Séminaire Linguistique Informatique

24 Septembre 2008

Gerlad PENN (University of Toronto)

TITRE: The Quantitative Study of Writing Systems

If you understood all of the world's languages, you would still not be able to read many of the texts that you find on the world wide web, because they are written in non-Roman scripts -- often ones that have been arbitrarily encoded for electronic transmission in the absence of an accepted standard.  This very modern nuisance reflects a dilemma as ancient as writing itself: the association between a language as it is spoken and its written form has a sort of internal logic to it that we can comprehend, but the conventions are different in every individual case --- even among languages that use the same script, or between scripts used by the same language.  This conventional association between language and script, called a {\it writing system}, is indeed reminiscent of the Saussurean conception of language itself, a conventional association of meaning and sound, upon which modern linguistic theory is based.  Despite linguists' reliance upon writing to present and preserve linguistic data, however, writing systems were a largely forgotten corner of linguistics until the 1960s, when Gelb presented their first classification.

This talk will describe recent work that aims to place the study of writing systems upon a sound computational and statistical foundation. While archaeological decipherment may eternally remain the holy grail of this area of research, it also has applications to speech synthesis, machine translation, and multilingual document retrieval.