Budding Stars in Our Ranks

24/04/2012 12:41

Dominika Uhríková and Milica Nováková

(Photo: Ada Böhmerová)


Have you, as aspiring linguists, ever wondered what a linguistic conference might look like? If so, read further and find out about one such event entitled Synchrony and Diachrony: Variation and Change in Language History, which was held at Worcester College in Oxford, UK, earlier in March. Our department’s two budding stars, Mrs. Milica Nováková and Mrs. Dominika Uhríková, both attended the event and were willing enough to share their impressions with Perspectives.


Perspectives (PP): What was the Synchrony and Diachrony symposium about?

Dominika Uhríková (DU): It’s quite difficult to say what it was about because there were many different subjects covered by the participants and I really cannot pick up one main topic. Of course the umbrella idea behind all contributions was that the synchronic perspective on language research should be combined with the diachronic perspective because if they are only taken separately, you cannot ever have a complex understanding of language.


PP: Which one of the papers did you find most surprising?

Milica Nováková (MN): Well, I was personally most surprised by a poster on Jabberwocky by Lewis Caroll. This poem is generally believed to make no sense, but the young man who presented the poster had made a detailed analysis of the poem and actually discovered several dozens of possible meanings it might have. He found those meanings based on the etymologies of the seemingly nonsensical words in the poem by taking their roots and looking into the various meanings they used to have in the past.


PP: How did you learn about the conference?

DU: We were told about it by Professor Böhmerová who often checks a website called www.linguistlist.org, which features a very comprehensive list of the conferences in linguistics that are going to take place around the world, including the calls for papers, deadlines and all the important details. It is a very practical website because the conferences are sorted according to dates or topics and it is easy to find the kind of events you are interested in.


PP: What did you have to do to get accepted?

MN: The usual procedure of applying for a conference is that you submit an abstract, which is a short description (usually between 150 and 400 words) of the talk or poster you intend to produce. Then the organisers let you know whether your talk has been accepted. If not, you can still take part in the conference just as a passive participant.


PP: Did you have to cover all the expenses?

MN: This conference was special for me because for the first time in my PhD career the travel and lodging expenses were paid by the organizers. It meant some speakers, particularly those from outside the UK, could apply for a travel grant. We only filled in a simple application form and our supervisor had to write an email in support thereof, so no motivation letters or similar lengthy documents were required. We were both very lucky to get this travel grant.


PP: In what ways did the conference enrich you?

DU: These kind of events can’t but enrich you because there are many stimuli from the speakers and the topics themselves are interesting. The most fascinating thing is that you meet many young people who are very much motivated and enthusiastic about their research; you can see they really want to keep making discoveries and come up with something new.


MN: What I like about conferences is the discussion part. In fact, when you give a talk, it is usually about 20 minutes long, and then it is followed by a 10-minute period for questions from the audience and a discussion of what you have said. Usually you get valuable feedback on your way of thinking and your methodology and this may be very useful, since it gives you new ideas how to continue or it shows you broader horizons of what you are doing. It’s something like a proof of the legitimacy of your scientific endeavour, so to say.


Milica Nováková: Studying basic vocabulary is a never-ending story


PP: Does the knowledge of foreign languages in your opinion help one in English-language research?

MN: Knowing a foreign language is no doubt helpful when studying English or in fact any other language, because there is important cross-linguistic influence and this is especially true for English, which has taken in many words from different languages. So if you speak at least one Germanic language, one Romance language and one Slavonic language beside English, you can find many connections and it can, for example, help you better understand the meanings of words or discover new facts about etymologies and etymological doublets or cognate words, which can be very interesting.


PP: Did you find the talks by the other participants inspiring in terms of methodology?

MN: I always admire my fellow speakers for being so well-read in their areas of research. In Oxford, many topics were completely new to me, because I don’t speak Latin or Greek or the participants’ respective mother tongues. I rarely could find a point where I would disagree with their methodology.


PP: Could you tell us more about your own methodology?

MN: My paper was entitled The Concepts of Basic Vocabulary in Synchrony and Diachrony and it is an explanation of how these two approaches can be combined in defining basic vocabulary. I took several definitions of basic vocabulary from different sources including Slovak and Czech ones from various periods and analysed those definitions to find out what exactly their authors counted as basic vocabulary. During the discussion I got feedback from more experienced people, and I was glad to have been reassured that my methodology was basically correct. I was also given a piece of advice on where I should go next.


