'HSE Students Are not Content with Knowing Things — They Immediately Want to Solve Linguistic Problems'
Guglielmo Cinque is a professor of linguistics at the University of Venice and one of the most well-known European generativists. Recently he paid a week-long visit the HSE School of Linguistics, and now shares his impressions of our students and staff, as well as of this year's weather in Moscow.
— Is it your first visit to Russia? How do you like it here? It is not the best weather, of course.
— Well, the weather is not your fault. Yes, it is my first visit to Russia, I have never been here before. But I knew the works of some researchers here at HSE. And I think it is one of the leading centres for typological linguistics. It is also a well-known centre for specialists in Caucasian languages, perhaps the best one. And as I just discovered, for Finno-Ugric languages as well. Also, yesterday I was told about a new project about Chukchi language…
— Yes, our School of linguistics organized an expedition to Chukotka last summer.
— This is something we miss in Italy. We have dialects to study, and they are very different. In the South I cannot understand a word! But in Russia you have the advantage to study many different families of languages. So I was very curious about coming here and getting to know these researchers.
— Who were the people from HSE that you knew before coming here? If you mention typology, then it must be Ekaterina Rakhilina, right?
— Yes, and also, Yury Lander, Michael Daniel… And then I discovered, that researchers at HSE not only work on typology, but also on formal syntax, like Anna Volkova, and formal semantics. This is unusual, because other centres of linguistic typology tend to be not as open. You do not see people working on formal syntax and semantics close to people working on linguistic typology. And this is something that attracts me particularly. I thought it could be interesting to see different perspectives to typological concerns, which I also try to follow. I am not a typologist, but I try to have a comparative syntax that takes into account various languages.
— I certainly noticed this typological scope in your lectures. Speaking of which: for our not-so-hardcore-linguist readers could you maybe outline your research in a nutshell?
— The name that characterizes the work I, and many other people in Italy, do is cartographic project. We work in the framework of generative grammar, and it is also compatible with the later developments of Chomsky’s minimalist programme, though it might also appear to be maximalists at the same time. We are trying to come up with precise, detailed, fine-grained structures for the sentence and for each phrase that composes the sentence ‑ VP, NP, AP and so on.
— Is this what you call the ‘God’s truth’ linguistics?
— Well, it is actually more of a methodological or scientific approach that differs from standard typology. I am not saying about all of the typologists. I cited Kholodovich, the founder of the Leningrad typology school in the 60-es, and his idea is that there is a universal syntax underlying the syntax… That is almost a Chomskian position!
So the ‘God’s truth’ position is, I think, the position that modern science takes. You’re trying to discover what is outside. In this case it is language, and faculty of language. And in a sense it is a bet, that such a thing, such a universal structure exists.
Of course, you could say ‘I do not believe there is any structure’. But then you are bound to be less exigent, less demanding about the facts. You take them at face value. If there is a difference, you are not trying to unify, not trying to generalize and see, how things relate.
— Coming back to your course, are you happy with the feedback that you got from the students and from the staff?
— Yes, I was very impressed by the reaction of the students. Of course, the teachers did not surprise me; I expected them to be very knowledgeable. But the students put some very interesting questions, very much to the point. And I was also impressed later during individual appointments. What impressed me is that they were immediately taken to the research level. They had to solve some empirical problems of some languages. At many appointments students presented some syntactic or morphosyntactic problems that they were trying to solve. And I am not only talking about PhD students — there were 3-rd year bachelor students and first year master’s. This is unusual. They dive into scientific problems directly. Some of them came with an abstract that they were planning to send or had already sent. It means they are stimulated to take a challenge.
— And from what you saw, could you give an assessment of the linguistic background of the students?
— The ones I talked with seem to be knowledgeable in typological methodology and the way of working with it. Others were also knowledgeable in formal syntax. It is not a homogeneous group of students, of course. Some are more typologically-oriented, some others more interested in formal syntax. But in general I was quite impressed by the fact that they are not content with knowing things — they immediately wanted to solve linguistic problems with the knowledge they reach. And this is a good way of checking your knowledge: trying to solve problems and seeing how far you can get. You can see what you miss, what you have to read more and understand more.
— Speaking about you personally, did you take out something valuable from these individual meetings? Maybe some interesting ideas or some data from the languages you did not encounter before.
— Yes, sure, both of the two. I found a couple of languages that I did not know about which seem to provide evidence for a certain word order I was interested in. And of course I had a chance to discuss linguistic problems with Yuri Lander, Michael Daniel, Anna Volkova, and Natalia Zevakhina. Unfortunately, professor Ekaterina Rakhilina was away, so we could only exchange a few things, but I know her work on lexical typology.
— And now for less scholarly questions. I know it is not the best kind of weather, but did you manage to do something for leisure here in Moscow?
— Despite the weather and the rain I managed to visit Kremlin and the museum of Russian impressionism, to see the Moscow Metro, which is quite amazing, the center and so on… I got the idea of Moscow, which is very heterogeneous architecturally, and this is very nice.
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Is it possible to learn a new language well enough in just two weeks to conduct linguistic research on it? This is an entirely standard practice for linguists, according to Sasha Kozhukhar and Liza Vostokova, both students in the Linguistic Theory and Language Description master’s programme. This past summer, Sasha and Liza went on an expedition to Guatemala to study Kaqchikel, an indigenous Mayan language.
What causes variation between languages, and what do they have in common? How is language embedded in our general cognitive system? These are some of the questions that Eric Reuland, Faculty Professor of Language and Cognition at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics (OTS) (Utrecht University), will address in a lecture course entitled ‘Syntactic approaches to anaphora’ that will be held at HSE Moscow from September 12 till 22, 2016. Professor Reuland recently spoke with the HSE news service about his research interests, his upcoming visit to Moscow, and some books he recommends for those interested in gaining exposure to the field of linguistics.