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Tour de CLARIN: interview with Dr Stephan Procházka from Austria

In the Tour de CLARIN interview series with prominent CLARIN researchers we talked to Dr Stephan Procházka, a linguist working at the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Vienna. He has collaborated with the Austrian CLARIN consortium in the interdisciplinary TuniCo project, which focused both on researching the linguistic dynamics of the greater Tunis area as well as producing a dictionary of Tunis Arabic and a corpus of transcribed texts. Jakob Lenardič conducted the interview by e-mail correspondence.


1. Your main research interests lie in Arabic studies. What initially attracted you to the field and what excites you most today?

Initially I was mainly attracted by the fascinating Arab history and the rich material culture such as arts and architecture. For many years now, spoken Arabic varieties have become my main field of interest and research. The so-called dialects are not only interesting for linguists but also vehicles of a multifarious oral culture ranging from traditional Bedouin poetry to hip-hop songs in the suburbs of Arab megacities.

2. How did your collaboration with the Austrian CLARIN begin and how has it influenced your own work and the way you perceive contemporary Arabic studies?

My collaboration with CLARIN began in 2011 when I was looking for a competent partner to build a kind of platform for Arabic dialectology. I found that in the then ICLTT, which was the fore-runner of the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ACDH-OeAW). From this cooperation many projects such as VICAV emerged.

3. Your most recent project was the interdisciplinary TuniCo project in which you and your team investigated the linguistic dynamics in the greater Tunis area. Could you briefly describe the methodological framework of the project and highlight its impact for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences?

The project was based on the analysis of data gathered during two longer fieldwork campaigns in Tunis. Texts that had been transcribed from the recordings of conversations among young people were the core of our analysis. These texts formed the basis of both lexical and grammatical research, the latter mainly in the field of syntax.

4. Has your analysis of contemporary Arabic spoken by young speakers from different backgrounds revealed any interesting societal trends or culturally specific characteristics?

Yes, we found out that remarkable changes have happened during the last decades. Particularly young men increasingly show features in their speech which are stigmatized and mostly connected with low-class people from the countryside. They deliberately choose these features to set themselves apart from the mainstream culture. Young educated women, on the other hand, have a preference for using many French words and phrases to show that they are modern and open-minded.

5. Can you describe the two main resources that were developed in this project? What kind of advantages do they bring to your fellow researchers in the field?

We produced a dictionary of Tunis Arabic that comes in a digitally reusable form and lives up to modern IT standards. It contains a very wide range of lexical data, from “historical” vocabulary taken from previous studies to up-to-date youth language taken from our interviews and rap songs, ca. 8,500 entries. It is currently the largest and technically most advanced on-line dictionary of a spoken Arabic variety worldwide. Together with the other VICAV dictionaries, it is the only such product that is freely available for future research and at the disposition of all researchers. The second resource is a corpus that consists of 24 transcribed texts with ca. 100,000 words. This corpus is linked to the dictionary and thus gives users direct access to the relevant dictionary articles and allows them to understand the Tunisian original. The inclusion of a large number of conversations is one of the innovative traits of our corpus approach as there are extremely few corpora of spoken varieties of Arabic which include dialogues.

6. How does Arabic, or rather its varieties, fare in the digital context? Are language resources and tools for Arabic readily and widely available? Are there any difficulties specific to automatic processing of Arabic and its varieties? Is there any essential tool or resource that is still missing for Arabic?

Digital language resources for Arabic in general and its spoken varieties in particular, both data as well as tools, are, for several reasons, still under-represented in comparison to many other languages. A major problem is that automatic processing of Arabic, for instance part-of-speech tagging, is more complex because of the characteristic Arabic script that does not indicate short vowels. Arabic varieties are only written in informal settings and lack any standard orthography which further complicates automatic processing.

7. Have your fellow researchers in the field embraced language technologies in their research frameworks? What is the potential of using language technologies for Arabic studies?

Many scholars in the field are still sceptical about language technologies. However, I see a very high potential for my field of research, particularly in the fields of lexicography and syntax. While several treebanks have become available for Modern Standard Arabic, there remains much to be done for the spoken varieties of Arabic.

8. How is the available infrastructure provided by the Austrian consortium or CLARIN ERIC beneficial for your research? Could you highlight a CLARIN tool or resource that has especially been helpful for your research? Would you like to point out anything that could be improved in the future?

The cooperation has been excellent and the available infrastructure very satisfying. The main CLARIN tool for me is the Viennese Lexicographic Editor which from the very beginning facilitated the work in the project. The Vienna CLARIN Centre takes care of the entire resource publication side of our projects, provides both for hosting and preservation of research data, and has always been very helpful in setting up web-interfaces. Especially in our work on the corpus-dictionary interface, the infrastructure of CCV and ACDH-OeAW proved to be very useful.

9. What do you see as the biggest strength of Austrian CLARIN?

They are really interested in the cooperation with the humanities and very user orientated. Their interest in further development of their infrastructures in concrete research projects opens up unprecedented synergies and allows us to move in our research in entirely new directions.

10. Where would you like to see CLARIN ERIC 10 years from now?

I think we all would like to have more freely available resources, data and tools that can be used by all researchers, can easily be adapted to the needs of a wide range of fields and projects. While many tools have become available, we still have a far way to go in terms of usability. Finally I would like to say that I regard CLARIN’s user involvement activities as a very important part of our activities. While much has already been achieved, there are still many in various fields of the humanities who are not aware of recent developments. My vision of CLARIN in 10 years from now is that all young researchers are sufficiently aware of the possibilities the pan-European infrastructure consortia provide and that the new digital methods are taught in introductory seminar courses on a regular basis, which will eventually lead to wholly new research questions and results.


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