Down to earth with a bump...

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Down to earth with a bump...

Post by Phil White » Sat May 21, 2016 9:33 pm

Well, sort of.

As most of you will know, I have, for the past few years been toying with a pretty radical way of approaching grammar. It took a machete to the plethora of word classes that traditional grammars use and left me with a mere 3 core word classes and a special class for elements that act as coordinating conjunctions. It introduced an element that I dubbed a "shift" element that enabled elements to shift between the 3 core classes. Like dependency grammars, it took a verbal element as being central to all complex meaning and the focal point of all syntax. In its current version, it has just two primary joining mechanisms, roles and qualification relationships. It saw all elements of an utterance (except interjections) as being engaged in a role vis a vis the primary verbal element. All in all, it provided a powerful functional description of an utterance, and, I have to say, I was rather pleased with myself.

Yesterday I was researching a rather obscure point about genitives in various languages and came across a reference to the work of Lucien Tesnière that intrigued me. I had never heard of him. His magnum opus was a mammoth work published posthumously in 1959: "Éléments de syntaxe structurale". It had never been translated into English and remained pretty well unknown, although many regard it as a precursor to virtually all modern dependency grammars. Finally, last year, an English translation appeared.

Reading up about the main arguments he makes in the 700+ page tome, I find that I am not the first to tread, machete in hand, the tangled paths that I have been following. It is all there. In many respects almost identical to what I have been thinking!

I am not entirely sure whether I am upset that I am not the visionary genius I thought I was or whether I feel a sense of gratification that I have, under my own steam, come to the same conclusions as a professional academic who spent his entire life thinking about such things!

Either way, if anyone has about a hundred quid to spare and plenty of time on their hands, "Elements of structural syntax" should make a fascinating read. And if anyone would volunteer to read it onto tape for me (it is unsurprisingly not available in Braille or as an eBook), I would be most grateful ;)

For the geeks, and it really is one for the geeks, there is a reasonable summary of some of his ideas here.
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Re: Down to earth with a bump...

Post by tony h » Sat May 21, 2016 11:30 pm

It might be available as an ebook here http://www.jbe-platform.com/content/books/9789027269997
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With the right context almost anything can sound appropriate.

Re: Down to earth with a bump...

Post by Phil White » Sun May 22, 2016 12:13 am

Nice spot, Tony. I shall now have to wait for a Braille e-book reader to be launched on the market! (Amazon were forced to disable speech output on the Kindle by the American publishers a few years back).

There might be a Braille tablet called BliTab this year, but I am not holding by breath. EU funding ran out for one of the most promising technologies. Fact is, very few people are learning Braille, and literacy among blind people is actually declining. All very sad.
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Re: Down to earth with a bump...

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun May 22, 2016 3:29 am

Phil White wrote:I shall now have to wait for a Braille e-book reader to be launched on the market! (Amazon were forced to disable speech output on the Kindle by the American publishers a few years back).
A more likely route to speech output would involve scanning and OCR'ing the pages for your usual computerized reader program to read it to you, provided you have the patience to first scan those 700-odd pages into your computer. But I don't know how any reading program could successfully render the numerous pictorial and algebraic elements in a comprehensible way. I imagine this would also be a problem with Braille, for that matter.
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Re: Down to earth with a bump...

Post by Phil White » Sun May 22, 2016 11:20 am

Erik_Kowal wrote:
Phil White wrote:I shall now have to wait for a Braille e-book reader to be launched on the market! (Amazon were forced to disable speech output on the Kindle by the American publishers a few years back).
A more likely route to speech output would involve scanning and OCR'ing the pages for your usual computerized reader program to read it to you, provided you have the patience to first scan those 700-odd pages into your computer. But I don't know how any reading program could successfully render the numerous pictorial and algebraic elements in a comprehensible way. I imagine this would also be a problem with Braille, for that matter.
I already use a system that reads real books by scanning and OCRing them, but one of the problems I have is that most of what I would really want to read is either multilingual, or contains IPA or diagrammatic or tabular information. In theory, Braille can handle all this very well, but it needs the full text in electronic format, rather than scanned, to even start to produce good Braille. Text-to-speech systems cannot handle graphics or multilingual text at all.

This is a book that I would happily pay a few hundred quid for, but even were I to persuade the publisher to release an electronic version to, say, the RNIB, for conversion, the conversion and production costs would be astronomical. And I don't expect there would be a huge market for it!

Despite all the advances in technology, for which blind people are immensely grateful, the range of truly accessible material out there is very limited when you go beyond bestselling novels and magazines and essentially text-based web sites. And web sites are becoming increasingly problematic as they are more and more designed for mobile devices.

I shall probably end up buying the hardback and struggling through it with a mixture of TTS and massive magnification. But even though I am still very, very slow, I would still prefer Braille.

Heigh ho!
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Re: Down to earth with a bump...

Post by tony h » Sun May 22, 2016 7:05 pm

You have me intrigued. How does a "talking book" work for things like references and table of contents?
I have a bit of time on my hands, as neurological problems have affected my speech and movement, so I am wondering if this is a problem that will wander around my mind.
And I must learn more about Braille as I though it was just text.
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Re: Down to earth with a bump...

Post by Phil White » Sun May 22, 2016 8:11 pm

Hi Tony,

Sorry to hear of your problems. I hope that it is something that will clear up.

E-books, text to speech and screen readers are a very wide field. There are a lot of things called e-books that are, in fact, nothing of the sort. They are simply the texts of books stored as text files, Word files, PDF files or other formats. These can usually be read with text-to-speech technology on a computer.

E-books proper are generally available in proprietary formats (such as the Amazon Kindle format) or formats such as EPUB or MOBI. These formats provide different functions such as hyperlinking and bookmarking. They adapt to the font size and screen size of the device you are using. Pretty well all devices support EPUB and MOBI and there is software out there to convert pretty well anything to EPUB and MOBI.

At its simplest, text-to-speech technology takes electronic text and reads it aloud using a synthesized voice. Some of the voices are fully synthesized and sound pretty awful (like the ones packaged with Windows machines), but you can buy sampled voices that sound very realistic. Most blind people who use TTS technology actually prefer fully synthesized voices, as the speed can be turned up very considerably and the voice remains (with a little practice) comprehensible. Speeding up a sampled voice just doesn't work.

Screen readers are complex pieces of software that allow blind people to use computers and read text using TTS technology. You have huge numbers of keyboard shortcuts to navigate through programs and web sites, open menus, set options and pretty well anything that a sighted user can do. Having said that, the software has to be well designed for accessibility for screen readers to work well. The best known screen reader is JAWS, although there is also a free one out there called NVDA. The Windows Narrator is a primitive but functional screen reader.

The problem with e-books is that the American publisher's association a few years back prevented Amazon from incorporating TTS in its Kindle, as they thought it would impact on their sales of audio books (books read by real people). Since only a tiny percentage of books are published as audio books, this has prevented blind people from using TTS to read, for instance, academic works. A couple of years ago, Amazon launched Kindle for PC with accessibility. This allows you to read books bought through Amazon using TTS, provided that you have a screen reader installed and running on your PC. Problem is, many books, including the one we are talking about here, are not available through the Kindle store, and so the read protection cannot be disabled.

As far as Braille is concerned, the new Unified English Braille is able to represent pretty well anything that can be stored in a modern text file. Tactile graphics can convey a huge amount of information, but I am incapable of understanding them!

As I say, heigh ho!
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