Featured Linguist: Nicoletta Calzolari

We are proud to share with our readers the next featured linguist of our 2017 Fund Drive: Nicoletta Calzolari. We hope that you enjoy reading Dr. Calzolari’s thoughts on her long and varied career as a computational linguist.

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It is difficult to write about myself, but it can be an occasion to relive some moments of my life. I am grateful to Damir also for this. Here some notes, with personal memories interspersed with moments of professional life.

The beginning: the role of chance

Immediately after I graduated in philosophy, with a thesis on Logical antinomies, I remember saying to myself: words, words, words, I have enough of words! I did not know, but my destiny was linked to words.

So many things in life happen by chance. I moved to Pisa from Ferrara for family reasons and I saw a notice for a grant at Pisa University in a completely new field: Computational Linguistics. I tried applying, knowing that it would have been impossible. But I won it. This was the beginning.

In Ferrara, studying philosophy

I started studying that new area … and I loved it. It was not just words! I also started, as an autodidact, to write programs by myself, in the language of the time: PL1. The Pisa Summer Schools that Zampolli organised (in the ‘70s and ‘80s) were very influential for me (as for many others): I met the most brilliant researchers and I found them fascinating. I did not know that I would have become friend with many of them. I just followed the first as a student, then I was involved in the organisation, and finally I gave some lectures.

CL was a young field, with many possible research paths. It was probably easier at that time: you could have a new idea and experiment it even working alone, without the need of a big group. It is different today.

Since then we made great advances, but the more we understand about language the more we see how many problems are still in front of us. And this is what makes this field so interesting and challenging: language is a very complex phenomenon.

The first steps: the most creative and innovative, from a research perspective

More and more science is driven by data and our field is not different. Natural Language Processing is a data intensive field. Major achievements come from the use of large Language Resources (LRs). But it was not always like that. At the beginning, in the ‘80s, we had to fight to recognise the value of working with data.

Probably I was one of the pioneers in the revolution of the ‘80s when LRs (i.e. linguistic data) started to be understood as critical to make steps forward, while before data were even despised. I started research at the time quite new: acquiring information from Machine Readable Dictionaries, instead of relying on linguist’s intuition. This became soon a trend, followed by many others in all the continents. Relying on data was a change in the research paradigm, in the sense of Kuhn.

With Nancy in Hong Kong

The great thing was that we succeeded in getting our first European project around this topic. Also this happened somehow by chance: I was discussing my work with Bran Boguraev sitting in the sun in Stanford and we had the idea of proposing a European project. We did it, and we got it: it was ACQUILEX, an ESPRIT Basic Research project that lasted 6 years and laid the foundation not only for stronger research but also for working relations with many interesting colleagues in Europe. Immediately after we had another research project, SPARKLE, probably the first European project aiming at extracting linguistic information from texts.

I understood, working on the first funded project, that I had to create the conditions for new research trends, that could possibly be funded afterwards. It was this way, through a virtuous circle, that we won so many EC projects, one after the other. I was involved – either coordinating the Pisa unit, or manging the whole European project – in more than 50 EC projects, in collaboration with hundreds of institutions all over the world.

There is more than research in science … or coming to adulthood

It was Antonio Zampolli who, in 1991, introduced the term “language resources” for our data: the term “resources” was meant to highlight their infrastructural nature (like electricity, railroads etc. for a country development). Some consequences derive from their infrastructural nature, among which the need to consider, in addition to research and technological aspects, also methodological and policy dimensions.

Working with data – expensive to create and annotate – made me realise that we needed to create the conditions to build on each other results. In 1991, I coined the term “reusability” to express the need not to start reinventing the wheel every time, but to re-use available data and join forces. It was the first step towards thinking at standards and interoperability. This term is reused today in the MetaNet Strategic Research Agenda: “2018: Ease re-use of linguistic resources in all parts of the data value chain across languages and sectors”.

