Author: Anna White

Featured Linguist: Adam Przepiórkowski

Featured Linguist: Adam Przepiórkowski

Featured Linguist: Adam Przepiórkowski

Grammar sucks: it is complex and it makes no sense. That’s what I learned at school. One day you are told that each Polish noun has a grammatical gender, and the next day – that it actually has a different gender in the singular and in the plural. One day you are told that transitive verbs always combine with accusative objects, and the next day you see the direct object in the genitive, just because some negation is floating around. One day you are told that complements are obligatory participants and adjuncts are optional circumstances expressing manner, location, etc., and the next day you notice verbs like BEHAVE or RESIDE, with obligatory circumstantials. So you can’t be blamed for deciding that mathematics and programming make much more sense. Having said farewell to grammar, I went to an experimental university level maths high school, and got far enough in the national maths olympics to be accepted as an MSc student to the Mathematics and Computer Science department of the University of Warsaw.

These were late 1980s and early 1990s, the communism fell down – first in Poland, then in Berlin, Czechoslovakia and other places – and suddenly exchange programs became available, of which I immediately took advantage, spending a year in Edinburgh twice: first at Heriot-Watt, and then at the Centre for Cognitive Science of the University of Edinburgh. There, with teachers like Elisabet Engdahl and Robin Cooper, grammar not only started making sense, but became great fun – like a bottomless box of toys and puzzles. One game was called “Principles and Parameters”: how to set parameters (and how to tweak supposedly universal principles) to get Polish? I must have set a couple of parameters right, as I got an A+ for the final syntactic assignment and an offer to publish it, PUBLISH IT (gasp), as a research report of the Centre for Cognitive Science (EUCCS/RP-62). Another game was: how to make a computer produce all and only grammatical sentences of Polish? Computational linguistics courses were fun also for reasons not really intended by the lecturers. I remember a particularly enjoyable class at 2 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, about the implementation of some kind of focus calculus in some form of dynamic semantics, when – as the teacher was trying to explain the intricate workings of perhaps a little unwisely named parameters FOC-IN and FOC-OUT – the colour of his face was becoming increasingly purple… Edinburgh was certainly a forming experience for me, and the solid broad exposure to syntax (Chomskyan and HPSG), formal semantics, logic and computational linguistics set me on the path of becoming a formal / computational / corpus linguist.

I was also lucky to have a safe haven in Poland to always go back to. When still in Edinburgh, toiling over a preprint of soon-to-be-published “Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar” by Pollard and Sag, I found out about a computational linguistic group at the Polish Academy of Sciences, headed by the late Prof. Leonard Bolc, who – at that time (early/mid 1990s) – got an idea that it would be interesting (and en vogue) to implement an HPSG grammar of Polish. I got heavily involved and – some 7–8 years later, in early 2000s – we had among us 4 linguistic PhD dissertations (and a couple dozens of papers) concerned with various aspects of Polish formalised in HPSG, an implemented HPSG grammar of Polish, and a monograph on Polish in HPSG.

Letters of recommendation I got in Edinburgh, from Elisabet and Robin, opened many doors for me: first to Stuttgart, where I worked in Hans Kamp’s group on the Verbmobil machine translation system, then to Tübingen, definitely the best HPSG place in Europe at that time, where I defended my PhD on case assignment in Polish, then to Ohio, where I was a postdoc with Carl Pollard and was supposed to work on HPSG, but where – after reading too much Minimalism during my PhD work and following the general paradigm shift – I decided to requalify as a corpus linguist. At that time there was no large, publicly available, linguistically annotated corpus of Polish, but there were a few more-or-less closed corpora around. At the Polish Academy of Sciences, we got a grant for building such a large, publicly available corpus, as well as various tools for its annotation and search, so soon there was one more corpus of Polish, pretty much as in this xkcd strip: http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/standards.png, although of course we thought of ours as the best in all (well, almost all) possible respects. This situation became a little embarrassing, and after a few well-intended but still slightly caustic remarks by Prof. Čermák – the head of the monolithic Czech National Corpus at that time – regarding the situation in Poland, the developers of various Polish corpora joined forces and created the National Corpus of Polish (NCP; http://nkjp.pl/; our partners from the English Department of the University of Łódź decided that the acronym of “Polish National Corpus” would not sound respectable in English…), one of the most popular language resources of Polish these days.

Frequently, with the advancement through scientific ranks comes the accumulation of administrative functions. In 2005, when Prof. Bolc retired, I took over the helm and was the Head of the Linguistic Engineering Group at the Institute of Computer Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences (isn’t that a mouthful) for the next 10 years, until my “administrative retirement” at the end of the last year. During that time, most of my work – apart from some teaching of theoretical and computational linguistics at the University of Warsaw – consisted in heading various computational and corpus linguistic projects, and also coordinating the National Corpus of Polish. These projects were very important in various ways, and helped establish the Linguistic Engineering group at the Polish Academy of Sciences as a reliable partner in such projects, but they mostly involved engineering work, with little interesting linguistics, so I also tried to find the time to follow my theoretical linguistic interests, once the Minimalist trauma was gone. After a few years’ break with HPSG I decided it would be fun (again; homo sapiens is indeed homo ludens!) to play with a different well-established theory, namely, Lexical-Functional Grammar. At that time I supervised an enthusiastic PhD student who also got interested in LFG, and we made a strong debut at the LFG 2012 conference in Bali. In fact, our entrance was duly noted during the LFG business meeting, when the rules were tightened on how many papers by the same authors may be accepted to an LFG conference. We continue intensive work within LFG, although I sometimes miss the more rigid (in my humble opinion) logical foundations of theories such as HPSG or Categorial Grammar (which I suppose I should really be working within, given that these days I teach at the Institute of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw, where Ajdukiewicz was a professor for some time…). So I am very excited by the fact this year my group at the Polish Academy of Sciences will host the first truly joint HPSG/LFG conference (http://headlex16.ipipan.waw.pl/).

With a little over 20 years of research, I am perhaps somewhere in the middle of my scientific career (common assumptions being made here), and I should probably consider myself relatively successful (as measured by the number and outcome of projects, by my h-index, etc.), but I am not at all certain I would direct my scientific career the same way, had I my current experience 20 years ago. It’s good to publish a lot, but perhaps I should have submitted more papers to journals, instead of leaving them in conference proceedings, etc.? It’s good to have grants which provide external funding, also for PhD students, programmers, etc., but managing such grants takes a lot of time and energy. It’s good to have many interests and broad horizons (this is especially useful for running the Journal of Language Modelling; http://jlm.ipipan.waw.pl/), but it makes it harder to really become an expert in any single area. So these days I am pursuing a different approach: forgetting about grant applications, getting rid of as many administrative and managerial duties as possible, being picky about reviewing, etc., and finding again lots of time to read and… to play. Because linguistics can be a lot of fun!

