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Jan-Ola Östman

Jan-Ola Ingemar Östman
Born October 14, 1951, Solf

Doctor of Philosophy 1986 (linguistics), University of California, Berkeley
MA (FM) 1977 and MPhil (FL) 1981 (English language and literature), Åbo Akademi University
Master of Arts 1976 (linguistic science), Reading University

Associate professor 1989–1998 and full professor of English philology 1998-2002, acting professor of general linguistics 1993–1996, professor of Scandinavian languages 2002-, University of Helsinki
Professor II (part-time) of Scandinavian languages 2006–2010, University of Tromsø, Norway

Director of the doctoral program for language studies at the University of Helsinki 2013-

Research interests
Pragmatics, discourse and media; construction grammar and construction discourse; minorities, dialects, language contact, identity and variability; language policy, sociology of language, ideology and applied linguistics

Publications, research projects and other academic activities

Photo: Leila Mattfolk
Written by Jan-Ola Östman (Tomas Sjöblom, ed.)

Language is everything

Language at the center

My mother tongue is the dialect Solv (spoken in the village Solf in present-day Korsholm, south of Vaasa on the west coast). During my school days in Vaasa, I was teased about my dialect, and I soon learned not to assign it much value.

When I studied indigenous languages of the Americas in California in the 1980s I soon learned two important things: (a) we have more or less the same kinds of linguistic challenges in my home village in Finland as I found on the west coast of the U.S.A.; and (b) a thorough understanding of minority languages (including dialects) and their relation to standard languages and global languages is the key to a deeper understanding of language and culture generally, and of what really takes place when languages are in contact.

As professor of Scandinavian languages I have had the possibility to carry out fieldwork and get acquainted with many dialects and language varieties in all the Nordic countries. These field trips have also included studies of language contacts between traditional languages (like Swedish, Finnish, Sámi) and studies of the language of recently arrived refugees (especially in the countryside of Ostrobothnia).

Language = structure + function

In my research I have focused on two broad areas. First, I have concentrated my work on language use, language function and what it means for an expert on language to take responsibility for the knowledge that we as students of language have and that we need to share with the community at large, e.g. through presentations, articles and theses. I am at present the President of the International Pragmatics Association and co-editor of the magnum opus Handbook of Pragmatics at John Benjamins Publishers, which produces 300 pages a year.

Secondly, I have balanced this up with work on language as a system: the phonetics, the prosody, the syntax, and the semantics of language, in particular. And how language – the system ­– co-functions with the cognitive, interactive, cultural and historical aspects of language. Especially during the last twenty years I have been active in promoting a constructional approach to grammar, i.a. through co-editing the book series Constructional Approaches to Language (John Benjamins Publishers).

I see function and system as two inseparable sides of the same coin, viz. grammar. We cannot (ever) neglect either of these two sides if we want to get a full-fledged picture of language and culture. Grammar is the resource we have, and for me grammatical knowledge also includes knowledge of discourse patterns, of interactive patterns, and of cultural patterns.

A construction grammatical analysis of the English sentence ‘Sam bought a house’.


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