According to an article on BBC News, folks are working on a so-called ‘Tower of Babel’ translation device. Unlike other translators, it doesn’t use audio input. Instead, “Electrodes are attached to the neck and face to detect the movements that occur as the person silently mouths words and phrases. Using this data, a computer can work out the sounds being formed and then build these sounds up into words.”
There isn’t enough technical description in the article to really evaluate this well, but I wonder how it could possibly work. First, if no audio input is used, how will the device distinguish between nasals and non-nasals with the same place of articulation? Second, how can it deal with individual variation in the muscle movements involved in pronunciation, much less cross-user variation? Third, it seems to make a lot of assumptions about how words are made, i.e., they’re just building blocks assembled together. I hope the researchers themselves have taken at least co-articulation into account.
Even if the technical bits work, I’m skeptical on other grounds as well. One, the article says it’s about 80% accurate when the vocabulary size is 100-200 words, decreasing dramatically as the vocabularly size increases. 100-200 words? Very limited usefulness! Two, how on earth would it differentiate homonyms? Or tones? Since one of the languages included is Chinese (Mandarin? Cantonese? Wu? they don’t specify), it needs to be able to handle tones. Maybe my articulatory phonetics knowledge is a bit rusty, but how are they going to detect tones via silent mouth movements? Three, can it handle lects (dialects, sociolects, idiolects, the whole shebang)?
Somehow, I just don’t think this is going to revolutionize communication quite the way the authors think.
I haven’t seen any news on Alaskan languages or linguistics lately, so I’ve been revisiting sites I have bookmarked. The Alutiiq Museum, in particular, has some resources for the Alutiiq language called Sharing Words, making it more accessible for learners (or speakers wishing to know more about its structure). It’s the only site I recall seeing that attempts to explain complex, polysynthetic grammar in layman’s terms.
(Note: Alutiiq is not Aleut, though the names are similar. Aleut is its own branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family, while Alutiiq is a member of the Yupik subfamily of Eskimo. Alutiiq is also known as Sugpiaq, Pacific Gulf Eskimo, Chugach Eskimo, Sugcestun, and a handful of other names. Its geographical distribution can be seen on this map from the Alaska Native Language Center.)
So the blogs hosted by my university never work – they’re down more than 75% of the time. Time to give up and try WordPress! I don’t imagine I’ll post often, but at least with WordPress I can if I want to.
Why the blog? As a linguist-in-training who works on/with Alaska Native languages (mostly Iñupiaq), it’s a way to gather what little web content there is on Alaskan languages together. In light of that, here’s a very handy Dena’ina verb website by Olga Lovick. It’s still a work in progress, but no matter. Still very interesting and it just about doubles the amount of Dena’ina information available online.
On a final note, I chose tulugaq as the name for the blog because it’s the Iñupiaq word for ‘raven’, a bird that has great significance for us Alaskans. Also, it ever-so-conveniently doesn’t need any diacritics, so it’s ideal for an URL.