 

 

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Johan Rooryck

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Featured Linguist: Johan Rooryck

Featured Linguist: Johan Rooryck

Once upon a time in Belgium

I have always been fascinated by the variety and structure of languages. My father greatly contributed to my lifelong passion ­for linguistics by instilling in me a deep love and appreciation for Latin — he had taken a degree in Classics before pursuing a career in Law. In high school in Belgium, I was lucky to have had inspiring and demanding language teachers as well. Through the study of Latin, I learned to rigorously reflect on language and its structure from an early age.

Leuven

Leuven

At the University of Leuven, I studied what was then known as ‘Romance philology’, a combination of literary and linguistic studies of Romance languages. During the first year, I received an introduction to linguistics from a somewhat eccentric and unconventional professor, Karel van den Eynde, a former Bantuist and structural linguist. His teaching style consisted of defiantly throwing linguistic puzzles at his students, challenging us to come up with an analysis. Only a few years later did I discover that most of these puzzles came straight out of Henry Allan Gleason’s 1961 Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. It was around this time that I decided that the study of language would be my professional future.

I wrote my MA dissertation on ellipsis and gapping. Two years later, part of this MA dissertation turned into my very first scholarly article published in Linguistic Analysis in 1985. I received a four-year stipend from the Belgian National Science Foundation to pursue a PhD at the University of Leuven. In 1987, I defended my PhD on infinitival complementation in French. My dissertation dealt with issues at the syntax-semantics interface. It examined the interpretation of the empty subject of infinitives, a topic known as control. This fascination with the relation between syntax and semantics would become an enduring one in all of my research.

 

On the road in the USA

Row of elm trees on the Penn State campus

Row of elm trees on the Penn State campus

Since there were no academic positions available in Belgium at the time, I decided to leave my home country in order to continue my career in linguistics. At the recommendation of Pierre Swiggers, I was hired at Penn State in 1988 by Phil Baldi, the director of the Penn State linguistics program at the time, and Richard Frautschi, the head of the French department. During this one-year visiting assistant professorship (that was extended by another year), I met Pierre Pica, who would become a lifelong friend. Rather informally, Pierre taught me a lot about generative grammar, and I became fascinated by the rich perspective this framework had to offer for the understanding of language structure and variation. I also assisted Pierre with editing the French translation of Chomsky’s seminal Lectures on Government and Binding. This editorial work enhanced my theoretical grounding in generative grammar. I continued working on topics of infinitival complementation from the perspective of generative syntax and the Minimalist Program which was just taking off.

theoriesofgovernment

After two years at Penn State, I moved on to the department of French and Italian at Indiana University for another one-year visiting assistant professorship position, which was renewed for another two years. At Indiana, there was a large community of linguists: Albert Valdman and Laurie Zaring in French and Italian, but also Steven Franks, Alice ter Meulen, Stuart Davis, Natsuko Tsujimura, Clancy Clements, Louise McNally, Linda Schwartz and many others in the linguistics department. With their support, I coordinated and organized a lecture series on phrase structure and the lexicon, which later resulted in an eponymous edited book in 1995.

The Sample Gates at Indiana University

The Sample Gates at Indiana University

phrasestructure

 

 

Settling down in The Netherlands

In 1992, I applied for a full professorship in French linguistics at Leiden University. At the time, Jean-Yves Pollock and Dominique Sportiche, whom I greatly admired, had also applied for this position and ended up not taking it. To my great surprise, I was hired. At 32, I was one of the youngest professors to have been named at Leiden University. I have been there ever since. I learned to negotiate the intricacies of Dutch academic life, and to properly distinguish the use of ‘proper’ Dutch (as it was called, even by my fellow Leiden linguists) from my own Flemish variety of Dutch. When I arrived in Leiden, theoretical linguistics was enthusiastically led by Jan Kooij, Teun Hoekstra, Hans Bennis, and Harry van der Hulst. The years between 1993 and 1998 were perhaps the most inspiring of my life: I learnt a lot about linguistics, but also about supervising PhD students, administration, and academic politics. All linguists would have lunch together, and our discussions invariably centered around linguistics: theory, data, and analysis. Only Monday morning coffee breaks were strictly dedicated to discussing soccer results from the previous weekend, under the watchful eye of Jan Kooij, a cigarette permanently fixed between his lips.

lingua

Between 1998 and 2000, things changed. Teun Hoekstra, who had become a good friend, died after a long battle with renal cancer. Hans Bennis took up a position as the director of the Meertens Institute, and Harry van der Hulst left Leiden for the University of Connecticut. Shortly before Teun Hoekstra passed away, he had asked me to take over the editorship of Lingua from him, and I became Lingua’s executive editor in January 1999. I published a book on sentential complementation with Routledge in 2000, which brought together a set of articles that I had written and published in the previous ten years. I took up various administrative duties at Leiden University, supervised more and more PhD students, and was involved in the Syntactic Atlas of Dutch Dialects (SAND). When Guido Vanden Wyngaerd spent a sabbatical in Leiden in 1997-1998, we started working on Binding Theory, which eventually resulted in our joint book Dissolving Binding Theory, published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

dissolving binding theory

 

Broadening my horizons

Between 2000 and 2010, I came to realize that supervising PhD students was just as rewarding as doing my own research: creating an atmosphere of intellectual trust and respect; testing hypotheses with them; nurturing their new and original insights; gently steering them clear of ideas that would never work; helping to shape a vague intuition into a rigorous argument; facilitating and encouraging them to talk to other people who could contribute the necessary expertise to the supervision team. Admittedly, I was blessed to be working with extraordinarily gifted PhD students. They have enriched and challenged me, and presented me with the most interesting and novel puzzles. Many of them have gone on to train PhD students of their own, in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Brazil, and South Africa. I have learned a lot from them. I believe that is how it should be: so-called PhD “supervision” is a two-way street, an exchange, a partnership. You don’t supervise, really, you participate.

During these years, I also led and collaborated on various research projects sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), which enabled me to broaden my expertise beyond generative syntax. With Martine Coene, I collaborated on experimental research on the development of language in children with cochlear implants. I also learned a lot about experimental research from Vincent van Heuven. With Willem Adelaar, I worked on our joint project on evidentiality, and became more acquainted with descriptive research. With my former PhD students Marjo van Koppen and Erik Schoorlemmer, I led a project on the morphosyntax of inalienable possession. Again thanks to Pierre Pica, who had been working on the number system of the Mundurucu in the Amazon, I became interested in the interdisciplinary domain of core knowledge systems. In 2012, in collaboration with Pierre and a number of Dutch researchers, I obtained a large interdisciplinary grant with funds for 4 postdocs and 4 PhD students to investigate the relation between core knowledge systems and language, music, poetry, and the visual arts.

 

Towards Open Access: from Lingua to Glossa

During the noughties, Lingua steadily grew in size, from a 700-page journal with 70 submissions per year, to a 2300 page journal with around 340 submissions per year. This growth was largely due to the success of our formula of guest edited Special Issues dedicated to a specific, coherent theoretical theme examined from various perspectives. Managing the journal came to dominate my daily routine, requiring constant discipline, vigilance, and, not in the least, diplomacy. At the same time, it gave me an unparalleled overview of general linguistics in all its variety, a peek into almost every nook and cranny of the field, and it helped me develop a vast network of authors and reviewers. It was like sitting in the first row of a concert hall.

