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Jack Duff '18

A double major in Linguistics and Classics, Jack Duff '18 is a recent recipient of the UMass Amherst Rising Researcher Award. He combines his two majors in his research, most recently conducting linguistic analysis of Horace's poetry to find out how ancient Romans attributed text to different speakers without modern punctuation. He discovered that, "language always finds a way..."


Can you paint a picture of your academic path since arriving at UMass Amherst?

"One thing that’s great about linguistics departments in this country is that they often have a page that says ‘Welcome! Are you an interested undergraduate who wants to know what linguistics is? Here’s some resources!’ So I followed these resources and was going around to a bunch of schools and talking to professors to try and figure out what I wanted to go to school for, and I came here and sat down with a professor in our [Linguistics] department—Kyle Johnson—who basically laid out all the possibilities for undergraduate institutions that I should go to in the United States and told me that I should come here. Then I went to other schools—and sat down with other [linguistics] professors—and they also told me that I should come [to UMass Amherst]. It was a pretty easy decision to make in the end."

How did you make the connection between Classics and Linguistics?

"I got here interested in doing linguistics and started doing some classics stuff on the side because I wanted to continue studying Latin like I had in high school, and also pick up ancient Greek because I knew that it was taught here and that it was a good class to take. And then I realized that I really wanted to keep doing classics as much as I wanted to do linguistics, and so I found myself kind of putting a lot of energy into both majors and trying to find how they overlap."

It seems like you did! Talk about the research you’ve been working on.

"Yeah, I think I have! This past summer, I got the chance to work at the Center for Hellenic Studies—it’s a Harvard University-operated research library in Washington, D.C.—doing something that mixed programming, linguistics, and classics, which is kind of a rare opportunity but something that’s happening more and more."

And what about your research here at UMass Amherst?

"We were reading this text in class by Horace—called Satires. It’s a book of poetry he wrote during the beginnings of imperial Rome. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s made out to be quotations from different people, but the actual, physical manuscripts that we have from that time—we knew that this was a written book that you could buy in stores in Rome—didn’t have quotation marks printed around these separate items of other people speaking.

The way that classicists tend to approach it is, “because it just makes sense,” there has to be quotations around that…other editors have printed quotation marks there…and they just move on from it. But from a linguist’s point of view, going back to the actual Romans who were reading this, there has to be some way that they can understand that those parts—that in English we would put quotations around—are different people speaking than the narrator. If there’s no punctuation to do this, then the language has to be doing it in some systematic way.

Those two points of view were kind of at odds with each other, but this research was one of the ways I was hoping to use the techniques I’ve learned in linguistics to see if i could isolate any part of the language that was doing this quotation mark function.

What I did find is that, by a certain percentage, these quotations tended to look more like short and simple conversational speaking than the stuff that was in the rest of the poem. It looked more like informal Latin than the narrator was writing in. They were shorter words—more common words…as opposed to more poetic vocabulary. The aspects of the language were characterizing the people who were supposed to be speaking them, and in a way that you could tell it was spoken by a different person.

Language can serve the function even without punctuation. Language always finds a way to communicate."

You were recently named a UMass Amherst Rising Researcher. What does that mean to you?

"I’m particularly glad that I’ve won it as a student from the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. Though there’s often not as much visible research that comes out of the humanities, people do do it here, and a lot of energy goes into it. What comes out, even if it might not be as impactful on daily lives as polymer science, can be fascinating and change the ways that disciplines work. Particularly, our linguistics program is nationally recognized for their graduate school, but we also have a ton of amazing undergraduates who do research, like me, and it’s nice for that to be getting some recognition."

What does your free time look like?

"Within language, I like taking a really quantitative, science-based, evidence-based, empirical approach to solving problems and looking at even these beautiful works of literature—I like breaking them down to the numbers and science-y bits. But in my spare time…I spend a lot of time with art as art.

In the past I’ve been involved with WMUA, where I’ve enjoyed working on the intersections of storytelling and music. And I’ve also, since my freshman year, been heavily involved in the Theatre Guild.

Both of those organizations are excellent because they’re near-entirely run by the students, so it again offers a different portion of my life, where instead of academic research, where you can often be working alone or at the very least working with a supervisor of some sort, you have the other groups on campus that can be spaced to work with a whole group of people and have a community—and specifically a student-run community, where students are taking responsibility and learn how to see a project through from beginning to end."

Who or what at UMass Amherst has been helpful in your academic and professional career?

"As far as this research project that the award is for, I worked with Brian Breed, who’s the one who actually nominated me for it, from the Classics department—and Rajesh Bhatt. It was a term paper for both of their classes: Computational Linguistics and Roman Satire. Both of them were instrumental in how that project ended up shaping out.

I’ve been working a lot in the experimental linguistics labs in my department, and there are three or four people that are definitely advising me on my future path: John Kingston (linguistics professor), Lyn Frazer (linguistics professor), Chuck Clifton (psychology professor), and Amanda Rysling (graduate student in linguistics).

And if there’s room for one more research project and one more person to thank, I’m also working on a project with Professor Alice Harris."

Looking forward, what do you see?

"From the guidance I’ve gotten from all of these different little subfields, I’m hoping to go forward and forge a path between the quantitative, psychology-based aspects of language processing and the unsolved questions in Latin and Greek literature, and to a wider extent, the ancient languages as a whole. There are all of these texts that we’ve preserved and translated and we sort of understand—and there are things that we haven’t translated and don’t understand. But even among the ones that we’ve been studying for multiple centuries, there are open questions in the languages—how they work. We can’t get at those with experiments on speakers of these languages, because these languages are dead, but experimental work in modern languages can help us uncover questions in those old texts."