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Linguistics Circle 2012-2013
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Linguistics Circle occasional seminar series 2012/2013

Agata Savary (Université François Rabelais de Tours Blois, France) Action - towards a better understanding of the role of multi-word expressions in parsing

  • Date: Tuesday 11th June, 2013 at 16.00 hrs
  • Venue: Gateway Building 214
The COST IC1207 Action, PARSEME (Parsing and Multi-Word Expressions), aims at increasing and enhancing the support of the European multilingual heritage from information and communication technologies. This general aim is addressed through improving linguistic representativeness, precision and computational efficiency of Natural Language Processing (NLP) applications. The Action focuses on the major bottleneck of these applications: Multi-Word Expressions (MWEs), i.e. sequences of words with unpredictable properties such as "to count somebody in" or "to take a haircut".

We will present the scientific program of the Action, which addresses 23 European languages from a cross-theoretical and cross-methodological perspective.


Manuel Perea (Universitat de Valencia, Spain) Are root letters compulsory for lexical access in semitic languages? Evidence from masked form-priming in Arabic.

  • Date: Thursday 6th June, 2013 at 13.00 hrs
  • Venue: Gateway Building 214
Do Semitic and Indo-European languages differ at a qualitative level? Recently, it has been claimed that lexical space in Semitic languages is mainly determined by morphological constraints while in Indo-European languages the constraints are more orthographic (Frost et al., 2005; Velan & Frost, 2011). One of the key findings supporting this statement is the absence of masked form priming in Semitic languages, although nonsignificant trends are usually the case. Here we examine whether masked form priming occurs in a Semitic language (Arabic) when one of the letters from the root is replaced in the prime stimulus by another letter using a large set of items (180 words). Results showed a significant masked form priming effect with the lexical decision task in three experiments (including yes/no, go/no-go, and sandwich priming). The present data suggest that Semitic and Indo-European differ more at a quantitative than at a qualitative level.


Aleksandra P. Knapik (Polish Academy of Sciences) On the evolution of contact languages

  • Date: Friday 17th May, 2013 at 12.00 hrs
  • Venue: Lecture Center Room 119
Creole or pidgin varieties are found all over the world on every continent. They are developed when two or more languages come into contact and form a new language. Instead of using their own languages to communicate people enforce a creation of a new language. Most Creole languages are based on one or two languages. In Jamaica the African slaves found themselves in a situation where the only common means of communication was English, therefore the superstrate for Jamaican Creole is English, or its variety spoken at the beginning of 17th century (Arends, 1995: 56). Essential words which people could not find an English name for, such as plants, animals; and activities were taken from a variety of West African languages. There is a wide variety of external socio-historical factors that determine the rise of contact languages define the new varieties and decide on their form and structures. Pidgin languages arise as a consequence of many social and historical processes which involve political and economic factors in the creation of quite new and distinct social situations. William Washabaugh and Sidney Greenfield suggest that pidgin and “[c]reole languages (…) developed to provide a world of meaning for those caught in this new life situation and thus to enable them to adapt to the constrains of that situation” (Washabaugh and Greenfield 1983: 106). Through the study of a Creole variety in the Caribbean area the presentation investigates the social and structural dynamics that lies under the phenomenon of the formation of a new or restructured language variety. It emphasizes the importance and interplay of historical perspective, socio-cultural approach and linguistic analysis in the study
of contact languages.

Arends, Jacques, Peter Muysken, Norval Smith (1995) Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Washabaugh William, Sidney M. Greenfield (1983) “The Development of Atantic Creole Languages”. [In:] Ellen Woolford and William Washabaugh (eds.) The Social Context of Creolization. Anna Arbor: Karoma Publishers: 106-120.


Piotr P. Chruszczewski (Polish Academy of Sciences) Selected research paradigms and research directions in anthropological linguistics and anthropological pragmatics.

