Fight or fight

A few years back, I was at a conference dinner. Two senior scholars, who were seated next to me, and had been engrossed in conversation, suddenly turned to me and asked what kept me motivated. My immediate response was “Rage”. We all chuckled, but it’s the raw, unedited truth. To me, my Rage is like a force of nature. It used to torture me when I was younger.

Autism correlates with differences in amygdala function compared to allistics. One line of research suggests exceptional growth of the amygdala in childhood, which levels out later on. The amygdala is responsible for activating your fight-or-flight response to perceived threats. This process is usually mediated by your frontal lobes, but when you’re overwhelmed or stressed, can play out as an “amygdala hijack”, leading to an overreaction.

Autistic individuals often have high rates of anxiety, can be prone to panic attacks, and, of course, to autistic meltdowns. I have experienced all of these, and sometimes still do, but the most dramatic effect of what was probably an overly active amygdala were my childhood rages. I was frequently flooded by a rage that felt as endless as the ocean. It was terrifying. My parents didn’t know how to handle it. They would put me in my room and close the door until it was over. I was afraid that, one day, I would cause horrible harm. I felt that my rage was enough to blow up the entire planet.

Still today, when faced with a threat, I do not have a fight-or-flight response. I have a fight-or-fight response. I do not feel fear or sadness when confronted with whatever type of danger or obstacle. Only rage. Lucky for me, this rage no longer takes over my entire being (at least not usually). Instead, I have learned to channel it. To let it push me to be a better teacher, mother, researcher, colleague. To stand up for what I believe is right. I can feel it, always. It moves under my skin. My Rage is white. It burns like the sun.


Given that I am highly multilingual, I often get asked how many languages I speak fluently. I generally respond with “none”, and this isn’t a joke. My thoughts are not word-shaped. This is one reason why I was puzzled by claims in the Chomskyan tradition (e. g. Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch 2002) that the capacity for language originally evolved as a tool for thought, not communication. I do not generally feel a need to put my thoughts into words until I want to share them with others. Sometimes, I fail, and produce entirely nonsensical sentences, because I don’t find a good match between my thoughts and words.

Autistic people often have a different relation to language compared to allistic people. Many autistic children have a delay in acquiring speech compared to allistic children. Some autistic people prefer to not communicate with what we call mouthwords. They might prefer speaking a signed language, or use devices for augmentative and alternative communication (ACC). In other cases, autistic children acquire an unusual amount of vocabulary at an early age and form highly complex sentences. We can delight in words the same way we may delight in interesting rocks or plants. Words and phrases can be something to study, something to collect. Often, autistic people have a heightened sensitivity to the literal meanings of expressions.

Two other aspects of how the autistic experience of verbal behaviour can be different from allistic people are social behaviour and echolalia, about which I will write separately.

German Olympiad of Linguistics

I am heavily involved in organizing the German Olympiad of Linguistics each year (Deutsche Linguistik-Olympiade, DOL). I am primarily responsible for designing, curating and testing puzzles for the three rounds of competitions we host. In order to gain more support, we got together to found a “Verein”, the kind of institution that makes Germany go round. It’s been a rocky ride so far, but our students managed to collect some major prizes during this year’s IOL, so it’s all worth it! Take a look at the official DOL website here!

Freiburg 2022

The semester ended for me with a highly enjoyable visit at Uta Reinöhl’s lab in sunny Freiburg. I took the opportunity to talk about a puzzle concerning the role and emergence of word units in Oceanic. I’m currently writing a research proposal in the context of a Collaborative Research Centre we’re cooking up at HHU, where I hope to shed more light on this fascinating conundrum.

The German Olympiad of Linguistics (DOL)

Last weekend, we had the last round of the German Olympiad of Linguistics (it’s really the selection of the German teams to the International Olympiad of Linguistics, but that’s even more verbose). Designing that last set of puzzles in time hasn’t been easy, but I had awesome support from my colleagues Ruben Van de Vijver and Johanna Mattissen, who gave me very nice datasets for the construction of puzzles from Dutch and Nivkh. My student Alina Schünemann with her friend Augusta Ogechi Chukwu designed a wonderful puzzle on Igbo. And my student assistants tried and tested them. If you think you can best the high school students who cracked these puzzles in well below two hours (and if your German is sufficient), you can try your hand at them (solutions to follow soon).

More resources on Chinese

For my class on the structure of Chinese, I wanted to give my students some accessible resources so they can make their own observations. To that end, I translated and glossed some texts. Among them are the lyrics to one song, as described here earlier. In addition, I processed two literary texts this way (with translations to German, glosses in English). One is the beginning of Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman”, a paranoid, Kafkaesque and brilliant text. For this one, I took the time to add two levels of glosses, one with literal morpheme-by-morpheme translations, one with the lexicalized meanings of multi-character words. The other one is the beginning of “Brothers” by Yu Hua.

Continue reading “More resources on Chinese”

Syntactic Recursion

In the MA program, I taught a class on syntactic recursion during the winter term 2020/21. This is a topic that I have studied quite extensively before, and it features prominently in several past and ongoing grant proposals. I also think it’s an important and interesting topic that touches several fundamental debates in linguistics. I’m quite happy with the selection of texts we ended up discussing and the overall format. You can find my syllabus here.

Daakaka grammar class

One of the wonderful features of the linguistics curriculum at HHU are the obligatory classes on structures of non-Indoeuropean languages. They take 4 hours per week, instead of the regular 2, and I’m looking forward to teaching them on a regular basis. For the winter term of 2020/21, I taught a class on Daakaka. I’m quite happy with how it turned out, and so were my students. In the future, I’ll have to put more work into creating coherence. I might have gone a little wild with all the great tools one can explore during practice sessions. The syllabus can be found here. Since this was an online class, I also created short video lectures, some of which can be found here. If you want access to the full class on Moodle, or have comments or questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.