One of the things I really enjoy about my current job is chatting with other data science folks. Almost inevitably in the course of these conversations, the old “Python vs. R” debate comes up.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Python and R are both programming languages often used by data scientists and other folks who work with data. Python is a general-purpose programming language (originally designed as a teaching language) that has some popular packages used for data analysis. R is a computer language specifically designed for doing statistics and visualization. They’re both useful languages, but R is much more specialized.
I use both Python & R, but I tend to prefer R for data analysis and vitalization. I also love kitchen gadgets. (I own and routinely use a melon baller, albeit only very rarely for actually balling melon.) My hypothesis is that my preference for R and love of kitchen gadgets share the same underlying cause: I really like specialized tools.
I was curious to see if there was a similar relationship for other people, so I reached out to my Twitter followers with a simple two-question poll:
Do you prefer Python or R?
How do you feel about specialized kitchen gadgets (e.g. veggie peelers, egg slicers, specialized knives).
185 people filled out the poll (if you were one of them, thanks!). Unfortunately for my hypothesis, a quick analysis of the results revealed no evidence that there was any relationship between whether someone prefers Python or R and if they like kitchen gadgets. You can check out the big ol’ null result for yourself:
Regardless of how poorly this experiment illustrates my point, however, it still stands: R is a specialized tool, while Python is general purpose one.
I like to think of R as a bread knife and Python as a pocket knife. It’s much easier to slice bread with a bread knife, but sometimes it’s more convenient to use a pocket knife if you already have it to hand.
This blog post is a little different from my usual stuff. It’s based on a talk I gave yesterday at the first annual Data Institute Conference. As a result, it’s aimed at a slightly more technical audience than my usual stuff, but I hope I’ve done an ok job keeping it accessible. Feel free to drop me a comment if you have any questions or found anything confusing and I’ll be sure to help you out.
You can play with the code yourself by forking this notebook on Kaggle (you don’t even have to download or install anything :).
# import libraries we'll useimportspacy# fast NLPimportpandasaspd# dataframesimportlangid# language identification (i.e. what language is this?)fromnltk.classify.textcatimportTextCat# language identification from NLTKfrommatplotlib.pyplotimportplot# not as good as ggplot in R :p
To explore working with multilingual data, let’s look a real-life dataset of user-generated text. This dataset contains 10,502 tweets, randomly sampled from all publicly available geotagged Twitter messages. It’s a realistic cross-section of the type of linguistic diversity you’ll see in a large text dataset.
# read in our datatweetsData=pd.read_csv("../input/all_annotated.tsv",sep="\t")# check out some of our tweetstweetsData['Tweet'][0:5]
0 Bugün bulusmami lazimdiii
1 Volkan konak adami tribe sokar yemin ederim :D
3 I felt my first flash of violence at some fool...
4 Ladies drink and get in free till 10:30
Name: Tweet, dtype: object
Maybe you’ve got a deadline coming up fast, or maybe you didn’t get a chance to actually look at some of your text data and just decide to treat it as if it were English. What could go wrong?
To find out, let’s use Spacy to tokenize all our tweets and take a look at the longest tokens in our data.
Spacy is an open-source NLP library that is much faster than the Natural Language Toolkit, although it does not have as many tasks implemented. You can find more information in the Spacy documentation.
# create a Spacy document of our tweets# load an English-language Spacy modelnlp=spacy.load("en")# apply the english language model to our tweetsdoc=nlp(' '.join(tweetsData['Tweet']))
Now let’s look at the longest tokens in our Twitter data.
The five longest tokens are entire tweets, four produced by an art bot that tweets hashes of Unix timestamps and one that’s just the HTML version of “<3” tweeted a bunch of times. In other words: normal Twitter weirdness. This is actual noise in the data and can be safely discarded without hurting downstream tasks, like sentiment analysis or topic modeling.
The next five longest tokens are also whole tweets which have been identified as single tokens. In this case, though, they were produced by humans!
The tokenizer (which assumes it will be given mainly English data) fails to correct tokenize these tweets because it’s looking for spaces. These tweets are in Japanese, though, and like many Asian languages (including all varieties of Chinese, Korean and Thai) they don’t actually use spaces between words.
