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Jaargang 5, nummer 1 (februari 2005)


Het onderzoek van ...

The faculty houses many researchers who work on a wide variety of topics. In the column The research of… PhD students and senior researchers will tell us about the misery and grandeur of doing research. This month, Mark de Vos introduces his PhD project. His study on "Functional heads and morphology" deals, among other things, with the structure of Afrikaans.

(Introduce yourself) Why did you start working on this particular research project?

        I have always been fascinated by two things: the way things work technically and language. Even from a very early age, I was trying to find out how steam engines and lasers worked, and then trying (usually unsuccessfully) to build my own from bits and pieces I picked up in the neighbourhood. For me, my research project is just an extension of this interest: how does language work.

Being from South Africa and having learned Afrikaans at school, it was very natural for me to work on Afrikaans and, consequently, The Netherlands were a natural place to study. In some ways Afrikaans is quite similar to Dutch, but in other ways it is fundamentally very different. One of the major differences is the way the verbal system works. In addition, in this domain there is also a lot of variation within the dialects of Afrikaans. This makes it fascinating to study and also means that there is a lot of comparative work that needs to be done.

What is the general question you are trying to answer? (Describe the research topic)

The topic is difficult to explain in non-technical terms. When we speak about the real world, one of the tools that language provides us with is the notion of `event’. In grammatical terms an `event’ is often encoded as a grammatical entity with a complex structure: informally, a verb-phrase. However, the internal-structure of events is proving to be more complex than we originally thought. Consequently it is an exciting topic. My research project is very much concerned with how these events are formally constructed. Specifically, I use a construction broadly called `Pseudo coordination’ to explore how simple events can be can gradually built up into more complex ones – and specifically, the syntactic structures that result from these processes. Here are a couple of English examples.

How many friends did Mary go and visit? [English]

How many books did Mary sit and read? [English]

It is also important that it is possible to show that examples like these are quite similar to reduplicative contexts in English (and Dutch). In these examples, what is happening is that simple events of writing are being combined into a single, complex event.

Jan schrijft en schrifjt en schrijft [Dutch]

Jan writes and writes and writes [English]

What are the most fascinating aspects of this project?

As a South African, I am often confronted by the fact that Dutch people and Afrikaans people express things in slightly different ways, even though their languages are similar in some respects. There seems to be a tension between the fact that many languages express similar types of meanings with similar strategies and the fact that different languages use slightly different tactics to do so. For instance, all these pseudo-coordinative sentences express a very similar (progressive) meaning in all these languages.

Jan zit te schrijven [Dutch]

Jan sit en skryf [Afrikaans]

Jan sitter og skriver [Norwegian]

Jan sits and writes [English]

Some languages, like Dutch, use an unambiguously infinitival linking element, te. Other languages, like Afrikaans, use a linking element that is morphologically identical to a coordinator, en. Norwegian and Mainland Scandinavian use a linking element that is homophonous between an infinitival and a coordinative marker. In fact, in English, one can use either a coordinator or an infinitival subordinator in certain contexts.

John will try to write [English]

John will try and write [English]

One of the things I am investigating is why such different linking elements can be used with similar meanings.

On the other hand, there are some subtle differences between these different constructions. However, these small differences have enormous implications for the syntax of these languages. Specifically, the Afrikaans construction has some very exciting properties that are very challenging for linguistic theory—and yet paradoxically, the meaning of the Dutch and Afrikaans sentences is often quite similar.

What do you hope to achieve?

Hopefully, I will clear up some puzzles surrounding pseudo-coordinative structures that have been puzzling linguists for decades. In particular, I hope to show that coordination can occur inside events. This will not only elucidate one of the ways in which events can be combined, but will also allow some parts of linguistic theory to be simplified because pseudo-coordination will be able to be unified with general coordinative theory. I have also developed a typology of pseudo-coordinative structures that will have some descriptive value. Finally, I also hope to stimulate some more interest in Afrikaans linguistics, because it is, after all, a beautiful language.

How do you like being a PhD student in this faculty?

Most of the research in the faculty is done within specific graduate research schools and so I have more contact with members of these schools than with the faculty at large. Generally, I am very proud to be a PhD student at Leiden University. I think there are two main reasons for this. One of the ideas behind a research school is that it becomes a centre of excellence by the pooling of expert resources. The institute has quite a few students all working on similar projects and this really means that there is a lot of interaction and discussion taking place – all crucial factors in making it a centre of excellence. This also means that the institute can build up a name for itself internationally. In addition, I am quite lucky because I have a wonderful support network around me in the form of the other students and staff and my supervisors, Prof. Johan Rooryck and Dr. Sjef Barbiers, at the ULCL and Meertens Institute. I feel certain that if the research carried out in the institute was not as focussed or if I did not have my colleagues to support me, then the experience would be less enjoyable and considerably more difficult. It is my hope that the research institute continues to focus its attentions judiciously on building up excellence in very particular research areas.

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