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At the International Linguistics Olympiad Training Camp

I am back on Brilliant after a long time, and I have had an experience at the International Linguistics Olympiad Training Camp this year at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad (IIIT-H) and it was a wholly new experience on a totally different scale. For one thing, I had no idea what to expect when I sat for the national round, the Panini Linguistics Olympiad (PLO), because even though I had seen a few papers from previous years, I had not solved them at all, and was totally unprepared.

However, luckily enough, I was the only one from the senior section of Kolkata to get into the IOLTC. Whoever heard of this Olympiad from me, actually asked me, what I was doing with languages, and I explained each time, starting with the introductory line they have for the Olympiad,

You do not need any prior knowledge for this Olympiad.

This was the thing about the Olympiad that caught my fascination. After I got through the National level, I actually looked at the stuff pretty seriously, and along with common sense and logic, they have some pretty math going on there. So linguistics is very much about deducing everything through math and logical reasoning than about learning the grammar, syntax, semantics of the language.

The real fun lies in deciphering all of these for a given language from a limited data set, using only common sense and no presumptions on the problem-solver’s part.

In the following stanzas, I am going to share some of the things I learnt at the camp.


  • We all know what antonyms are, and what synonyms are. And what do they mean? Antonyms are pairs of words that are opposite in meaning, and synonyms are groups of words having the same meaning, but if we spare a thought to it, there are nothing called absolute antonyms (synonyms).

What I mean by that is that you cannot always use ‘go’ in a sentence, and replace it with ‘come’ to have just the opposite meaning. Though we know that they are actually opposite in meaning to each other, that is a situation, in general, but not always. For example, ‘Have a go at bowling’ makes perfect sense, but ‘Have a come at bowling’ does not make sense, and one cannot construct a sentence with ‘come’ having the opposite meaning of the sentence above.

Similarly ‘long’ and ‘tall’ are synonyms, but you cannot always use ‘tall’ where you can use ‘long’ to make perfect sense. For example, ‘My house is a long way from his’ is a perfectly formed sentence, but one does not say, ‘My house is a tall way from his’.

  • We interpret different sounds in different ways in different languages. For example, if you are reading this, and you are speak any Indian language, you probably know Hindi, and I would ask you to pronounce, ‘\(k\)al’ (meaning ‘tomorrow’) and ‘\(k^h\)al’(meaning ‘evil’) where the difference is that you aspirate (blow out a little air) after ‘k’ in the latter, and it changes the whole meaning. But surprisingly, in English, this does not make a difference, so that, if you listen to an American, he will pronounce ‘Canada’ as ‘\(k^h\)anada’ but ‘Canadian’ as ‘\(k\)aneidian’, where you note that the words from the same root are pronounced once with an aspiration, and once without.

I don’t usually emphasize much on pronunciation so long as people understand what I am trying to say, but when I say ‘content’ with a long ‘o’ people understand that I am referring to the ingredients, and when the ‘o’ is short, I am referring to satisfaction. You can actually feel the difference when you pronounce the same word, likewise.

  • A problem in the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) concerning ‘garden path sentences’ really caught my fascination, simply because it occurs so many times in daily life. Garden-path sentences are sentences like ‘Fat people eat | gets stored in the body’, which when you are being told by someone, you can make two meanings out of it. One, if you hear till ‘eat’, you will assume some other meaning than what the sentence wants to say. So, there could be sentences like ‘I could do her | a favor’ and ‘You are pretty | fat’.

  • Probably the best part about the problems were the number base problems, where we are given a few numbers in decimal system like {7,19,48,88,17,3,24,16,22,5,34,41} and their translation to some language {faheh, dholhas dhihaeh, fassihi dhihaeh, fanas, dholhas faheh, hatheh, thin dholhas faheh, thineh, dholhas hatheh, fassihi, dholhas hatareh, hatheh dholhas hathareh} in no particular order and we have to match the numbers with their correct translations, and we actually have to write down the explicit rule which translates the numbers from their translations and back. It would be quite routine if the problem was not twisted by the actual use of different number bases in different languages. (The data given above is authentic, and actually came in PLO-2016, so you could give it a try) Here is a hint that one has to figure out by himself, by some critical thinking, the luxury of which I am leaving to the readers, that the number base used in the particular language (a Maldivian language called Divehi) is base 12. There are languages which actually use bases like 3,5,6,7,12,15,18,27,60 and some languages even have sub-bases like the Karbi language from Assam which has base 10, sub-base 5 so that numbers go like \(1,2,3,4,5,5+1,5+2,5+3,5+4,10,10+1,10+2,10+3,10+4,10+5,10+5+1,10+5+2,10+5+3,10+5+4,20…\).


And all of these have to be figured out only from the kind of data given above, and while the method of solving can be completely original to you, I can tell you one thing, it is entirely logical and has no ad-hoc assumptions, and you are probably given more information than what is necessary.

The Linguistics Olympiad is a comparatively young Olympiad compared to Math, Physics, Astronomy, Informatics and Chemistry but it is fast gaining a commendable repertoire. And for anyone looking for some entertaining problems with logic to solve it and nothing else, this is the thing for you.

Those who are interested can look up the problems at www.uklo.org , www.naclo.cs.cmu.edu , www.ioling.org , www.plo-in.org .

I end with the hope to see more people getting into this Olympiad, as is the craze with other Olympiads as well.

Note by Soumava Pal
5 months, 1 week ago

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Firstly, congratulations on getting selected into the Training camp!

And, thank you for sharing this note with us. The majority of the Brilliant community (including myself) had only very little idea about Linguistics. This note should be a source of motivation for us.

You sure sited some interesting examples. When I can may be I will post some #Logic problems on Brilliant inspired by these resources. Agnishom Chattopadhyay · 5 months, 1 week ago

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@Agnishom Chattopadhyay thank you @Agnishom Chattopadhyay

you are welcome, :D and I too wish I had known about it earlier.

yeah, it is interesting. Soumava Pal · 4 months, 3 weeks ago

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Ahhh, I'm getting that familiar feeling when someone whose third or fourth language is infinitely better than my first language. Trevor Arashiro · 5 months ago

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@Trevor Arashiro ah, that feeling is almost the only feeling people get at this camp, only that there are people who have something like seventh and eighth languages. :P Soumava Pal · 4 months, 3 weeks ago

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