Två djyvelräckiga drammsniggor.

Douglas Hofstadter has an essay in Inference about his experiences with Swedish, starting with his (fairly impressive) catch of a typo in his dad’s Nobel diploma, “colorfully and exquisitely hand-calligraphed in Swedish,” when he was only sixteen and didn’t know a word of Swedish (it had “nuckleonernas” for the correct nukleonernas). After an entertaining account of his later attempts to learn the language (temporarily successful, but inevitably fading when he left the situation of immersion), he finally gets to his socko conclusion, an experiment in which he created “fake-Swedish words and phrases”:

This silly and pointless but very playful activity amused me a lot, so on a lark I decided to sit down at my computer and have some fun for a while. In an hour or so, I wound up producing a paragraph that was chock-full of nonsense words that looked and sounded very Swedish—at least to me!—but that, taken all together, meant absolutely nothing.

He then feeds the paragraph to “my old frenemies Google Translate and DeepL, just to see what they would do with it,” and later adds Baidu as well. He finds the results hilarious (“When I read their respective outputs, I found myself rolling on the floor. Their wacky jabber was a riot!”), and his laborious attempts to explain why, and the concomitant assumption that the reader will share his over-the-top amusement, remind me of why I got sick of his shtick many years ago. But the attempts of the machine-translation programs to deal with the semantically vacuous text are genuinely funny, so here they are, beginning with his mock-Swedish paragraph:

Sista mällingen frädde jag mina skvallrutor på en eller två djyvelräckiga drammsniggor, men det knackraddes ogrinligt vålsent för spjulingarna, och sen med de inluppta trämplissorna blybbade det otvickligt. Kvältsmusarna tryckades för tjabbriga i och till de spyrlösa fjöllsidorna, och vi trömmades välmåset med våra innansätsingar. Sen över det ledvist häppligt fliknandet lömnade vi, och flingade den vålfredsskjutliga hjornarens knövboltar. Framligtvist inklågerade jag mig fräsinglöst om att knupa hur de där inblitsna värstningstjuperierna skylle prälla. Vi var yppligt klickforniga över att ingen brusspil eller mänskivel spjällde klotiskt, och att inga förförlingsmässa blyxor näbblades. Det var så att säga hultsamt och multsamt, och även ypperligen gnålfritt, så att jag truppade nästan frukkigt med en gnisskurlig sopperfläcke. Kan man särvist åtvända det där som en tvörlig frösénsstjukare, eller sjöll man brysa en döppel härnäss för att vidstycka sig med rejella äktningsfylla snippflyggor? Det där vulle jag inte bjärkna, inte alls.

Google Translate:

In the last mælling, I spread my gossip panes on one or two devilish drum snips, but it was knocked unbelievably late for the children, and then with the slivers of wood thrown in, it remained undisturbed. The voles were pressed too fast into and to the barren fjöllsides, and we were thoroughly beaten with our insinuations. Then over the sadly fortunate flapping, we slapped, and flake the knuckle-bolts of the peace-sick horned. Of course, I complained incessantly about how those blinded worst-case idiots were supposed to act. We were very happy that no noise arrow or man’s disc sputtered, and that no seduction fair lights were snagged. It was, so to speak, merry and merry, and also excellently free of whining, so that I trooped almost frantically with a squeamish soup stain. Can one particularly use that as a sleazy froséen swagger, or should one rush a doppelganger here in order to be swaggered with solid, full-bodied bow ties? I don’t want to spoil that, not at all.


The last time I fed my gossips on one or two devilishly long drams, but it rattled horribly violently for the dampers, and then with the drums in, it leaded uncomfortably. The whelks were pushed too thickly in and to the vomitless sides of the mountains, and we were tired well with our inner seams. Then over the ledvish flicker we lurked, and fling’d the ass-bolts of the fierce-shooting herd. In the meantime, I was busy trying to figure out how to make the worst thieves in the world boast. We were luxuriantly click-happy that no noise arrow or man’s whistle twitched clumsily, and that no seduction fair leadxes beaked. It was, as it were, hulky and overcast, and also exquisitely whine-free, so that I trooped almost fructally with a giggle-crazed sopper. Could one particularly use that as a two-pronged seed stunner, or did one have to break a numb-nosed kidney in order to disperse oneself with a lot of authentic snipe flies? I don’t like that, not at all.


