Barbara McGillivray

As a computational linguist, Turing Research Fellow Barbara McGillivray is passionate about how the sciences and humanities can meet

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Describe your work at the Turing?

I aim to better understand and track how words change meaning over time. This can be over long time periods – centuries for languages like Ancient Greek or Latin – right down to just a few years in the case of Twitter data, for example.

What are the challenges of your research?

Language changes constantly, and words can have different meanings at different points in time. It also depends on our context, who we speak to, and where we come from. Getting an algorithm to understand all these complexities is hard!

What aspect of your work is most exciting you right now?

Language change not only interests computational linguists and data scientists, but also digital humanists, historians, classicists and social scientists, so I often find myself in projects with people from different disciplinary backgrounds. It’s really challenging and rewarding to engage with questions that these different communities are passionate about.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Becoming Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Open Humanities Data. Having previously worked in academic publishing, and now working full-time in research, it’s great to be in the position to help make a difference towards an open-data culture in the humanities.

Your work in three words…

Interdisciplinary. Computational. Humanistic.

When not working what can you be found doing?

I enjoy dancing Argentine tango - which I’ve been doing for fifteen years.

What blog, podcast or book does everyone need to be aware of?

The Language Log is a language blog maintained by Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a great way into linguistics matters for non-specialists.

Do you have a fun fact you can share with us?

One I like is the evolution of the meaning of the words silly and nice, which originally had opposite meanings to what they have today. Silly originally meant ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ coming from an old Germanic root meaning ‘luck, happiness’, but over time it went through a series of changes from ‘blessed’ to ‘pious’, to ‘helpless’, ‘innocent’ to ‘pitiable’ to ‘feeble’ to today’s meaning of ’foolish’. Nice, on the other hand, coming ultimately from Latin nescire ‘to be ignorant’ went from meaning ‘ignorant’ through ‘foolish’, ‘shy’, ‘lascivious, ‘extravagant’, ‘elegant’, and finally ‘pleasant, agreeable’, thus. So be careful who you call nice or silly!