Professor Nigel Fabb

Professor Of Literary Linguistics


Personal statement

From Sept 2014- August 2017 I had a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship to pursue the project 'Epiphanies in literature: a psychological and literary linguistic account'. I studied a family of experiences which includes the sublime, literary epiphanies, mystical experience, peak experience, ecstasy, awe, etc. My current approach is to treat these all as responses to a perception of discrepancy.  This partially explains the epistemic feelings which arise - feeling of learning, feeling of significance and feeling of ineffability; and it explains the emotions, as 'surprise emotions'.  I am currently writing the book which summarizes this research.  

I also continue to work on poetic form, and the setting of poetry to music in songs. I will be giving a keynote talk on rhyme in Helsinki in May 2019.

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.


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)
Poetic Line Length
Fabb Nigel
Arbitrary innovations and literary universals
Fabb Nigel
Alliteration requires adjacency
Fabb Nigel
Processing effort and poetic closure
Fabb Nigel
International Journal of Literary Linguistics Vol 5, pp. 1-22 (2016)

more publications

Professional activities

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
Working memory capacity when managing both words and music
Invited speaker
Beyond Meaning
Keynote/plenary speaker
Words and music, working memory capacity, and the aesthetics of the line in song.

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

more projects