The last thing I said, I cut my gossip on one or two dramma bitches, but there was an unspeakable knock on the vomit, and then with the stuffed wooden bundles it certainly embarrassed. The squirrel mice were pushed too clumsy in and to the puke-free hillsides, and we were filled with our innards. Then over the artificially awkward flipping we lied, and flaked the knuckles of the fearless corner. Mainly locked I’m so excited to find out how those big-time heifers blame me. We were superbly clicked that no noise spike or human disc damped the globe, and that no seductive pencils beaked. It was so to speak hulled and mulled, and also excellent whining-free, so that I marched almost fruitfully with a squeaky soup stain. Can you turn that into a needy frost picker, or you brew a baptismal you’re here to join in with a bunch of real-life snippets? That vulture I didn’t notice, not at all.

His final reflections (“And yet they were all produced by sober, no-nonsense, deadpan, tone-deaf, and stone-dead programs that have nonetheless been trumpeted in many prestigious and influential publications […] What a farce! […] the amazing lack of understanding on the part of these highly vaunted and often virtuosic programs […] their true, zombie-ish nature”) are so annoying they make me want to throw my computer against the wall. Gosh, the programs don’t do something they’re not designed to do, so they’re worthless! My toaster oven can’t slice bread, so chuck it out! Bah. But I did enjoy the gibberish. Thanks, David!


  1. Martin Langeveld says

    I don’t know Swedish, so I can’t tell, but is the original paragraph really “chock-full of nonsense words?” Or is it just a nonsensical assemblage of mostly actual Swedish words? I ask because usually Google Translate will just reproduce intact a nonsense word or a word it just doesn’t know. And in this case, the English translation shows only three (two and a half, actually) untranslated words like that (mælling, part of fjöllsides, and froséen), and comes up with actual English for everything else. This does not happen if you completely make up words, in any language, and feed them into GT.

  2. Does Hofstadter really imagine he is saying something revelatory when he concludes that automated translation programs don’t understand what they are doing? Or does he think the rest of us are such dimwits that we don’t understand it?

    On another note, my long-standing complaint against toaster ovens (which I love in all other respects) is not that they don’t slice bread but that they don’t make good toast. (You need heating grids that are much closer to the bread). In fact, the last time I went shopping for a new toaster oven I noticed that you can buy models that have real toaster slots on top.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Like many (I suspect) of a certain age I have never really forgiven Hofstadter for not being Martin Gardner.

    Mind you, Gödel, Escher, Bach is fairly unforgiveable too, in its own way.

  4. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Martin, yes and no. The sentences have enough genuine function words that they are syntactically cohesive but although the longer content words obey the usual morphological rules of Swedish, they look like something the printers’ goblins have gone to town on. Small content words like sista, en, två aso. also help scaffold the text.

    Just for instance, trämplissorna is clearly plural definite from the old feminine declension (now all words in -a), and if it had been tramplisorna I would have been tempted to look it up. (lapplisorna exists = ‘the meter maids’). It’s about the same feeling as Wabberwocky except there’s no real story to follow. Or maybe my eyes just glazed over too soon. It would be easy to substitute in very similar echt-Swedish words, but the result would not make more sense.

    @DE, I thought I was much younger than you, but yes, he was no MG. I read GEB when it came out, or when the public library got it rather. As I remember, I found it interesting but not useful and I haven’t read anything he wrote since. Tolkien hardcovers was what I requested for present-giving occasions.

  5. The translation programs seem to interpret some of the nonsense words (generously) as misspelled words? E.g. trämplissorna becomes träflisor, which does mean slivers of wood or wood chips?

