Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.12

March 18, 2004


Linguists speechless: $2.5 million grant

By Sarah Binder

Concordia’s linguistics program continues to soar, most recently with a high-profile participation in a project awarded a five-year $2.5-million grant by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The grant, the maximum handed out by the federal agency, goes to a project directed by Université de Québec à Montréal linguist Anne-Marie Di Sciullo that aims to chart the cognitive basis of language.

“Each language might use some building blocks and not others, but there’s a finite set of building blocks, and that’s what we’re trying to discover,” explained linguist Charles Reiss, one of four Concordia professors among the project’s 15 co-researchers.

The other Concordia participants are: Mark Hale, Reiss’s colleague in Linguistics; Sabine Bergler, Computer Science; and Roberto de Almeida, Psychology.

Reiss and Hale specialize in the branch of theoretical linguistics known as phonology, de Almeida is an expert in psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, and Bergler’s domain is computational linguistics.

UQAM is the only other university with as many professors as Concordia on Di Sciullo’s research team. The others members are sprinkled among various Canadian universities; one is at MIT. The project, a SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI), also draws on 27 collaborators from some of the most important linguistics programs in the world, Reiss said.

The prominence of Concordia among the co-researchers belies the size of the university’s Linguistics program. The program, part of the Classics, Linguistics and Modern Languages Department, has only three full-time professors for 145 undergrads. It has no graduate students except for those in SIPs (Special Individualized Programs) hosted by the School of Graduate Studies.

However, the university is gaining a name for itself in the field of linguistics, thanks to Reiss and Hale, who have taught at Concordia for nine and 10 years respectively.

The pair established the biennial North America Phonology Conference in 2000. Reiss says it is the most important phonology conference on the continent today.

Their work is based on “the abstract view that phonology is not about speech sounds but about patterns and abstract relations, mental entities,” Reiss said. It’s an approach that “puts phonology in the domain of cognitive science, the general study of the mind, of intelligence.”

Their research combines aspects of psychology, philosophy, and math applied to human language. “We don’t do experiments, we do theoretical modeling of the mind.”

For example, Reiss noted, the plural marker in English is pronounced differently in a very regular pattern that depends on the final sound of the root.

“A phonologist figures out those patterns, and the kind of computations the mind has to be capable of to act in this rule-governed way,” he said. “You can think of it as an abstract computer program in the mind that is responsible for the regularity with which we speak, the regularity with which our sentences are structured.”

Reiss and Hale have been working with Di Sciullo for about four years, including on a previous MCRI and on a project funded under the Valorisation Recherche Québec program.

She has been testing the hypothesis that all the relations that matter in grammar in the human language faculty are asymmetrical relations.

The concept of asymmetry is borrowed from logic and mathematics. An example of an asymmetrical relation in grammar is precedence: If A precedes B then B can’t precede A. A symmetrical relation is adjacency, where A is adjacent to B and B is adjacent to A.

In the sentence “The cat left,” “the” and “cat” are in a symmetrical relation of adjacency and an asymmetrical relation of precedence.

“If the asymmetry hypothesis is correct, it means the adjacency relation is irrelevant. But the precedence relation is the important relation between, say, a determiner and the noun it goes with. The adjacency relation happens to hold in this case but it’s not important, it’s not part of grammar,” Reiss said.

The research could have implications for speech technology — speech recognition, automatic translation, text-to-speech — fields currently dominated by engineering and statistical techniques.

“Part of the idea of this project is to build what theoretical linguists have learned into speech technology. Basically, the idea is that statistical methods have reached their limits and it’s time to take a new approach.”

It could also make an impact on the development of treatments and diagnostic tools for language disorders like aphasia. “We have to understand the nature of the language faculty before we can understand a supposed disorder,” Reiss said. “We have to understand what it is before we can talk about how it’s broken down.”

More immediately, the grant will provide research assistantships to some 15 Concordia graduate students and help fund conferences, meetings and publications over the next five years.