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Daniel Thomas, MA in Linguistics 2013-14

What are your research interests / what are you working on?

I am interested in the semantics of language, or the study of how meaning is produced and processed in everyday conversation. My research at the moment is on a class of sentences called counterfactual conditionals, which involve reasoning about causal and probabilistic relationships between propositions. The topic is fascinating to because it combines insights from formal semantics, computer science, philosophy, and logic. That interdisciplinary aspect, the ability to examine a problem in language from many different angle, is very attractive to me.   

What is your favourite module and why?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the modules on semantics and phonetics. I love semantics because it addresses deep questions about language. For example, to what extent does language function logically? How can a sentence have multiple interpretations, and what effects do vagueness and ambiguity have on the interpretative process? These are just some of the many questions the semantics module seeks to answer. Phonetics is another favorite because it allows me to appreciate the fine details of real human speech: the rhythms, the intonations, the sudden stops and breathy starts. It trains your ear to identify sounds you’ve always heard, and yet never really heard before. On top of that, it also equips you with the skills to transcribe these sounds and share them with others. Believe me: after taking phonetics, you'll never view conversation in the same way again.

Why York rather than somewhere else?

York was my top choice because of its world-renowned linguistics program and their reputation for excellent research. But let's be clear: the city itself is an incredible reason to live here. I can walk two minutes down the street and have a coffee in a building that pre-dates Columbus's discovery of America: wow. The city is not only rich with history; it's also beautiful and very pleasant to bike around. Another huge benefit is that the master's program can be completed in a year, whereas it takes two years to complete the same degree in the U.S., my native country. York already feels like a second home to me; I'm going to miss it a lot.

How has your experience at York broadened your horizons as a linguist?

Breadth and depth sum it up, I think. The whole experience has greatly increased my appreciation for language. There’s not one path but a multitude of paths to choose from in studying linguistics, and frankly, that’s freeing for someone like me who was unsure in the beginning. One specific example is that my enjoyment of semantics and phonetics has made me want to pursue a career in natural language processing and computer voice recognition. That has been a pretty cool revelation.

What’s the level of support like from staff and the department as a whole, are they receptive to feedback?

The lecturers and staff are very receptive to feedback. More importantly, they have also given me great feedback. The master's program is definitely challenging but fair in my opinion, and the lecturers always provide helpful feedback or suggestions for improvement. However, I would encourage prospective students to have initiative to make those connections early on with their lecturers. I know that the connections I've made have been extremely valuable to me.

What has been your favourite aspect of living and studying at York so far?

My favorite aspect is probably the variety of my experience. For example, I can do independent research on semantics for hours at the library, but if that's too stressful I can go play squash with my friends or meet them for a pint at my favorite pub down the street. I can run through the city and pass the medieval shops, or I can bike to the Millenium Bridge and have a barbecue with friends, or see a service at the York Minster, or have coffee in a former Viking settlement, or just get lost and enjoy finding something new. There's always something to explore, and I love that.

What do you feel is the most important thing you will take away from your experience at York?

I think the most important thing is respect and appreciation. I say respect because this programme is challenging, intense, and demands serious concentration. I respect my classmates and myself a lot because our hard work is now showing in the research we are producing. But also, linguistics has made me appreciate how rich and nuanced language really is, how rewarding it is to take a closer look at what we actually say and what we mean when we say it. Whether I'm listening to a thick Yorkshire accent or a deep-fried Southern accent from my home state of Alabama, no conversation I hear will ever be the same for me again.