Personal profile

Personal Statement

I will be retiring in 2024, and during this final year I am writing a book on songs and linguistics with Myfany Turpin (Sydney), a chapter on economics and language with Keith Chen (UCLA), and various other chapters and articles. 

One of my recent books emerged from a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship and has been published by Anthem Press, called A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature (2022).  The other recent book is edited  with Venla Sykäri,  Rhyme and Rhyming in Verbal Art, Song and Language, published by Studia Fennica Folkloristica (2022) and free to download.

A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature offers a psychological account of thrills (goosebumps and tears), of the epiphanic experience of seeing ordinary things in a profoundly new way, and of the experience of the sublime.  The unifying characteristic of these 'strong experiences' is that they all begin with surprise.  They are important in literature: literature is about these experiences, and literature can cause these experiences.   This book offers an overview of theories of these kinds of experience, and of what might cause them to happen. In the final chapter, various literary strategies are explored as possible causes.  The book draws on psychological accounts of surprise, and of emotion, and cognitive approaches to what knowledge is, why it is possible to have feelings of profound knowledge, and why what we know can sometimes not be put into words.  I will be giving a talk on this topic in Tampere in September 2024.

My tenth book was What is Poetry: Language and Memory in the Poems of the World (Cambridge 2015); the book argues that the added forms of poetry such as metre, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism depend on the division of a text into sections short enough to be held in working memory.  My book with Morris Halle, Meter in Poetry: a New Theory (Cambridge 2008), argues that counting is the basis of all metrical poetry, and rhythm is derived from the counting mechanism.  My book Language and literary structure: the linguistic analysis of form in verse and narrative (Cambridge 2002) argues that form can hold of a literary text by inference.

BA English from Cambridge (Kings, 1980).  PhD in linguistics from MIT (1984) supervised by Noam Chomsky. Edited Journal of Linguistics (1997-2014). Joined Strathclyde Sept 1st 1984.  Head of department (2002-5). Acting dean during the first two months of the new Faculty in 2010. Vice-dean for research (2010-13). Harkness Fellow (1980-82). Leverhulme Fellow (2014-17). An editor of the Literary Universals Project.  I am quoted three times in the Oxford English Dictionary, I have an Erdös-Bacon number of 9, and I'm currently working towards bringing it down to 8.

Education/Academic qualification

Doctor of Philosophy, Syntactic affixation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Award Date: 1 Jan 1984

Bachelor of Arts, University of Cambridge

Award Date: 1 Jan 1980


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  • Literature and surprise

    Fabb, N., 25 Jul 2023

    Research output: Other contribution

    Open Access
  • Preface

    Sykäri, V. & Fabb, N., 5 Dec 2022, Rhyme and Rhyming in Verbal Art, Language, and Song. Sykäri, V. & Fabb, N. (eds.). Helsinki, p. 7-10 4 p. (Studia Fennica Folklorista; vol. 25).

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

    Open Access
    10 Downloads (Pure)