  6. As I remember, I found [GEB] interesting but not useful and I haven’t read anything he wrote since.

    Same here, plus I found his takes on poetry and translation actively repellent.

  7. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    All three of them “correct” gnålfritt to gnällfritt and translate it (correctly) to (predicate) ‘free of whining’. Which I would have done as well if it was presented as a corrupted “real” text. In fact I might read the word out as that in bad lighting.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    David L. makes me realize that for decades I have unconsciously assumed that “toaster oven” has some sort of idiomatic/non-compositional semantics since the referent is so obviously ill-equipped to substitute for the function of an actual toaster. It’s good at what it does, but “toasting” is not how I would describe what it does.

  9. A toaster oven will make toast, and has controls for doing so. It doesn’t make toast as well as a toaster does, but I dont think I’ve ever lived in a place that had both a toaster and a toaster oven. You’d have to be a toast fanatic who also absolutely needed a small oven and had lots of kitchen counter space. Currently I have only a toaster.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I have for the last 18 years lived in a house with a reasonably capacious kitchen which has virtually always featured both a toaster and a toaster oven. Last year the toaster oven broke and my wife thought we might try getting by without it, an experiment that lasted less than 6 months before it was abandoned and a new toaster over procured. It’s less that we “need” a small oven, but that for tasks within its capacity it is much quicker than using our regular oven (because it doesn’t need 10 minutes or whatever to get from room temperature up to cooking temperature) and consumes less electricity.

  11. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man living by himself must be in want of a toaster oven.

  12. As I remember, I found [GEB] interesting but not useful and I haven’t read anything he wrote since.

    GEB has a strange place in my heart. It certainly excited my teen-age neurons when it came out, and over the years, I have met many people who acknowledge that their interest in AI as a career originated partly from this book, even as they note that the book itself had no useful ideas.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s a sort of Loom of Language book. Got a lot of people interested in a subject, despite being … not actually very good, at the end of the day.

    It also reminds me in some ways of the truly execrable A New Kind of Science, though it is much better written and, well … better. But the same sort of vibe of being written by an undoubtedly extremely clever polymath who perhaps gets too often Stuck on Transmit, to his own intellectual harm.

  14. I have for the last 18 years lived in a house with a reasonably capacious kitchen which has virtually always featured both a toaster and a toaster oven.

    Same here, though only 15 years in our case.

  15. This inspired me to throw Edward Lear’s

    Thrippy Pilliwinx,

    Inkly tinksy pobblebookle abblesquabs? Flosky? beebul trimble flosky! Okul scratchabibblebongibo, viddle squibble tog-a-tog, ferrymoyassity amsky flamsky ramsky damsky crocklefether squiggs.

    Flinkwisty pomm

    at GT and Bing (you know someone was going to, right?) and GT on autodetect says it’s English and renders it unchanged. Bing also renders it unchanged on autodetect, but weirdly says it’s Swedish.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E.: I haven’t gone back to read The Loom of Language (or any of those Mario Pei books that were on the same shelf in the public library) since I was perhaps 15 or 16, and at some unconscious level I do know that if I did I would likely discover that it wasn’t actually very good. But you don’t have to rub my face in it! (By contrast, I haven’t gone back to read GEB since I was perhaps 19 or possibly even 20.)

  17. I hated GEB as soon as I set my eyes on it, but I won’t repeat myself.

  18. I wish I had seen this without being told that it was gibberish. I learned enough Swedish to be just about conversant (though have had very little practice for a long time) so I’m not sure what I would have made of a text where all the content words seemed recognizably Swedish but were unfamiliar and impenetrable. How long would it have taken me to see through the ruse?

    It’s easy to see why Douglas Hofstadter would be so dismissive of these machine translation programs, as they are the result of artificial intelligence research that took a path completely different from what he envisioned.

    After I moved back to Asia I lived without any oven for a couple of years before I got myself a small one which is technically a toaster oven. But I use it basically as a miniature convection oven, never as a toaster.

