For some years, academic linguists in various countries have organised competitions (‘olympiads’) for high-school students in solving problems in linguistic analysis. For more information, see:
- A brief history.
- A Wikipedia entry.
- A complete set of problems from earlier International Olympiads, together with some solutions and problems from some national olympiads. (Login as ‘guest’, password ‘guest’.)
- A list of a dozen international science olympiads, including the Linguistics Olympiad.
The following is an incomplete list of countries that take part in the International Linguistics Olympiad; for a full listing, see the links on the official IOL website.
This is where the idea started in 1965, in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Moscow State University.
According to the website (in Russian), the linguistic Olympiad had 3 founders:
‘A.N. Zhurinsky, then a student, later a well-known linguist and author of books of linguistic problems; mathematician V.A. Uspensky; and linguist A.A. Zalizniak, now an Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences.’
(Translation courtesy of Barbara Partee.)
A slightly different version of history comes from the account by Aleksandr Kibrik in a contribution for the Linguist List:
And then in 1965 there was another new initiative: we started to hold the Olympiads in our department. That was also an unheard-of event. Vladimir Uspensky was head of the Organizing Committee (OrgKomitet); there were also me, Polivanova, Zalizniak, and Zhurinsky, who made up most of the problems for the Olympiad. But when Uspensky brought the list of OrgKomitet members to the dean as a draft document for the dean to sign, the dean said OK except we have to remove Zhurinsky. It turned out that when Zhurinsky was a student and did his military service in the Navy, he joined the Party. And when he came to our department, still as a student, he resigned from the Party, on his own. That didn’t prevent him from being a student, but the dean couldn’t allow him to be on the OrgKomitet – he kept close tabs on the political correctness of everything official in his deanery. Uspensky said all right, I will just withdraw the draft document and we won’t do an Olympiad. And we didn’t. About a year later, the Dean called Uspensky in and asked “What happened to our Olympiad?” And Uspensky said, “Well, you didn’t sign that document.” And the Dean said “All right, I’ll sign it.” And Zhurinsky stayed on the OrgKomitet. And we had our First Traditional Linguistics Olympiad. And that was a completely new beginning. It was like a great leap 20 years ahead – it helped us (and themselves) to identify high school students who might get interested in linguistics. And it has worked — many strong linguists have started out as prize-winners in the Olympiads. So it really made sense – but it has always demanded a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm. We would sit down and discuss and choose the problems. Our ‘problem committee’ was headed by the mathematician Alexander Wentzell – he taught probability theory to our students, and at the same time was very interested in linguistics, partly through his mother, a mathematician who wrote novels under the pseudonym “I. Grekova”  . Wentzell worked with mathematical exactitude – every problem had to have exactly one solution. In no case should a problem turn out to be unsolvable – that had to be guaranteed. So the discussions were really serious. And we wanted to avoid the possibility that there could be solutions other than the intended ones. So we had a circle of people who would solve the problems and look at them closely. But sometimes something fell through the cracks. Sometimes during the Olympiad itself, with 200 students working on problems, it might suddenly turn out that although everything was logically correct, it wasn’t what we had intended or wanted. That sometimes happened.
The students at their first Olympiads are usually 8th, 9th, or 10th graders (ages 15-17), but sometimes there were students from the 6th or 7th grades (ages 13-14). The late Sergei Starostin, a Corresponding Member of the Academy, first competed in an Olympiad as a 7th grader (age 14) and took first prize. And he continued to compete, with quite amazing results. So once we had the Olympiads, everything changed – it was a whole new life.
The Olympiads are still going on, though the Ministry of Education has been making our life more difficult. We want success in the Olympiads to continue to give students a real advantage in competing for admission to the top linguistics departments, because without that perceived benefit of participation, the Olympiads take on a different meaning. At the beginning, they didn’t carry that benefit. But then some years ago we managed to get it; but now they are making it harder and we are having to fight for it.
The olympiads take place nowadays in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Local Olympiads have happened since 1982, and Bulgaria hosted the first International Olympiad in 2003 (initiated by Ivan Derzhanski in Bulgaria and some Russian colleagues: Alexander Berdichevsky, Dr. Boris Iomdin, Dr. Elena Muravenko and Professor Alexander E. Kibrik.(All this information comes from the website for the first International Olympiad.)
Estonia has local Olympiads every year, and hosted the International Olympiad in 2004.
The Netherlands holds local Olympiads every year, and the International Olympiad in 2005.
In the USA:
- In 1998, Tom Payne (U of Oregon) organised the first of a series of olympiads within the USA, then there was a gap.
- 2007: NACLO (also sometimes called NAMCLO)(North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad) started to organise olympiads.
Australia has held a national olympiad from 2009, in collaboration with NACLO.
Ireland held the first All Ireland Linguistics Olympiad in 2009, using test materials prepared by NACLO.
In 2009 two UK schools took part as guests in the Irish competition, and the winning team represented the UK at the International Olympiad. This triggered the foundation of a permanent committee for the UK Linguistics Olympiad. Further developments are reported on the UKLO website.