"As a child I wanted to be an archaeologist"

Interview with linguist Artemis Alexiadou

23. 4. 2014 | Artemis Alexiadou is professor for theoretical and English linguistics at the University of Stuttgart. In this interview, she talks about her love of language history, the discovery of language patterns and their importance for the Google corporation – and about perseverance in science.
AcademiaNet: Your research area "theoretical grammar" may seem quite abstract for some people. Can you please explain what your research is about?

Artemis Alexiadou: Yes, and this is usually the first and toughest question I get asked! What I do is: I analyse the grammar, the rules of the syntax and of word formation in each single language that I study. Firstly, I concentrate on the elements that all languages have in common, and I have developed a model for these similarities. Next, I try to identify the elements that constitute the differences between languages.

You have identified similar patterns in very different languages, patterns that were formerly unknown. What kind of patterns are these, and how can you describe them?

The basis for the discovery of these patterns were in fact several different projects. On the one hand, I had worked on the topic of word order variation. Where is the verb, the subject and the object located in which language? With this approach, we realised that there are languages that are very different but exhibit the same syntax. Furthermore, these languages usually exhibited more similarities, although they are neither sister languages nor even "cousin languages". On the other hand, I worked with noun phrases, like "the old tree", in languages that are not typologically related. With this approach, I realised that English exhibits certain traits that we also find in Inuit languages: a certain kind of word formation that we find in numerous languages, although they are not related, not historically and not otherwise.
Artemis Alexiadou
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(© DFG / Ausserhofer)

Artemis Alexiadou | is professor for linguistics in Stuttgart and winner of the 2014 Leibniz prize.

You are head of a Collaborative Research Centre, or CRC, that collaborates with Google and Sony. Why are these companies interested in your work?

Google is very interested in optimising its search function. The goal is that for each and every possible question, Google should be able to find the most relevant answers. Not the most answers, but the most relevant answers – that fit the query very well while excluding irrelevant information. To achieve this, an incredible amount of information on both language and knowledge about the world needs to be integrated into the programming of each search engine. If the programming also follows the rules of grammar, that of course need to be analysed and modelled first, each search will be easier and more effective.

Another field of application is the Google translator – I am sure you've had some experience with this. If yes, then you will have noticed that this application can produce absurd results – results that have nothing at all to do with the original source text. Now, we try to optimise the translation function so that in the end, the translation resembles the original text more closely. For this, my team at the CRC cooperates closely with the computer linguists here in Stuttgart.

Congratulations! This year, you've received the prestigious Leibniz prize, the most important German research award. What does this prize mean to you personally, and how will your research profit from the prize money of 2,5 million Euros?

I can hardly believe it yet – this prize gives me unprecedented creative leeway. I am still trying to comprehend what this means for my research. First of all I will be able to realise projects I have thought about, but that I could never really tackle for lack of funding, at least without writing grant proposals, and that takes a lot of time, the writing as well as the whole application process. This is a wonderful state of affairs, first of all because I will be able to recruit several new staff members. Of course, this prize is also a very nice recognition of my work. I am still rather speechless.

You also encourage and promote young researchers. If a young researcher asked you whether she should consider a scientific career, what would you tell her?

Actually, I have experienced this situation several times already. Young researchers, especially women, were insecure about their career prospects in general and asked me if a scientific career would make any sense. I told them: "The only thing that really helps is perseverance!" A scientific career can be tough: the competition is fierce, and there are not many permanent university jobs in Germany.

I think these are the main reasons why young researchers have doubts about their career prospects in science. But I can only tell them: "Don't give up when the going gets tough." No career is ever easy, but perseverance helps.

As a child, what did you want to be once you grew up? Do you remember that?

Yes, I remember very vividly that I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to discover things. Of course, a child has no concept of languages being a possible field of study. Later, in secondary school, I realised that I wanted to study languages. By then I had discovered that classical Greek and modern Greek were related, but different. This fact fascinated me: how do languages change over time? How do they evolve? Next, I started reading up on language history: where did the Indo-European languages come from? Et cetera. I was really fascinated by language evolution and wanted to study this topic.

Do you have a favourite motto for difficult situations?

A friend of mine, who wrote her PhD thesis at the same time as I did, and I always said: "Everything will turn out all right – it just takes too long."

Dear Prof. Alexiadou, thank you very much for this interesting interview!

Interview: Stephanie Hanel
English version: Susanne Dambeck   (© AcademiaNet)

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