The ideas and initiatives that led to the first European project on standards – EAGLES – were discussed at a breakfast table in Grosseto, during the Workshop “On Automating the Lexicon” (organised in 1986 by Walker, Zampolli and me). That Workshop was very influential: a Manifesto was drawn at the end, where the essential role of language data was emphasised and a number of actions were recommended: it laid the foundations for a large number of initiatives that took place later in Europe.

ELRA board meeting in Paris

In the ‘90s with Zampolli we also started to define a global vision of the field and its main components, identified in: creation of LRs, standards, distribution, and automatic acquisition of LRs. These were considered the main components of an infrastructure of LRs for Language Technology (LT). ELRA (European Language Resources Association) was founded in 1995 to take care of one of these components, distribution of LRs.

After those pioneering years, the importance of LRs for LT was recognised more and more, and the flow of data began. Today we have a LR community culture, also thanks to the many initiatives around LRs that we started, like ELRA, LREC, LRE Journal, CLARIN, FLaReNet, MetaShare. In the FLaReNet project we identified the major dimensions around which to structure our community recommendations for the future of the field: documentation, interoperability, availability, coverage/quality, sustainability, recognition, development, international cooperation. These dimensions – constituting the infrastructure around LRs – are at the basis of the current paradigm of LRs.

Acting on Policy issues for a (finally) mature field

Working with data one recognises the critical role of what is around data, i.e. of notions such as standardisation, sharing, openness, evaluation, interoperability, metadata, collaborative annotation, crowdsourcing, integration, replicability, integrity, citation. And the role of how to organise research work: we should create frameworks that enable effective cooperation of many groups on common tasks, adopting the paradigm of cooperative collection of knowledge so successful in more mature disciplines, such as biology, astronomy or physics. The relevance of these issues must not be underestimated.

Technical and scientific issues are obviously important, but organisational, coordination, political issues play a major role. Technologies exist and develop fast, but at the same time the infrastructure that sustains them must be created. The challenges ahead depend on a coherent strategy involving not only the best methods and research but also policy dimensions. The concept behind the relevance of policy issues and best practices around LRs can be synthesised considering “data as public good”.

I think that a coherent LR ecosystem also requires an effort towards a culture of “service to the community”, where everyone has to contribute. Adopting policies that go in the direction of Open Science must become common practice. This “cultural change” is not a minor issue. It was in this spirit that I introduced at LREC initiatives such as the LRE Map and Share your LRs as steps towards shaping an open scientific information space.

General chair at COLING 2016 in Osaka

Recently I started to advocate the need for reproducibility and replicability of research results – at the basis of scientific practice –  in our field. We discussed this issue at an ELRA workshop, where I pushed Antonio Branco to organise a workshop on these topics at LREC2016. The importance of the topic led me to think that we had to give a sign of its importance also in the LRE Journal: Nancy Ide agreed, and we recently decided to have in the journal a special type of papers devoted to these aspects.

I am proud to have the possibility – through ELRA, LREC and LREJ – to contribute to shaping an open scientific information space for the future of our field. I have always felt it is our duty to use the means that we have in our hands to try to shape the future. In this case to play a role in how to change scientific practice and have an impact on our overall scientific enterprise.

The importance of the people around you: few anecdotes

In my long path through LRs, I became friend with so many colleagues all over the world (almost all the leading figures of a generation) and felt their closeness in many occasions. Over the years I realised how this was influential to me: they somehow shaped me and sometimes it is difficult to disentangle the professional and personal life.

Just few sparse memories:

After my presentation at COLING 1982 in Prague, Don Walker invited me at a small workshop in Stanford. I was young and was sitting together with the most important people in the field, from Martin Kay to Sture Allen. Back in Pisa I thought I would never have again such a wonderful year! I was wrong. Since then I had so many wonderful opportunities, recognitions, much more than I deserved. Lesson: so many unexpected things may happen in life.

