Published: 18 February 2014

Profile: Professor Greville Corbett, Surrey Morphology Group

Meet Grev Corbett, Surrey's Distinguished Professor of Linguistics and newly elected Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America.

For a Distinguished Professor and Honorary Member of the Linguistic Society of America who co-founded one of the world's most prestigious linguistic research groups, Professor Greville Corbett is a modest man.

Known to everyone in the School of English and Languages as Grev, he routinely deflects questions about his own achievements with proud descriptions of his beloved Surrey Morphology Group and the research its members carry out in every corner of the world where unusual languages are spoken.

"We do the really difficult bits of morphology [the study of word structure] in the languages which are most challenging and complex," explains Grev. "Matthew and I tend to be more theoretical, while in the last few years there has been quite a shift to more and more of the Group doing field work. So there's Ollie working in Nepal, Marina in Dagestan, Sebastian in Papua New Guinea, Enrique and Tim primarily involved in the languages of Mexico, Sasha works on North Russian dialects spoken in Siberia, Serge works in Senegal and is a speaker of Eegimaa, Maris in Malta as a speaker of Maltese, Kasia in Poland working on her native Polish, and we’re ably supported by Lisa and Penny. There's a lot of expertise here.

"We've got some nice equipment, and people who know to use it. We have a balance between people asking interesting theoretical questions, then going out into the field with those questions and knowing what they've got to do to push our understanding a bit further."

"We've got some nice equipment, and people who know to use it."

Little could Grev have predicted that he'd go on to set up and lead such a Group when studying for his first degree in French and Russian. After a 'pretty tough' year in Moscow during the Brezhnev era and a stint in Belgrade learning Serbo-Croat, he joined the University of Surrey in 1974 as a lecturer. He has been here ever since, though various secondments, visiting fellowships and research projects have 'borrowed' him from time to time.

"I appreciated the fact that there was one teacher who could explain things in a way that made sense," he remembers. "I admired that, and I found learning languages quite difficult, so I felt I had to get my head round it and understand it intellectually as well as doing the practical work. So originally my aim was to be able to teach like that. It was only somewhat later that the research got more and more important."

That research would eventually lead to the founding of the Russian Morphology Group in the early 1990s, swiftly becoming the Surrey Morphology Group when Grev and his colleagues (Norman Fraser, Dunstan Brown and Andrew Hippisley) realised how much interesting work on other languages there was to be done. The Group has grown from four people working on two projects to a team of over a dozen academics and support staff able to win significant research bids (including a monster €1.7m project from the EU's European Research Council) and carry out ambitious, award-winning fieldwork in far-off places.

Surrey Morphology Group has become a team of over a dozen academics and support staff able to win significant research bids

Linguistics is a notoriously tricky subject to explain to a non-specialist, with hundreds of terms and concepts that are not widely understood. How does Grev explain what he does for a living?

"It's difficult," he admits. "At parties I say something vague about how I work on the structure of languages, because people really want to tell me how the world is going to come to an end because people aren't putting commas in the right place. I never know whether to engage with them and say 'don't be so utterly ridiculous' or whether to find an excuse to get another drink and go to the other side of the room.

"It is unfortunate that some people are interested in language only in the sense of telling other people what's right and wrong. It's very sad. There are so many interesting things about language that they don't get to see."

For instance, Grev has recently submitted a paper on split paradigms (or words whose parts seem very different). "In English, we say 'I go' but 'I went'," he explains. "Now, at some level everybody knows that the past of 'go' is 'went'. It just is. That's startling, really. If you believe that 'go' and 'went' are in some sense part of the same word - technically the same lexeme - it means you can have bits of a word that are totally distinct in their form. It's not a bit irregular, it's not a slight change, it's two completely different things - it's known in the trade as suppletion - and if you can do that, you start wondering what other sorts of things you can do.

"Across the world, there are some very strange things going on, splits in words where I think most linguists would want to say that the parts belong together but, hey, they really are dramatically different. So I went away and looked at examples of this, and for a linguist the results were exciting and slightly shocking."

"It is unfortunate that some people are interested in language only in the sense of telling other people what's right and wrong."

Despite decades of this type of research, along with dozens of publications and conference engagements, news of his election to Honorary Membership of the Linguistic Society of America came to him as a surprise. The award is exclusively for people outside the USA, with a maximum of three in any one year and a cap of 60 holders at any one time. "It's nice to be recognised by your peers," he beams, "but I suspect it's with the Group in mind, not just me. Unfortunately, these things often have to be made to an individual.

"On the one hand it feels as though we have made huge progress in the last few decades but, on the other, language looks pretty much as mysterious as ever. The Surrey Morphology Group has concentrated on one area - how words are structured. Thinking back, we've tackled some really tough problems and made some progress on them, and yet the horizon always seems to move further away. Yes, we've understood all these things, but there's still a sense of 'wow, this is difficult, complex and interesting - what next?'"