Professor Nigel Fabb

Professor Of Literary Linguistics


Personal statement

In 2022 I will publish my eleventh and twelfth books.  One is a book which emerged from a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship and will be published by Anthem Press, called A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature.  The other is an edited book with Venla Sykäri,  Rhyme and Rhyming in Verbal Art, Song and Language, published by Studia Fennica Folkloristica.

A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature offers a psychological account of thrills (goosebumps and tears), of the epiphanic experience of seeing ordinary things in a profoundly new way, and of the experience of the sublime.  The unifying characteristic of these 'strong experiences' is that they all begin with surprise.  They are important in literature: literature is about these experiences, and literature can cause these experiences.   This book offers an overview of theories of these kinds of experience, and of what might cause them to happen. In the final chapter, various literary strategies are explored as possible causes.  The book draws on psychological accounts of surprise, and of emotion, and cognitive approaches to what knowledge is, why it is possible to have feelings of profound knowledge, and why what we know can someties not be put into words.

I also continue to work on poetic form, and the setting of poetry to music in songs. I teach a class on songs, have published and continue to work on Australian Aboriginal songs with Myfany Turpin (Sydney), and recently gave a paper on Robert Browning, metre and music with Kristin Hanson (Berkeley).

My tenth book was What is Poetry: Language and Memory in the Poems of the World (Cambridge 2015); the book argues that the added forms of poetry such as metre, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism depend on the division of a text into sections short enough to be held in working memory.  My book with Morris Halle, Meter in Poetry: a New Theory (Cambridge 2008), argues that counting is the basis of all metrical poetry, and rhythm is derived from the counting mechanism.  My book Language and literary structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative (Cambridge 2002) argues that form can hold of a literary text by inference.

PhD in linguistics from MIT (1984) supervised by Noam Chomsky. Edited Journal of Linguistics (1997-2014). Head of department (2002-5). Acting dean during the first two months of the new Faculty in 2010. Vice-dean for research (2010-13). Harkness Fellow (1980-82). Leverhulme Fellow (2014-17). An editor of the Literary Universals Project

I teach four undergraduate classes: the first year English class (spring); language in business and organizations; songs and literature; international influences on literature in English.  I teach one postgraduate class on 'intercultural communication' as part of the MSc in TESOL and intercultural communication.

I welcome PhD students in literature, literary linguistics, and psychology of literature.


Experiences of ineffable significance
Fabb Nigel
Beyond Meaning (2021) (2021)
"Of" in Paradise Lost as evidence for the metrical line
Fabb Nigel
Umanistica Digitale Vol 3, pp. 1-25 (2019)
Picture this : a review of research relating to narrative processing by moving image versus language
Jajdelska Elspeth, Anderson Miranda, Butler Christopher, Fabb Nigel, Finnigan Elizabeth, Garwood Ian, Kelly Stephen, Kirk Wendy, Kukkonen Karen, Mullally Sinead, Schwan Stephan
Frontiers in Psychology Vol 10 (2019)
Poetic parallelism and working memory
Fabb Nigel
Oral Tradition Vol 31, pp. 355-372 (2018)
Brilliance as cognitive complexity in Aboriginal Australia
Turpin Myfany, Fabb Nigel
Oceania Vol 87, pp. 209-230 (2017)
Arbitrary innovations and literary universals
Fabb Nigel

More publications

Professional activities

The inexpressible, expressed
PALA (Poetics and Linguistics Association)
IGEL: International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature
Linguistics Association of Great Britain
Invited speaker
The 16th IGEL conference
Filling Gaps, Building Bridges: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to the Study of Literature
Keynote/plenary speaker

More professional activities


Epiphanies in literature: a psychological and literary linguist account
Fabb, Nigel (Principal Investigator)
01-Jan-2014 - 31-Jan-2017
A pilot database of rules for verse in the languages of the world BA SRG
Fabb, Nigel (Principal Investigator)
01-Jan-2010 - 31-Jan-2010

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