Monday, July 14, 2014

Alice in Wonderland contributes to advances in linguistics

Annemarie Verkerk examined sentences that denote movement in 20 translations of Alice in Wonderland and two other novels. She used methods from evolutionary biology to analyse how linguistic descriptions of movement change over time. On 13 June, Verkerk will obtain her doctorate from Radboud University.

Until now linguists have divided sentences denoting movement into two construction types. In the first type, a verb expresses the way of moving and a preposition or adverb expresses the path of that movement ('walk across a bridge'). In the second type, a verb expresses the path of movement and the way of moving is omitted or placed in an adverb or clause ('to cross'). Traditionally, languages are divided into two classes, depending on which of the two constructions they most commonly use.

More constructions

However, 'There are more constructions for expressing movement than the two types on which we have focused until now', says Verkerk. 'Various languages in the Indo-European language family that I examined don't 'fit' within either of the two existing classes but in the spectrum in between. My research shows how the way that Indo-European languages indicate movement has changed through history.'

Alice in Wonderland and The Alchemist

Verkerk studied the novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there (both by Lewis Carroll) and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. She selected 215 sentences in which characters move from one place to another. Translators worldwide helped her to further analyse these sentences from twenty different translations, from Russian to Hindi.

Collection of 'movement sentences'

Verkerk analysed the collection of 'movement sentences' using methods from evolutionary biology. 'You can use a family tree of languages, like they have in biology for animal species. This reconstructs the history of languages, as well as mapping out the relationships between specific characteristics of those languages. Take, for instance, the use of constructions and verbs: languages that commonly express the way of moving in verbs, have more of those verbs than languages that express the path of movement in verbs. The methods I used are useful for any research into the behaviour of language over time.'

Science Daily. 2014. “Alice in Wonderland contributes to advances in linguistics”. Science Daily. Posted: May 22, 2014. Available online:

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