Author Archives: Joe Pater

Andries Coetzee in the Washington Post

Andries Coetzee (PhD 2004, now Professor at the University of Michigan) is quoted at length in a Washington Post article on a Ryanair travel requirement that requires South African passengers to demonstrate proficiency in Afrikaans as a citizenship test. The full text of the section citing and quoting Coetzee is below.



Andries W. Coetzee, a professor of linguistics and the director of the African Studies Center at the University of Michigan, said Afrikaans has strong ties to South Africa’s colonial history and an apartheid regime that institutionalized white supremacy.

Coetzee said the majority of South Africans do not speak Afrikaans, “so, it makes absolutely no sense to use that as a measurement of whether you are South African or not.” In 2011 census data shared by Statistics South Africa, 13.5 percent of the population said Afrikaans was their first language, trailing IsiZulu (22.7 percent) and IsiXhosa (16 percent) in that year’s data.

In 1925, the South African government made Afrikaans an official language, Coetzee said, and it became the language of politics to a large extent, a status that was reinforced after apartheid became the “official political system of the country” in 1948. While the language was at one time required in schools, he said, the majority of students who take the language now are those who speak it at home or those of European descent who speak English at home.

“If you are a Black citizen of South Africa who came of age and went to school after 1994, chances are that you don’t know Afrikaans because you don’t have to know Afrikaans,” Coetzee said. He called Ryanair’s policy “colonial, discriminatory and just unjustified.”

Coetzee noted that there are two socioethnic varieties of Afrikaans and that about half of the Afrikaans-speaking population are non-White.

“It would be inaccurate to say only White people speak the language,” he said. “But what would be accurate is to say 80 percent of the population do not speak Afrikaans, and that 80 percent are basically all non-White.”

Linguists and Merriam-Webster’s in the UMass Magazine

The latest issue of the UMass magazine features an article about UMass alumni working at Merriam-Webster’s in Springfield:

Linguistics and Philosophy (’99) major Emily Brewster is on the cover of the magazine, and had this to say about her path to her profession (she is senior editor and editorial ambassador):

Brewster says she actually got her job at Merriam-Webster because of one of her UMass linguistics professors, Kyle Johnson. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do next, and I was thinking about going to graduate school, but I wanted to stay in the area. When he mentioned that Merriam-Webster was down the road in Springfield, it was the proverbial light bulb. I just thought ‘Oh, people write dictionaries, maybe I want to write dictionaries!’ So I absolutely credit him with even the notion that lexicography was a thing that a person can do. And then studying linguistics and philosophy together—I remember taking syntax and logic at the same time—and I feel like those two classes are really very useful in defining.”

Linguistics alum (’16) Sarah Carragher (assistant editor) says that she “graduated with the attitude of a modern-day linguist. My linguistics education equipped me with the tools to observe language in all its complexity without judgment.”

Tribute to Jill de Villiers from the UMass Linguistics faculty

The faculty of the UMass Amherst Linguistics department wishes to recognize and celebrate the enormous contributions made to our intellectual community by Professor Jill de Villiers, who after a long and distinguished career, has just recently retired from Smith College.

Professor de Villiers has contributed indispensibly to our research on language acquisition, communication disorders, and African American English. Beyond simply collaborating with students and faculty on a wide variety of papers and presentations, she has served on innumerable dissertation committees in Linguistics, Communication Disorders, and Psychology, including one that she chaired (in Psychology), covering a broad variety of topics in language acquisition and African American English.

Professor de Villiers has participated extensively in sponsored research here at UMass Amherst, serving as member or Co-PI on grants awarded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Sloan Foundation. This work notably includes her co-authorship of the well-known DELV Assessment Instrument, the result of a unique cross-disciplinary collaboration between the Departments of Linguistics and Communication Disorders.

Though Professor de Villiers has retired from Smith College, she remains a central figure in our academic community. As both Adjunct Professor and a highly active member of the Language Acquisition Research Center, she continues to be an important resource for our faculty and students. We look forward to many more years of fruitful collaboration, and wish her the very best in this new stage of her life and career.

