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Linguist probes cognition and creativity

Harry van der Hulst
Linguist and creative thinker Harry van der Hulst

Creativity and language are deeply connected human abilities, according to linguist Harry van der Hulst, Skidmore’s new distinguished visiting fellow in the arts and sciences. The College’s fourth visiting scholar supported by a Henry Luce Foundation grant to explore scientific and artistic creativity, van der Hulst asserts, "Language is inherently creative: there are aspects of creativity in the sentences we produce and in the things we discuss spontaneously."

This semester van der Hulst is giving a series of public lectures entitled "Creativity and Language." Although his specialty is phonology–which he describes as the study of the "perceivable ‘form’ of language, spoken or signed"–his lectures will also cover the nature of sign languages; the evolutionary emergence of the sound systems of language; language acquisition, including what language skills are inborn and what aspects of language must be learned; and ways in which different languages arise. For example, in one talk on the confusing diversity of world languages, he asks, "Why not turn to one language–English, or an artificial one such as Esperanto?" and then explains why the variety of human languages is necessary and how children can acquire, in principle, every human language, and, in practice, sometimes several at the same time.

Besides offering the lectures, van der Hulst is participating in the freshman Liberal Studies 1 course and guest-teaching in other classes this fall. In the spring, he plans to teach a full course on visual languages, coordinate a lecture series on the creative process in the arts and sciences, and possibly arrange an art exhibition on language.

A native of the Netherlands, van der Hulst is cofounder of the Holland Institute of Linguistics, where he teaches general linguistics, phonology, morphology (word formation), sign language, language acquisition, and language change. He says, "Over the years, I have developed an interest in the relationship between language and human cognition. Because language is one of the most typical cognitive capacities of the human species, the study of language, and its evolutionary development, is closely linked to the properties and evolution of human cognition in general." Other characteristically human capabilities, he says, involve art, religion, and science, and he enjoys exploring the relationships among these activities. His research has also addressed the parallels between the cognitive abilities that support language and those that support other human faculties such as vision.

Van der Hulst earned degrees in linguistics and philosophy, as well as a Ph.D. in linguistics, from Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has published more than 100 articles and co-edited 20 books, mostly in the area of phonology. In addition to his research and teaching, he is a visual artist whose work is being exhibited this fall at Skidmore. —Andrea Wise

Photo: Phil Haggerty


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