Piecing Together a Jigsaw Puzzle of Language

A Profile of Dr. Natasha Warner of the Department of Linguistics by Cecelia Marshall, Student Science Journalist

Imagine a puzzle with all the pieces spread out. You begin to put together the edges. As you move inward, you can see how your puzzle will look when it’s complete. For Dr. Natasha Warner, linguistics is a giant puzzle. It's fun and can be easily manipulated to produce the answer to a question you pose.

Warner, an associate professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Linguistics, uses curiosity and her knowledge of phonetics, historical linguistics, and love of language in her research. “It’s really puzzle solving, logic and manipulating symbols,” she said. “A small percentage of people can look at linguistics and say, ‘Wow!’ ‘Look!’ ‘Neat!’ I never knew I could do this with language. Those are the ones that become linguists.” For her, doing linguistic research is like using the same puzzle pieces to solve a puzzle in different ways.

Some of Warner's historical research focuses on revitalizing the language of the Mutsun, a Native American tribe in California who have had no living speaker of their native language since the 1930s. Warner has worked with archival documents, database software, and community members to produce various editions of a Mutsun dictionary. The terms and usage improve each time. “Mutsun is another part of puzzle solving,” Warner said. “Nobody speaks this language, so it’s fun trying to figure out words.” She notes the tension in revitalizing an endangered language, which can create a split between what the community wants and what will further the research, but adds that in these cases she puts the community and its goals first.

Warner is also conducting an investigation of how humans communicate with each other through reduced or “sloppy” speech. Many sounds are deleted in casual conversation. “The way people pronounce things isn’t the way you’d think,” she said. In context, you can understand the meaning of what people say, but when you pull individual words out, it’s hard to discern their meaning. “He was” becomes “he’s.” “Do you have time?” can sound like “Dyutem?” Despite these and other changes, listeners understand reduced speech. Warner plans to extend this research to dialects, regions, children’s speech, and speech produced by older people with hearing loss.

Warner involves both undergraduates and graduate students in research. “I try to send the students out into the world to collect real-world language data ranging in topics, but mostly language and society,” Warner said. “We want to prepare them to be scholars in the field.” Her favorite part of research is the moment when all the puzzle pieces come together. “It never comes out the way you predicted,” she said, “but usually something interpretable happens.”

Here is a recording from Warner's research on Reduced Speech, using the sentence, "We were supposed to see it yesterday, but I felt really bad....". For the spectrogram of this recording and more of Warner's work, visit u.arizona.edu/~nwarner.


Published Date: 

11/07/2012 - 19:54

Photo Credits: 

Photo by Cecelia Marshall MAY NOT BE USED; SEE NOTE ABOVE
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