Language as key to unlocking the human mind (2023)

(The following is an interview that appeared in the May 2013 issue of theFaculty of Humanities Newsletter).

Where others regard it merely as a means of communication, language for EnochO. Aboh offers a way of understanding culture, life and even the inner workingsof the human mind. As comparative linguist and profiling professor ofLearnability since September 2012, Aboh sees countless possibilities forcollaborating with other disciplines. ‘For the future of our domain, it isessential that we become more interactive and reach out to researchers fromother disciplines.’

Accidents and luck

One of the first things that strike me as I enter a sun-drenched office isthe affable nature of a man who humbly describes his impressive career as asuccession of accidents and luck. Growing up in Benin in the 1980s, Enoch O.Aboh had little idea of the bright future that awaited him as a professionallinguist. ‘I initially studied economics before moving to neighbouring Togo andgraduating with a Bachelor’s in English. In those days the only thing that anEnglish graduate could do was become a secondary school teacher, which didn’tseem very attractive at the time.’ Deciding to pursue a more practical line ofstudy, Aboh chose to study translation at the University of Geneva, but ended upmissing the entrance exams due to administrative reasons related to his visaapplication. Forced to wait another year to do a retake, he started exploringcomputational linguistics and linguistics, two subject areas which hadinterested him while studying English. ‘I decided to take some courses inlinguistics at Geneva, which at the time was the European centre of generativegrammar. I took a class taught by Prof. Luigi Rizzi, and was so impressed that Iended up enrolling in the university’s linguistics programme.’

Rediscovering language

In 1998 Aboh's sudden love affair with linguistics became a lastingrelationship when he completed his dissertation on the clause structure ofsentences in the Kwa language group. Titled From the Syntax of Gungbe to theGrammar of Gbe (Geneva 1999), Aboh’s thesis is devoted to themicro-comparative study of the Gbe languages (a subfamily of the Kwa languagesof West Africa) and explores the principles underlying cross-linguisticvariation within this language group and typologically different languages suchas Romance and Germanic. ‘I had originally intended to explore questionformation in French, but was encouraged by my supervisor Liliane Haegeman tofocus on Gungbe, which is a language I can speak but on whose linguisticstructure I had received no instruction (e.g. grammar, phonology, morphology,semantics). To understand this, it is important to know that in Benin, a formerFrench colony, French is the unique language of instruction and no so-callednational language is tolerated in school, not even as a subject of study.Accordingly, I could not even identify the part-of-speech or the grammaticalelements of Gungbe, a language I could speak naturally but which I did not thinkwas worth studying. My research on this language and other languages of the Gbeand Kwa family therefore gave me the extraordinary opportunity to rediscover myindigenous native language, which I could then compare to other languages Ispoke natively (e.g. French) or as a second language learner (e.g. English). Asmy work evolved, it became clear to me that certain linguistic phenomena, whichI once assumed typical of languages with an oral culture, are constant acrosstypologically different languages as well as across oral or written cultures. Anew world had been opened to me.’

Joining the UvA

After completing his dissertation, Aboh continued working as an associateprofessor at the University of Geneva before joining the Amsterdam Center forLanguage and Communication as a postdoctoral researcher in 2001. ‘I wasattending CALL (Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics) in Leiden whereI presented a paper on focus constructions in the Gbe languages and struck up aconversation with Norval Smith. He made comments on my paper and told me that hehad written a paper on the same focus particle I discussed in my paper, butwhich was also found in Saramaccan, a Suriname Creole. We talked about mydissertation and how I had sought to map the similarities and dissimilaritiesbetween Gbe (Kwa) languages. Having proposed a very fine description of theselanguages, which have been prominent in the formation of certain Creoles likeSranan, Saramaccan, and Haitian, I mentioned that the next step for me would beto examine these Creole languages on the basis of my findings. This we bothagreed would inform us on how these Creoles emerged and shed light on whetherthey have linguistic properties that are typical of West African languages asopposed to other properties typically found in Romance and Germanic languages.'Almost two years after their conversation,Smith, who had himself been doingresearch jointly with Pieter Muysken on the development of Surinam Creoles,formally invited Aboh to come to Amsterdam and participate in the NWO-fundedresearch project 'A transatlantic sprachbund? The structural relationshipbetween the Gbe languages of West Africa and the Surinam Creole languages'.Thisjoint project between the UvA and the University of Leiden aimed to identify andaccount for potential structural relationships between Surinamese Creoles andthe Gbe languages. Aboh: 'Looking back at my decision to take part in theproject, I realise now that it was a good move in the sense that it made methink about where language variation comes from, who creates it and how itscreation can be accounted for.'