PP: In your presentation you stated that synchrony is complementary to diachrony and vice versa. Can you explain in what way?

MN: Just briefly, not to be boring (smile): it is very difficult to define basic vocabulary. The criteria for defining basic vocabulary differ, but the most common are, for example, frequency, general usefulness for speakers or learners, or domestic origin. This is a good example of how synchronic and diachronic approaches are combined: high frequency refers to the present usage of words, while domestic origin refers to their development over time.


PP: What do you find most interesting about this topic?

MN: I think that it’s the width of the topic, because every time I read a book related to this topic, I discover some new things to be studied, so I think it’s a never-ending story. 


PP: What would be your definition of basic vocabulary?

MN: It is very difficult to produce a satisfying definition, but I did create one for my own purposes. I would say that I played around a bit with the thought that maybe only the present-day vocabulary should be included in the basic vocabulary, because if we take the criterion of domestic origin, some of these words are no longer in use, though they used to be part of basic vocabulary once. I would really like to compare the development of basic vocabulary and, to be more precise, I advocated the idea that when you study the development of basic vocabulary, you should also take into account whether a particular word has fallen out of use or whether it was replaced by other words or words that have developed a different meaning. I’ll give an example: in one list of basic vocabulary there are words like dog or bark (bark as a noun meaning “the outer covering of a tree”, not as a verb). However, we know that in Old English bark was not used in this sense, and that this general meaning was supplied by the word rind which in present-day English is only used in some expressions such as lemon rind. In Old English, though, rind was today’s bark and bark is today’s basic vocabulary. Another question is whether we should also include dog, which in Old English was used only for one kind of dog and dog in general was hound as in German. Today, hound only means one particular kind of dog. You see, it’s like a vicious circle.


PP: How many words constitute basic vocabulary?

MN: It very much depends on your definition and on your purpose. For example, the methodology of one such list composed by American linguist Morris Swadesh was much criticised and is no longer used, but the list as such still exists and it has about 100 words, but then you have basic vocabulary of English as a foreign language, which has about 2,000 words and it is also basic vocabulary. It is said that if you as a learner of a foreign language master those 2,000 most frequent words, you should be able to understand about 80% of texts. It’s not bad, but still it’s not enough to have a complete understanding of any kind of text.


PP: Philip Durkin is a researcher who plays an important role in contemporary linguistics. He also attended the symposium in Oxford. Could you share the impressions Dr. Durkin made on you?

MN: He’s a very nice person. For those who don’t know him, he’s the main etymologist of the Oxford English Dictionary, but in spite of this he doesn’t put on any airs. After my presentation, he recommended some other sources to me, so he was also very helpful.


PP: Have you ever experienced such a symposium or international conference before?

MN: Yes, two years ago. It was again in Oxford and this was not a conference for PhD students, but rather a conference for researchers and professors and PhD students. Prof. Böhmerová spoke about Slovak Anglicist Dictionaries and I gave a talk to introduce my research. The event was entitled The International Conference on Historical Linguistics and Lexicography. And last year, I took part in another conference, this time held in Warsaw.


PP: Are you nervous before giving a talk at a conference?

MN: Sure, one is always nervous, or at least I am.


Mgr. Milica Nováková is doing her PhD in English Linguistics at the Department of British and American Studies at Comenius University, where she teaches English Lexicology and Lexicography. She is also a very gifted translator. Throughout her academic career, she has participated in several international conferences, but it is more than certain that the peak of her success is only to come.


Dominika Uhríková: Joint effort can bring about changes


PP: Could you name one field of linguistics that interests you the most?

DU: Linguistics is such a broad field... But I would probably go for morphology and syntax and how our internal psychological concepts project themselves in the creation of word forms. Even though my PhD thesis will focus on lexicology, in which I am also very much interested, to be honest, morphology and syntax are really “my cup of tea”. I’ve always wondered how it is possible that sounds have developed distinct meanings in grammar, such as the M in robím that means the first person singular. How could a particular linguistic community agree on such a thing? It is very difficult to imagine how people agree on particular linguistic forms and how these become codified once everybody seems to be happy with the same form... This is what I find really fascinating.


PP: Were there any presentations in Oxford you found revolutionary?

