Universiteit Leiden

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Jenny Doetjes appointed Professor of Semantics and Language Variation

Dr Jenny Doetjes was appointed Professor of Semantics and Language Variation in February. During her professorship Dr. Doetjes wishes to focus on charting linguistic patterns between languages that, at first glance, seem to have little to do with each other.

“Ultimately, I would like to know how such patterns can be related to knowledge about the human brain,” Doetjes explains. “In this respect, Leiden is the perfect place for my research: there are exceptional researchers working here in the field of theoretical and descriptive linguistics, as well as in the field of psycho- and neurolinguistics. Leiden is a fantastic university for languages.”

Digital tools

She sees the great complexity of language data and the multitude of languages as the greatest challenge of the professorship. “If we truly want to understand the phenomenon of language, we have to examine many languages and incorporate language variation and similarities between unrelated languages much more into our research.”

“Given the huge number of languages in the world, this is certainly not a simple task, especially because there are many different research traditions exist within the field of linguistics,” she says, “each with its own conventions in the area of terminology, for instance. To tackle this, I want to develop new ways to link data and theoretical insights with each other using digital tools.”

Language variation as a common thread

Doetjes has extensive experience studying language variation. It started with the writing of her PhD thesis. “Even though my research was primarily about French, I was already generally interested in language variation. For example, my thesis had a piece about the status of ‘classifiers’ in Mandarin. They describe words such as pieces in pieces of luggage or glasses in three glasses of water. Based on that part of my thesis and other things, I was later asked to write a review article on countability and language variation.”

French nonetheless remains her great love. Thus, Doetjes is currently working with Lisa Cheng on a comparison between French and Chinese interrogative sentences. In addition, research into French lends itself well for research into language variation.  The Leiden University French programme recently decided to devote more attention to the francophone world in the BA degree programme.  “This was a reason for me to start examining variants of the French language outside of France, such as French from the Ivory Coast. This turns up some very interesting patterns that are relevant to my research into countability and language variation.”

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