  19. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    TMI: Once I get off my f** a*** and put up a shelf and wiring, it will receive a microwave+convection oven and the toaster will be promoted to the countertop. If the cheapest combo oven also has a grill element, so be it, but those don’t have a big star in my book: the worst burn in my life I got from a grill element in a combo oven that I didn’t realize was turned on. (A larger desideratum will be that it go to more than 180 degrees C, which is sort of standard but marginally too low to get satisfactory browning of stuff).

    Since you asked: It’s a pop-up toaster and no good for morning rolls unless you slice them in four, which is not the intended use. And the old (non-convection) oven does take 10 minutes to get to roll-crisping temperature, but good things are worth waiting for innit. As long as you don’t go watch the power meter the while.

  20. cuchuflete says

    My career as a linguist was derailed many decades ago, but my agnosticism regarding toaster ovens adds more nails to the coffin. That said, sometime in the late 1960s a friend and I, between changes of typewriter ribbons for our final term papers, invented a few Spanish inspired utterances that might have seemed authentic in some ill-defined language. These are presented below with deepL and Google Translate renderings, for the perplexity of those enjoying morning or crepuscular toast.

    1. ¡No me insectes! [Note the imaginary reflexive verb insectarse.]
    DeepL: (Detected German!) : Don’t insect me! Alternative: Don’t bug me!
    GT: (Detected Catalan!). Don’t get me wrong.

    2. To appreciate—or avoid gagging on toasted crumbs—this one, some background may help.
    It is a play on ¡Es de Lope!, an old-fashioned expression meaning fine/superb/excellent or even ¡Macanudo! It says that something (not to include any aspect of Liz Truss’s imitation of a functioning government…) is worthy of Lope de Vega. Antonio Buero Vallejo was a noted 20th c. Spanish playwright, perhaps best know for his ability to flummox Franco’s censors.

    ¡Es de Buero!
    DeepL: It’s by Buero!
    GT: (Catalan detected). It’s from Buero!

    There you have it. Machine translators work as designed, and make lousy toasted muffins.

  21. Like Ook said, GEB was fascinating for me as a child; the book came out when I was 10, and I know I devoured it as soon as I could get it at my local library.

    In contrast, Le Ton beau de Marot was a disappointment. The loss of Hofstadter’s wife loomed large over that book, and I think I am a Strange Loop showed that he had never been able to successfully grow after the loss. (Hofstadter didn’t meet his second wife until three years after IaaSL was published.)

    This essay feels like an old man tilting at fallen windmills. I speculate that the hobby horse of reasonably successful machine translation might remain too close for comfort for Hofstadter – something okay to muse upon in the abstract, but a memento vacui of our own status as wetware.

  22. I myself got tired of Hofstadter’s shtick, as Hat puts it, when I read about an interaction he had had with Richard Feynman. According to Gleick, “Douglas Hofstadter, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, gave an unusual talk on the slippery uses of analogy. He began by asking the audience to name the First Lady of England, looking for such answers as Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, or Denis Thatcher. ‘My wife,’ came the cry from the front row. Why? ‘Because she’s English and she’s great.'” Admittedly, this wasn’t a highly discerning response — Feynman’s frequently weren’t, despite his current reputation as a sage — but Hofstadter apparently was extremely put out by Feynman’s disrespect to his brilliant analysis of the concept of analogy. I remember thinking, look buddy, when you invent something comparable to quantum electrodynamics then you can tell us all how irritating Feynman is.

  23. In context (from the book), Feynman was a habitual and not so discerning heckler. The book notes (without details, alas) how he “shocked colleagues by tearing the flesh off an elderly Werner Heisenberg, [and] made the young relativist Kip Thorne physically ill.”

