DIVA blog by Evelina Leivada

Understanding What Makes Us Human in the Islands of Tromsøya and Cyprus

By Evelina Leivada, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow

What makes us human? English philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell would have replied “language”, for once he said that “no matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor but honest”. The role of language in defining the human essence has been repeatedly stressed in many areas of science, including contemporary philosophy, linguistics, and psychology. Yet, language, apart from being universal and as such connecting people, is also sometimes dividing them. This paradoxical situation is the result of using the word ‘language’ to designate different things.

On the one hand, linguist, philosopher, and political activist Noam Chomsky, talks about Language from a biological point of view (Language with capital L) when he says that “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence’, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.” [1]. On the other hand, language can be viewed from a sociocultural perspective too, referring to different linguistic systems (different languages, with lower case l) and registers.

Let’s indulge in an amusing comparison of Noam Chomsky and the centre of attention of another linguist, albeit a fictional one this time: Eliza Doolittle, the student of Professor Higgins, in Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’. Noam talks about Language, but Eliza talks about language, when she exclaims that “I don’t want to talk grammar. I want to talk like a lady”.

Morris Halle and Noam Chomsky pose holding an older picture of them (in which they pose holding an older picture of them) at the 50th anniversary of the MIT Linguistics PhD program. Photo source: Kai von Fintel, http://kaivonfintel.org/morris-noam-recursion

Professor Higgins believes that “the majesty and grandeur of the English language [is] the greatest possession we have”. His choice of words (‘majesty’ and ‘grandeur’) reveal an important fact: People often project on language their sociocultural values and their sense of belonging to a specific ethnic group. And, sometimes, these attitudes towards language divide people.

It is no accident that almost all dictatorial regimes of the world enforce the projection of ethnical and anthropological characteristics on language. Adolf Hitler vehemently used Nazi-Deutsch as an “instrument of coercion and indoctrination” [2]. The situation was the same in Spain. Linguist Itziar Laka writes about the time dictator Francisco Franco was in power: “There was for instance the story of how grandmother Damiana, my father’s mum, had spent a night in jail because she had been caught speaking Basque in the streets of Bilbao to an acquaintance who came from her village and could not speak Spanish. That night in jail left a mark that never went away.” In Guernica of 1949, 12 years after Pablo Picasso immortalized the anti-war sentiment, even gravestones were checked for inappropriate language.

The mayor of Guernica informs the owner of a gravestone that the inscribed Basque names must be substituted with Castilian Spanish ones. Photo credit: Gaizka Fernández Soldevilla, https://gaizkafernandez.com/2013/01/19/702/

But how do the cruelties of dictators around the world relate to what makes us human? The answer is that if one conducts research in these topics, sooner or later one will end up investigating different aspects of the same concept: the centrality of L/language in defining humaniqueness (i.e. human uniqueness) and in constructing or measuring ethnic identities.

Investigating L/language in the European Union

Undoubtedly, L/language is a polylithic concept. Among other things, it defines who we are, how we differ from other species, and how we communicate with each other. We can use language to talk about L/language, but other species can’t. Language is universal, but languages differ. They differ not only in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but also in relation to the social values and recognition attached to them. The European Union (EU) is particularly sensitive to this issue. In 1992, 25 member-states signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, that aims to protect and promote the regional or minority languages of Europe. With this treaty, EU recognizes and defends the fundamentality of the right to use any (regional or minority) language in both private and public life. Promoting this right is one of the goals of the EU-funded project DIVA.

DIVA, scheduled to start in August 2017 and run by Dr. Evelina Leivada and Professor Marit Westergaard in the Arctic University of Norway with a secondment in the University of Cyprus, brings together both the social and the biological aspects of our ability to use language. Ultimately, DIVA will generate substantive, empirically informed hypotheses about human language and the cognitive advantages of bilingualism, which within the present context of globalization and increased multilingualism throughout the lifespan, are likely to achieve a marked scientific impact, being of interest to linguists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists.

