Speaking of puzzles, try linguistics.
Linguistics, Thomas Payne says, is a foreign word to many Americans.
"They think a linguist is someone who speaks a lot of languages, but that's not really true," says Payne, a linguist who works as a research associate at the University of Oregon department of linguistics.
"Linguistics is the science of language and, basically, the central questions are how languages are alike and how are they different. Answering those questions gives you insight into how the mind works."
Given the fact that many of the world's languages are disappearing - during the past 200 years, the number of languages spoken on Earth has shrunk from 15,000 to 6,000 - Payne believes that linguistics deserves to have a higher profile.
As part of an effort to help expose more people to the science of language, he is helping to organize the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. The inaugural event, which happens Thursday at several Eastern U.S. locations and on the Internet, brings high school students together to solve puzzles that test analytic skills and demonstrate the diversity of languages.
"You can learn some pretty sophisticated stuff about language," Payne says, pointing out that Hawaiians use separate words for younger sibling (kaikaina) and older sibling (kaikuaana). "It's not like this is going to help you learn Spanish, but it helps you understand the beauty and incredible variety of the world's languages."
What's remarkable about the linguistic puzzles (some of which Payne created) is that you don't need to speak another language to solve the problem. In a typical puzzle, a student might be asked to decipher a cuneiform writing system or to use logic to translate English words into the Central Cagayan Agta language of the Philippines. Generally, students are offered a partial key or a partial list of definitions by way of demonstrating how a particular language works.
"It gives students the idea that they can understand (other languages)," Payne says. "It's not just incomprehensible stuff. It's something that makes sense."
There is no local site for this week's competition, but Payne is hoping to bring the event to the UO next year. Four cities are hosting the event this year - Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Ithaca, N.Y. - and students in other parts of the country who can find a teacher to serve as a proctor can compete on the Internet. Prizes will be handed out to the top finishers, including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. The event, Payne says, is expected to draw several hundred students.
Such linguistics events are not new - Russia has been hosting similar competitions since the 1950s, and the UO even served as the site of several gatherings in the late 1990s - but this year's event promises to be more widespread than ever.
That's because the National Science Foundation has provided funding, Payne says, and with the current popularity of crossword puzzles and brain teasers such as Sudoku, the time is right for a competition in linguistics.
"I don't like to mention Sudoku because this is really more sophisticated than that, but (people find) if they try some of these, they get hooked," Payne says. "People are just excited about doing stuff that makes their mind stretch a little bit."
SAMPLE PUZZLE: SWAHILI OF EASTERN CONGO
Swahili belongs to a large language family, called Bantu. Bantu languages are spoken by more than 100 million people in Southern and Eastern Africa. Swahili is the mother tongue of about 5 million people, and is the common language of trade along much of the east coast of Africa. However, the variety of Swahili represented in this problem is spoken hundreds of miles inland, and is quite different from that which is spoken near the coast.
Your task is simple. Read the first 10 Swahili words and their English translations. Then give the Swahili words that correspond to the last three English translations:
Niger-Congo, Central Bantu.
1. ninasema 'I speak'
2. wunasema 'you speak'
3. anasema 'he speaks'
4. wanasema 'they speak'
5. ninaona 'I see'
6. niliona 'I saw'
7. ninawaona 'I see them'
8. niliwuona 'I saw you'
9. ananiona 'he sees me'
10. wutakaniona 'you will see me'
11. 'he saw them'
12. 'I will see you'
13. 'he saw me'
- Ronnie Sim and Tom Payne, University of Oregon, Department of Linguistics.
Copyright 2007. Used by permission.
Answers: 11) aliwaona, 12) nitakawuona, 13) aliniona
NORTH AMERICAN COMPUTATIONAL LINGUISTICS OLYMPIAD
A national competition that challenges high school students to solve linguistics puzzles for prizes
Where: Event is happening at four different locations on the East Coast. Students in other parts of the country can participate on the Internet. Contact Dragomir Radev (firstname.lastname@example.org) for information.
More: For more information, go to www.namclo.linguistlist.org