…

Try a language generator at Talk to Transformer, an AI demo site.

Even though the obituary was human-generated, it still reminded me of two editors’ picks we recently featured on Longreads — Jason Fagone’s feature “The Jessica Simulation” and Vauhini Vara’s essay “Ghosts” — in which AI-powered prose is a significant (and spooky) part of these stories. Both pieces prominently feature GPT-3, a powerful language generator from research laboratory OpenAI that uses machine learning to create human-like text. In simple terms, you can feed GPT-3 a prompt, and in return, it predicts and attempts to complete what comes next. Its predecessor, GPT-2, was “eerily good” at best, specializing in mediocre poetry; GPT-3, which is 100 times larger and built with 175 billion machine learning parameters, comes closer to crossing the Uncanny Valley than anything, and raises unsettling questions about the role AI will play — or is already playing — in our lives. Read more…

The Strange Persistence of First Languages

Longreads Pick

“Spurred by my father’s death, I returned to the Czech Republic hoping to reconnect to him. In doing so, I also reconnected with my native tongue, and with parts of my identity that I had long ignored.”

Source: Nautilus
Published: Nov 5, 2015
Length: 13 minutes (3,440 words)

The Wound of Multilingualism: On Surrendering the Languages of Home

Longreads Pick

“Learning a language as an adult or in your teens, especially with a history of repeated migrations between languages and countries, is extraordinarily difficult. It isn’t just about swallowing new words like passion fruit that glides down your throat. It’s like chewing on stones breaking your teeth in order to seed the foundations of that new language on your tongue already heavy with many idioms.”

Source: LitHub
Published: Sep 8, 2020
Length: 6 minutes (1,627 words)

The Function and Language of Ancient Sexual Texts

Kin Cheung / AP Photo

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about a medieval classroom’s curriculum or what it might have been like to attend. Apparently they could be a lot more racy than you’d think. Chaucer’s story Reeve’s Tale, is about rape, for example. Poems about deflowered nuns and lascivious men whose sexual appetites earned comparisons to animals were read to children and adults. In a fascinating and fresh review-essay for the London Review of Books, Irina Dumitrescu looks at ancient depications of sexuality, and the idea of obscenity, through Carissa Harris’ book Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “In her meticulously argued new book,” Dumitrescu writes, “Carissa Harris shows that obscenity was used to convey vastly different lessons about sex and ethics in medieval literature. Focusing on sexual language in Middle English and Middle Scots, her study explores the way texts deployed for (heterosexual) erotic education often combined ‘the irresistible pull of arousal and titillation and the revulsive push of shame and disgust’.”

For much of the 20th century, academics argued that the concept of obscenity was born along with the printing press and state censorship of erotic material. One can understand where this idea came from: even a fleeting encounter with medieval art is likely to turn up lurid depictions of sex organs and bodily orifices. Take the naked man crouching at the bottom of the Bayeux Tapestry, his genitalia on full display. (In 2018, George Garnett achieved brief internet fame by counting the 93 phalluses, human and equine, shown on the tapestry, and documenting their states of tumescence.) Medieval manuscript pages often have a stately central text surrounded by rollicking activity. Nuns harvest penises from trees in the lower margins of a manuscript of the Roman de la rose, and a naked man presents his behind to be pierced by a monkey’s lance beneath the prayers of the Rutland Psalter. Pilgrim badges, popular medieval souvenirs made of cheap metal alloys, depict vulvas dressed as pilgrims, winged penises and female smiths forging phalluses. Erotic imagery is carved into stone corbels and on the undersides of wooden choir seats in medieval churches.

