Featured Linguist: Dafydd Gibbon

Dafydd Gibbon

Looking back over many decades of passion for linguistics and phonetics, it turns out that there are not as many steps as one might think from a first degree in literature and philology, emphasising structural, hermeneutic and biographical methods, and thorough acquaintance with the history of the Germanic languages from Indo-European to the 20th century, to research on computational language documentation and computational phonetics, particularly prosody, on the other.

For example, the rhymes and metrical patterns of lyrical poetry have been a source of metaphors for terminology in phonology (for example ‘metre’, ‘metrical phonology’, ‘iambic’ and ‘trochaic’ stress patterns, ‘rhyme’, ‘anacrusis’) for a long time. And not only do the deep-to-surface rules of generative and post-generative phonologies tend to mirror many of the sound change rules of philology, the ‘Junggrammatiker’ of the late 19th and early 20th century were no slouches when it came to formal descriptive precision. Ferdinand de Saussure, too, our semiotically oriented structural linguistic grandfather figure, was most well-known in his time for his work on Indo-European vowels and laryngeals. Leonard Bloomfield worked in remarkable transdisciplinary environments: from philological studies in Göttingen to cooperation with expat Vienna logician Rudolf Carnap in Chicago, whose background in the Vienna circle of logicians and linguists links up with the Prague school of linguistics, particularly Trubetzkoy’s logical theory of binary oppositions, and thus, via Roman Jakobson, linguist and literary scholar, with late 20th century Bostonian linguistics. Optimality Theory, too, is a practical application of set-constraining ‘generate and test’ pattern matching search algorithms in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence.

The symbiosis of hermeneutic literary studies, logic and speech analysis which these scholars practised has inspired me in different ways during my linguistic career, leading to a synthesis of Hallidayan and Chomskyan views of language as a finite stack of ranks from discourse to the speech sound, together with semantic-pragmatic and prosodic-phonetic interpretations at each rank (Rank-Interpretation Theory).

The interdisciplinary environment at Bielefeld University and lengthy involvement in international projects (especially SAM, EAGLES, VerbMobil, DoBeS, E-MELD), as well as appointments in several African countries, in India and in China, has created many opportunities to meet and work on these topics with stimulating colleagues of many persuasions in many corners of the world (yes, the world is a polyhedron in my computational cosmology) and to indulge my interests in literature (check my #haiku tweets and choupub ebooks) and music (check tumblr) with colleagues and students, as well as notching up a current total of 114 co-authors, Erdös #4 and (particularly proud of these) awards for linguistic and phonetic cooperations with Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Naturally I’m looking forward to many more such transdisciplinary and transcultural cooperations with fruitful interchanges of data, description, documentation and computation, and – most of all! – to the ever rewarding interactions with speakers of fascinating languages, the real sources of our dedication to language and speech.


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