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03.05.19

The space between structure and creativity: When language steps over its own boundaries

Which contexts form creative thoughts and how? When is a pun perceived to be interesting or aesthetically appealing? These fundamental questions of human nature are investigated by Prof. Dr. Thomas Hoffmann, Chair of English Language and Linguistics at the KU in close interdisciplinary exchange with other researchers. In his research, Hoffmann focuses on the combination of two fields which could hardly be more contrasting at first glance: Creativity and grammar.


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Prof. Dr. Thomas Hoffmann (Chair of English Language and Linguistics at the KU; Photo: Hemmelmann/Press Office)

Prof. Dr. Thomas Hoffmann (Chair of English Language and Linguistics at the KU; Photo: Hemmelmann/Press Office)

In several workshops held at the KU, the researchers had an interesting interdisciplinary exchange on cognitive processes that are important in innovation and creativity involving backgrounds such as linguistics and psychology or even economics (Photo: Schulte Strathaus/Press Office)

In several workshops held at the KU, the researchers had an interesting interdisciplinary exchange on cognitive processes that are important in innovation and creativity involving backgrounds such as linguistics and psychology or even economics (Photo: Schulte Strathaus/Press Office)

“In linguistics, we assume that first language acquisition is effected quite conservatively without any major differences between the acquiring individuals. This is why language has to date been regarded as being rather systematic”, explains Hoffmann. This perspective, however, disregards the fact that people can still override acquired linguistic patterns and provoke a certain effect in listeners or readers. In a basic research approach, Hoffmann now seeks to investigate the framework conditions of such creative ways of dealing with the structure of English grammar.

“We know that language does not constitute a closed, innate system, but that it also involves cognitive and psychological factors, which means that linguistics must open up more to individual differences”, says Hoffmann. For the interconnectedness of the project beyond his own subject area, Hoffmann uses a model which he developed further and which offers connecting points outside of the field of linguistics. This model describes language acquisition as a process which is also triggered by other cognitive tasks in the human brain: For example, whoever is at the airport for the very first time will be familiar with the processes from purchasing the ticket over check in to security control the next time they are at an airport – irrespective of whether some details are different compared to last time. These processes of generalization and schemes also take place in language acquisition and use, which again draws a direct connection to the field of psychology.

The discussions led by the researchers so far – some of them at KU workshops – have shown that creativity is always dependent on the dose: Linguistic variations must still be connectable to familiar structures in order not to be perceived as disturbing or disruptive. If the author or speaker succeeds in taking just a small step outside the familiar, the outcome is perceived as stylistically beneficial. The context in which the neologism is embedded also plays an important role: For example, the English language knows the idiom “He is not the sharpest tool in the box” for referring to a person who does not appear to be the smartest. Also apart from this idiom, the word “sharp” is used as a synonym for “clever”. This is not the case for the expression “He is not the shiniest penny in the piggy bank”: A native speaker would not use the word “shiny” as standalone synonym for “clever”. If, however, the subject group is confronted with this sentence in connection with other familiar idioms, the solution is perceived as being creative. The scientists then use psychological experiments in order to investigate whether such changes are actually perceived as novelty by the majority of persons or whether they have already become part of the familiar language use.

The material for such studies is gathered from so-called corpus data which is an inventory of the English language that is extended continuously. Researchers try to capture authentic natural language which is representative of a specific group. “In the early 1970s, such data was published in printed format and with regard to the written language and comprised around one million words. Later on, researchers also started to record everyday language use on tape. In recent years, corpus linguistics has significantly advanced and developed due to technological progress”, explains Hoffmann. For example, nowadays even blogs and online media are investigated in an automated procedure. Modern web corpora have several billions of entries. These can, of course, be searched easily – either by searching for individual words or even whole sentence structures.

Hoffmann is actively involved in the international corpus project “Red Hen Lab” which uses modern technology to analyze news programs or talk shows. Such programs not only capture language, but also other aspects of communication such as gestures of the speakers. “Language allows us to exchange views on very complex subject matters. It can be assumed that also our ways of thinking have changed and will continue to do so with different possibilities of articulation. This means that this type of investigations will offer connecting points for ensuing questions”, emphasizes Hoffmann.