‘Language is not a natural kind’ – an interview with Martin Stokhof

by Gisela Govaart, March 2014

Martin Stokhof is professor in philosophy of language at the University of Amsterdam. He studied philosophy and linguistics, and wrote a joint dissertation with Jeroen Groenendijk on questions. His early research was on questions and dynamic semantics; more recently he has published on the philosophy of semantics and on Wittgenstein. In December, a festive event was held on the occasion of the upcoming retirement of Stokhof, Jeroen Groenendijk and Frank Veltman.

Photo Martin
       Martin Stokhof

‘The retirement festivity was a bit curious, because I am not retiring yet: I still have two years to go. But Jeroen Groenendijk, with whom I have worked intensively, and Frank Veltman, also a co-author and long-time colleague, are retiring in the spring. Because our joint work is best known in the semantics community, the idea was to have the event at the Amsterdam Colloquium, which took place in December. A collection of essays was written for the event, it was a lot of fun reading them. We certainly did not deserve al the praise that has been bestowed upon us, but that is part of how such events go. I am grateful for all the nice things that were said.’

‘Retirement is, unfortunately, compulsory. I know that some people have tried to argue that this is a matter of age discrimination, but I think the European Court has decided that it is up to the various nations to determine whether they want to do that or not. Of course, there are lots of ways to continue doing what you like doing. Even though you are formally no longer employed by the university, you can still be a guest lecturer. And you still have five years in which you can act as a supervisor of PhD students. Since I do not really have hobbies that I want to have more time for, that is what I will do.’

‘The work I did together with Jeroen Groenendijk was on questions, and later on dynamic semantics, which is in the centre of formal semantics, and a bit on pragmatics. At some point I wanted to change directions. At the same time, my administrative load became much more substantial. I was scientific director of the ILLC for more than five years, and chairman of the Humanities Council of NWO for six years. I also wanted to keep teaching, so the time for research became much less. Combined with this change of directions in my own work, Jeroen and I sort of parted ways, at least scientifically. When we started our careers, we were doing more or less the same things on a daily basis, a lot of them together. It took a couple of years for it to become clear that we were going in somewhat different directions. Then we slowly disentangled. Fortunately, our personal relationship has not suffered from that.’

‘When I started moving away from formal semantics, I got interested in Wittgenstein, so I wrote a book and a few papers about his work. At some point, I started coming back to semantics, but more from a meta-theoretical perspective. I asked myself why semantics is what it is. That led to the question of what kind of intellectual enterprise semantics is, for example whether it is a straightforward empirical science, as most people would think. Then you start to explore, you look back at the origins, and you see what kind of principles have motivated the whole enterprise. You see that there is lots of influence from logic, from philosophy, and from linguistics. Semantics of course deals with natural language, and in that sense it is an empirical science. But it also relies on assumptions and concepts from logic and philosophy, which are not empirical in the same way. This investigation has occupied me for the last ten years or so.’

‘There are not that many people working on what I call ‘philosophy of semantics’. I think that is a pity, although I am certainly not saying that everybody in semantics should constantly ask themselves what they are doing. Then nothing gets done! But it is good to take a step back every now and then, and think about what assumptions you have made. That is useful for two reasons. First, we see an enormous diversity in semantics and linguistics. I am, unfortunately, old enough to have been trained in really dominant paradigms. Generative Grammar was what linguistics was all about – at least it seemed like that for a long time – and formal semantics was also pretty homogeneous. Nowadays there is more diversification in terms of methods that people employ, which is a good development. However, it raises the important question of how to combine the results you get from different methodological paradigms. The answer to that is not obvious. For example, if you have a strictly intuition-based methodology, you must subscribe to something like a competence-performance distinction. If you study actual data, then you are studying performance and not competence, and it is not obvious that you can compare the results of both methodologies. The second reason is the connection with other sciences. Despite the success of linguistics, it does have difficulties leading to strong predictions that can be tested in, for instance, cognitive neuroscience. This must have something to do with the way in which linguistics has originally constructed its object of study. Traditional grammar-oriented linguistic description fails to interact in a really productive way with cognitive neuroscience, for example. Of course, interactions do exist, but they are not as straightforward as you might think they are. I think this has to do with a certain lack of clarity about methodological issues.’

‘Two years ago I published a paper together with Michiel van Lambalgen, on the distinction between what we call abstraction and idealisation. In any scientific enterprise, you do not deal with the raw phenomenon, but you must construct an object of study, by focusing on certain aspects and neglecting others. Otherwise you simply never leave the stage of collecting data. Once theory starts, you deal with a certain constructed reality. What we claim in our paper is that in the natural sciences this constructed reality usually takes the form of abstraction. You leave out certain quantitative aspects. For example, you neglect friction, in order to describe the movements of objects in a plane. This leads to predictions that can be verified or falsified with further experiments and observation. But linguistics is somewhat different than the natural sciences. We studied for example the way in which the competence-performance distinction has been introduced in Generative Grammar. In this case, you do not simply leave out a quantitative aspect of a phenomenon, but you idealize away from a qualitative feature, saying for example that the ideal speaker or listener is someone who does not have any memory limitations. The next question, which we are still working on, is: why is it that what looks like the same intellectual movement, has one result if you make it in one area, but has a completely different result in the other area. That, we claim, has to do with the ontological diversity of what language is all about. The slogan of that paper, which we are still writing, is ‘language is not a natural kind’. So language is not ontologically homogeneous, unlike for example matter or energy, or even living matter.’

‘The best phrase that I know to describe what language is, actually comes from Wittgenstein. He talks about “the motley of language”: it is a patchwork, a mix of different things. Language has something to do with very basic cognitive mechanisms that we as humans have, and some of which we may share with other animals. But it is also a social art, which we acquire in a social setting and which functions in a social setting. Language functions in a social setting in ways that are simply not captured by the idea of a homogeneous set of well formed expressions, with phonological and semantic representations that are described by a grammar. Communication succeeds using linguistic material that does not satisfy any grammatical description, and even with incomplete understanding, you can still have successful communication. To account for the entire range of phenomena related to language, you have to deal with lots of things of different natures. Linguistics is therefore only a part of what is needed to understand the phenomenon language in its full breadth and depth. This makes it all the more interesting, I would say.’

