CLOVIS -- Linguistics experts help e-businesses improve customer
service by building so-called natural-language processing systems
that can respond meaningfully to requests for help or information.
With linguists developing the database or "lexicon," a system
can distinguish between multiple meanings of words, relate groups
of words by concept, and narrow the scope of a search by asking
questions of the site visitor.
For instance, an online customer asking
about shaving products might be asked whether he needs razors,
blades or shaving cream before being directed to the appropriate
web site. As the Internet grows, such systems offer an alternative
to the keyword searches done by conventional search engines, which
can turn up hundreds of irrelevant responses.
To gain a recruiting edge, some employers
are resorting to underwriting academic conferences, adding linguistics
professors to their advisory boards, and holding pizza parties
in university lounges. Or they make financial contributions to
the Linguist List, the premier job-referral web site in the field,
where postings are running nearly double over last year. "Is there
a demand? You bet there is," says Stanley Peters, chairman of
linguistics at Stanford University.
"Is there a supply? Heck no. The supply
is extremely limited." Linguists aren't accustomed to being wooed.
A 1997 survey by the Modern Languages Association showed that
only 28.4% of new Ph.D.s in linguistics found tenure-track positions,
and only 52.5% received full-time teaching appointments -- worse
than in such fields as English, classics and foreign languages.
Nearly a fourth of the linguistics Ph.D.s were either unemployed
or looking for a job. And
Until recently, only a handful of companies
hired any linguists at all, Microsoft Corp. the most prominent.
Its linguists helped develop the grammar-checking function for
Windows software. As the Internet becomes
increasingly global and multilingual, they are now trying to improve
the quality of automated foreign language translation. For decades,
linguistics researchers in academia and government labs labored
to create a computer with a human level of understanding of language.
With that goal so elusive, linguists
are finding high paid jobs in e-commerce firms where they are
making systems that understand and converse within digital domains.
An Emeryville, Calif., firm is trying to hire linguists. The Ask
Jeeves nternet web site disclosed this week that it has 10 linguists
among its 600 employees. Jeeves is trying to hire more. Smaller
natural-language processing firms lean more heavily on linguists.
Thirteen of 18 technical employees at Quizit Technologies Inc.
in Santa Monica, Calif., hold linguistics doctorates or master's
Ten of the 30 employees at closely held
Cymfony Inc. in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., have linguistics doctorates.he
price is right, for both sides. What may seem a pittance in the
New Economy amounts to a fortune for the long-suffering scholar.
"We can go out and get linguists, sometimes with a master's education,
for $40,000 to $45,000," says Michael Murphy, chief operating
officer of Answerfriend.com in Los Angeles, where half of the
24-member technical staff have advanced degrees in linguistics.
"They think they've died and gone to
heaven. They're underpriced. Don't tell anybody." Steven Chang,
a graduate student in phonetics at the UC Berkeley, recently took
a job at a Santa Clara Interenet firm that provides automated
traffic and weather reports, news and stock quotes when subscribers
dial its toll-free number. Traditionally, a linguistics degree
has been among the least marketable of academic credentials. Jobs,
when they were available, paid around $35,000 a year on the high
end, usually in the university. That was
then. Today, Technology startups are competing to hire the relatively
small pool of specialists in this exotic field of study. Suddenly,
linguists have their pick of jobs as lexicographers, "knowledge
engineers" and "vocabulary resource managers."
For those with doctorates, the typical
starting salary is around $60,000, plus some stock. And if you
have knowledge of the Internet's New Media key-word science you
can draw a starting salary of more than $100,000.
to the Editor