Chair no. 6 - Tomas Riad

Tomas Riad was born on 15 November 1959 in Uppsala. He is a linguist and Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Stockholm University. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 29 September 2011 and was formally inducted on 20 December that year. Riad succeeded author Birgitta Trotzig on Chair No. 6. He lives in Stockholm and is based at Stockholm University, following guest researcher posts at Stanford University, Vilnius University and Université Paris 8 in Saint-Denis, among others. He was awarded the Högskoleföreningen (higher education association) Prize for the best doctoral thesis of 1992 and the Eva and Lars Gårding Prize in Linguistics in 2008, and in 2005 was given a Swedish Academy research fellowship, including five years of full-time research and funds for a doctoral student.

Riad was born in Uppsala but spent his first five years in his father’s home country, Egypt, alternating between Cairo and Alexandria. When conditions in Egypt worsened under Nasser, the family returned to the mother’s hometown of Uppsala. Tomas Riad’s schooling was entirely in Uppsala till, but immediately after graduation in 1978 – majoring in classical languages at the Uppsala Cathedral School – he tried his luck as a student of violin at the Royal College of Music in London. He stayed in London for a year before returning to Sweden for national military service as a signals operator and telegraphist at the S1 Regiment in Uppsala, and subsequent studies at Uppsala University.

At Uppsala University he studied English, Irish Gaelic and Swedish before transferring to Stockholm University in 1983 for a preparatory research (“D Level”) course in Swedish. He was admitted to his doctoral studies just over a year later and was given the opportunity to travel to the United States as a doctoral student in 1985-86 at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, where he spent a year in the university’s Program in Cognitive Science. At this institution, which advantageously combined psychology and linguistics, he met his first mentor, Alan Prince (currently at Rutgers), who aroused Riad’s interest in phonology.

Phonology is the science of the sound structures of languages, of how speech sounds work within the framework of language systems. After authoring a number of minor articles on the subject and having been involved in 1990 in a European project known as Eurotyp, Riad defended his weighty thesis Structures in Germanic Prosody – A diachronic study with special reference to the Nordic languages in Stockholm in 1992. His supervisor was Staffan Hellberg.

The purpose of the thesis was to understand how the Germanic languages progressed through similar historical language changes without contact with each other. The languages seemed to be in some way “predestined” to pass through various processes, which does not properly accord with the linguistic credo that languages are not organisms. The basic idea is that the movement of stress to the root syllable (as a rule, the first syllable) is a trauma for the entire prosodic system — a trauma it takes thousands of years to recover from, through the gradual normalisation of the quantity and so-called foot structure, where the implementation of the demand that stressed syllables are heavy is the logical conclusion.

This hefty dissertation allowed his mentor, Professor Paul Kiparsky of Stanford University, to bring Tomas Riad to Stanford on a post-doctorate research grant. There in California, Riad met researcher Chris Golston, who shared an interest for the relationship between the prosody of a language (the spoken language’s internal rhythm and melody) and that language’s use of various metre. The two began a lengthy collaboration, leading them through a variety of foreign languages in the quest for a way to express as correctly and comprehensively as possible how individual languages choose their specific metre. Their collaboration has resulted in a number of articles and shortly, after twenty years, a book. Of these metric essays, written in partnership by Chris Golston and Tomas Riad, the one on Greek, “The Phonology of Classical Greek Meter” published in 2000, stands out. What is radical in the essay is its demonstration that most classical Greek metre are “un-rhythmical”, that is, they depart from the prosody of the natural language.

At a later stage in the project, in an article entitled “Accents left and right” 2009, Tomas Riad used an in-depth analysis of August Strindberg’s employment of antique metre, especially the hexameter, to show how the assimilation of classical metre in Swedish works. As in other Germanic languages, it is through a less rigid use of metre; rather, a more emergent rhythm.