  • Date: Wednesday 15th April, 2013 at 12.00 hrs
  • Venue: Lecture Center Room 119
Anthropological linguistics, and by default also anthropological pragmatics, grew as sub-disciplines of both anthropology and linguistics. “The intellectual basis for anthropological linguistics in the United States derives from Boas ([1911] 1966), whose interests and concerns led to the anthropological view of language, which is that language is an integral part of culture (…)” (Klein 2006: 296). Pragmatics enter the scene, telling the researcher how to analyse the aforementioned phenomena. Therefore, anthropological pragmatics would be responsible for equipping the researcher with tools, for it is language and language-oriented mechanisms of communication, the study of which provides a much clearer insight into cultural phenomena which often direct the use of language representing culture from both the synchronic and the diachronic point of view. “[O]ne approaches language from an anthropological view, which includes the uses of language and the uses of silence, as well as the cultural problems involved in silence and speech” (ibid.).

Boas, Franz ([1911] 1966) “Introduction.” [In:] Franz Boas (ed.) Handbook of American Indian Languages (reprinted by P. Harder). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; 1–79. [Reprinted from Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 1911, 40 (1); 18–3. Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution].

Klein, H.E. Manelis (2006) “Anthropological Linguistics: Overview.” [In:] Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics. Keith Brown (ed.). Amsterdam, Boston: Elsevier; 296–304.


Holger Mitterer (Dept of Cognitive Science, University of Malta) Sound to meaning and sound as meaning

  • Date: Friday 26th April, 2013 at 12.00 hrs
  • Venue: Lecture Center Room 117
Spoken language has been characterized as an arbitrary code for meaning (e.g. Hockett, 1966). By re-combining a small number of “meaningless” units (i.e. phonemes), a large number of meanings can be represented (“duality of patterning”). This classical thinking has recently been questioned in both linguistics, uncovering so-called ideophones with non-arbitrary sound meaning-mappings in many languages, and psychology, showing consistent cross-modal mappings. We tested how well real ideophones from a variety of languages are decodable for naïve listeners and found that, if prosodic cues are taken away, sound-meaning mappings crumble.

This reinforces the importance of arbitrariness, but also raises the question how listeners can uncover the smaller meaningless units in spite of speaker and style-specific differences. I will show that listeners make use of auditory, phonetic, and phonological processes to deal with this invariance problem. In the process, I will argue that not context-invariant phonemes but context-specific allophones are the crucial units for the listener.


Mike Rosner & Jan Joachimsen (ICT, University of Malta) METANET4U: Supporting language technology for European languages

  • Date: Thursday 18th April, 2013 at 12.00 hrs
  • Venue: Chemistry Building Room 327
METANET4U was a European project aiming at supporting language technology for European languages and multilingualism. It was a project in the META-NET Network of Excellence, a cluster of projects aiming at fostering the mission of META (Multilingual European Technology Alliance). Running from 2011 to 2013, the central objective of the project was to contribute to the establishment of META-SHARE, a pan-European digital platform which makes available language resources and services for speech and language processing and which supports a new generation of exchange facilities for them. At the University of Malta, the project was based at the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems, in close collaboration with the Institute of Linguistics. Several existing language resources for Maltese were collected, assessed and uploaded to META-SHARE. Others were newly created and added to the collection. We will present META-SHARE and how to browse, upload and download language resources. Additionally, we will discuss some issues connected with working on the platform, i.e., metadata schemes and intellectual property rights.


Adam Ussishkin (University of Arizona) Morphological decomposition in Hebrew spoken word recognition

  • Date: Friday 15th March 2013, 12:00
  • Venue: Lecture Centre Room 117
While some research in the domain of spoken word recognition has focused on whether morphological decomposition occurs during language processing, very little attention has been paid to languages with typologically unusual morphology such as Semitic languages. Related work in the domain of reading comprehension (e.g., Frost et al. 1997, 1998, 2000 for Hebrew; Boudelaa and Marslen-Wilson 2001 for Arabic) has revealed that morphological decomposition occurs in visual word recognition, though the extent to which these results are mirrored in spoken word recognition is unclear. Recent work on spoken word recognition in Maltese (Ussishkin et al. in prep) has shown that while word patterns play no role in language processing, the consonantal root is central to any model that aims to capture how the lexicon is organized.

