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LLMs and the language sciences: material, semiotic, and linguistic perspectives from STS and linguistic anthropology 
Anna Weichselbraun (University of Vienna)
Michael Castelle (University of Warwick)
Siri Lamoureaux (University of Siegen)
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Siri Lamoureaux (University of Siegen)
Traditional Open Panel

Short Abstract:

This panel convenes linguistic anthropology and STS to consider how large language models (LLMs) emerge from language-ideological and material-semiotic practices. We invite papers that contribute to better understanding the constitutive work of LLMs at multiple stages and via multiple stakeholders.

Long Abstract:

This panel brings together linguistic anthropology and STS to consider how large language models (LLMS) are transforming both the language sciences (linguistics, computational linguistics, NLP) and technosocial practices. With the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in 2022, discussions have focused on what its uncannily human-like generated text means for politics, education, knowledge production, authorship, sociality, care, etc. Despite the interest of social scientists in critiques of LLMs over, e.g., the reproduction of biases in datasets, minority representation, and energy consumption, much of this work now takes place in computing sciences and/or industry. Few of these internalist critiques, however, center language as a form of social and cultural action, the purview of linguistic anthropology. This panel addresses this gap, encouraging both linguistic anthropologists and scholars of the language sciences to interrogate the construction, development, and imaginaries surrounding LLMs.

Linguistic anthropology challenges Enlightenment notions of “language” and “representation” prevalent in the computational and social sciences, and instead emphasizes the situated, pragmatic and indexical functions of language. While interested in the technological mediation of language, it has largely overlooked the transformation of the concept of language by computational linguists, scholars in NLP, and the designers of programming “languages”. In turn, posthumanist trends in STS have favored a “material-semiotics” set in opposition to language-as-representation — a contrast actively dissolved by LLMs. Both fields could contribute to new understandings of LLMs.

These papers contribute to understanding the work of LLMs on questions of (1) language policy and governance (e.g., how do policymakers understand LLMs? What language ideologies motivate the efforts to police LLMs?); (2) R&D in practice (what are the implicit or explicit language ideologies of individuals, professions or companies developing large language models?); (3) users and implementation (with what expectations do users encounter and interact with LLMs? What do these reveal about language practices?)

Accepted papers:

Session 1
Session 2