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SBU News > Awards and Honors > Linguist Thomas Graf Receives 2019 NSF CAREER Award

Linguist Thomas Graf Receives 2019 NSF CAREER Award

Thomas Graf

Assistant Professor Thomas Graf, Department of Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his project, “Abstract Universals in (Morpho)Syntax: Computational Characterizations and Empirical Implications.” 

Thomas Graf
Thomas Graf

Graf’s research operates at the intersection of linguistics and computer science. His main interest is in the structural complexity of sentence structure (syntax). Even though sentences may seem to just be linear sequences of words, like beads on a string, linguists have known for a long time that they involve a lot of hidden structure. Sentences are to words as molecules are to atoms. Inferring these hidden structures is an essential part of language understanding, both for humans and computers. However, no current computer algorithm has both the speed and accuracy of human understanding. One reason is that current solutions allow for very complex structures that never occur in human language.

Dr. Graf’s NSF project will address this issue by identifying universal properties of sentence structure and formalizing them in a mathematical format that is suitable for computers.

“Language is inherently a computational problem,” Graf said.  “You hear some words, and your brain computes what they mean. Linguists have discovered an amazing amount of things about language, but many aren’t part of our computational models of language. That’s a real stumbling block for long-term progress. You can’t build a space shuttle if your model doesn’t account for gravity. Or, at least, you really shouldn’t.”

In his research Dr. Graf has drawn on data from a wide range of languages including English, German, Russian, Icelandic, Cairene Arabic, Ilocano, and American Sign Language. He received his M.A. from the University of Vienna and his Ph.D. from UCLA.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The intent of the CAREER program is to provide stable support at a sufficient level and duration to enable awardees to develop careers not only as outstanding researchers but also as educators demonstrating commitment to teaching, learning, and dissemination of knowledge.

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