Sunday, May 16, 2010

Zimmer on "quant(s)"

Wow, it is so nice to pick up the NYT Sunday Magazine on the "On Language" weeks and know that there will be a fine column in there by Ben Zimmer. This week, he tackles Quants, that is
experts in mathematics, physics and computer science who brought sophisticated quantitative approaches to the world of Wall Street.
The story of how increasingly advanced mathematical models shaped the markets — and led to serious problems — is everywhere today. In academia, it echoes longstanding complaints by non-quant social scientists about the dominance of quant stuff.

This is relevant for linguistics. The field is experiencing huge and amazing progress thanks to our own quants, in about every subbranch. (OK, anthropological linguistics is probably largely untouched by it, but ... .) The local linguists here seem to embrace this trend, but they talk a lot about the need to keep some perspective — to be sure that they know what they're putting into the model and how to interpret what comes out. Seems like the right way to go.

Image from here.


Chris Brew said...

Quite right. We now have both data and processing power coming out of our ears. Almost every linguist should be able to identify new sources of potentially relevant data that have become available because of recent changes in the technology that we use to create and distribute information. But I'm not yet convinced that we yet know how to make sense of this data in linguistically interesting ways. For example, it is unclear whether the traditional model of dialect studies, which uses rural speakers in the hope that their linguistic experience has been gathered from the immediate vicinity, has any relevance to people who use satellite TV and high-speed internet. A big new idea is needed.

At this moment, I think we have a revolution going on. The next generation of linguists will have to be good at data wrangling. This is happening, and is a precondition for progress, but the progress itself has
barely happened yet.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks much. This is spot on. I believe that our dialect-socio-historical group of sound people is working on precisely this kind of issue and maybe one of them can add a comment about how they see this revolution.