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Thinking Outside the Box: An interview with Masha Esipova
Issue 10: News Section | interviewers: Ruth Chapman, Núria Bosch
In this interview, Ruth Chapman and Núria Bosch interview Dr Masha Esipova on her recent research.
Dr Esipova is a linguist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Konstanz. Her research interests centre around formal semantics and much of her work to date falls under the ‘omni-linguistic’ (or ‘Super Linguistic’) research programme. Ruth (second-year Linguistics undergraduate at Cambridge) and Núria (MPhil by Thesis student at Cambridge) talk to Masha about her ‘omni-linguistic’ work, the rationale behind this research direction and how we can do linguistics outside of language.
Q: Hi Masha! Just to get started and for those who are not familiar with your work, could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
A: Hi! I am a linguist, primarily working on semantics and its interfaces. I have a PhD in linguistics from New York University. Right now I am in the middle of moving from Norway and my Marie-Curie project on “gestural meanings” at the University of Oslo, to Germany, where I will be joining a project on alternative questions and beyond at the University of Konstanz. I have worked on a wide range of topics, but quite a substantial part of my research has been within the “Super Linguistic” (or “omni-linguistic”) research programme.
Q: You’ve just mentioned Superlinguistics (or Omni-linguistics). Could you give us a brief run-down of superlinguistics? What is it? What fundamental questions does it pose and why is it worth pursuing?
A: “Super Linguistics” applies the toolkit and the mindset of a formal linguist to various “non-standard” objects. This includes aspects of human communication that have been historically overlooked in formal linguistics (gesture or certain aspects of prosody), animal communication, and systems of human behaviour that are clearly distinct from language. This last category covers both behaviour aiming to create communicative outputs, such as pictorial narratives like comics, but also behaviour involving little information transfer, such as non-narrative dance or athletic movement.
Now, as for why it is worth pursuing, as someone who is ultimately interested in how the human mind works, the most important thing for me personally is that this kind of work has potential to uncover cognitive universals underlying different types of human behaviour and to provide insights into how various aspects of human cognition emerged.
Now, I’d like to clarify a few things from the get-go. First, there’s nothing new about analytically approaching language and near- or non-language in the same way. This is just semiotics, a long-standing field. Except now it’s formal linguists doing this, and some of them wanted to avoid associations with semiotics, hence the new term. But that’s one reason why I’m personally not a huge fan of the term “Super Linguistics”. Another reason is that here, super is intended in its original Latin sense, i.e., ‘beyond’, and I don’t like the implication that there is some clear, well-understood distinction between language and non-language, linguistics and non-linguistics.
So, when I was asked to teach a course at the latest V-NYI (Virtual New York Institute) summer school , I came up with the term “omni-linguistics” as a tongue-in-cheek response to the term “Super Linguistics”. It wasn’t really meant to be very serious, it was more like: OK, if we’re in the business of coining terms that make use of obscure latinisms, let’s at least have a term that is more inclusive. Hence the omni- prefix, meaning “all”, as in omnivorous or omnisexual.
Q: In some respects, this may strike some of us as a relatively “niche” area to stumble upon, especially if we consider less obvious and more non-linguistic systems (such as pictures, dance, or knitting). What led or inspired you to probe omni-linguistic questions?
A: Within formal linguistics it is, indeed, still quite niche, although it has been gaining traction quite rapidly, especially in Europe. As for me, I was primarily inspired by other people’s research on these topics, which I learnt about at the already mentioned NYI summer school in my pre-PhD years (before it became V, i.e., “virtual”) and then continued to learn about during my PhD studies at NYU. But I had also been exposed to semiotics even before that, in my undergraduate programme, and even remember doing a presentation on “nonverbal communication” in middle school (again, not a fan of the term, but back then I didn’t know better), so I guess, I have always gravitated towards this kind of topics.
Q: Omni-linguistics entails applying our familiar linguistic toolkit, which we typically harness when confronted with language data, to things that are evidently non-linguistic, but which share linguistic traits (e.g., complex outputs, hierarchical structure, etc). This is, in a way, a methodological point. But what additional insights would you say this work brings to understanding our mental faculty for acquiring and producing language and, ultimately, us as human beings?
A: I do not specialise in language acquisition, so I cannot really say anything very specific on this front, but I can give you an example of insights from my own work.
