Data Visualization Linguistics / Interpreting & Visual Language / Tableau

Alice in Wonderland: A Linguistics Approach to Data Visualization


“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Before we go too deep in wonderland here, kids, I want to reiterate one thing: my focus is visual communication, not the science behind data visualization and human perception.  I’ve not studied things like memorability, pre-attentive attributes, or the whole host of discussions that are occurring in space today.  Read, yes.  Study, no.  Want those discussions?  Go find the people smarter than me: this is just a sample, not an exhaustive list. Like a toddler, I’m just here to play, make a large, colorful mess, and get some kudos in the form of cookies or ice cream.  I’ll accept tea as well, but it’s got to be loose-leaf and not that dust that ends up in bags.  Sorry kids, gotta have some class somewhere, and that’s it.

Tea or Cruelty

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.” “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” “Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.

Now, I come from the interpreting world, where, again, people much smarter than me came up with brilliant ideas to describe our work.  I never did much there, other than present these ideas or make other people read them when I did training.  That’s the benefit of modern times: smart people come up with great ideas, and crazy people like me talk about them and get paid under the guise of training.  Great stuff.

Hey, ma! Found this big hole…toodles!

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where -” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

In the interpreting world, we learned a number of techniques to reinforce our understanding of the theories presented.  That, or they realized they chatted a lot, we zoned out, and they wanted us to prove we weren’t just on autopilot (which may or may not have been the case).  From a linguistics standpoint, we learned just how different signed languages were from spoken.

Let’s get real here for a moment.  In the 1960’s, a bunch of scientists thought it’d be a good idea to teach chimpanzees and gorillas “sign language.”  They used signs from American Sign Language (not language, vocabulary, hence the quotes) to prove that the language instinct exists in primates, as well as humans.  They had a bunch of people monitor and validate these experiments, but only one native Deaf signer who knew the language and, naturally, got silenced.  Here’s the rub, though: while we were encouraging primates to sign, our nation’s  Deaf kids had forced to sit on their hands for decades and learn to speak without access to sign language.  Yes, kids, we used science for politics.

Ameslan Prohibited Betty G Miller
Deaf artists don’t lie: I hope this gives you chills. It did me.

We told these kids sign language was inferior and a number grew up without access to good language models.  Sadly, this attitude has persisted that manual language is somehow the lesser and Deaf people throughout the world are not given the dignity and respect they deserve.  It took until deep in the 1970’s and ’80’s before we even recognized American Sign Language AS a language and we still do not bother counting it in the U.S. Census.

In spoken language, we dissect the language via things like phonemes, or the individual sounds we make.  We like to flip ‘e’s upside down in the dictionary and say it means something.  While English shares many phonemes, some of my friends across the pond make use of things like the glottal stop (it’s those ‘h’s, kids), while my flat American tongue rarely does (uh oh!).  These things contribute to our accent (and yes, we ALL have one, even you and especially me) and our many failings in second language learning. ASL (and every other signed language) lacks phonemes (remember, they’re units of sound).  This is why for years linguists dismissed it.  It wasn’t spoken, so it wasn’t a language.  Again, smart people (not me) came up with a definition for language: I just get to show you cats, and you all confer upon me the respect that ultimately should go to someone else.   That’s just the benefits of being the messenger.

Hey, you the messenger? Got some tea!
Hey, you the messenger? Got some tea!

So what is a language?

A language is a system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals that changes across time and that members of a community share and use for several purposes: to interact with each other, to communicate their ideas, emotions, and intentions, and to transmit their culture from generation to generation. (Baker-Shenk & Cokely, 1980)

Say what?! Let’s break this down:

  1. A system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals: when I say “house,” there’s no reason that that was assigned to mean a particular style of home.  It did come from the German “haus,” but again, no logical reason exists for this phonetic grouping.  It just is.  Now, when I sign house, a bunch of people want to explain it, because it’s visual.  There’s the roof, the sides; yup, that’s a house.  Yet, ask any Deaf person looking for someone’s house and you’ll learn how few sign-impaired people can get this, despite it’s “logical imagery.”  This is that “relatively arbitrary” part.  Grammatical signals are just as fun.  Ask me anything: did your voice raise up at the end?  Yup, that’s your signal.  Guess what?  In ASL, I raise or lower my eyebrows depending on the style of question. Really, it’s not me being grouchy, it’s grammar!
  2. Changes across time: we doth discuss this often, because we dropped the ‘th’ somewhere along the way.  It happens.  Need another way to sound smart tonight?  It’s called the ‘diachronic process’ and it affects all living languages (sorry, Latin, you got left in the dust).  ASL has evolved – just watch George Veditz sometime and you’ll understand why.
  3. Members of a community share for several purposes: have you ever heard of Esperanto?  It’s that universal language we were all going to learn at one point and share no language boundaries.  It never took flight, despite the clubs that exist.  Language is personal; it’s a direct reflection on how we think as a community (that whole purposes thing).  Ready for the big shocker?  I hate to break it to you, kids, but American Sign Language is just that: American; really, North American.  Some, not all, Canadians use it (Quebec Sign Language isn’t just in Quebec either).   And don’t tell me the Taiwanese sign for “sister” is universal, because my hands can’t make that shape.  And don’t even ask me about “brother.” And, yes, it’s real.

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice. “Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.” Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

How I look in the morning, before tea.
How I look in the morning before tea. Hair especially. And eyebrows. And eyes. Oops, that IS me.

So, now that you have your linguistics degree, what does this have to do with data visualization? Let’s try this again:

  1. A system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals: we have these things called charts we like to say have meaning.  These can be things like bars, lines, bullets, heat maps, and yes, even pie charts.  They’re arbitrary, kids.  Really, show a dashboard to an artist or a 5-year-old and ask them what they see.  The responses are awesome!  And grammar?  Throw a bunch of charts on a dashboard.  Does it matter how they’re arranged?  Based on discussions I see, no doubt exists in my mind.  This is also influenced by size, shape, color, and a host of other things.
  2. Changes across time: I’d say Google a bunch of dashboards, but we know what happens.  So, just don’t.  But know that the style of these things has changed (ideally).  Just look at your work from a few years back or someone else’s if you’re new.  Hopefully, it looks different.  At least, drop the primary colors and 3D, if not.
  3. Members of a community share for several purposes: while we’re all crazy and love our day jobs, we don’t just do this for fun.  Really, there’s a reason people pay for it and it’s because they want information in an intelligible format.  We know from Google how hard this is.  We desire understanding and attempt to norm this amongst ourselves (that whole interaction, intentions, desires, and ideals bit).  Either that, or we all want cake (sorry, but analysts don’t get pie – you know why).

“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

How analysts have pie...
How analysts have pie…cherpumple.

There you have it, kids.  Tune in at another time when we apply sign language parameters to dashboard building.

And, if you want to send me kudos in the form of ice cream (also allowed for analysts), take your pick from here and send my way (and yes, I need to update – ideas on ways to better capture this data welcome!). Thanks, kids.

3 thoughts on “Alice in Wonderland: A Linguistics Approach to Data Visualization

    1. Andy, thank you for your kind words and everything you and others are adding to the community. I’ll make sure you get your linguistics cert in the mail shortly! Cheers!

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