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Elly van Gelderen speaks students' language

November 30, 2009

Editor’s Note: This profile is one in a series that highlights Arizona State University’s 2008 and 2009 Regents’ Professors. The Regents’ Professor honor is the most prestigious faculty award at the university. Click here to view the complete list of awardees. 

Consider this phrase: “The chocolate toy factory.”

Does it mean that the factory makes toys out of chocolate? Or that the factory itself is constructed of chocolate?

This is one of the puzzles that Regents' Professor Elly van Gelderen presents to her modern grammar classes. “It’s my own favorite ambiguous noun phrase,” she said.

How would you diagram it – or, as van Gelderen teaches, make a tree illustrating each word’s role in the phrase?

Many people remember their junior high school grammar lessons with a grimace, but van Gelderen brings the subject alive – and even adds a touch of humor now and then such as giving each student a piece of sidewalk chalk to remind them to go home and draw those “trees.”

Casually dressed for class in jeans and a yellow Sierra Club T-shirt, van Gelderen quickly writes intricate sentence trees on the blackboard, asking the students, by name, for opinions, tossing in explanations and grammar tips as she scribbles the words.

Her students take notice.

Jill Burgoyne, a senior majoring in linguistics, said, “Elly van Gelderen is one of my favorite professors here at ASU. This is my first semester having her as a teacher.

“I knew I was in for a treat when, after one of her classes, I went to my next class and told someone I was in her class. This instigated an entire discussion before class on how much this professor was liked. In this discussion, there were lots of points made about why everyone loved her.”

So why do the students love her?

“She is clear and concise in her teaching. It is simple with plenty of examples and opportunities to practice,” Burgoyne said. “She is easily accessible.”

And, in the “Cheers” vein, Burgoyne added, “She works on knowing your name.”

Van Gelderen, who was born in the Netherlands, earned her doctoral degree in linguistics from McGill University in Montréal, Canada, and has taught at ASU in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since 1995. Her specialized research area is theoretical syntax with an emphasis on historical and comparative syntax. She is currently studying the linguistic cycle, or how languages change in very similar ways.

“All languages change the same way,” she said. “That is because children have an innate mechanism that helps them acquire a language, and principles that are part of this mechanism determine the change.”

Examples of a linguistic cycle, van Gelderen said, are negatives, where “an initial single negative, such as 'not,' gets to be reinforced by 'nothing' or replaced by 'never,' and subjects, where sometimes the pronouns end up being prefixes or suffixes. This is currently happening in French where the pronouns je and tu are being re-analyzed as agreement markers.

Van Gelderen not only researches why languages change, but she also looks at why there are cycles of change. In the introduction to a book she edited on cyclical change, she wrote that many historical linguists see language change as determined by two kinds of factors – internal, such as ease of pronunciation, and external, such as “a need on the part of speakers to be innovative and creative or conservative.”

In addition to her classes in modern grammar, van Gelderen teaches the history of English, advanced classes in syntax, historical linguistics and typology.

She has written six books and approximately 50 articles and book chapters. In her spare time, she researches the evolution of language, biolinguistics, prescriptivism, authorship debates and code switching.

Outside of her academic career, van Gelderen is an artist, activist and outdoorswoman. She has exhibited her artwork at two ASU Homecoming exhibits, a show in downtown Phoenix, the ASU Memorial Union and Central Arizona College, among other venues. She is active in human rights, justice, literacy, poverty and environmental organizations, and shares information about each area on her personal Web site,

Her Web site also includes photos and information about four hikes in the Superstition Mountains that she has enjoyed, ranging from Black Mesa Loop to La Barge Canyon.

Though she is a prolific scholar and recognized internationally in her field, she still cares about each student who comes through her classroom door.

“What I have come to learn is that she is really fair," Burgoyne said. "When it comes to tests, you know about what to expect, and she prepares you for it. I feel like she wants everyone to succeed.

“There have been a couple times that we have received e-mails where she has retracted something she said in class as a correction. I love this about her because it lets me know that whatever she teaches us will be right and she isn't afraid to say she might be wrong.”