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The choice of linguistic expressions

Linguist, field researcher, cyclist – Nikolaus Himmelmann unites many different characteristics – which is precisely what his research is about. Himmelmann came to the University of Cologne as professor of general linguistics in 2010. His current research focus: Which expressions do people choose in a given context and why?

For his outstanding research achievements, Professor Himmelmann received the University of Cologne’s Leo Spitzer Award in the humanities this year. In this interview, he speaks about his research approach, his interdisciplinary network at the UoC and his international activities.

By Svenja Rausch and Nina Maria Kohl

Professor Himmelmann, you are an expert in linguistics. What are you currently focusing on in your research?

The basic question of general linguistics is: what are the structural options in the languages of the world? How are they distributed? How are they motivated or how did they evolve? Answers to these questions allow us to make statements about the cognitive and social abilities and preferences of human beings, and about the course of human history.

Currently our research focuses on selection processes on a micro as well as on a macro level. At the macro level: If different options for expression are available at a given point in time (e.g., in current English both pleasanter or more pleasant are found), how can we explain why one of the options becomes the predominant choice in the long run? At the micro level: In a conversation, there are always different options regarding the next contribution. For example, you can refer to a person as ‘my neighbour’, ‘the lady with the dog’, ‘she’, and the like. Which formulation do you select and why?

As in many other fields, interdisciplinarity is very important in linguistics. Which disciplines are particularly relevant for your research?

Linguistics is an intersectional science par excellence. It cooperates with all major fields
of scientific inquiry: physics (natural sciences) is relevant when we are addressing the properties of sound waves that transport language signals. We cooperate with the life sciences on all issues relating to the physiology of the speech apparatus, or how the brain processes language (this particularly applies to language disorders).

With psychology, we share an interest in language acquisition as a developmental process and language processing as a cognitive accomplishment. Sociology and anthropology help us grasp the social and cultural functions of language, and in turn linguistic behaviour tells us a lot about social and cultural structures and practices.

Recently we have begun to try to win new insights regarding the development of human language in time and space with the help of geneticists. In this approach, we are applying methods from bioinformatics (phylogenetics) to linguistic data.

You conduct your studies not only in Cologne, but also comparatively across several continents. Where did your last international research trip take you and what did you research?

Commuting in Westpapua. Professor Himmelmann on his daily way to work.

Photo: Sonja Riesberg
Professor Himmelmann and the team he is working with at the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation, part of the UNIPA Manokwari (Westpapua). Photo: Sonja Riesberg

Field research and candlelight. Himmelmann works on documenting the over 250 languages still spoken in Westpapua, most of which are severely underdocumented. Photo: Sonja Riesberg

For several years, I have been working in West-Papua, the part of the large island of New Guinea that belongs to Indonesia. In cooperation with Yusuf Sawaki, a colleague at the local Universitas Negeri (UNIPA) Manokwari, I founded the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation there in 2009. Doctoral candidates and postdocs from Cologne are working there side by side with local researchers and students. They are documenting the more than 250 languages that are still being spoken in the region, but are still practically unknown. 

Had you not become a linguist, what would you have become?

I began my studies with a major in law and English. Perhaps I would have done something in the private sector or in administration. But already in my first semester, I began to become interested in linguistics due to the classes I had taken in my English programme.