Natalia Levshina

Natalia is a language scientist working at the Neurobiology of Language Department. She is a postdoctoral researcher in the large consortium "Language in Interaction" funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). She enjoys discovering common patterns in languages of the world with the help of corpora, grammar mining and experiments. One of her favourite data sources are film subtitles in different languages. She is a big fan of R and statistics, teaching various methodological tools to future generations of linguists.

Natalia is an academic nomad. She grew up in Russia and obtained her PhD in Linguistics in Belgium. Before a happy chance brought her to the Netherlands, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Belgium and Germany. While moving between all these countries, she also managed to do linguistic research and wrote an R manual "How to Do Linguistics with R". Now she's working on a second edition, as well as on a book on communicative efficiency.

When she is not busy doing all these things, Natalia enjoys good food, wine and philosophy.

Human languages are full of puzzles. For example, why do languages that have different forms for singular and plural nouns usually have shorter singular forms and longer plural forms for most nouns, like flower – flowers in English? Why are you more likely to say, give me my money than give my money to me? Why do languages like Latin or Czech, which have flexible word order, also tend to have case marking? For example, the Latin word liber “book” will have different forms depending on whether you say “The book is interesting” (liber), “I read a book” (librum) or “I found it in a book” (libro).

‘I am Groot’: Ambiguity is a superpower

Superheroes are fascinating, also for researchers. A philosopher can contemplate how Superman is related to Nietzsche’s ideas of Übermensch. A historian can investigate how the superheroes change together with society, from the white male Superman to Wonder Woman and Black Panther. For a linguist, superheroes are interesting because they help to understand the limits of human language. In a previous post, I wrote about Yoda from Star Wars. His word order is truly alien because it breaks all possible rules. Today it’s the turn for Guardians of the Galaxy, which features several characters from Marvel Comics.

Do you think I believe you hope…? The power of recursion

In my previous post, I wrote about recursion – self-same replication, when a rule or procedure is applied to its own successive results. Some linguists argue that recursion is a defining aspect of human language: our grammar allows us to combine words into more complex structures, which are in their turn combined into even more complex structures, similar to Matryoshka dolls. I, however, argued that recursion in grammar does not quite live up to its current central status in theory of language as this hierarchical use of rules is present in most if not all aspects of life. But does this mean that recursion is something trivial and boring? By no means! Like a magic wand, it allows us, notoriously social animals, to understand and communicate with each other in a very efficient and flexible way.