The Faces of PhilSoc: Nicola McLelland


Name:
Nicola McLelland
Position: Professor of German and History of Linguistics
Institution: University of Nottingham
Role in PhilSoc: Council Member

 


About You

How did you become a linguist – was there a decisive event, or was it a gradual development?

I remember sitting among a sea of undergraduates and realizing that not everyone in the room thought Middle High German was even more interesting than modern German. So the question to me is not why want to be a linguist, but the mystery of why not everyone else does. I still don’t really understand why not everyone finds language analysis completely absorbing and fascinating. It’s like breathing – what’s not to like?

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis? Do you still believe in your conclusions?

My thesis was on an early 13th-century Middle High German version of the Lancelot story (where he’s not in love with Guinevere and has multiple other liaisons instead, before finally settling down to married life). It was a literary study, but one of my main arguments was that the mix of narrative styles – coded in the lexis and pragmatics as well as in the content – was deliberate and not just incompetence, as others had assumed. I still think that’s true.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

I’m just wrapping up various projects on the history of language learning and teaching in the UK and in Europe more widely – it’s definitely at the very ‘soft’ end of linguistics, although my entry into it was the history of grammar-writing and realizing that many of the first successful accounts of the rules of a language came from those teaching it as a foreign language, not from its native speakers. That’s certainly the case for German.

What directions in the future do you see your research taking?

I’ve been working on an article about women in the history of German linguistics. That’s made me realize there is much more to be said about women’s voices in German language history as a whole, so that’s something I’m keen to pursue.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

When I was in my first post at Trinity College Dublin. David Singleton told me about it, told me how cheap it was to join, and said he could nominate me to join. So I did.


‘Personal’ Questions

Do you have a favourite language – and if so, why?

No, I love them all. I can’t stop learning them.

Minimalism or LFG?

LFG. Just don’t ask me why.

Teaching or Research?

Jein, as we say in German. Both.

Do you have a linguistic pet peeve?

I find it unsettling that as I become older (and I’m really not that old yet), things that were definitely wrong become right. At what point does correcting something in a student’s essay cease to be helpful feedback on a tricky point, and instead prove you’re an out-of-touch dinosaur who doesn’t even grasp ordinary modern English? One thing I LIKE is being able to say “What even is that?” which was definitely ungrammatical for me until very recently, but which is totally acceptable for my children and their friends, and – I now find – very handy in many contexts. I used to use it with ironic distance, now I think I probably just use it.

What’s your (main) guilty pleasure?

Learning Mandarin Chinese. I spend a ridiculous amount of my spare time making very little progress on it. Its now the Concorde fallacy – having put this much effort in, I must continue. And I want to – it is addictive once you start to crack the code. And I’m sure there is much, much more to say about its grammar than has been said. Whether I’ll ever be able to is another question.


Looking to the Future

Is there something that you would like to change in academia / HE?

I wish the talk about internationalization and global experience for students translated into an expectation of learning another language to a high level, and that university structures made that more readily achievable for all students. That is one of many, many things I wish were different. For everyone else around the world beyond Anglophone countries, global experience means being able to operate outside your comfort zone, in another language. I think we massively underestimate how much that add to the value of the experience.

(How) Do you manage to have a reasonable work-life balance?

Nearly always, though I find as I get older that reading a book about linguistics is moving from the ‘work’ category to the ‘relaxation’ category.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

I’m not sure I have any great advice for younger colleagues, who – luckily – seem much better equipped to face the world than I was at their stage. But I would say: don’t let time pressures (or natural introversion) stop you from getting out and meeting other people in your field and getting new ideas. I’ve gone to many conferences wishing I’d never signed up – but I’ve ALWAYS come away delighted I was there, my head buzzing with new inspirations from totally unexpected quarters.

New Series: The Faces of PhilSoc

The Philological Society has hundreds of members all over the globe, and it is sheer impossible for all members to know or be acquainted with one another – especially if they abroad. Yet, for those who (more or less) regularly attend PhilSoc talks, the Society quickly develops a personal side as well.

It is this personal side that we hope to engage with on another level with a new series of blog posts: The Faces of PhilSoc.

In the style of (by now probably somewhat old-fashioned) magazines, we have asked members of Council and the Society’s officers a set of questions, the answers to which will allow members to gain a better idea about the people behind the Philological Society: who they are, what they do, how they came to be linguists and PhilSoc members, and a few other things.

So, watch this space and/or subscribe to our blog. Any suggestions for questions or other ideas for new series of blog posts? Let us know in the comments!

‘The Word Detective’ serialised on BBC Radio 4

by John Simpson (Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, 1993–2017)

Picture1
John Simpson
(© Bloomington Photography)

A generation ago, my colleagues and I at the OED were starting to become increasingly aware that the dictionary was in danger of drifting away from its audience. Or, to put it more accurately, the dictionary was standing still while its audience moved into the twentieth and then the twenty-first centuries.

Historical lexicography is demanding. There are few short cuts; standards are exacting. The editors of the First Edition of the OED had laboured for many years to capture the history of our language, and its format reflected nineteenth-century expectations about how knowledge should be presented. Nowadays the level of scholarship at the OED is the same – it has to be. But a wider audience expects to be able to access and understand the dictionary in radically new ways.  One of the challenges of the last few decades has been how to present the content of the OED to a new readership in the digital age.

Picture2I wrote The Word Detective to give readers an informal, behind-the-scenes look at the OED and the extraordinary things it has set out to achieve over the last forty years. In addition, I wanted to convey to readers the excitement of researching and defining the language – because that’s what we all felt as editors.

The Word Detective will be broadcast at 7.45 p.m. this Monday to Friday (13–17 March), on BBC Radio 4. See if I achieved it!

 

 


John Simpson’s ‘The Word Detective’ is published by Little Brown in the UK, and Basic Books in the USA.

‘Counting’: quality and quantity in literary language and tools for investigating it

by Jonathan Hope (Strathclyde University, Glasgow)

The transcription of a substantial proportion of Early Modern English books by the Text Creation Partnership has placed more than 60,000 digital texts in the hands of literary and linguistic researchers. Linguists are in many cases used to dealing with large electronic corpora, but for literary scholars this is a new experience. Used to arguing from the quality, rather than quantity of evidence, literary scholars have a new set of norms and procedures to learn, and are faced with the exciting, or perhaps depressing, prospect that their object of study has changed.

 In this talk I’ll look at some specific case studies that illustrate the potential, and the problems, of quantity-based studies – and will highlight key areas where literary scholars need to reassess their expectations of ‘evidence’, and the texts we use. A possible alternative title might be ‘Learning to live with error: gappy texts and crappy metadata’.

A screencast of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in Oxford, Wolfson College, on Saturday, 11 March, 4.15pm.