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Regular version of the site

Understanding the Evolution and Acquisition of Cognitive Systems through Language and Music

On  April 27 John F. Bailyn, Professor at the Department of Linguistics, State University of New York will speak on ‘Language, Fire, Music and Chess: Thoughts on the Evolution and Acquisition of Cognitive Systems’. The event is organized by HSE School of Linguistics.

An expert on the workings of the linguistic component of the mind, Professor Bailyn recently spoke with the HSE news service about his upcoming lecture and research interests, as well as his experience studying Russian, his favourite music and a host of other topics. 

— Could you please explain to non-specialists in syntactic theory and cognitive science your main areas of research in Russian Syntax, Morphology and Phonology?

— I'm interested in how it is that Russian could seem so different on the surface from, say, English, with all the freedom of word order in Russian and crazy sets of endings, and still be so quickly and easily learned by very small children, like every language is. It's the old question of how language acquisition is so easy for little children, so successful, so unconscious, and yet the acquired systems are so complex, and so difficult for adults to ever learn. The work on this question can take many forms; my particular interests are in Russian word order, case, movement, interpretation and grammatical structure.

— Why did you become interested in Slavic syntax? What Slavic languages do you know in addition to Russian?

— That's easy — blame it on Dostoevsky — first Notes from Underground, then Crime and Punishment (and then all the rest).  Reading that in high school led me to study Russian at an intensive summer school after my first year at the university, and then to trips to the Soviet Union for Russian language study in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, and the rest of my life.  Most of those trips in the 1980s were spent in the Leningrad Rock Club circles, which I was lucky enough to experience exactly at the right age. That’s where I learned Russian. I also spent a lot of time in the former Yugoslavia and I speak Serbo-Croatian pretty well. I tried also to learn Czech and pretty much failed (way harder than Russian or Serbo-Croatian).

— What has been the most striking finding between Russian language and music that was part of your large research study?

— No one finding stands above others. That’s why we keep seeking more directions to ask more questions.  The key is finding the right puzzles and not getting distracted by essentially uninteresting questions.

— Your interests cover such areas in Russian and Soviet history as early Soviet politics, late Soviet underground culture and the show trials. I have heard that your favourite music group is Splean. Not every Russian would be interested in that. Why do you find it exciting and continue researching it? What similarities do you find between 2014-2015 and those years, if anything?

— I have always been interested in socialist philosophy, probably because my grandmother was an active socialist (though not Bolshevik) between the world wars in Vienna, one of the most progressive times and places we have ever known.  She taught me, without teaching, about fairness, and human rights, and equality, and tolerance and love of knowledge and love of music, and since capitalism certainly doesn't enable most of those goals, the socialist ideas were always appealing, even if their manifestation in late Soviet society was quite distorted. But the early Bolsheviks tried to implement a lot of radical and progressive directions  well, at least some of them did  and they really believed they were possible. The tension between their ideals and the actual course of history is a fascinating thing to study.

I never said that Splean is my favourite music group! Just one of them. It wouldn't be fair to mention them and not mention The Clash and Bob Marley and Elvis Costello and Melanie and Bunny Wailer and the Beatles and the Violent Femmes and the Indigo Girls and my old friend BG and Kino and Dva Samoleta and 5-nizza and Talking Heads and Jonathan Richman and of course, Rodriguez. And Mozart and Schubert and Brahms and Rakhmaninoff and Shostakovich and Khachaturian and Mendelssohn, and Schumann. And I guess one can't really not mention Beethoven.

As for 2014-15, I am in St. Petersburg now and it seems to me the most significant change from 1983 is still in the name of the city. Otherwise, it’s the same subversive beauty and buzzing of creative activity just below the surface. 

— How did your cooperation with the HSE start? Do you have any specific plans for developing and continuing it?

— Many HSE students and faculty have attended NYI (the summer Institute in St. Petersburg I have co-directed with Anna Maslennikova since 2003  www.nyi.spb.ru), and the St. Petersburg campus of HSE has been very supportive of that project.  I hope to see lots of them at my talks on Monday and at NYI this summer, where I'll be giving a course on Musical Cognition.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for the HSE News service

See also:

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Tilmann Reuther, Professor at the University of Klagenfurt, and his colleague Joulia Köstenbaumer talk to the HSE News Service about their experience of cooperation with the School of Linguistics and internships in Austria.