Jennifer Hinnel

Jennifer Hinnel

Working towards a greater understanding of language

Field of Study: Linguistics

Jennifer is a cognitive linguist working towards a greater understanding of language, its structures, and how it is used across a wide range of interactional settings, genres and varieties.Her work centers around communication in interaction – i.e. people talking to each other! What are the structures that people choose, consciously or subconsciously, to use when they communicate, and what effect do these structures have on the intended message? She looks at this from the perspective of structures in speech – like grammatical choices in verb marking, lexical choices, fixed expressions, and also looks at how people use their bodies – gestures, head movements, shrugs, etc. She is especially interested in how these streams together express abstract conceptual notions – like event structure, stance, and negation.

Her focus on face-to-face interaction as a starting point for linguistic description and language documentation has important implications for the study of languages that rely predominantly on verbal and visual signals (e.g. signed and oral Indigenous languages). She hopes her research will also contribute to developments in multimedia technologies, e.g. in virtual agents that rely on human-like language use, and animated dialogue in films and video games.

I've always been thrilled by the possibilities of language. I remember making up my own language when I was a kid, and I used to take out my whole family’s maximum number of books from the library. As an adult I always felt at home studying and experiencing language – at poetry, spoken word, and literary festivals, and felt the same about language set to music, any music – but especially opera and art song. Language is powerful – the right language can help you see and feel things differently.

Jennifer chose the Department of Linguistics at the U of A because she wanted to work with her supervisor, Dr. Sally Rice, and learn the methodologies that are taught in the department. The U of A Linguistics Department is known for its cognitive linguistics program and a data-driven approach to language. This means that Jennifer and her supervisor don’t explore structure for the sake of structure, like a formal syntactician might; rather, they look at language and how it’s used in day to day situations, like people in normal conversation. 

I think the Killam Award is recognition of a lot of hard work up to this point. It's taken a lot of support from people on my team, like my supervisor and my family and close friends, to excel in graduate school, to develop international partnerships, etc. Looking forward, I hope that it opens some doors to conversations, networks, and opportunities. I would love to find an academic home to continue my work as a Linguist, researcher, and teacher, and I hope that being a Killam Laureate will help me get there.