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Rhea's Slavic Adventures Posts

In Honor of International Women’s Day: Karen Spärck Jones, Information Processing and NLP Pioneer

This past Friday, while reading the New York Times, I stumbled upon the Obituaries section. As I browsed through them, I found a particularly captivating one, published in January, that really struck me. It’s part of the “Overlooked” series, which features obituaries for people who were not honored at the time of their death.

Entitled “Overlooked No More: Karen Sparck Jones, Who Established the Basis for Search Engines,” the obituary describes Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007), a self-taught programmer and an advocate for women in computer science. After meeting the head of the Cambridge Language Research Unit, Margaret Masterman, when studying at Cambridge University, Spärck Jones was inspired to enter natural language processing (NLP), a field in CS dedicated to improving how computers and machines interact with and process human language. Later, Spärck Jones went on to publish “Synonymy and Semantic Classification” in 1964, one of the foundational papers in NLP, and also coauthored a seminal textbook about the field. She was named the president of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) in 1994, which hosts a highly regarded annual conference that, to this day, brings new research in computational linguistics and NLP to light. As a full-time professor at Cambridge, Spärck Jones also mentored many researchers, both male and female, and came up with the slogan “Computing is too important to be left to men” to encourage more women to enter the field.

As a woman, and an avid, self-taught programmer & aspiring linguist myself, I am in awe of Karen Spärck Jones. Even today, she has a huge impact. Her research continues to be cited, and her formulas are only just being implemented today – that goes to show just how ahead of her time she was. Also, 30 years ago, the gender disparity between men & women in CS was even more severe and difficult to deal with than it is today – and she dealt with it and surpassed it. She finally became a female Professor of Computers and Information at Cambridge, even though she notes that it took too long – because of her gender – and that bothered her. And this is all in addition to conducting highly influential research. Pretty inspiring stuff.

The NYT obituary also brings to light her absolutely critical research in information retrieval (applicable to search systems, etc.). Spärck Jones published (another!) seminal paper, this time in the area of information processing, entitled “A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval” in the Journal of Documentation. She used a combined, statistics + linguistics approach and came up with index-term weighting, where certain words in queries are weighted based on the frequency of their appearance in documents (think: all your search results), and based on that, the most efficient and relevant results would be retrieved. This research remains the basis of search engines like Google, even today! Spärck Jones tests her weighting formula on a number of different, well-known collections, and she even notes that pruning queries to reduce words to their stems is important & produces better results. For instancy, keeping “computing” as “comput-” to account for documents that may include “computation,” “computers,” “computed,” and more. I found that especially interesting and relevant – I’ve seen this accounted for countless times when I google things! In the rest of the paper, Spärck Jones devises and presents the results of her own weighting formula. It’s quite interesting stuff – I would recommend taking a look at the paper!

Karen Spärck Jones and her 1972 term weighting formula.

As a closing note, it was only later that day that I realized that it was International Women’s Day (Friday, March 8th, 2019). So I bring you this blog post to just point out this truly amazing, impactful woman – now one of my own inspirations.

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A Piece of Russia in My New York Christmas (Photos!)

Happy New Year! I hope the holidays have been enjoyable and relaxing for you and your family.

This past Christmas time, my family and I took a day trip to New York City. And, as usual, my camera was by my side! I’m a pretty avid photographer, so I absolutely love visiting NYC – the city offers a wide range of unique, fresh photo opportunities.

We had a great time. We stopped by Bryant Park’s Winter Village (dubbed “Manhattan’s winter wonderland!”), which included an eclectic array of charming holiday shops, an ice skating rink, and of course, a fully adorned Christmas tree! I also tried a flavorful avocado sandwich and a very strong ginger smoothie, called the “Energizer,” at Joe & The Juice, a popular place to grab coffee or a bite and relax. Afterwards, my family and I took part in a free walking tour of SOHO, a trendy, historic New York neighborhood. And we closed out the evening with pizza at Lombardi’s – “America’s First Pizzeria” – and walked around Rockefeller Center and watched the holiday light displays.

My favorite part of the evening was definitely exploring Bryant Park’s holiday shops. I visited a “farm-to-fresh” stall that offered eccentric, yet cool hot sauces like as “Ghost Pepper & Blueberry” or “Chocolate Habanero.” At another place, I tried a garlic and parsley pretzel!

My favorite shop, though, offered a look into Russian culture and art. I hadn’t seen anything like it before! Called “St. Petersburg Collections,” the shop featured various beautifully painted, carved wooden sculptures, ornaments, and the traditional Russian dolls, all made by Russian artists from St. Petersburg, the old Russian imperial capital city. Fun fact: St. Petersburg is commonly referred to by native Russians as Питер (Piter) – St. Petersburg is just the English adaptation!

A man gazes into the colorful, brightly lit St. Petersburg Collections holiday shop at the Bryant Park Holiday Village.

The hand-painted sculptures were artfully displayed on shelves or hung up inside the shop. The intricate and elegant designs were simply amazing.