Nonetheless, the metrical project was only one of several orientations in Riad’s work, which took a new direction when he returned to Sweden around the mid-1990s to take up a position as research fellow at Stockholm University. He began to be interested in the unusual Swedish and Norwegian so-called tone accents; that is, when differences in pitch are decisive for the meaning. This phenomenon, common in non-European languages, is uncommon in Europe, and in a major article, “The Origin of Scandinavian Tone Accents” in 1998, Riad produced an historical linguistic hypothesis for how tone accents arose. This essay, central to his work, showed that the tone accent must have arisen in Swedish in the 10th century at the latest. A rather more accessible, Swedish-language version of the article was published in 2005, symptomatically entitled “Historien om tonaccenten” (The history of the tone accent).

In this connection, Riad has also become interested in how Danish has been able to develop in such a different direction and instead of the tone accent produce the ‘stød’ phenomenon: the sudden disruption of the regular oscillation of the vocal chords, almost like a cessation in speech. The phenomenon was thoroughly studied in an article from 2000, “The origin of Danish stød”. The idea is that this sound has developed from a dialect tonally similar to Central Swedish. An argument for this is, for example, is a similar sound in the Eskilstuna region in Sweden, and even other characteristics that indicate relationship.

Riad’s recent research has also studied how the rhythm and melody of language influence word formation; that is, the relationship between prosody and morphology. In this connection, the example of nicknames plays an astonishingly large role. The formation of Swedish nicknames turns out to be the most spectacular  derivational type. Regardless of whether a proper name is a quadrisyllabic ‘Katarina’ or a monosyllabic ‘Bo’, the goal appears to be to create a bisyllabic form with an initial stress (‘Katt-is’, ‘Boss-e’) – which indicates that prosody has direct influence on the word formation. Riad has investigated this and other matters in his articles “Svensk smeknamnsfonologi” (Swedish nickname phonology) in 2002 and “Osynliga former i ordbildningen” (Invisible forms in word formation) in 2009.

This has also expanded into a book, Prosodi i svenskans ordbildning (Prosody in the word formation of Swedish), albeit still in manuscript form. Riad attempts a comprehensive representation of the role of prosody in the morphology of Swedish. He has been able to show that stress has a constitutive function in word formation, and the tone accent a more reactive function, and that both are largely morphologically based. Previously, it has been assumed that both stress and tone accent were caused by more purely phonological conditions such as number of syllables.

Tomas Riad has also been active in popular education – his introduction, “Svenskt fonologikompendium” (A Swedish phonology compendium) from 1997 could make anyone interested in phonology, and his 2008 article on the “Swedish” spoken by the Swedish chef in The Muppets television series — typically entitled “Börk börk börk. Ehula hule de chokolad muus” — is already a classic through its subtle reasoning eliminating the chef’s supposed origin from the provinces of Skåne and Dalarna and the City of Gothenburg.

Recently, Tomas Riad has become interested in grammar teaching in schools and allowing room for pupils’ linguistic intuition in teaching, which could challenge the modern tendency to see grammar as boring and pointless. In this connection, he has compiled teaching materials based partly on skills training and partly on problem solution. Until now, the material has been seen as suitable mainly for teacher training and for the study of Swedish, but Riad will also test it on secondary school classes, where the material should have its best effect.

He has written a volume entitled The Phonology of Swedish for the Oxford University Press’s extensive series, The Phonology of the World’s Languages.

Riad’s latest project is research into ‘The Prosodic Hierarchy of Swedish’, where, together with his former doctoral student, Sara Myrberg – currently an intonation researcher – he is occupied in identifying and determining the various categories in the prosodic hierarchy of Swedish; for example, the prosodic foot’s relation to the prosodic word, the relationships between prosodic word, phonological phrase and intonational phrase.

In his induction speech on his predecessor Birgitta Trotzig at the Swedish Academy’s Annual Grand Ceremony on 20 December 2011, Tomas Riad took the liberty of conducting a grammatical analysis, a clause analysis, of a few sentences from Trotzig’s first novel, From the Life of Those Who Love (1951). It became a fascinating alternative reading of Trotzig, providing completely new insights into her writing.

By Jan Arnald
(Translated by Kim Loughran)

Photo: Helena Paulin Strömberg
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