Thursday, October 8, 2009

A World of Words.. And Me

Tonight, I gave a talk titled "A world of words" at Ignite Sydney, and I want to give a bit more information about why I gave that talk.

As I said at the beginning of the talk, I have always had a thing for words. When I was a wee lass, I had a favorite song called "Great Big Words" and loved to finish crossword puzzles. In high school, I realized that I needed to study words in order to do well on the SATs, and I could get away with more word geekery that way. I downloaded multiple flashcard programs on my PC, and I forced friends in my carpool to bring in words to discuss during each morning ride. Needless to say, I aced my test... and I was also no longer part of that carpool. Then, in university, I joined an honor society and suggested that we educate our peers by plastering the kiosks with "Word of the Week" posters. On each poster, I took great pleasure in coming up with a ridiculous sentence that used the word, and an overlay thorough description of its etymology. (See: poster for "diaphanous")

So, I realized I had an obsession, and I needed to make it legit. I enrolled in a linguistics minor, and I was hooked. Everything about language was fascinating - why we make the sounds we do, why our sentences can become ambiguous, even stuff like why we can say "abso-fucking-lotely" and not "ab-fucking-solutely" (seriously, that was covered in two classes). Inspired by my newfound knowledge, I applied for and was accepted into the John Hopkins Computational Linguistics summer workshop. There, I spent the summer working on a tool for visualizating the parse trees for sentences translated into multiple languages (See: screenshot).

That project got me thinking about the various ways that I could combine my computer science skills with my love for linguistics. I eventually concocted a project that would use both those, and my other minor, 3d animation, and convinced my advisors it was worthy of credit. It was entitled "A Computational Framework for Simulating Cross-Linguistic Acquisition of Spatial Prepositions", and it was basically an attempt to get a computer script to learn prepositions (above/under/on) by analyzing a 3d-scene and given sentences. And, hey, it kind of worked. (See: e-poster). I was on a roll!

So, I was at the point where I was trying to figure out what was next in life. I knew what I loved, but couldn't decide what to do with what I loved. It was suggested that I apply for a Fulbright grant - a grant that would let me do research somewhere in the world - and I thought that was a mighty fine idea. I wrote up my proposal for an app that I had always fantasized about. It was called "A World Wide Web of Comparative Linguistics", and it would let user visualize and search through etymological history on a map-based interface. (See: proposal). In my opinion, the app would bring immediate world peace. How could you possibly fight with someone after you realized how connected your words were?

Unfortunately, the Fulbright committee didn't see it that way, and I didn't get a grant. I instead went on to get a Masters degree and get hired by Google, and that's where I am today. I've been pretty busy supporting the Maps API for the past 3 years, but lately, I've started craving a bit of linguistics in my life. I started listing to word-of-the-day podcasts on my iPod during my morning commute, and it just gets my brain all tingly.

So, I put together this talk as one way of satisfying that craving (or, more likely, making it much bigger), and also to share this bit of knowledge with others. It's a nice break from my typical web talks, and I think I surprised a few folks.

You can see the talk embedded below or on slideshare, complete with captions of what I actually said.

You can also watch the recorded talk below:

For more resources on the topic, you can check out the sites that I bookmarked while researching the talk, subscribe to the podictionary podcast, or start looking up words in the online etymology dictionary.

And, of course, stay tuned to the blog to find out if I do ever create that etymology visualization app.. It would be a damn nifty thing indeed, even if it didn't bring world peace. :)


podictionary said...

Hey Pamela, I like it!
Did your audience?

Carlos said...

As I speak Spanish and Portuguese, I knew about a few of those words that go around from latin to english (and back), but I never knew how 'cha', both in Cantonese and Mandarin became 'tea' in English.

Fascinating presentation,
thank you.

Pamela Fox said...

@podictionary (Charles?) - Yes, they loved it. Lots of people talked to me after about their own languages and how they found out they were connected. You should get a few more subscribers.. thanks for the podcasts!

@Carlos - Right, I also speak some Portuguese, and I learnt "cha" and then heard an Indian guy refer to tea as that, and it started me on an exploration. There are a lot of Portuguese words in Indian - offhand, I remember balde/balti for bucket.

Mandi said...

loved the presentation Pamela, thanks for sharing!

passenger57 said...

Trivia of the day: abso-fucking-lutely is an example of TMESIS.

The audience absolutely loved Pamela's talk last night, and she easily got the biggest applause of the evening.

tim said...

We abs-fucking-lutely loved it, she was the bomb, she rocked, its was a tour-de-force, sublime, i could've done a test afterwards and aced it, and all everybody could think at the end was 'segoi tanoshikata !'

No, seriously, i was one of the other speakers.

Pamela you rocked.

podictionary said...

Yes Pamela it is me, Charles.

Thinking of maps, thinking of language, made me think of Fred Popowich a friend in Vancouver. Check his bio at Just for fun I'll alert him to this post as well.

I'm with you on world peace. I once tried something aimed at promoting etymology as entertainment and used the images you can see here.

Pamela Fox said...

Haha, love the image. It's not just me then. :)

Adelaide Dupont said...

I saw you on Scribd and was MOST impressed.

I will keep up with you and what you do on Google and other places.

Great to have the more 'textual' side as companion to the slide show and how you share with us your true love of words.

podictionary said...

Pamela, I just learned about the Street View trike. I have an idea. Can you contact me by email so I can describe it and you can shut me down or shunt me to the right person? Thanks, Charles