In a recent paper of mine, I look at architectural similarities between language and skilled non-linguistic – even non-communicative – action, focusing specifically on lifting, i.e., resistance training. One similarity is that we can separate structural well-formedness from meaningfulness in both language and lifting. In particular, we can have individual items (words or movements) that are well-formed on the surface, but make no sense (like the nonce-word blick in English or a “chest exercise” that doesn’t actually train the chest). Similarly, we can have combinations of meaningful items that are nonsensical: the infamous Chomskyan Colourless green ideas sleep furiously or a curl-squat compound that makes no sense from the perspective of resistance training. I also show that in both language and lifting, one and the same surface contrast can be meaningful or it can be due to purely phonological or phonetic reasons. For instance, I compare change in palm orientation in signed languages, which can distinguish between two different meanings, but can also be due to, for example, articulatory reasons, to change in grip orientation in lifting. The latter can be meaningful on pulling or rowing movements, as it actually changes the recruitment pattern for the target muscles; however, it can also be due to purely “articulatory” reasons, like on the deadlift (a mixed grip will allow you to hold onto the barbell better as the weight gets higher, but it doesn’t meaningfully affect which muscles you work and how). Finally, I show that meaning–form mapping in lifting is mediated by an abstract syntax, just like in language.
And so, I conclude, echoing similar ideas in prior literature, that certain architectural properties, such as meaning distinct from form and abstract syntax, are not specific to language and likely originated in skilled non-linguistic action.
Q: What’s next in this enterprise? Are you currently working on expanding your Omni-linguistics work into new territory or do you have any ideas of where else this may take us?
A: I imagine this research programme will continue to expand to new empirical areas. For one, linguists are human beings, with diverse interests, so it stands to reason that some of us might want to apply the tools of our profession to other things we enjoy. Thus, many linguists work on music because they like music. And let’s be honest, I didn’t write a paper on lifting simply because lifting is a particularly interesting case study (although it is!) – it is also because I lift.
I also hope that more linguists whose primary specialisation is not just formal semantics – and especially people who care about larger architectural issues and have a more well-rounded understanding of both language and human cognition in general – will work on these topics. So far, formal semanticists have been heavily overrepresented in the “Super Linguistic” research programme, which I think has been a limiting factor (and I say it as a formal semanticist myself!). For instance, in that omni-linguistics course I taught at the V-NYI school, my Teaching Assistant John David Storment presented his recent work on emoji from a morphosyntactic perspective , which I find very exciting – I hope to see more work like this in the future.
As for me personally, as a precariously employed academic, it is hard for me to make specific plans for the future. As I said at the outset, I am about to be a postdoc on an existing project on the more “mainstream” topic of alternative questions. However, I believe that some aspects of the omni-linguistic research programme are just methodological principles that can help linguists achieve better empirical adequacy across the board. For example, I do not intend to stop paying attention to all channels through which we express meaning when working on a specific topic, no matter how “mainstream” it is.
But also, I would love to work on film at some point. I did some work on film semiotics in undergrad, and it would be great to return to this topic with the background in linguistics I have now. For instance, I regularly watch Youtube videos by Jill Bearup , who is an expert in stage fighting and discusses movie fights on her channel. Her videos have inspired me to think about phrasing in movie fights, how it might resemble prosodic phrasing in language, but also how phrasing in movie fights can meaningfully interact with editing, which is an additional level of representation in film that is absent from language.
Q: As a final point: any advice for aspiring linguists who are interested in pursuing this line of work?
A: My main advice would echo some of the sentiments I have already expressed earlier, and it would be to approach any topic – linguistic, omni-linguistic, whatever-linguistic – in a way that is mindful of all levels of representation and interactions between them. Semantics, syntax, segmental phonology, prosody don’t exist in isolation from each other. Also, language (music, dance, etc) doesn’t exist in isolation from other aspects of our humanness or from the world around us.
So, if you want to, say, work on meaning in music, maybe ask yourself first: how does it fit into a larger architecture? For language, we typically assume that semantics interprets hierarchical syntactic structures, not linear surface sequences. Is it the same in music, or is it different? And also, how can musical meaning vary across different musical idioms and genres, different communities, different individuals? How does musical meaning relate to music as a social phenomenon?
And I should probably end with a word of caution: if you are an early career researcher, maybe don’t build your entire research programme exclusively around, say, the grammar of bouldering. It doesn’t matter how linguistically insightful your work actually is, you will have a hard time on the academic job market, especially as a formal linguist. But then again, you’ll probably have a hard time on the academic job market anyway, so you might as well have fun, I guess.
 The NYI Global Institute of Cultural, Cognitive and Linguistic Studies. https://nyispb.org
 Esipova, M. (accepted). Reps and representations: a warm-up to a grammar of lifting. Special Issue “Super Linguistics” of Linguistics and Philosophy.
 Storment, J. D. 2022. Going ✈ Lexicon? The Status of Pro-Speech Emojis. Ms., Stony Brook University.
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