Author: Clare Harshey

Take a cool picture somewhere on the planet, and you could help us win a prize!

Dear LINGUIST Listers,

Although we are located at Indiana University in the United States, we know that our 30,000+ readers are located in almost every country on the planet! We love that we get to foster connections between linguists all over the world! Now, wherever you are, we need YOUR help winning a photo contest!

As part of our host institution’s annual fundraising day, called IU Day, we need readers all over the world to find a unique or fun locale–the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, or whatever fantastic sights are near you–and take a picture of yourself holding our sign! Download the picture above, print it out, and hold it proudly to show your support wherever you are!

When you have your picture, post it to social media with the hashtag #IUday! The IU Day team will choose a winner, and they’ll donate $2,000 to the organization of the winner’s choice. (We hope that if you win, you will choose the LINGUIST List!!)

The competition ends on April 18, so post your photo before that date! When you post it, use the hashtag #IUday to enter it in the contest, and then tag us or use the hashtag #whyilovethelinguistlist so we can see your photo and share it on our social media pages!

If you have any questions about this contest, email [email protected] for more info. We look forward to seeing the amazing places our readers live around the world!

Gratefully yours,

The LINGUIST List Team

Rising Stars: Meet Jennifer Hu!

Dear Readers,

For several years, we have featured linguists with established careers and interesting stories to tell. This year, we will also be highlighting “Rising Stars” throughout our Fund Drive, undergraduates who were nominated by their mentors for their exceptional interest in linguistics and eager participation in the global community of language researchers.

Selected nominees were asked to share their view of the field of linguistics: what topics they see emerging as important or especially interesting, what role they see the field filling in the coming decades, and how they plan to contribute. We hope you will enjoy the perspectives of these students, who represent the bright future of our field.

Today we are excited to share with you the perspective of Jennifer Hu, a senior at Harvard University. Jennifer studies Linguistics and Mathematics, and is highly involved in several research projects. Her own honors thesis focuses on cross-linguistic investigation of Bayesian models of pragmatics.


With the recent revolution in robotics and machine learning, linguistics is playing an increasingly important role as we develop and interact with systems of artificial intelligence. Just as we communicate with other humans through language, it is most natural for us to communicate with robots and other automated systems through speech, text, and sign. These new types of interactions will demand a robust understanding of linguistics, as language processing poses many unique challenges for machines.

We have already made significant progress in developing systems for speech recognition, question answering, and other language processing tasks. If one analyzes the errors produced by state-of-the-art systems, however, one finds that many of these models – while obtaining high performance on the tasks for which they are designed – are not fully capable of language understanding. For example, the Story Cloze Test requires a system to choose the correct ending to a simple four-sentence story as a way of approximating understanding of causal relationships between events. The best model achieves an impressive 75% accuracy on the Story Cloze Test, but is able to achieve 72% accuracy without even being exposed to the stories! These results suggest that the success of the model might not reflect genuine understanding of the events in the stories, but other confounds latent in the task. This should lead us to inquire whether other models have truly learned the linguistic abilities that their tasks were designed to measure. Similarly, the type of training data that these models require to achieve reasonable performance is cognitively implausible, given what we know about the input to which human learners are exposed. With very little exposure to negative data, children produce linguistic errors in a systematic, predictable way. These two issues in the design of current models suggest that knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings of language can help bring us closer to building systems that truly approximate human intelligence.

There is no better time for linguists to take advantage of and contribute to concurrent advances in the computer and cognitive sciences. With increasing large-scale datasets, computing power, and understanding of the human brain, linguists have more tools than ever to pursue the scientific study of language. In the coming years, I expect and hope to see growth in the subfields of computational linguistics and psycholinguistics. I am excited by the prospect of being able to reverse engineer our capacity for language, and through collaboration with computer science and cognitive science, I believe we can achieve this goal in the coming decades.

By studying linguistics, we can not only develop new insights into the structure of language, but also shape the way humans will interact with systems of artificial intelligence in the years to come. I plan to continue contributing to this exciting field by obtaining a PhD and ultimately pursuing a career focused on research, education, and outreach.


If you have a student who you believe is a “Rising Star” in linguistics, we would love to hear about them! We are still accepting nominations for exceptional young linguists. Please see the call for nominations for more information.

If you have not yet–please visit our Fund Drive page to learn more about us and why we need your help! The LINGUIST List relies on your generous donations to continue its support of linguists around the world.

The LINGUIST List Team

Featured Linguist: Wannie Carstens


I grew up in Namibia (in the 1950’s and 1960’s) where I was exposed to a real multilingual world: German (as Namibia is a former German protectorate, end of 19th and beginning of 20th century), Afrikaans (due to the historical connection to South Africa where Afrikaans at that stage was the primary language), English, and many indigenous languages: Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Nama, Damara, Kavango, San, etc. My father worked for the government and he travelled a lot. During school holidays I accompanied him and experienced these languages and their speakers in their actual settings. It opened a multicultural and multilingual world to me, a world in which I felt comfortable, the world of languages.

