Fascination for linguistic diversity

An interview with Eva van Lier

9 May 2017

Eva van Lier is a lecturer at the Department of Literary Studies and Linguistics, University of Amsterdam. After completing her award-winning PhD-dissertation in Linguistics in 2009, she worked at Lancaster University as a postdoctoral research associate. In her VENI-project, carried out at the UvA, she investigated the semantics and morpho-syntax of flexible word classes in Oceanic languages.

Love at first sight

“After I graduated from high school I didn’t know what to study. What I did know, was that I wanted to do something with languages. In high school, I graduated in six languages, history, and geography. So I went to Spain for almost a year to learn Spanish. Eventually I ended up studying Dutch, with the idea of continuing with Journalism. But then, in my first year, we had an introductory course in Linguistics, and I was overwhelmed. It was a kind of love at first sight. I wasn’t aware that linguistics existed: this was, apparently, what I was looking for. I knew early on that I wanted to do research. I thought it would be great to do this all the time, and even get some money for it!”


Culture shock

“I really enjoyed my PhD period, and I got hired immediately after I defended by thesis. Two or three days after my defense I moved to the UK, Lancaster, for a postdoc position. But that was a bit of a culture shock. When you’re a PhD you are still under the wings of your supervisor, even though my supervisor expected his PhDs to take their own responsibility and make their own decisions. This meant that I was used to a lot of independence, and all of a sudden I had a boss. Also, I had to travel all the time; sometimes it felt that I was working more on booking plane tickets than on doing research. It was the real international experience. It was stressful, but I also learned a lot. Content-wise, but also in terms of academic politics. That’s when I realized that Dutch people, including myself, can be direct, a bit arrogant, and are not always aware of hierarchical inequalities.”


Awarded PhD-dissertation

Eva’s PhD-thesis won the Joseph Greenberg Award for the best typological dissertation between 2009 and 2013. “What I tried to do was to make my decisions and the way I coded the data insightful for the readers. I think my thesis won the award because of the way I conducted my research and the way I wrote it down, rather than for the outcome of my study. I picked up the topic of word classes again for my VENI-project. During my PhD I came across something that I thought was worth more research, I had a genuine feeling of dissatisfaction with the status of the research in this area. This project was about the universality of the noun-verb distinction. It is a very theoretically loaded topic, because for traditional approaches this distinction is hypothesized to be universal. The discussion is about whether and how the grammar implements this semantic or cognitive distinction. The idea is that in some languages, most notably some Oceanic languages, the grammar does not show any evidence for the distinction between the lexical classes of nouns and verbs. Of course, the theoretical stakes for such a claim are very high. So for my VENI-project, I promised to look systematically into this group of languages.”


Balanced language sample

“For this project, I studied the grammars of Oceanic languages, making a balanced sample which resulted in a good spread and window on the variation in the family. Based on this sample, I made a questionnaire with sets of constructions I was systematically investigating in each language. This way, I could come up with a quantification of how equal the various semantic groups of words were. I also worked together quite closely with a group of field linguists, specialists from all over the world, who were working with the questionnaire I developed. We all came together for a workshop here in Amsterdam, which led to a special issue with all the case studies that is coming out in June. I have a great admiration for fieldworkers. I think writing a reference grammar for an undescribed language is hugely impressive, both in terms of academic achievement as well as one’s personal sacrifices.”


Bewildering linguistic diversity

“I am really interested in how language works in the brain, and in future projects I would like to include more experimental research. But my problem is that I think the current state of knowledge is such that it may be difficult to look into the linguistic structures I’m interested in. It’s simply not always possible to get the amount of detail that makes language so fascinating for me. Besides the detail in grammatical analysis, it is also hard to investigate languages that are not well described or if you don’t have access to its native speakers. The great majority of experimental work in linguistics is on western European languages, with a focus on Germanic languages. That is like 0.6% of the linguistic diversity. There is so much more out there. I’m a sucker for that diversity—I think that is the most wonderful thing that we have discovered in linguistics. The bewildering diversity. At the same time, we’re all human, we have more or less the same brains, the same speech organs, and we want to talk about everything. How does this work? That is what fascinates me.”


The irrelevance of societal relevance

“I wrote a booklet on societal relevance and what it means (not) to have it. It was basically a plea for not having societal relevance. My generation of VENI-laureates was the last generation for whom the valorization-section in the application was still optional. We have to show the societal relevance of research, but sometimes it’s just very difficult to know in advance what could eventually be the benefit for the larger society of one’s research. That holds as much for the humanities as for other sciences. I think it’s a shame that this kind of research is now valued so much less than it used to be. It took me a while to stop feeling guilty about doing fundamental research, but now it has dawned on me that it is important to try to fill a gap in knowledge without having a clear idea of a direct application.”

Published by  SMART Cognitive Science