Remarkably diverse language research

Showing the outside world what Leiden is good at: this was one of the aims of the Executive Board in appointing eleven research profile areas in 2009. One of these is Language Diversity in the World, a multidisciplinary research area made up of people from a wide range of different backgrounds. Lisa Cheng (Professor of Linguistics) and Maarten Mous (Professor of African Language) together with Alexander Lubotsky (Professor of Indo-Europese Linguistics ) are jointly responsible for co-ordinating this research area.  

by Martin Hulst

“We have in Leiden a wealth of knowledge on many different languages,' comments Mous. 'Until recently these were all separate little islands. Now all the University's linguists are grouped together in the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), which makes for a much stronger team.  People who want to understand language in general need to know about a wide range of languages, while people who want to study a specific language, can gain in-depth knowledge of their language by improving their understanding of language in general."

Although Language Diversity in the World is confined to the Faculty of Humanities, the research carried out within this area is interdisciplinary. Staff at the LUCL include phonologists, syntacticians, theoretical linguists and psycho- and sociolinguists. This diversity of skills allows language to be studied descriptively, theoretically and experimentally. The collaboration between all these approaches premeates the whole scope of this research.

PhD fellows

The start of three PhD research projects is the first achievement of Language Diversity in the World. Cheng explains: “Staff who originally had no shared projects started talking to one another. They got to know one another's research, which generated three PhD projects, due to start in September."

The first project is Plural as value of Cushitic gender: a psycholinguistic study. Mous: “We will look at an unusual situation in the how gender is expressed in African languages. In Dutch we have a distinction between 'de' and 'het'. In certain African languages there are three distinctions. Unlike in other languages, the third isn't neuter, but plural. So, the plural is an aspect of gender, while it actually belongs with number. We want to study this from a psycholinguistics perspective. Our aim is to see whether you can indicate in the brain whether the third distinction is related to number or gender, by measuring response times, for example."

The second project is Information structure in Welsh and its implications for diachronic syntactic change. Cheng: “We want this project to give us new insights into the how and why of syntactic change. We're going to analyse the syntactic variation found in the extensive sixteenth-century chronicle in Welsh by Elis Gruffyd.”

The third project relates to aspect in such Slavic languages as Russian or Polish. Mous: “In verbal expressions in Dutch we have combinations of time and aspect, for example in the present perfect tense. Perfect is the aspect and present is the time.  Most languages mix the two, and some languages only indicate the time. There are also languages, such as the Slavic languages, that indicate aspect for each verb, even for the infinitive or the imperative. We want to investigate how this remarkable and unique system came about by looking at the oldest known variants of Slavic languages, starting with the Old Church Slavonic and Old Russian. "

The last remaining speaker of Yaaku, a language from Kenya

The last remaining speaker of Yaaku, a language from Kenya

Other faculties

Staff from the LUCL are currently also working with researchers from other faculties. An example of this is in the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC), that falls within the Brain function and dysfunction over the lifespan research area. This has resulted in some surprising research. Cheng: “We have a project with biologists where we compare language acquisition in children with song in birds. Could the development of song be a good model, an animal model, for how children learn language?''

There are also projects in which staff from LUCL co-operate with archaeologists. Willem Adelaar, Professor of Indian Language and Culture, has worked with archaeologists from Central America. Mous: "People want to be able to imagine a culture behind the finds. This is difficult for archaeologists and linguists to achieve from their separate disciplines. By combining disciplies, we can get a better idea of which elements belonged to a particular culture."

Socially relevant

The research carried out within Language Diversity in the World provides insights that are valuable for society, for example in bridging the gap between cultural differences. Cheng: “If we have a better understanding of the structure of languages such as Turkish, Berber and Arabic, for example, we can most probably also devise better methods for teaching Dutch to people from these backgrounds."

The funding for this research profile area will be used to hold at least one annual public symposium. A student assistant is currently working on organising the first symposium, due to be held towards the end of November. It will be on the topic of multilingualism, an issue of current interest not only to scholars, but also to parents and teachers. Cheng: “This is a hot topic. Is bilingualism a good thing, or not? Should non-Dutch children first learn their own language before going on to Dutch? Or should they learn both languages at the same time? Or should they only learn Dutch?" These are the kinds of questions that will be addressed during the first symposium. 

An opportune time

The research profile area in Language Diversity in the World has come at an opportune time. Mous: “Politicians and society in general are becoing increasingly interested in diversity. The rights of native peoples are under debate and there is support for the protection of languages that are gradually disappearing. We need to retain this diversity. Within linguistics, too, there is a growing interest in diversity.  All kinds of different organisations are now including it in their name, but we can really prove our worth in this area.”


Read more: Contents page of Forum, Volume 10, number 4 (29 June 2010)

Last Modified: 17-11-2010