In October 2015, Lingua was ranked 7th in Google Scholar’s h5-Index Top Publications – Humanities, Literature & Arts, and 3rd in the subsection Language & Linguistics, when its 6 editors and the 31 members making up its editorial board resigned in reaction to Elsevier’s refusal to publish Lingua under conditions of Fair Open Access. This action was inspired by my growing frustration with Elsevier. As the journal grew, so did the number of stipulations of the editorial contracts. Around 2011, Elsevier started trying to influence the choice of associate editors at Lingua, asking me politely to select associate editors with the nationality of countries where they incidentally happened to sell a lot of new subscriptions. Independently, this was also the time when the Elsevier boycott started. Many colleagues contacted me either to say that their library could no longer afford the expensive subscription for Lingua, or to inform me that they would no longer review for the journal, since it was an Elsevier journal. When I forwarded such messages to Elsevier, I only received vacuous corporate spin stories in return. I began to feel like I was working for the enemy.

glossa

This gave me the incentive to explore other options and I was serendipitously contacted by advocates of Open Access. With their help, we managed to acquire funds for ‘flipping’ linguistics journals to ‘Fair’ Open Access. Once our foundation Linguistics in Open Access was in place (www.lingoa.eu), we informed Elsevier that we wished to renegotiate our collaboration with them along principles of ‘Fair’ Open Access. When they refused, we left to set up Glossa, the successor journal to Lingua. The outpouring of support from the linguistic community was overwhelming and gratifying. The event was widely reported in the mainstream media (see: http://www.lingoa.eu/press/media-coverage/). A full account can be found on the Facebook pages of Linguistics in Open Access and Glossa.

I feel privileged to have spent most of my life in linguistics. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with great people, I have caught some glimpses of understanding of the workings of language, and I have been able to develop an idea or two. I look forward to my next 20-odd years in the field with anticipation and excitement.

Johan Rooryck | www.rooryck.org

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Miriam Butt

Featured Linguist: Miriam Butt

Featured Linguist: Miriam Butt

I was born in Taif, Saudi-Arabia in a military hospital. I was one of the first (maybe even the first) European babies born there and caused quite a stir.

My father was an electrical engineer from Pakistan, charged with bringing electricity to the country. Some of my first memories involve peacocks in the garden of the royal summer palace — one of the duties my father had was to make sure that the royal family was well supplied with electricity!

My mother is a German journalist who interrupted her career to go on an Arabian adventure and from whom I presumably have a good portion of my love of language.

I grew up trilingual in German, English, Urdu with a bit of Arabic thrown in, but thought that that was normal. Indeed, I was astonished when the doctor in Germany was astonished when I asked him *which* language I should count to 20 in. Checking on counting ability is one part of the overall, standard examination to determine fitness to go to school in Germany, but one only needs to be monolingually fit.

Indeed, schools in Germany are still only slowly coming to terms with the new multilingual reality caused by recent migrations. Paradoxically, the state governments have consistently been decreasing the amount of linguistics taught to language teachers, thus exacerbating the situation, rather than addressing it effectively.

My first memory of thinking about language is when I was quite young. I wondered where language came from. What were the first words? How did it all start?

I went to ask my mother, but, once she had figured out what I was asking, had no answers.

In school in Germany, I learned Latin as of fourth grade. Although I consistently got fairly bad grades, I absolutely enjoyed the sense of antiquity, the sense of history and hidden information that wafted off the pages and pages of vocabulary items, paradigms and texts.

I wanted to become an archaeologist but my family told me there was no money in it and I should go for a different profession.

When I was thirteen, we moved to Pakistan and I attended the Lahore American School (LAS). There was no Latin in the curriculum, but the teachers were willing to be creative and helpful and allowed me to engage in a self-study course in which I continued with some Latin. I also found Mario Pei’s “The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages” in the library and worked my way through that in utter fascination.

With an American high school degree one can do very little except go to college in the US, so that is what I set out to do. I had been to the US on a brief visit, but it was mainly terra incognita, especially with respect to the college landscape. In the days before internet and instant access to information, I picked some states at random to narrow down the search space somewhat and then leafed through big college information books, looking for places that taught both Latin and computer science.

Computer Science because Pakistan at that time only allowed the use of foreign exchange (Pakistani rupees for dollars) if one studied one of a list of approved subjects. Air-conditioning was out of the question for me, so I settled on computer science. I knew I liked programming because LAS had offered a computer course and I had learned BASIC. Quite a forward looking curriculum for the early 80s in a school in Pakistan!

I applied to a number of places and was accepted (with financial aid) by Wellesley College. The experience there continues to be one of the best of my life. I learned linguistics from Andrea Levitt. Though her research is squarely in phonetics and language acquisition (something I only learned later), she made sure that all of us doing “Language Studies” received a broad and thorough linguistic training. This was augmented by Annette Herskovits in Computer Science, who worked on spatial terms from a Cognitive Science perspective. With the two of them as incredible mentors, I ended up doing a BA thesis comparing spatial terms in Hausa and Urdu.

This opened doors for the next step: graduate school. In applying, I knew I should be sensible and do computer science and earn a lot of money. However, a year spent as a Computer Science intern taught me that I did not want to spend my life in an air-conditioned office in front of a computer. I compromised and applied to places that did both computer science and linguistics. Stanford was one of those places.

On my first day there, I encountered a colibri and pepper trees and sun shine and the experience just kept on getting better. I took courses from and was mentored by a series of great linguists: Joan Bresnan, Eve Clark, Charles Ferguson, Andrew Garrett, Paul Kiparsky, Aditi Lahiri, John Rickford, Ivan Sag, Peter Sells, Henriette de Swart, Elizabeth Traugott and Tom Wasow. They taught me the value of a broad, interdisciplinary approach to linguistics and that being able to look at a given phenomenon from several different perspectives is a necessity in understanding language structure.

But most of all, I was influenced by KP Mohanan, who taught courses with an emphasis on South Asian languages and set me off on my current career path. Most importantly, though, he taught me to question each and every assumption I was presented with and that having an argument is always good! I have vivid memories of sitting out on a terrace in Kerala years later in the early morning light from about 6 am onwards with a cup of tea arguing about politics, linguistics, religion, anything and everything!

This memory also includes Tracy Holloway King, a Stanford class mate. Strong bonds were forged at Stanford with her and others, most notably Gillian Ramchand. We organized conferences together, published together while arguing vociferously about linguistics and about who would have to use the phone to call somebody (a duty to be avoided at all costs!) and published with Dikran Karaguezian of CSLI Publications. (We did not argue with him, but of course always accepted his sage advice!).

