Featured Linguist: Johan Rooryck


Featured Linguist: Johan Rooryck

Featured Linguist: Johan Rooryck

Once upon a time in Belgium

I have always been fascinated by the variety and structure of languages. My father greatly contributed to my lifelong passion ­for linguistics by instilling in me a deep love and appreciation for Latin — he had taken a degree in Classics before pursuing a career in Law. In high school in Belgium, I was lucky to have had inspiring and demanding language teachers as well. Through the study of Latin, I learned to rigorously reflect on language and its structure from an early age.



At the University of Leuven, I studied what was then known as ‘Romance philology’, a combination of literary and linguistic studies of Romance languages. During the first year, I received an introduction to linguistics from a somewhat eccentric and unconventional professor, Karel van den Eynde, a former Bantuist and structural linguist. His teaching style consisted of defiantly throwing linguistic puzzles at his students, challenging us to come up with an analysis. Only a few years later did I discover that most of these puzzles came straight out of Henry Allan Gleason’s 1961 Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. It was around this time that I decided that the study of language would be my professional future.

I wrote my MA dissertation on ellipsis and gapping. Two years later, part of this MA dissertation turned into my very first scholarly article published in Linguistic Analysis in 1985. I received a four-year stipend from the Belgian National Science Foundation to pursue a PhD at the University of Leuven. In 1987, I defended my PhD on infinitival complementation in French. My dissertation dealt with issues at the syntax-semantics interface. It examined the interpretation of the empty subject of infinitives, a topic known as control. This fascination with the relation between syntax and semantics would become an enduring one in all of my research.


On the road in the USA

Row of elm trees on the Penn State campus

Row of elm trees on the Penn State campus

Since there were no academic positions available in Belgium at the time, I decided to leave my home country in order to continue my career in linguistics. At the recommendation of Pierre Swiggers, I was hired at Penn State in 1988 by Phil Baldi, the director of the Penn State linguistics program at the time, and Richard Frautschi, the head of the French department. During this one-year visiting assistant professorship (that was extended by another year), I met Pierre Pica, who would become a lifelong friend. Rather informally, Pierre taught me a lot about generative grammar, and I became fascinated by the rich perspective this framework had to offer for the understanding of language structure and variation. I also assisted Pierre with editing the French translation of Chomsky’s seminal Lectures on Government and Binding. This editorial work enhanced my theoretical grounding in generative grammar. I continued working on topics of infinitival complementation from the perspective of generative syntax and the Minimalist Program which was just taking off.


After two years at Penn State, I moved on to the department of French and Italian at Indiana University for another one-year visiting assistant professorship position, which was renewed for another two years. At Indiana, there was a large community of linguists: Albert Valdman and Laurie Zaring in French and Italian, but also Steven Franks, Alice ter Meulen, Stuart Davis, Natsuko Tsujimura, Clancy Clements, Louise McNally, Linda Schwartz and many others in the linguistics department. With their support, I coordinated and organized a lecture series on phrase structure and the lexicon, which later resulted in an eponymous edited book in 1995.

The Sample Gates at Indiana University

The Sample Gates at Indiana University




Settling down in The Netherlands

In 1992, I applied for a full professorship in French linguistics at Leiden University. At the time, Jean-Yves Pollock and Dominique Sportiche, whom I greatly admired, had also applied for this position and ended up not taking it. To my great surprise, I was hired. At 32, I was one of the youngest professors to have been named at Leiden University. I have been there ever since. I learned to negotiate the intricacies of Dutch academic life, and to properly distinguish the use of ‘proper’ Dutch (as it was called, even by my fellow Leiden linguists) from my own Flemish variety of Dutch. When I arrived in Leiden, theoretical linguistics was enthusiastically led by Jan Kooij, Teun Hoekstra, Hans Bennis, and Harry van der Hulst. The years between 1993 and 1998 were perhaps the most inspiring of my life: I learnt a lot about linguistics, but also about supervising PhD students, administration, and academic politics. All linguists would have lunch together, and our discussions invariably centered around linguistics: theory, data, and analysis. Only Monday morning coffee breaks were strictly dedicated to discussing soccer results from the previous weekend, under the watchful eye of Jan Kooij, a cigarette permanently fixed between his lips.