In case you’re curious, “、” and “。” are single characters and don’t contain spaces! They are, respectively, the ideographic comma and ideographic full stop, and are part of a very long list of line breaking characters associated with specific orthographic systems.
In order to correctly tokenize Japanese, you’ll need to use a language-specific tokenizer.
The takeaway: if you ignore multiple languages, you’ll end up violating the assumptions behind major out-of-the-box NLP tools¶
Option 2: Only look at the parts of the data that are in English¶
So we know that just applying NLP tools designed for English willy-nilly won’t work on multiple languages. So what if we only grabbed the English-language data and then worked with that?
There are two big issues here:
Correctly identifying which tweets are in English
Throwing away data
Correctly identifying which tweets are in English¶
Probably the least time-intensive way to do this is by attempting to automatically identify the language that each Tweet is written in. A BIG grain of salt here: automatic language identifiers are very error prone, especially on very short texts. Let’s check out two of them.
LangID: Lui, Marco and Timothy Baldwin (2011) Cross-domain Feature Selection for Language Identification, In Proceedings of the Fifth International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (IJCNLP 2011), Chiang Mai, Thailand, pp. 553—561. Available from http://www.aclweb.org/anthology/I11-1062
TextCat: Cavnar, W. B. and J. M. Trenkle, “N-Gram-Based Text Categorization” In Proceedings of Third Annual Symposium on Document Analysis and Information Retrieval, Las Vegas, NV, UNLV Publications/Reprographics, pp. 161-175, 11-13 April 1994.
First off, here are the languages the first five tweets are actually written in, hand tagged by a linguist (i.e. me):
Now let’s see how well two popular language identifiers can detect this.
# summerize the labelled languagetweetsData['Tweet'][0:5].apply(langid.classify)
LangID does…alright, with three out of five tweets identified correctly. While it’s pretty good at identifying English, the first tweet was identified as Azerbaijani and the second tweet was labeled as Malay, which is very wrong (not even in the same language family as Turkish).
Let’s look at another algorithm, TextCat, which is based on character-level N-Grams.
# N-Gram-Based Text Categorizationtc=TextCat()# try to identify the languages of the first five tweets againtweetsData['Tweet'][0:5].apply(tc.guess_language)
Name: Tweet, dtype: object
TextCat also only got three out of the five correct. Oddly, it identifier “bed” as Breton. To be fair, “bed” is the Breton word for “world”, but it’s still a bit odd.
The takeaway: Automatic language identification, especially on very short texts, is very error prone. (I’d recommend using multiple language identifiers & taking the majority vote.)¶
Even if language identification were very accurate, how much data would be just be throwing away if we only looked at data we were fairly sure was English?
Note: I’m only going to LangID here for time reasons, but given the high error rate I’d recommend using multiple language identification algorithms.
# get the language id for each textids_langid=tweetsData['Tweet'].apply(langid.classify)# get just the language labellangs=ids_langid.apply(lambdatuple:tuple)# how many unique language labels were applied?print("Number of tagged languages (estimated):")print(len(langs.unique()))# percent of the total dataset in Englishprint("Percent of data in English (estimated):")print((sum(langs=="en")/len(langs))*100)
Number of tagged languages (estimated):
Percent of data in English (estimated):
Only 40% of our data has been tagged as English by LangId. If we throw the rest of it, we’re going to lose more than half of our dataset! Especially if this is data you spent a lot of time and money collecting, that seems downright wasteful. (Plus, it might skew our analysis.)
So if 40% of our data is in English, what is the other 60% made up of? Let’s check out the distribution data across languages in our dataset.
# convert our list of languages to a dataframelangs_df=pd.DataFrame(langs)# count the number of times we see each languagelangs_count=langs_df.Tweet.value_counts()# horrible-looking barplot (I would suggest using R for visualization)langs_count.plot.bar(figsize=(20,10),fontsize=20)
There’s a really long tail on our dataset; most that were identified in our dataset were only identified a few times. This means that we can get a lot of mileage out of including just a few more popular languages in our analysis. How much will we gain, exactly?
print("Languages with more than 400 tweets in our dataset:")print(langs_count[langs_count>400])print("")print("Percent of our dataset in these languages:")print((sum(langs_count[langs_count>400])/len(langs))*100)
Languages with more than 400 tweets in our dataset:
Name: Tweet, dtype: int64
Percent of our dataset in these languages:
By including only five more languages in our analysis (Spanish, Portugese, Japanese, Turkish and Indonesian) we can increase our coverage of the data in our dataset by almost a third!
