The science of language

Originally posted: May 10, 2012

When Stephanie Antetomaso read The Lord of the Rings at the age of 12, Tolkien’s classic fantasy inspired her to learn Elven, a language created by the author. She spent hours poring over the book’s appendices and doodling in Dwarvish runes. That spark ignited a fire.

“I was inspired to create my own languages and study as many others as possible, both real and constructed,” Antetomaso recalls. “I experimented with learning ASL, Esperanto, Finnish, German, Greek, Italian, Klingon, Korean, Latin, and even Xhosa. Language created a doorway between worlds, allowing me to step through into completely different cultures.”

A doorway to another new culture will open for Antetomaso this fall, when she heads to the Republic of Estonia as a Fulbright Scholar. The Wheaton College senior from Woburn, Mass., a double major in linguistics and Russian studies, plans to study and conduct research on language at the University of Tartu.

Antetomaso developed an interest in linguistics as a high school student, when she took a course in the subject at MIT. She chose Wheaton in part for its wide offerings in world languages, though she knew the college had no linguistics major. Then a friend told her about an English professor, Michael Drout, who “was always talking about linguistics in class.”

“On a whim I went to talk with him,” she says, “and he was really supportive of the idea” of developing an independent major in linguistics.

With Drout’s guidance, Antetomaso built the major with courses from several departments—English, Computer Science, Psychology and Anthropology—plus linguistics courses at Brown University.

The University of Tartu, where she will work and study, is one of the world’s foremost centers for linguistics research, and its Department of Estonian Language Studies is the leading department of its kind. Antetomaso is intrigued by Estonian, which, like Finnish and Hungarian, is a Finno-Ugric language.

“These languages are significantly different from most other European languages,” says Antetomaso. “They are generally agglutinative languages, which means that things like tense, number, location and speaker can be indicated by an ending tacked onto the word.” (For instance, in Finnish, “istua” means “to sit down,” while “istahtaisinkohan” means “I wonder if I should sit down for a while.”)

In her Fulbright research, Antetomaso will employ natural-language processing, a technique that uses computers to process, understand, and output human language and which has applications to technology such as speech-recognition software, text-to-speech programs and machine translation. Antetomoso will examine how English-based language-processing algorithms work on Estonian texts, and vice versa, with the goals of studying the structural differences between the two languages and also developing “language-independent” algorithms.

“I’ve worked with a lot of language-processing tools at Wheaton,” she says, “tools that cluster similar texts, or parse speech into phonemes, but these tools all presuppose that you’re using them on English data sets.” Language-independent algorithms, on the other hand, are universal; they work with many different languages.

Antetomaso’s studies at Wheaton have opened up many other opportunities. She attended the European Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information in Copenhagen and has worked for two years as a research assistant to Professor Tom Armstrong (Computer Science). In 2011 the pair co-authored a paper and presented it at the International Conference on Development and Learning in Frankfurt, Germany. Antetomaso also completed a senior honor’s thesis based on her own linguistics research.

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