‘I have never thought about whether there is a leading question in my research. But if I am forced to think about it, I would choose something that plays a role not just in this philosophy of semantics work, but that also explains why I find the work of Wittgenstein and similar authors so fascinating. Our understanding of the world and of ourselves takes place not just at different levels of understanding, but also in different modes. There is the scientific mode of understanding, which some people think is the only mode that will ever teach us anything worthwhile. There is also is an everyday mode of understanding, an everyday way of coping with problems and questions. Then there are ways of understanding that you find in the arts, for example. And, viewed from a certain perspective, you find different modes of understanding in religion and related areas.

You can argue that it is impossible to come up with a comprehensive account of the ways in which we deal with ourselves and with reality, because that is also constantly changing. There will never be a complete description that you can finalize at some point: our self-understanding changes according to what we find out about ourselves and about reality, and that also brings shifts in other modes of understanding. How these modes of understanding interact, and what are the often quite subtle differences between those modes of understanding, is something that fascinates me.’

‘Logic as a tool’ – an interview with Nina Gierasimczuk

by Gisela Govaart, March 2014

Nina Gierasimczuk is a Post-Doc researcher at the Institute for Language, Logic and Computation (ILLC). She obtained her MA in Philosophy at the Warsaw University, and a PhD in 2010 at the ILLC, under supervision of Johan van Benthem and Dick de Jongh. Her current VENI research focuses on formal learning theory, dynamic epistemic logic, and belief revision. 
She is also actively involved in research into the role of logic and logical modeling in cognitive science.

Photo Nina
Nina Gierasimczuk

‘I began my higher education studies in Warsaw; I enrolled in an interdisciplinary MA program in humanities. The scheme gave me the chance to choose all sorts of University courses, creating my own individual curriculum. I focused mostly on the interdisciplinary agenda of logic. My first choice was philosophy, especially epistemology and analytical philosophy. I complemented the studies with psychology, mathematics, and computer science. It might seem surprising, but I also studied history of art.’

‘I moved to the Netherlands in 2006. I initially applied for a PhD position at the ILLC, but funny enough I lost the competition to my partner. I was then anyway called on the phone by a member of the hiring committee and advised to come to the Netherlands; my profile turned out to be interesting enough. I took it at face value, came to Amsterdam, and after a year of non-funded research I was given a two-year contract. In the final year I got a job in the Talenten Kracht project and obtained additional funding for teaching at Amsterdam University College. All the pieces came together in the end of 2010, when I finished and defended my thesis. Immediately after that, in 2011, I moved to Groningen, where I was a offered a post-doc position at the Artificial Intelligence Department.’

‘I find the ILLC environment extremely stimulating and motivating. Maybe that’s because we have so many strong individuals of similar academic and scientific profile. So many logicians–smallest differences in their frameworks become important. Everyone’s fighting to establish their identity and their independent research agenda. As a result environment is very dynamic.’

Learning patterns in groups

‘In 2013, I got a VENI grant for my project ‘Learning from each other. Formal analysis of multi-agent learning’. The aim is to see how being in a group affects learning. Learning strategies studied in computational linguistics, but also in formal epistemology are by and large oriented towards single agent learning. In psychology, there is much research showing that the presence of peers can enhance learning in certain situations. We also know of cases when being in a group impairs learning. An interesting question is what kind of roles subjects assume in group-learning situations and why. How individual and group knowledge changes in social networks is a very current problem. For example, the most popular model of group learning, classroom situation, is very problematic in this respect. Take for instance a case of pluralistic ignorance: social situation in which students after a lecture are asked whether they understood everything and stay silent even though there is still quite some things they could ask. I want to analyse these multi-agent effects in formal learning theory, extending results from my PhD towards the convergence of group knowledge.’

‘The first step is to overview similar phenomena that have been already studied, for example in psychology, epistemology, philosophical logic, and sociology. Then make some logical and computational sense of it, find common denominators, specify game-theoretical, linguistic, and knowledge related aspects. Finally, I hope to link to the existent frameworks of learning and see where the agenda should be pushed forward.’


‘I have been involved in adding logical tasks to ‘Rekentuin.nl’ (Math Garden), which is an online educational training system for children, used massively by kids in the Netherlands. Children learn mathematical operations, like addition and multiplication, in online games. My role was to develop and help implementing a logical reasoning game. The game we chose is a simplified version of Mastermind. It is often said that logical thinking is a matter of pure talent rather than learning, but I do not believe that. Working with the Rekentuin team, especially with the psychologists Han van de Maas and Maartje Raaijmakers helped me keeping in touch with psychological, empirical reality. Here one can see learning in action, learning patterns, but also error patterns. In this way, we can discover whether there is logic to learning, in the way people acquire new skills and knowledge. And this seems to be the case: one of the results of the project shows clear-cut error patterns. This suggests that there are certain stages of trained abilities, certain common thresholds that children have to overcome in order to get to the ideal performance. So this sheds some light not only on the logical abilities of children, but also on the learning of them.’

Visual arts

‘Before I started university, one of the options was to apply to fine arts academy. Now I still do make art, mostly painting, drawing, and some design. Sometimes those things come quite close to my academic life. I designed quite some covers for scientific books, Johan van Benthem’s books, my colleagues PhD theses. And whenever there is some sort of quasi-artistic task to be done in close academic proximity, I take care of that, and find it quite rewarding.’