The takeaway: Just incorporating a couple more languages in your analysis can give you access to a lot more data!¶
Option 3: Break the data apart by language & use language-specific tools¶
Ok, so what exactly does this pipeline look like? Let’s look at just the second most popular language in our dataset: Spanish. What happens when we pull out just the Spanish tweets & tokenize them?
# get a list of tweets labelled "es" by langidspanish_tweets=tweetsData['Tweet'][langs=="es"]# load a Spanish-language Spacy modelfromspacy.esimportSpanishnlp_es=Spanish(path=None)# apply the Spanish language model to our tweetsdoc_es=nlp_es(' '.join(spanish_tweets))# print the longest tokenssorted(doc_es,key=len,reverse=True)[0:5]
This time, the longest tokens are Spanish-language hashtags. This is exactly the sort of thing we’d expect to see! From here, we can use this tokenized dataset to feed into other downstream like sentiment analysis.
Of course, it would be impractical to do this for every single language in our dataset, even if we could be sure that they were all identified correctly. You’re probably going to have to accept that you probably won’t be able to consider every language in your dataset unless you can commit a lot of time. But including any additional language will enrich your analysis!
The takeaway: It doesn’t have to be onerous to incorporate multiple languages in your analysis pipeline!¶
So let’s review our options for analyzing multilingual data:¶
Option 1: Ignore Multilingualism
As we saw, this option will result in violating a lot of the assumptions built into NLP tools (e.g. there are spaces between words). If you do this, you’ll end up with a lot of noise and headaches as you try to move through your analysis pipeline.
Option 2: Only look at English
In this dataset, only looking at English would have led to us throwing away over half of our data. Especailly as NLP tools are developed and made avaliable for more and more languages, there’s less reason to stick to English-only NLP.
Option 3: Seperate your data by language & analyze them independently
This does take a little more work than the other options… but not that much more, especially for languages that already have resources avalialbe for them.
In the course of my day-to-day work on Kaggle’s public data platform, I’ve learned a lot about the ecosystem of language data on the web (or at least the portions of it that have been annotated in English). For example, I’ve noticed a weird disconnect between European and American data repositories resources that I’m pretty sure has its roots in historical and disciplinary divisions.
I’ve also found a lot of great resources, though! At some point, I started keeping notes on interesting data repositories and link aggregators. I finally got around to tidying up and annotating my list of resources, and I figured that it would a useful thing to share with everyone. So, without further ado, here’s an (incomplete) list of some places to find language resources on the web:
The Linguistic Data Consortium is an international non-profit that offers archival hosting of datasets. The data offered by them is high quality and usually not free (although they offer data grants for students).
Kaggle’s public data platform has a lot of language/NLP datasets available on it, many not in English. You can also do data analysis on Kaggle (with R or Python) without having to download anything or set up a local environment.
Like a digital object identifier (DOI) for language resources. Not the best search (only looks at the title) but if you have a specific phrase you’re looking for it can be a good way to discover new resources.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember that last year I found that YouTube’s automatic captions didn’t work as well for some dialects, or for women. The effects I found were pretty robust, but I wanted to replicate them for a couple of reasons:
I only looked at one system, YouTube’s automatic captions, and even that was over a period of several years instead of at just one point in time. I controlled for time-of-upload in my statistical models, but it wasn’t the fairest system evaluation.
I didn’t control for the audio quality, and since speech recognition is pretty sensitive to things like background noise and microphone quality, that could have had an effect.
I used speech data from four varieties: the South (speakers from Alabama), the Northern Cities (Michigan), California (California) and General American. “General American” is the sort of news-caster style of speech that a lot of people consider unaccented–even though it’s just as much an accent as any of the others! You can hear a sample here.
