Ling 354: Week 2

[This is extracted from the Spring 2022 version on Canvas, so some links/formatting may be broken.]

In our Week 2 meeting (Feb 3), we’ll first wrap up writing systems and Unicode. Then we’ll be looking into the implications of getting languages onto computers, including ways that computerized language may support or impede certain languages’ use and ways that the Unicode system encourages novel uses of “language” via emoji.

Textbook reading

No new textbook reading, but we’ll keep using concepts from Ch. 1.1-1.3

Additional articles/videos

If you didn’t read the Daniels 2003 chapter last week, please skim through Sections 1, 2.1, 2.4, & 2.5. It’s imperfect reading for our class, unfortunately; there’s a lot of linguistic jargon that Daniels doesn’t define and some details he elides, but as Daniels himself notes, no one else has written much on this topic. So that’s why I’d like you to just skim it — take in some of the history and examples of different writing systems, but don’t panic if parts are a little hard to follow.

I also found this video from Tom Scott Links to an external site.on Canadian Aboriginal syllabics to be a helpful (and largely linguistically accurate) discussion of why different languages might want different writing systems.

One big question I want us to discuss next class is whether computers and the Internet are helping us preserve endangered languages or are encouraging the endangerment of languages. Here are two articles that focus on the positive and negative aspects, respectively. The first is a short interview on European minority languages with a Finnish professor, and the second is a special report from the Guardian.

Lastly, I want us to examine a new form of “language” that can only really exist on computers and other electronic devices: emoji. I’ve found a review article on emoji usage (HTML), however you prefer to read it) and its impact in various fields. If you’re interested in emoji, take a look at the process for proposing a new emoji, which will be one of your options for the first assignment.

Project ideas and extensions (optional)


I’m personally fascinated by the idea of swapping out writing systems across languages, and seeing what works and doesn’t. Try taking your name, or any words that you’re fond of, and transliterate them into different writing systems. For instance, Gabe turns into 겹 in Korean, గేబ్ in Telugu, and がいぶ in Japanese (where it’s pronounced “Gabe-u”). How do you have to adapt the word to the writing system — does the pronunciation change? Is there much choice in the transliteration? For instance, I could write my name as “Gaib” or “Gaybe” and still pronounce it the same, but 겹 is essentially the only option in Korean because of its transparent orthography.

In general, how does changing the writing system of a text change your impression of the text?

Social Science

Why do people switch languages in online communication? Is it for psycholinguistic reasons (for instance, the author is more familiar with one language or another), sociolinguistic reasons (the author wants to identify with a certain group of speakers), or other reasons entirely? 

Nguyen et al (2015) examined how and why people change their language use within Twitter conversations based on audience size; for larger audiences, more common languages are preferred, while for personal communication, less common but more familiar languages are preferred. Does this fit with how you use different languages, different dialects, or even just different slang?

Emoji are largely intended as human representations, but there’s a long and complex history of how different races and cultures actually get represented by emoji. I found this paper by Kate Miltner to be a helpful overview of the history of the human side of emoji (although at least some of Miltner’s points have been addressed by more recent Unicode updates, despite the paper only being two years old!).


One big engineering problem with emoji is understanding what people mean by them. Because different systems render emoji differently, there may be mismatches between the intended use and the interpreted meaning. Here’s a study of how much people varied in their interpretations of emoji, both in terms of inter-person and inter-platform variance, showing that there are some serious ambiguities that can arise from them. In a similar vein, we might try to use people’s emoji usage to get a better sense of their emotional meanings