Keynote Speakers

Photo of Jessica Coon Photo of Martin Neef
Jessica Coon Martin Neef

Jessica Coon is Associate Professor of Linguistics at McGill University and holds the Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages. Her research focuses on topics in syntactic theory, with a special focus on languages of the Mayan family. In addition to theoretical work, she is involved in collaborative language documentation and revitalization projects with Indigenous communities in Canada and Latin America.

In the summer of 2015 she worked as the scientific consultant for the film Arrival, which stars Amy Adams as a linguistic fieldworker who is recruited by the military to decipher the language of the recently-arrived Heptapods. Since the film, Dr. Coon has helped create a public dialogue about linguistics and endangered languages through interviews and written work in outlets including Wired Magazine, The Washington Post, and CBC's The Current

Martin Neef is professor for German Linguistics at the TU Braunschweig (Germany). His research focuses on theories of the language system (phonology, morphology, syntax) and the writing system as well as on the general conceptions of linguistic theories in the paradigm of Linguistic Realism. In his habilitation thesis Die Graphematik des Deutschen (published in 2005), he developed an original approach to analyze the relation of written forms to spoken forms, an approach he further developed in the project Die Systematische Orthographie des Deutschen (2011-2014; funded by the German National Science Foundation DFG) to capture the direction from spoken forms to written forms as well. He is author of four monographs and 45 research articles and co-editor of 12 volumes. Furthermore, he is co-editor (together with Said Sahel and Rüdiger Weingarten) of the terminological lexicon Schriftlinguistik which is currently in preparation (parts of it are already electronically pre-published). From 2008 to 2015, he was General Editor of the journal Written Language and Literacy.

The Linguistics of Arrival: What an alien writing system can teach us about human language

If aliens arrived, could we communicate with them? How would we do it? What are the tools linguists use to decipher unknown languages? How different can languages be from one another? Do these differences have bigger consequences for how we see the world? And how might difference in writing systems reflect or influence cognition?

The 2016 science-fiction film Arrival—based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang—touches on these and other real questions in the field of linguistics. In Arrival, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks is recruited by the military to translate the language of the newly-arrived heptapods. Her job is to find the answer to the question everyone wants to know: why are they here? Language is a crucial piece of the answer, but the answer isn’t simple. Heptapods, it turns out, have two completely distinct languages: a spoken language (Heptapod A), and a written language (Heptapod B). This talk explores these themes in Arrival, and discusses what the fictious Heptapod B can tell us about human language.

What is it that ends with a full stop?

In the analysis of written language, the distribution of the punctuation marks full stop, question mark, and exclamation mark is usually explained with reference to the concept of sentence. Consequently, these marks are termed Satzschlusszeichen (‘sentence closing mark’) in German linguistics. However, if the term sentence is understood as in syntax, e.g. as a phrase with a finite verb as its head, it turns out that (in English, as an example) while in some cases the marks in question actually follow what can be regarded as a sentence (Where are you now?), in many other cases the marks follow less than one sentence (Here!) or more than one sentence (I am here and you are there.) or they are interspersed into a sentence (Stop! Being! Stupid!). In order to arrive at a proper analysis of such data, it is necessary to distinguish between two different structural concepts, the sentence as a strictly syntactic notion on the one hand and a different concept belonging to the field of grapholinguistics on the other hand. There are numerous suggestions how to conceive of this other concept. In the approach to be presented, it is termed written utterance and regarded as what a writer conceives of as a coherent thought. What is important is that the concepts of sentence and written utterance are completely independent of each other as they belong to different fields of linguistics. A grapholinguistic analysis has to explain the wellformedness conditions of written utterances. In the grapholinguistic model that is used as background for this analysis, the language system is regarded as being part of the writing system so that analyses of written forms can make use of all concepts that are established for the analysis of the language system. This model gives a peculiar answer to the pertinent question of the relation of written language to spoken language.

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