But I had a very good Afrikaans teacher in my high school in Windhoek, and this eventually motivated me to take Afrikaans (in combination with Dutch) and German as my majors for my BA degree at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. During my first year (1971) I took an extra course in General Linguistics (Algemene Taalwetenskap), taught by Prof Rudolph P Botha, one of South Africa’s best linguists ever. This where I really felt at home – hearing more about syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc. But due to my interest in Afrikaans (and the possibility of becoming a teacher in Afrikaans) I continued with my study in Afrikaans and eventually obtained a MA degree in Afrikaans linguistics.

I was fortunate enough to be appointed as a temporary lecturer in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Stellenbosch (SU), and it dawned upon me that I probably would not become a school teacher any more. (The fact the my girl friend of that time – now my wife of more than 40 years – was still studying at SU naturally had no effect on my decision to accept the position …) This also motivated me to enrol for a DLitt degree at SU under the guidance of Prof Fritz Ponelis, the foremost scholar in Afrikaans syntax. In my thesis I focussed on a combined semantic-syntactic study of Afrikaans definite pronouns and researched the influence the context of various written texts had on the use of these pronouns in Afrikaans.

At this time I already was a lecturer in Afrikaans linguistics at the University of Cape Town, where I eventually spend 11 and a half years before moving to the former Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (since 2004 the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University) where I retired (after a full career of 41 years) at the end of 2017 as professor in Afrikaans linguistics.

At UCT I wrote my first book, a book on normative linguistics for Afrikaans (Norme vir Afrikaans (“Norms for Afrikaans”)), as I had to develop material for my second and third language speakers of Afrikaans for one of my courses. When a publisher came around asking for manuscripts I told them about the work I was doing and I was invited to submit the manuscript. To my astonishment this book (published in 1989) became a best-seller in Afrikaans linguistics and it has been used since then as a handbook in many courses in South Africa. The 6th revised edition of this book was published in January 2018. It still amazes me that this book had this success!

Due to my interest in text linguistics, of which I took note while busy with my DLitt, and after meeting Prof Nils Erik Enkvist from Turku in Finland, and the great Robert de Beaugrande himself, who at that stage was teaching at the University of Botswana, in Gaborone, Botswana, I in due time completed the first book on text linguistics in Afrikaans in 1997 (Afrikaanse Tekslinguistiek (“Afrikaans Text Linguistics”)). This enabled me to combine my interest in syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis and text linguistics into one book. This eventually led to my next book on text editing (Afrikaanse Teksredaksie (“Afrikaans text editing”)– together with Prof Kris van de Poel of the University of Antwerp in Belgium) where I was able to use the knowledge gained from normative grammar and text linguistics to develop a model – based upon Prof Jan Renkema of the University of Tilburg’s well-known CCC model – for the training of a new generation of copy/text editors in Afrikaans. Again a first for Afrikaans. Since then this book has been adapted for use in English (Text Editing, 2012), Sesotho (2016) and the IsiZulu version should be finalized this year and the IsiXhosa version next year. Versions in German and Dutch are also underway. (We are looking for candidates to adapt this book also for their own languages – scholars in Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, etc. are more than welcome to contact me in this regard.) I am glad my work had this effect! This was an effort on my side to transfer my skills and knowledge to other languages.

My last project was just concluded when I submitted the final manuscript for Part 2 of a book on the history of Afrikaans (together with Prof Edith Raidt). This book, titled Die storie van Afrikaans: uit Europa en van Afrika. Biografie van ‘n taal (“The story of Afrikaans: Out of Europe and from Africa. Biography of a language”) is the result of the last five years of my career. I had the privilege to be part of the last 48 years of the history of Afrikaans (and the way it developed) and I recorded this for the next generation. There is a good possibility that the last two books (Part 1 and 2 of STORIE) will be translated into English in the near future.

My whole career was in and about Afrikaans. It was a decision I made early on in my career. Rather than trying to be a scholar in a language I am not fluent in (English) my choice was to make a contribution to my home language, Afrikaans – despite what so many people said about this language and its complex history. Looking back I think I made a small contribution in developing Afrikaans linguistics as a discipline in a few fields: normative grammar, text linguistics, text editing, language politics, the history of Afrikaans. At least I do hope it is experienced as such by colleagues in South Africa!


