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8 Things You Might Not Know About Vowels

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A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y is not all you need to know about vowels. There's more to these workhorse members of our linguistics inventory than you might think.

1. ENGLISH HAS MORE VOWELS THAN THERE ARE LETTERS FOR THEM.

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y are the letters we define as vowels, but vowels can also be defined as speech sounds. While we have six letters we define as vowels, there are, in English, many more vowel sounds than that. For example consider the word pairs cat and car, or cook and kook. The vowel sounds are different from each other in each pair, but they are represented by the same letters. Depending on the dialect, and including diphthongs, which are combinations of two vowel sounds, English has from nine to 16 vowel sounds.

2. THE MOST COMMON VOWEL IS SCHWA.

The most common vowel sound in English doesn’t even have its own letter in the alphabet. It does have a symbol, though, and it looks like this: ǝ. It’s the "uh" sound in an unstressed syllable and it shows up everywhere, from th[ǝ], to p[ǝ]tato, to antic[ǝ]p[ǝ]tory. You can discover nine fun facts about it here.

3. YOUR SPANISH SOUNDS AMERICAN BECAUSE OF DIPHTHONGS.

In addition to pure vowel sounds, there are diphthongs, where the sound moves from one target to another. American English is full of them. The vowel in the American pronunciation of no is a diphthong that moves from o to u (if you say it in slow motion, your lips move from a pure o position to a pure u position). The vowel in the Spanish pronunciation is not a diphthong. It stays at o, and that what makes it sound different from the English version.

4. SOME SOUNDS CAN BE EITHER VOWELS OR CONSONANTS.

The u sound (pronounced "oo") is a vowel. It allows an unrestricted airflow through the vocal apparatus. Consonants, in contrast, are created with a blockage of air flow, or point of constriction. A u sound can sometimes serve as that point of constriction, and it that case the u is considered a w. In the word blue, the u is the most open part of the syllable, and a vowel. In want it is the constriction before the main vowel, and thus a consonant. Similarly, an i (or “ee”) can also be a y, which helps explain why is Y a sometimes vowel.

5. MOST LANGUAGES HAVE AT LEAST THREE VOWELS.

Most languages have at least i, a, and u, or something close to them, though it may be the case that the extinct language Ubykh had only two vowels. It is hard to say what the highest number of vowels for a language is because there are features like vowel length, nasalization, tone, and voicing quality (creaky, breathy) that may or may not be considered marks of categorical difference from other sounds, but in general, 15 seems to be a pretty high number of distinct single vowels for a language. The International Phonetic Alphabet has symbols for 34 different vowels. You can listen to the different sounds they represent here.

6. SOME LANGUAGES REQUIRE VOWEL HARMONY.

In English, we can add an ending like –ness or –y onto any word and the form of the ending doesn’t change. I can say “the property of vowelness” or “his speech is very diphthongy.” In languages like Hungarian, the vowels of the ending must harmonize with the vowels in the word it attaches to. For example, the multiplicative ending, for forming words like twice, thrice, etc. is –szor when it attaches to a word with a back vowel (hatszor, “six times”), -szer when it attaches to a word with a front vowel (egyszer, “once”) and –ször when it attaches to a word with a front rounded vowel (ötször, “five times”). Other languages with vowel harmony are Turkish and Finnish.

7. TODAY’S ENGLISH IS THE RESULT OF MASSIVE CHANGE CALLED "THE GREAT VOWEL SHIFT."

Many words we have today were pronounced very differently before the 14th century. Boot sounded more like boat, house sounded like hoos, and five sounded like feev. English underwent a major change in the 14th and 15th centuries. Words with long vowels shifted into new pronunciations. The changes happened in stages, over a few hundred years, but when they were complete, the language sounded very different, and spelling was a bit of a mess, since many spellings had been established during early phases of pronunciation. The change may have been initiated by the volume of French words that entered English shortly before the shift, or by the movement of populations with different dialects during the Black Plague.

8. YOU DON’T NEED ALL THE VOWELS TO WRITE A NOVEL.

In 1969, George Perec, a member of the French experimental literature group known as Oulipo published La Disparition, a 300-page novel written only with words that did not contain the letter e. It was published in English as A Void, also without using the letter e. The Spanish translation, El Secuestro, used no a. Works created with this kind of restriction are called lipograms, explained here in an e-less lipogram.

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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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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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