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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.]

NOTE: I'm on leave in spring 2019, but I will be on campus through April, and available to all.

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 and other spoken languages, with happy detours (one of the most unexpected and delightful being on Chinese tonal poetry).  But when I moved to Swarthmore to set up a curriculum in linguistics, I had to flex all my linguistic muscles and teach across the board.  Inevitably, that wide responsibility plus student interest led me down new paths. 

Right now a good part of my work is on sign languages and linguistic as well as more broadly cognitive issues that arise from their analysis.  There are hundreds of sign languages, some indicated on this map:

More often than not, I work with collaborators (five being alums of Swarthmore). My focus has been largely on modality effects, including how iconicity is pertinent to word/sign order (the interface of syntax and semantics) 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 winter 2018-2019) 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 much 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 to offer a course on Advocacy and Social Justice soon.

And I am engaged in developing materials to promote shared reading between deaf children and their parents (see below).

With respect to spoken languages, 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. 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 with a team on issues in the prosody of American newscaster speech.  I'm also 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). 

Beyond these "mainstreamed" linguistic studies, I am generally interested in body articulations 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've recently started a study comparing how iconicity can constrain the various mechanisms employed to reduce articulatory effort in sign language of a range of registers and genres to the constraints on such mechanisms in dance of many sorts.  All of this work is part of what's known as SUPERLING -- a recent movement I'm on the ground floor of.  In fact, I'm giving the first presentation in a series on SUPERLING at the University of Oslo in January 2019.  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. I do research on poetry, story-telling, jokes, and taboo language -- all 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 on co-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.

Bimodal-bilingual ebooks

For information on bimodal-bilingual 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 site.  Many books are in ASL/English, but there are also books in twelve 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.

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