Among the languages of interest of this project, there is a linguistic variety that lacks official status and recognition in the place that it is spoken: Cypriot Greek. DIVA will thus promote linguistic diversity concordant with EU’s efforts to raise awareness about minority languages, and its results can also inform educational policy makers. Why is this important? Let’s return to this in a while.

This project will take place in two exotic islands. Cyprus and Tromsøya are mostly known as top-rated tourist attraction poles. Yet, apart from cradles of history and mythology as well as famous destinations that offer a unique experience to all visitors, they are hosts of linguistic variation in diverse and fascinating ways! Different types of bilingual experience, different language combinations, and the existence of world-leading universities (UiT-The Arctic University of Norway which is the northernmost university of the world, University of Cyprus, and Cyprus University of Technology) make these two places ideal destinations for undertaking research in linguistics.

Aphrodite’s Rock in Paphos, Cyprus, the site of the birth of the goddess Aphrodite. Photo credit: Heart Cyprus & Marina Butterfield, https://www.facebook.com/HeartCyprus/photos/


A panoramic view of Tromsø. Photo credit: Evelina Leivada.

Funding the Humanities: What’s the Story?

I hate numbers. Do you want numbers? I’ll give you numbers. The European Research Council (ERC) divides its funding scheme in three panels: Physical Sciences and Engineering (PE), Life Sciences (LS), and Social Sciences and Humanities (SH). According to the 2012 Newsletter of the ERC, only 19% of grants in that round went to the SH domain.

Figure 1: Distribution of ERC grants across panels. Source: ideas, Newsletter of the ERC, 2012, https://erc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/publication/files/Newsletter_December_2012.pdf

The SH share of the overall successful proposals was roughly the same in 2017. Based on what Eva Kondorosi reports, from the 6.907 funded projects, 2.445 belonged to LS, 3.113 to PE, and 1.349 (19.5%) for SH.

Funding in Humanities and Social Sciences is currently axed in many places of the world, but as Francine Prose writes “Humanities teach students to think. Where would we be without them?”. The message is obvious: Funding in Humanities and Social Sciences is vital. Moreover, interdisciplinary bridges that connect Humanities to other disciplines should be strongly encouraged. An excellent example of such interdisciplinarity is the EU-funded project LANPERCEPT, running in Norway.

The DIVA project, like many others in the field of linguistics, sheds light to aspects of language development from various perspectives, in a way that can help us (i) disentangle the various meanings of the term ‘L/language’, (ii) inform educational policies, and (iii) demarginalize non-standard/minority languages. If the importance of such projects in Humanities is still not clear, remember how Bertrand Russell closed his Nobel lecture: “I would say, in conclusion, that if what I have said is right, the main thing needed to make the world happy is intelligence. And this, after all, is an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.” [3]

Understanding what makes us (in)human is largely a matter of education and research, whether one aims to understand how the communication system of humans differs from that of other species or how humans can use language as a(n) (inhuman) device of power. Today the words of Bertrand Russell are more relevant than ever. 64 years after he accepted his Nobel prize, another Nobel laureate and the youngest one in history, Malala Yousafzai, defended precisely the right for education in one’s own language, alluding to the key role of the latter in human existence.

Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Photo credit: K. Opprann, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2014/yousafzai-facts.html

In Malala’s words, “it does not matter the colour of your skin, what language you speak, what religion you believe in. It is that we should all consider each other as human beings and we should respect each other. We should all fight for our rights, for the rights of women, for the rights of children and for the rights of every human being”. [4]

And that’s what makes us human.



[1] Chomsky, N. 2006. Language and Mind, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Michael, R. & Doerr, K. 2002. Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich. Westport: Greenwood Press.

[3] Frenz, H. Ed. Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. 1969. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/10/malala-yousafzai-learns-of-nobel-win-while-sitting-in-chemistry-class


I am a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow interested in all things linguistic. Share your thoughts with me through Facebook or by tweeting me @EvelinaLeivada using the hashtag #EUinmyRegion

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