For each variety, I did an acoustic analysis to make sure that speakers I’d selected actually did use the variety I thought they should, and they all did.
For the YouTube captions, I just uploaded the speech files to YouTube as videos and then downloaded the subtitles. (I would have used the API instead, but when I was doing this analysis there was no Python Google Speech API, even though very thorough documentation had already been released.)
Bing’s speech API was a little more complex. For this one, my co-author built a custom Android application that sent the files to the API & requested a long-form transcript back. For some reason, a lot of our sound files were returned as only partial transcriptions. My theory is that there is a running confidence function for the accuracy of the transcription, and once the overall confidence drops below a certain threshold, you get back whatever was transcribed up to there. I don’t know if that’s the case, though, since I don’t have access to their source code. Whatever the reason, the Bing transcriptions were less accurate overall than the YouTube transcriptions, even when we account for the fact that fewer words were returned.
OK, now to the results. Let’s start with dialect area. As you might be able to tell from the graphs below, there were pretty big differences between the two systems we looked at. In general, there was more variation in the word error rate for Bing and overall the error rate tended to be a bit higher (although that could be due to the incomplete transcriptions we mentioned above). YouTube’s captions were generally more accurate and more consistent. That said, both systems had different error rates across dialects, with the lowest average error rates for General American English.
Now, let’s turn to gender. If you read my earlier work, you’ll know that I previously found that YouTube’s automatic captions were more accurate for men and less accurate for women. This time, with carefully recorded speech samples, I found no robust difference in accuracy by gender in either system. Which is great! In addition, the unreliable trends for each system pointed in opposite ways; Bing had a lower WER for male speakers, while YouTube had a lower WER for female speakers.
So why did I find an effect last time? My (untested) hypothesis is that there was a difference in the signal to noise ratio for male and female speakers in the user-uploaded files. Since women are (on average) smaller and thus (on average) slightly quieter when they speak, it’s possible that their speech was more easily masked by background noises, like fans or traffic. These files were all recorded in a quiet place, however, which may help to explain the lack of difference between genders.
Finally, what about race? For this part of the analysis, I excluded General American speakers, since they did not report their race. I also excluded the single Native American speaker. Even with fewer speakers, and thus reduced power, the differences between races were still robust enough to be significant for YouTube’s automatic captions and Bing followed the same trend. Both systems were most accurate for Caucasian speakers.
While I was happy to find no difference in performance by gender, the fact that both systems made more errors on non-Caucasian and non-General-American speaking talkers is deeply concerning. Regional varieties of American English and African American English are both consistent and well-documented. There is nothing intrinsic to these varieties that make them less easy to recognize. The fact that they are recognized with more errors is most likely due to bias in the training data. (In fact, Mozilla is currently collecting diverse speech samples for an open corpus of training data–you can help them out yourself.)
A recent paper proposes using automatic speech recognition to automatically score a clinical test used to diagnose, among other things, speech impairment, ADHD, dementia and schizophrenia.
Voice recognition is increasingly being incorporated into the hiring process. One example is HireVue, a software product designed to pre-screen candidates before they talk to a recruiter. A direct quote from the HireVue CEO when asked whether it might make a mistake on a candidate: “the algorithm is always right. It would be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No.’” (Yikes!)
Every automatic speech recognition system makes errors. I don’t think that’s going to change (certainly not in my lifetime). But I do think we can get to the point where those error don’t disproportionately affect already-marginalized people. And if we keep using automatic speech recognition into high-stakes situations it’s vital that we get to that point quickly and, in the meantime, stay aware of these biases.
If you’re interested in the long version, you can check out the published paper here.
If you’ve read some of my other posts on sociolinguistics, you may remember that the one of its central ideas is that certain types of language usage pattern together with aspects of people’s social identities. In the US, for example, calling a group of people “yinz” is associated with being from Pittsburgh. Or in Spanish, replacing certain “s” sounds with “th” sounds is associated with being from northern or central Spain. When a particular linguistic form is associated with a specific part of someone’s social identity, we call that a “sociolinguistic variable”
There’s been a lot of work on the type of sociolinguistic variables people use when they’re speaking, but there’s been less work on what people do when they’re writing. And this does make a certain amount of sense: many sociolinguistic variables are either 1) something people aren’t aware they’re doing or 2) something that they’re aware they’re doing but might not consider “proper”. As a result, they tend not to show up in formal writing.