Side view of a shelf featuring stunning wooden sculptures, hand-painted by Russian artists.

Such sculptures are made out of linden wood, “a very soft natural wood that has been used for centuries by the master carvers of Europe,” according to this Etsy item description.

Festive holiday figures made out of linden wood, such as these, are featured throughout the shop.
Colorful ornaments were also hung on the shops walls and were very popular among shoppers. I especially loved this one!

The Russian nesting dolls, however, were my favorite part of the shop. Called матрёшка (matryoshka or matreshka) in the Russian language, they are a timeless centerpiece of Russian art and culture, and often a popular souvenir for tourists to take home from Russia! According to the Firebird Workshop, the first set of Russian nesting dolls was created at the Abramtsevo estate, “an intellectual and artistic center” located north of Moscow. The Firebird posting goes on to describe how, inspired by a set of Japanese nesting dolls, Sergei Malyutin, a resident artist at the estate, planned and sketched the first set of Russian matryoshki. He enlisted Vasily Zvyozdochkin, a fellow resident and woodworker, to carve his design (fun fact – Zvyozdochkin made them from linden wood!), the Firebird posting notes, and then painted the bare dolls himself.

This particular NYC shop featured many colorful, animated matryoshki.

What intricate detail!

I also conversed with the Russian shop owner, who told me more about the creation of the dolls and the other sculptures. He told me that St. Petersburg Collections has been in business for more than 17 years, and artists from both St. Petersburg and New York work together to create the pieces, all of which are quite common in Russia and in Russian art in culture. He seemed especially proud everything in his shop is hand-carved and hand-painted!

The shop owner reassembles a Russian nesting doll.

“For me, it’s art,” he said. “Pure, simple, beautiful, Russian art. And I love it.”

For me, too, I believe that sums up the experience quite nicely.

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Christianity and the Creation of the Russian Alphabet

Recently, I started learning the Russian language! It’s been a lot of work, especially to manage on top of schoolwork and other commitments, but it is very rewarding – I’m really enjoying the journey that comes with learning a new language. I’m currently working through UCLA’s first year Russian textbook, Beginner’s Russian, by Anna Kudyma, Frank Miller, and Olga Kagan, and I’m also using the interactive website that goes along with it. Right now, I’m on the 8th chapter. I try to do a little bit of it each day, which I find works pretty well.

The first few chapters of Beginner’s Russian introduced me to the Russian alphabet, derived from Cyrillic script, and also to some introductory words. In terms of the alphabet, as a native English speaker, something I found pretty confusing was that certain Russian letters are visually quite similar to their English counterparts, which makes them easier for me to remember, but others match with completely different English letters! For instance, ‘k’ in the Russian alphabet is ‘к’, as expected, but ‘n’ is actually ‘н’! I would have expected ‘n’ to be ‘и’ in Russian, but ‘и’ actually matches with ‘ee’. It took me a while to get a hang of such letters! Other than that, I find the process similar to that of learning any other new language.

I’m also continuing to read Phillip Longworth’s Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin, through which I’m learning more about the context surrounding the development of Russian culture. In the book, Longworth mentioned that it was actually Christian missionaries, not the Slavs, who created Cyrillic script. I found that really surprising!

For some context, according to Longworth, Olga, a powerful, vindictive Christian widow, ruled over Kievan Rus (the old Russian state) after her husband Igor died. She went to Constantinople, the “capital of the [Byzantine and] later Roman Empire and the greatest city in the world,” as stated by Longworth. Although her main purpose for the journey was to procure a more favorable trading agreement, Olga was re-baptized there (and that too, with the emperor as her godfather!), which first established a link between the Rus (early Slavic people) and Christianity. However, Longworth is careful to point out that she never forced Christianity upon the Rus due to their strongly conflicting divine beliefs; it was her grandson Vladimir who later baptized the Rus and solidified Russia’s entry into Christendom.

During her trip to Constantinople, Olga was shown the stunning imperial palace where, according to Longworth, there were “clockwork metal songbirds that sang like real birds; a pair of gilded lions which rolled their eyes and roared… [and even a] Church of the Holy Wisdom… with its immense dome.” Entranced, Olga brought word of these marvels back to Russia, eventually leading to increased Byzantine cultural and artistic influences there.

Soon, Byzantine Christian missionaries began to expand their reach to the Rus as well. According to the paper “Short History of the Cyrillic Alphabet” by Ivan G. Iliev (The International Journal of Russian Studies), it is thought to be Saint Constantine-Cyril, a 9th century Byzantine missionary (monk? I wasn’t sure), or his two disciples, Clement of Orchid and Constantine of Preslav, who invented the Cyrillic script. Due to the many conflicting accounts that Iliev highlights from the time, I get the impression that it has proven nearly impossible to narrow down the true creator out of the three! Anyway, according to Life of Cyril (the Saint’s biography, I presume?), Iliev writes, it was done at the request of the Byzantine emperor. Originally created for the Balkan Slavs (Slavonic-speaking people who resided in the Balkan Peninsula, a part of Eastern Europe), the alphabet represented the “sounds that Slavonic-speaking peoples made when they spoke,” Longworth writes in Russia. “It was to serve the Russians equally well,” Longworth continues, because “all Slavs, whether in the east, west, or south, spoke the same language at that time.”