Preparing for LREC 2016 in Portoroz

From Zampolli I learned many things. I mention a simple one: you must both look at the details and be able to see the whole picture, projecting it into the future. I like both: precision and creativity. He had many visions for the future of the field, I hope I had some good ones too.

Ralph Grisham once saying at a workshop in Pisa: “You go to dinner with Nicoletta and standards come up”.

I like Facebook also because through it I exchanged memories with Chuck Fillmore in his last years, when he wanted to remember the past with his friends.

I was not a feminist when it was trendy. I did not react when an old important Italian university professor told me, very young, after a talk, “you are of a virile conciseness” thinking it was a great compliment. But after so many meetings with so many more men than women, I am more feminist now than when I was younger. I remember a meeting in Rome with the President of CNR, 36 people around a table, and me the only woman. I do not know why but I felt ashamed for them.

I was for a long time among the youngest in so many meetings, and then, all of a sudden, it changed. I realised it when Adam Kilgariff said: “Let’s listen to what Nicoletta thinks, she is always wise”. I saw it, wise and age: I was on the other side, among those with experience.

Recently a Japanese colleague told me: “You are really tough in negotiations”, but he said this with a smile so I hope it was a sort of compliment.

John Sinclair, many years ago: “You are very determined and really good in making many people work”. My parents always told me: if you want something you are so determined that you usually get it.

And I must mention my friendship with Nancy Ide, started when we were very young and consolidated over the years. We had many projects and have been to many places together, and now we exchange mails almost every day because of the LRE journal we are co-editors of.

Some recognitions

Once at a meeting at the European Commission, one of the EC officers introduced myself to the others as Mrs. Language Resources. Not bad. This explains the title I have given to these notes.

Preparing for LREC 2018 in Miyazaki

The motivation for being in the founding group of ACL Fellows says: “for significant contributions to computational lexicography, and for the creation and dissemination of language resources”. I took it also as a sign that LRs were recognised in the CL community. Something not given for granted few years before. And a sign that what we did had an impact outside the LR community.

When I received a mail from Bente Maegaard saying that I was proposed for an Honorary Doctorate in Copenhagen I was so astonished that I asked Sara if she thought it was a joke. It was not, and I was very proud to receive the Honorary PhD directly from the Queen of Denmark.

I was moved recently when the ELRA Board decided to make me Honorary President of ELRA. I was there when it started in 1995 and I served it for so many years in so many roles that I feel it is part of my life. The same I obviously feel with LREC.

Conclusion … with enthusiasm

I conclude with the final words I wrote for my invited talk at the 1st LREC in Granada in 1998: “At the end everything is tied together, which makes our overall task so interesting – and difficult. What we must have is the ability to combine the overall view with its decomposition into manageable pieces. No one perspective – the global and the sectorial – is really fruitful if taken in isolation. A strategic and visionary policy has to be debated, designed and adopted for the next few years, if we hope to be successful. To this end, the contribution of the main actors in the field is of extreme importance. Some of the events in this conference are hopefully moving in this direction.”

Despite my age, I still have the enthusiasm I had when I started, even more when I see that I am able to influence new strategic directions of research. I hope I was able to pass my enthusiasm to younger colleagues.

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Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2017 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List needs your support!

Fun Fact: Funding Sources

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A Word of Thanks

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Yesterday, for the first time ever, the LINGUIST List was offline for the day. For 24 hours, we did not send out the usual dozens of issues, blog posts, or tweets. We hoped to raise awareness for our financial need and the important role that we play in the community. We hoped that, in this way, we would be able to reach our 30 000+ users with our appeal support.

We are writing now to thank you for the surge of generosity that appeared yesterday: we raised over $6 000 in one day, bringing us nearly 40% of the way to our goal. We saw support from all over the world, representing the global reach of our services. To each of our donors, we offer our sincerest thanks!

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A Day Without the LINGUIST List

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30 000+ people follow us: only 1% of our users have donated. To that specially faithful 1%, we are truly grateful. Today, we are hoping that like them, you will understand how important it is to stand by our side — as we have helped you along your Linguistic path, too!

