Author Spotlight

Read our interview here with Steven Franks about this book, other book projects, his tenure as editor of Journal of Slavic Linguistics, and the field of Slavic linguistics.

Interview with Slavic linguist Steven Franks


George Fowler: You’ve published two previous monographs in your career, 1995’s Comparative Slavic Morphosyntax and then A Handbook of Slavic Clitics in 2000 (co-authored with Tracy Holloway King). How does your new book Syntax and Spell-Out in Slavic build upon them?

Steven Franks: Thanks for your questions. I am really excited to see this new monograph in print, and happy that Slavica is the publisher. It represents the culmination of many years of work, and does hark back to my two previous books. The first was couched in so-called Chomskyan “Principles and Parameters/Government and Binding” theory, the later was largely descriptive, while the new book, although it also relies largely on Slavic data, offers a very different and much broader perspective on the workings of syntax. So rather than building on those earlier works, I’d say that Syntax and Spell-Out in Slavic offers a conceptual departure from standard models, including Minimalism. Before I turn to your more personal questions, I’d like to describe the new book for potential readers. In essence, what it does is explore how syntactic structures are mapped into representations manipulable by the morphology and phonology. It does this from several different directions. Leading ideas are that “movement” is best understood as a metaphor for multiattachment and that what ends up pronounced where results from complex interactions between competing forces and particular derivational steps. Proposals made in the book are primarily illustrated by close examination of phenomena drawn from two distinct domains: wh-movement and clitics. The former domain, about which there is only cursory treatment in my 1995 book, serves to develop the more general theoretical underpinnings of Spell-Out. The latter domain, although the focus of my 2000 book, provides material for more meticulous investigation than in that older study. The second half of Syntax and Spell-Out in Slavic revisits classic issues in the analysis of Slavic clitics and probes some of the finer complexities of the model put forward in the first half.

GF:  Any additional books on the horizon before you call it a career?

SF: Well, I already call it a career, but the truth is I am now beginning to work on a book with the tentative title Microvariation in the South Slavic Noun Phrase, also to be published by Slavica. The truth is that this was supposed to be the focus of the book which has just appeared, but somehow the introductory chapter kept on bifurcating, and I kept on being unwilling to leave material and ideas out, so that I decided (on your advice, I remind you), to spin this off and divide the contents into two books. I am really glad I did this, because it may well be several years before the microvariation book sees the light of day. In any event, that book will most likely not be done before I retire. Even so, I don’t think I will want to—let alone be able to—stop thinking about how language works even then.


GF: Do you consider yourself a Slavic linguist or a general linguist who works mainly on Slavic languages?

SF: This question also relates to my teaching. As you know, I have spent the past 30 years teaching Slavic and general linguistics here at Indiana University–Bloomington, and my teaching has been more or less evenly split between departments. It has of course gone back and forth over the years, as local needs and orientations of these disciplines shifted. This is probably also reflected in my self-assessment of who I am and what I do. And if you read Syntax and Spell-Out in Slavic, you will see that some parts are more directed to Slavists and some more to general linguists. But even those directed to Slavists aim to explain theoretical concepts and those directed to general linguists aim to explain peculiarly Slavic problems. So, to answer­­­ your question I might respond in Talmudic fashion: a Slavic linguist is a linguist who works mainly on Slavic languages. And that is what I consider myself.


GF: Is your model for a working Slavic linguist a good one for younger PhDs to try to follow?

SF: Your next question is a tricky one. Here too I will equivocate: yes, if they want real answers; no, if they want a university job. Of course, that too involves a little prognostication. But my experience, in both Slavic and Linguistics Departments at IU, convinces me that times have changed since when I began roughly 40 years ago. From the perspective of a Slavic Department, those who want to pursue a career as a linguist (i.e., in academic parlance, a linguistics “track”) need a firm grounding in general linguistics. More and more often, these students are getting their training in Linguistics Departments. However, from the perspective of linguistics, it seems to me that the question of which analysis is right (in the sense of coming closer to expressing what we, as speakers, know about our languages), let alone theoretical concerns (in the sense of characterizing a model of that knowledge), now take a back seat to just getting things done, making things (e.g., teaching, translation, parsing) work more or less successfully without worrying about why. Thus, syntax is not the queen of linguistics as it was when I came of age; instead, applied areas, data collection, and computational modeling are much more popular. Nonetheless, you ask how my research has contributed to the teaching of Slavic linguistics, and I do think that both comparative Slavic morphosyntax and Slavic clitics have become standard fare in many graduate programs. Unfortunately, to do this properly (or at all really) one needs both a grounding in general linguistics and a familiarity with several Slavic languages. Be that as it may, if nothing else my research provides grist for the reanalysis mill: I have left so many things unresolved over my career, and also gotten so many things simply wrong, that any younger PhDs can find much of interest to try to figure out properly.


GF:  You’ve edited or co-edited the Journal of Slavic Linguistics for 25 years now, and you are stepping down at the end of this year. What has that journal done for the field?  Where do you feel that JSL has failed, or where do you think that it could have achieved more?

SF: Indeed, I am stepping down and passing on the baton. In my view, biased as it may be, JSL has been central to the promulgation of Slavic linguistics. The most important things that the journal has done for the field are these, in my opinion: (i) JSL provides a venue for publication of virtually any and all research on Slavic languages and (ii) JSL brings together and supports a diverse community of scholars, students, and professionals. From these roles emerged its most important achievement, namely, JSL was the initial force behind the creation of the Slavic Linguistics Society. I don’t really know what else could have been done under the banner of JSL to further Slavic linguistics, but I am sure the new editors (Lanko Marušič and Rok Žaucer) will have some good ideas.


GF: How has your research contributed to you in teaching Slavic linguistics over the years? Do you expect to continue to function actively as a Slavic linguist when you retire in a few years? Any long-neglected projects you’ve been saving for retirement?

SF: Your final set of questions are about whether or not I expect to continue to function actively as a Slavic linguist when I retire in a few years and whether there are any long-neglected projects that I’ve been saving for retirement. The answer to the first part is, yes, I hope so. The answer to the second part is that I have indeed been saving for retirement, but what I am saving is not projects (long-neglected or otherwise). Seriously, what I have come to understand over my career is that nothing is ever done, nothing is ever really solved, so I could just as well return to my comparative studies of numerals, case phenomena, or clitics, as begin something new. As I said before, I do plan to bring together into a book my work on the South Slavic noun phrase, and that will surely take me in unanticipated directions—as everything does when one thinks about language.


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