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Kimmo Koskenniemi

Kimmo Matti Koskenniemi
Born September 7, 1945, Jyväskylä

Master of Science 1967 (mathematics), Licentiate (general linguistics and computer science), PhD 1984 (general linguistics), University of Helsinki

Professor of computational linguistics/ language technology 1991–2012, University of Helsinki
Senior research fellow 1985–90, Academy of Finland, University of Helsinki
Senior programmer 1981–84, Academy of Finland, University of Helsinki
Mathematician, section manager and research associate 1967–80, University of Helsinki Computing Centre.

Research themes:
Automatic morphological analysis, i.e. the recognition of word forms and the application of the methods to historical linguistics as well as to dialects and to language forms which are old or which otherwise display variation.


Written by Kimmo Koskenniemi (Olli Siitonen ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

How did I come to work in the humanities?

At school I liked maths and physics, perhaps thanks to my excellent teacher, Erkki J. Rosenberg. It was a natural choice for me to study mathematics at university, and I graduated in three years. Computing was new, and I went on a programming course, where I wrote my first computer programme. It calculated the frequency of Neo-Assyrian cuneiform symbols. The choice is explained by the fact that my summer neighbours and childhood friends were the Parpola brothers, of whom Asko was an Indologist and Simo an Assyriologist.

Kimmo Koskenniemi as a child, in the background is the Helsinki Olympic Stadium Picture: Koskenniemi’s home archives

During our summer holiday, we had discussed how these new machines could be useful in the study of languages. After graduating, I was hired at the Computing Centre of the University of Helsinki, where I gradually progressed to section manager. I had about 25 subordinates, and in addition to meetings, my days were spent in negotiations. The phone was constantly ringing, and people arrived at my office with all manner of urgent matters. I could do the job well enough, but the work had become routine. I remembered that study had been enjoyable, and so I ended up taking a research associate’s post that had become vacant and thus devoting myself to the study of both computer science, which was now a university subject, and general linguistics. I completed advanced studies in both disciplines in a few years.

Moving from mathematics to the humanities was not to occur without a culture shock, however. One needed to read a veritable stack of books for the final examination in general linguistics, naturally in as many languages as possible. For me, reading wasn’t the problem; it was the presentation style of the books. The first explained how things were, although others also explained things differently. The second book then rejected the claims of the first, attempting to show that a different theory was correct. This just didn’t fit with the mind-set of a mathematician. Had the writers completely lost the plot? I returned to the first book, which hadn’t actually claimed what I had thought; rather, it presented a perspective and discussed its reasonableness. The second book had chosen a different starting point, nor did it claim to offer conclusive proofs either; rather, it discussed the matter from its own perspective. After learning to read the language of the humanities, I discovered a sense of accord between the books and the subject in hand. After this, I have very much enjoyed being in the humanities, but if needs be I am also a mathematician or a computer professional.

The last board meeting of the IT Centre and the Department of Physics IT Office, December 11, 1997. At the head of the table, the chairman, Kimmo Koskenniemi, and from the left, Arla Sipilä (secretary), Juhani Keinonen, Mauri Korkea-aho, Erkki Aalto, Kai Kuvaja, Veijo Notkola, Paula Kouki, Mari Voipio, Ritva Tuomisto, Petri Kutvonen and Lars Backström. Photo: Ari Aalto 1997, University of Helsinki AV Centre, HYTA. From the book Lisää muistia!, Helsingin yliopiston tietotekniikkakeskus, Veijo Åberg (2001)

I sometimes encounter distain for the humanities among engineers and scientists. However, I have learnt that the strength of the humanities is its mastery of extremely broad and only tentatively known totalities. A mathematician despairs after the first incongruity. However, individual anomalies are part and parcel of the humanities. It is often imagined that mathematics and physics are derived from absolute, unconditional truths. The basis of physics is nevertheless comprised, to a large extent, of assumptions that can be replaced by others if warranted by observation. The foundation of mathematics also contains disconcerting paradoxes which have no clear solution. The foundations of mathematically based sciences and the humanities are perhaps not as categorically different as some have wont to claim.

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