Get to Know Your Instructors: Stefan Th. Gries

Stefan Th. Gries of UC Santa Barbara will teach a course on Corpus Linguistics at the 2019 LSA Summer Linguistic Institute at UC Davis. Here is a fun interview with Professor Gries, in which he informs us about his Corpus Linguistics course, his current research, and salted caramel ice cream. More importantly, we discover Stefan’s profession in a parallel universe. (Hint: it may or may not involve fitness training and cab driving).

Can you please tell us about your linguistic background?

I first encountered linguistics in my first semester of studying English & Russian at the University of Hamburg. While that overview course was extremely biased towards a certain theoretical framework, it got me interested in the regularities underlying language and its structures and I began to take more courses in it in both the English and the Slavic department. I then did my M.A. and Ph.D. in English
linguistics in Hamburg as well and started teaching as a part-time lecturer there. I then accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Southern Denmark, which, while it involved less teaching of linguistics than I would have liked, did offer me a great working environment to learn new things (esp. statistical and computational skills) and study as well as publish on more different topics. This led to me going to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Mike Tomasello’s psychology department), from which I then moved to UCSB where I have been since 2005. By now I have taught at a variety of LSA Linguistics Institutes – all but one since the 2007 one in Stanford – and I have just accepted a part-time position at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen.

Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the Institute?

I will be teaching a course on corpus linguistics, i.e. how to study linguistic acquisition, processing, structure, and use using corpora, which are (often large) data bases of naturally occurring language. The course will introduce participants to the programming language R and we will work on how to use it to replicate and maybe extend a few existing studies. The course is therefore going to be a bit technical – nothing insurmountable, but still, a certain degree of general computer literacy is required to learn about a method whose data extraction and analysis is so heavily reliant on possibly massive amounts of data and statistical analysis; there is a certain data science component to corpus linguistics that makes it interesting both on its own but also for careers in industry.

What research are you currently working on?

Apart from developing some methodological ideas, I am currently working on two larger projects. One is concerned with how non-native speakers of English use morphosyntactic alternations (the genitive alternation, the dative alternation, particle placement, that complementation, and others), how and why their constructional choices differ from those of native speakers, and what the best ways are to study this corpus-linguistically and statistically. The other is concerned with morphological blends (such as breakfast x lunch -> brunch, motel, chunnel, etc.) and how speakers create those, i.e. how they decide where to cut source words up to form blends, how they play with similarity effects, how they maintain recognizability of the source words, etc.; we ran a few blend production experiments whose results were now analyzing.

What is your favorite hobby or pastime?

Different kinds of sports and hard science fiction

In a parallel universe in which you are not an academic/linguist, what would you be?

Hard to say, I might be a data scientist or a physiotherapist working as a fitness trainer, or a cab driver (which I did as a student).

What are you most looking forward to about Davis?

I always liked the LSA Linguistics Institute for how they offer the opportunity to talk shop with, and learn from, so many super smart and productive colleagues. It really is a unique chance to connect and catch up on developments in fields that one might not usually come across that much, but that is genuinely relevant to one’s own work. Plus, the focus of the Davis Institute – linguistics in the digital area – is of course really close to my own interests so I am hoping to get a lot of input and new ideas from seeing what other instructors will offer and are currently up to.

Ice cream or Cake? Cats or Dogs? Quarter system or Semester system?

Depends on the ice cream and the cake: ice cream if it’s salted caramel or coconut ice cream; cake if it’s strawberry tart.
Both cats and dogs are fine: cats are more independent and dogs are less independent – depending on one’s mood either can be great.
Quarter or semester is harder: Let’s say I like that quarters are shorter because that gives students the opportunity to sample more widely (gaining some breadth); I hate that quarters are shorter because that doesn’t give students enough depth.

What advice would you give to graduate students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Don’t bank on getting an academic career because it’s getting harder and harder even for the best of us – branch out during your graduate studies to acquire skills that are relevant to academia, sure, but also to other areas. Quantitative and computational skills are vital and attractive to many employers (and I’m not just saying that because I am interested in those – check the LinguistList job ads and you will see that those are areas/skills that are more and more sought after).

Learn more about Professor Gries on his website here: and CV here.