I found this history behind the Russian alphabet really cool – it’s directly relevant to my introductory study of the language itself! I read a bit more about the alphabet in Iliev’s paper. Apparently, the Cyrillic script was not completely original, like the Glagolitic one (another Old Slavic script, also thought to be created by St. Cyril!). Rather, according to Iliev, it was mainly based on the Greek alphabet, with any missing letters borrowed from others. Then, the Cyrillic script travelled through Bulgaria (part of the Balkan Peninsula) to Russia, leading to the first Old Slavic texts (literacy!), the increased missionary action mentioned above, and eventually, diversification into the East-Slavic peoples we know today (Iliev mentions Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians…). Even nearby Uralic peoples adopted the script, Iliev notes. By the way, this separation of peoples happened mainly after Vladimir’s death, according to Iliev; I mention this to make it clear where the events stand in context.

For Russia specifically, the Cyrillic script further evolved and developed new modifications as time progressed. “In 1708, the Russian Tsar Peter I the Great conducted an orthographic reform,” Iliev writes, “introducing a new type of Cyrillic letters, called civil script, modelled in a Dutch workshop…” to take the place of some of the older ones. According to Iliev, civil script comprises the foundation of each and every modern-day Cyrillic alphabet – including Russian!

The first book written in civil script (Iliev 2013).

Finally, a quick observation about the picture above: Iliev notes that the inscription of “ГЕОМЕТРIА” translates to “geometry.” In modern Russian, “geometry” is “геометрия.” The old and the new are almost exactly the same, save for the last two letters: ‘I’ becomes ‘И’ and ‘A’ becomes ‘Я’ (for ‘y’). Cool, right? And the reappearance of ‘и’ brings us full circle with where my musings started.

I hope this was interesting! If you’d like, take a look at the Iliev paper (linked above) to get an even more in-depth look at specific events in the history of the Cyrillic script and its dissemination in other countries as well – I just focused on Russia here. Feel free to leave questions or comments down below, and stay tuned for a photo essay (!!!) next!

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Linguistics and Genetics in Russian History: What’s the Connection?

For my first foray into Russian history, I’m reading Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin by Philip Longworth.

I have to say – I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The first chapter alone touches upon different environmental, linguistic, technological, and cultural aspects of Russian history that have shaped who the Russian people are today. For example, at least in early Russian civilization, women were actually thought to be more valued than men, but they were still subject to common stereotypes (present only to bear children, or solely responsible for providing, as Longworth puts it, “care and comfort”). Interestingly enough, Longworth mentions that the development of metal technology, which was essential for Russia’s technological revolution, may have played a role in turning that breakthrough around and re-establishing men as the center of society – talk about pros and cons!

There was, however, this one quote that really piqued my interest and got me thinking:

“Interestingly, geneticists suggest that linguistic variations are roughly in line with genetic variations. The Russian language and the genes that make Russians what they are physically are evidently inseparable.”

As a definite linguistics nerd and someone who’s always found “what makes you, you” (a.k.a, genes!) super cool, I was truly struck by that line.

Some background: according to Longworth, the geographical environment and climate primarily shaped the genetic structure of Russians, although there was some slight differentiation from mating with other ethnic groups. For instance, Longworth writes: “in more northerly areas, where [Russians] had less exposure to sunlight, their hair grew fairer and their skin lighter.” As the Russians migrated northward, they also faced geographical barriers such as dense forests, marshland, and a mountainous landscape which further diversified them genetically.

Interestingly, as the physical traits of the Russians transformed under geographical/climatic pressure, Old Slavonic (the first Slavic language) diversified at the same time, for some of the same reasons. Geographical barriers were not only responsible for genetic variations, but also for separating societies and promoting linguistic differentiations.

I thought this was pretty amazing – I didn’t even know there was a connection between the two! But I had so many questions. Geography played a huge role in the diversification – why? And was this all some isolated pattern, or a mere instance or first indication of a serious, all-encompassing trend in human evolution?

I did some further research on the topic; turns out, the answer leans toward the latter. Longworth describes a generally well-known phenomena in linguistics and biology; however, it’s only been observed in certain regions. I came across a 2011 paper called Parallel Evolution of Languages and Genes in the Caucasus Region, where the authors analyzed languages and DNA of indigenous peoples from different populations in the Caucasus region (includes Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia). They concluded that there was a strong correlation between genetic, geographical, and linguistic variation and that there was strong support for parallel evolution between language families and people’s physical traits. Another paper, published in the journal Current Biology, confirmed the existence of such a relationship in Cape Verde with the Creole population and their languages (Parallel Trajectories of Genetic and Linguistic Admixture in a Genetically Admixed Creole Population).

So, I hope you found this pretty interesting too. Let me know what you think in the comments, and stay tuned for more as I make my way through the book!

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