Remembering Adam Kilgarriff
Michael Rundell, UK
Michael Rundell is Editor-in-Chief of Macmillan Dictionary. www.macmillandictionary.com
My friend and colleague Adam Kilgarriff - who died of cancer earlier this year, aged just 55 - was not a well-known figure in the ELT community. But his impact on the field was enormous. Adam was a computational linguist and data scientist who created the Sketch Engine - a package of large corpora (for English and dozens of other languages) bundled with a set of sophisticated software tools for analysing them.
HLT readers will know about the way corpora have revolutionised language teaching - not so much in terms of what happens in the classroom but by providing the raw materials for a much better description of languages (in dictionaries and grammars) and a much clearer understanding of how language works as a system. Michael Lewis’s lexical approach and Michael Hoey’s notion of lexical priming - to name just two influential ideas - reflect (and build upon) the key discoveries of corpus linguistics: that recurrent patterns and multiword “chunks” are a basic design feature of language. As a consequence, the traditional division between grammar (an organising system) and vocabulary (the individual words that fit into slots created by the grammar) has given way to a more subtle understanding of the role of “lexis”, where grammar and vocabulary are intertwined.
None of this would have been possible without language corpora and the software tools we use to make sense of the vital information which corpora contain. And this is where Adam Kilgarriff’s contribution has been so important. Though Adam was a prolific writer on various aspects of linguistics, his enduring legacy is the Sketch Engine.
The Sketch Engine began life at the end of the 1990s when a concordancer (then the basic tool for corpus exploration) was combined with a brilliant new feature called the Word Sketch. A Word Sketch provides a one-page summary of a word’s collocational and syntactic behaviour, showing which combinations are most frequent (and therefore most typical). A primitive version of Word Sketches was used in the development of the first Macmillan Dictionary, and the experiment was so successful that the Word Sketch soon became a standard tool for corpus analysis.
The Sketch Engine gradually acquired more functions, and it is now used by all the main UK dictionary publishers (as well as by dictionary departments in many other countries). This has led to enormous improvements in the quality of learner’s dictionaries. The information about words which these dictionaries provide is not only better (in the sense that it corresponds more closely to the way people use words when they communicate with one another) but also more complete - dictionaries now say much more about collocation, co-text, and phraseology than was ever possible in the pre-corpus era. As well as underpinning dictionaries, the Sketch Engine is increasingly used by people writing pedagogical grammars and by materials writers more generally. One of the most recent developments is a version of the software called SKELL (Sketch Engine for language learning: http://corpora.fi.muni.cz/xbaisa/skell.cgi/skell), which provides many of the functions of the Sketch Engine but with a less techie, more user-friendly design and interface - warmly recommended for any language teacher who is curious about corpora but perhaps intimidated by most of the software for exploring them.
Adam was diagnosed with bowel cancer in November 2014, and died the following May. He handled his illness with an amazing sense of calm and dignity which impressed everyone who knew him. We all miss him greatly, but for all of us in the language business, he he helped to change the way we work and the way we think, and his legacy will last for a very long time.