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    “In 1976, Werner Heisenberg, one of the leading physicists of the 20th century, made a stop at Caltech as part of a cross-country lecture tour. Since 1950, he had been expounding a certain theory that was generally acknowledged as worthless. Out of respect, however, people usually refrained from arguing with him. His lecture at Caltech was on this theory. Gell-Mann stayed away purposely, but Feynman was there and made his presence felt. At a certain point he got up and shouted: “If that’s so, your theory is crap.” Mortified, Heisenberg left the hall, and according to the distinguished physicist Harald Fritzsch, who was at Caltech at the time and on close terms with him, he never recovered from the shock. He died that same year. ”

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Since 1950, he had been expounding a certain theory that was generally acknowledged as worthless

    That sounds quite interesting, in a somewhat melancholy rubbernecking-at-roadcrashes sort of way. Does anybody know any details?

  26. Stu Clayton says


    It appears that it was Heisenberg’s “Weltformel” that got him into trouble.

    I expect that o’erweening giants tend to elicit melancholy more often than do o’erweening weenies. They have less alliteration, which inspires unseemly enjoyment.

    Melancholy of this kind is the obverse of Schadenfreude. Let’s call it Schadentrübsinn.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, Stu.

    It is interesting. I might have guessed that a Theory of Everything was the fatal lure.

    Weltformel is a very nice word. I shall try to work it into as many conversations as possible henceforward.

    Dirac, who was certainly odd, but not in that way, was into Very Large Numbers as a potential clue to What It’s All About:

    Moreover, a fair number of sensible people seem to think he was onto something.
    There’s a recording of a radio talk by Dirac on these huge dimensionless constants linked on the WP page.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    The speaker in the video at the link is the director of a MPI research program to compare and contrast Theories of Everything. They call it post-empiricism. Yet another petit grand récit.

  29. They call it post-empiricism.

    I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

  30. Swedish Chef, Muppet.

  31. Stu Clayton says

    I myself much prefer spinach over broccoli, the vegetable that excited juvenile disgust in that cartoon. The kid and I agree in practice, the terminological distinction is theoretical. Not all is good that is green.

  32. David Eddyshaw says


    In the UK this is traditionally called Trussism, after its (possibly mythical) originator. (She is associated in popular tales with a mysterious figure called the Kwarteng, said to be so terrifying as to strike fear even into bond vigilantes. Her totemic plant is the cabbage, which is – perhaps significantly – related to broccoli. These are deep waters.)

  33. I thought her totemic plant was lettuce? (N.b.: 2022 United Kingdom government crisis is a disambiguation page pointing to three articles… as of today, anyway.)

  34. From that MPG site:

    — “Phonetic transcriptions of Heisenberg’s formula appeared in American local newspapers.” Is that some kind of a guttural thing?

    — “…which will reflect on and evaluate this century-long search using the methods of historical epistemology.” What’s that?

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    I thought her totemic plant was lettuce?

    I am impatient of these fine distinctions among rebarbative vegetables. (I can’t tell one cabinet minister from another.)

    2022 United Kingdom government crisis is a disambiguation page pointing to three articles…

    Year of the Four Emperors, nothing! Rule Britannia!

  36. A cabbage would last a lot longer than a lettuce, with or without added googly eyes.

  37. Stuart Clayton says

    One fruit of historical epistemology: Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe in 8 vol.

    Another: Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680-1820, 6 vol. so far.

    Perhaps fruit is not the mot juste. Giant Cabbages of the Intellect is more apt.

    Actually there are many interesting writers who put this all to instructive use. I recommend Reizbare Maschinen: Eine Geschichte des Körpers 1765–1914.

  38. Stuart? What have you done with Stu? Or is that your historical-epistemology alter ego?

  39. I guess a €348 book deserves the extra formality.

  40. “Phonetic transcriptions of Heisenberg’s formula appeared in American local newspapers.”

    Not just American: Haarlem’s Dagblad | 6 maart 1958 (left column, “Heisenberg’s formule bestaat uit 27 symbolen,” last paragraph: “De formule luidt”).

  41. Stu Clayton says

    What have you done with Stu?

    Well, I’m trying to watch that 2002 Spiderman film again at the same time as scoring historico-epistemological points. Something had to give. Toby Maguire has such a sweet smile !

