Monday, February 15, 2016

What does a linguist do...? re: Annemarie

I recently watched the two Amazing Spiderman films, and thought a little bit about the depiction of scientists in the media. Many movies (and tv series, books, and comics...) seem to put science and/or scientists in a bad light. Take Spiderman: accidentally being bitten by a spider in a lab gives you Spidey powers. Spidey turns out to be a good guy and uses his powers as a superhero, but still there is a sense that simply working in a lab can expose you to things that could utterly transform you. Simply having access to the weird things that are developed in labs can do the same, as is the case for Spiderman's nemesis the Green Goblin.

I could write an entire blog post contemplating why this depiction of science, if it does indeed influence people's view of science, is very detrimental to society. But anyway maybe things aren't so bad, as Matthew Nisbet writes that both the depiction and the image of scientists held by the public has become far more positive in the last two decades...

There are some notable linguists in popular media too, such as Bellis Coldwine, one of the main characters in China Miéville's The Scar, and Nyota Uhara and Sato Hoshi, Star Trek linguists/communication officers (also see this list and this list and this list for more linguistics in novels and movies). Nyota Uhara and Sato Hoshi do not give very reliable impressions of linguists: Sato Hoshi is said to have spoken around 40 languages!

So, what do linguists actually do? This post is one in a series where some of the HWRG linguists describe what they do! And no, this doesn't (necessarily) mean learning 40 languages or using a universal translator.

Yours truly is currently running an experiment on verb semantics. This is a collaborative project with Katerina Stathi that investigates differences in the types of verbs that are used in English, German, Greek, and Turkish. It is inspired by the work of Mary Snell-Hornby, who wrote a book called 'Verb-descriptivity in German and English' in 1983, detailing that English is peculiar in that it has a large class of so-called 'descriptive verbs' that describe the way an action is performed. These can be found in various semantic domains, such as eating and drinking (examples are gobble, nibble, wolf down), communication (roar, screech, bellow), and perception (gawk, goggle, squint). We are interested in the comparison of descriptive verbs in English, German, Greek, and Turkish, and also wonder whether these languages have big or small sets of descriptive verbs throughout most domains, or whether languages have more extensive sets of verbs only in some domains.

The funny thing about this collaboration is that Katerina and I randomly met in 2013 in Leipzig, in front of a poster I made to present at the Association for Linguistic Typology. It was great to discover that there are people out there interested in the same weird things I am interested in. Three years down the line we are finally doing this experiment to further investigate some of the ideas presented in that poster! So yeah, science takes a long time most of the time.

The experiment requires 80 native speakers in each of the four languages. These participants are presented with 138 short video clips which depict events aimed to elicit these kind of descriptive verbs. (If you are interested in these kind of elicitation materials, the MPI in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has made a large collection of these available). Describing the videos takes each participant about 40 minutes. Which means that I have a lot of time contemplating how to bribe a total of 80 English speaking participants to take part.

Since it is a  bit distracting to be in the same room with people going in and out and describing the same events over and over, I can't really write any of the papers that I should be writing. Instead I do some stuff that doesn't require 100% of my brain power, and at the moment that is cleaning the optical character recognition of some scanned Harry Potter translations. I have this dream to build a large parallel corpus of Harry Potter translations that can be used for comparative linguistic investigations. So, at the moment I am going through the Faroese translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, making sure that all the wrongly detected characters are corrected. Which really is very far below my paygrade, but hey, somebody has to do it and nobody else seems so inclined...

...I realise that this post is making the life of a linguist sound really boring. But it really isn't! I love overhearing my participants and thinking about how I would deal with some of their responses, and I love contemplating the existence of a big Harry Potter parallel corpus, even if it takes years to complete.

Now you know what I am up to at the moment, hope you have enjoyed this #whatdoesalinguistdo? post!

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