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Featuring LL Programmer: Lwin Moe!

This week, we’re putting in the spot light a key person at LINGUIST List, the  glue that holds us all together: our programmer Lwin Moe! Of course, we editors review all your submissions and make sure the wheels of LINGUIST List are in motion, but without Lwin, those wheels would be pretty rusty – we couldn’t do a thing!

Did you know that the LINGUIST List website was coded from scratch over the years since the 90’s by some Linguistics students? (some of our history can be found here: http://linguistlist.org/about.cfm#history) That just tells you how much hard work Lwin puts into maintaining and updating our website and listserv – and all kinds of other projects hosted here at the LINGUIST List!

Visit Lwin’s home town in Burma and read a few words from him to you:

Dear LINGUIST List subscribers,

I would humbly ask for your support to help run LINGUIST List. Please donate at https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate

The LINGUIST team works hard all year round to send you edited and timely information on conferences, jobs and all things linguistic. Right before the Fund Drive 2017 started back in March, I was up until 2 AM because of a problem in automatically sending out LINGLITE (our daily summary) when we switched the LINGUIST server from the old machine to a new and faster one. LINGLITE was sent out twice, and the content was all messed up. It happened for two days in a row even though the content was fine when we manually triggered to send it out. We later found out that it was due to a known issue in the server software we used. Incidents like this remind us that there are humans behind the smooth and professional operation for LL.

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Fun Fact: Easy Abs Edition

Fun Fact: Easy Abs Edition

Hey everyone!

This is Kenneth again. I’m here to let you know about Easy Abs. This area of the LINGUIST List ties in with my last Fun Fact on Conferences and Calls for papers.

Easy Abs is a FREE and user friendly service for conference organizers to set up the abstract submission process. You can create a new conference in Easy Abs or view a list of current conferences in Easy Abs by visiting http://linguistlist.org/confservices/EasyAbs/index.cfm.

Lwin Moe, our programmer and systems expert, works to make sure that the experience is smooth and conference organizers have what they need. He also works to fix any problems should they arise.

We are only able to offer this as a free service due to contributions from people like you. Feel free to show your appreciation at https://funddrive.linguistlist.org.

Thank you!

Incredible Parrot Speech Decoded As 300 Years Old English Dialect -April fool’s :)

We’re sure you’ve caught our April Fool’s day spoof 🙂 If you haven’t yet, we encourage you to take the time for this entertaining read! (and don’t forget that our Fund Drive is still running for two more weeks: http://funddrive.linguistlist.org/)

 

Puerto Lempira, Honduras —- Shrouded in mystery and dense rain forest, the region known as La Mosquitia In south-eastern Honduras is one of the largest and least explored wilderness areas in Central America. It adjoins the Caribbean Sea to the east; its Caribbean shore constitutes part of the Mosquito Coast, which was something of a pirate haven during the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Recently, aerial surveys have revealed for the first time untouched ruins left by a mysterious and yet unnamed civilization. The latest archeological team to venture into La Mosquitia is a joint Honduran-American expedition led by Dr. Rebecca Webb of Penrose University. Dr. Webb’s team is now excavating a site that appears to have been a significant pre-Columbian urban center.

La Mosquitia provides an ideal habitat for many species, including an astonishing number of bird species and subsubspecies. One of these is the Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot, which is renowned for its ability to mimic human speech.

During the excavation’s third week, Dr. Webb noticed an intricately carved chunk of stone protruding from the rain-forest floor. She thought it might be a were-jaguar head and crouched down for a closer look it. Just then, completely out of the blue, she heard a parrot’s squawky voice say, “Thee bist a zon of a biscuit eater.” Or at least that’s how she transcribed it.
“The voice certainly gave me a start,” she said. “I looked up and saw a beautiful Yellow-Naped parrot perched on a branch not more than five meters away. I immediately scratched down a quasi-phonetic transcription of the vocalization, but I confess I didn’t understand what it meant. It did strike as sounding like human speech, however, and I was pretty confident that it ended with the words “of a biscuit eater”.