  42. That’s “Tobias Maguire” to you.

    “Phonetic transcriptions of Heisenberg’s formula appeared in American local newspapers” makes me imagine newspapers publishing narrow IPA transcriptions of Heisenberg enunciating pages’ worth of tensor calculus formulas. It’s a vision I’m not mentally prepared for.

  43. Stu Clayton says

    His WiPe article is headed Tobey Maguire.

  44. I meant, as long as you’re full-naming yourself…

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    I would like to do that myself, but Akismet protects your eyes from the sight of my full Name. In any case, this keyboard lacks many of the necessary Symbols.

  46. Stu Clayton says

    How about an IPA transcription of it ?

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    Your human vocal apparatus is not capable of uttering it (apart from the Absolutive circumfix, obviously.*)
    And your “IPA” is so parochial in these matters.

    * I have elicited quite similar sounds to this from human subjects under certain laboratory conditions.

  48. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Only two crises disambiguated now.

    First Lady of England

    Well, we had Scota the daughter of the King of Egypt, but I think England only had Hengist and Horsa. David may know about the situation in Wales.

  49. The WiPe page on Scota has this fascinating nugget:

    Scota and Nuil’s son, Goídel, who was saved by a prayer from Moses after being bitten by a snake, and is said to have created the Gaelic language by combining the best features of the 72 languages then in existence.

    I assume that any well-educated linguist today can easily name those 72 languages and point out their best features.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, 68 of the best features came from Welsh, of course, and the remaining four from Kusaal. The other seventy languages were pretty good in their way, but not really up to the job of contributing to the creation of Gaelic.

    Only two crises disambiguated now

    Well, we thought one of them was a crisis before, but in the light of the horrors that came afterwards it seems so minor in retrospect that we’ve decided to forget all about it. Also, at this rate, unless we start prioritising a bit we might end up needing two disambiguation pages, which is absurd.

    David may know about the situation in Wales.

    I think we’d have to nominate Buddug.

  51. Central Wales to the Nile Delta: 3,900 km.
    Ghana–Burkina Faso border to the Nile Delta: 3,900 km.

    Coincidence?? Hmmmm???

  52. David Eddyshaw says


  53. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Going on form, there’s time for at least one more before New Year’s. (If you assume a geometric series and fit to the two latest premiers, the screaming will be over by midnight Sunday),

  54. Joe Post: OK, perhaps we shouldn’t say how irritating someone is, as that would be ad hominem. But on the other hand, the work someone did doesn’t put every single remark they made beyond criticism. Why shouldn’t we say how irritating a particular heckle by Feynman was?

    Hofstadter’s point is a good one — that care is needed when making analogies, and locutions such as “the First Lady of England” do not necessarily convey a unique meaning. Quite apart from the fact that the use of “First Lady” is US-centric and England is only part of a nation.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    A letter in today’s Times suggests that Charles III is looking like an increasingly good bet to surpass his mother’s record of 15 Prime Ministers.

  56. just because nobody else seems to have said it yet:

    this is just hofstadter reinventing grammelot, but without any idea that the idea has existed for centuries as a performance form capacious enough to include commedia dell’arte, dario fo, and the internet’s rediscovery of “PRİSENCÓLİNENSİNÁİNCIÚSOL” – and so getting really excited about his own cackhanded version. perhaps the common thread with him is having a lot of wit but absolutely no sense of humor?

  57. Gerd Duerner says

    That’s some very Aliceesque gibberish. 🙂

  58. For the one or two people commenting that the failure of a translation system to translate something untranslateable is only to be expected and therefore not particularly funny: to my mind, that’s not the point. What I find funny is the unexpected and incongruous juxtapositions which the attempts produce, together with the fact that the result is mostly grammatical and therefore “ought” to mean something coherent. There was only one sentence which my brain refused to parse.

    Maybe it’s also worth pointing out that Google Translate doesn’t do very well with Norwegian, the Scandinavian language which I know, partly because of the multiple uses of det (“it”, “the”, formal subject “there”, demonstrative adjective “that”, and “the fact that”). These can often only be distinguished by understanding how the grammar works.