Our collaborations have continued even as we have moved into different directions, with industry at one end of the spectrum and theoretical linguistic research augmented by experimentation at the other end.

My first job out of graduate school was on Machine Translation. The next on grammar development, where I became part of the Parallel Grammar (ParGram) effort (see http://clarino.uib.no/iness/ for some of the resulting on-line interactive computational grammars and treebanks that document this work). The early years of this effort were characterized by intense exchanges (that is another way of saying “argument”) with another set of great linguists: Dick Crouch, Mary Dalrymple, Ron Kaplan, Lauri Karttunen and Annie Zaenen as well as Tracy King and John Maxwell at Xerox and at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). I am indebted to my boss of the time, Christian Rohrer, for beginning the ParGram collaboration and for fostering a truly interesting research environment that always strove to be cutting edge both in terms of computational and theoretical linguistics.

Continuing that type of research and providing that type of research experience to my students has been at the heart of my efforts at the University of Konstanz. We focus on interdisciplinary research that connects up new computational and experimental methodology with research that combines all core areas of linguistics. We are one of many sites world wide chipping away at the vast expanse of missing linguistic knowledge and understanding. I write this just after attending a conference on South Asian linguistics in Lisbon that featured discussions of Tamil as seen through the lens of Christian missionary grammar writers, of Indian languages as they have fared in the diaspora (e.g., South Africa, Trinidad, Guadalupe), of Indo-Portuguese creoles and of understudied languages like Marathi and Punjabi (but which each count millions and millions of speakers). Listening to these talks again opened up vistas of thousands of topics that are in urgent need of linguistic attention, but that are currently attended to (if at all), by a comparatively vanishingly small number of linguists.

The Linguist List is a hugely important effort that has created a world-wide community of linguists who can communicate with one another effectively and quickly, thus ameliorating some of our lack of boots on the ground. It provides a space to share software and knowledge and is always looking for new and crucial ways to serve the community. Help keep it going and thereby help foster crucial linguistic research world wide!

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Milan Mihaljević

Featured Linguist: Milan Mihaljević

Featured Linguist: Milan Mihaljević

My decision to become a linguist owes much to happenstance. At eighteen I was, like many teenagers, in the metaphysical phase, searching for the meaning of life. Although I was offered a very good scholarship for business studies, I decided to study philosophy. At the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science of the University of Zagreb we had to combine two programs. The major subject (A) lasted four, and the minor (B) lasted three years. Naturally, I chose Philosophy as my A subject. My first choice for the B program was English, but the problem was that I had learned English only for a short period of time and my command of the language was not good enough to pass the entrance test. Therefore, I had to choose something else. I can’t explain why I chose General Linguistics, since until then I didn’t know that such a program existed. However, after few months I discovered that Philosophy was not as interesting as I had expected and that Linguistics was far more exciting. I decided, and with the support of Radoslav Katičić, who was the chair of linguistic department at the time and later the supervisor of my PhD thesis, succeeded to change Linguistics into my major subject. As a third-year student I discovered Generative Grammar. The topic of my MA thesis was the relations between syntax and semantics in Chomsky’s theory.

After graduation 1978, I got a job in the Old Church Slavonic Institute in Zagreb in which I have stayed until now. It is interesting that, even two weeks before I started working there, I didn’t know that such an institute existed. This is a philological institute devoted to the research of medieval Croatian texts written in the Glagolitic script. As I started working there, I had to find a “common denominator” between my general linguistic education and the needs of my new job. I started to apply generative theory to the old texts written in Croatian Church Slavonic, a language which was used only as a literary language (mostly in liturgy) and never had native speakers. The topic of my PhD thesis was generative phonology of Croatian Church Slavonic. In order to work successfully in such an institution, I had to acquire different philological skills. For example, when a new Glagolitic text is found, I have to determine when and where it was written, and whether it was translated from the Greek or Latin protograph. In order to do that, it is not enough to describe its language. You also need some knowledge of codicology, palaeography, history, etc. In this way, I soon became an unusual combination of a modern, generative linguist and a traditional philologist. They have lived peacefully side by side in my head for many years, and I like both of them equally.

Very important for my professional carrier was a postdoc year (1985-1986) which, thanks to the Herder scholarship provided by the FSV foundation from Hamburg, I spent in the Institut für Slawistik at the University of Vienna. Working with professors František Václav Mareš and Radoslav Katičić, as well as with colleagues Johannes Michael Reinhart and Georg Holzer, I have learned a lot about Slavistics, especially about Old Church Slavonic and Slavic comparative grammar.

In addition to the engagement in the Old Church Slavonic Institute, I have also taught different subjects (Old Church Slavonic language, Slavic comparative grammar, Generative syntax and phonology) at most Croatian universities (Zagreb, Split, Pula, Rijeka, Osijek, Zadar) to undergraduate and graduate students of Croatian language and General Linguistics. Although I studied Linguistics by chance, I was fortunate in my irrational decision, and after more than forty years I wouldn’t change it for anything else.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak

Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak

Featured Linguist: Joanna Błaszczak

How did I become a linguist?

Well, my parents wanted me to become a doctor one day, a woman in a white coat examining patients, using diverse medical instruments, conducting studies. I myself would have rather preferred to work with animals (I love animals, dogs are my favorite ). I imagined myself travelling around the world, living in a jungle with wild animals, observing and studying the behavior of chimpanzees and the like. What has become of it? Depending on how you view it, the answer to this question could be: NOTHING, as I became neither a doctor nor an animal researcher or world traveller, or BOTH in some sense. Do you wonder how this latter answer may be sensical at all? I am indeed a world traveller, maybe not (always) in a physical sense, but as a linguist you have the opportunity of travelling around the world through different languages. Originally, I wanted to study the behavior of animals, but studying the structure of languages, trying to understand the principles behind such structures, can be equally fascinating. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. Well, I do not cure sick people but still I have something to do with ‟patients” and medical equipment while conducting psycholinguistic experiments.

But let me go first a few (actually much more than ‟a few” ) years back and tell you how all this started.

