Linguistics conference examines the myriad roles of human language

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Faculty in Penn’s Department of Linguistics study topics as varied as mathematical linguistics, philosophy of language and speech perception and have an array of academic backgrounds, from psychology to computer science.

It’s an understatement to say that linguistics is an interdisciplinary field that is growing ever larger in its diversity. It’s also true that scholars tend to specialize when any discipline expands. But at the same time, says Charles Yang, an associate professor in the department, different strains of the large field of study can converge to examine a single central issue: how human language is situated in the brain and in the world, and how it changes over time.

It’s this message of convergence that is at the heart of the Department’s upcoming conference, the 41st Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistic Society (NELS), Oct. 22 through 24, here at Penn. Speaking at the conference will be two giants of the linguistics field: Penn alum Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and William Labov, professor of linguistics at Penn, who first came to the University in 1971.

“Those two leaders have been very clear about the importance of developing the comprehensive theory of language,” says Yang, “and so it’s important we bring this perspective back into focus again after decades of fairly specialized development.”

The conference is open to the public; Chomsky will speak on Friday, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m. and Labov will speak on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 5 p.m.

Yang, who was a student of Chomsky’s at MIT, and who has worked closely with Labov and Gillian Sankoff, also a Penn professor of linguistics, says despite superficial differences, many contact points exist between apparently divergent lines of work. “Speaking for the department, we think it’s important to bring these lines of work together,” Yang says. “This [conference] is simply a way to bring people together, to crystallize these efforts and make it more accessible.”

Penn has a storied history with the subject: It is the home of the oldest modern linguistic department in the United States and can claim numerous prominent alumni, including Chomsky and current Penn professors Lila Gleitman, who studies language and language acquisition, as well as Aravind Joshi, a professor of computer and cognitive science who focuses on mathematical and processing models of language. Yang notes that the University has always had an interdisciplinary focus, which is what initially drew him to the program from Yale. “Penn has always very consistently taken this pluralistic point of view of how to approach language.”

Linguistics classes also draw Penn students with differing interests—from undergrads interested in the major, to future computer scientists, to students from the Graduate School of Education. It’s also ideal training for future law students, Yang says. To make a linguistic argument, “you need to keep track of massive amounts of data but still be able to construct an argument.”

The NELS conference is a way to underscore these different ideas, influenced by a variety of subjects, meet in one department. “Language is at a central place where a lot of disciplines meet,” Yang says.

For more information on conference speakers, location and registration, go to www.ling.upenn.edu/nels41.

Originally published on October 14, 2010