Universiteit Leiden

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‘I hope to leave a little mark on the field’

Born in Hungary and moved to Austria, András Bárány grew up bi-lingual. It undoubtedly ignited his interest in languages. In Leiden, he now researches ditransitive constructions in over a hundred languages, this way taking another step in untangling some basics of human language.

Vienna, Cambridge, Budapest, London, Leiden: András’ scientific wanderings illustrate the Ph.D. and postdoc life, laced with both flexibility and uncertainty. The seeds for his position in Leiden were sown during his Ph.D. at Cambridge. ‘I was taking part in a big research project, with three supervisors and four other Ph.D. students. We studied comparative syntax in general, trying to model how languages differ from each other and what they have in common and how we can plot this within linguistic theories. Here, I met Jenneke van der Wal, who was working on the same project, as a postdoc.’

A year’s research at the Institute of Hungarian Sciences in Budapest was lovely – ‘I really had a great time with the team and enjoyed the fact that I got to know the city better’ – but it did not offer the challenges and career perspectives András was looking for. It was followed by a postdoc in a two-year research project at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. ‘I analyzed possessive constructions as a phenomenon. One of the professors came across languages that had something special: constructions such as “my bike am quick”, referring to the possessor who benefits from this feature of the bike. I found it fascinating to research the possibilities and impossibilities in languages and try to distillate a basic science from it.’

Grant adventures

Instead of looking for an existing new postdoc position, András preferred to create his own, by applying for a grant. ‘I applied for a VENI grant of NWO. It has a success rate of ten per cent, so decided to bet on two horses and applied for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie leading fellows grant. The VENI process was interesting. I received two reviews of my proposal: one was positive, the other completely negative. Eventually I made it to the interview phase, but with no success. That was not due to my preparations, though: the mock interview session that Leiden University facilitated was very helpful. Fortunately I already knew that I was offered the other grant, so I was not desperately disappointed,’ András says smiling.

In Leiden, András is continuing to explore the base of language, this time focusing on the variation of ditransitive constructions in different languages. ‘In a ditransitive sentence, you can have two objects: the recipient and the item that is given. Some languages have a feature that the verb can be adjusted so that it agrees with one of these objects. In fake-English, this could be either “I her-gave Mary the book” or “I it-gave Mary the book”, to express agreement with the recipient or the theme, respectively.’

And perhaps not a complete surprise: ‘Hungarian is one of the languages that has this feature.’

András is currently looking at a large number of languages, about 120, from all over the world. Do they vary in how themes and recipients are case-marked, or do they have no distinction at all?

‘I analyze how objects are marked which control the verb and which one controls agreement with the verb. It is interesting to see that not all combinations are possible. Some types just don’t seem to exist at all. It is widely assumed that languages all have a basic, abstract set of grammar rules. I am interested in seeing whether abstract properties can predict whether a certain construction can or cannot be possible in language. I see modelling languages on this abstract level as basic science, but my project will also contribute to documenting data on ditransitive constructions across languages, and to making that data available through an online database.’

Stimulating environment

He feels like a fish in water. ‘This department is such an interesting place, with so many people doing comparative linguistics and so much expertise on languages from all over the world. The libraries are excellent. It is a stimulating environment. Right now, with corona measures, I miss my colleagues and the lunches where we exchange ideas and stories. I am one of the lucky ones to have a data connection so I can explore written descriptions online. Australian universities for example have scanned and digitalized many grammars and other linguistic sources. So I did not experience too much delay in my research.’

Having a passion for languages, András has started to learn Dutch as well. ‘My partner is Dutch, so that is an extra incentive. Living in Leiden is nice: the city is lovely and I can get on my bike and cycle off to the seaside. Dutch bureaucracy is a dream. And why is the Dutch OV-kaart not yet copied by other countries?

If I have to mention one point for improvement, it is the faculty buildings not being very modern. In the beginning, I managed to lock myself in one time, working “late”. Buildings tend to close early in the evening. The good thing is that it forces you to not make too long hours.’

‘Creating my own research position proved to be a step up’

Creating his own postdoc position has been a good move, András thinks. ‘It is a step up. My position in Leiden broadened my research and work experience. The past years, I learned a lot about how to do research, how to communicate and co-create in research groups. I am in the lucky position that my personal circumstances enable the necessary flexibility you have to have as a postdoc: this would be a bigger challenge if you have a family in place, for example.’

Share knowledge

Research aside, what really makes him tick is the interaction with people. ‘I love to be working in the local community and interact with postdocs and Ph.D.’s. Having a motivating or inspiring effect on other young researchers, that would be great. My supervisor once said that she sees me everywhere. That is true: I like being close to colleagues and go outside as well, to meet new people and share my knowledge and experiences (even though this now only takes place online, due to corona). This way, I hope to leave a little mark on the field.’

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