July 09, 2007

People are the only agents for the job

My current NSF project Expressive content and the semantics of contexts made a headline today. Journalist J. M. Berger has a piece in today's Boston Globe Health and Science section called 'Coming soon, a linguist's guide to obscenities'. I like the article. It mixes an exuberance for pure science with an awareness that applications are important. This balance runs throughout the NSF's mission statement, and it is a theme of my project description, so I am gratified to find my work presented in this way to the general public. The bottom line is this: expressive words of the sort we are studying (swears, honorifics, epithets, and their ilk) have the power to shape public discourse in dramatic ways, so it is in our best interests to get a grip on how they work.

The opening line of the Globe piece is a doozy, though.

Before the science, before the implications for public discourse, law enforcement, linguistic theory, and so forth, we get the price tag: $200,000. It looks big. Not physical-sciences big, but big for a project that will mainly involve searching through corpora and probing speakers' intuitions.

The money is mostly people money. It will be used to fund graduate student researchers. And the reality is that researchers are expensive. They need to be paid, of course, but that's just the start (they make a pittance). The grant also needs to cover their university fees, their health care charges, and a host of other costs. This is, in my view, the reality of hiring people. I'm certainly not complaining. In the case of this project, it reflects the fact that people are the only agents for the job (at least in 2007).

Just think back on recent news stories concerning expressive language. Language Log has covered all of the big ones: Imus, The Redskins, Grey's Anatomy, and so forth and so on. To understand any of them, you need to have a deep understanding of the words involved, the language they are embedded in, the cultural context in which they were uttered, who the speaker was and what he or she intended to say, who was listening and what he or she expected (wanted) to hear, and many other complicated factors. Only highly skilled humans can do this analysis and, as I've said, they don't come especially cheap.

It's an oddity of our times that the costs would probably make more sense to people if the project's centerpiece were a massive super computer or some similarly outsized gadget. But, for this work, we need systems of significantly greater complexity.

Posted by Christopher Potts at July 9, 2007 12:32 PM