Course Description

Computational modeling can usefully inform many aspects of phonological theory. Implementing a theory provides a more rigorous test of its applicability to different data sets, and requires a greater degree of formal precision than is found in purely expository presentations. By training models on realistic training samples, we can test whether the posited generalizations can actually be discovered from representative data, and we can observe what proportion of the data is accounted for by the analysis. Modeling also provides a direct means of testing whether a proposed formal device facilitates the discovery of generalizations, or whether it hampers it by greatly increasing the size of the search space.

The goal of this course is to introduce students to the theory and practice of modeling phonology. Empirically, we focus on modeling:

  • Discovery of Static Phonotactics (Inventories, Possible Sound Sequences)
  • Discovery of Alternations
  • Learning in the Midst of Variation and Exceptions, and Discovery of Gradient Patterns

We read papers couched in a variety of frameworks, including rule-based grammars, OT, and others.

The course is also intended to provide hands-on experience with various aspects of using and developing models, including preparing training data, running simulations, and interpreting their results. No background in programming or machine learning is assumed, but you should not be intimidated by the idea of learning some basic programming skills.

Course Requirements

  • Written Assignments (around 8 modest problem sets)
  • Presentations on Readings (about twice), and Contribution of Discussion Questions (weekly - see more below)
  • Final Modeling Project

Working in groups is encouraged for all aspects of this course!

Written Assignments

Implementing programs should be challenging, instructive, and rewarding, and even fun. At the same time, it also has the potential to be time-consuming, baffling, and frustrating. I endeavor to make the assignments for this course ambitious and challenging while minimizing late-night frustration. Your feedback is crucial; I rely on you to let me know if a particular assignment is taking unreasonably long, and also to ask for technical assistance if you are stuck on how to program something. Working in teams is also a great strategy for overcoming frustration.

Not all assignments involve programming. Some involve using models written by other people, and some not involve modeling at all.

REMEMBER: Our goal here is to learn something about phonology. I don't expect you to become expert programmers. (I'm certainly not!) I hope you enjoy the challenge of getting things to run, but you should be judicious in saving some time for linguistically interesting problems. Don't be shy to ask for programming help!

Presentations on Readings and Discussion Questions

In addition to learning some technical skills, a major goal of this course is to get experience reading papers that discuss models or modeling efforts, decipher what they have done, and interpret their results. We read a variety of papers throughout the quarter. (I have left the exact list somewhat flexible, to accommodate the interests of class members.)

A demanding, but valuable way to make sure that you understand a model is to explain it to others. Class participants are expected to make short presentations about readings, summarizing the major ideas of the approach, answering questions about it, and critiquing it. You can select readings from among my suggestions, or propose different readings that you would like to present. (It would not be a bad idea to come meet with me briefly sometime in the week before you make a presentation. We can work out issues that confuse us, along with possible discussion items.)

In order to encourage participation, I would also like class members to post discussion questions. These may be clarificational (e.g., "I don't understand how to read the figure on p.4"), ranging all the way to deep, unanswerable questions. Posting these questions ahead of time is to every-one's benefit (you get a chance to have a more customized presentation that addresses your interests, and presenters get some ideas of what to present). I know it's a bit of a hassle, but it can really improve the usefulness of class discussions.

Final (Mini-) Project

A small final project, roughly the size of a weekly assignment, but on a topic of your choosing, due five days after week 12.