This is where the computational linguistics part comes in; people do a lot of informal writing on computers, especially on the internet. In fact, I’d wager that humans are producing more text now than at any other point in history, and a lot of it is produced in public places. That lets us look for sociolinguistics variables in writing in a way that wasn’t really possible before.
Which is a whole lot of background to be able to say: I’m looking at how punctuation and capitalization pattern with political affiliation on Twitter.
Political affiliation is something that othersociolinguists have definitely looked at. It’s also something that’s very, very noticeable on Twitter these days. This is actually a boon to this type of research. One of the hard things about doing research on Twitter is that you don’t always necessarily know someone’s social identity. And if you use a linguistic feature to try to figure out their identity when what you’re interested in is linguistic features, you quickly end up with the problem of circular logic.
Accounts which are politically active, however, will often explicitly state their political affiliation in their Twitter bio. And I used that information to get tweets from people I was very sure had a specific political affiliation.
For this project, I looked at people who use the hashtags #MAGA and #theResistance in their Twitter bios. The former is an initialism for “Make America Great Again” and is used by politically conservative folks who support President Trump. The latter is used by political liberal folks who are explicitly opposed to President Trump. These two groups not only have different political identities, but also are directly opposed to each other. This means there’s good reason to believe that they will use language in different ways that reflect that identity.
But what about the linguistic half of the equation? Punctuation and capitalization are especially interesting to me because they seem to be capturing some of the same information we might find in prosody or intonation in spoken language. Things like YELLING or…pausing….or… uncertainty? They’re also much, much easier to measure punctuation than intonation, which is notoriously difficult and time-consuming to annotate. At the same time, I have good evidence that how you use punctuation and capitalization has some social meaning. Check out this tweet, for example:
So, if punctuation and capitalization are doing something socially, is part of what they’re doing expressing political affiliation?
That’s what I looked into. I grabbed up to 100 tweets each from accounts which used either #MAGA or #theResistance in their Twitter bios. Then I looked at how much punctuation and capitalization users from these two groups used in their tweets.
First, I looked at all punctuation marks. I did find that, on average, liberal users tended to use less punctuation. But when I took a closer look at the data, an interesting pattern emerged. In both the liberal and conservative groups, there were two clusters of users: those who used a lot of punctuation and those who used almost none.
What gives rise to these two clusters? I honestly don’t know, but I do have a hypothesis. I think that there’s probably a second social variable in this data that I wasn’t able to control for. It seems likely that the user’s age might have something to do with it, or their education level, or even whether they use thier Twitter account for professional or personal communication.
My intuition that there’s a second latent variable at work in this data is even stronger given the results for the amount of capitalization folks used. Conservative users tended to use more capitalization than the average liberal user, but there was a really strong bi-modal distribution for the liberal accounts.
What’s more, the liberal accounts that used a lot of punctuation also tended to use a lot of capitalization. Since these features are both ones that I associate with very “proper” usage (things like always starting a tweet with a capital letter, and ending it with a period) this seems to suggest that some liberal accounts are very standardized in their use of language, while others reject at least some of those standards.
So what’s the answer the question I posed in the title? Can capitalization or punctuation reveal political affiliation? For now, I’m going to go with a solid “maybe”. Users who use very little capitalization and punctuation are more likely to be liberal… but so are users who use a lot of both. And, while I’m on the subject of caveats, keep in mind that I was only looking at very politically active accounts who discuss thier politics in their user bios. These observations probably don’t apply to all Twitter accounts (and certainly not across different languages).
If you’re interested in reading more, you can check out the fancy-pants versions of this research here and here. And I definitely intend to consider looking at this; I’ll keep y’all posted on my findings. For now, however, off to find me a Nanimo bar!