‘I do not really divide my time into free time and work. Almost everything I do scientifically I like doing, so the transition is fluent. Art is no exception here; I am becoming increasingly interested in cognitive science of art. Art and history of art has a lot to say about perception, in particular about visual perception. How do we reason with visual stimuli? What makes us like certain types of pictures and dislike others? Finally, more towards social epistemology, what makes certain types of art popular? I am currently reaching out to Rietveld Academy trying to find out how to match my logical/computational agenda with the study of art and visual perception, but this is really something that I am just beginning to understand and explore.’

Academic environment

‘I have spent a big part of my life as an expat, and I do not have a big problem with that, it feels quite natural for me. Amsterdam is a great place to live in and it’s quite close to Poland, in many respects. Being an expat academic couple is another issue on its own. It is often a long and tiresome fight to be stationed in one place. And since now it is getting harder and harder to get a permanent job anywhere in Academia, this is a real issue. I observed quite a lot of prejudice towards couples in the academic world. Sometimes it can be especially harmful towards women, because of the negative stereotypes in male dominated communities.  Criticism based on stereotypes, though often expressed unintentionally, can resonate for a very long time. They can also make one underachieve in their work. My personal strategy, not always successful, is to distance myself from those thoughts, and focus on work. I also try to fight explicit and point out implicit bias whenever I see it.’ 

The potential of logic

‘It is a popular slogan that logic is a study of human reasoning. We should be aware that this idea of logic being just a description of how people reason is naïve, and it leads to all sorts of modelling problems. For example, if you assume that people are just logical machines, they should in principle know all logical consequences of everything they believe. This is unrealistic; a combination with certain types of processing restrictions could help here. Such are the computational ones. And here is where logic has a new role to play, as it is used extensively in studying the notions of computability and complexity.’

‘In my opinion, mathematical logic has a great potential as a tool for cognitive science. In my joint work with psychologists logic turned out to be essential in the pre-modelling phase, when experiments where designed, and then again later when results needed to be interpreted. Moreover, logic has languages that can fittingly describe all kinds of abstract structures. As a result, it could be one of the tools for investigating how human mind work on a qualitative level. For example, modal logics are used in computer science to verify processes, algorithms; to test whether they are well designed and will be successful. I think that this way of thinking may well be applied in cognitive science.’

‘Everyone is bilingual to some extent’ – an interview with Enoch O. Aboh

by Gisela Govaart, March 2014

Enoch Aboh is professor of learnability at the University of Amsterdam. Before coming to the UvA, he worked at the Université de Genève. His research interests are: learnability of human language, theoretical syntax, comparative syntax, (including comparison between the West-African language family Kwa and Germanic, Romance, Sinitic, and Caribbean creoles), the discourse-syntax interface, language creation, and language change.

Photo Enoch
Enoch O. Aboh

‘I started my university studies with economics in Benin, a small country on the west coast of Africa where I come from. I then moved to a neighbouring country, Togo, where I did my BA in English. The idea of the program was to train students to become foreign language teachers. But after my BA I was not so keen on becoming a teacher and I decided to study translation. To cut a long story short, I moved to Europe and found myself in Geneva, registered in the faculty of letters with linguistics as a major. I did my MA and my PhD in Geneva. After graduating in 1998, I worked at Université de Genève as a lecturer, for two years before I got a post-doc here in Amsterdam, in 2000. Looking back, I realise that I left Benin with no specific idea about having a career in academia.. It all happened as a consequence of different actions and events, which led me to make one choice or the other. But, of course, even if you do not plan such things ahead, there is always a point in time when you just feel like yes, this is what I want to do.’

The African Linguistics School

‘I think immigrants always consider going back to their home country. Immigrants of my age keep saying it, but it is the kind of thing you know will never happen. In my case, I made a conscious choice not to go back, because I think that the work I am doing here is more useful to people in Benin and other African countries, than the kind of work I could do in Benin. One of those things is providing literature on a language that before I started did not have any references. Since 2009 I am also involved in organizing the African Linguistics School, which is unique in the world. This school takes place every two years in an African country of our choice. We select about 70 to 80 students from various African countries, who are funded to attend the school. For two weeks, the students are exposed to top calibre teachers invited from Europe and the United States to teach introductory as well as advanced courses. The program revolves around four main pillars: formal syntax, phonetics and phonology, semantics, and language contact. It is very rewarding to see that the entire faculty accept to teach pro bono and many of them fund their own travel expenses to the venue. Clearly the school is a fantastic forum where the African students and the invited teachers contribute to the development and transfer of knowledge The school took place in 2009, 2011 and 2013, and in 2015 it will take place in Ivory Coast. Staying here thus does have the advantage of allowing me to contribute to such large scale initiatives and to be able to give back. Being in Benin would have had the advantage of being close to the field, but when I consider the social, cultural, and educational impact of these two options, I think that staying here weighs more.’

A pretty fine cognitive system

‘If you put a child in any kind of noise where people speak a language, the child will end up speaking that language. There seems to be a bias in human being, something about learning that helps the child to decide what is relevant and what she has to pay attention to. Once we agree to that, then we must also agree that there is something ‘in there’, a pretty fine cognitive system, that allows the child to make the right hypotheses about the rather challenging data she is exposed to. The question is whether this pretty fine system is language specific or not, but, actually, I don’t think the answer to that question will help us make any progress. This is the kind of question we want to ask once we really know how the system functions. Right now it is more important to figure out what kind of bias we are talking about, how it functions, and how children develop this bias.’

‘What is nice about this university, at least in the Linguistics department, is the fact that we have different backgrounds, but we can still function as a coherent research unit. It is true that generativists, like me, form a minority – though a strong minority – in this department, but that does not prevent us from working and interacting with other colleagues. For example, I collaborate closely with Kees Hengeveld, who is a functionalist and our views converge on many linguistic issues, though we may disagree on the exact implementation or analysis.. Actually, that is what I like here: you hear different voices, and it is up to you to decide how you want to integrate these different voices into your own perspective of what the human language capacity is.’

