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