Fabb Nigel Prof

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Prof Nigel Fabb

professor of literary linguistics



Tel : +44 (0)141 444 8330

Current Research

My primary area of research is 'literary linguistics': I study the ways in which language is manipulated in special ways in verbal art, drawing where appropriate on linguistic theory, but also allowing for other non-linguistic modes of organization. My next book will be What is Poetry? for Cambridge University Press.  The book asks whether there is some common notion of the 'line' which is shared by the various forms of verbal art - written, spoken or sung - which are found in the world's languages.  I am currently looking at relevant evidence from experimental psychology relating to working memory and ease of processing, and examining the prosodic characteristics of metrical poetry as spoken aloud.  

I will be supported by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for three years from September 2014 until August 2017, to pursue the project 'Epiphanies in literature: a psychological and literary linguistic account':  "We sometimes feel that a poem or story communicates important meanings which cannot be paraphrased, a feeling which at its most intense is the experience of the sublime or of an 'epiphany', and may be accompanied by the shiver of arousal in the autonomic nervous system. There is no current psychological account of subjective experiences of this kind. This project applies literary linguistics and psychological theory to explore how the forms and meanings of the text combine with the psychological operations of consciousness, memory and emotion to produce this effect of profound ineffability."

Are you interested in studying with me for a PhD ?

I am willing to supervise PhDs in a range of areas relating to literature, linguistics, and cognition.  I have recently supervised or am currently supervised PhDs on Repetition in Modernist literature, on The linguistic forms of avant-garde poetry, on Theory of vision and the organization of narrative space, on Computational accounts of gender in English Renaissance drama, and on The acquisition of the Spanish subjunctive, and on the Stylistics of Kate Chopin's fiction.  Competitive PhD funding is available from AHRC and from Strathclyde University studentships (to be announced).

Significant research contributions since 2000

Fabb, N. 2014.  (accepted)   The verse-line as a whole unit in working memory, ease of processing, and the aesthetic effects of form.  Philosophy Supplement Volume 74.  Argues that the verse line is held as a whole unit in the episodic buffer, and this relates to low-level aesthetic effects associated with verse.

Fabb, N. 2013.  There is no psychological limit on the duration of metrical lines in performance: Against Turner and Pöppel.  International Journal of Literary Linguistics.  2.1.   This paper argues on the basis of an analysis of a corpus of recorded poems that duration (time) is not a constraining factor in the composition of metrical lines.  

Fabb, N. 2013.   My MIT talk arguing that lines are an essential part of verse design (in metrical verse) but are not auditorily cued in delivery; I show that for performances by Dylan Thomas the restructuring in delivery functions to maximize variation between the rhythmic sequences of syllables between pauses.  Not written up yet as a paper, but made available by MIT on youtube.

Fabb, N.  2012.  Poetic form as meaning in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  Journal of Literary Semantics  41:2.   This paper argues that lineation and the other forms in LoG are implied rather than inherent forms, and comments on the symbolic use of form in LoG, noting for example that 'leaves of grass' are papyri (another of the poem's links to Egypt). 

Fabb, N.  and M. Halle.  2012.   Dylan Thomas’s Metres, in ed. Esther Torrego  Of Grammar, Words, and Verses: In honor of Carlos Piera.   John Benjamins.   67-87.  This paper gives a simple outline of the Fabb-Halle theory of metre, and argues that some of Thomas's poems are polymetrical: both syllable counting and 'loose iambic', a combination also found in mediaeval Welsh poetry.

Fabb, N. and M. Halle.  2012.   Counting in verbal art.  Isabel Jaén and Julien Jacques Simon (eds)  Cognitive Literary Studies: Current Themes and New Directions.  University of Texas Press.  163-182.   This paper argues that metrical poetry, where syllables must be counted, tells us something about cognition and literature: there must be a specialized cognitive mechanism which enables the counting of elements (including both poetic and musical).

Fabb, N. and M. Halle.  2011   Grouping in the stressing of words, in metrical verse, and in music. In Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A Hawkins, and Ian Cross (eds) 2012 Language and Music as Cognitive Systems.  Oxford University Press.  pp. 4-21.   This paper reinterprets the Lerdahl-Jackendoff theory of musical rhythm in terms of the Fabb-Halle theory of metre, noting differences between music and language.