Learnability of Human Languages

‘The position that I have now is the Learnability of Human languages, which deals with the basic question of how children acquire the language that they are exposed to. One of the things that I want to do is to approach the notion of learnability from the perspective of bilinguals. If you look at the development of linguistics throughout the last 30-40 years, a lot of emphasis has been put on monolinguals. The idea is that you investigate what monolinguals do, and then you can infer what the linguistic system behind that is. I am trying to investigate this from the perspective of bilinguals, because I think that everyone is bilingual to some extent. Even speakers of a single language are considered to be bilinguals, in the sense that they master different varieties, registers or styles which sometimes may correspond to significant differences in grammars. The fact that you can speak standard Dutch as opposed to colloquial Dutch is a form of bilingualism, similar to the fact that I can speak Gungbe and French.’ The only difference is that in one case you are operating on closely related grammars while in my case I’m operating on typologically and genetically different grammars.

‘What I am interested in is how speakers draw on their knowledge of different grammars. We know that in normal contexts, speakers try to stick to one grammar or to one language at a time. But what we also know is that in multilingual settings speakers can easily switch from one language to another, and that they do this in a very systematic manner. The question is what the engine behind this is, that allows them to merge two or more grammars into one without causing communication to fail. And then the question arises how this relates to the learning process. My view is that learning boils down to developing an algorithm that allows the learner to put together pieces of information extracted from the input. If this is true, then what we know as ‘code switching’, moving from one language to another in an utterance, is actually a reflection of that algorithm. You take a piece from one language, and another one from another language, and then you put them together to form a new item. I am suggesting that even monolinguals do exactly this when they are acquiring a language. The child extracts a number of features from the input that she is exposed to, and then put those features back together, in order to form a grammar that allows her to communicate with other members of the community.’

‘If we take that line of thought, there are a number of interesting implications. One of them, suggested by studies on pathological code-mixing is that some bilingual speakers with brain damage may loose the inhibitory control system that allows selection and maintenance of one language during a conversation. So these speakers cannot stick to one language and, switch from one language to another without control. The interesting thing is that: the switch patterns that they produce cannot be formally distinguished from those made by speakers with no brain damage. This suggests that the entity, or module – or call it whatever you want because we do not know what it is – which generates these switches, is not damaged even in such patients. I suggest that this module, which is specialized in generating linguistic combinatorics is also what allows us to acquire language. This module is independent of the lexicon since it generates well-formed outputs made of linguistic features extracted from different lexicon. Since this module is not tied to any specific lexicon, what we apparently learn is how to control it so as to stick to some particular type of lexicon which itself relates to some particular type of grammar which we label as some particular language (e.g., Dutch, Gungbe, Michif, etc. If I am right, it seems to me reasonable to conclude that this module is language-specific. It’s only job is to recombine linguistic features into new linguistic items. My current research is to find out the properties of this module.’

‘If you do it well, philosophy can really influence other fields’ – an interview with Erik Rietveld

by Gisela Govaart, June 2013

Dr. Erik Rietveld is a researcher at the University of Amsterdam (AMC and Department of Philosophy) and a Founding Partner of design & research studio Rietveld Landscape. In 2010 he was one of the curators for the Dutch submission to the Venice Architecture Biennale, and in 2013 he received an NWO VIDI-grant for the project ‘The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’.

Erik Rietveld, photo by Alva Noë
Erik Rietveld, photo by Alva Noë

“I started doing philosophy after travelling and studying in Brazil for one year. I was originally trained as an economist and had worked for five years for a multinational company, in their Mergers & Acquisitions department. I did like it; it was a very good start of getting to know the world outside university. You get a lot of responsibility: it was typically millions of dollars that we spent on buying a company. But after a few years I realized I wanted to do something different in the long run. The result of the work was quite one-dimensional: in the end, everything is measured in share price of the company. It is all about money, and I am not that interested in money. After that year in Brazil, I came back to Amsterdam, and I was trying to find out what I would really like to do. In that year, I realized, I had had the freedom of doing everything I wanted, and I was always reading philosophy. I decided that I should start doing that seriously.”

“I call myself a philosopher of embodied cognitive science. One of the people launching embodied cognition, before it was a research field, was Hubert Dreyfus, who wrote the book ‘What computers can’t do’ and later ‘What computers still can’t do’. He was a Spinoza professor here in Amsterdam, and that is how I got introduced to him, and via him to many other philosophers in the field.”

Shared feeling

“It is not a huge field, which has the advantage that you meet almost all the people who publish in it at conferences. There are interesting disagreements, but there is also the shared feeling that it is really important what we are doing and it is getting increasingly recognised in more traditional laboratories within cognitive science. For example, several people at the CSCA, the Cognitive Science Centre Amsterdam, are really interested in what is going on in this field. That is what I like about being based in Amsterdam, that there is the opportunity to engage in collaboration with these people, who are really open-minded.”

“I think the field of philosophy is a conservative field, not so much my colleagues here, but mainstream philosophy. I think that in general the top philosophy journals are very much embedded in a kind of philosophy that is not always very open to interaction with other disciplines or open to being informed by empirical research. It is very much internally focussed: it focuses on scholastic debates within philosophy itself, rather than being interested in the world out there.”

Higher cognition

“The title of my VIDI project is ‘The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’. What I try to do is to develop a philosophical framework for embodied cognitive science. Normally, it is thought that embodied cognition has sensible things to say about every day activities, such as sitting in a chair, grasping a glass, riding your bike etc. I have analysed these behaviours as forms of skilled action. One of the conclusions was that for skilled action, responsiveness to affordances, which are possibilities for action offered by the environment, is crucial. This means that affordances support skillful action. What I will do in this new project is to show how higher cognition is often also a form of skillful action. I want to explore to what extent we can understand skillful action of for example architects or surgeons at work as responsiveness to affordances.”

