Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Linguistics olympiad problems

I heard many years ago about the linguistics olympiad, which seems to be a sort of tradition in Russia and the former Soviet bloc but hasn't really seemed to catch on elsewhere (though the Netherlands seems to be something of a powerhouse in the area).

The typical form of the problem consists of raw data and translations, and you have to figure out what morpheme corresponds to what meaning, and perhaps translate a few sentences. Although there are quirkier problems (like the one where you figure out how pieces get promoted in Japanese chess - that's in the first set of problems listed below). Problems are supposed not to require any previous knowledge of the language - and they don't. They're basically exercises in pattern-finding, though I did employ some heuristics learnt in linguistics class to speed up the process (e.g. singular nouns tend to be less marked than plurals). Most of all, they're fun! A few of them are hard, but many will take no longer than 5-10 mins to solve. And they really expand your mind as to the variety of linguistic structures available to the world's languages.

Anyway, there is now an international linguistics olympiad and there were attempts to set up a U.S. linguistics olympiad (though it doesn't seem to be running now), which means there are problems available at English to solve! Thomas Payne (of "Describing morphosyntax" fame) maintained the U.S. olympiad website; it included a description and history people may be interested in. Most of the problems seem to be on sites that are down, but thanks to the genius of Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive, we can rescue them from oblivion. I've listed a few of them here:

Problems from the first international olympiad in linguistics (2003), incl. some sample problems
Puzzles from the 1998-2001 U.S. olympiad
Problems offered at the 27th and 28th (Russian) olympiad, sorted by "stages"

Russian-speaking readers can apparently find problems here and here, but I can't tell because I don't read Russian.

Wouldn't it be fun if there were introductory linguistics textbooks chock-full of problems integrated into the text? For example, while talking about morphology you could have a problem with Arabic words and their meanings and the task would be to figure out the principles of Arabic morphology - i.e. its root-and-pattern structure and non-concatenative nature. It would sure make more of an impression than passively reading about Semitic morphology. It would be a little like Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics, but synchronic.


Anonymous Lian Hee said...

You might have already these books, but in case you haven't, I wonder if they'd help satisfy the craving for textbooks/teaching materials that are packed with linguistic problems:

1. Language Files: Materials for an introduction to language and linguistics. 9th edition. By Dept of Linguistics, the Ohio State Univ.

2. Problem Book in Phonology: A Workbook for Courses in Introductory Linguistics and Modern Phonology. by Morris Halle, George N. Clements

11:21 PM  
Blogger Gidi said...

Excellent collections of such problems exist, mostly in Russian. The titles may be found at
Observe also that the last book mentioned is actually the first book that got things started - and is in English. The other ones (in Russian) are very difficult to obtain, but are incredible (I own one, so I know).

3:21 PM  
Blogger C. Callosum said...

Hi Gidi and Lian Hee, thanks for your posts. The materials all look very interesting, and I've ordered one of the books you suggest from Amazon and am looking forward to sinking my teeth into some delicious problems.

Gidi, if you read this again, how did you find the Russian problem books, and is it at all possible to figure out the problems without knowledge of Russian? Will knowledge of the Cyrillic script be enough? Thanks!

1:27 AM  

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