I think my interest in linguistics originated as early as primary school. While all other pupils hated grammar lessons, I loved them. It was a great fun for me to analyze structures of sentences, determine the grammatical properties of words and their grammatical functions in the sentence. Later I started learning foreign languages (Russian and German), and – while I am absolutely not a talented foreign language learner – I have been fascinated by the clarity of grammar rules governing linguistic structures ever since. Being the finalist of a German language competition (olympiad), I had an opportunity to study abroad, concretely at the Humboldt University of Berlin. There, my interest in linguistics gradually grew even more. (To be honest, I also studied economics, I also did some law at the Free University of Berlin, but these subjects, while surely being interesting and useful, could not diminish my bigger interests in language and scientific work.) My first teachers at the Humboldt University (Prof. Manfred Bierwisch, Prof. Ewald Lang, Prof. Norbert Fries, Prof. Karin Donhauser) showed me how diverse the study of language can be: from lexical and compositional semantics, through syntactic structures to language change. During various linguistic summer schools I’ve got more of that. The young teachers there (Daniel Büring, Christopher Wilder, Christopher Piñón, Lea Nash, Marcel den Dikken, Maaike Schoorlemmer, Tracy A. Hall, David Adger, to mention a few) fascinated me with their cool ideas and their vast knowledge, but what fascinated me even more was generative grammar, a framework with clear predictions which can be corroborated or falsified. I think around that time I started to think or even to wish to become one day one of these scholars. And indeed my wish came true. Of course not immediately , but a Master’s thesis, a Ph.D. thesis and a Habilitation thesis later, here I am: a linguist. As Prof. Gisbert Fanselow, my boss at the University of Potsdam, once said about me, I have always started my research (be it for the MA thesis, the PhD or the Habilitation theses) with a small set of empirical data, questioned the assumptions made for them, by providing evidence or counterevidence from all possible angles (also including language acquisition, diachrony, typology etc.), then formulating a new view and integrating new findings into a consistent theoretical picture. This is what I love most: deriving far-reaching theoretical insights about the structure of grammar from the analysis of a well-defined, small empirical domain. By doing this, I feel like a detective and nobody would say that detective work is not interesting.

My primary linguistic interest was and still is syntax, minimalist theory, semantics, and syntax-semantics interface. By and by this interest has broadened to include typology, psycholinguistics, language teaching, and sociolinguistics as well. My work in various projects at the University of Potsdam and also at the Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin has certainly contributed to that. The projects I was involved in were diverse and ranged from, for example, developing the annotation scheme for the morphological and syntactic aspects of the corpora of the Collaborative Research Centre 632 in Potsdam through working on a book about different languages spoken in Germany’s schools as a help for teachers who have pupils in their classrooms with native languages other than German (a ZAS project under the leadership of Prof. Manfred Krifka) to studying the relationship between national identity and bilingualism (a joint project with Dr Marzena Żygis from ZAS).

Where I am now? Since 2008 I have been an Associate Professor at the University of Wrocław in Poland, a place with a good generative grammar tradition (initiated among others by Prof. Bożena Rozwadowska). There I am Head of the Center for Experimental Research on Natural Language, supervising and coordinating various psycholinguistics projects. With the support of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) and the National Science Centre, Poland (NCN) it was possible to obtain additional grants for setting up a neurolinguistic laboratory with the EEG equipment and an eyetracking laboratory. In addition, I managed to establish a publishing house The Center for General and Comparative Linguistics, officially accepted by the National Library of Poland, which publishes a linguistic (book) series Generative Linguistics in Wrocław (GLiW) and, in cooperation with De Gruyter Open, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal Questions and Answers in Linguistics (QAL). These publications offer a forum for linguistic discussions on various topics, and more importantly, they give especially young researchers the opportunity to present their work. And thanks to the Linguist List, more and more people know about us. Also thanks to the Linguist List, more and more interested students contact us as they want to apply for our new Master Programme in Linguistics (ETHEL – Empirical and Theoretical Linguistics), a programme, as the name suggests, which combines theoretical linguistics with empirical issues, giving the students the opportunity to study, next to theoretical syntax, semantics, etc. also statistics, corpus linguistics, psycho- and neurolinguistics, and to conduct their own experiments. Needless to say, our laboratories and the publishing house offer another possibility of practical training.

My colleagues, dr Dorota Klimek-Jankowska, dr Barbara Tomaszewicz, dr Anna Czypionka and Piotr Gulgowski (PhD student) and I currently work on decomposition of linguistic categories in the brain, nominalizations, eventualities (FNP project), number and quantification in natural language (NCN project). We cooperate with researchers from Germany (Konstanz University, Heidelberg University and the Humboldt University of Berlin), and invite scholars from various places of the world: from neighboring countries (Germany and the Czech Republic), through other European countries (the Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy, UK, etc.) to Northern America (Canada and USA). Here once again it becomes apparent that also as a linguist you are a world traveller: you are travelling to the world (by going to conferences or workshops) but the world is also coming to you (as participants in conferences organized by you, as guest researchers working with you on joint projects, etc.). And – needless to say – nothing of this would be possible without the help of the Linguist List. A big ‘Thank you’ to all the people engaged in the Linguist List, for your great and extremely helpful work!

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Adams Bodomo

Featured Linguist: Adams Bodomo

Featured Linguist: Adams Bodomo

How I became a linguist:

I studied linguistics and became a linguist for two reasons. First, I wanted to be a top diplomat for my country, Ghana, which would involve being posted around the world to represent my country. I figured that if I studied linguistics and foreign languages at the University of Ghana that would increase my chances, so I read Linguistics, French, and Swahili. Second, I wanted to help document and preserve my mother-tongue, Dagaare, a small language in northern Ghana. I succeeded in writing the first grammar sketch of the language, published at Stanford University titled The Structure of Dagaare. One of the most wonderful experiences young scholars will ever get in their academic life is seeing their first book and holding it in their hands. In my case it was even more dramatic because of the way it happened. After teaching the structure of Dagaare for two years as a part-time lecturer at Stanford University I went back to Norway – I was writing a doctoral thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology – to submit and defend my thesis. Then the publishers at CSLI , Stanford sent me copies of my book in Norway. However I never received them because I returned to Stanford campus for a conference event. Then I walked into the Stanford Bookstore and happened to look at a section of the Bookstore with a bookstand titled: “Stanford Authors”. Lo and behold, I saw my book and stood there for more than 20 minutes flipping through it unendingly – as if I was reading the texts for the first time when indeed it was I who wrote them in the first place. There were no selfies at that time, else I would have taken a memorable selfie about how it feels like to receive your first book.

After my doctoral dissertation I got a job at the prestigious University of Hong Kong and rose up through the academic ranks from postdoc to Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. Much of my work on Linguistics has been the descriptive and theoretical analysis of African languages using descriptive and formal frameworks like Lexical Functional Grammar and the Principles and Parameters approach. While working on African languages mainly, I have also done substantial work on Chinese languages like Cantonese and Zhuang and supervised many PhD and masters theses of students who come from all over the world: Africa, Asia, and the West (Europe and North America).

I am currently Chair Professor of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Vienna, and I am continuing to do research on general linguistic analysis, particularly of African languages, but also now look into how we can develop African language literature. I have come to the realization as a scholar interested in African and minority language documentation and revitalization that it is not enough to just document linguistic texts and their analyses; one must also ensure that speakers read and write in these languages. Literary work is very important for revitalizing African and lesser studied languages.

I am often asked who are my models. I tend to say that I really have no models because my journey is too unique to model after someone. I do however have many mentors back home in Ghana – Prof Dolphyne, Duthie and Dakubu – who taught me core linguistics; in Norway – Prof Lars Hellan, who was my PhD supervisor in Norway, and in the US at Stanford University – Prof Joan Bresnan who taught me LFG, and Will Leben, the general editor of the series – Stanford Monographs in African Languages, which published my first book. I am a lucky man; I am where I am today because of many men and women–great linguists and academics–who mentored me, but I don’t have space to list all of them.