But none of this should be taken as proof that there was no concept of obscenity in the Middle Ages. The notion that some things are lewd or filthy is distinct from the desire to regulate them by political means. The influential seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville used the adjective ‘obscenus’ to describe the love of prostitutes and those parts of the body that excite people to shameful acts. In the 12th century, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux railed against heretics doing ‘heinous and obscene’ things in private, comparing them to the stinking behinds of foxes. In the Roman de la rose, the Lover upbraids the allegorical figure of Reason for using the word coilles (‘balls’). He argues that this isn’t dignified in the mouth of a courteous girl (an unwitting double entendre), but Reason defends her usage. God made the generative organs and women enjoy the pleasures these afford, whatever word is used to describe them. Not all medieval copyists of the Roman de la rose agreed with this argument: a number of versions leave out this passage. People in the Middle Ages certainly understood certain things to be filthy or shameful, but such topics could also inspire prayerful reflection or be used to explain the error of a poor line of verse.

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The Curious Language of Grief

Longreads Pick

“I wonder why I wonder, and then I remember why: I am still mourning him, in part because I am mourning all the relationships I never got to have with the people who never knew me as a woman.”

Source: Catapult
Published: Mar 11, 2020
Length: 13 minutes (3,495 words)

Garbage Language: Why Do Corporations Speak the Way They Do?

Longreads Pick

Let’s drop a pin in this and take it off-line so we can futureproof the intiative with these key learnings and co-create innovative win-wins that require an omni-channel push but no critical ask. Actually, let’s not.

Published: Feb 20, 2020
Length: 16 minutes (4,188 words)

We Use Language as a Spade

Getty Images

In this beautiful personal essay at The Sun Magazine, Christine Marshall considers cats and kittens, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and how writing has helped her to express and process her anger, resentment, and grief after a series of miscarriages.

BISHOP’S POEMS ARE like the sky on a clear night. At first you notice the brightness, stars as thick and close as pores in the face. The stars and moon and planets form patterns and shapes. They remind you how much energy exists in the world. Then you start to notice what’s behind the stars: an eternity of dark.

IN A 1966 letter to her poet friend Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop mentions her cat Tobias, who still flourishes, age fifteen. The 1960s were not a great decade for Bishop, who was embroiled in a painful breakup with the love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop didn’t write about her heartache in her letter to her friend. She stayed light. She chatted about the weather and politics and the neighbors’ children and her cats.

Writing, I decide, is not just a record of our experiences but a reaching beyond what we have known, an opportunity to use empathy and curiosity to broaden our sense of self. There’s a strange assumption in the phrase Write what you know — that we already know ourselves.

We don’t stop at what we know. We don’t use language simply as a mirror. We also use it as a spade.

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Language Barrier

Longreads Pick
Source: The New Yorker
Published: Dec 30, 2019
Length: 11 minutes (2,960 words)

The Adaptation of Language Evolution


Your speech, or thine speech as Shakespeare would have said, has evolved with each generation that preceded you. The bubbling melting pot of language absorbs new influences with alacrity. Every time we repeatedly interact with people, we have the chance to develop a shared vocabulary. In The Walrus Gretchen McCulloch explores whether the language mix is changing faster as a result of technology. People interacting on social media often end up using similar phrases, yet we tend to follow others with the same interests, with words jumping around between demographically similar cities, regardless of geography. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to the most linguistic innovation. And other factors, such as community and gender, are still playing a part.

Young women are also consistently on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through media trend sections, from uptalk (the distinctive rising intonation at the end of sentences?) to the use of “like” to introduce a quotation (“And then I was like, ‘Innovation’”). The role that young women play as language disruptors is so clearly established at this point that it’s practically boring to linguists who study this topic: well-known sociolinguist William Labov estimated that women lead 90 percent of linguistic change in a paper he wrote in 1990. (I’ve attended more than a few talks at sociolinguistics conferences about a particular change in vowels or vocabulary, and it barely gets even a full sentence of explanation: “And here, as expected, we can see that the women are more advanced on this change than the men. Next slide.”) Men tend to follow a generation later: in other words, women tend to learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers.

McCulloch also delves into some innovative ways past linguists have studied language.