CHFA Chairs’ Statement on Anti-Black Incidents on (and off) Campus

May 18, 2022

As department chairs in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, we stand in solidarity with our colleagues in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies in the struggle against anti-Black racism in the university, its community, and the United States. Attacks on Black people, whether cowardly emails sent under cover of anonymity or horrific acts of violence such as the recent massacre in Buffalo, result from strands of white supremacy and racial prejudice that are deeply rooted in American history. We are grateful to the Du Bois Department for its leadership in the fight for equal justice on our campus and beyond. We encourage all members of the UMass community to support their leadership: attend lectures, rallies, and teach-ins; educate yourselves on the history of anti-Black racism and white supremacy; and contribute, in whatever way you can, to the ongoing project of realizing more equitable and just communities. If you are able to make a financial contribution, you may do so here.

Marisol Barbon, Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures

Phil Bricker, Chair, Department of Philosophy

Harley Erdman, Chair, Department of Theater

Randall Knoper, Chair, Department of English

Salvatore Macchia, Chair, Department of Music & Dance

David Mednicoff, Chair, Department of Judaic & Near Eastern Studies

Young Min Moon, Chair, Department of Art

Brian Ogilvie, Chair, Department of History

Joe Pater, Chair, Department of Linguistics

Monika Schmitter, Chair, Department of the History of Art & Architecture

Stephen Schreiber, Chair, Department of Architecture

Anthony Tuck, Chair, Department of Classics

Angela Willey, Chair, Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies


Du Bois Department’s Response to the Anti-Black Incidents on Campus

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Message to UMass Amherst from the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies in Response to the Anti-Black Incidents on Campus

The W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was established as part of persistent anti-racist and equality activism in the United States. The department indeed has a storied tradition of standing at the forefront of equal justice issues that have arisen on this campus and in society. UMass Amherst also has a deep tradition and legacy of being responsive to inequities and injustice on our campus. This valuable history is what now brings to the forefront our renewed emphasis on action and change in response to the most recent anti-Black incidents on our campus, which have targeted members of the campus community associated with Black Studies and associated with other Black groups on campus. Targeting recognizable Black spaces on campus is part of a larger pattern over the last few years. Our undergraduate and graduate students were singled out in the most recent and in earlier anti-Black emails, as well as in a violently threatening, racist zoom bombing attack. We think these incidents are significant.

We join others here at UMass Amherst in expressing our outrage at the most recent incident of racist, anti-Black terrorism on campus, which we see as part of a larger pattern locally and nationally. While racist incidents have long occurred at UMass Amherst, the last several years have seen a heightening of the vile and threatening nature of such acts, which concerns us greatly. As a vocal segment of the country continues to express bigoted and racist ideas and endeavors to return the United States to an era when racial and gender exclusions from power were tradition, we believe that our anti-hate and anti-racist strategies and commitments should reflect that fact. As scholars and teachers of Black history, culture, and politics, we wish to point out that when such acts occur with this frequency and severity in the United States, they do not simply represent the outlier thoughts of disturbed individuals but are often part of a larger effort to deny Black social power as well as Black citizenship, including access to higher education.

When students, who are among the most vulnerable members on the campus, are made to live, study, and work in a toxic anti-Black environment where they are targeted for merely existing as themselves, at best by someone participating in a cruel hoax and at worst by the vilest white supremacist, we recognize that they very likely are an unfortunate proxy for more generalized anti-Black sentiment. Under the guise of free speech and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the writer of the anti-Black messages has contributed to making the campus climate feel unsafe and unwelcoming for a significant percentage of Black students and the larger population of Black people on campus, as demonstrated by the last two campus climate surveys. The writer has engaged in discriminatory activity that Black students, staff, faculty, and administrators must not be asked to accept.  