“I argue that the notion of affordances is much richer than people normally think it is: it does not only offer possibilities for every day actions. For example, one of the skills we have is to put a glass on the beer coaster, which would be an every day action, but another skill we have is to judge that this is red. This means that a beer coaster offers the possibility to judge correctly that is it red, and that it can do so, depends on the social and cultural practice that we have. The affordances in our human ecological niche are nothing else than just relations between aspects of the environment, and the abilities that are available in our form of life.”

Different experiments

“Simple as it sounds, I think this rich notion of affordances is really fundamental, because what I try to do is to make responsiveness to affordances the main phenomenon for the field of embodied cognition to study. That means also that cognitive neuroscientists should be interested primarily in how it is possible that we are always responsive to the relevant affordances in a particular situation, and not to all the other thousands of possible affordances. The role of the brain and the body is to contribute to selecting the relevant affordances in the particular situation. From that perspective you would design very different experiments than people are designing currently in cognitive science. Currently everything is divided up in memory, perception, emotion, cognition, action etc. My idea changes this, in the way that the basic phenomenon now is responsiveness to relevant affordances in a particular situation.”

“I want to see how far we can go with that. I think I made a good argument in recent collaborative work with my colleague Julian Kiverstein that judging correctly that something is red can be explained in responsiveness to affordances, but there will probably be limits as well to this rich notion. I want to explore these limits: I want to see what we can and what we cannot understand in these terms. I will do that by looking at episodes of architects at work and see what parts of what is traditionally called higher cognition we can understand in terms of responsiveness to affordances and what not. After years of collaborating with architects I have become convinced that many forms of higher cognition can be understood along these same lines as I found in my work on everyday skilful action.”

A VIDI with four projects

“The VIDI has four projects. The first one is the development of the affordance-based philosophical framework, the second project is an investigation of expertise in architecture and getting ethnographic descriptions of architects at work. The third project investigates the phenomenology of patients with deep brain stimulation. If deep brain stimulation is switched on, and it works, the whole phenomenology changes all at ones; it is not just perception or memory that changes. Everything changes at once. We will relate that to what phenomenologists call ‘being in the world’. We try to make this concrete using the notion of the field of affordances. And then the fourth project is to think of the whole system brain-body-environment as a dynamical system. For this, we use ideas from dynamical systems theory to shed light on these systems. I think it makes most sense to think of this system as the brain-body-landscape of affordances system. It is the body embedded in the landscape of affordances, and the brain embedded in the body. They are all coupled: the brain is coupled to the rest of the body, and the rest of the body is coupled to the landscape of affordances. I think that dynamical systems theory has interesting tools to better understand that.”

Venice Biennale

“The Venice Architecture Biennale is basically the most important event in the world of architecture. Various countries have a pavilion in Venice, and the countries make a submission for every Biennale. My brother, architect Ronald Rietveld, and I were invited by the ministry of OCW, (Education, Culture and Science) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute to be the curators of the Dutch submission. If you are curator you can either invite someone else to create the submission, or you can do it yourself. We decided to design it ourselves, but with an excellent team of other people: a visual artist, an industrial designer, a graphic designer and a project manager.”

“We composed the team after we proposed a topic: the vacancy of ten thousand government buildings in the Netherlands, and the use of these buildings for temporary activities in what the government calls the ‘top sectors’ for a vital knowledge economy. The main statement we made was ‘use vacant buildings for innovation’. But the Biennale is an event were you have to give a memorable experience to the people, so we chose to make an installation. It had a great impact, and a lot of spinoff. Jurgen Bey, the industrial designer, became the director of the Sandberg institute, which is the Master Program of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. He invited us to develop our own Master course on the topic: the potential of vacant buildings. I see vacant buildings as landscapes of resources, of affordances, being locked up behind a door. There is a lot of potential, so we would like to unlock it for our society, particularly when it is government-owned and particularly in times of crisis. Even more when you know that it are interesting buildings, cultural heritage, with unique affordances, like an airport with a 3 kilometre runway, or fortresses, bunkers, schools, hospitals etc.”

The installation at the Venice Biennale
The installation at the Venice Biennale

“It is nice working with my brother, we get along very well, we have a lot of fun when we work. I think the reason that it works well, is that we share a lot of background. Obviously, we grew up together, but we went on some holidays together as well, we travelled a lot together. My brother works, thanks to his years of training and experience in architecture, very intuitively. My role is even more intuitive, because I do not have any formal training in architecture, so I just respond to what I see. My brother selects what makes sense and what does not make sense. Or actually: he ignores what does not make sense. That is an important difference between philosophers and architects: philosophers are always targeting what does not make sense in someone’s argumentation, whereas architects just ignore what does not work.  I am more of the positive approach: I like things that can make a change in the real world. If you do it well, philosophy can really influence other fields.”

‘New discoveries are found at borderlines’ – an interview with Fred Weerman

by Gisela Govaart, June 2013

Fred Weerman (1957) is full professor at the Dutch department at the University of Amsterdam since 2001. Earlier, he worked at the University of Utrecht, where he also received his doctor’s degree in 1989. At the moment, he is engaged in research projects about variation in inflection, disentangling bilingualism and SLI, and encoding grammatical information.

Fred Weerman, photo by Michel Utrecht
Fred Weerman, photo by Michel Utrecht

“The main reason I chose to study Dutch language and literature was that in those days it was the only way to enter the program in Theater Studies. But in the first term I discovered linguistics and that was it. I got an appointment as a student-assistant right away, which was quite an honour, and I was sold.”

“I grew up in a purely Generative framework. Even my dissertation work, which was on language change, was already at the periphery of what other people did. And then I discovered that language change could not be understood purely in terms of first language acquisition. There had been a whole debate about parameter change, where children had options A an B. Then some children chose B and this was how change occurred. For me, that could not be correct, and this made me realize that it is important to work on borderlines: it is very safe to work in an isolated framework, with its clear questions and problems, but truly new discoveries are found at borderlines.”