  1. Do not be afraid to follow your passion. (It worked for me.)
  2. Read, read and read as wide as possible at the beginning of your career. It helps you to make an informed choice regarding the field you want to specialize in, whatever it may be.
  3. Look for the gaps in your selected field and then make yourself the expert regarding that specific gap.
  4. Never be afraid to tackle something new. Be bold. (All the famous linguists followed this route.) You might become the real expert in that field. (And eventually a famous linguist …)
  5. Do not be afraid to follow your gut. (It will not always work out but how will you know if you do not experiment with something?)
  6. It makes no sense to do exactly what someone else already did. It is just repetition and not something new. When you look back over your career, can you say: “I think I really made a difference”? This is the real test.
  7. Remember that every generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generation(s). This means that you can and may (!) use the work of a previous generation(s) as point of departure for your own work. Therefore do not be afraid to criticise the work of the previous generation. (It happened that some of my former students criticized some of my earlier work and it meant a lot to me: as (a) it meant they found it worthwhile enough to criticize and (b) I thoroughly enjoyed it as it helped to sharpen the knowledge on the specific topic. (c) It even ‘gave me a kick’ to know that my students were not afraid to be critical of their former teacher.)
  8. Make a serious effort to establish a good and wide network (friends, contacts) in your discipline and specific field. No academic / linguist can survive without a network. (Hi! to Bob at UCLA, Gary at UNLV in Las Vegas, Paul at UNC Chapel Hill, Jacques at Univ Ghent, Kris at Univ of Antwerp, Marijke and Gijsbert at Leiden, Rina in Vienna, Sanna in Turku, Eric in Aruba, etc.)
  9. If you get an opportunity to spend time in other countries (as post doc, visiting scholar) make use of this opportunity as it will broaden your horizon as academic. Networks make this possible and feasible.
  10. Share information (new books, an article they/he/she might be interested in, information on a possible relevant conference or event, etc.) with your network. Because of this someone in your network might be willing to read your first draft of papers and even give critical feedback. This is priceless!
  11. Attend conferences nationally and internationally. Otherwise no one will know about your work. You do not always have to read a paper, as attendance of these conferences is part of experiencing the world of linguistics.
  12. Publish in good international journals as much as possible, but also do not be afraid to publish in local journals as the local linguistics’ industry of your country must also be maintained.
  13. Remember that you have a responsibility to develop the field and discipline in your own country and in your own language.
  14. Do not be afraid to publish in your own language. English is NOT the only language of science. But also publish in English if it is possible for you as it probably will be read wider.
  15. You really do not have to be the most important international scholar. It is a bonus if it is the case. But it is important to be a recognized scholar in your own context because this is where you work and stay and function.
  16. If your work is regarded as good/exceptional translate it in English if you are a scholar in another language.
  17. Take a business card (linked to your institution) to conferences and hand it out if there is an opportunity. And when you get back home keep the cards you got and make contact with persons in your field. (It takes time and effort, but trust me: it really is worthwhile!)
  18. Attend at least one LSA. Two will be even better. This is very important! This will make a difference to the way you approach what you do and the way you think about language and linguistics. (And take a picture of yourself with some of the ‘big names’ and put it against your wall to look at when you feel discouraged and tired.)
  19. Make provision in your annual research budget for a financial contribution to the LinguistList (LL). Or make certain that your institution makes an annual (worthwhile!) contribution to the List. Without it you will be in ‘linguistic darkness’. We talk about pre- and current LL. You are lucky that you are in the current LL period. Enjoy the benefits of this.


I think I am actually one of the first linguists in South Africa who started to make use of the List. Even in the early days of email in South Africa (1992!) I was a member of earlier versions of the list. And to be honest – I am proud that I realised the enormous potential of the List. It opened a world wide network of linguists (wwnl) to me. I could read their informal thoughts about topics in linguistics, and I learned about new publications. It also opened linguistics as an international discipline to me, and it helped me immensely in my own career in various ways:

  1. It helped me to sharpen my own thinking about linguistics as a discipline, and also specific issues in linguistics.
  2. It informed me about conferences of which I would not have known otherwise. It made it possible for me to attend conferences all over the world (such as in the USA, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Russia).
  3. It informed me about publications I would not have seen otherwise. (Due to the cultural and academic boycott in the 1970’s and 1980’s we in South Africa could not always get the books we wanted but at least we could take note of it and get copies through other means.) I ordered it for our university library and in this way it helped to build a trusted and respected library for the field.
  4. This library enabled me to read more then would have otherwise been the case.
  5. It enabled me to share information from the List (about conferences, workshops, books, etc.) with colleagues all over the country, and even in other parts of the world. In this way my own network grew. And then colleagues again started to share their ideas, publications, etc. with me. Therefore beneficial to both parties.
  6. For many years I was a manager and had to establish a new generations of linguists in South Africa, not only in Afrikaans, but in general – the information I got from the List helped me to shape their careers (send them to conferences, order books for them, help them to select topics for further study, etc.).


Lastly. When I became a manager (some of us get to be managers…) and the List asked for funding to support the various services of the LL, I was in a position to start a funding campaign in my own institution (money from the institution itself but also from individual researchers) and it enabled us as group to make a contribution. For many years the NWU was the Africa and South African champion regarding our contributions! The exchange rate of the SA rand unfortunately had an effect on the actual amount in US dollar bit at least we tried. I also tried to get other South African institutions to buy in regarding fun ding support but I was not too successful in this regard. A pity.

Now that I have retired there is no guarantee that the linguists at my institution will continue to contribute, but I did my best to convince the new managers to continue with the project. I also requested the Linguistic Society of Southern Africa (LSSA) to become more involved in the funding campaign. Let us hold thumbs that there will be success in both cases.

I find it really strange that the LL have to actually plead for support! There are so many benefits for linguists that even an annual contribution equivalent to $20 from ALL linguists around the world should just be a formality. There are 10 000 people regularly using the List and I think $200 000 will enable the staff to even add more services. Therefore: help to keep the LL going at all costs! As long as I as retired linguist have access to research funding I certainly will make a contribution, every year, even if it is a small amount. The LL should maybe consider asking a fee for enrolment – I know it will take a lot of effort but it might just be the solution to the problems.