Soon other members of Dr. Webb’s team reported encounters with parrots whose vocalizations sounded incredibly like human speech. Some sounded almost like a strange form of English, but others were largely unintelligible, such as the following, as transcribed by members of the team: “Avast ye zee dogs” and “Veed the vizhez”.

Jessica Pollard, a student of Dr. Webb’s, had studied German and thus was able to recognize the word “bist” in Webb’s initial transcription as the 2nd-person singular form of the German verb “sein” (“to be”). It then occurred to her that the preceding word “thee” might be the archaic English 2nd-person pronoun, mostly because it would agree the verb in the grammatical category “person” if in little else.

Mystified, Dr. Webb decided to contact her friend Dr. Montague Hyde, a dialectologist at Kingsbridge College in the UK. When Webb told him about the parrots, Hyde was astounded and more than a little skeptical, but he nevertheless agreed to board a flight for Honduras the following day. Even as he took his seat on the plane, Hyde was beginning to form a hypothesis about the parrots’ vocalizations, but it seemed utterly ludicrous. He simply had to observe the phenomena with his own eyes and ears.

Once Prof. Hyde arrived at the site and heard the parrots for himself, his wild hypothesis was confirmed in short order. To his astonishment, the parrots’ vocalizations turned out to be very close to the English spoken in the county of Somerset, England around 300 years ago. That is, the parrots seemed to be exhibiting fossilized fragments of a centuries-old form of English.
Prof. Hyde notes certain key properties of the parrots’ vocalizations that led him to this amazing conclusion. According to Hyde, the clearest piece of evidence lies in the sounds z (and zh) and v. For example, when Hyde heard the parrots say, “Veed the vizhez,” he at once recognized it as the Somerset way of saying, “Feed the fishes,” since in Somerset English, the fricatives s and f become z and v, except when adjacent to another consonant.

Thus, “zee dogs” in “avast ye zee dogs” corresponds to “seadogs,” and “zon” in “Thee bist a zon of a biscuit eater“ corresponds to the modern Received Pronunciation “son”. According to Hyde, this voicing of fricatives in Somerset and surrounding counties is a very old phenomenon.

“One can find it Shakespeare, in fact,” Hyde observes. “For example, in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6, the character Edgar affects a Somerset accent to disguise himself:

“Chill not let go, zir, without vurther ‘cagion.”

“The words ‘zir’ and ‘vurther,’” Hyde explains, “are supposed to be the Somerset forms of ‘sir’ and ‘further,’ respectively. ’Chill’ is in fact a contraction of a very Germanic 1st-person person ‘Ich’ and ‘will’. And ’’cagion’…I have no idea what ”cagion’ is.”

The occurrence of ‘Ich’ in King Lear reminds Hyde of the phrase “thee bist” in the initial vocalization: “Thee best a son of a biscuit eater.” Hyde says that “bist” is indeed is a relic of an earlier Germanic form of the verb ‘to be’. He adds that the form “thee” has long been used as a nominative pronoun in Somerset, even though “ye be” is today more common than “thee bist” for saying “you (sg) are.”

According to Hyde, to call someone a son of biscuit eater was a fairly common insult in the 17th and 18th centuries. He further expounds, “Though it may not sound particularly bad to our ears, it’s doesn’t sound particularly good either, does it? I mean, I think we can agree that it’s certainly not a compliment to call someone the progeny of a compulsive eater of biscuits.” Even so, Dr. Webb, didn’t seem to be especially offended upon learning what that first parrot had actually called her. “I’ve been called worse,” she said.

But where and from whom did these parrots acquire these words and expressions? According to Hyde, the source can be none other than the West-Country pirates who terrorized the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1650 to 1730). “The parrots’ vocabulary, phonetics, and idioms match this context perfectly,” Hyde says. “The southwestern counties at that time produced a lot of sailors—-a lot of sailors, including pirates.”