“From that time, my approach was to combine subdisciplines and I believe it is not a good idea to stay too closely in this safe network of people working on a particular model. I am not saying that no one should do this type of work, but for me the interesting things happen when you have a clash between several fields, and it is interesting to be there when the clash takes place. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that you have to be extremely patient to work on the development of particular theoretical notions. Maybe I am missing that talent: I like to see more fire.”

“One of the central hypotheses in my work is that the distinction between early and late acquisition has consequences for language change. It is very easy to explain to speakers of Dutch that Dutch is in between English and German in terms of inflection: English hardly has any inflection, while German has quite a bit. One of my hypotheses is that this has to do with the amount of language contact in history. All three languages are Germanic languages: in a way, they were once all the same. But apparently, English lost all these inflectional notions, whereas German is relatively conservative. This has something to do with immigration and this phenomenon of the acquisition of inflection. Because, indeed, immigration plays a large role in the history of English, whereas the German standard language could develop quite isolated, and Dutch takes a position somewhere in between.”


“In a broader sense, in order to see the rise of an inflectional system you will have to examine language families that are typologically totally different, in different situations. The idea is that children are very good at learning and building an inflection system. Late acquisition is a way to destroy the system, simplistically said. Given this type of argumentation, what you need is a situation in which L2 acquisition hardly plays a role, in order to understand the rise of inflection. There is evidence that it works like this. Take for example Icelandic, which looks as if nothing has changed in 1000 years; it is obviously the most conservative of the Germanic languages. And geographically, it is quite clear that it is isolated, which probably helped the language to remain in its older situation. This is a Germanic example, but there are other examples as well, and there are typological correlations that suggests that typological isolation goes together with more complex inflectional systems.”

Two kinds of researchers

“There is a distinction between two kinds of researchers.  First, there are those who follow the details of a particular program, such as Generative Grammar, and who develop the most recent notions, like Chomsky and his colleagues and students. And then there are the researchers that share the broad view behind a program, the attitude towards particular empirical problems. In this respect, probably most people here in Amsterdam are Generative Linguists. For instance, the problem of language acquisition is very central in our work, and it is very difficult not to say that this is historically related to the Generative enterprise.”

“I sometimes still work on specific theoretical details, but my focus is more on the combination of particular subfields of linguistics. For me it is important to combine theoretical problems with real empirical work on acquisition or real work on language change. And if you focus on the combination of these subfields, suddenly the last insights of a particular theoretical discussion are less important to you. We do need people who work on all these micro-theoretical details as well, but I think we should also try to combine it with other parts of the field, and not only focus on particular theoretical notions that are in fashion.”

“Take again this example of language change. We have a theoretical approach, and theoretical ideas on how inflection works, and how relevant it is for human languages; this is clearly related to Generative work and insights. However, this approach is not enough if you talk about language change. You also have to look at what actually happens in acquisition of inflection. What are the mistakes you see, how early is a specific phenomenon acquired, what mistakes do adults make, how different is this from what children do? This is guided by the theoretical questions in the beginning, but it is a different kind of research that you are doing.”

Not enough

“If you talk about language change, it suddenly turns out that it is not enough to talk about child acquisition, since children are perfect learners of an inflectional system. This would make you expect that languages are constant, but what we see in Germanic languages is a process of loss of inflection. To explain this, you have to combine theoretical notions with your ideas on acquisition. And that is when you come to think about the adults, who are not good at learning inflection, and who ‘corrupt’ the inflectional system. Then you shift to another approach: if it is really connected to demographical phenomena, you need work done by historians, because you need to know what the immigrational situation in the Netherlands was, and how it was different from England an Germany. Then it really becomes an interdisciplinary question.”

“Because of the open atmosphere in Amsterdam, it is possible to do this kind of interdisciplinary research here. For me personally, Amsterdam has a much more better atmosphere than Utrecht, although perhaps Utrecht nowadays also is different than it was when I worked there in the 80s and 90s.”

“It really is an open question to what extent is there something like a universal, language-specific, innate phenomenon. It is not so much a matter of belief, but rather an open empirical question. I think it is a good research strategy to be as precise as possible about it. But I of course see that it goes together with a sociological phenomenon: with the fact that people feel that they are part of a school. Like in language in the organization of science there is exclusion and inclusion. But if we are not able to make this question into an empirical question, it does not make sense to talk about it. At this moment, in most of cases, it turns out that you cannot decide yet, because the empirical phenomena are not decisive. So there is still a lot to do.”


“Theater is still a part of my life, in the sense that I am one of these people who goes to the theater extremely often. I am not the director nor the actor nor the singer, although as an amateur I do some of these things. It is a very important part of my life. If there would not have been linguistics in that first year, and if it would have not been the case that I was very good at it, who knows what may have happened. And who knows how interesting that would have been.”

A feeling for a good theory – an interview with Jenny Audring

by Gisela Govaart, May 2013

Jenny Audring  (1977) is a postdoc at the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication and involved in the project ‘Taalportaal’ at Leiden University. She studies the complexity of gender systems across 40 languages. She grew up in East Berlin.

Self-portrait by Jenny Audring
Self-portrait by Jenny Audring

“I was 12 when the Wall fell, I remember the day clearly. My father is a historian – for him the event was both of personal and professional significance, because he saw history happening right before his eyes. Being an academic, he was one of the few people in the GDR who were allowed to travel. He had seen a lot of the West, and he understood better than most people what was happening. It made him unhappy, because while he thought critically about the socialist system as it was, he was in favor of a social society. Therefore, he harboured hopes for the social experiment of Eastern Germany. When the Wall fell, he knew, before many other people realized, that the so-called reunification was not actually a merging of two countries, but one country swallowed up by another. Eastern Germany would give up everything it had built, including things that were actually better than in the West, like the recycling system and the educational system.”

