ProLOEWE faces

Sara K. Hayden In search of universal language building blocks

Ms Hayden, language as a phenomenon is still enshrouded in many mysteries: there are thousands of languages, many of them quite different from each another, although all human beings have remarkably similar brains. The LOEWE cluster entitled "Foundations of linguistic base categories" is looking for those language building blocks that are found in every language, such as syllables or words, and aims to establish them as universal base categories. How are you contributing to this issue with your PhD thesis? In the LOEWE cluster, we are investigating languages from different eras and with different regional characteristics. Languages are systems and we are looking for the most basic parts of these systems, which allow people to understand other people’s statements. Dialects and even languages that are only spoken by a few people are often more "natural" systems than global languages, because they have been able to develop in a non-standard way for a longer time. I am examining this kind of minority language for my thesis: “Fering-Öömrang” is a dialect of North Frisian and is spoken on the islands of Föhr and Amrum. These kinds of languages are enormous treasures for our research work. Fering, for example, only has two genders and no case endings. So, there must be other categories that enable people to understand this language.

A doctorate is often a lonely task, particularly in the arts. Is that true of your work?There are six PhD students in all in our project field, which deals with the interface between syntax and semantics. The fact that we are all involved in the LOEWE cluster means that we are able to share ideas in great depth. This is very motivating for me, because it means we are able to see the bigger picture, gain insights into other languages and their structures and can tackle projects that would be too broad for just one PhD student. We have created a joint database, for example, and we use it to record and analyse language examples.

You arrived in Marburg as an exchange student from America ten years ago - and have stayed ever since. What do you like about things here? I view Marburg as a very cosmopolitan, tolerant city in beautiful surroundings. We also have a great central location in Germany - even North Frisia is not that far away.

Apart from your native language, English, you speak German and Russian, as well as a little Polish, Sorbian and Frisian. How do you deal with your daughter in this respect? Does she not get confused sometimes when she hears so many languages at home? My daughter does not know anything different and copes with it very well. At the age of five, she already speaks three languages - English, German and Polish - and clearly enjoys doing so.

About the Person

  • PhD at the LOEWE cluster "Foundations of linguistic base categories" in Marburg
  • Her territories are minority languages