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Wordcorr Home > Linguist > Background

Background to Wordcorr. Tracing systematic similarities among languages is the key to understanding their history. Unfortunately, the way the similarities once had to be traced manually was error prone and required tedious tabulations.

Division of labor. The Wordcorr Project extends the capabilities of comparative linguists. It

  • takes advantage of your familiarity with recognizing relevant patterns.
  • combines that with the computer's ability to organize all your data in response to those judgments about patterns.

This division of labor allows linguists to stay on top of quantities of data from many speech varieties simultaneously, and to deal with them in a shorter time than was possible before. It provides an information technology infrastructure for their discipline.

Computer as organizer. The computer does not do the analysis for you. Instead, it organizes your data according to your own informed decisions in a way that rapidly shows up contrasts and complementarities among correspondence sets, a fundamental step in arriving at a systematic analysis.

Wordcorr also shows up and organizes information about the many anomalies that have to be accounted for. It allows different levels of detail to be worked on, simultaneously if desired.

Why Wordcorr? In the tabulation phase of comparative linguistics, the ratio of bookkeeping time to thinking time traditionally stood at more than 200 to 1. Word processors and spreadsheets brought the ratio down a little, but not much.

The Wordcorr design, however, allows you to concentrate on the data, because the bookkeeping is handled in seconds, without error and without diverting attention from your main thought process.

This helps transform comparative linguistics from drudgery illuminated now and then by a flash of insight into a doable endeavor that more people can feel attracted to. Wordcorr also assists in organizing the presentation of evidence for hypotheses about how language families have developed.

Collaborative research. Because of the necessity for close attention to minute details, truly collegial research by teams of scholars has been hard to achieve. Usually one scholar keeps in his or her head most of the options and uncertainties of the developing analysis, and assistants may be limited to compiling data and checking out specific lines of thought the lead scholar wants traced.

Wordcorr, however, is designed so that each member of a team may follow through several alternate analyses, send them to colleagues, and discuss them freely while a consensus takes shape, because all the alternatives are accessible through file exchange on the Internet.

Broader Impact: The team research aspect allows classes in the comparative method to be conducted using exactly the same software the students will eventually use for their own field work. By making educationally useful data sets available to the public at large via the Internet, Wordcorr may even help attract people into linguistics. It may also help informed citizens to realize that languages other than their own have an intricate and beautiful heritage, not something to be despised or stamped out.

Look at Overview.

The initial project involved joint support from the Information Technology Research and the Linguistics programs of the National Science Foundation from 2002 to 2004. The goal was to construct a specialized tool for linguists by

  • Enabling collaboration between Dr. Joseph E. Grimes, graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii, and the software specialists at DataHouse, Honolulu, to produce a robust and user friendly tool accessible without cost to linguists anywhere in the world that an Internet connection is possible.

  • Providing the means for a linguist to work alone in the field, and for a team of scholars, or a professor and class, to dialogue via the Internet about each other's views of any analysis.

  • Organizing conceptual and technical help for linguists who may be so remotely situated that they lack access both to consultation with colleagues and to technical advice about Wordcorr itself.

  • Compiling sample word list collections to exploit Wordcorr as an educational tool by treating a class as the beginnings of a research team.

  • Training linguists and graduate students to exploit Wordcorr's speed and consistency in order to jump start comparative studies that combine field data with data from the linguistic literature.

  • Making data about Wordcorr collections available worldwide through the Open Language Archives Community and Linguist List's collection of materials from endangered languages.

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