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SCOPIC hits its stride

Evolution, Nicholas Evans, SCOPIC, Shape

Date: 1 July 2021

The SCOPIC project is hitting its stride in 2021 as years of data gathering and analysis have resulted in a flurry of recent and upcoming publications. Following productive meetings in March and June, project co-leader Danielle Barth reflected that SCOPIC is in a strong position as it looks to the final years of CoEDL and beyond.

The project seeks to identify patterns in linguistic expressions of social cognition across languages. For example, how do language users express their thoughts (their inner-worlds) and the unknowable inner-worlds of others? By tracing similarities and divergences between the ways speakers of different languages express — and therefore think about — these social relationships and structures, the SCOPIC team hopes to provide insights into the scope and evolution of linguistic and cultural diversity.

Danielle first joined SCOPIC as a postdoc in 2015. Her task was to develop a framework to standardise the coding of linguistic data in the SCOPIC corpus. Many of the intervening years involved workshops with colleagues from across the world, including Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, and Sweden, drilling down on this framework and the best way to organise vast amounts of data across diverse languages into comparable domains.

The task of establishing a framework for coding and synthesising the data in the SCOPIC corpus grew more complex as new collaborators with new linguistic data joined the project over the years. The result is an impressive collection spanning more than 30 languages across six continents.

With the framework now in place and the corpus ready for analysis, activity is accelerating. Several partner organisations have secured funding to support meetings and extend their involvement. In March 2021, Australian members of the SCOPIC team gathered in Canberra and video-conferenced with collaborators in Japan. It was the first ‘face-to-face’ meeting in months and the first time some of the researchers had met each other. 

“Although it hasn’t actually been that long since we were having regular in-person meetings, it felt nostalgic to gather in the Engma room and talk about typological categories,” Danielle reflected. “So much more gets done in an in-person gathering, but it was great to have a hybrid portion for some project members to get to know each other.” 

Since the March meeting, several publications have been released, including a special edition of Language Documentation & Conservation on phonetic fieldwork in southern New Guinea featuring several CoEDL researchers and the article “Social Cognition in Dalabon” by CoEDL Director Nick Evans. Danielle’s textbook — Understanding Corpus Linguistics, with CoEDL alumnus and SCOPIC project member Stefan Schnell — will be released later this year and is now available for pre-order.

Another paper recently accepted to a special edition of Language Documentation & Conservation on corpus typology uses SCOPIC as a test case to understand the interaction between individual and cross-linguistic differences in how people express themselves. Danielle, Nick and their colleagues argue that typology focusing on cross-linguistic differences can miss the vast differences in meaning-making achieved by individual language users within a given language. This paper seeks to discover to what extent statistical modelling techniques can help to illustrate this inter/intra-language diversity. 

Further papers in the pipeline include international collaborations on reported utterances — looking at a signed and spoken language together through a modality-agnostic lens — and on cross-linguistic propositional framing (how layers of meaning are added in language).

The paper on propositional framing grew out of discussion in March and prompted a second meeting earlier in June 2021. Collaborators from Australia, Japan and Sweden reconvened over Zoom to discuss individual language strategies and how to tweak and finalise annotation conventions for labelling instances of propositional framing. 

“What was striking about discussions of propositional framing, was that a language that should have been very simple to describe as a language that does complementation, German, had considerable variability. Corpus studies allow us to see that how people use language is complicated,” explained Danielle. “And corpus typology shows us that some of those complications happen in many more languages than we might expect.” 

These papers indicate the beginning of SCOPIC’s legacy beyond CoEDL. The team intends to publish the corpus publicly in the coming years, allowing both SCOPIC data and the publications now flooding out from the team to serve as a springboard for future research and external projects.



Header image: Australian members of the SCOPIC team gathered in March. Pictured (L-R) are Alan Rumsey, Nick Evans, Mengistu Amberber (from behind), Danielle Barth, John Mansfield and Lila San Roque.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University