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Thesis in the Spotlight: Jonathan Gutmann

Publication date

October 09, 2019 5:00 PM


Madeline Ninno



Jonathan Gutmann is the kind of student who travels in many ways. From his abroad experiences, both short and long term, and his language immersion programs in the US to his Admission tours on foot and his distance unicycling in the city, Jonathan’s passions range with the theme of travel. His Honors Thesis is the culminating experience of his travels, at least so far, and it is here where he uses four different languages and thousands of books to try to answer one question: why do we choose to use certain words when we are speaking? Jonathan, a senior majoring in Linguistics and Spanish and Portuguese, is investigating how the amount of information we try to convey may relate to the specific words we choose. He is focusing on the information density hypothesis, which argues that when we speak, we try to have a relatively steady stream of information. Jonathan specifically wants to examine long and short word pairs, “like fridge and refrigerate, and in what context we would use each word.”

To do this, Jonathan is guided by his committee members Harry Howard, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and Amy George, Professor of Practice in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He uses two different approaches. First, he will do a computational analysis of the words used in books on Google books, studying samples in Spanish, Portuguese, German and Hebrew. He will also survey native speakers to collect experimental data. He says that using two different approaches is his “biggest challenge” in writing his thesis, but that it is also “exciting to do something new.”

Jonathan was inspired to pursue this topic of research when he attended the Linguistic Society of America’s Summer Institute at the University of California Davis this past summer, where he took a class on information theoretic approaches to linguistics. He says this experience motivated him to “look for applications [he] could do in [his] own life,” and he saw his Honors Thesis as an opportunity to incorporate what he had learned.

Jonathan is further motivated by the opportunity to present his research at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference, which is coming to New Orleans this January, as well as participating in the Five-Minute Linguistics Competition. He says that these events are “exciting but are also a drive to really get it done and do it well.”

Although he is not sure if he will pursue further studies in the fields of linguistics, Jonathan is glad that he can explore that option through his Honors Thesis. He says, “this is a really good chance to get a feeling for if this is really something [he] wants to do for the rest of [his] life. It's sort of like a trial run in a way.” He hopes that completing his thesis will not only clarify his own future, but also shed light on an issue that is still contested in the field of linguistics. We look forward to seeing how this Honors Thesis supports Jonathan in his journey.