Intellectual Biography

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My full name is Nicholas David MacLachlan Ostler, and I was born, the second in a family of four children, in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, on 20 May 1952.  My father Kenneth was a London solicitor, and my mother Yvonne a retired actress. I, like all my brothers and sister, owe my existence to the Japanese threat to the British Empire, and (less crucially), to Noel Coward, since my parents met in 1946 in Kalaw, Burma, where my mother, a Star in Battledress, was entertaining  the troops as Elvira in “Blithe Spirit“, and my father was with the “Dagger Division“. By rights, our family theme song should be “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun“; but my mother characteristically preferred “(I’ll be loving you) Always“, the crucial inspirational song in Coward’s play.

I grew up in Kent, as a small child in Sevenoaks, and then in Tonbridge, where from 1960 I attended Yardley Court Prep School and then Tonbridge School. Since I was born east of the Medway, but always lived west of it, I am conflicted as to whether I am a Kentishman or a Man of Kent. I was interested in languages from an early age by English standards (at least from age 11) since I insisted on learning both German and Greek when we were given a choice of one or the other, two years after starting Latin and French at 9. (My mother, in secret defiance of the Yardley Court headmaster, found me in Sevenoaks a teacher for German, one Mrs Bella Thompson, who compounded the excess of languages by also trying to teach me her native Russian).

At Tonbridge School (1965-70), I kept taking the languages, while school trips took me to Russia, Italy and Greece, but I also discovered Macdonell’s Sanskrit Grammar in the school library. I resolved in 1968 to visit an accessible non-Indo-European language, and my choice fell on Turkish. Hence I made the acquaintance of Geoffrey Lewis’s excellent Teach Yourself Turkish before setting off on a rapid circuit of the Black Sea coast, Anatolia and Istanbul. Strangely, I was drawn up the pole of official preferment to become Head of School at Tonbridge, despite a loathing for all organized games. In fact, this loathing – like my grounding in Latin and Greek – has proved one of the great gains from my time there.

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Before taking up a scholarship in Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, I took a five-month trip by train and bus, to India and back in 1971, getting familiar with Hindi and visiting most parts of that magnificent country (supported almost everywhere by kind regional managers of the Glaxo company, courtesy of recommendations from a friend’s father’s friend, Iain Mackinnon, a charming man with a red moustache, who had just returned from a period as Managing Director of their Indian subsidiary. It was my first experience of life as “one Balliol man after another”, since he had read PPE there in 1947-9). I also saw a lot more of my great friend (who has since become my neighbour), the future novelist and poet Vikram Seth (whose acquaintance is another signal debt I owe to Tonbridge School). However, much of the time that I spent in the Theosophical Society Library in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) was devoted not to any wisdom of the East, but perversely to Bertrand Russell’s mathematical logic.

At Oxford I proceeded with the Classics course, and much enjoyed my induction into historical linguistics through the discipline of comparative philology; but reaching the end of the Honour Moderations part (after 18 months) I was struck that my knowledge of the ancient world seemed far in excess of my understanding of modern approaches. Also I was tiring of the sheer lack of rigour in the self-indulgently critical approach to literature which was popular at the time. (Hence I clearly failed to appreciate the strengths of my Classics tutor.) So I switched away from Classics, to Philosophy and Economics, in order to pursue formal logic in the one, and quantitative reasoning in the other (omitting the Politics in “PPE” because I thought it also lacking in rigour). My efforts in both Classics and PPE were rewarded in the exams, but I still decided to try to pull it all together by switching yet again, to take up theoretical linguistics, and go for a Ph.D.

My choice of MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, as a place to study this, was guided – I now think – more by the sheer prestige of transformational grammar in the early 1970s, derived from the reception accorded to Noam Chomsky, than a clear perception of what would suit me. Although I again made some very good friends, e.g. David Nash , and completed the course, I left MIT without a clear determination to follow up any direction in research, much less the particular vintage of Chomskyan theories then on offer. My thesis is available as Case Linking: a Theory of Case and Verb Diathesis, applied to Classical Sanskrit and has had some influence in later developments in its field. But I chose instead to focus for a while on living in Japan and learning Japanese, becoming a foreign lecturer at the University of Toyama (1979-81) and then, for a term, a guest lecturer in Case grammar at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo (1981). I also followed up new contacts that I had made at the Fujitsu Corporation, becoming a consultant to them on Machine Translation between English and Japanese. (This later fed into the Atlas/U system.) This was my first step into computational linguistics and natural language processing.

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However, these two years in Japan were to be my only years with a regular academic job. I had lost the taste for an academic career, as well as life as a resident alien, and so I returned to England. At the beginning of 1982 started a new career in computing and consultancy, which lasted until the end of 2000. I began as a junior programmer-consultant in Logica Ltd, moved to Scicon in 1983, and the Touche Ross Management Consultants in 1987. From early on I was involved in projects with a research element, and often in natural language processing or more generally, in applied artificial intelligence (‘expert systems’ as the subject was often known).

This led to secondment to the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and its Information Technology Directorate (ITD) – whose reversal of the ministerial acronym was not inapt, in that its conscious attempt to pick winning technologies was quite in the opposite direction to the then policy of the DTI as a whole. There I became an Assistant Director, and learnt to co-ordinate research programmes.  Such committee work I enjoyed. In 1991, when I was made redundant by Touche Ross as a victim of the recession, I was taken on as a independent consultant by the DTI. As my former economics tutor remarked at the time, it was a perfectly Pareto-efficient change, beneficial to all concerned: the DTI was paying less for my services; I was receiving more from the DTI than when paid by Touche Ross; and even Touche Ross was better off, since my unimpressive rate of earning from the DTI was no longer dragging down their average!

I continued to work for the DTI throughout the 1990s, and expanded my range as an independent consultant on language technology and intelligent systems, but also on the supervision of research projects.  I became, for a period in the mid 90s, the chairman of the SALT Club, channelling expert academics’ opinions on the language technologies into government policy. My stock in trade as a language technology consultant was summarized in the Linguacubun website, which no longer exists. However, ultimately the DTI’s interest in such projects waned, and most of the staff which had been working in this area (though not I) were re-directed to work on the “Y2K” threat, namely the prospect that vast but unpredictable numbers of business computers might go haywire as the date clicked over from 1999 to 2000. Y2K was accounted a great victory – in that the predicted threat never became real: but those staff have not been returned. Y2K has had a famous effect, in providing a nursery of international contracts for the India’s nascent software industry. Less famously, it diverted and dissipated UK Government support for intelligent systems research.

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Meanwhile, I was getting involved in a whole new field, which could almost be considered the antidote to language technology. Concern for language endangerment is after all about rejoicing in the variety of languages, quite regardless of their cost efficiency, while language technology is all about curbing languages’ unruly extravagance, and standardizing them until they are tractable. My role in the establishment of the Foundation for Endangered Languages was all about trying use any skills I had built up in my consulting career – in organizing meetings, in evaluating proposals and distributing grants – for the benefit of a truly worthwhile cause, namely the threatened language communities of the world.

Besides its effect in closing the door on DTI support of my kind of technology project, the millennium had a opposite, and probably greater effect, on me. The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution chose to take the millennium as pretext for a lecture series, “History of the Future”. I was asked to contribute a lecture on language, and it was such a success that I was tempted to re-write it as the nucleus of a book proposal.

With advice from my wife and other friends on the getting of literary agents the result was my literary output over the 2000s, which is the subject of the next page.

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