The journey of a word

The word silly is defined by as meaning “weak-minded or lacking good sense; stupid or foolish”[1]. Long ago, however, the word from which silly derives––the Proto-Germanic sæligas[2]––meant something more like “happy, blessed, prosperous”. Some descendants of this word, such as the German selig (“blessed, happy, blissful”), still retain their ancestor’s meaning; others, such as … Continue reading The journey of a word

Regularization for feature selection

Note: This post attempts to summarize part of Chapter 6 from “Introduction to Statistical Learning” (James et al, 2013); the full textbook can be found here in PDF form [], which contains a number of examples and walks through the equations in more detail. In science, we try to explain the world in terms of … Continue reading Regularization for feature selection

Metaphor and Mechanism

In any scientific field, researchers construct theoretical models of the phenomenon under consideration. Often, these models employ some sort of metaphor to ground the phenomenon in more familiar language. For example, biologists sometimes describe the immune system in terms of lock-and-key dynamics, cells in terms of factories, and DNA in terms of a language (Brown, … Continue reading Metaphor and Mechanism

Sources of disambiguating information (Ambiguity in language, pt. 5)

In a previous post, I described how researchers might go about tackling the question of how humans understand ambiguous language. The basic idea was to first identify potential sources of disambiguating information, then ask whether humans actually use this information to understand ambiguous language. But what constitutes a “potential” source of disambiguating information? The short … Continue reading Sources of disambiguating information (Ambiguity in language, pt. 5)

Ambiguity and humor (Ambiguity in language, pt. 4)

One of the byproducts of an ambiguous communicate system is that speakers can exploit this ambiguity. Sometimes this is done to deceive or manipulate, as with bribes (Pinker et al, 2008)[1] or so-called “dog-whistle politics” (Safire, 2008; López, 2015). But this exploitation is often more innocuous and commonplace, as in the case of humor. Examples … Continue reading Ambiguity and humor (Ambiguity in language, pt. 4)

Is language really ambiguous? (Ambiguity in language, pt. 3)

Ambiguous expressions pervade language. Moreover, it appears that speakers don’t always avoid speaking ambiguously. So how do we manage to communicate at all? And why are we often oblivious to the pervasiveness of this ambiguity? Reframing the problem One answer to these questions is to reframe the problem: perhaps, some might say, language is not … Continue reading Is language really ambiguous? (Ambiguity in language, pt. 3)

U-turns in speech production (Ambiguity in language, pt. 2)

The prevalence of ambiguity in language poses a problem for communication. Ambiguous expressions require listeners to infer which interpretation was intended, raising the probability of miscommunication. One fairly obvious solution to this problem would be for speakers to speak less ambiguously––but is this really what they do? First, we need to define exactly what we … Continue reading U-turns in speech production (Ambiguity in language, pt. 2)