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Fred Karlsson

Fred Göran Karlsson
Born February 17, 1946, Turku

Master of Arts 1969, Åbo Akademi University (Finnish language) and University of Turku (phonetics)
Master of Arts 1972 (linguistics), University of Chicago
PhD 1974 (phonetics), University of Turku
Docent in Finnish language 2012–, University of Helsinki

Emeritus professor of general linguistics 2012–, University of Helsinki
Professor of general linguistics 1980–2012, University of Helsinki
Research fellow 1976–78, Academy of Finland
Acting associate professor of Finnish language 1975, Åbo Akademi University
Lecturer in phonetics 1973–74, University of Gothenburg
Acting professor of phonetics 1973, University of Turku
Research associate 1969, University of Jyväskylä

Research areas: phonetics, morphology, syntax, automatic syntactical analysis, linguistic complexity, corpus linguistics, the history of linguistics, Finnish grammar

Membership of scholarly societies
The Finnish Society of Science and Letters 1984
Academia Europaea 1988
The Royal Society of Sciences at Uppsala 2005
The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities 2008

The Finnish Information Processing Association prize for best computing product of 1988 (together with Kimmo Koskenniemi)
Oskar Öflund Foundation prize 1988
Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters’ E. J. Nyström prize 1996
‘Professor of the year’ 1998, Finnish Union of University Professors
Commander of the Order of the lion of Finland 2003
Finnish Cultural Foundation award of merit 2013
A Man of Measure. Festschrift in Honour of Fred Karlsson on his 60th Birthday. Special Supplement to SKY Journal of Linguistics, Volume 19, 2006. Urho Määttä and Jussi Niemi (eds.) Turku: The Linguistic Association of Finland

Photo: Sylvi Soramäki-Karlsson
Written by Fred Karlsson (Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington


It is unlikely that an assiduous researcher has many moments in his career when a problem he has long been wrestling with is suddenly resolved. I had one such moment on March 6, 1989. But first some background.

In the Finnish sentence “Kaksi alusta upposi,” the word “alusta” can be interpreted in several ways. It can be one of several forms of the verb “alustaa - format,” the elative case of the noun “alku - beginning,” or the partitive of the nouns “alunen - coaster” and “alus - craft.” How should one reach the correct inference? Another issue is that every word form has some syntactic function; depending on the word and its form there can be over ten of them. A noun can be, to name a few possibilities, a subject (Leena tuli - Leena came), object (Tapasin Leenan - I met Leena), a premodifier (Leenan kirja - Leena’s book) and a complement to a postposition in Finnish (Leenan kanssa) or preposition in English (with Leena). How should one decide which is the correct function in each instance?

For years I applied various solutions to these two problems by combining my knowledge of the theory of syntax with my steadily growing programming skills. I attempted to draw up rules that would immediately deduce the correct morphological interpretation and grammatical function in each case. I did not make the kind of progress I had hoped for.

March 6, 1989 at 9.30 AM: EUREKA! I was on my way to a meeting in Dublin, where the SIMPR-project (Structured Information Management, Processing, and Retrieval) was about to start as part of the European Union’s ESPRIT II. About fifteen parties were involved in the project, two of them from Finland: the Nokia Corporation and the Department of General Linguistics at the University of Helsinki, particularly the Centre of Excellence on computational linguistics. It was the Finnish version of David and Goliath!

On that day in March, I first flew to Amsterdam and then took another flight to Dublin. When the plane to Dublin was over the North Sea, I suddenly came up with a single general solution to my two morphosyntactic problems. You had to do exactly the opposite of what I (along with everyone else) had been trying to do. You had to remove the wrong options instead of looking for the correct one right away.

In half an hour I wrote down the basic principles of Constraint Grammar on a piece of cross-ruled paper. When I arrived back home, I started febrile programming, and a long series of tests began. Vital assistance and additional ideas were provided by Arto Anttila (who is currently professor of linguistics at Stanford University), Juha Heikkilä and Atro Voutilainen. I published the results at the International Conference on Computational Linguistics in 1990. This six-page publication is the most cited scientific article I have produced: “Constraint Grammar as a framework for parsing running text.”

Later on, Constraint Grammar has been implemented several times, and it has been applied to over ten languages. The model is also used in several commercial applications.

My other eureka moment is also related to syntax. In 2007, after working for nearly ten years, I managed to empirically prove that the syntax of natural languages does not recognise the construct of the “unbounded centre-embedding of clauses.” That is why the formal language type of syntax is finite state: “Constraints on multiple centre-embedding of clauses.”

Fred Karlsson, 1982. Photo: Sylvi Soramäki-Karlsson.


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