In this talk, I report on two experiments designed to test whether similar results obtain for Hebrew spoken word recognition. In one experiment, we tested for morphological priming by word pattern, and in the second experiment we tested for morphological priming by consonantal root. If in Hebrew spoken word recognition behaves like reading comprehension, we expect to find that both roots and patterns can cause priming effects, thereby facilitating lexical access. However, our results show that Hebrew is more like Maltese when it comes to spoken word recognition: roots indeed facilitate lexical access, but patterns fail to do so. As a consequence, models of spoken word recognition for Hebrew must differentiate between roots and patterns, and visual and spoken word recognition require differing, modality-specific accounts.


Andy Wedel (University of Arizona) Lexical competition influences phoneme-inventory structure.

  • Date: Friday 13th March 2013, 12:00
  • Venue: Old Humanities Room 105
Human languages universally show ‘duality of patterning’, in which lexical categories are composed from a limited set of contrastive but largely meaningless elements, often termed phonemes. The long‐standing functional load hypothesis states that phoneme contrasts that distinguish fewer lexical categories should be more vulnerable to loss, while those that distinguish more should be preferentially preserved.

Wedel et al. (to appear) provided the first clear evidence supporting this hypothesis showing that within a diverse dataset, phoneme contrasts that distinguish fewer minimal pairs were significantly more likely to have been lost. In this talk new data will be described suggesting that phoneme chain shifts and phoneme splits – both processes that maintain lexical contrast – are also driven by lexical competition.

Finally, new evidence will be presented showing that these effects are present in natural speech: within the Buckeye Speech corpus, instances of a phonetic cue that distinguishes its host-word from a lexical competitor are significantly enhanced relative to instances of that same cue in words with no such competitor. These results are strongly consistent with the larger hypothesis that phoneme contrast is influenced by cognitive processes which promote lexical contrast (Wedel 2012).


Richard Littauer (University of Malta) Using pixel maps to examine typological relations.

  • Date: Friday 8th February 2013, 16:00
  • Venue: Lecture Centre Room 119
Understanding typological differences and similarities between languages can open up doors for both theoretical analysis and NLP applications.  A novel way of visualising relationships between languages is presented. This was originally presented at the Language Visualisation workshop in EACL 2012 with Alexis Palmer and Rory Turnbull. The key feature of the visualisation is that it brings geographic, phylogenetic,and linguistic data together into a single image, allowing a new visual perspective on linguistic typology. The data presented is extracted from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) (Dryer and Haspelmath, 2011). After pruning due to low coverage of WALS, the typological data are filtered by geographical proximity in order to ascertain areal typological effects. The data are displayed in heat maps which reflect the strength of similarity between languages for different linguistic features. Finally, the heat maps are annotated for language family membership. The images so produced allow a multi-faceted perspective on the data which, it is hoped, will facilitate the interpretation of results and perhaps illuminate new areas of research in linguistic typology. Ideas for future work in this vein are discussed.


Phyllisienne Gauci (University of Malta) Teaching pragmatics: An empirical study in a foreign language context.

  • Date: Friday 30th November 2012, 16:00
  • Venue: Chemistry Building, Room 327
Studies examining the effectiveness of teaching L2 pragmatics have increased in the past few years, showing a growing interest in the area of interlanguage pragmatics. Results are very encouraging, and agree that pragmatics is teachable, and pragmatic instruction outpaces the mere exposition to the target language. Therefore research in the teaching of pragmatics has now directed its attention to identifying experimentally the most effective way of teaching. The majority of experiments in this area compare the effects of different
types of interventions along the implicit-explicit continuum.