DU: Revolutionary is perhaps a strong word, but I would answer by pointing out that there are thousands of languages in the world, and I think for every linguist, it is first of all their own mother tongue that should come in the first place. I think that my responsibility is, even if I also study English, to pay attention to my mother tongue, Slovak. Because if we Slovaks don’t do it, nobody will. They will not do it in Oxford. They will keep talking about English, because it is their language. So to come back to your question, everybody’s presentation was important for a given context. Most linguists, and scientists in general, usually only focus on and dedicate themselves to a very, very tiny part of their field of study, so it is important as joint effort, even though it’s not “revolutionary” when regarded as individual effort. You can’t really change anything without the others.


PP: Could you introduce the main topic of your paper?

DU: The title of my paper was On Some Semantic Features of Mimetic Words in English and Slovak and I focused on onomatopoeic, or sound-imitative, words. Now the problem is that just like with basic vocabulary, there are no satisfying definitions of onomatopoeic words, so the lists of these differ very much and most of the time they are very arbitrary in their nature. So what I wanted to do was to come up with a list of onomatopoeic words that would be as complete as possible, and, even more importantly, based on quantifiable and verifiable data.


PP: The methodology of your paper was rather complicated; could you explain to our readers what it involved and how you proceeded?

DU: When I started to work on this topic, I realised that when an author wants to write an article on onomatopoeic words, he usually draws a list of these by leafing through a dictionary on his sofa in the evening, picking up the words which look to him as onomatopoeic. Or at least this is how I imagine it, because the sources I have read rarely describe the criteria they used when compiling their inventories of sound-imitative words. In fact, I have come across no list of onomatopoeic words which would be complete or at least aspiring at being complete. What I did was scan the entire Oxford English Dictionary and a few other dictionaries for words explicitly described in their entries as sound-imitative using full-text search.  Then I divided them into numerous semantic categories with the help of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.


PP: What sources did you use for Slovak?

DU: The problem is that we don’t have any etymological dictionary in Slovak, so, unfortunately, in the Slovak part of my research I did exactly what I wanted to avoid, meaning that I only could compile a list of onomatopoeic words based on very heterogeneous, and often unreliable, sources. But I’m currently working on some possible methods that would be more reliable.


PP: Why do you think the same sounds are expressed by totally different words in different languages? Why do we have oink oink in English, while it is kvik kvik in Slovak?

DU: It is a very complex question (smile). Some people say that language as such is of imitative origin and that onomatopoeic words are a proof of this, and then on the other hand there are people like Saussure who say that okay, but still those onomatopoeic words differ in different languages, so you can’t explain the origin of language by pointing at those words. Your question will never be answered because we don’t know anything about the origin of the language, those are only hypotheses. But the point is that even if those words are very different, you still can’t deny they are very imitative in their nature. Oink oink is certainly based on the pig’s sound, even if it’s very different from our kvik kvik. In my opinion, linguists shouldn’t waste their time on trying to answer and analyse unanswerable questions, but rather dedicate themselves to answering those questions that can be answered.


PP: Are you sure that your domain of research deals with answerable questions?

DU: I think that some of my discoveries might be useful in etymological research. If I manage to prove that onomatopoeic words can often be found in the semantic domain of animal kingdom, for example, then if there are some names of animals the etymologies of which haven’t been unveiled yet, I can legitimately claim that it’s highly probable they are of onomatopoeic origin, because it is very common for names of animals being motivated by the sounds these animals make. More precisely, my aim is to justify expressions like “very common” with exact figures.


PP: Did you arrive at any surprising conclusions?

DU:  My point was that around one quarter of onomatopoeic words cannot be fit into any of the most obvious categories such as “animal kingdom” or “noise”, so it’s not true what many people say that onomatopoeic words only have a very limited set of semantic features. Onomatopoeic words can be found in every single layer of vocabulary; it’s just the frequency that differs. I’m happy I managed to prove my original hypothesis with quantifiable data, because this makes my effort justifiable.


Mgr. Dominika Uhríková is currently reading for a PhD in English Linguistics at the Department of British and American Studies at Comenius University and finishing her Master's degree in French at the University of Prešov. She's a dedicated teacher, a skilled translator and interpreter, and a gifted author. With her multilaterally developing talent it is highly probable that she is going to become a well-known personality in the world of linguistics.


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