A number of critical skills are necessary in order to become a good linguist: One, a critical, enquiring mind, two, attention to detail for discovering the intricacies of human mental processes through the use of linguistic structure, and three, the creativity to grasp the nuances of other people’s languages and cultures.

I also think that young scholars of linguistics must not study linguistics in isolation. I have always sought to look at language studies from an interdisciplinary perspective within the humanities. The mission of the Humanities is to discover the inner nature of the human creature, including the intricacies of language, thought, and culture, and how this creature relates to its environment, leading, hopefully, to an appreciation and celebration of its inner beauty. We can even extend this to the Social Sciences which also study how humans relate to their environment. Humanities and the Social Sciences have intertwined missions but different methods of inquiry, so these groups of scholars, including linguists, can learn from each other about deep, introspective methods of inquiry in the Humanities to empirical, experimental and quantitative methods in the Social Sciences.

Linguistics is a very interdisciplinary humanities and social sciences discipline.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

Featured Linguist: Laura Janda

I became a linguist because I was rather obnoxious and rebellious.

I grew up in a little town in upstate New York where no languages were taught before high school. In ninth grade I enrolled in my first language class: French. But after about two weeks, the teacher was clearly fed up with having one student wave her hand in response to every single question. I was handed a pile of books and cassette tapes, pointed in the direction of the janitor’s closet, and told to go work on my own. By June when I emerged from that closet, I had completed all the assignments and tests from all four years of high school French. I was told: “Ok, you’re done with language for high school.” But I didn’t listen. The following fall I signed up for Spanish. And the same thing happened. At the end of tenth grade I was told: “Now that’s really enough, we don’t have any more languages to offer, go do something else.”

Two years later I was signing up for courses as a Princeton freshman, selecting biology, calculus, and the like, since my parents had told me that there was no way they were paying for a university education unless I became a doctor. There was a language requirement, and that made me unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to go back to French and Spanish, since my “closet studies” were but a distant memory by then and probably inadequate to get me beyond a beginner course. I could try something different. Chinese? No, that conflicted with the pre-med courses my parents demanded. An advisor solved my dilemma by enrolling me in Russian.

I did fine in the pre-med courses, but various factors led me to opt out of med school. At Princeton in the mid-seventies there were mighty few female students in the science and math courses, both the students and the professors made me feel unwelcome, and there weren’t even any women’s bathrooms in those buildings. Worst of all, the attitude toward learning in the pre-med courses wasn’t as important as grades. I remember a calculus mid-term that was 14 pages long. I took the test and left the room, noting that it was odd that almost everyone else was still sitting there. I had a nearly perfect score on the test – all I missed was a single minus sign – but I got a B- because it was graded on a curve and all those Princeton pre-meds had recognized that the test was too easy, so they all sat there and checked their tests over and over to make sure they got As. I said to myself: “I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with these people.”

Russian was exotic and challenging and there were even some female instructors and (fellow?) students. But the biggest attraction for me was Professor Charles E. Townsend, a pupil of Roman Jakobson and a legendary figure in the classroom. The high expectations he set for his classes were only surpassed by the demands he made on himself and his unflagging devotion to his students. Charlie Townsend volunteered to teach me Czech in my senior year and also stood up to my father, defending my right to pursue linguistics. After that I went on to graduate school at UCLA and various adventures behind the Iron Curtain that no reasonable parents would have allowed their daughter to undertake in those days. In the course of my career I have had lots of fun with lots of languages and language students. But I can still be rather obnoxious and rebellious at times.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Christian Di Canio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

Featured Linguist: Christian DiCanio

I was brought to linguistics partly by accident, though it has ended up being the perfect match to my strengths and interests. As a child growing up in Buffalo, NY, I was mainly interested in the natural sciences and did not have much of any experience with foreign languages. Yet, when I had the chance to study Spanish in primary school and high school, I discovered that I excelled at it and had a knack for quickly memorizing new words and the idiosyncrasies of grammar. Moreover, in high school, I do recall coming up with a new alphabetic system for English which had different symbols for syllabic consonants (you know, just for fun).

Nevertheless, at that age, it certainly seemed more practical for me to devote my attention to the sciences, which I also loved. So, as an undergraduate, I went away to Brandeis University where I planned to pursue a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Spanish. As a freshman needing guidance in which courses to take, I was assigned a random faculty advisor. That person just so happened to be a linguist named Joan Maling. She nudgingly mentioned to me “Many students who are interested in the sciences and in languages like linguistics.” So, I enrolled in my first linguistics class with Ray Jackendoff. Ray’s enthusiasm for the topic and interest in engaging with students’ ideas proved contagious. Rather simultaneously, Chemistry became rather dull to me. Yet, could one actually study language with scientific rigor and make a career out of it? I didn’t really know if this was true at the time, but I took the plunge and switched majors.

Due to financial circumstances, I transferred to the University at Buffalo where I continued my studies in Linguistics and Spanish. I excelled there and gradually became convinced that linguistics was a useful discipline that might make me employable some day. During my penultimate year, I decided that I wanted to study abroad for a semester in a Spanish-speaking country. Yet, studying abroad in Spain seemed boring to me. As luck would have it, there was a very affordable (and interesting) program for studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. I inquired about this program, but was disheartened to find out that they did not offer many advanced courses in Spanish. My undergraduate advisor, Jeri Jaeger, suggested that perhaps I could study Zapotec there instead. I had never even considered this a possibility. As luck would have it, when I asked if this was possible, the program seemed keen on finding a speaker to teach me Zapotec. My time in Oaxaca was magical and I fell in love with how different Zapotec was from everything else I had learned beforehand. As my semester project abroad, I wrote a paper about Zapotec syllable structure and sent it along with my applications for graduate school.

I started graduate school at UC Berkeley in 2002. When I got to Berkeley, I knew I wanted to study phonetics, but felt a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities that I could pursue. I dabbled a bit in syntax and morphology (which remains a “secret” interest of mine), but was finally convinced to focus on phonetics and phonology through a combination of Keith Johnson’s move to the department and Larry Hyman’s addictive energy for all things phonological. During my second year, I was contacted by Seth Holmes, an anthropologist working with a Triqui [ˈtɾiki] community in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was interested in finding a linguist who wanted to help the community develop a dictionary. I wanted to return to Oaxaca and this was a good chance to do so.

I dove into fieldwork with the Triquis and, in doing so, I learned a gigantic amount about linguistic analysis, phonology, and phonetics. Like many other Otomanguean languages, Triqui has a complex tonal system (9 contrastive tones on a single syllable) and a complex morphophonological system involving tonal mutation and spreading. I have been endlessly interested in figuring out the details of the language over the years and investigating different aspects of tone production and perception. Though, as a graduate student, I was certainly concerned that I couldn’t both focus on big picture issues in phonetics (what I imagined to be marketable) and do phonetic fieldwork (what I was most passionate about). Two of my dissertation committee members, Larry Hyman and Ian Maddieson, convinced me that I could do both. I also learned an incredible amount about phonetic theory and methods from my advisor, Keith Johnson, who supported my endeavors even when they didn’t seem to jibe so much with his own research interests. So, I wrote my thesis on the phonetics and phonology of Itunyoso Triqui.