This study presents the results of a classroom experiment aimed at comparing implicit and explicit instruction in the context of L2 Italian teaching. The targeted pragmatic features are lexical and syntactic devices used to modify the illocutionary force of requests and complaints. First a pre-test is administered, consisting of a written discourse completion task, an oral role-play and a multiple choice discourse completion task. Then for six weeks the three classes receive different instructional treatments: in one class the
targeted elements are directly dealt with through explicit teaching, in the second class through implicit teaching, while the third class receives no specific pragmatic teaching, as it is the norm in the school attended by the learners. Soon after the treatment the three
groups are tested again with the same instruments used for the pre-test. Finally a delayed post-test is administered four months later.

As expected, the two groups receiving the treatment outperform the Control group in the post-tests. However, results show some interesting differences on the relative effectiveness of the teaching methods adopted. Explicit instruction appears to be effective in promoting the acquisition of declarative pragmatic knowledge but not as successful in the development of procedural knowledge needed for online oral production. The study thus contributes to the debate on implicit vs. explicit pragmatic teaching with a crucial methodological issue, namely the role of the testing instruments.


Albert Gatt (Institute of Linguistics) Snagged by the root in the cosnonant jugnle: On reading and morphology in Maltese.

  • Date: Friday 9th November 2012, 17:00
  • Venue: Gateway Building, Hall B1

A robust finding in research on word recognition during reading is that words (such as judge) whose letters have been transposed to form non-words (such as jugde) can be recognised easily. This result has been observed not only for English, but also for other languages, such as Spanish, Thai and Korean.

Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic appear to be somewhat different. Experimental work using the Rapid Serial Visual Presentation paradigm (RSVP; Velan and Frost, 2007), in which sentences are presented word by word very rapidly, suggests that readers in these languages are far less accurate than, say, their English counterparts in recognising words whose root consonants have been transposed. One interpretation of these results is that for readers of these languages, the consonantal root has a special status which is not present in other languages. One possible reason for this difference lies in their orthographic system, which tends to privilege consonants and frequently omits vowels. Another important factor is the centrality of the root in the morphology of these languages.

Maltese presents a particularly interesting test case because although it is a Semitic language, it uses the Roman alphabet, putting it on a par with languages such as English and Spanish where orthography is concerned.

In this talk, I describe an experiment which replicates the methodology of Velan and Frost (2007) on Maltese readers. It compares the recognition accuracy of Maltese words whose root consonants have been transposed, to that of English words with transposed consonants. Our results suggest that Maltese evinces characteristics that are completely unlike those usually reported for Semitic languages. Indeed, Maltese readers’ accuracy in recognising words with consonant transpositions is on a par with their accuracy in recognising English words under similar conditions.

I will attempt to interpret these results in the light of two important characteristics of Maltese: (a) its orthographic system, which is distinct from that of other Semitic languages; (b) its hybrid morphology, in which root-based morphological processes co-exist with stem-based processes. I will argue that, orthography aside, a crucial reason for the difference between Maltese on the one hand and Arabic and Hebrew on the other, is the relatively unproductive nature of its Semitic morphological component. The talk concludes with some remarks on the implications of these findings for models of word recognition and morphological processing.


Daniel Hardt (Department of International Language Studies and Computational Linguistics, Copenhagen Business School) A Sentiment analysis in American and Danish film reviews.

  • Date: Friday 12th October 2012, 18:00
  • Venue: Gateway Building, Hall B1

The talk is an attempt to answer the question: Do user populations differ systematically in the way they express and rate sentiment?  Large collections of Danish and American film reviews are used to investigate this question.  Evidence of important systematic differences is found: first, positive ratings are far more common in the U.S. data than in the Danish data.  Second, highly positive terms occur far more frequently in the U.S. data. Finally, Danish reviewers tend to under-rate their own positive reviews compared to U.S. reviewers. This has potentially far-reaching implications for the interpretation of user ratings, the use of which has exploded in recent years. 

Linguistics Circle (26 June)

Dr. Olga Bogolyubova, University of Malta

Title: Personality Traits and Subjective Wellbeing in the Language of Social Media

Date: Wednesday 26th June 12-14 

Venue: GW214


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Stress Management Sessions for students

Sedqa, in collaboration with the University of Malta, will be holding two sessions on stress management for students.

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Last Updated: 10 October 2013

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