Featured Linguist: Osamu Sawada

Featured Linguist: Osamu Sawada

I grew up in the family of linguists (my father is a linguist, my mother used to be a school teacher), so it is not a coincidence that I became a linguist. (My younger brother also became a linguist.) However, looking back, I see that there were several important turning points and experiences that lead me to the field of linguistics.

I was born and grew up in Japan, but when I was 10, I had the chance to spend a year in Boston with my family. There, we had many positive experiences interacting with people/students from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. My brother and I went to a public school, and the atmosphere was one of respect for diversity. Thinking back now, this positive experience affects my stance as a scholar/teacher.

When I returned to Japan, however, the center of my daily life gradually shifted to tennis (soft tennis). In high school, I participated in national athletic meetings, and/but I neglected my school studies. I did, however, learn the importance of continuation and preparation through tennis.

It was in a rounin period, ‘a preparation period between schools’ that I studied in a responsible way with a true spirit of inquiry. I became interested in the grammars of English and Old Japanese. After being accepted into Waseda University, I continued playing tennis, but at the same time, I took various linguistics courses, including syntax, pragmatics, and functional linguistics. Although I also earned a teacher’s license, I felt that I wanted to study linguistics further, and I decided to enter graduate school.

One important turning point for me as a researcher was encountering scalar phenomenon. When I was a MA student, I had a chance to read Fillmore et al.’s (1988) paper on let alone (e.g., He couldn’t even eat Tempura, let alone Sushi). I found it very interesting that this small expression is relevant to many interesting linguistic phenomena, such as scalarity, comparison, polarity sensitivity, focus, information structure, ellipsis, etc. Looking at various related scalar phenomenon, I also gradually felt that very interesting things were happening in the field of formal semantics in the abroad, although it was still an unknown world to me.

It was miracle and very fortunate for me that I was able to study at the Ph.D. program of the University of Chicago (2005‒2010). The atmosphere of the department of linguistics was great; faculty members, students, and researchers were enthusiastic, energetic, and warm-hearted. Although I focused on formal semantics and pragmatics, I was also exposed to many other fields of linguistics, including morphology, syntax, phonetics, phonology, socio-historical linguistics, etc. There were many workshops, colloquiums, and discussion groups, and I was able to interact with various renowned scholars and colleagues/friends in a collaborative way.

In my dissertation, I focused on the pragmatic aspects of scalar modifiers and considered the similarities and differences between semantic scalar meaning and pragmatic scalar meaning in terms of the semantics/pragmatics interface. For example, in Japanese the minimizer chotto ‘a bit’ can not only measure an object or event at the semantic level, but it can also weaken the degree of imposition of the speech act at the pragmatic level (not-at-issue level). The committee members were Chris Kennedy (chair), Anastasia Giannakidou, Karlos Arregi, and Chris Potts, and I had extremely thought-provoking and valuable discussions with them. The experiences I had at the Ph.D. program have been my backbone as a researcher/teacher.

After earning a Ph.D., I was fortunate to conduct research at Kyoto University as a JSPS postdoc, and since the fall of 2010, I have been teaching and conducting research at Mie University. It took some time to get used to the Japanese university systems, but thanks to the support of my colleagues, I feel that I am creating a basis as a scholar and a teacher. At Mie, I co-organized various linguistics workshops/conferences with my colleagues, and I have also had opportunities to co-organize various international/domestic workshops outside the university, including local workshops such as the modality workshop and the semantics workshop in Tokai. These venues have been important for activating research.

Looking back at my past, I realize I have received much help and support from many people— my parents, family, teachers, colleagues, friends. Although I am still a developing scholar, I would like to try my best to become a full-fledged linguist. Society is changing rapidly (both globally and locally), and I feel that the study of linguistics (and the humanities in general) is becoming more and more important. Although I have focused on theoretical linguistics, I would also like to think about how linguistics in general and my research in particular can contribute to society.

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