April 15, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 14

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    Graduate student in Linguistics receives Walsh Award for cutting-edge project

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Colin Sprague, a first-year graduate student in Linguistics, explained that John Goldsmith, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics, invited him to join the Linguistica project before he ever arrived on campus. The project, which uses computational principles to analyze the words of any language—including rare, difficult or even previously unknown ones—is at the cutting edge of work that synthesizes the sciences and humanities.

    Sprague’s computing background helped him get Goldsmith’s invitation to work on Linguistica, and now his computational skills have helped him win the Humanities Division’s 2004 Walsh Award.

    Sprague received the honor for his Arboleda program, which produces, with the correct information input, syntactic diagrams of sentences in any language. Arboleda, which means “grove” or “woods” in Spanish, answers a basic problem for people learning linguistics. As Sprague wrote in his project proposal: “Linguistics students spend much of their time drawing tree-diagrams.” So he wanted to create a simple, powerful software tool to aid the process.

    The program was inspired by work in his Syntax class, and Sprague’s classmates quickly adopted it. The software is “not glamorous but very useful,” he said. “My goal was to make it the quickest and most elegant solution to drawing trees.”

    Sprague is currently working on improvements to make the program more flexible, so students can edit and append the trees in a wide variety of ways once they have been drawn. The examples in his proposal drew from Persian as well as the Native American language, Zuni, which his wife’s father speaks fluently.

    If Sprague’s work represents an immediate practical benefit of the marriage of computers and linguistics, Linguistica represents its furthest aspirations. Today, said Goldsmith, Linguistica is being applied to parse the language of life itself. “We’re trying to find linguistic structure in genetic information, looking for forms and ‘words’ in the genome. The metaphor of language is an old one, that life writes its words in genes; we’re taking it literally in applying computational linguistics to the genetic sequence.”

    When asked what the most interesting thing he has so far encountered at the University, Sprague said, “working on Linguistica, because I’ve been able to see the real-world application of what I’ve been learning in class. But what I think will be most interesting is the stuff yet to come.”

    Created in memory of George Walsh, Professor of Classical Languages & Literatures, and his pioneering use of computing in research and teaching in the Humanities Division, the Walsh Award is an annual competition, which was established in 1998. It offers a $3,000 award that recognizes innovative computing projects involving the creative integration of computers in humanities research and/or teaching.

    Sprague’s project can be viewed and the software downloaded at http://home.uchicago.edu/~sprague/arboleda.