Linguist's goldmine

Fellbaum will use $1.6 million award to delve into rich database in Germany

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Christiane Fellbaum, a staff scientist in the Department of Psychology, has received a $1.6 million award to study linguistics in Germany.



She is one of 14 winners of the Wolfgang Paul Award, a one-time honor given by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to foster collaborations between German researchers and leading scientists around the world. The foundation chose the recipients from among 70 researchers nominated by German institutions. It is the largest amount of money attached to a scientific award in German history.

Fellbaum will collaborate with linguists at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science where she will study the history and role of idioms -- phrases, such as "kick the bucket," whose meaning cannot be taken from the individual words. Such phrases pose a rich array of questions whose answers could reveal fundamental principles about how we use language, Fellbaum said. "Why do we go through the rather complicated path of making idioms? Why aren't simple words enough?"

Fellbaum will be among the first linguists to make detailed use of a database of text that researchers at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy have compiled from 100 years worth of literature, newspapers, speeches and other sources. With 500 million German words, the database allows for a detailed study of words, phrases and their contexts.

"It's a goldmine for linguists," said Fellbaum.

Over the course of the three-year project, Fellbaum plans to use the database to investigate how much of the language consists of idioms, when different idioms entered the language and how they formed. She also will try to understand why some idioms fall under different sets of grammatical rules. "For example, we might say 'Let's bury this hatchet,' but we would never say 'He kicked that bucket,'" she said.

Fellbaum said her background fits well with the research being done at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy because she is a native German speaker and has experience with text databases. At Princeton, she is one of the creators of WordNet, a database of English words that are linked to each other according to their meanings (see related story on this page).

The use of databases in linguistics, Fellbaum said, has greatly improved the objectivity and rigorousness of the field, which had traditionally relied on subjective appraisals of how language develops and functions. "The results that come from introspection are very unreliable," she said. "You have to look at real data, and that's a real paradigm shift in linguistics."

Fellbaum, a native of Brunswick, Germany, received her Ph.D. in linguistics from Princeton in 1980 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Paris. After several teaching and research positions, she returned to Princeton to work as a research scientist in 1987.


December 3, 2001
Vol. 91, No. 11
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