“There were many things wrong with Eastern Germany, but I think for children it was a very good place. Here in the Netherlands, kids grow up with the idea that you have to fight your way into society, because there are few jobs and a lot of competition, you have to do your best, etcetera. In the East, you were raised with the idea that the world was waiting for you, that you were needed and wanted, to build the society. That is a fabulous thing for a child. My father saw those good things, so he was very unhappy that people just threw those things away, without looking back, and basically ran away. We saw this running away literally, because we lived on a road that led to a border crossing; we saw many people that were just leaving everything and everybody behind.”

Learning Dutch

“I was still in Berlin when I started learning Dutch. I practiced with reading children’s books, which I love anyway, so it was combining two hobbies. One of the authors I read avidly was Thea Beckman. She writes mostly historical books, and uses quite old-fashioned vocabulary. I knew all sorts of words like ‘poorter’ or ‘trekschuit’, before I could even order a beer. I didn’t realize which words were old-fashioned, so I started saying ‘sedert’ and ‘drommels’ until people laughed and corrected me. That is the funny part when you learn a new language from books: words are not flagged for register.”

“The most difficult thing to learn for me was not the Dutch grammar, but the phonology. The “ui” was dreadfully difficult; in the beginning I didn’t even hear when I was doing it right or wrong. I practiced a lot to train my ear. It is important for me to get rid of my accent, because even though I do not particularly mind being German, it is just one part of me. People tend to reduce you to very visible, or in this case audible, characteristics. So when they know you are German, they think they have learned something about you. I want people to look deeper than that.”

“In my research, I am looking into what is so difficult about the Dutch gender system. You would think it should not be too hard to learn, but children take up to seven years to figure it out. There are studies on a Bantu language that has around seven genders, but children manage the system at three. I have ideas about why this is so. When investigating gender, people have always looked at rules: why does a particular noun belong to a particular gender? But how do children figure out these rules, what is the evidence for the child? I think all of this depends on how much marking there is in a language: how many words provide information about the gender of a noun? How often is a child reminded of a noun’s gender?”

“Rules are not visible – the only thing you can learn from are words and the markers they carry. And this Bantu language happens to have lots of these markers. So the child has an easier time to learn this particular system because there are so many reminders. Dutch gender markers are less clear. This is what I will look into: what is the role of the visible markers of a particular distinction? I think they are crucial in what is difficult for a learner. The funny thing is that a complex system with a lot of distinctions can actually be less difficult than a simpler-looking system like Dutch.”

Simple, complex, difficult

“Linguistics has suffered from the idea that we should not call languages simple, because that would sort of imply that some languages are primitive: it was almost forbidden to say or think this, and to investigate it. For that reason, we currently have little knowledge about linguistic complexity. In the last ten years, people have felt freer to investigate this. Sometimes languages look awfully simple. Take Riau Indonesian; it is so simple that you wonder how it is functioning. On the other hand they have found languages like Archi, a Daghestanian language, that, as far as morphology is concerned, is so incredibly complex that you wonder how it can ever be learned.”

“In my project I will investigate a number of languages. If I am right, there is a certain type of language you should not find. You should not find a language that has many genders, but few gender markers. For example this Bantu language with the 7 genders should not work if it had the morphology of Dutch, because its gender system would be unlearnable. I will try to find a correlation between the complexity of grammar and the amount of marking.”

Bits and pieces

“ ‘Taalportaal’ is another project I am currently involved in. It is a big online grammar for Frisian and Dutch, with basically everything we know about these two languages. We pull information from the linguistic literature and rewrite it for the web. It has to be very well structured, short, with a lot of examples, a lot of connections between them. Together with prof. Geert Booij and dr. Ton van der Wouden I’m doing the Dutch morphology part. It is very nice work, because – for a change – it is about making something rather than finding out about something. ‘Taalportaal’ includes the whole morphology of Dutch. This is a lot of information – to make sense of all the bits and pieces we need to cut longer texts into smaller parts, and arrange them in a very large network. This is interesting and fun to do.”

“I think there is a great problem we all have in linguistics: building bridges between our models and the things that happen in the mind. We have no idea how this works; we do not even know how a single phoneme is represented in the brain, much less how grammar is represented. So, on the one hand, theoretical linguists are working on better models; on the other hand psychologists are getting all kinds of empirical evidence. I think we should all listen to each other very closely. But it is very hard to keep up with the field because it is so alive and the literature is so vast.”


“Research is a very cerebral, rational activity. But as a person you have other sides as well. My passion for photography has to do with the appreciation of beauty. Of course, I can appreciate a beautiful theoretical model or beautiful data, but I can appreciate visual beauty in a different way. I enjoy singing because it is very physical, very direct, close to the creature, not entirely rational. Doing these things, photography and singing, gives me a feeling of completeness. Unfortunately I am only a moderately good singer. In another life I would like to sing professionally, though I probably would miss being a scientist.”

“These days I am communicating a lot with Ray Jackendoff, who has ideas about how the unconscious is doing a lot of the work for us, even where we think we are thinking rationally. His idea is that you get a feeling for what is a good theory, a feeling for what is right, or could work. Just like a mechanic can have a feeling for how an engine works, while I only look at the engine and do not see anything. Jackendoff thinks you train your intuitions as a scientist: the more you read, work, observe other people and learn, the more your subconscious is trained to aid you in your work. I totally believe this; you will never be able to observe it, but I think all of us know this feeling of ‘this must be right’. I am very open to using this feeling, even if in the end you should be able to rationalize your gut feeling, of course.”

‘The whole idea about language learning is changing’- an interview with Judith Rispens

by Jelle Bruineberg, April 2012

As many students do, Judith Rispens (1972) started studying Dutch language and literature because of her love for books. However, soon she got interested in linguistics and cognition, and she realized that one could always read books for fun. She specialized in neurolinguistics and after a PhD at the University of Groningen on the relation between morphology and phonology in children with dyslexia, she is now appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Her theme is learnability of languages and language impairment.

