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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