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Donna Jo Napoli

Department Overview

[The photo above is from May 2016.  I was in a boat 25 miles offshore from the Florida keys, and an American Redstart landed on my hand.  If you know my book ALBERT, you can imagine how thrilled I was.]

I am a linguist down to my toes, and I am honored and grateful to be a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America (inducted in 2015).  I haven't met an area of linguistics yet that doesn't fascinate me. 

For years I analyzed the syntax of Italian, with happy detours into other components of the grammar  and sometimes other spoken languages (one of the most delightful on Chinese tonal poetry).  But when I came to Swarthmore to set up a curriculum in linguistics, I needed to teach across the board.  That wide responsibility plus student interest led me down new paths.  Now I work on whatever languages present an intriguing phenomenon I think I have the tools to grapple with.  I have worked on all components of the grammar, in synchronic and diachronic perspectives. 

Much of my recent work is on sign languages and more broadly cognitive issues that arise from their analysis.  There are hundreds of sign languages, some indicated on this map:

Often I work with collaborators (some are alums of  Swarthmore). My focus is largely on modality effects, such as how iconicity is pertinent to  the syntax/semantics  interface and how biomechanics affects the lexicon and enlightens us about diachronic change.  I'm presently studying how hand configuration  and movement relate across sign languages within the frozen and productive lexicons.  I'm also grappling with what's called 'echo phonology' in three dozen languages and delving into neurological matters.  And I'm feeling my way through a comparative study of mouth articulations in narratives in American Sign Language, Libras (the sign language of Brazil), and German Sign Language.  I hope to do a study of the timing of breaths and syntax in Swiss German Sign Language (two collaborators and I are discussing this now).  In other words, it's all beautiful to me.

I'm on a team that works to protect deaf children's right to language.  We publish mostly in medical journals. You can access our articles here.  This work has taught me about first language acquisition and honed my advocacy skills.

And I am engaged in developing materials to encourage shared reading between deaf children and their parents (see below).  This is part of a larger effort to promote literacy skills via convincing teachers (through journal articles aimed at them) of the efficacy of fun and humor in the inclusive classroom.  

Beyond mainstream linguistics, I'm interested in how linguistic theories and methodologies can be applied to analyzing  body articulations in yoga and dance.   This work is part of  SUPERLINGUISTICS:  I gave the first presentation in a series on SUPERLINGUISTICS at the University of Oslo in January 2019.  I hope  to be able to offer my course Movement and Cognition again soon (a course cross-listed by Dance, Mathematics, and Linguistics).

I also analyze linguistic innovations in poetry, story-telling, jokes, and taboo language.  I organized a conference on Disrespected Literatures at the college in spring 2017; you can see a short (3 minute) video about it here.  I co-edited an issue of the Italian online journal Altre Modernità (published by the University of Milano) devoted to disrespected literatures (December 2019, here).  I've published work on what sign language literature can tell us about sign language structure, and I will offer a course on sign language literature from a linguistics perspective in fall 2020.

The LSA did a spotlight interview with me in April 2017.

As of fall, 2018, I changed from being Professor of Linguistics to Professor of Linguistics and Social Justice.

Bimodal-bilingual ebooks

Since 2013, my students and I have been collaborating with Prof. Gene Mirus and his students at Gallaudet University on producing bimodal-bilingual ebooks, in fourteen sign languages with the print of the ambient spoken language. 

For a discussion of how and why we do what we do, go here.  For a college article about our project, go here.

Our present and past students are presently working with more than 20 countries to make bimodal-bilingual ebooks about the coronavirus.

Public activities in 2020

In July 2020 I organized and moderated a panel session on Sign Languages and Linguistics presented by Abralin, the Brazilian Linguistics Association.  The panelists were Ronice Quadros, Rachel Sutton-Spence, and Erin Wilkinson.  You can see the panel session here.

In July 2020 I was on a panel at the Fairytale and Folklore Festival of the Waseca Le-Sueur Regional Library System of Minnesota.   The other panelist was Adam Gidwitz.  You can see the panel session here.

Publications in 2020

Only one so far (COVID 19 is taking its toll in journal editing), but I'm hopeful, so I wrote "publications" above. 
2020. (with Lorraine Leeson). Visuo-spatial construals that aid in understanding activity in visual-centred narrative.  Language, Cognition and Neuroscience.  DOI: 10.1080/23273798.2020.1744672

Courses I am scheduled to teach:

Fall 2020:
Linguistics 2 (FYS): Taboo
Linguistics 063/ Theater 033: Supporting literacy among deaf children (We make ebooks for deaf children.  Students need a rudimentary knowledge of ASL, which can be gained concurrently.)  This course counts toward Interpretation Theory and is a core Global Studies- eligible course.  In fall 2020, the first half of the term will look closely at sign language literature traditions.
JTerm 2021:
Linguistics 054/ Education 054: How children talk to each other: Oral and written language.  We look at how children talk to each other and how writers for children represent them talking to each other, and we try to make a mapping from real to rendered speech that rings true to the child's ear.  So we read to children, interview children, and write for children.  The focus in Jterm will be on voices that have been underrepresented in American children's literature.
Spring 2021:
Linguistics/ Interpretation Theory 091 (This will also have an Art number, presently undetermined.) (co-taught with Prof. Syd Carpenter): Interpreting narrative through creation with clay and language (This is the IntTh capstone seminar, but we are happy to include others with a strong interest in the cross-disciplinary issues we face.)