Nikolas Gisborne

Professor

  • Linguistics and English Language
  • School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences

Contact details

Address

Street

Room 3.09, Dugald Stewart Building

City
3 Charles Street, Edinburgh
Post code
EH8 9AD

Availability

  • Office hours: by appointment. Please email.

Background

I'm usually known as Nik Gisborne. 

From September 2022 to August 2025, I shall be on long-term research leave working on a project funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, called ‘Simple grammars, relative clauses and language change’. There's more information under the Research tab.

I was educated at University College London, in the English Department (BA, MA) and the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics (PhD). My first job was at the University of Cambridge from 1994-1997. From there, I moved to the University of Hong Kong, coming to Edinburgh in January 2002. I was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2006, and to a Chair in 2012.

I’ve held various roles in my time here: I’ve been School Undergraduate Studies Director; Linguistics and English Language (LEL)’s Honours Convenor; LEL’s Post-graduate Director; and I served as Head of LEL from 2017-2020. I was heavily involved in the rewriting of the LEL undergraduate curriculum in the light of the university-wide ‘curriculum project’ many years ago; and I wrote both the MSc English Language and the MSc Linguistics. In 2016, I established the PPLS Skills Centre. Together with Andrew Hippisley I’m one of the founding editors of the monograph series Edinburgh Studies in Theoretical Linguistics.

Undergraduate teaching

I’m not currently teaching classes. In the past, I’ve taught the Honours courses Syntactic Theory and English Syntax, Lexical Semantics, and Current Issues in Syntax; the MSc course Introduction to Semantics; and pre-Honours lectures on syntactic theory, English syntax, lexical semantics, introductory formal semantics, pragmatics, and bits of the history of English. I have also been convenor of the Year 2 course LEL2A.

Areas of interest for supervision

Among other topics, I’ve supervised PhDs on English historical syntax; syntactic theory and modern English syntax; models of grammatical change and grammaticalization; morphosyntactic and semantic change in Chinese; Talmy's typology of events; models of event structure; and cognitive theories of language structure.

My most recent completions (since 2019).

Xin Sennrich, whose thesis is about to be published as a book. Xin’s PhD explored English -ing forms, and argued that participles are adjectives, linked to verbs via derivation. She then explored the consequences of this analysis for the analysis of gerunds and V-ing—Noun compounds. Xin was co-supervised by Heinz Giegerich.

Yueh-Hsin Kuo, co-supervised by Graeme Trousdale, who has published from his thesis in Diachronica, the Yearbook of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association, Constructions and Frames and Functions of Language among many publications. Yueh explored a number of grammatical changes in Chinese, one of which was bidirectional: the development of certain Chinese modals out of forms that introduce conditionals, and forms that introduce conditionals out of modals.

Jim Donaldson, whose research page is here and who has just published a paper in the Proceedings of the LFG ’21 Conference. Jim’s other supervisor was Geoff Pullum. Jim investigated non-main-clause-subject controllers of left-adjoined free adjuncts such as ‘turning the corner’ in ‘Turning the corner, an idea suddenly struck her’: he was interested in how we find the controller of these adjuncts. His PhD is available here.

Tobias Ungerer, who has secured a postdoc in Canada. He’s published in Cognitive Linguistics and the Belgian Journal of Linguistics. Tobias used priming experiments to explore how similar a number of argument-structure constructions were, in order to establish a detailed view of the structure of the constructicon. Tobias’s other supervisors were Graeme Trousdale and Chris Cummins.

Among my current PhD students, Anna Page (co-supervised with Rob Truswell) is about to submit. She’s been working on an original theory of the Dowty semantic operators CAUSE, DO and BECOME and has an intriguing account of causation. Esther Lam works on classifiers in Nung, a Tai-Kodai language spoken in Vietnam. Among other findings, Esther has discovered that certain classifier constructions in Nung relate to the semantics of uniqueness. Her other supervisors are Wataru Uegaki and Bert RemijsenIvo Youmerski is working on various structures, including headed relative clauses, formed around Wh-items in Slavic. Ivo is co-supervised by Rob Truswell. And Nadine Dietrich, who is co-supervised by Graeme Trousdale, is working on the ‘be going to’ future in English and its development from a cognitive and constructional perspective.

Current PhD students supervised

Research summary

My research interests are in theoretical linguistics and language change.

From September 2022 to August 2025, I shall be on long-term research leave working on a project funded by a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, which is called ‘Simple grammars, relative clauses and language change’. This is a development of work I’ve previously done with Rob Truswell. The project starts from the question why Indo-European languages and their areal neighbours are so surprisingly more likely to have headed relative clauses built around interrogative pro-forms  such as ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘which’ etc. (Wh-words), than any other language family or area, and the project explores research questions in typology, semantics, and language contact. These kinds of relative clause have recurred independently in several Indo-European languages in processes of ‘parallel evolution’, but that finding leaves open the questions of why parallel evolution happens and why these forms are also found in unrelated neighbour languages.  Our joint work has been reported in a talk to the Philological Society, and other talks and publications, mostly on the history of English, including this article and chapter.

But first, I'm finishing up a book for CUP called ‘Networks of predication’. In this book, I argue that raising and control, structures with participial complements and small clauses all involve the same syntactic pattern of grammatical relations and structure sharing, with the main differences being in the semantics, including the argument linking patterns. From this, I develop a mostly semantic account of various diachronic changes, including certain patterns of auxiliation, which are consistent with grammatical change taking place in incremental small steps.

In my previous theoretical work, I’ve mainly focused on argument structure and event structure, and other questions in language change. My books The event structure of perception verbs (OUP 2010) and Ten lectures on event structure in a network theory of language (Brill 2020) are both about the lexical-semantic network structures of verb meanings and are also contributions to the linguistic theory, Word Grammar originally developed by Dick Hudson. The second book presents the material I gave in lectures at several universities in Beijing in 2016. The main theoretical claim in both books is that language is mentally represented as a typed radical network with atomic nodes; the various arguments and analyses of data that they present follow from that claim. Word Grammar is a dependency grammar; my most recent paper argues against mutual dependency. I’ve also written on sundry other topics such as Word Grammar morphology, thematic roles (with Jim Donaldson), the role of defaults in linguistics (with Andrew Hippisley), and wordhood.

In my other work on language change, I bring theoretical questions about the mental network together with the question of how mental grammars differ from speaker to speaker over time, giving rise to (and in response to) the language environment. In the network approach, directionality in grammatical change is not obviously conditioned by the nature of grammatical structures, so one of my ongoing questions is how we account for directionality in grammatical change given a radical network architecture. Along the way, for example, I’ve worked on constructional change; the development of the definite article in English; and the emergence of the Romance synthetic future

I’ve co-edited a number of books: Defaults in morphological theory (OUP 2017, with Andrew Hippisley); Theory and data in cognitive linguistics (Benjamins 2014, with Willem Hollmann); The typology of Asian Englishes (Benjamins 2011, with Lisa Lim); and Constructional approaches to English grammar (Mouton de Gruyter 2008, with Graeme Trousdale).

Affiliated research centres