What is computational sociolinguistics? (And who’s doing it?)

If you follow me on Twitter (@rctatman) you probably already know that I defended my dissertation last week. That’s right: I’m now officially Dr. Tatman! [party horn emoji]

I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on all the minutia of writing a dissertation lately, from formatting references to correcting a lot of typos (my committee members are all heroes). As a result, I’m more than ready to zoom out and think about big-picture stuff for a little while. And, in academia at least, pictures don’t get much bigger than whole disciplines. Which brings me to the title of this blog post: computational sociolinguistics. I’ve talked about my different research projects quite a bit on this blog (and I’ve got a couple more projects coming up that I’m excited to share with y’all!) but they can seem a little bit scattered. What do patterns of emoji use have to do with how well speech recognition systems deal with different dialects with how people’s political affiliation is reflected in their punctuation use? The answer is that they all fall within the same discipline: computational sociolingustics.

Computational sociolinguistics is a fairly new field that lies at the intersection of two other, more established fields: computational linguistics and sociolinguistics. You’re actually probably already familiar with at least some of the work being done in computational linguistics and its sister field of Natural Language Processing (commonly called NLP). The technologies that allow us to interact with computers or phones using human language, rather than binary 1’s and 0’s, are the result of decades of research in these fields. Everything from spell check, to search engines that know that “puppy” and “dog” are related topics, to automatic translation are the result of researchers working in computational linguistics and NLP.

Sociolinguistics is another well-established field, which focuses on the effects of social context on language how we use language and understand. “Social context”, in this case, can be everything from someone’s identity–like their gender or where they’re from–to the specific linguistic situation they’re in, like how much they like the person they’re talking to or whether or not they think they can be overheard. While a lot of work in sociolinguistics is more qualitative, describing observations without a lot of exact measures, of it is also quantitative.

So what happens when you squish these to fields together? For me, the result is work that focuses on research questions that would be more likely to be asked by sociolinguistics, but using methods from computational linguistics and NLP. It also means asking sociolinguistic questions about how we use language in computational context, drawing on the established research fields of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), Computational Social Science (CSS) and corpus linguistics, but with a stronger focus on sociolingusitics.

One difficult thing about working in a very new field, however, is that it doesn’t have the established social infrastructure that older fields do. If you do variationist sociolinguistics, for example, there’s an established conference (New Ways of Analyzing Variation, or NWAV) and journals (Language Variation and Change, American Speech, the Journal of Sociolinguistics). Older fields also have an established set of social norms. For instance, conferences are considered more prestigious research venues in computational linguistics, while for sociolinguistics journal publications are usually preferred. But computational sociolinguistics doesn’t really have any of that yet. There also isn’t an established research canon, or any textbooks, or a set of studies that you can assume most people in the field have had exposure to (with the possible exception of Dong et al.’s really fabulous survey article). This is exciting, but also a little bit scary, and really frustrating if you want to learn more about it. Science is about the communities that do it as much as it is about the thing that you’re investigating, and as it stands there’s not really an established formal computational sociolinguistics community that you can join.

Fortunately, I’ve got your back. Below, I’ve collected a list of a few of the scholars whose work I’d consider to be computational sociolinguistics along with small snippets of how they describe their work on their personal websites. This isn’t a complete list, by any means, but it’s a good start and should help you begin to learn a little bit more about this young discipline.

  • Jacob Eisenstein at Georgia Tech
    • “My research combines machine learning and linguistics to build natural language processing systems that are robust to contextual variation and offer new insights about social phenomena.”
  • Jack Grieve at the University of Birmingham
    • “My research focuses on the quantitative analysis of language variation and change. I am especially interested in grammatical and lexical variation in the English language across time and space and the development of new methods for collecting and analysing large corpora of natural language.”
  • Dirk Hovy at the University of Copenhagen
  • Michelle A. McSweeney at Columbia
    • “My research can be summed up by the question: How do we convey tone in text messaging? In face-to-face conversations, we rely on vocal cues, facial expressions, and other non-linguistic features to convey meaning. These features are absent in text messaging, yet digital communication technologies (text messaging, email, etc.) have entered nearly every domain of modern life. I identify the features that facilitate successful communication on these platforms and understand how the availability of digital technologies (i.e., mobile phones) has helped to shape urban spaces.”
  • Dong Nguyen at the University of Edinburgh & Alan Turing Institute
    • “I’m interested in Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval, and in particular computational text analysis for research questions from the social sciences and humanities. I especially enjoy working with social media data.”
  • Sravana Reddy at Wellesley
    • “My recent interests center around computational sociolinguistics and the intersection between natural language processing and privacy. In the past, I have worked on unsupervised learning, pronunciation modeling, and applications of NLP to creative language.”
  • Tyler Schnoebelen at Decoded AI Consulting
    • “I’m interested in how people make meaning with language. My PhD is from Stanford’s Department of Linguistics (my dissertation was on language and emotion). I’ve also founded a natural language processing start-up (four years), did UX research at Microsoft (ten years) and ran the features desk of a national newspaper in Pakistan (one year).”
  • (Ph.D. Candidate) Philippa Shoemark at the University of Edinburgh
    • “My research interests span computational linguistics, natural language processing, cognitive modelling, and complex networks. I am currently using computational methods to identify social and individual factors that condition linguistic variation and change on social media, under the supervision of Sharon Goldwater and James Kirby.”
  • (Ph.D. Candidate) Sean Simpson at Georgetown University
    • “My interests include computa­tional socio­linguistics, socio­phonetics, language variation, and conservation & revitalization of endangered languages. My dissertation focuses on the incorporation of sociophonetic detail into automated speaker profiling systems.”

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