After graduation, I accepted a postdoctoral position in Lyon, France at Le Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, where I stayed for 2.5 years. I spent my time in France exploring the perception the suprasegmental contrasts in Triqui and gastronomie lyonnaise. I benefitted greatly from meetings with François Pellegrino, who helped me with issues related to experimental design and data processing. It was during this time that I also began to expand my interests in the phonetics of endangered languages. I was recruited to do fieldwork on Ixcatec, a moribund Otomanguean language in Oaxaca, Mexico and, then, to start work on Yoloxóchitl Mixtec (also Otomanguean). I embraced both of these new opportunities and, in doing so, really began to see myself as a Mesoamericanist in addition to being a phonetician.

After France, I took another postdoctoral position at Haskins Laboratories working with Doug Whalen on extracting phonetic data from endangered language documentation corpora. As luck would have it, one of the languages on the project was Yoloxóchitl Mixtec. As someone working on this language, I was well-qualified for the position. At Haskins, I began to focus on the efficacy of computational methods for extracting phonetic data and from endangered language corpora. In the process of exploring these new methods and examining vowel production data, I gained much greater confidence in my abilities as a phonetician. At Haskins, Doug Whalen instilled in me the outspoken belief that phonetic research on endangered languages is, a priori, of no lesser scientific value than phonetic research on non-endangered languages. His special knack for putting phonetic research from endangered languages on the same playing field as research on more commonly-spoken languages was a strong influence on how I began to think of the larger ramifications of my work. With Doug’s encouragement, I applied for my own grant to apply computational methods to the corpus analysis of tone in Triqui and Mixtec and to examine the prosody-tone interface in these languages. I was thrilled to receive a National Science Foundation grant to do this work and pursue my research on tone.

In 2015, I was also thrilled to join the Linguistics Department at the University at Buffalo where I continue my research on the phonetics of endangered languages and speech production. Though I’m now an assistant professor and professional linguist, much of what drew me into linguistics many years ago lingers still – an interest in applying a scientific approach to examining the atoms of speech and discovering how this most human of all systems works. At Buffalo, I hope to instill in budding linguists a sense of how much of the world is still wide open to be explored and give them the skills to grasp the endless possibilities in linguistics.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

swahili diplomaMy interest in linguistics began at the age of 12 when my father, a high school band director, signed up for a two-year contract with a branch of AID called Teacher Education in East Africa. During a six-week summer orientation program at Columbia University, adults and children alike took Swahili classes. I still have a whimsical diploma from completing that course, signed by the youthful Sharifa Zawawi, who went on to write a number of books on the language including what was for many years the most widely used Swahili text in the US.

 

My dad was assigned to work at a teacher training college near the town of Nyeri, about 100 miles from Nairobi. We loved the time we spent there for many reasons. It led to lasting friendships with Kenyans and expatriates from far-flung countries. During the holidays we traveled all over East Africa, tenting in the vast park systems surrounded by teeming wildlife, and snorkeling the gorgeous coral reefs.

Carstens Safari

elephant

My brother and I experienced the novelty of British style schools with their uniforms and prefects. Swahili was an option alongside of French and Latin at Kenya High School. I had fallen in love with it so I was glad I could continue to study. African writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe opened new worlds to me. Because this was soon after independence, there was a wonderfully optimistic vibe in the country. On the other hand, lingering inequities and prejudices of the colonial period were a vivid part of daily life; this gave me an awareness and interest in world affairs and social justice that animated my experiences and perceptions forever after.

Our Long Island home seemed very dull to me when we got back. I was a bit lost through junior high, high school, and especially early college. At last I took a year off and returned to Kenya to teach English and other subjects as a volunteer in rural schools. Though initially apprehensive about whether I would connect with the place again, I had an immensely gratifying and stimulating experience. My interest in Swahili rekindled. While settlers and expatriates spoke a pidgin sometimes called kitchen Swahili, I resolved to learn Kiswahili Sanifu, the grammatically exacting variety of native speakers. I traveled around with a group of Swahili vacationers my own age on the island of Lamu, sleeping on rooftops, attending the Maulid festival, studying the noun class system in my grammar book, enjoying and trying to learn to make the wonderful coastal curries of fresh seafood and coconut milk.

me on Lamu streetlamu roofs

When the year was over I realized that if I didn’t find a way to pursue my arcane interests I would never make it through a college degree. After some research I became one of three undergraduates in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of African Languages and Literature. What a relief to do college coursework in Swahili, Kikuyu, African literature, and in African oral narratives with the great Harold Schoeb! But right at the end, I also took a course in English transformational grammar that blew my mind completely. Could this really be how language worked, and I had been oblivious all this time? Could you write a transformational syntax for Swahili?

I left for Kenya after completing my BA and found a job teaching in an international school near Nakuru, overlooking the great Rift Valley. During this three-year stint I kept working at my Swahili. I also learned to scuba dive and worked as a volunteer counter of the waterbuck population in beautiful Lake Nakuru game park. Our school had an abundance of snakes and other reptiles which my partner and I took to collecting and housing. I loved the children I taught, who came from all over the world. It was exactly the experience I wanted at the time, but I knew that my next big step would be a graduate program in theoretical linguistics.

me with kids I taught

In 1983 I began my MA/PhD study at UCLA. After my first graduate level syntax courses with the incomparable Tim Stowell, I took a summer intensive Yoruba language course. The combination yielded a near-psychedelic summer learning experience. So much syntactic movement! Special pronouns for coreference! Why the funny particles near Infl in adjunct wh-questions? Didn’t this connect with work of Lasnik & Saito and Jim Huang on the ECP? I was hooked completely and wrote an MA thesis on Yoruba adjunct ECP effects. But after a few years I returned to my Bantuist roots, doing my 1991 dissertation on Swahili noun phrases and embarking on a series of attempts to give agreement theory the right combination of flexibility and constraints to accommodate Bantu, Romance, and English-type patterns. It was a goal which I didn’t feel I met until two publications in 2010 and 2011 freed me of it at last.

In recent years I have shifted into researching the syntax of Nguni languages. While at the University of Missouri I made a connection with Loyiso Mletshe of University of the Western Cape under the auspices of a wonderful sister school program between those two institutions, and this led me to connect with Jochen Zeller of University of Kwa Zulu Natal. My trips to Cape Town and Durban for field work have been highly rewarding, productive, and scenic, introducing me to a different part of the wonderful African continent.

