Communicating with your hands

… and facial expressions! A talented friend of mine started offering online lessons in American Sign Language (ASL), and so far we’ve covered basic signs (e.g., please, thank you, how do you sign…?), the manual alphabet, and how to express basic needs (e.g., hunger, thirst, sleepiness). I have dim memories of learning some ASL in high school, and it seems that the alphabet, at least, stuck with me. It’s great to learn a bunch of new vocabulary. (The image at right shows the sign for “learn”.)

I don’t know if or when I’ll get to put ASL into practice, but regardless I’m enjoying puzzling through a new kind of grammar and the… hm… performance aspect of signing. It’s not just about moving your hands; the aspects of eye contact and facial expression are also necessary, and even though it’s mostly intuitive so far, it’s new/foreign to have to think consciously about what expression goes with the sign :) I get the sense that the expressions are much more vivid and large than they are when I’m speaking English. (I’m sure it becomes natural over time.)

Some other ideas I found valuable that we’ve covered so far:

  • Sign language has its own grammar, and notably it is not a literal reproduction of English with hand signs (I’ve encountered this concept before and it continues to fascinate me. It makes sense to me that what would be natural and efficient in spoken language might be quite different in signed language).
  • Signs have three parts: hand shape, hand position, and motion.
  • We are encouraged to fingerspell words as units, so instead of thinking/spelling “b” “o” “o” “k”, you do better to think sign-b-sign-o-sign-o-sign-k as a unit. This sounds similar to what you’d like to achieve with any foreign language: blending units into chunks to make communication more natural.

I’m looking forward to next week’s lessons!

Morse code mnemonics

Morse code just got 10 times cooler – or maybe just 10 times easier to learn!

A few years ago, I stumbled on the mind-blowing binary tree version of Morse code. I was so excited about this that I downloaded a “learn Morse code” app on my phone and started practicing it, gradually working up to faster comprehension speeds. But then I got distracted by some other shiny thing and stopped practicing and Morse code went dormant in my brain.

Two days ago I re-encountered it in this amazing video by the always impressive Nelson Dellis:

Nelson gives us mnemonics for learning Morse code. This is absolutely BRILLIANT since Morse code is already audible. :) After watching his video exactly *once*, I already know Morse code for my name and can recall it with negligible effort:

-.- .. .-. ..

(mnemonic: KAN-ga-ROO i-bid ro-TA-tion i-bid)

*and* I discovered a beautiful symmetry in my Morse name!

I’m truly impressed by how quickly and easily this mnemonic sunk in. Nelson, you rock!

Hand signs that convey sound

Sign language is a way to communicate with symbols: each gesture has a particular meaning.

But don’t be misled by these simple examples; sign language isn’t simply a signed form of English. Its grammar and usage are quite different. People who grow up Deaf and learn, say, American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language must learn English as a second language.

One strategy to help bridge this gap is “cued speech”, in which the speaker communicates with both voice and signs simultaneously, but the signs are used to convey sound (phonemes), not meaning. As Wikipedia says, “It adds information about the phonology of the word that is not visible on the lips” and can therefore help improve lip reading skills as well (a similar mouth shape could make more than one sound, like “b” and “p”, so the listener can distinguish “bear” and “pear”).

Here’s a short video:

This got me thinking about the ways that we communicate in writing. For example, in Japanese, kanji is a symbolic language like ASL (characters indicate meaning). Hiragana and katakana are phonetic (spelled the way they sound). It can be difficult to remember how to pronounce all of the kanji, even for native speakers (and younger folk may not have encountered a particular kanji yet). So it is common (e.g., in newspapers) to annotate a kanji with its pronunciation using tiny hiragana letters above it (called furigana), to help you pronounce it. Rather like cued speech, but for text!

From this perspective, an alphabet is a curious thing. It’s not (quite) phonetic (at least in English), and it’s not symbolic; letters have no independent meaning. Yet it is very versatile, and just 26 letters suffice to allow us to represent all of English. Learning correct pronunciations for otherwise identical spellings, however (words ending in “ough” such as through, tough, though, etc. being the canonical example), is left up to the reader.

Grammar police

Recently I came across this article: “Stop shaming people on the Internet for grammar mistakes. Its not there fault.” The author urges more compassion for the oh-so-common grammar mistakes that we are all prone to and provides an interesting dissection of the cognitive reasons for those errors.

“Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat. Errors are a routine part of our cognitive systems,” the author, Andrew Heisel, claims.

While “mocking” isn’t productive, I think “awareness” is. Some grammar rules do seem needlessly arcane, but others have evolved to reduce ambiguity and increase communication. And so I find the Twitter bot called Grammar Police, which automatically detects and tactfully points out grammar errors in tweets, to be both fascinating and useful.

Mr. Heisel introduced me to this bot by way of criticizing it. But the bot has 19,500 followers, and I don’t think that they all subscribe merely “to pretend, 25 times a day, that you’re perfect and other people’s foibles are not your own.” In fact, I observed that some of those whom Grammar Police called out in an automated post actually thanked the bot. The bot’s postings might even inspire some readers to look up “nominative case.”

Now I’m thinking that a statistical analysis of the bot’s 85,400 tweets (and counting) would be quite interesting. What are the most common types of errors? And how many of them inspired a thank you?

The under-used locative adverbs

A locative adverb tells you where something took place. Examples we all know and use commonly are ‘where’, ‘here’, and ‘there.’ Other such words can be constructed, like ‘homeward.’

But there are other locative adverbs that are so handy that it’s amazing that they aren’t used more often. ‘Where,’ ‘here’, and ‘there’ indicate the location at which something happens. What about actions moving toward or away from a location, like ‘homeward,’ but more general? In fact, there’s an equivalent for each of those three in each of these directions of motion:

At To From
Where Whither Whence
Here Hither Hence
There Thither Thence


Now, using these words may make you sound like you just stepped out of Shakespeare or Chaucer, but in fact they are nice, compact ways to express motion. The words in the second and third columns already have a preposition built in!

“Whither do they wander?” sounds better and is technically more correct than “Where do they wander?” since “where” has no “to” sense to it. “Whence did you come?” is more compact than “From where did you come?” or “Where did you come from?”

From this table we can see that “from whence” makes no sense, despite its rather common use.

So, next time you need to talk about where, here, or there something went to or from, consider using these nicely compact, already invented ways to express that notion!

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