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Big ideas at linguistics conference

by Barbara Black

Concordia's small but significant Linguistics unit has high hopes for NAPhC 1 -- the first North American Phonology Conference, scheduled to take place here April 28 to 30.

Phonology -- the study of how the mind organizes the sounds of speech -- is one of the main branches of theoretical linguistics; the other is syntax, the study of word order and sentence structure.

Breakthroughs in phonology have been so dramatic in recent years that they have not only penetrated the mainstream and influenced fields such as speech synthesis and recognition, but they have also shed new light on philosophical issues such as the so-called mind/body problem and the nature of knowledge.

Think of the impact of Noam Chomsky, who debunked the behavioural psychologists of the 1950s and developed "generative linguistics," showing us that the capacity for language is embedded in the mind at birth.

To kick off the conference, the Linguistics Student Association has organized a public lecture "by the man who got Chomsky his job at MIT," Professor Charles Reiss said enthusiastically. Morris Halle, now institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), co-wrote a seminal book with Chomsky, and together, they made MIT the leading linguistics centre in the world.

Reiss followed his PhD supervisor, Mark Hale, to Concordia from Harvard several years ago, and the two scholars have never looked back. Reiss enumerated the reasons.

"For the last few years, Concordia students have done better in applying to PhD programs than students at Harvard; last year we had two students accepted at MIT. Harvard had none," Reiss said proudly. "Our students are doing extremely well again this year.

"The range of students here is more interesting in many ways -- in a class of 20, I can have as many as 10 languages represented. It's also easier to get research funding in Canada, and the Concordia administration has been supportive of this conference and of the Linguistics program in general."

Reiss and Hale see this conference as the first in a regular North American series, dovetailing with an international linguistics conference held every second year in Holland. The Linguistics Department at Berkeley has already offered to organize NAPhC 2.

Reiss and Hale also intend to launch a linguistics journal from Concordia. Oxford University Press has expressed interest, and they have lined up contributing editors at Harvard and MIT.

They are looking forward to "friendly but vigorous debate" at three days packed with presentations by scholars from around the world. For a full program, please consult the conference Web site, at

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