November 29, 2010

Tongue or Brain Twister?

When people speak, they normally don’t think too deeply about sentence construction or its meaning. In reality, the English language is very intricate.

Elizabeth Christie’s work is an excellent illustration of this phenomenon. Her PhD research focuses on the English resultative construction. She is supervised by professors Ash Asudeh – winner of the provincial Early Researcher Award – and Ida Toivonen from the Institute of Cognitive Science &School of Linguistics and Language Studies. The resultative phenomenon adds to the structure and meaning of a sentence.

“For example, in the sentence ‘Kim hammered the metal flat,’ it shows that at the end of the hammering process the metal is shaped differently than it was at the beginning,” explains Christie.

The resultative is a key way for English speakers to express causal relations. In the sentence about Kim, for example, it is she who caused the metal to be flat by hammering it. However, the meanings involved in many other sentences seem to be somewhat more elusive, or idiomatic.

Carleton is the only place in Canada where Christie can do this kind of computational work

“For example, in the sentence ‘Kim drank Sandy under the table’ it doesn’t seem quite right to say that Kim caused Sandy to be under the table by drinking,” says Asudeh. “It also seems that ‘under the table’ is what is allowing ‘Sandy’ to even occur, because the alternative ‘Kim drank Sandy’ is non-English and doesn’t have the intended meaning. So there’s a puzzle there.”

The project directly supports applications in language technology, including Internet search, automatic question answering and automatic translation. Data collection is done through interviews with native English speakers, questionnaires and examination of existing texts.

Christie, who worked on a related project during her master’s at the University of Essex, says she loves Carleton, which is the only place in Canada where she can do this kind of computational work. She also greatly enjoys working with her supervisors, who have done a lot of in-depth research in this field (and also happen to be married!)

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