You may already be familiar with the phenomena I’m going to be talking about today: when someone punctuates some text with the clap emoji. It’s a pretty transparent gestural scoring and (for me) immediately brings to mind the way my mom would clap with every word when she was particularly exasperated with my sibling and I (it was usually along with speech like “let’s go, let’s go, let’s go” or “get up now”). It looks like so:
This innovation, which started on Black Twitter is really interesting to me because it ties in with my earlier work on emoji ordering. I want to know where emojis go, particularly in relation to other words. Especially since people have since extended this usage to other emoji, like the US Flag:
Logically, there are several different ways you can intersperse clap emojis with text:
Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 between 👏 every 👏 word.
👏 Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 around 👏 every 👏 word. 👏
👏 Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 before 👏 every 👏 word.
Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 after 👏 every 👏 word. 👏
Claps 👏 are used 👏 between phrases 👏 not words
I want to know which of these best describes what people actually do. I’m not aiming to write an internet style guide, but I am hoping to characterize this phenomena in a general way: this is how most people who do this do it, and if you want to use this style in a natural way, you should probably do it the same way.
I used Fireant to grab 10,000 tweets from the Twitter streaming API which had the clap emoji in them at least once. (Twitter doesn’t let you search for a certain number of matches of the same string. If you search for “blob” and “blob blob” you’ll get the same set of results.)
From that set of 10,000 tweets, I took only the tweets that had a clap emoji followed by a word followed by another clap emoji and threw out any repeats. That left me with 260 tweets. (This may seem pretty small compared to my starting dataset, but there were a lot of retweets in there, and I didn’t want to count anything twice.) Then I removed @usernames, since those show up in the beginning of any tweet that’s a reply to someone, and URL’s, which I don’t really think of as “words”. Finally, I looked at each word in a tweet and marked whether it was a clap or not. You can see the results of that here:
The “word” axis represents which word in the tweet we’re looking at: the first, second, third, etc. The red portion of the bar are the words that are the clap emoji. The yellow portion is the words that aren’t. (BTW, big shoutout to Hadley Wickham’s emo(ji) package for letting me include emoji in plots!)
From this we can see a clear pattern: almost no one starts a tweet with an emoji, but most people follow the first word with an emoji. The up-down-up-down pattern means that people are alternating the clap emoji with one word. So if we look back at our hypotheses about how emoji are used, we can see right off the bat that three of them are wrong:
Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 between 👏 every 👏 word.
👏 Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 around 👏 every 👏 word. 👏
👏 Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 before 👏 every 👏 word.
Claps 👏 are 👏 used 👏 after 👏 every 👏 word. 👏
Claps 👏 are used 👏 between phrases 👏 not words
We can pick between the two remaining hypotheses by looking at whether people are ending thier tweets with a clap emoji. As it turns out, the answer is “yes”, more often than not.
If they’re using this clapping-between-words pattern (sometimes called the “ratchet clap“) people are statistically more likely to end their tweet with a clap emoji than with a different word or non-clap emoji. This means the most common pattern is to use 👏 a 👏 clap 👏 after 👏 every 👏 word, 👏 including 👏 the 👏 last. 👏
This makes intuitive sense to me. This pattern is mimicking someone is clapping on every word. Since we can’t put emoji on top of words to indicate that they’re happening at the same time, putting them after makes good intuitive sense. In some sense, each emoji is “attached” to the word that comes before it in a similar way to how “quickly” is “attached” to “run” in the phrase “run quickly”. It makes less sense to put emoji between words, becuase then you end up with less claps than words, which doesn’t line up well with the way this is done in speech.
The “clap after every word” pattern is also what this website that automatically puts claps in your tweets does, so I’m pretty positive this is a good characterization of community norms.
So there you have it! If you’re going to put clap emoji in your tweets, you should probably do 👏 it 👏 like 👏 this. 👏 It’s not wrong if you don’t, but it does look kind of weird.
I recently wrote the acknowledgements section my dissertation and it really put into perspective how much help I’ve received during my degree. I’ve decided to pass some of that on by helping out others! Specifically, I’ve decided to help make travelling to conferences a little more affordable for linguistics students who are from underrepresented minorities (African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Latin@), LGBT or have a disability.
