Featured Linguist: Thomas Ede Zimmermann

LINGUIST List Fund Drive 2015

Featured Linguist: Thomas Ede Zimmermann (Goethe Universität Frankfurt a.M.)

Featured Linguist Thomas Ede Zimmermann

Featured Linguist: Thomas Ede Zimmermann

I was born and raised in the industrial city of Hannover, (then West) Germany. I was 15 when I decided to become a linguist. Here is how. Having entered the Oberstufe – the final phase in the traditional German grammar school – in the summer of 1970, I began developing a mild form of future angst: only 3 years to go until the Abitur (= German high school diploma) and no long-term plans! My parents, both non-academics, were not very helpful in this respect, trying to push me in the direction of German studies. Since I wasn’t sure whether this is what I would want to spend my life with, I decided to find out by browsing the local bookstores and came up with a pile of publishers’ catalogues of books for first-year students of Germanistik. I made my selection of the hottest titles, 4 volumes of a History of the European Novel among them, and returned to the bookstore to find that the only available book of my choice was the one with he catchy title Language, Thought, and Reality (or rather, Sprache, Denken, Wirklichkeit), by famous hobby linguist B. L. Whorf (as I know now). I bought it, read it, and … wanted to become a linguist! This was not so much for the (apparently mis-analysed) wonders of the Hopi language. Rather, what impressed me most was something Whorf used to illustrate his more than debatable claims on the subtle influence of grammar on our thinking: the structure of possible monosyllabic words of English, which he presented in one neat formula! I immediately forgot about the literature part of German studies and went to the local library to get hold of any linguistics textbooks I could find – not many, and all of them with a strong structuralist flavour (which was of course, not for me to discern).

Having spent the following year with langue vs. parole, double articulation, different kinds of oppositions, etc., I was beginning to become disappointed at the overdose of theoretical grandeur and the lack of neat formulae I had hoped for. This was about to change when, in the summer of 1971, I spent a couple of weeks in London with my brother’s friend Wolfgang Zucht, an anarchist who didn’t know anything about linguistics except that there was this guy Chomsky, who also happened to be an anarchist and had written all these linguistics books full of neat formulae. Wolfgang told me about John Lyons’s Fontana Modern Masters volume on Chomsky which had just appeared in German – and opened up a new world to me. I remember spending my last two Gymnasium years reading anything vaguely generative I could find in the local bookstores, from Lyons’s Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics to Lakoff’s Generative Semantics. It was the latter (which I had read in a German translation) that made me aware of the logical approach to meaning, but I did not get seriously into this before entering university.

Hannover did not have anything to offer but a German studies department, and so I decided to leave my hometown and register for the MA programme in theoretical linguistics at Konstanz University. This was in 1973, the beginning of my formation as a semanticist, under the gentle direction of Arnim von Stechow, who in my first year introduced me (and himself) to Montague’s Universal Grammar. At the end of that term I hadn’t grasped 10 per cent of that stuff, but my determination to master it all had been borne. This was to take me another few years of studying linguistic semantics as well as some philosophy and mathematical logic in Konstanz and London (with Hans Kamp), together with an amazing crowd of teachers, friends, and fellow semanticists I met on the way – too many to mention here. In the summer of 1978 I finished my MA thesis (on Montague Grammar – what else?), with the clear feeling that I knew and understood everything. I was young.

Becoming a semanticist back in the 1970s was quite different from what it is in the days of Heim & Kratzer (incidentally, two of my old Konstanz friends). The field had not been established as a sub-discipline of linguistics, and despite some serious integrative attempts (thanks to Barbara Partee), it was still perceived as an esoteric pastime of a small community of logicians, philosophers of language, and (few) linguists. In Germany, this community was particularly strong, with enough funding to have spectacular conferences bringing together some of the best researchers in the field. I attended quite a few of them, though rarely presenting anything, during the time I worked on my dissertation, which was supposed to be about the interface between logical and lexical semantics. I never finished that dissertation, for at least two reasons. The first was that I kept changing my mind over the very subject area: my original strategy had been to formulate model-theoretic constraints on meaning postulates to keep them from overgenerating (a serious issue at the time, and still), but the more I worked on it, the less confident I became that model theory is the right framework for natural language semantics. The other reason was that I was easily distracted, working on a lot of other problems at the same time, and with more success (in terms of publications). One of my favourite topics was Groenendijk’s and Stokhof’s fascinating partition semantics of interrogatives. When investigating its logical underpinnings, I found that one of Montague’s implicit hypotheses about semantic analysis – that his intensional type logic provides a restrictive framework of compositional semantics – was not quite right. I wrote a short article about this and showed it to my would-be supervisor Arnim von Stechow, who saw to it that I would submit it as my dissertation. In the event it was accepted by him (and the co-promoters) and also got published in a logic journal. Rather than being proud of these 13 pages in print, I have always felt a bit ashamed for never having written a proper dissertation; but in the meantime I got used to being introduced as the guy who must have written the shortest linguistics dissertation ever.

From (too many) search committee meetings I know that German professors expect their colleagues to have written at least two books. I managed to do without this, having passed my Habilitation in Stuttgart (in the 90s) with the ‘lazy’ option of submitting, instead of a monolithic book, a bunch of published articles on a number of quite different topics in logic and semantics. Eventually I still managed to find a permanent position as a professor of semantics (at Frankfurt) – and wrote two books since then, both textbooks, but still. And they are full of neat little formulae accounting for the complexities of compositional meaning.


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