I thank the staff maintaining the List for enabling me to be part of an international network and this over a long time. I do wish you the best and I will continue consulting the List as long as I am still active as linguist. I am and will remain a true supporter of the List!


Please support the LINGUIST List student editors and operations with a donation during the 2018 Fund Drive! The LINGUIST List needs your support!

Linguistics and Pop Culture: Language, Culture, and Black Panther

Black Panther has been a phenomenon in the box office. Since its release in the middle of February, the movie has been vaulted to the 10th biggest movie in history by ticket sales grossing over $1.28 Billion worldwide. The film’s stunning depiction of the fictional country of Wakanda wouldn’t be the same without the cultural elements introduced. The religion of Wakanda, which borrows heavily from the pantheon of ancient Egypt, the surrounding landscape, and the material culture depicted bring afrofuturism to the silver screen. The linguistic elements of the film are perhaps the most striking part of Wakanda (perhaps we’re biased though).


If you’re really worried about Spoilers, don’t keep reading. Key plot points are not divulged but you could maybe piece something together if you tried hard enough.


Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

Continue reading

LINGUIST List, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…..

Help us share all the great reasons to support the LINGUIST List! We want to know about the time you found your first job through our Jobs board, the time you organized your conference with EasyAbs, the time you got feedback for your research through a Query post… whatever your success story, we would love to hear about it!

Post with the hashtag #whyilovetheLINGUISTlist to share it with the world, and help us get the message out about our Fund Drive! And if you haven’t yet, visit our Fund Drive homepage to read more about what we do and to donate today!

Gratefully yours,

A Letter from Featured Staff Clare Harshey

Clare Harshey, LINGUIST List Editor (and amateur IndyCar driver)

Dear LINGUIST Listers,

My name is Clare, and if you’ve contacted us recently about a job, support, internship or book review, we’ve probably met through email! Those are the areas I manage for the LINGUIST List as one of our Student Editors. I’m writing you today to tell you about who I am, what I do, and why I believe the LINGUIST List deserves your support!

I’ve worked at the LINGUIST List for almost two years, but I first started as an summer intern in 2016. Being selected for that opportunity was one of the most exciting experiences of my life, and I spent the summer working on our Yiddish Speech Corpus, learning a lot of new software and new methodologies. At the end of the summer I was able to take on new responsibilities, eventually leading to my position as an editor today.

During the two years I’ve been here, I’ve worked toward an MS in Computational Linguistics (with any luck, I’ll be graduating a month from now!). The LINGUIST List provided support throughout my degree, as it has throughout the years for many student employees. Not only have I benefited from this financial support, but I’ve also grown professionally here, being in a unique position to contact a wide range of linguists and language enthusiasts around the world!

One thing that might surprise a visitor to the LINGUIST List is just how small our office is! Aside from our moderators, there are only a handful of students who run the day-to-day operations of the list. We have four editors, and together we edit and publish about 6,000 issues per year. We also have three programmers, who together maintain our website, database, and develop our new website. We are all graduate students with ambitious schedules, but we are all in the office every day of the week, fielding new submissions, reader questions, technical problems, and anything else that may pop up. We even handle quite a bit of work at night, on weekends and on most holidays!

On any given day in the office, I will post any new jobs, support or internship announcements, communicating with their submitters about any content-related concerns. I want to make sure that every issue goes out with all the accurate information a reader would need. I will also edit reviews submissions and communicate with our reviews team about the many ins and outs of the reviews process: book requests, ordering reviews copies from the publishers, finding missing reviews copies, and much more! Most days, we also have one or more meetings in the office to discuss problems that have come up and progress toward new goals. The editors often work closely with our programmers to address technical problems, and we are all very familiar with each others’ work, so we can be flexible and continue to post as usual in any circumstance.

We often get comments from colleagues in other fields about how useful the LINGUIST List is, and how they wish their field had a similar resource. The truth is, our operation IS very unique, with an extremely small team making high quality information available, for everyone, for free! We’re all linguists, too, so we’re passionate about what we do. But we could not do it without the support of our readers.

When you support the LINGUIST List, you’re supporting the students who are able to get their degree by working here. But not just that–you’re supporting open access to valuable information; you’re supporting the careers of young linguists who need resources like ours to find their first job or their first conference; you’re supporting the future of an institution that has been, in turn, supporting linguists for almost 30 years.

Thanks for reading, and thanks again for your generosity through the years. I am sincerely grateful, and so are my colleagues! If you haven’t already, please visit us at our Fund Drive homepage and consider showing your support today.


Clare Harshey

Rising Stars: Meet Maja Ina Ruparčič!

Dear Readers,

For several years, we have featured linguists with established careers and interesting stories to tell. This year, we will also be highlighting “Rising Stars” throughout our Fund Drive, undergraduates who were nominated by their mentors for their exceptional interest in linguistics and eager participation in the global community of language researchers.

Selected nominees were asked to share their view of the field of linguistics: what topics they see emerging as important or especially interesting, what role they see the field filling in the coming decades, and how they plan to contribute. We hope you will enjoy the perspectives of these students, who represent the bright future of our field.

Today we are happy to share the words of Maja Ina Ruparčič, a second-year undergraduate at the University of Ljubljana. She is most interested in syntax, semantics, and contrastive analysis. Her independent research includes survey- and corpus-based inquiry into the expression “it is (high) time” and speakers’ choice of the verbal expression following.