The fieldworker he selected was a grocer named Edmond Edmont, who reportedly had a particularly astute ear (it’s not clear whether this referred to the acuity of his hearing or his attention to phonetic detail, but either way, it got him the job). Gilliéron trained Edmont in phonetic notation and sent him off on a bicycle with a list of 1,500 questions, such as, “What do you call a cup?” and “How do you say the number fifty?” Over the next four years, Edmont cycled to 639 French villages, sending results back to Gilliéron periodically. In each village, he interviewed an older person who had lived in the region for their entire life, counting them as representative of the history of the area.

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The Bonds Beyond Language

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Brian Trapp‘s twin brother Danny had cerebral palsy and severe intellectual disabilities, which limited his speech to twelve words. Thanks to a devoted family who developed their own language of jokes and rituals, Danny could convey a range of ideas and emotions and participate in family life. But his limited language meant that people had to speak for him, guessing at what he would have wanted, what he did and didn’t understand, the full breadth of his personality — with only twelve words, there was so much about Danny that his loved ones could never know. Faced with the decision to take Danny off a ventilator, how could the family be sure they were respecting a wish he couldn’t express? In a stirring essay for the Kenyon Review, Trapp examines his deep relationship with his twin and the ways we communicate in general; we imagine and interpret who people are and project our own experiences onto them, including, in Trapp’s case, his survivor’s guilt.

There was a large gap between his receptive and expressive capabilities, so we had to make what disability advocates call the “least dangerous assumption” and assume his communicative intent even when we weren’t exactly sure what he was trying to say. This required his conversation partners to coconstruct his meaning, from his body language, context, and tone. We had to imagine what he was thinking, project ourselves into his mind. This might seem strange, but it is not that different from how people normally interact. Language, in general, is a flawed and limited instrument. We can never truly know what others feel or think, even if they spend hours telling us, even if they have a million words at their disposal. My brother just happened to have twelve. Rather than making him a freak or an alien, his disability helps us see the essential human truth of all our communication acts: We all construct other minds through this imperfect mediation of language. No one speaks on their own. We are all twins—we all finish each other’s sentences.

My name is a case in point. My brother multiplied its meaning with tone, context, and absence. He said “I-an” so I’d talk to him. He said “I-an” to tease me, repeated it every fifteen seconds while we rode in his van, an auditory Chinese water torture. He yelled “I-an” into my voice mail to call him back. He said “I-an” in response to questions like “Who’s ugly?” He yelled “I-an” at church, heckling the priest in the middle of a sermon, which might mean any number of things, both satirical and metaphysical. He said “I-an” softly before he nodded off to sleep, so that it might as well have been: I love you.

My name was the currency between us. When I said, “Danny, give me an I-an,” I was asking for a hand-slap, a bro-hug, if everything was all right, if he loved me. When he refused, “not-I-an,” the “absence of I-an” could have as much meaning. The silence might mean: Dude, screw you. It might mean: I’m too tired. I’m in too much pain. It might mean: You have to talk to me more. You’re an asshole. You’re a poor substitute for Mom. Withheld at the right moment, it might mean: I resent you.

Projection is a central theme in this essay, and into this essay I projected my own sadness. I cried as Brian lay in the hospital bed with his dying brother, letting Brian’s pain register as the pain I feel about my ailing elderly father and a recently deceased friend. Readers necessarily carry so much of ourselves to the stories we read; when I cried during Brian and Danny’s final moments together, I was also bracing myself for my own.

A white film covered his tongue, and his cough was wet. I put my finger in his hot hand. I asked my brother, “Do you love me?”

“Eh,” he said. He did not tease me. He knew.

I closed my eyes and held him to my chest. I pretended it was twenty-nine years ago, that we weren’t even born, still sealed in the womb. Where were our bodies? Were we like this, face-to-face? Were we turned around, back-to-back and rubbing spines? Was he upside down, his ass in my face? Where did I end and my brother begin? I pretended that his body wasn’t breaking down, that they had not cut tendons or poked holes, put in tubes or fastened masks, that I was never married, never had my heart broken. There wasn’t even language yet. We hadn’t learned a single word. Our cells were still blooming, getting ready. We would do it all over again.

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