Sarah Bradford, a parrot specialist at the Honduran Zoological Society speculates that some 300 years ago, a pirate—-let us call him Edward—-adopted a certain Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot named Polly. Edward, having hailed from Somerset in England, spoke in the Somerset dialect. According to Bradford, yellow-naped parrots happen to be excellent “talkers”, second only to the African Grey parrot in their ability to mimic human speech. Edward’s pet parrot no doubt learned to replicate many colorful expressions.

Now, while parrots are famously long-lived, pirates aren’t, so Polly probably outlived Edward. After Edward died, perhaps on or just off the Mosquito Coast, Polly would have probably flown off into the jungle of La Mosquitia and found a mate. He would have taught his young and perhaps also his mate the words and phrases he learned during his life as a piratical pet.

Bradford further speculates that the descendants of Polly could have continued to transmit these vocalization from generation to generation. She explains that to parrots, the precise mimicking of a vocalization is more important than the vocalization’s semantic content, so perhaps parrots are better able to replicate a vocalization from generation to generation than humans. Remember also that the lifespan of a Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot is 60-80 years. Such long lives would help bridge the gap between 300 years ago and the present.

Author: Tony Meyer

Travel the globe with us once again!

Dear LINGUIST Listers,

Happy Friday! Now that it’s the weekend, you may think you have the chance to sit back and relax… but think again, because the next edition of the Great LINGUIST Treasure Hunt is here! So grab your passport, your walking shoes, and your travel-size toothbrush, and head to the LINGUIST List International Virtual Airport!

This game involves travelling the (virtual) globe with us and testing your linguistics wits. Everyone who completes the treasure hunt will be entered to win a very exciting prize: a copy of “The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics,” published by everyone’s favorite journal of satirical linguistics, Speculative Grammarian!

To play, you need to go to GeoLing, our online interactive map interface. You can find the navigation buttons by clicking the menu button in the upper left corner. Select and unselect Local Events, Jobs, Conferences and more to view them on the map. Game clues will be found in different locations on different kinds of pins.

To get you started, here’s the first clue:

Visit the March 2017 issue of Speculative Grammarian. In one of the “Linguimericks” in this issue, a scenic location on an island nation is mentioned. Find this spot on GeoLing for the next clue!

Buena suerte, mirary soa e, and yoo dara o: may the best linguist win!

-Your LL Team

Fun Fact: Easy Abs Edition

Hey everyone!

This is Kenneth again. I’m here to let you know about Easy Abs. This area of the LINGUIST List ties in with my last Fun Fact on Conferences and Calls for papers.

Easy Abs is a FREE and user friendly service for conference organizers to set up the abstract submission process. You can create a new conference in Easy Abs or view a list of current conferences in Easy Abs by visiting http://linguistlist.org/confservices/EasyAbs/index.cfm .

Lwin Moe, our programmer and systems expert, works to make sure that the experience is smooth and conference organizers have what they need. He also works to fix any problems should they arise.

We are only able to offer this as a free service due to contributions from people like you. Feel free to show your appreciation at funddrive.linguistlist.org. Thank you!

5th Lottery: Raising the stakes, 3 prizes to win!

Dear Subscribers,

We’ve just done the draw for the 4th Lottery, which ended yesterday! Our first prize was won by Gerardo Augusto Lorenzino from Temple University, PA, USA, who won two prizes, by donating to our cause.  Thank you again, and Congratulations!

We’re now pleased to announce the opening of our 5th lottery – the Second to Last Lottery!! If you haven’t tried your chance yet, this is one of your last chances to win a book donated by our supporting publishers!

To raise the stakes a little, this week there will be THREE draws! For every 10 dollars donated, you get a chance to win one of the three following prizes:

– Language Testing and Assessment (Book 7 of the Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd Edition: Elana Shohamy Ed.)

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