Speaking of Puzzles, Try Linguistics

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Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

Linguistics, Thomas Payne says, is a foreign word to many Americans.

"They think a linguist is someone who speaks a lot of languages, but that's not really true," says Payne, a linguist who works as a research associate at the University of Oregon department of linguistics.

"Linguistics is the science of language and, basically, the central questions are how languages are alike and how are they different. Answering those questions gives you insight into how the mind works."

Given the fact that many of the world's languages are disappearing - during the past 200 years, the number of languages spoken on Earth has shrunk from 15,000 to 6,000 - Payne believes that linguistics deserves to have a higher profile.

As part of an effort to help expose more people to the science of language, he is helping to organize the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. The inaugural event, which happens Thursday at several Eastern U.S. locations and on the Internet, brings high school students together to solve puzzles that test analytic skills and demonstrate the diversity of languages.

"You can learn some pretty sophisticated stuff about language," Payne says, pointing out that Hawaiians use separate words for younger sibling (kaikaina) and older sibling (kaikuaana). "It's not like this is going to help you learn Spanish, but it helps you understand the beauty and incredible variety of the world's languages."

What's remarkable about the linguistic puzzles (some of which Payne created) is that you don't need to speak another language to solve the problem. In a typical puzzle, a student might be asked to decipher a cuneiform writing system or to use logic to translate English words into the Central Cagayan Agta language of the Philippines. Generally, students are offered a partial key or a partial list of definitions by way of demonstrating how a particular language works.

"It gives students the idea that they can understand (other languages)," Payne says. "It's not just incomprehensible stuff. It's something that makes sense."

There is no local site for this week's competition, but Payne is hoping to bring the event to the UO next year. Four cities are hosting the event this year - Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Ithaca, N.Y. - and students in other parts of the country who can find a teacher to serve as a proctor can compete on the Internet. Prizes will be handed out to the top finishers, including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. The event, Payne says, is expected to draw several hundred students. …