Black students at UMass Amherst have expressed their outrage and trauma regarding these incidents and have told us what will make substantive changes in their situation.  We in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department believe it is important to not simply hear what students are saying, but to take seriously what our students indicate they need to navigate these frightening times, and to act accordingly. Foremost, they deserve to know that every possible effort will be made to create a campus environment where their physical, psychological, and emotional safety will be protected while they navigate these acts of intimidation and harm. They also deserve material support that will allow them to focus on their studies. 

The W. E. B. Du Bois Department stands ready to participate in making the changes that this campus needs to create a welcoming environment where Black students can live, study, learn, and work. We are the one unit on the entire campus that is dedicated to the academic study of Black history, culture, and politics. We are a major contributor to diversity, general education, and to the promotion of an inclusive intellectual climate on campus. Our field was founded to shed light on the origins and development of U.S. society–its political, economic, and cultural makeup–that shapes patterns of enduring inequality. Black Studies scholars have chronicled the Black Freedom Struggle and how that movement has pushed the nation to live up to its ideals. 

We support the demands that the Racial Justice Coalition put forth in July 2020 as they reflect careful thought and democratic deliberation among affected students and allies. We also commend the University for establishing a Black Advisory Council and look forward to working closely with them, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, and others to make the anti-racist strategy at UMass Amherst necessarily more ambitious in fighting the resurgence in the twenty-first century of virulent anti-Blackness, bigotry, and hate. We need a major commitment that is proportionate to the challenge. A bold strategy resisting these incidents serves core interests that cohere with the mandates of a flagship, state, public higher education, research and teaching institution. Such a strategy advances community outreach. It is also a signal that this university has a full commitment to diversity and inclusion. We invite the entire UMass Amherst campus to join us in establishing a bold initiative to meet the needs of students on this campus who have asked us to make a change now. 

Jyoti Iyer to Salesforce

Current PhD student Jyoti Iyer recently shared some good news with us – congratulations Jyoti!

I’m pleased to officially announce that I have accepted a job at Salesforce, where I will be a Conversation Designer. I’ll be working with other linguists and a product team, to develop information architectures for language data used in the training of chatbots, and also to design the chatbots themselves. (Thank you to the LSA’s Linguistics Beyond Academia Special Interest Group for organizing Linguistics Career Launch 2021 that led me here.)

Schardl awarded Grinspoon for excellence in teaching

Anisa Schardl (MA 2014), the chair of the Northampton High School math department, has been given the the 2022 Harold Grinspoon Excellence in Teaching award. A recent article in the Reminder has an interview with Anita in which she describes her team-based, problem solving approach to math teaching, and mentions her time in UMass Linguistics.

Congratulations Anisa!

New NSF Grant on Computational Phonology to Jarosz and Pater

Joe Pater (PI) and Gaja Jarosz (co-PI) have been awarded an NSF research grant on “Representing and learning stress: Grammatical constraints and neural networks” (NSF 2140826 $386,226). This three-year research grant will study the learnability of a wide range of word stress patterns, using two general approaches. In one, general purpose learning algorithms will be employed with representational hypotheses developed in linguistics. The goal will be to develop grammar+learning systems that can cope with a broader range of typological data than current models, and that can also handle more of the details of individual languages, using more realistic data to learn from. In the other, neural networks, which lack prespecified linguistic structure, will be tested on their ability to learn these same patterns, and to generalize appropriately. The public summary is below.

Public summary: Languages are systems of remarkable complexity, and linguists and computer scientists have devoted considerable effort to the development of methods for representing those complex systems, as well as computational methods for learning the system of a given language. This effort is driven by the desires to better understand human cognition, and to build better language technologies. This project draws on the theories and methods of both linguistics and computer science to study the learning of word stress, the pattern of relative prominence of the syllables in a word. The stress systems of the world’s languages are relatively well described, and there are competing linguistic theories of how they are represented. This project applies learning methods from computer science to find new evidence to distinguish the competing linguistic theories. It also examines systems of language representation that have been developed in computer science and have received relatively little attention by linguists (neural networks). The research will engage undergraduate and graduate linguistics students at a public university. Linguistics has a much higher proportion of female students than computer science, and this project aims to address gender imbalance in STEM. 