We Odd Wugs

As David Crystal so eloquently put it at a conference I attended recently, ‘we linguists are sad people.’ A quote that resonated with me, for like Professor Crystal, I too have spent many an hour digging through dictionaries and corpora for reasons that might appear trivial to the average individual. As a second-year undergraduate currently pursuing my studies at the University of Ljubljana, I have had the chance to immerse myself in the world of language, literature, and research with special focus on English and French. Considering the wide array of possibilities that a linguistics related major offers, I find it challenging to choose a clear-cut path that fully echoes my interests, which might, like language, evolve over time and away from my current predisposition for theory.

Crystal himself can be considered one of the revolutionaries that have popularised linguistics as a scientific field and, to a certain extent, helped mollify the rigid prescriptivist perception of modern language change. For this reason, I suspect future trends will chiefly relate to its practical usefulness rather than theory – a phenomenon neatly illustrating the interplay between the call for utility and its influence on the rapidly changing society. I am not surprised by the flourishing status of fields such as computational linguistics, sociolinguistics, intercultural communication, and (foreign) language acquisition. These echo the current political and economic situations all around the globe. Our world is changing more rapidly than ever before, and language has had to accommodate to its needs; the demand for a politically correct, inclusive language, as well as new word formations due to the emergence of social networks and technological advances are just some examples of this phenomenon. Moreover, the process of globalisation has established the supremacy of English in all areas, often at the expense of impoverishing weaker languages, which makes the preservation and investigation of endangered tongues one of the quintessential tasks for any future linguist.

Despite the many strata of applied linguistics being so en vogue and necessary at present, my own fields of interest mainly (but not exclusively) cover theoretical studies. Although I will readily admit the value and necessity of applicability, this somehow represents too utilitarian an approach to language study for my liking. An overly traditionalist attitude, perhaps; but even we odd birds must exist to ruminate on the philosophical and other abstract aspects of language that, so it seems sometimes, do not excite my peers all that much. More specifically, I like to delve into the realms of syntax, semantics, and contrastive analysis (examining structural differences and similarities between English, French, and my native Slovene, for instance). My university courses often provide me with food for thought when it comes to examining language variation, language attitudes, and various sorts of analyses – I have, for example, been intrigued into writing a short paper on language change addressing the verbal form after the expression ‘it is (high) time’, which was immensely entertaining and something I can see myself doing time and again.

Although I doubt translation, sociolinguistics, fieldwork, and similar practical, hands-on areas of linguistics should fall into my primary scope of interests, I do not intend to neglect them in my research work altogether, but will rather attempt to link the two evoked spheres of language study in the years to come. Building on the knowledge I acquire at university, I hope to learn through my own contributions as well (including but not necessarily limited to paper writing and participating at student conferences).

Every eager young linguist hopes to fill in the blanks, resolve the controversies, and bring about a revolutionary breakthrough – and it can be discouraging to discover how much information is yet to be acquired in order to make relevant contributions. My personal inclination for theory should not be regarded as an appeal for a backward step to the glorification of it and the neglect of practical use; instead, odd wugs such as myself could bring young, fresh ideas into the community to re-evaluate the unsolved problems and suggest innovative answers.


If you have a student who you believe is a “Rising Star” in linguistics, we would love to hear about them! We are still accepting nominations for exceptional young linguists. Please see the call for nominations for more information.

If you have not yet–please visit our Fund Drive page to learn more about us and why we need your help! The LINGUIST List relies on your generous donations to continue its support of linguists around the world.

The LINGUIST List Team


Optimality Theory: the Future of the Justice System?

by Anthony Meyer
Linguistics News Correspondent

Small claims court is no joke. Just ask the interior muralist who desperately needs the return of her security deposit to buy supplies for her next project. Or the couple whose prize toy poodle was impregnated by the neighbor’s Cane Corso. Or the wretch who chipped a tooth when he bit into a burrito that had a rock in it. And yet for no one is small claims court less amusing than the judge who presides over it.

In the fall of 2014, Murray T. Nevelson was serving his second term as a small claims judge, or magisterial district judge, as they are known in Pennsylvania. Now, magisterial district judges are elected to terms of six years. Judge Nevelson was then not even halfway through his current term. This was a particularly low point in Judge Nevelson’s legal career. “I was stuck in the doldrums,” he told me in a recent interview. “My sails had gone limp.”

Judge Nevelson presided over one of the three magisterial district courts located in Harlow County, Pennsylvania. In 2014, more than 6,000 new small-claims cases were filed in his district court alone, which is about 22 new cases each business day. “And more unwanted poodle pregnancies than I would care to hear about in ten lifetimes,” Judge Nevelson said, exhibiting a judge’s knack for putting things into perspective.

But everything changed for the judge in single evening not long after Thanksgiving, 2014. He was sitting in his office, resting his head on papers strewn across the surface of his desk when his nephew, Elliot Nevelson, barged in, laptop in hand. He had something astounding to show his uncle. He wanted to demonstrate a computer program that he had been working on, a program he had named “OptimalJustice.” It would prove to be the judge’s salvation.

