New professor with a focus on language change
This fall, Stefan Dollinger from the University of British Columbia in Canada, will become Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Gothenburg.
What is your research about?
– I am a linguist working at the interface of sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and dialectology. While these fields are related, they have developed their own paradigms and there have also been a number of isolationist developments, where previous findings and impressively accurate principles have fallen into disregard or even utter neglect. A big challenge today is to overcome the entrenched “school” and “paradigm” thought patterns in order to integrate approaches that allow for maximum insight. I think that the goal must be, ultimately, not only to model language change and variation post-hoc, but to predict it to some degree or other. It’s ultimately the goal that I am working towards, but there is a lot of philological detail unearthed in the process, which is interesting in its own right. By pure chance, I have worked a lot on Canadian English, but lately I have applied more pronounced perspectives of global Englishes and multilingual developments.
What can society benefit by researching about that?
– I need to elaborate a bit here. On the one hand, this question is what basic research should be free not to answer, as we usually don’t know what innovation will be useful ten or twenty years or further hence, so we need to explore all kinds of directions. But let me give you a more direct answer from one, in my mind, interesting vantage point. Human societies are highly peculiar entities: they may be very advanced at some levels, while quite rudimentary at others. As language is a social and culturally evolving entity, social mechanisms play an important role (on top of other ones, of course, such as biological, cognitive and physiological constraints). Societies also tend to have blind spots, however. For example, I have just lived in Vancouver for ten years. While Canada’s richest and poorest postal codes, both in Vancouver, are but 10 km apart, many do not seem to give too much thought to this strange fact. Now how is this linked to linguistics? By conceiving of language as a culturally evolving system that, ultimately, is determined by similar if not the same over-arching principles of general social interaction, we can learn quite a bit from the successful modeling of linguistic processes. One prediction would be that in a socially considerably segregated city such as Vancouver, distinguishable sociolects, group varieties of language, would ensue. The multiethnic lects in European cities, such as Stockholm, Berlin, London, Vienna, probably also Gothenburg, would be a somewhat different scenario, but in both cases linguistic traits can be used to estimate the network properties and attributes of groups in geographical and social space.
Right now you work at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
What do you think the difference will be working at the University of Gothenburg?
– Difficult question. One aspect that will be different is a result of geographic location: UBC is almost as far west as you can go in Canada, which is a vast country. Therefore, going from UBC to Eastern Canada, e.g. Toronto or Montreal, is pretty much as difficult as going to Europe and as a result getting together with colleagues and going to meetings and the like is a real challenge (but in this recent conference we made it happen). Gothenburg is rather central by comparison so I expect exchanges to be much easier. More thematically, I think that the concept of multilingualism will be more prominent at GU. In Canada, an under-appreciation of the country’s non-dominant languages can be witnessed, be they aboriginal languages or immigrant languages. So, in other words, at GU I hope to be able to do more things on more fronts when it comes to languages, with more connections within and beyond my Gothenburg base.
What will be your most important tasks as a professor in Gothenburg?
– This question can only be answered once I get to know the local situation better and, as this issue is intertwined with the national, Scandinavian, European and more far-reaching contexts, will require careful consideration. I have a feeling, however, that one task would be the strengthening of the impressive foundations at GU in the area of linguistic study. Another one, possibly, the formation of focused research clusters that would allow, through considerable output, some leeway for a wider array of more diverse research activities, such as the ones that we do not yet have applications for. I have great respect for the work in GU’s units, from my colleagues working on Swedish, to those in my own department and their various languages, and further on to those working on the interface between philosophy, computing and language. With high-quality research come high-quality students and high-quality grant funding, so the focus would likely be on the research component. But again, it will depend on “the lay of the land”.