Try your hand at Linguistics Olympiad problems

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Ben Piché writes:

We here at the at 2011 IOL have uploaded the problems that our participants are currently working on. I have to say, they are rather challenging! Anybody who is interested can download these problems from our website and compete with our linguists in real time. We'll upload the solutions on Friday.

Give it a shot! This is the World Cup of linguistics!


  1. Jason said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

    Aha! Most excellent. This will provide hours of entertainment.

  2. un malpaso said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    I am already burning gray matter over this Nahuatl quiz.

  3. adam mcconnaughey said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    pretty sure they're missing a macron over the o in soba on their taikyoku shogi practice problem. it's pretty relevant.

  4. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 2:37 am

    I love the wugs on the podium

  5. phspaelti said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 4:34 am

    pretty sure they're missing a macron over the o in soba on their taikyoku shogi practice problem. it's pretty relevant.

    That seems to be only in the preview. If you download the sample booklet, you'll see that it's there. Another macron is missing on the kisho "Wood General", but it's less crucial (just potentially confusing). That was is missing even in the booklet.

  6. Philip said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    I never got to the questions themselves because, when reading the instructions, I came across the following: "Your answers must be well-argumented."


  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    @Philip: That gave me pause too. Is argumented a specialized term in linguistics, like the much-discussed implicature, or is there some other reason for using this word that the OED doesn't give the relevant sense for and calls "obs."?

    [(myl) I don't know of any specialized use in linguistics that would cover this case. "Argumented" should be changed to "argued" in the standard problem template, whose English version seems to have been written early in the IOL process by a native speakers of a Slavic language… ]

    Something that surprised me, though I've never taken a linguistics course, is that the problems don't seem to require specialized training in linguistics, except maybe for stating the rules you used for Faeroese orthoepy. I could do them—I could have done them before I had any idea of what linguistics is—if only I had the time… Seriously, I was expecting things like "Match the recording to the spectrogram" and "come up with syntactic rules for this small subset of some language" and "point out the dubious assertion in this passage, and design an experiment to test it" and "based on the following word lists, determine which of these languages are most likely to be related and make a table of sound correspondences". Are those impractical, or not really what linguists do, or just not fun for a contest?

    [(myl) As I understand the goals of this enterprise, the problems pretty much need to be language-related puzzles that you can solve without having learned much linguistics, because the participants are high-school students who haven't in general had the opportunity to take a linguistics course. That doesn't make the problems easy ones!]

  8. John said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    High school student here; participated in the NACLO, but didn't make it to the top. Lots of fun indeed. These are no "quizzes"! Interesting to see that they're using TeX for the international olympiad, whereas the NACLO is the paragon of typographical inconsistency. (See

    Would someone tell me how related these puzzles are to linguistics? I've always wondered. I imagine linguists would never have to be good at this sort of stuff; just throw a computer at it! Thanks.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    @MYL: Thanks. Guess I should have read "About the IOL". Possibly Ben Piché's phrase "the World Cup of linguistic" was a tiny bit exaggerated.

    @John: I'm not in a position to say a word about how much these problems resemble linguistics, but if someone says you can solve them by throwing a computer at them, I'm going to be very, very impressed.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 1:19 am

    Talking about being impressed, if anyone manages to figure out the EAN13 checksum without any prior knowledge, under time pressure, and in exam conditions, then I take my hat off to them.

  11. Russell said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 2:35 am

    @John: Problems 1 and 3 would be familiar to any linguistics undergraduate, from homework assignments or (possibly) exams. The formats of 2 and 4 would be unfamiliar, but the basic concepts are clearly recognizable. Whether things like this arise in the daily life of a professional academic linguist is something else. Morphological parsing is certainly a necessity for anyone studying a language with little or no prior analysis (say, an endangered or dead language, or a database of texts but only a minimal lexicon). For linguists who are confronted with a language unknown to them with little documentation and a bunch of text that needs to be analyzed ASAP, maybe puzzles like this more clearly replicate a typical workday task. Though, unless the primary goal is to get a gloss of the text (which it might well be), these sorts of "problems" would form the foundation for even deeper analysis.

  12. Sravana said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    @John: I think throwing a computer at these problems would be a nice olympiad by itself.

  13. Ray Girvan said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    @myl: language-related puzzles that you can solve without having learned much linguistics

    Yes. I had a go at some yesterday – starting with the simplest, the Ancient Greek sample puzzle – and they're basically logic puzzles with a linguistic theme. Unless maybe the more advanced ones break out of the format, the difference from real linguistics seems to be that they present self-consistent subsets of languages (no irregular forms to confuse things). But for solvers with no knowledge of linguistics, the language aspect would require considerable "breaking out of the box" in realising that grammatical structures are not the same as in English (for instance, realising that in Ancient Greek "the A of the B" is ordered as "the of-the-B A"). They would have totally baffled me at school age.

  14. Pete said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 5:24 am

    When are they gonna upload the solutions? I thought they'd be up there by now!

  15. un malpaso said,

    August 1, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    Re: solutions: me too… I am going crazy waiting to see how much I screwed up! lol

  16. Brett R said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    If you're waiting for the solutions, apparently the volunteer who is supposed to do it is currently on vacation and will do so when he gets back. Patience!

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