Elliot Nevelson was then a linguistics major at Dartford College. He started working on OptimalJustice as a project for a seminar on computational linguistics. Elliot’s inspiration for OptimalJustice was a linguistic theory called Optimality Theory (OT).

It is widely accepted in linguistics, particularly in phonology, that every surface form is associated with an underlying form. For example, the underlying /teIp+z/ ‘tapes’ surfaces as [teIps]. According to OT, the “optimal” surface form is selected by a set of constraints/ in a sort of “survival of the fittest” fashion. That is, an optimal form such as [teIps] emerges only after the constraints have eliminated all other potential candidates, candidates like *[teIpz] (the asterisk meaning something like “the following is prohibited.”) The crucial constraint in this case is *Obs[-voi]Sib[+voi], which is to say, “A voiceless obstruent (Obs[-voi]) cannot be immediately followed by a voiced sibilant (Sib[+voi]).” Crucially, this constraint must outrank the constraint FAITHFULNESS, which prohibits any alteration to the underlying form. Thus, the ranking constraints is important.

Now, in order to create OptimalJustice, Elliot had to come with non-linguistic constraints, in particular constraints relevant to small claims court (or magisterial district court). But how did one come up with constraints? Should he just make them up–conjure them from thin air? He decided to try to extract them automatically from text. He gathered digitized records of his uncle’s court decision. He also–well, how shall we put this–procured access to the judge’s personal diary, a massive Microsoft Word document. The diary entries supplemented the court records with information of a more personal nature.

Elliot used natural language processing tools, such as a part-of-speech tagger and syntactic parser to extract the constraints, ending up with nearly 2000. Some examples are the following:

*POOR:PAY: Anyone who is poor must not pay any money to the opposing side. One violation mark for each $150 such a person pays.
*DEFENDANT: Defendants are banned. One violation mark if party in question is the defendant.
*PLAINTIFF: Plaintiffs are banned. One violation mark if the party in question is the plaintiff.
*BURRITO: Burritos are banned. One violation mark per burrito.
*NO-LIPGLOSS: (“Don’t wipe off that lip gloss!”) Not to wear lip gloss is prohibited. One violation mark for a complete absence of lip gloss
*LIPGLOSS: (“Wipe off that lip gloss!”) To wear lip gloss is prohibited. One violation mark for presence of lip gloss.
*TATTOOS: (“Hide your tats!”) Tattoos are banned. One violation mark per tattoo.
*NO-TATTOOS: (“Don’t hide your tats!”) The absence of tattoos in banned. One violation mark for a complete lack of tattoos.
*NO-LIPGLOSS&*NO-TATTOOS: (“Lip gloss and tats go great together!”) The simultaneous absence of lip gloss and tattoos is prohibited. The violation of the conjoined constraint incurs a single violation mark (not two). It what follows, we shall sometimes abbreviate this constraint as *NLG&*NT.

Elliot was kind enough to sit down with me and explain these constraints. However, he was careful to point out there are in fact thousands of constraints. and that it is the interaction of many constraints that yields the subtlest and most interesting effects. Note that the asterisk in the above constraints is a kind of negation. Also, one keeps track of individual violation in order to break ties if necessary.

The constraint *POOR:PAY serves to mitigate against other constraints that might work to make a poor person pay a burdensome amount of money. It outranks *DEFENDANT, for instance. *PLAINTIFF also outranks *DEFENDANT, which, according to Elliot, represents the plaintiff’s burden of proof, although he allows that it could stem from his uncle’s sour attitude toward plaintiffs, whom he sees as instigators and the source of much of his misery. *BURRITO is one of Elliot’s personal favorites. “Burritos are always bad news in small claims court,” he said.

We see the influence of the judge’s diary in the constraints pertaining to lip gloss and tattoos. “My uncle seems to have a thing for lip gloss,” Elliot observed with a grimace when we turned to these constraints. “The most notable constraint in this group is *NO-LIPGLOSS&*NO-TATTOOS [i.e., *NLG&*NT], which is actually a complex constraint, namely, the conjunction of the atomic constraints *NO-LIPGLOSS and *NO-TATTOOS.”

But still more interesting is the ranking of the constraints in this group, which is detailed below in (1-3). Note that the symbol “>>” means “outranks.”


Subranking A in (1) can be paraphrased as “Wear lip gloss,” and subranking B in (2) “Hide your tattoos!” Now, in (3) the conjunction constraint *NLG&*NT outranks B. (3) can thus be paraphrased as “Don’t hide your tattoos if you’re wearing lip gloss!” I asked Elliot what we thought of all this. He sighed and said, “My uncle is a complicated man.”

The above rankings constitute a tiny sample of OptimalJustice’s globally optimally constraint rankings, a ranking of nearly 2000 constraints. The globally optimally ranking is the one that most accurately models the judge’s decision-making process, i.e., the one that most consistently replicates the judge’s past decisions. Elliot used a machine learning algorithm to find the optimal ranking from among the innumerable possible rankings. Once the constraint ranking was computed, OptimalJustice was essentially ready to go. Elliot took it to Judge Nevelson’s office that very evening–that fateful evening not long after Thanksgiving, 2014.

