Panels Shed Light on Linguistics

Aimee Stern

This week’s Symposium on Language and Linguistics, hosted by the departments of Anthropology, Computer Science and Psychology, was designed to fill the gap in Oberlin’s academic curriculum for students interested in linguistics. According to creator of the symposium Ron Shalom, OC ’11, the symposium aimed to demonstrate the cross-disciplinary and interpretive nature of the study of language.

The symposium, which took place March 14 and 15, featured three events: presentations of student and faculty research on language and linguistics, a keynote lecture by Ohio State University Professor of Linguistics Craig Roberts and a faculty panel composed of Oberlin professors addressing current questions and problems in linguistics. Shalom moderated the faculty panel and was the primary organizer of the event. He said, “I organized the symposium alone, though I certainly relied on advice and suggestions from professors of the Anthropology department. The symposium was intended to offer a venue for language scholarship that does not currently exist at Oberlin.”

Robert’s keynote address was titled “Solving for Interpretation.” In her presentation, she discussed her intention-structured pragmatic model of interpretation of discourse, where she combined aspects of Gricean pragmatic theory, her own research and experimental evidence from psycholinguistics.

College senior Miriam Rothenberg, one of the students who presented original research, said, “The keynote speech went very well. Dr. Roberts made an effort to make her talk not only engaging, but also interactive, which created a great learning atmosphere.”

The original research presented by the students greatly varied in focus. College senior Anne Thompson’s research was titled “Did Classical Nahuatl Have Adjectives?” while Rothenberg’s was called “‘Nonactive’ Verb Morphology in Classical Nahuatl.” College junior Michael Everdell focused his research on suppletive verbs in Uto-Aztecan.

Of the student presentations, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and symposium presenter Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway said, “The students gave really fantastic presentations. It was so impressive to see the results of their truly rigorous original research.”

Hoffmann-Dilloway said she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of the first event. “Given the beautiful weather and all the other events going on that day, I was amazed and pleased to see how many people came. It was a remarkable testament to student interest in linguistics.”

The symposium connected various departments and provided students with a forum to discuss matters of linguistics. Jason Haugen, visiting assistant professor of Anthropology who spoke on the faculty panel, explained, “These events were a way to bring together some of the really exciting work being done right now by students and faculty at Oberlin who are conducting linguistics-related research, including in the fields of anthropology, computer science and psychology.”

Hoffmann-Dilloway added, “Because the event was cross-disciplinary, it highlighted both differences and connections between various approaches to understanding language and linguistics. Each approach involved thinking about the role of context in how utterances are produced and interpreted, but in different ways.”

Shalom and other participants explained that the lack of a linguistics major at Oberlin may stifle student interest in the field. “Linguistics is an enormous field that connects many different disciplines, and the symposium was intended to introduce just how many ways there are to approach the study of language. I hope the symposium will be an opportunity for Oberlin students to learn about an exciting and important field of study that is unfortunately underrepresented — if at all — in the College’s academic offerings.”

The symposium was planned to allow anyone interested in linguistics to learn something new. Shalom said, “The events were designed for a very general audience, so I think anyone who is interested will be able to get something out of the symposium.”
The success of this symposium could suggest that there will be change in Oberlin’s fairly limited options for students to pursue work in the linguistics field. Hoffmann-Dilloway said, “The really large turn-out suggests that there is a great deal of student interest in linguistics — perhaps the new Oberlin Center for Languages and Cultures will be able to help provide further opportunities for such students to pursue this interest.”