News | 4 May 2012

Thirty Years of West Coast Linguistics (at UCSC)


Humanities 1 BuildingThe weekend of April 13–15, the UCSC Department of Linguistics, supported by both the UCSC Institute for Humanities Research and Stevenson College, hosted one of the two premier conferences in American formal linguistics: The Thirtieth West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics. Attended by over 150 researchers from as far away as Germany and the Netherlands, this year’s WCCFL marked the third time that the conference has come to UCSC.

The West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics began in 1982 at Stanford University and has been held nearly every year since then. UCSC itself hosted WCCFL in 1984, 1993, and 2002; interim years have seen the conference hosted by UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and UCSD, among many other western colleges and universities. The conference aims to bring together the best in formal linguistics research regardless of language or methodology. This year’s WCCFL saw the presentation of twenty-four talks and thirteen posters, along with three keynote lectures by Professors Christopher Potts (Stanford), Kie Zuraw (UCLA), and Jeffrey Lidz (Maryland).


Clockwise from left: Robert Frank (Yale University), Jeffrey Lidz (University of Maryland), Matthew Wagers (UCSC) and Pranav Anand (UCSC) discuss cognitive models during a Sunday afternoon break.

In the opening plenary lecture, Chris Potts (who received his Ph.D. at UCSC in 2003) discussed work with his current graduate students developing an online data-gathering tool via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. In this system, users are paid to cooperatively complete a small game designed by Potts and others, encouraging collaborative discussion. The log of this discussion is actually the target, and Professor Potts showed that this way of gathering natural language data in context provides many more examples of people using language for strategic reasoning than typical data-gathering methodologies.

Saturday saw the presentation of Kie Zuraw’s plenary, which attempted to provide data against which to test several competing theories of quantitative linguistic analysis. Specifically, Professor Zuraw showed that many modern theories of phonology (the organization of sounds into groups) make differing predictions with respect to the kinds of patterns one should find in natural language in contexts where two versions of a single sound are in optional variation. Examining the actual patterns found in Tagalog, Hungarian, and French was the focus of the talk and resulting discussion.

On Sunday, Jeffrey Lidz discussed the proper place of models of general cognition in linguistic theorizing. Professor Lidz pointed out that trends in modern language research which attempt to ascribe linguistic facts to underlying non-language-specific cognitive principles often make use of differing assumptions about the kinds of cognition involved. Professor Lidz then presented data from several experiments in his lab on the acquisition and processing of quantificational sentences such as Most circles are yellow to show that non-linguistic cognitive skills such as simple addition interact in complex ways with language when both are employed simultaneously.


UCSC Ph.D. alumnus and IHR Fellow Emeritus Scott AnderBois (University of Connecticut) discusses his poster with a crowd on Saturday afternoon.

Somewhat fortuitously, former IHR Graduate Fellow Scott Anderbois was in attendance. Since leaving UCSC in the spring of 2011, AnderBois has gone on to hold an assistant professorship (in residence) in the University of Connecticut Department of Linguistics and has recently accepted an Visiting Assistant Professor position with the Department of Linguistics at the University of Rochester. In addition to changing jobs, AnderBois has also been busy publishing, with his article “Focus and uninformativity in Yucatec Maya questions” slated to appear in the journal Natural Language Semantics sometime soon. During the weekend AnderBois presented a poster titled “Indefiniteness and the typology of implicit arguments” which is available on his website.

Beyond the papers and posters, WCCFL was also a chance for linguists to catch up with one another informally. WCCFL saw return to UCSC of several alumni in addition to Professor Potts, including Pete Alrenga (Boston University), Jason Merchant (University of Chicago), Ruth Kramer (Georgetown University), and Anya Lunden (University of Georgia). Next year, WCCFL 31 will take place at Arizona State University in Phoenix. This will mark the first time WCCFL has been to ASU since 1991.

Matthew A. Tucker is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics at UCSC and a UC Network Correspondent on linguistics events. Event photos courtesy of Professor Sandra Chung.