Between 1998 and 2000, things changed. Teun Hoekstra, who had become a good friend, died after a long battle with renal cancer. Hans Bennis took up a position as the director of the Meertens Institute, and Harry van der Hulst left Leiden for the University of Connecticut. Shortly before Teun Hoekstra passed away, he had asked me to take over the editorship of Lingua from him, and I became Lingua’s executive editor in January 1999. I published a book on sentential complementation with Routledge in 2000, which brought together a set of articles that I had written and published in the previous ten years. I took up various administrative duties at Leiden University, supervised more and more PhD students, and was involved in the Syntactic Atlas of Dutch Dialects (SAND). When Guido Vanden Wyngaerd spent a sabbatical in Leiden in 1997-1998, we started working on Binding Theory, which eventually resulted in our joint book Dissolving Binding Theory, published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

dissolving binding theory


Broadening my horizons

Between 2000 and 2010, I came to realize that supervising PhD students was just as rewarding as doing my own research: creating an atmosphere of intellectual trust and respect; testing hypotheses with them; nurturing their new and original insights; gently steering them clear of ideas that would never work; helping to shape a vague intuition into a rigorous argument; facilitating and encouraging them to talk to other people who could contribute the necessary expertise to the supervision team. Admittedly, I was blessed to be working with extraordinarily gifted PhD students. They have enriched and challenged me, and presented me with the most interesting and novel puzzles. Many of them have gone on to train PhD students of their own, in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Brazil, and South Africa. I have learned a lot from them. I believe that is how it should be: so-called PhD “supervision” is a two-way street, an exchange, a partnership. You don’t supervise, really, you participate.

During these years, I also led and collaborated on various research projects sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), which enabled me to broaden my expertise beyond generative syntax. With Martine Coene, I collaborated on experimental research on the development of language in children with cochlear implants. I also learned a lot about experimental research from Vincent van Heuven. With Willem Adelaar, I worked on our joint project on evidentiality, and became more acquainted with descriptive research. With my former PhD students Marjo van Koppen and Erik Schoorlemmer, I led a project on the morphosyntax of inalienable possession. Again thanks to Pierre Pica, who had been working on the number system of the Mundurucu in the Amazon, I became interested in the interdisciplinary domain of core knowledge systems. In 2012, in collaboration with Pierre and a number of Dutch researchers, I obtained a large interdisciplinary grant with funds for 4 postdocs and 4 PhD students to investigate the relation between core knowledge systems and language, music, poetry, and the visual arts.


Towards Open Access: from Lingua to Glossa

During the noughties, Lingua steadily grew in size, from a 700-page journal with 70 submissions per year, to a 2300 page journal with around 340 submissions per year. This growth was largely due to the success of our formula of guest edited Special Issues dedicated to a specific, coherent theoretical theme examined from various perspectives. Managing the journal came to dominate my daily routine, requiring constant discipline, vigilance, and, not in the least, diplomacy. At the same time, it gave me an unparalleled overview of general linguistics in all its variety, a peek into almost every nook and cranny of the field, and it helped me develop a vast network of authors and reviewers. It was like sitting in the first row of a concert hall.

In October 2015, Lingua was ranked 7th in Google Scholar’s h5-Index Top Publications – Humanities, Literature & Arts, and 3rd in the subsection Language & Linguistics, when its 6 editors and the 31 members making up its editorial board resigned in reaction to Elsevier’s refusal to publish Lingua under conditions of Fair Open Access. This action was inspired by my growing frustration with Elsevier. As the journal grew, so did the number of stipulations of the editorial contracts. Around 2011, Elsevier started trying to influence the choice of associate editors at Lingua, asking me politely to select associate editors with the nationality of countries where they incidentally happened to sell a lot of new subscriptions. Independently, this was also the time when the Elsevier boycott started. Many colleagues contacted me either to say that their library could no longer afford the expensive subscription for Lingua, or to inform me that they would no longer review for the journal, since it was an Elsevier journal. When I forwarded such messages to Elsevier, I only received vacuous corporate spin stories in return. I began to feel like I was working for the enemy.


This gave me the incentive to explore other options and I was serendipitously contacted by advocates of Open Access. With their help, we managed to acquire funds for ‘flipping’ linguistics journals to ‘Fair’ Open Access. Once our foundation Linguistics in Open Access was in place (www.lingoa.eu), we informed Elsevier that we wished to renegotiate our collaboration with them along principles of ‘Fair’ Open Access. When they refused, we left to set up Glossa, the successor journal to Lingua. The outpouring of support from the linguistic community was overwhelming and gratifying. The event was widely reported in the mainstream media (see: http://www.lingoa.eu/press/media-coverage/). A full account can be found on the Facebook pages of Linguistics in Open Access and Glossa.

I feel privileged to have spent most of my life in linguistics. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with great people, I have caught some glimpses of understanding of the workings of language, and I have been able to develop an idea or two. I look forward to my next 20-odd years in the field with anticipation and excitement.

Johan Rooryck | www.rooryck.org



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