Mechanical grammar

Michael Boyland michael.boyland at
Fri Jan 10 18:21:25 UTC 2003

Dear All,
Summer Institute of Linguistics has some pretty good programs for translating
between related languages.
Michael Boyland

"Ricardo J. Salvador" wrote:

> On Monday, January 6, 2003, at 03:39 PM, r. joe campbell wrote:
> >> Are you saying it is impractical - if not impossible - to write a
> >> computer program to translate the spellings from Nahuatl to Nawatl?
> >
> >    There are two problems with this suggestion:
> ...
> >    The answer is to do the conversion with a program that will maximize
> > the correct results -- and then clean up the remainder over a period of
> > years by hand, at times resorting to morphological knowledge to solve
> > stubborn cases.
> This is totally off-topic but this comment reminded me of a recent
> experience that might amuse you. In Summer of 2000 I took sabbatic in
> Oaxaca and decided to pursue a little project I'd thought about for
> some time. I programmed a mechanical conjugator of Yatzachi el Bajo
> zapotec on the basis of Inez Butler's grammar of the language. I
> enlisted a couple of my poor cousins in the project and when we
> finished the little contraption it could handle person, tense and
> number. The regularity of the language, and Butler's thoroughness and
> attention to detail, made most of this work go smoothly, and of course
> I learned more than I could have imagined from the exercise.
> During the development of this little engine we used a limited range of
> roots that we knew well. When we got it functioning satisfactually we
> started to feed it all kinds of roots and we discovered a few
> constructions that were odd, though correctly generated by rule. We
> knew they looked fine, and in principle were understandable, but they
> didn't sound right. So we decided to consult our parents and uncles to
> get their interpretation, and this is what I thought might interest
> you. Though we didn't plan it, we consulted our relatives independently
> and they consistently made comments such as:
> "Oh yeah, that's the proper way of saying it, but we're sloppy about it
> now."
> "Yes, that's the way they say it over in X" (where X is one of the
> neighboring villages over the ridge).
> "That's right when you think about it, but I don't know why we don't
> really use that."
> It made me think that with enough knowledge, a "meta-informational"
> layer might be added to such an engine in order to generate dialectical
> variants. For instance, you might put in a rule to the effect that
> people in X run the conjugational engine but modify it because they
> like to speak quickly and so take predictable shortcuts; people in Y
> modify the engine by abbreviating pluralizing modifiers; and so on,
> with the end effect that ideally you could devise a single engine but
> get it to generate proper conjugations for the dialect of your interest
> :-).
> Ricardo J. Salvador          Voice: 515.294.9595
> 1126 Agronomy Hall         Telefax: 515.294.8146
> Iowa State University        e-mail: salvador at
> Ames, IA 50011-1010       WWW:

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