Robert Kirsner
Professor
kirsner@humnet.ucla.edu
 

I wear two hats. I am both a general linguist and a neerlandicus (= Netherlandicist, or scholar of Dutch, including in my case its sister language, Afrikaans). With respect to Dutch Studies, I can be brief: Once you have tasted the richness of Dutch literature (from Belgium and the Caribbean as well as the Netherlands) or the richness of Afrikaans literature (by both Afrikaners and the so-called "Cape Coloureds"), you will appreciate the value of studying modern languages related to German as well as German itself. My courses Dutch 120 and 131 provide a streamlined introduction to reading knowledge of Dutch and to Modern Dutch literature. If you know German well, you can acquire a reading knowledge of both Dutch and Afrikaans almost "for free."(And indeed, it would be a real pity if you did not so — not unlike living in Los Angeles for 5 years and never ever going to a Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese or Mexican restaurant!) After all, it is not for nothing that Dutch authors such as Harry Mulisch and Cees Nooteboom are best-sellers in Germany (in translation). And not for nothing have both Dutch literature and Afrikaans literature been fertile testing grounds for the most sophisticated of recent literary theories.

With respect to linguistics, I am — to use William Diver's terms — a "chemist"-type of linguist rather than a "philosopher"-type of linguist: I am deeply interested in linguistic theory, but primarily as a guide to analysis rather than as an end in itself. I am particularly fascinated by synchronic linguistics (the analysis of languages at a particular point in time), especially in anything to do with linguistic meaning: syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse. Finally, I strongly believe that, in the 21st century and in a world containing more than 4,000 different living languages and associated literatures and cultures, even people primarily interested in German literature and culture rather than linguistics need to know something about [i] general linguistic theory (see my course German c172/c238), [ii] the history and structure of German, including such indispensable areas as German phonetics and phonology, and [iii] living languages related to German, such as Afrikaans, Dutch, Yiddish, and the Scandinavian languages. (In this last respect, Germanic Departments would do well to follow the example of Slavic Departments where, at least in former days, one didn’t get out alive if one knew only Russian.)

As indicated above, my research lies in discourse-functional, sign-based, and cognitive linguistics as opposed to formal linguistics. I want to determine how individual languages — primarily Dutch but also English and Afrikaans, and (in one article) Swahili — actually function as tools of communication used by human beings, with all of their strengths (e.g. intelligence, capacity for inference) and weaknesses (finite memory, egocentricity, etc.). If published descriptions of languages (such as the Duden grammar of German or the Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst of Dutch) are inaccurate, incomplete, and internally inconsistent (as they demonstrably are), what are the real facts of usage of any of these languages' putative grammatical categories and what explains these facts? How do demonstratives, articles, verb tenses, imperative structures, modal verbs or the so-called "passive" or "expletive" or "existential" constructions actually work in the individual languages in question? How do these elements really function in discourse and in texts (including literary texts)? Precisely how do pragmatic "flavoring" particles and intonation add interpretative nuances to propositions or questions or commands? What sort of nuances? And how can such closely related languages as Dutch, Afrikaans, German and English —once one examines them with sufficient care — turn out to behave so differently from one other? Of the multitude of theoretical approaches which have been developed in 20th century linguistics, which are the most fruitful? Which are the most empirically viable? On this last point, I am deeply interested in creating an empirically viable linguistics, one relying on inter- subjective data (from linguistic corpora and psycholinguistic experiments) rather than the linguist's own "intuitions" about "grammaticality" (as has been the case in formal linguistics for the past four decades).

Representative recent publications include "From Meaning to Message in Two Theories: Cognitive and Saussurean Views of the Dutch Demonstratives," in Geiger and Rudzka-Ostyn, eds. Conceptualizations and Mental Processing in Language (1993), "The Future of a Minimalist Linguistics in a Maximalist World," in Reid, Otheguy, and Stern, eds. Signal, Meaning, and Message (2002), "On the Interaction of the Dutch Pragmatic Particles Hoor and Hè with the Imperative and Infinitivus Pro Imperativo", in Verhagen and Van de Weijer, eds. Usage Based Analyses of Dutch (2003) ,Kirsner, Contini-Morava, and Rodriguez- Bachiller, eds. Cognitive and Communicative Approaches To Linguistic Analysis.(2004), and most recently “Over uitdrukkingen met finaal maar,” Voortgang: Jaarboek voor de Neerlandistiek 24 (2006). In 2005 Professor Kirsner was elected honorary foreign member of the Belgian Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde. In 2007 he was elected to membership in the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.

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