  59. Stephen Carlson says

    Yes, it’s DH doing linguistic play and wondering why machine translators don’t play along. Maybe an AI can do play or maybe that could be an interesting test for an AI, but these weren’t designed to do that.

  60. …Charles III is looking like an increasingly good bet to surpass his mother’s record of 15 Prime Ministers

    I am about to start a conspiracy theory that Liz Truss was sacked for killing the Queen. Her hapless (or as Brits call it shambolic) premiership was a cover up.

  61. David Eddyshaw says

    Nah, that would be de Pfeffel.* Would you repeatedly expose a nonagenarian to the toxic essence of ABdePJ?

    * it’s said that his friends call him “Alex”, but I can’t see that this is either verifiable or refutable. It’s one of those “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there to hear it” questions.

  62. PlasticPaddy says

    While looking for “friends” who call him Alex, I found an article that says he is Al to his family but changed to Boris in public after some time at Eton. You can’t make this stuff up (his own godfather!):

    “He was taken on as a graduate trainee at the Times, but the shambolic Boris persona did not impress his news editors. The star of Eton and Oxford was given low-grade work and, desperate for glory, made up a quote to sex up a story and attributed it to his godfather, the academic Colin Lucas. Lucas complained to editor Charlie Wilson, who sacked the young trainee.”

  63. @rozelle To me it looks like the various AIs are lacking a sense of humor. DH wrote a humorous paragraph and the AIs didn’t get it.

    I often don’t know if LH comments are meant as linguistics or as humor. It makes it more interesting.

  64. To me it looks like the various AIs are lacking a sense of humor.

    Well, yes, as do rocks, and stones, and trees. Would DH find their lack of comprehension of his paragraph equally amusing? Frankly, I don’t think he understands what AI is.

  65. I often don’t know if LH comments are meant as linguistics or as humor.


  66. David Eddyshaw says

    Classic false dichotomy …

    (What? You though Chomsky was serious? Whoosh!)

  67. I have unconsciously assumed that “toaster oven” has some sort of idiomatic/non-compositional semantics

    Japanese for ‘toaster oven’ is オーブントースター ōbun tōsutā, i.e., ‘oven toaster’, so I’m not sure what you could make of the semantics of that.

  68. Trond Engen says

    I think he totally misses the point in another way: The translations are in fact surprisingly human-like, and not any worse than what many a human translatior would come up with, at least without being given a chance to study the text carefully. Normal human beings act on the assumptions of meaning and cooperative effort and will do their best to tweak out whatever meaning there might be. The language is obviously Swedish, as is abundantly clear from syntax and orthography, which also make the text parseable. The rest is all about lexicon, and when the words can’t be found in dictionaries, you resort to uncommon derivations and emendations/guesses at non-standard usages and spellings.

    The Norwegian comedy show I kveld med Ylvis explored this with Swedish interpreters from Dutch,

    Then doubling down a few weeks later with speed-dating in Dutch.

  69. Trond Engen says

    Oh, and another thought. The assumption of meaning, resort to derivations from similar attested words and non-standardized speilling make it very similar to dechiffering and reading inscriptions in lost languages. But in those you don’t have actual speakers or an independent corpus to test the result against.

  70. Jen in Edinburgh says

    No one expects rocks and stones to be intelligent, though. (Reserving judgement on trees.)

    I don’t suppose a sense of humour is *necessary* for intellegence, but is it necessary for artificial intelligence to be humourless?

  71. The whole point is that “artificial intelligence” as it exists today is not intelligent in any normal sense, it simply follows rules programmed into it. It is, of course, a common error to confuse the two things, which is why I said “I don’t think he understands what AI is.” The error is forgivable in people who only know what they read in the papers and are confused by the name (which is poorly chosen), but not so much in someone who claims to be an expert.

  72. I mean, I could call a rock a “smart rock” and paint a face on it, but that wouldn’t magically give it a sense of humor.

