Donna Jo Napoli
[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). Beyond the label of "linguist", however, I resist pigeon-holing.
I haven't met an area of linguistics yet that doesn't fascinate me. For years I analyzed the syntax of Italian and other spoken languages, with happy detours (one of the most unexpected and delightful being on Chinese tonal poetry). Right now much of my work is on sign languages and linguistic as well as more broadly cognitive issues that arise from their analysis. My focus is on modality effects, including how iconicity is pertinent to word/sign order (the interface of syntax and semantics here) and how the biomechanics of language articulation affects phonology and the lexicon and what light that can shed on diachronic change. My latest study (what I'm grappling with in fall 2018) is what's called echo phonology, where mouth articulations echo hand articulations, looking particularly at German Sign Language and delving into neurological matters.
I'm also part of a team that works to protect deaf children's right to language. We publish regularly in medical journals, among other venues. You can access our articles here. Through this work I've learned a lot about first language acquisition, linguistic deprivation, and the effects of a solid first-language foundation on many areas of cognition. This work has also honed my advocacy skills, and I hope very much to offer a course on Advocacy and Social Justice soon.
Finally, I am engaged in developing materials to promote shared reading between deaf children and their parents (see below).
With respect to spoken languages, these days I work on whatever languages present a phenomenon that intrigues me and that I think I might have the tools to grapple with. I have worked on syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology, in both diachronic and synchronic perspectives, and I plan to continue doing that. In fall 2018 I finished work on the history of taboo constructions (over a 400 year period) in a number of Indo-European languages that resulted in a secondary construction today: degree resultatives. Currently I'm working on a comparison of the semantics of predicate-initial sentences in sign languages to those of scene-setter predicates in spoken languages (such as Russian, as in Partee's work).
I'm also generally interested in articulations of the body and how they grossly compare to articulations specific to language. I've published work comparing the structure of yoga asanas to that of syllables in spoken language, and work applying a parametric approach used in the typology of languages to the typology of dance traditions. I'm presently engaged in exploring the notion of flow in dance and language -- which is proving to be far more challenging than I had realized at the outset. All of this work is part of what's known as SUPERLING -- a recent movement I'm on the ground floor of. I hope to offer a course on SUPERLING very soon.
Being a writer as well as a linguist, I am also interested in both the esthetic and linguistic properties of creative language, and I do research on poetry, story-telling, jokes, and taboo language -- all of which are highly creative across the grammar, but, especially, morpho-phonologically. I organized a conference on Disrespected Literatures at Swarthmore College in spring 2017; you can see a short (3 minute) video about it here. Right now I'm working with two others on editing a special issue of the Italian online journal Altre Modernità devoted to disrespected literatures.
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.
For information on bilingual-bimodal ebooks produced in a collaboration of students at Gallaudet University and Swarthmore College since fall 2013 under the guidance of Gene Mirus and Donna Jo, go to the following sites. Many books are in ASL/English, but there are also books in eleven other sign languages with the print of the ambient spoken language. And we hope to add more languages this year, as well as books with child signers from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.