Student to represent NU at linguistics conference

Meghan Gordon

When Weinberg senior Harris Solomon was working as a student representative for the Israel AIDS Task Force in Haifa, every pamphlet he handed out sparked an argument — whether the passer-by agreed with the message or not.

But SoloMonday, a linguistics major, began seeing discrepancies between the pamphlets targeting men and women. The ones directed at men addressed the physical realities of the disease, while the pamphlets directed at women addressed emotional consequences, he said.

“Every single person had very strong opinions about the message being presented,” Solomon said. “But the messages presented were different, and it’s extremely important to present a comprehensive message of this very serious issue.”

Back at Northwestern this year, Solomon has condensed a year’s worth of research into a 20-minute presentation he will deliver May 6 at the International Gender and Language Association at Stanford University.

He focused on how Hebrew educational materials presented facts about prevention of AIDS and HIV.

“The pamphlets for males dealt with the sexual part of the disease, the much more physical aspects,” Solomon said. “It doesn’t involve the emotional side at all. For females, it’s a far more comprehensive message — including the fear involved, feelings of loss and anger, and saying these things are all normal.”

Weinberg Associate Dean Robert Coen said the dean’s office agreed to sponsor Solomon’s trip to the conference — and that such an honor is infrequent.

“It’s rare that an undergraduate’s paper would be accepted to such a conference, but not totally unrealistic, especially with the quality of students at Northwestern,” Coen said. “It’s what we’re hoping for. If more students saw this as an opportunity and aimed for it, I think they could reach that target. It’s something he worked very hard for and most students here are capable of that.”

Linguistics Prof. Rae Moses, who urged Solomon to apply for a spot at the conference, said it is a prestigious opportunity for anyone, not to mention an undergraduate.

“It has become quite a big thing,” Moses said. “It’s wonderful that we have all this representation at such a prestigious conference that a lot of faculty are even happy to get their work into. We’ll be well-represented at Stanford.”

Graduate student Heidi Frank also will present a paper at the conference. She will compare the language differences between Japanese lesbian publications and magazines for housewives. In addition, graduate students Jennifer Hay and Saundra Wright will discuss their research on the way male and female names are ordered (as in, should they be called Bill and Hillary or Hillary and Bill?).

Solomon said he plans to continue his research by comparing the Hebrew brochures with those written in English or other languages that aren’t gender-specific.

Solomon said he has been interested in studying linguistics since high school.

“I was really interested in how universal the topic is and how universal so many aspects of language are,” he said. “In linguistics, you have to look at things analytically, akin to mathematics, but at the same time be extremely creative.”

Still preparing for the presentation, Solomon said he has been challenged to separate his American-based readings of the pamphlets from how an Israeli audience would read them.

“I had the opportunity to really understand Israeli culture, but clearly I had to rely on talking to other people and what other people thought of the pamphlets,” he said. “So in my head, I try to put myself in their perspective to see what they might say —