From a linguistic perspective, learning stress involves learning hidden structure, parts of the representation that are not present in the observed data and that must be inferred by the learner. A given pattern of prominence over syllables is often consistent with multiple prosodic representations. The approach to hidden structure learning used in this project applies the general technique of Expectation Maximization, which in pilot work achieved good results on a standard test set. Intriguingly, many of the languages that this learner failed on in the test set are ones that are in fact cross-linguistically unattested. This project expands the set of tested languages to include more of the range of systems found cross-linguistically, and further explores the possibility that typological gaps have learning explanations. It compares hypotheses about the constraints responsible for stress placement by comparing how well they support the learning of attested systems, and whether they can help explain typological gaps. Pilot work also found indications that a neural network could learn generalizable representations of the data; the project is further testing this method. All of the software developed in this project is being made freely available, as is a database of the stress systems of the world’s languages. 

New NSF grant to Dillon, Meltzer-Asscher & Keshev

Brian Dillon (PI), Aya Meltzer-Asscher (co-PI), and Maayan Keshev have been awarded an NSF-BSF research grant entitled “Bridging encoding and retrieval perspectives on sentence processing errors: Comparing Hebrew and English” (NSF total costs $226,954). The public summary is below. Remarkably, this now makes three NSF research grants that Brian holds. The other two are “Disjoint reference in real-time comprehension: Computational and cross-linguistic perspectives” ($428,254) and “Testing quantitative predictions of sentence processing theories with a large-scale eye-tracking database” ($256,864), a collaborative project with Tal Linzen of NYU. Also remarkable is the fact that the sum of the total costs of these three grants is about one million dollars. Congratulations Brian!

To understand language, people need to form links between words that are far apart. For example, if someone says that  “The dog with the very shiny and healthy black fur doesn’t usually bark,” the listener needs to associate the “dog” with “bark,” even though those words are far apart. To do this, language users need to rely on memory to put words and concepts together. However, human memory is famously prone to error: Humans routinely forget, misremember, and conflate aspects of their experience. In the context of language understanding, these memory failures can lead to incorrect interpretations of sentences. This project aims to understand how and why memory can distort language comprehension by looking at how memory errors impact speakers of two very different languages, English and Hebrew. English and Hebrew differ in how they organize the words in sentences. Hebrew also divides all nouns into masculine and feminine genders, similar to languages like Spanish but unlike English. The researchers will study how these linguistic differences between Hebrew and English influence when interpretation errors will arise in speakers of these two languages. In doing so, the researchers will try to uncover characteristics of memory errors that have the same effect on comprehension across languages and those that are language-specific. The results of this project will be used to understand how human memory systems support real-time language comprehension.

Research on this question suggests that two kinds of processes can disrupt language comprehension when a sentence requires the reader to hold multiple words in memory. One process occurs when the features of more recent words accidentally overwrite parts of earlier words. This type of ‘encoding error’ means that the reader erroneously perceives a word that recombines the features of two different words. For example, in a sentence like “The road to the mountains was blocked,” they may misremember road as roads by combining the singular “road” with the plural feature of “mountains.” Another type of error can arise when trying to retrieve a particular word from memory. For example, a reader or listener might pick out the wrong word from memory at the critical moment in understanding a sentence, thinking that the mountains were blocked in the sentence above, rather than the road (a ‘retrieval’ error). Language comprehension can in principle be disrupted by either or both of these processes. The investigators will use eye-tracking-while-reading and speeded acceptability judgments in English and Hebrew to evaluate the relative contribution of encoding and retrieval errors in both languages. The particular pattern of comprehension errors that arises in reading will then be tested against computational models of human working memory in language processing. The combination of these two research methods will help account for how people understand sentences so easily most of the time, and why misinterpretations can and do arise at other times. Understanding how and when interpretation errors arise can also help us better understand various language and reading deficits, such as dyslexia. This project will advance collaboration between American and Israeli language researchers and will involve advanced STEM training for researchers at different career stages, from undergraduates to post-doctoral scholars, located both in the US and in Israel.
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