Judith Rispens, photo by Jelle Zuidema
Judith Rispens, photo by Jelle Zuidema

“The whole idea about language learning is changing. A big influence on the field of language development has been the idea by Chomsky who said that language was something very specific. Also, the view on language was quite modular, that is, language consists of different domains that do not interact. On the other hand, brain science tells us that the brain is one big network and everything is interconnected. People are now moving towards a more integrative approach. A lot of researchers are really trying now to understand more about how language relates to other parts of cognition.”

“Of course, there is still the language system that needs to be investigated. The theoretical idea behind how we come to understand the variety of all different languages. You can study that in a very cognitive approach, but you can also study that more theoretically: what is the system? I hope these approaches will become a bit more complementary.”

“After the first year of studying Dutch I already knew that I wanted to do linguistics. One of my professors was Roelien Bastiaanse – a professor in Groningen in aphasia. She always taught her courses in a very interdisciplinary way, she encouraged us to take courses in psychology and neurology. I soon knew that that was what I liked: to study language, but really in relation to cognition, psychology and the brain. And especially: what the outcome is when something in those three, or in their relation, goes wrong.”

“My research lines have been and will be on how children first of all learn a language, but also how the language system develops when we observe that certain language structures are impaired. In children with dyslexia, for instance, who cannot learn to read and write successfully, or in children with SLI (Specific Language Impairment) who have severe difficulties in their oral language development.”

Non-sense words

“I have just finished some work on how children process and learn the forms of lexical representations. Children with SLI, but also children with dyslexia, often have problems accessing the right word form. They for instance have problems with repeating a non-sense word like “snup”. In order to do that, you really have to understand how all these phonemes are sequenced.”

“These children also have problems in short-term memory, and especially phonological short-term memory, which is about accessing and storing the specific phonemes in a certain structure. Now the question is whether it is just due to their memory or whether they have problems accessing lexical representations that are already in long-term memory. The interplay between short-term memory and long-term memory is really important: if they show deficits on a memory task, is it just short-term memory, or does it have something to do with the form of the language that was stored, the mental lexicon.”

“I am also investigating the interaction between phonology and morphology using EEG (Electroencephalography). Here again we find that children with SLI and dyslexia often have morphological problems, for example in inflecting a verb for the past tense, but they also have phonological problems. It might be that the interaction between phonology and morphology is really causing the problems.”

“Recently, I have been doing a few tasks together with Elise de Bree from Utrecht University. In Dutch we have two different surface forms to designate the past-tense, we have bakte and rende, de and te. The phonology of the verb stem determines the morphological form. We asked children to inflect a non-sense verb for the past tense and checked whether they did it right. It turns out that they find it easier and are more accurate when they have to inflect a te-verb. Why are such verbs easier to learn?”

“In Dutch, there is devoicing. We have many instances in which we devoice. For instance at the end of ‘hond’, we pronounce a t while it is written with a d. Maybe children are more tuned in to devoiced elements. It was remarkable that children with SLI, who had problems with inflecting the verbs for the past tense, also showed this advantage for -te verbs, just like children with developmental dyslexia. These children thus showed the same sensitivity to the language characteristics of Dutch. We further wanted to investigate the relationship between morphology and phonology using the EEG methodology. We (Marieke Woensdregt and I) are presenting people sentences in which we violate the surface-form (like for instance bakde and rolte) and see how the brain reacts to such a violation. Does the brain show a response that is typically seen in other phonological violations, or does the brain respond with a morphological response pattern? Again we see here an interaction between phonology and morphology.”

In the field there is discussion about whether Specific Language Impairment (SLI) is single disorder, or an umbrella term for many different things.
“The SLI diagnosis is at this moment based on exclusion. If you do not have general cognitive and perceptual impairments and some other criteria, then you are diagnosed with SLI. But there are very few children with just pure SLI, without any other attention or reading problems and their language problems are often diverse. Some children have more phonological problems, some have more grammatical problems – it is a mixed bag. And there is overlap between different syndromes, such as with developmental dyslexia. Dyslexia is diagnosed based on the presence of severe problems in literacy acquisition, but often these children also show subtle problems with their oral language development. In addition, many children with SLI are also diagnosed with developmental dyslexia. I am not really focused on understanding the comorbidity (the presence of multiple disorders) but I think it is something you have to be very sensitive to when you are studying the language problems of these children.”

“In SLI research there are some people who claim that language is innate, that there are specific areas in the brain for language and that children with SLI have a genetic cause that affects specifically and only language development. That might be true for some children, but in general, if you study children with language problems, they might have normal intelligence, but they often have verbal short term memory problems. There is now also evidence that children with SLI have problems in other executive functioning as well, for instance inhibition. The exact relationship between executive functioning and language needs to be investigated more, but I would opt for the position that language is learned by multiple cognitive mechanisms and that learning in itself is affected, in language, but also in other areas.”

Genes and language

“I think SLI research will in a few years be much more in relation to the brain. There are many studies now on the genetics of language and also on the genetics of SLI. Some time ago we had Simon Fisher visiting Amsterdam. He is now in Nijmegen, but he used to work at UCL in London. He has done a lot of research on the genetics of language and he spoke about the genetics of SLI. We are very far off to understanding a link between a certain gene and language, but he really showed that there may be different types of SLI and they may be related to different types of genetic disorders. People studying comorbidity will move away from the behavioral level, and focus more on the neuronal level.”

“I think also a lot will change in the kind of learning mechanisms that we study. In the eighties and nineties research was really focused on language theory. For example: what does a syntactic tree look like in a child with SLI? I do not think we will see that kind of research much anymore. The question will be much more on why some children do not learn certain linguistic structures and how that is related to learning mechanisms. There is now a big focus on statistical learning: the ability to make use of transitional probabilities for language learning. For instance, research has shown that babies are able to discriminate between different nonwords based on learning that particular sound sequences occur in that combination more frequently than in other sound combinations. I think SLI research will be focused more on the learning mechanisms: language is just one product that you learn through for instance statistical learning. Of course that ties in with the fact that it is a lot more accepted now that language learning involves several cognitive mechanisms.”