Language Building

 

 
“I think people are going to be surprised. They will have to keep an eye on linguistics at Kentucky.”
 
This comment – made by first year master’s student Darin Arrick – reflects the attitude of excitement and opportunity running through UK’s Linguistics Program.
 
The cause of this renewed energy is a brand new degree: the Master of Arts in Linguistic Theory & Typology (MALTT). The first participants in this program – Arrick among them – began their work at UK this fall.
 
For Linguistics Program director Andrew Hippisley, the creation of this master’s degree program was the end result of years of work by faculty in linguistics.
 
“Like-minded people in the program thought it was a good idea to have a [master’s degree]. Kentucky didn’t offer teaching at that level, so we thought we should put our heads together and have it. And we’ve done that,” he said.
 
The new master’s degree has two primary tracks: sociolinguistics – how language gets used in society – and morphosyntax – theories of how words and sentences are structured. This combination of focus areas is rare in the United States. For Arrick, this unique approach was a major selling point for pursing his master’s at UK.
 
“I was trained in one set of skills and Kentucky trains in another set. It’s very complementary,” he explained. “UK concentrates on subfields like morphology and historical linguistics that are less common in the US than they are in Europe, and they cover them extremely well.”
 
This dualistic approach is an important step in putting UK’s Linguistics Program on the international radar and increasing interest from potential students outside the United States. At the same time, however, UK Linguistics is also placing emphasis on the local by encouraging students to learn about the language of Kentucky.
 
Interestingly, Hippisley suggests that both of these factors go a long way toward accomplishing the goal of expanding the Linguistics Program in a geographical way.
 
“Morphology and syntax combined is a very big deal in Europe. Appalachian English has appeal outside of Kentucky and America. We’d love students to come over here to get their master’s. And not just students from Europe but more international,” he said.
 
The program also underlines typology – the second “T” in MALTT – which involves looking at languages through a comparative lens. “Typology is all about languages having similar types of structure,” Hippisley explained. “What typologists try to do is answer the question, what is a possible structure of language?”
 
The combination of sociolinguistics and morphosyntax with an emphasis on typology means that students will not just learn the importance of linguistic theory but also learn how to formalize those theories for computer analysis.
 
“One of the things we wanted to emphasize was a more computational or even mathematical way of talking about linguistics. It’s one thing to talk about how grammar works, it’s a different thing to say you can check your results on a computer,” said Hippisley.
 
This aspect of MALTT was the most important factor in first year Ghazaleh Kazeminejad’s decision to pursue a master’s at Kentucky. “I was looking for a master’s degree in computational linguistics that was also funded, and I couldn’t find so many programs [with all those things],” she said.
 
Kazeminejad is interested in pursuing a project in machine-based translation that can bridge current gaps between Farsi – her first language – and English. “I am interested in improving the weakness in translation between this language pair,” she explained. “So I decided to do something about it.”
 
As Hippisley points out, the linguistics course offerings at the master’s level will also create exciting new opportunities for graduate students in related fields.
 
“The College has a lot of good graduate programs, and we will add to that. We have a particularly good research methods class which I think other master’s students could take advantage of. But we also envisage courses that would cross boundaries,” he said.
 
A course in the philosophy of linguistics, for instance, could create interest that crosses disciplinary boundaries for both professors and students. “Psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists—all of them can now take graduate credit-earning courses which would be entirely relevant to them,” Hippisley continued.
 
Arrick echoes this sentiment, pointing out potential partnerships between the Linguistics Program and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.
 
“Those programs here are really good. If a person is interested in any of those languages in relation to linguistics, this is a great place to come,” he said.
 
Importantly, MALTT offers more than just research opportunities and academic advancement for linguistics graduate students. “There’s something exciting about having students of that caliber. You find that you don’t treat them so much as students but as collaborators,” Hippisley explained.
 
“You see these talented linguists who you’re training, but then they’re giving you insight too and you want them to be part of your research.”
 
This new degree offers tremendous rewards for the College of Arts & Sciences – not only by giving undergraduates access to graduate students and graduate-level work, but by contributing to the goal of creating the next generations of scholars and researchers.
 
“The program is definitely strong and energetic now,” Arrick said. “I’m very interested to see how it looks after five years.”
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