Yale researchers convened earlier this year at the annual Linguistics Society of America convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, to present research on topics spanning the entire field of linguistics.

Current and former Yale students and faculty presented 16 talks and posters at the four-day conference. Some looked at individual words: Joshua Phillips GRD ’20 focused on the way we interpret the dynamic word “otherwise.” Others, such as lecturer Jonathan Manker, took a broader scale, highlighting the differences between how people interpret words that communicate relationships — like verbs — and those that communicate content — like nouns.

“The LSA meeting is a massive linguistics festival of sorts,” Phillips said. “Lots of job interviews, lots of sessions on different topics, fairly general audiences.”

This year’s convention, held from Jan. 4 to 8, gave particular weight to strengthening the community by including underrepresented minorities and women, according to Phillips. The conference devoted special sessions and panels to reflecting on intellectual diversity and sexual climate, a discussion made particularly relevant by the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against a University of Rochester professor, Phillips added. The conference also featured a women’s panel to give women advice about navigating a career in the field of linguistics.

The annual convention is the largest in the United States, and its mission is to spread linguistics knowledge both within the field itself and to the general public. Attending the conference is a learning experience, said Rikker Dockum GRD ’19.

“Seeing all of the interesting work other linguists do is really invigorating,” he added.

While the conference presents an opportunity for graduate students to gain presentational skills and grow their professional networks, it also showcases collaborative research between established authors in the field.

Yale Linguistics Chair Robert Frank, together with Johns Hopkins professor Tal Linzen and Joe Pater of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, spoke about machine learning and question formation.

Human children pick up the basics of question formation — switching words around from an indicative statement to make a question — using a small data set. Frank and his collaborators presented on how that process differs from machine learning algorithms, which require significantly more data in order to form a question.

For example, almost all the tested algorithms failed to differentiate principle and relative clauses in questions correctly, Frank said. One algorithm presented by Frank and Linzen, however, is able to circumvent typical roadblocks by exploiting patterns between related languages. Applications of similar algorithms have improved translation software, Frank said.

The convention also played an important role in strengthening connections within the linguistics community, helping researchers new to the national scene meet their peers and network.

“I always leave the LSA with a list of new research ideas and new professional contacts,” Dockum noted.

He presented his research on how tonal languages have changed over time, particularly within the Tai language family, which includes Thai and Lao. Because much of the source literature he used was written in Thai, Dockum said he thinks that these insights were obscured to the community. By presenting this research, he said he hoped to bring these trends to light.

Although Phillips was unable to attend the conference due to inclement weather, his collaborator Hadas Kotek presented their work, which focused on how people’s semantic classifications of the clauses before and after the word “otherwise” can change over the course of a sentence. For example, Phillips explained, “otherwise” applies to “stop” in the sentence, “If you see a red light, stop, otherwise you will get a ticket” and “a red light” in the sentence, “If you see a red light, stop, otherwise continue driving,” even though both sentences begin with the same clause. Our conception of what the word “otherwise” refers to therefore changes over time, Phillips’ concludes.

The Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1924.

Josh Purtell | josh.purtell@yale.edu