A love of linguistics

Aboh's interest in language variation would go on to play a more prominentrole in his research at the UvA. In 2003 he was awarded a Vidi Grant for theproject 'The typology of focus and topic: a new approach to the discourse-syntaxinterface'. This project sought to investigate the nature of the interfacebetween discourse pragmatics and syntax by exploring how grammatical rules thatdetermine the structure of a sentence interact with discourse/pragmaticproperties. Following this project, Aboh' work continued developing along twomain axes: comparative syntax with a focus on linguistic variation and typology,and the comparative syntax of Creole languages as they relate to their sourcelanguages. In exploring these aspects, his own research took a clear turntowards understanding issues of language acquisition and change. 'One of thethings I learned from my work on Creole languages is that speakers and learnershave this profound capacity of taking different language elements andrecombining them into a coherent grammatical system. This seems to be anessential aspect of our "learning algorithm", which we can also see in theformation of new words. For example, take the word "Whatsapp", which wasactually a fused sentence "what is up?" with interrogative meaning, but laterbecame a noun after the final part was manipulated substituting the preposition"up" for what looks like an affix "app", taken from "application". The newlyformed word somehow maintains the interrogative meaning, but also meanscommunicating with friends using a specific application on one’s smartphone orany similar android device. This led to the usage of this word as a verb, whichDutch infinitive form takes the affix "en", as in "Whatsappen". This verb,however, consists of two parts, one Dutch and one English. This a clear exampleof the things that learners are capable of, and which I seek to understand in mycurrent research; how are they able to do this, and what are the principlesbehind it?'

Making linguistics accessible in Africa

As someone for whom linguistics has been a key to unlocking a new world inthe study of languages, Aboh is passionately involved in making linguisticsaccessible on the African continent. Aboh: 'One thing I learned whilecontributing to our knowledge of the differences and similarities betweenlanguages, is that much of the work we do here is unknown in Africa for reasonsmainly related to the unaffordability of books and material.' Given this stateof affairs, many African languages are still considered by their speakers asworthless both on economic and scientific counts. Wishing to play a part inincreasing linguistic awareness in Africa, Aboh started collaborating withlinguists from Rutgers University and New York University and in 2007 formed theAfrican Linguistics School (ALS). Unique in terms of its objectives and teachingmethodology, the ALS aims to expose African students to new advances inlinguistics and help them conduct further research on Africa languages. Held in2009 and 2011, this year’s ALS will take place in Ibadan, Nigeria and willinvolve about 80 students. Aboh: ‘With the help of funding from the UvA andothers we were able to cover students’ travel and accommodation costs in 2011.’As for the need for such a school, Aboh is in little doubt. ‘I am reallyinvolved in the ALS, not only because it’s important that African studentscontribute to the debate, but also because West Africa is one of the regionswith the highest rate of language diversity on earth; it’s a goldmine forlinguistic research. If there is anything to be discovered in languageacquisition, language variation, contact and change, it’s there!’

An ambassador of learnability

Listening to Aboh talk about the need to expand linguistic knowledge, itseems obvious why he is the ideal person to play a leading role in theLearnability programme, which forms part of the Brain and Cognition researchpriority area. As professor of Learnability, Aboh will be responsible forbringing together a diverse mix of researchers and formulating collaborative,cutting-edge research programmes. Aboh: ‘There are three concrete aspects to myposition: one is to develop a new working hypothesis in terms of learnability byintroducing new courses related to learnability and linguistics, and the otheris to formulate new research proposals and securing funding. The third aspect ofmy position requires me to act as ambassador for the Learnability programme andmake it visible to the international community by networking with otheruniversities.’

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Except for being the face of Learnability, Aboh is also enthusiastic aboutworking together with other research institutes. ‘One area of my work that I amreally involved in is the notion of brain and cognition, and how languages helpus understand the properties of our brain. A typical example of this is the workbeing done in neurolinguistics on bilinguals who suffer from aphasia and whouncontrollably switch from one language to the next. When one considers thatlanguage learners also typically mix languages, what then does that tell usabout the learning algorithm? Is it possible that the learning deviceautomatically generates theses mixed outputs, and that in our communities welearn how to control this tendency so as to be able to stick to one particularregister in a given language (e.g. formal vs. informal) or to one particularlanguage (e.g. English, French, Gungbe)? Also important: how do we model such alearning system? How can we account for the diffusion of newly created forms inthe community and how is that related to the emergence of linguistic as well ascultural norms? To help me understand this, I will need to work with researchersinvolved in evolutionary biology and genetics.’

Aboh also sees possibilities for collaboration in the field of culturalstudies. ‘If you examine the way learners change language, you realise thatlearning and change run in tandem.This phenomenon not only has a huge impactwith regard to linguistic knowledge, but also on our understanding of culture;how do we learn cultural conventions and taboos, and how can we account for thefact that culture is continually evolving? Assuming that change is inherentlypart of our learning algorithm, could it be that the change forming part of thelearning process is actually a way ensuring the survival of a culture? This isan aspect of my work I would like to jointly investigate with colleagues fromASCA.’

A bottom-up approach to teaching

As for his teaching duties, Aboh is currently responsible for several coursesat the MA level, including: ‘Perspectives on Universals’, where data isdescribed with the aim of investigating the language blueprint as well asproperties of what is (im)possible in human languages; and ‘Language Contact’,in which the focus is mainly on the structural changes that take place oncelanguages come into contact with one another, as well as issues likecode-switching and language mixing. ‘Unlike many universities I have beeninvolved with, the UvA has a bottom-up approach to teaching. As someone whocomes from a country with a very rigid academic system, I appreciate the factthat there is no hierarchy between lecturers and students. The fact thatstudents can easily challenge everything we say, ensures a healthy academicsetting and can sometimes leads to unexpected, productive partnerships.’


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