Me on Table Mt Cape Town

East Africa is pulling me back now, through a collaborative NSF grant for Luyia documentation spearheaded by Michael Marlo, and through a Maasai word order project that grew out of a Field Methods course at MU. Here I am with my undergraduate research group in Lawrence Kansas to give talks at the 2014 Annual Conference on African Linguistics:

ACALphoto

At Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I am currently chair of the Linguistics Department, I am working on a Senufo variety called Nafara with another group of Field Methods students.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BReOhxfpEe4

SIU Lx Picnic PhotoI hope to continue this Nafara project in summer 2016 while teaching at the African Linguistics Summer School in Abidjan.

https://sites.google.com/site/africanlingschool/

I feel very fortunate to have a professional life that I love so much.

 

 

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Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

A job ad on LINGUIST List.

Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

Featured Linguist: Michael Gamon

Language? Or Science?

I grew up in Bad Soden, a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany. My parents always encouraged any interest of mine. Whether it was science (the chemistry lab in the basement, even the rockets and explosive experiments in the yard) or language and literature. My dad had a fairly extensive collection of world literature. He was in his 20s when WWII ended and could not get enough of the books and the modern art that became available after the barbarism of the Third Reich. The interest in reading rubbed off on me, allegedly I could read fluently by the time I entered first grade, having taught myself reading by asking adults (sometimes total strangers) to spell out letters and labels aloud, starting with the signs in the elevator of our apartment building. Once I had outgrown children’s books, I was allowed to pick any book I wanted from my dad’s shelves, as long as I would put it back after reading it – and I took full advantage of that. There was no notion of “age-appropriate” books in our house: if I could read it and enjoy it, it was considered appropriate. From those beginnings, language, literature and science never lost their appeal for me. In high school I focused on physics, math and English, and when the time came to decide on what to study, I narrowed down the choice to geophysics or German studies and it was my choice to make. My rationale at the time was: Go for the big and risky dream first (study literature to become a writer), and if that does not work out, science and engineering are still another interesting option.

Language and Science!

I did not know about Linguistics until I signed up for German studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. It was one of the academic minors “Nebenfächer” offered in German studies –an interesting application of formal methods to the subject of language. All it took was an introductory generative syntax course (taught by the unforgettable Wolfgang Sternefeld) to get hooked; I studied under Helen Leuninger and Günther Grewendorf. Language and the mind/brain, the mathematics of language, and the distant prospect of computers analyzing language – this was incredibly exciting! A few years into the program, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study generative linguistics in the US. To my surprise I made it through round after round of the selection process until I was placed in the University of Washington’s linguistics program. When I received the happy news, I tried to find the university on a map – poring unsuccessfully over a DC area map — the only “Washington” I recognized.

I arrived in Seattle in the autumn of 1990 and fell in love with the beauty of the city, the lakes, the sea, the mountains, and the campus. Resources at the school were a world apart from what I had known in Frankfurt. There, the university library still had card catalogues. In order to get your materials you had to fill out a request form, return after two days to stand in line and find out if the book was available and hope the librarian had processed the request form properly. At the UW, you would go to a library computer terminal, find the library code, and pick up what you needed from the open shelves within minutes. UW faculty were accessible for questions or discussions at all times, the student body was very international, the place was vibrant.

A Degree and a Job.

I finished my MA at the UW by adding one more academic quarter to the three-quarter scholarship. By then I knew I wanted to continue as a linguist, inspired by wonderful teachers (Karen Zagona, Heles Contreras, Fritz Newmeyer, Ellen Kaisse, Sharon Hargus) and fellow grad students. I returned to Germany, only to find that the dusty educational bureaucracy there made it near impossible to have my brand new MA recognized. Fortunately, I got two nearly simultaneous offers to join a PhD program — one from the UW, the other from Nijmegen. I decided to return to the UW, for the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty and for the UW’s academic program.

I was about to finish my PhD in 1996 when a job ad in the Linguist List caught my eye: Microsoft Research (MSR) was looking for a German grammarian (the archives still have the posting https://linguistlist.org/issues/7/7-33.html). At the time, the UW did not have a computational linguistics program; and while I had done a little bit of Prolog programming back in Germany, I could not possibly consider myself a computational linguist. But I figured that applying would help me practice resumé writing and cost me only a few hours and a stamp, so I sent off the application, with little hope of success. That application led to an internship in the Natural Language Processing group at MSR, and then to a job offer. In September 1996 I had both a PhD and a great job. And I could stay in the place I loved.

My early years at Microsoft Research were focused on writing a computational grammar for German in a grammar-authoring environment that was far ahead of its time. The grammar was written in a declarative language (called “G”, loosely based on LISP) and processed by a very efficient parsing engine. Authoring tools made it possible to test a grammar change over thousands of sentences within minutes and to highlight and aggregate each change in the analyses. At the time, other parsers would brood over moderately complex sentences for seconds, sometimes minutes, at a time.), For someone passionate about understanding the structure of language and tinkering with grammatical details this was the best playground one could imagine!

By the time the German computational grammar became part of Microsoft’s German grammar checker (every sentence that is grammar-checked in a German word document is parsed into a full syntactic tree!), the field moved in a new direction, away from grammar engineering and into the world of probabilities. It was time to discover the potential of machine learning. With some colleagues we found some interesting problems in natural language generation where we could combine knowledge engineering (no need to learn from data what we can code in a few hours) with machine-learned models for data-driven decisions. Soon, however, even the idea of a partially knowledge-engineered system fell out of favor, and the search was on for some new research areas. For me, the “fringe” areas (some of which have become mainstream now) held the most fascination: sentiment detection, the notion of “style”, using machine learning to detect and correct non-native writing, and language in social media. More recently, I made another little leap into a new branch of Microsoft Research where we work closer with product teams to bring language technology to market.

And Now?

So here I am, a few months shy of 20 years at MSR after having applied for that job on Linguist List in 1996. Along the way there have been some 60 papers, 30 patent applications, and many collaborations with wonderful colleagues, friends, and incredibly fun and talented research summer interns.

After high school, I had wanted to become a writer or a geophysicist. Instead, I became a linguist. I studied generative linguistics and landed a job as a computational linguist. I have never taken a computer science or programming class, but now work in a computer science research lab.

Along the way I have also became something of a contrarian, to the bemusement of enthusiastic up-and-coming researchers. So, by way of example, I feel I should conclude with at least a few potentially career-limiting remarks.

I believe that, over its long history, the term “Artificial Intelligence” has become intellectually useless –a term that has utility only as a grant-magnet or as a topic for the media circus and their insatiable appetite for the shiny and meaningless. There is “Apparent Intelligence,” which is a real and remarkable achievement: software that is so cleverly designed that a machine can appear intelligent within a well-defined and limited domain. But the notion that machines “understand” language in any meaningful sense of the word, for example, is preposterous at the current stage of our knowledge. Although the mantra “in five years, computers will be able to do xyz,” has been repeated for at least 60 years now, it has not come any closer to the truth. And while deep learning is truly a qualitative breakthrough, all of those “brain” metaphors we see bandied about, well they’re just metaphors, and pretty bad ones at that.

So, what’s next? Your guess is as good as mine!

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