Fabb, N.  2010.   The Non-Linguistic in Poetic-Language: a Generative Approach.   Journal of Literary Theory, 4.1  pages 1-18.   Summarizes some of the ideas proposed in some of the papers below, and finds a synthesis relative to a broadly generative-linguistic framework.

Fabb, N.  2010.  Is literary language a development of ordinary language?  Lingua.  120/5.  1219-1232.    Proposal:   Contra most work in this area, liiterary language is not, for the most part, a development of ordinary language.  Instead it has non-linguistic characteristics, using generic rather than language-specific modes of production.  

Fabb. N.  2009.   Formal interactions in poetic meter.   Versatility in Versification: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Metrics.  Edited by Tonya Kim Dewey and Frog.   Peter Lang.  pp.147-165.   Proposal:  Metrical poetry is subject to upper and lower limits on complexity, where complexity is measured by the amount of interaction between different formal rule systems (e.g., the interaction between rhyme and metre). 

Fabb, N.  2009.  Symmetric and asymmetric relations, and the aesthetics of form in poetic  language.   European English Messenger.  18/1, 50-59.  Proposal:  poetry is characterised by a combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical relations (symmetry manifested by repetition, listing etc; asymmetry manifested by sequential ordering).  This is a reanalysis of Jakobson’s account of the projection of paradigmatic onto syntagmatic relations in poetry.

Fabb, N.  2009.   Why is verse poetry?   PN Review  189.  36.1, pp.52-57.  Proposal:  Because verse must be composed in lines, it forces non-standard ways of producing text which bypass some of the linguistic systems – in particular, verse has no syntax.  This explains why the formal characteristics of verse are typically associated with aesthetic characteristics.

Fabb, N. and M. Halle. 2008.  Meter in poetry: a new theory.  Cambridge University Press.     Proposal:  In metrical poetry syllables are counted by a special mechanism, with implications more generally for cognition of language (and music).   Rhythm is a secondary feature of metrical verse, dependent on the output of the counting procedure. 

Fabb, N. 2002. Language and literary structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative. Cambridge University Press.   Proposal:  many kinds of literary form (e.g., genre, lineation, some aspects of metre, etc) are not facts about a text but interpretations of the text, derived by inferencing. 

And, a different kind of linguistics:  Blackings, M. and N. Fabb.  2003.  A Grammar of Ma'di.  Mouton.  A descriptive grammar of the phonology and syntax of a language spoken in Sudan/Uganda.  Among the proposals, the most significant one is that the clear formal distinction (manifested by word order, morphology etc) which has previously been claimed to show an aspectual distinction is in fact a tense distinction (past vs. nonpast).

Mairi Blackings and I also wrote:  Blackings, M. and N. Fabb.   2011.  Spirit Possession in Ma’di Culture.  In Mairi J. Blackings (ed.)  Narrating Our Future. Customs, Rituals and Practices of the Ma’di of South Sudan and Uganda.  Cape Town: Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society.  pp. 120-145.  This article looks at how culturally specific symbolism (involving elephant meat) can trigger the behaviours manifesting spirit possession.

Before 2000, I wrote a PhD thesis on English syntax and morphology, did some work on compounds, wrote a widely-cited paper on English suffixation, did some work on the Fon language, wrote an article arguing that alliteration differs from rhyme (cross-linguistically) because the former is local while the latter need not be, and wrote a textbook/summary of current work called Linguistics and Literature: Language in the Verbal Arts of the World (Blackwell 1997) as well as other textbooks and an edited collection.  

Literary Linguistics group

I am involved in the Strathclyde literary linguistics research group.  We meet every few weeks to read relevant articles, and present our work to eachother.

Biographical Information

BA in English (Cambridge, Kings College); PhD in linguistics (MIT) supervised by Noam Chomsky, on English syntax and morphology (1984). An editor of Journal of Linguistics since 1997. Author, co-author or editor of nine books (the tenth will be completed in 2014), plus three second editions and one third edition. I am a contributing editor and author of four articles in The Cambridge Encylopedia of the Language Sciences (2011).  At Strathclyde, I was head of the Department of English from 2002-2005 and Vice-Dean for Research in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences from 2010-13. My Erdös-Bacon number is 9, and I am quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary (three times).

Prof Nigel Fabb
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