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    confused by the name (which is poorly chosen), but not so much in someone who claims to be an expert

    I presume DH is in fact implying, with his leaden humour, that AI as it currently exists is in fact not intelligent, for the very reason that it has been made in defiance of his own recipe for real AI.

  74. Ah, yes. “Those fools! If they had only listened to me….”

  75. Reserving judgement on trees

    Michael Pollan has claimed, I think, that plants have a sort of collective intelligence, although in practice it seems to come down to the fact that they emit chemical signals indicating stress from drought etc. And then Richard Powers has a book, The Understory, which as far as I can tell riffs on the idea that trees form a sort of community.

    I have tried to read a couple of Powers’s books but have failed both times. He seems to be utterly humorless, a fatal flaw in a novelist, and he can’t seem to decide whether he is writing stories or pop science.

    Perhaps Richard Powers is not a person but AI.

  76. John Cowan says

    Artificial Stupidity, to be exact. But modern AI doesn’t “follow rules” in the sense of Good Old Fashioned A.I.: its behavior is stochastic and unpredictable, at least at the human level.

    As for Scota, she is obviously a distorted historical reminiscence of the actual conquest of Egypt in the 5C by the Scoti.

  77. @JC: All I get is “ uses an unsupported protocol.”

  78. PlasticPaddy says

    Firewall or browser settings? I had this problem with languagehat (not recently). Can you try another browser easily?

  79. trees form a sort of community

    I find this idea pretty ridiculous. With trees and plants competing with each other for dominance in any ecosystem, how can there be a “community”? (I suppose that makes me a Thatcherite, with the implicit argument that any healthy ecosystem is a result of unbridled competition among plants. Unlike Thatcher, however, I don’t regard the victory of noxious weeds as a healthy outcome.)

  80. @PP: I’m reading this on my android phone; I’m not going to install another browser on it 🙂

  81. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I get SSL_ERROR_NO_CYPHER_OVERLAP in Firefox if I try to use TLS (HTTPS) with It works fine with plain HTTP, but recent browsers don’t let friends use insecure protocols. (The server is clearly set up with some sort of TLS but a more discerning client [openssl] says there is no server certificate sent. Since the server is behind Cloudflare it’s unlikely that it’s a matter of outdated software, somebody probably just needs to check a box to get a Let’s Encrypt certificate).

    Curiously, I’m getting an “alt-svc” header on HTTP that asks me to use HTTP/3 draft version 29 on port 443. I haven’t had occasion to find out what happens if you try to talk TLS to an HTTP/3 endpoint; I would have guessed there was some sort of graceful downgrade but who knows. (Also alt-svc referrals are not supposed to be sent in unencrypted responses, or at least browsers are not supposed to just follow them. I think it’s more likely that Hans’ browser is set to always encrypt, and that fails).

  82. PlasticPaddy says

    As a sometime gardener, I would note that in my experience, noxious weeds occupy marginal positions (e.g., marshy or shady areas) and are easily outcompeted in less marginal positions by robust grasses (exception: do you consider dandelion, daisy or buttercup noxious?). You also leave out the consideration that one (important?) aspect of competition among plants is the attraction of insects, birds and animals, in order to provide wider (or naturally fertliised) pollen or seed propagation. I suspect Thatcher’s noxious weeds prospered due to a mixture of dumb luck and more or less explicit nurturing on the model of children that only a mother can love.

  83. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Dandelions are not universally loved, and some Danish HOAs will insist you keep them from going to seed and spreading to the next lawn. Quitch will replace lawn grass if you let it, as will mint though not as aggressively, but they are not windborne. Mint is useful but you don’t want a whole garden of it, quitch is just annoying. Neither are good for playing soccer on.

  84. The Bam Whisperer seems to belong here. (On Facebook with subtitles, for what they’re worth.)

  85. John Cowan says

    rocks, and stones, and trees

    A minor hit by the Aboriginal death metal band The Dead Lucys.

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