July 28, 2007


Tomorrow, Dragomir Radev and eight amazingly smart high-school students will be taking off for St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida), to participate as the American entrants in the 5th International Linguistics Olympiad. There are two teams: the first team is Rachel Elana Zax, Ryan Aleksandrs Musa, Adam Classen Hesterberg, and Jeffrey Christopher Lim; the second team is Rebecca Elise Jacobs, Joshua Stuart Falk, Anna Tchetchetkine, and Michael Zener Riggs Gottlieb.

The students won their spots based on their performance in the 2007 North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (described in this post from last February). Lori Levin and Tom Payne are the co-chairs of NACLO 2007, and Drago Radev is the U.S. team's coach.

Here is question no. 5 from the individual phase of last year's International Linguistics Olympiad competition, held in Tartu, Estonia:

Below you see sentences in English and their translations into the Ngoni language. In fact each English sentence can be translated into Ngoni in more than one way, but only one variant is given here.

1. Kamau bought a farm for the women
2. The grandmothers bought a hoe for the grandson.
3. The grandsons bought beer for the guest.
4. The grandmother bought a knife for Kamau.
5. The guest bought a goat for the grandsons.
6. The grandson bought a farm for Zenda.
7. Zenda bought a house for the grandmother.
8. The guests bought a knife for the woman.
9. Mwangi bought a hoe for the guests.
10. The women bought a house for Mwangi.

  Kamau aguli vadala mgunda.
Vabuya vaguli mjukulu ligela.
Vajukulu vamguli mgeni ugimbi.
Mbuya guli Kamau chipula.
Mgeni avaguli mene vajukulu.
Mjukulu amguli mgunda Zenda.
Zenda amguli mbuya nyumba.
Vageni vamguli chipula mdala.
Mwangi avaguli vageni ligela.
Vadala guli Mwangi nyumba.

Assignment. Each of the Ngoni sentences 11-16 contains an error. Translate these sentences into English, explain what the error is in each case, and then correct it, giving for each example four correct sentences in Ngoni that describe the same situation.

11. Mdala guli ugimbi Mwangi.
12. Mdala mguli Mwangi ugimbi.
13. Mdala aguli ugimbi Mwangi.
14. Kamau vamguli vabuya mene.
15. Kamau guli mene vabuya.
16. Kamau vaguli vabuya mene.

I'm sure that you all see the solution immediately -:). But if you want to check that you've got it right, the answers are here.

A search of the Google News Archive for {"linguistics olympiad"} comes up empty. If the LSA had a public relations department, we ought to fire them. (Lucky for them, they don't exist.) Maybe we could hire those cheese guys.

Seriously, in a world where airport bookstores are full of language puzzles, and Will Shortz is a one-man conglomerate, how does something like this stay hidden?

[Update: and they won!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 28, 2007 09:02 AM