Surely the giddiest daydream of every budding linguist is to have been born early enough to have had a crack at deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs at a time when their secrets still remained concealed – and then of course, off the back of this rush of excitement, to be recruited into the war-time effort at Bletchley Park, working furiously to glean information from undeciphered code. Well, although anachronistic time-travel sadly remains impossible, if you were born in the UK in 1994 or afterwards, under the auspices of the UK Linguistics Olympiad, you can do the next best thing.
The UK Linguistics Olympiad is now entering its eighth year, setting secondary and sixth form pupils the challenge of cracking codes, scripts and other language-related conundrums within the space of a tense two and a half hours every February. The highest scorers in the advanced paper take part in a second round held over a weekend at a UK university Linguistics department. The top four to eight participants form crack teams to compete in the International Linguistics Olympiad every July – Mysore, India in 2016. In the short amount of time that the UK has taken part in the International Linguistics Olympiad, the national effort has grown to take in a haul, in 2015, of two golds, one silver, a bronze, three honorable mentions and the top spot in the team competition.
Although participation at the round 1 advanced level currently stands at a healthy 1300 pupils, the main aim for the UK Linguistics Olympiad as a still very young endeavour is to grow uptake, particularly amongst schools in the state sector, where the largest number of potential competitors is to be found. To this end, the first training course for high-scoring linguistics olympiad participants from state-maintained schools was held in Cambridge in conjunction with Corpus Christi college from 1st to 4th September 2015.
The training course welcomed twenty participants to sessions exploring languages across the world (led by Elspeth Wilson), examining strategies for tackling language puzzles (led by Neil Sheldon), reconstructing olympiad puzzles (led by Jessica Brown), simulating the decipherment of alien and pictorial languages in real time (led by Paul Meara), and exploring puzzles in the field of Linguistics as an academic discipline (led by Billy Clark). Participants also engaged with cutting-edge research in Linguistics through Jim Baker, Rowena Bermingham, Jamie Douglas and Joe Perry, and were introduced to the history of the UK competition by the UK Linguistics Olympiad chair, Dick Hudson.
Cracking olympiad puzzles is no mean feat – if you fancy your chances, take a look at Patrick Littell’s 2012 problem on ´Phags-pa, rated the toughest in the UK Linguistics Olympiad archives, which requires deciphering a script encoding the Băijiāxìng, essentially, a Song Dynasty Who’s who – and the enthusiasm and tenacity with which the participants tackled the puzzles was extremely impressive.
The end of the course with smiles all around!
To find out more about the UK Linguistics Olympiad, visit www.uklo.org
Get involved as an academic by joining the 2016 marking panel: http://www.uklo.org/for-universities
As a teacher, you can enter pupils from your school here: http://www.uklo.org/registration-expressions-of-interest
Or to see what you’re made of as a one-time budding linguist: http://www.uklo.org/example-questions/past-tests