The Judge was blown away. “It was me, but better.” he said. “I was amazed.” Throughout the remainder of the judge’s term, OptimalJustice allowed him to zone out for most of the day. “I no longer had to think about poodles, burritos, or anything else that I didn’t want to think about.” He still had to be appear in the courtroom, but OptimalJustice was with him at all times to do his thinking for him.

Elliot set up microphones to record the sound of the courtroom proceedings. Judge Nevelson himself captured the requisite visual data, using his smartphone to take photographs of both the plaintiff and defendant. Elliot incorporated into OptimalJustice an image processing program capable of recognizing lip gloss at an accuracy of 97 percent accuracy.

With the help of his nephew’s program, Judge Nevelson sailed through the rest of that second term. He is now happily retired. I asked him there were ever any complaints pertaining to his using OptimalJustice. “None to my knowledge,” he said. “I don’t think anyone ever caught on. They may have found my cell-phone photography a little strange at first. But then again, maybe not. Nowadays people are always taking pictures of each other. No, if anything, OptimalJustice was an improvement. It was a more consistent version of me. And there’s something about consistency that just resonates with folks.”

The younger Nevelson aced his computational linguistics seminar. OptimalJustice was a big hit. His professor’s only criticism was that OptimalJustice’s domain was too narrow, as it was basically a Judge Murray T. Nevelson automaton. But according to Elliot, this can easily be remedied by expanding OptimalJustice’s training corpus, i.e., by training it on decisions from more judges. “There is boundless room for improvement, but it will never be perfect,” said Elliot. “One of my uncle’s favorite sayings is, ‘Everything is imperfect, but the law is really imperfect.’” While perfect justice may indeed be unattainable, Elliot Nevelson’s ingenious work may just have put optimal justice within reach.


Happy April Fool’s Day from your LINGUIST List team! Don’t forget to visit us at our Fund Drive homepage to help us reach our goal!

Easy Abs: Serving Linguists around the World

Dear Readers,

Earlier in the Fund Drive, we shared some interesting statistics about EasyAbs, the free service we provide for conference organizers. In the last ten years, over 1,300 conferences have used EasyAbs, with over 75,000 abstracts submitted in that time!

Today we would like to share with you the testimonials of real-life conference organizers who used EasyAbs to make their job, well, a little easier! We want to keep providing this valuable service in years to come, so please, if you haven’t already, visit our Fund Drive homepage. We need your help to reach our goal in order to fund EasyAbs and continue to support conference organizers like those below:


We used EasyAbs to manage the submissions and reviews of abstracts for the Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, 2016. We were under funding constraints for the conference, so having this freely available service was extremely helpful. EasyAbs was, indeed, easy to use, for those who submitted abstracts, for the reviewers, and for us as we prepared the conference program. EasyAbs streamlined the review process significantly. We are grateful that The Linguist List provides this wonderful service.

– Mary Grantham O’Brien, University of Calgary; Tracey Derwing, University of Alberta & Simon Fraser University.

I was pleased with my experience using EasyAbs for managing abstract review. The website is easy to interact with and the folks at LINGUIST List were prompt and helpful whenever I had questions about the site. I will certainly use it again.

– Samson Lotven, Indiana University

I’ve found EasyAbs to be an enormously useful tool when organising conferences. Being able to manage the various aspects of abstract reviewing on one site has made the process very efficient. I’m grateful to the LinguistList for offering us the service without charge.

– Beth Hume, University of Canterbury

It is very useful for a conference organizer to be able to widely advertise an upcoming event on Linguist List. Just a simple e-mail to the editors will do to spread the news to the linguistics community. The EasyAbs service deserves its name because it makes it really easy to organize the practicalities around conference abstracts, both for organizers and participants.

In particular, organizing the Nordic Prosody XII conference 2016 I enjoyed the quick and smooth help from the list’s conference support!”

– Wilm van Dommelen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

We have used EasyAbs for our last two international conferences at Lancaster University. It works very smoothly, and has been ideal for our needs in dealing with quite large numbers of submissions and the subsequent review process. We are really grateful for the provision of such an effective system made available to the linguist list, and beyond, and we profoundly hope that it continues to be a service to academics in our community – we’d like to use it again for our next meeting!

– Padraic Monaghan, Lancaster University

We have used EasyAbs for several conferences now and we would use it again. EasyAbs is a great tool, easy to handle and free, which might be especially important for the organisers of smaller conferences such as ours.

EasyAbs is perfectly integrated with the LinguistList conference services which helped us along the entire way from conference announcement to the call for papers and the whole abstract submission and review process, to finally announcing our programme on LinguistList. What’s particularly useful about EasyAbs is that organisers and reviewers have independent access to the abstracts and you can easily organise double-blind reviewing by assigning and e-mailing reviewers etc. You can send Accept/Reject mails directly from the facility and it even offers sample letters (which may help especially when you aren’t a native speaker of English).

We think EasyAbs is a great service to the linguistics community. We would recommend it to anyone organising a small- to medium-size conference.

– Andrea Ender and Irmtraud Kaiser, Universität Salzburg

I really recommend EasyAbs. It is an easy to use platform and the support is great. It has made it much easier for us to upload and review abstracts for our conference.

