Making morphology sexy
A few months ago I was very happy to learn that I had been hired to be a post doc at the New Zealand Institute of Language Brain and Behaviour in Christchurch. I was to work on a project called `Wordovators’, a project with a focus on morphology.
Morphology is the study of words. Some say it is, on first glance, the most boring linguistic subdiscipline. While forensic linguists run around solving crimes, computational linguists build AI-s, and cognitive linguists float around with large red bubbles which play music, the stereotypical morphologist has always been seen as a ninety-five year old man with a slight but unmistakeable Scandinavian accent, who has spent the last fifty years working on the reconstruction of the Lombardic case system based on 18th Century atlases of rural Plattdeutsch.
Though one could argue that this depiction of morphology is somewhat sketchy (as in: entirely inaccurate!), it is certainly true that the predominant way of looking at the way words do things has always been somewhat descriptive and taxonomical with morphology disappearing in the vacuum between syntax and phonology in contemporary linguistic theory.
While the detailed analysis of the inflectional system of, for instance, Hungarian is a noble enterprise, we should not lose sight of the fact that words remain the ultimate building blocks of human language. The knowledge of how they come to being, change, and, ultimately, disappear from everyday speech is crucial to our understanding of it. This knowledge brings us closer to the internal mechanics of language (how its structure emerges and evolves over time and what its organising principles are) and it casts more light on the role of social language use in the changes of linguistic structure.
Understanding the private life of words is the aim of the ambitious undertaking called the Wordovators project, run jointly by Northwestern University in Chicago and the New Zealand Institute of Language Brain and Behaviour at the University of Canterbury, funded by the Templeton Foundation. The leading researchers of the project, Christoph Bartneck (NZILBB), Janet B. Pierrehumbert (Northwestern), Jen Hay (NZILBB), and Stephanie Stokes (NZILBB) bring together insights from robotics, corpus linguistics, experimental phonetics and phonology, as well as language acquisition in order to find out more about some of the ultimate questions of morphology, and, in fact, of linguistics as a whole.
The project focusses on the innovation and spread of word forms affected by linguistic mechanics and the dynamics of social language use, as well as on the way word forms change in shape and meaning with the course of time, along with the domains of their usage and the competition we can observe among them. It relies on an experimental paradigm using single player and multiplayer computer gamelets that are playable online, which are designed to emulate the circumstances of social language use and all that comes with these, such as the convergence and divergence of speakers, and the subtle changes in the use of words to express social nuances.
These questions have been around in linguistics for a while. What distinguishes the Wordovators project is its novel approach, relying on extensive data collection online, its multidisciplinary perspective, involving experts of various linguistic disciplines and languages, and its scale, made possible by the flexibility and the online medium of the experimental paradigm.
To learn more about the project, visit http://www.wordovators.org or read the press release by Northwestern University at http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2013/03/playing-computer-games-for-fun-and-research.html
To learn more about the Templeton Foundation, visit their site, http://www.templeton.org.