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Kjoonlee via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

11 Fun Facts About the International Phonetic Alphabet

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Kjoonlee via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every writing system represents speech a little differently, and no system is completely faithful to how words are actually pronounced. For over a century, the International Phonetic Alphabet has tried to remedy this situation by providing a way to accurately represent the pronunciation of any spoken language. Here are 11 fun facts about the IPA.

1. ITS ORIGINAL PURPOSE WAS TO MAKE TEACHING FOREIGN LANGUAGES EASIER.

When you learn a foreign language, you're naturally drawn to pronounce the letters you see in the written form as you would in your own language. A language teacher named Paul Passy thought it would be better to start with a purely phonetic writing system in order to avoid this contamination. He founded the International Phonetic Association in Paris in 1886.

2. IT EXPANDED TO INCLUDE MORE AND MORE LANGUAGES.

The original version could handle the sounds in French, English, and German. Later revisions added symbols for pharyngeals (e.g., [ʕ], used in Arabic), retroflex consonants ([ɖ], used in Hindi), clicks ([ǂ], used in Khoisan languages), and a range of other speech sounds. Now it can handle nearly any spoken language.

3. IT GREW FROM ABOUT 40 TO ALMOST 200 SYMBOLS.

The first version of the IPA had 30 consonants and 13 vowels plus a few diacritics. There are now more than double the number of consonants and vowels, plus diacritics, tone markers, and other combining symbols that allow the potential for thousands of different sounds to be represented.

4. IT CAN REPRESENT A KISS, A RASPBERRY, OR VOCAL FRY.

Because bilabial clicks ([ʘ] a kissing sound), bilabial trills ([ʙ] blowing a raspberry, but without the tongue sticking out), and creaky voiced articulations ([a̰] “vocal fry”) show up as speech sounds in some languages, they get IPA symbols too.

5. UNTIL 1971 ARTICLES IN THE INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ASSOCIATION’S JOURNAL WERE PUBLISHED IN IPA.

The original name of the International Phonetic Association was Dhi Fonètik Tîtcerz' Asóciécon and its journal was titled Dhi Fonètik Tîtcer. In 1889, the journal was renamed Le Maître Phonétique, but as much as possible articles were still published in the phonetic alphabet. That practice ended in 1971 when the journal was renamed the Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Above, you can see the beginning of an article in French on "Ecriture Phonétique Simplifie," or simplified phonetic writing.

6. THERE WERE SPECIAL PHONETIC SYMBOL TYPEWRITERS FOR WRITING IN IPA.

To make the task of writing in the phonetic alphabet more convenient, typewriters were modified or produced especially for this task. They could be pricey, though: Models publicized in a 1912 supplement to Le Maître Phonétique would cost $1600 and $3200 today.

7. IT’S FINE-GRAINED ENOUGH TO REPRESENT DIFFERENT ACCENTS.

You can test it out for yourself at Lingorado, where you can translate text into the IPA for British or American pronunciations and listen to the results. Compare the British (above) and American (below) versions of “Herbs and tomatoes for your vitamin laboratory.”

8. IT’S USED TO HELP SINGERS LEARN ARIAS IN OTHER LANGUAGES.

Opera singers need to learn songs in a variety of languages, and in addition to studying the notes and the music, they must become experts in the proper pronunciation of the lyrics. In order to avoid letting a mistaken interpretation of the printed words color their diction, they study IPA representations of the words as well. A huge selection of IPA versions of songs is available (for sale) at IPA Source; the aria above comes from Bizet's Carmen.

9. YOU CAN READ LITERATURE IN IPA.

There isn’t much in the way of literature written in IPA form, but you can find ˈÆlɪsɪz Ədˈventʃəz ɪn ˈWʌndəˌlænd. Or a version of Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. There is also a 1914 book of jokes called English Humor in Phonetic Transcript that makes for a fun way to practice your IPA skills.

10. USING IT MAKES YOU NOTICE LINGUISTIC FACTS OBSCURED BY WRITING SYSTEMS.

What sound does the letter sequence 'th' represent? Two sounds that are as different as 'p' and 'b.' In IPA they get two symbols: [θ] for the voiceless sound in breath and [ð] for the voiced sound in breathe. Is there an 'n' sound in thing? Not really. When you say this word, the tip of your tongue never touches the ridge behind your teeth as an 'n' usually does. Instead, the back of your tongue meets your velum to make a velar nasal, symbolized as [ŋ]. Why does the same word no sound so different in English and Spanish? Because Spanish uses a pure mid back rounded vowel [o], while (American) English uses a diphthong [oʊ].

11. IT MAKES FOR A COOL TATTOO

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Courtesy Steve Kleinedler. Design by Kyle Nelson of Stoltze Design and art by Mike Helz of Stingray Body Art.

Image courtesy of Steve Kleinedler. Design by Kyle Nelson of Stoltze Design and art by Mike Helz of Stingray Body Art.

The vowels of the IPA aren't just a collection of symbols—they're also arranged into a chart where the position of the symbol roughly corresponds to the position of the tongue in the mouth when producing that vowel. It's not just a key, but an interesting visual display. Steve Kleinedler, Executive Editor at American Heritage Dictionary, has the full IPA vowel chart tattooed on his back.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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