Entry is open to any student (graduate or undergraduate) studying any aspect of language (broadly defined) who is from an underrepresented minority (African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Latin@), LGBT or has a disability. E-mail me and attach:
An abstract or paper that has been accepted at an upcoming (i.e. starting after June 23, 2017) conference
The acceptance letter/email from the conference
A short biography/description of your work
One entry per person, please!
I’ll pick up to two entries. Each winner will receive 100 American dollars to help them with costs associated with the conference, and I’ll write a blog post highlighting each winner’s research.
Contest closes July 31, I’ll contact winners by July 5
If you follow me on Twitter (@rctatman) you probably already know that I defended my dissertation last week. That’s right: I’m now officially Dr. Tatman! [party horn emoji]
I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on all the minutia of writing a dissertation lately, from formatting references to correcting a lot of typos (my committee members are all heroes). As a result, I’m more than ready to zoom out and think about big-picture stuff for a little while. And, in academia at least, pictures don’t get much bigger than whole disciplines. Which brings me to the title of this blog post: computational sociolinguistics. I’ve talked about my different research projects quite a bit on this blog (and I’ve got a couple more projects coming up that I’m excited to share with y’all!) but they can seem a little bit scattered. What do patterns of emoji use have to do with how well speech recognition systems deal with different dialects with how people’s political affiliation is reflected in their punctuation use? The answer is that they all fall within the same discipline: computational sociolingustics.
Computational sociolinguistics is a fairly new field that lies at the intersection of two other, more established fields: computational linguistics and sociolinguistics. You’re actually probably already familiar with at least some of the work being done in computational linguistics and its sister field of Natural Language Processing (commonly called NLP). The technologies that allow us to interact with computers or phones using human language, rather than binary 1’s and 0’s, are the result of decades of research in these fields. Everything from spell check, to search engines that know that “puppy” and “dog” are related topics, to automatic translation are the result of researchers working in computational linguistics and NLP.
Sociolinguistics is another well-established field, which focuses on the effects of social context on language how we use language and understand. “Social context”, in this case, can be everything from someone’s identity–like their gender or where they’re from–to the specific linguistic situation they’re in, like how much they like the person they’re talking to or whether or not they think they can be overheard. While a lot of work in sociolinguistics is more qualitative, describing observations without a lot of exact measures, of it is also quantitative.
So what happens when you squish these to fields together? For me, the result is work that focuses on research questions that would be more likely to be asked by sociolinguistics, but using methods from computational linguistics and NLP. It also means asking sociolinguistic questions about how we use language in computational context, drawing on the established research fields of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), Computational Social Science (CSS) and corpus linguistics, but with a stronger focus on sociolingusitics.
One difficult thing about working in a very new field, however, is that it doesn’t have the established social infrastructure that older fields do. If you do variationist sociolinguistics, for example, there’s an established conference (New Ways of Analyzing Variation, or NWAV) and journals (Language Variation and Change, American Speech, the Journal of Sociolinguistics). Older fields also have an established set of social norms. For instance, conferences are considered more prestigious research venues in computational linguistics, while for sociolinguistics journal publications are usually preferred. But computational sociolinguistics doesn’t really have any of that yet. There also isn’t an established research canon, or any textbooks, or a set of studies that you can assume most people in the field have had exposure to (with the possible exception of Dong et al.’s really fabulous survey article). This is exciting, but also a little bit scary, and really frustrating if you want to learn more about it. Science is about the communities that do it as much as it is about the thing that you’re investigating, and as it stands there’s not really an established formal computational sociolinguistics community that you can join.
Fortunately, I’ve got your back. Below, I’ve collected a list of a few of the scholars whose work I’d consider to be computational sociolinguistics along with small snippets of how they describe their work on their personal websites. This isn’t a complete list, by any means, but it’s a good start and should help you begin to learn a little bit more about this young discipline.
“My research focuses on the quantitative analysis of language variation and change. I am especially interested in grammatical and lexical variation in the English language across time and space and the development of new methods for collecting and analysing large corpora of natural language.”
“My research can be summed up by the question: How do we convey tone in text messaging? In face-to-face conversations, we rely on vocal cues, facial expressions, and other non-linguistic features to convey meaning. These features are absent in text messaging, yet digital communication technologies (text messaging, email, etc.) have entered nearly every domain of modern life. I identify the features that facilitate successful communication on these platforms and understand how the availability of digital technologies (i.e., mobile phones) has helped to shape urban spaces.”