– Julia Miller, president of AustraLex

The Arabic Linguistics Society has benefited tremendously from the Linguist List’s free EasyAbs tool in vetting abstracts for its annual symposia. The system is user-friendly for the conference organizers, the authors, and the reviewers. This takes, without a doubt, a lot of labor behind the scenes at the Linguist List, and for that, we are truly grateful.

– Hamid Ouali (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Executive Director of the Arabic Linguistics Society

Easy Abs is a unique facility offered byLinguistList. From the very first moment I undertook the organization of an international conference and judging by the clear and neat way LinguistList’s website is organized, I trusted Easy Abs for a smooth conference program outcome. Easy Abs facilitates abstracts uploading and the process of reviewers’ selection, accelerates the review and notification process, as well as the final program organization. All in all, Easy Abs helps even the most hopeless conference (or event) organizer become the greater conference (or event) host! Try it!

– Marina Tzakosta, University of Crete

Rising Stars: Meet Becca Peterson

Dear Readers,

For several years, we have featured linguists with established careers and interesting stories to tell. This year, we will also be highlighting “Rising Stars” throughout our Fund Drive, undergraduates who were nominated by their mentors for their exceptional interest in linguistics and eager participation in the global community of language researchers.

Selected nominees were asked to share their view of the field of linguistics: what topics they see emerging as important or especially interesting, what role they see the field filling in the coming decades, and how they plan to contribute. We hope you will enjoy the perspectives of these students, who represent the bright future of our field.

Today, we are featuring Becca Peterson, a sophomore at Northeastern Illinois University with a special interest in sociolinguistics and language attitudes. She is the author of the award-winning short play “Talking the Talk,” whose story hinges on “socioeconomic, racial, class, and regional communication disconnects (and connections) among four speakers of differing varieties of American English.”


There are already numerous linguistic shifts and notions of awareness in terms of political correctness that pertain to the English language. We see this awareness when we think about the heightened awareness of gender as a non-binary entity of the human condition and the increased use of gender neutral pronouns. Many people are practicing these linguistic changes based on their own value of inclusivity that in turn shape language. In decades to come, my conjecture would be that a normalization of gender-neutral pronouns will occur not only in English but in some other languages as well.

A linguistic ‘hot topic’ that I personally would like to see emerge is how sexism is ingrained into the English language, both colloquial and formal. In the media and in casual conversations, it is often normalized to refer to women using animalistic terms such as ‘chicks’ and ‘bitches,’ or infantilizing terms like ‘doll.’ We often hear of both men and women being referred to by the term ‘bitch’ when that person exhibits a particular state of emotionality; but having emotion is a human characteristic and not one exclusively of women. However, people use the term in a derogatory sense to shame men and women for displaying emotion by using a strictly female term, as ‘bitch’ refers to a female dog. Many times, also, women’s occupational titles include their gender – such as with the terms ‘actress’ or ‘waitress’ – which seems to me irrelevant to a woman’s ability to hold and excel in any occupation. I do not believe that it is at all necessary to make the distinction that the person holding the job is a woman.

Another topic in linguistics that I feel is very important is the dismantling of the idea that certain dialects are considered to be more standard or have greater prestige compared to others. Dialects, regardless of which, have a structure and certain logic to them that makes each unique and conveys a sense of identity about the speakers of that dialect. There is no ‘standard’ English dialect, and believing that there is such a thing perpetuates stigmas against speakers of other varieties. Prescriptivist attitudes of language emerged in order to separate social groups and assign a greater value to individuals who learned, wrote, and spoke using prescriptive grammar. I would like to see this fallacy that speakers of certain varieties are inherently uneducated fall off and for a more descriptive view of English grammar to be accepted, particularly in academic environments where students’ adherence to prescriptive grammar is often held to a greater importance than students’ ideas and creative accomplishments.

As a creative writer myself, I attempted to bring this destigmatization of so-called ‘non-standard’ dialects to light in a play that I wrote called “Talking the Talk.” In the play, there are two characters in a hospital waiting room, one who speaks African-American English dialect and one who speaks a variety of Appalachian English. While both characters speak the same language, they have trouble communicating with and understanding one another due to their dialectical differences, particularly in terms of the slang they use. At the end of the play, the doctor’s character, who speaks in some highfalutin medical jargon, is introduced to give the impression that she is highly educated, but then she ends up making some very miniscule grammar mistakes that prescriptivists would criticize. I think the meshing of these three characters in the end conveys my point that dialect is not an indication of education or prestige.

I am an aspiring English teacher and I am fortunate to be able to work in an environment where these conversations about language are relevant. Having an awareness of how language might convey certain values is important, and the great thing about the English discourse is that if the language we use does not match our own values, we can modify our language use and in turn shape the language. Languages naturally evolve in order to reflect the people who speak it as well as their morals and values, so the power is not in the language itself but in the speakers of the language. I intend to instill in my students a sense of awareness and mindfulness regarding language.


If you have a student who you believe is a “Rising Star” in linguistics, we would love to hear about them! We are still accepting nominations for exceptional young linguists. Please see the call for nominations for more information:

If you have not yet–please visit our Fund Drive page to learn more about us and why we need your help! The LINGUIST List relies on your generous donations to continue its support of linguists around the world.

The LINGUIST List Team