Dong Nguyen at the University of Edinburgh & Alan Turing Institute
“I’m interested in Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval, and in particular computational text analysis for research questions from the social sciences and humanities. I especially enjoy working with social media data.”
“My recent interests center around computational sociolinguistics and the intersection between natural language processing and privacy. In the past, I have worked on unsupervised learning, pronunciation modeling, and applications of NLP to creative language.”
“I’m interested in how people make meaning with language. My PhD is from Stanford’s Department of Linguistics (my dissertation was on language and emotion). I’ve also founded a natural language processing start-up (four years), did UX research at Microsoft (ten years) and ran the features desk of a national newspaper in Pakistan (one year).”
“My research interests span computational linguistics, natural language processing, cognitive modelling, and complex networks. I am currently using computational methods to identify social and individual factors that condition linguistic variation and change on social media, under the supervision of Sharon Goldwater and James Kirby.”
“My interests include computational sociolinguistics, sociophonetics, language variation, and conservation & revitalization of endangered languages. My dissertation focuses on the incorporation of sociophonetic detail into automated speaker profiling systems.”
First, the linguist’s answer: none. Zero. Everyone who uses a language uses a variety of that language, one that reflects their social identity–including things like gender, socioeconomic status or regional background.
But the truth is that some people, especially in the US, have the social privileged of being considered “unaccented”. I can’t count how many times I’ve been “congratulated” by new acquaintances on having “gotten rid of” my Virginia accent. The thing is, I do have a lot of linguistic features from Tidewater/Piedmont English, like a strong distinction between the vowels in “body” and “baudy”, “y’all” for the second person plural and calling a drive-through liquor store a “brew thru” (shirts with this guy on them were super popular in my high school). But, at the same time, I also don’t have a lot of strongly stigmatized features, like dropping r’s or strong monopthongization you’d hear from a speaker like Virgil Goode (although most folks don’t really sound like that anymore). Plus, I’m young, white, (currently) urban and really highly educated. That, plus the fact that most people don’t pick up on the Southern features I do have, means that I have the privilege of being perceived as accent-less.
But how many people in the US are in the same boat as I am? This is a difficult question, especially given that there is no wide consensus about what “standard”, or “unaccented”, American English is. There is, however, a lot of discussion about what it’s not. In particular, educated speakers from the Midwest and West are generally considered to be standard speakers by non-linguists. Non-linguists also generally don’t consider speakers of African American English and Chicano English to be “standard” speakers (even though both of these are robust, internally consistent language varieties with long histories used by native English speakers). Fortunately for me, the United States census asks census-takers about their language background, race and ethnicity, educational attainment and geographic location, so I could use census data to roughly estimate how many speakers of “standard” English there are in the United States. I chose to use the 2011 census, as detailed data on language use has been released for that year on a state-by-state basis (you can see a summary here).
From this data, I calculated how many individuals were living in states assigned by the U.S. Census Bureau to either the West or Midwest and how many residents surveyed in these states reported speaking English ‘very well’ or better. Then, assuming that residents of these states had educational attainment rates representative of national averages, I estimated how many college educated (with a bachelor’s degree or above) non-Black and non-Hispanic speakers lived in these areas.
So just how many speakers fit into this “standard” mold? Fewer than you might expect! You can see the breakdown below:
Speakers in the 2011 census who…
% of US Population
…live in the United States…
…and live in the Midwest or West…
…and speak English at least ‘very well’…
…and are college educated…
…and are not Black or Hispanic.
Based on the criteria laid out above, only around a tenth of the US population would count as ‘standard’ speakers. Now, keep in mind this estimate is possibly somewhat conservative: not all Black speakers use African American English and not all Hispanic speakers use Chicano English, and the regional dialects of some parts of the Northeast are also sometimes considered “standard”, which isn’t reflected in my rough calculation. That said, I think there’s still something if a large majority of Americans don’t speak what we might consider “standard” English, maybe it’s time to start redefining who gets to be the standard.