Dr Diane Nelson

Dr Diane Nelson


After graduating from Columbia College in 1990 and the University of Edinburgh in 1995, I joined the University of Leeds in 1996 as a Lecturer in Linguistics before becoming Senior Lecturer in 2008. In 2000 I was a visiting researcher at the University of Iceland. At Leeds I’ve held school-level roles as Postgraduate Research Tutor and Promotions Advisor for the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies and I acted as MA Programmes Manager for the MA in Linguistics and the MA Linguistics and English Language Teaching until 2021. I am currently Subject Leader for Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds, a role which includes Undergraduate Programmes Manager for the BA in Linguistics and related degree programmes. I was elected as a member of the University Graduate Board in 2020. I am a longstanding member of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain and served as Membership Secretary from 2003–04. I’ve acted as Rapporteur for ESRC project reports and the European Science Foundation, a referee for AHRC grant applications, and as a panelist for WRoCAH PhD scholarships. 

My background is in morphosyntax (especially case, event structure and animacy) and I have worked on several Uralic languages including Finnish, Inari Saami, and Meadow Mari; I have also studied Turkish, Georgian, Laz, Megrelian, Icelandic, Brazilian Portuguese and Khalkh Mongolian. I helped organise the first Evolang conference in Edinburgh in 1996, which started a longstanding interest in language origins and evolution. I teach an undergraduate module called The Life Cycle of Languages, which traces the natural history of language(s) from evolutionary origins to linguistic diversity to endangerment and death. I’m also interested in the relationships between language and the natural world, and the links between linguistic diversity and biodiversity (and their parallel declines). I am a founder member of the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems (CELCE) at Leeds and I am a member of the International Ecolinguistics Association. I’m on the Steering Group of Language@Leeds and a member of the Embracing Linguistic Diversity satellite. Last but not least, I’m also a supervisory member of the new Leverhulme-funded Extinction Studies Doctoral Training Programme (DTP). 

I really enjoy public engagement and collaborations outside of academia. I’ve had spots on BBC’s Word of Mouth on Radio 4 (2003–04) and The Verb on Radio 3 (2021) and in 2018 I gave a lunchtime talk at the Leeds Art Gallery on the relationship between language art in the work of sculptor Carl Plackman. I’ve also organised film screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House. These include a 2019 screening of Edge of the Knife (SGaawaay K’uuna), filmed entirely in Haida, in conjunction with the Native Spirit Film Festival and part of UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages; and a 2016 screening of Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko). In September 2020 I was selected for a Leeds Creative Labs collaboration with the poet Neelam Saredia Brayley; our project explored how communities and individuals lose languages, and the emotions around the process of language loss. Most recently I gave a talked called Why Do Languages Die? for the online talks platform The Garden

I have supervised 11 PhD students to completion and currently co-supervise another 5. I’m not in a position to take many more supervisees at this point but I am happy to discuss enquiries from prospective PhD applicants in the following areas:

  • Case, event structure and animacy, depending on the language (see list above);
  • Language origins and evolution;
  • Language diversity, endangerment and extinction (but I’m not able to supervise projects on language documentation);
  • Uralic languages, especially morphosyntax


  • Subject Leader for Linguistics and Phonetics

Research interests

Since doing my PhD on Grammatical Case Assignment on Finnish, I have worked on various aspects of the grammar of Finnish and other Uralic languages, including case, passives, argument/event structure, and word order. In the past I have worked on Finnish with Satu Manninen, Inari Saami with Ida Toivonen, and Meadow Mari with Elena Vedernikova and Jeremy Bradley as part of the Uralic Syntax project; I’ve presented at several SOUL conferences and I am on the editorial board of the Journal of Uralic Linguistics

One of my current research interests is linguistic animacies, or the way that grammars encode scalar relationships between humans, animals and other living beings, and inanimate entities. In November 2015 I co-organised a workshop at Leeds on Animacy in Language and Cognition with Virve-Anneli Vihman at the University of Tartu. Out of this came a special issue of Open Linguistics and several publications exploring the role of animacy in children’s narratives and emergent grammars, including a paper co-authored with Virve Vihman and Simon Kirby. I’m also interested in grammatical language impairment and have worked with Vesna Stojanovik at the University of Reading investigating the verbal and nonverbal abilities of children with William's Syndrome.

Since 2018 I have been involved in a collaborative project with Professor Thea Pitman, Idiane Kariri-Xocó and Nhenety Kariri-Xocó, with the support of colleagues at Thydêwá (Sebastián Gerlic and Helder Cámara Jr), on an ongoing project to support the revitalisation of the Kariri-Xocó language. With funding from Language Acts and Worldmaking (AHRC) and internal pump-priming schemes, we travelled to Rio de Janeiro with Idiane Kariri-Xocó and Wmanamy Kariri-Xocó to present at the Viva Língua Viva conference in 2019, and have sinced published co-authored papers for Cadernos de Linguística and Environmental Humanities

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • PhD (Linguistics), University of Edinburgh 1996
  • BA (Ancient) History, Columbia University 1990

Professional memberships

  • Linguistics Association of Great Britain
  • Philological Society

Student education

I’m passionate about teaching and I love bringing my own enthusiasm about linguistics to my students. In most years I teach theoretical syntax at undergraduate and/or postgraduate level. I have also taught research methods at MA level, and level 1 cornerstone strands in Morphology and Syntax. The most unique module I teach is Life Cycle of Languages, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to the natural history of language, from its evolutionary origins, through the huge diversity of languages in the world, to the factors leading to the crisis in linguistic diversity. This year I launched a new cross-school module with Chiara La Sala called Minoritised Languages, Dialects and Cultures from Past to Present.

I’ve acted as External Examiner for BA and MA programmes in Linguistics at the Universities of Westminster, York, Manchester, Cambridge, Newcastle and Edinburgh. I was also a member of the QAT Subject Benchmarking review panels for Linguistics in 2014–15 and 2022.   

Research groups and institutes

  • Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems
  • Network for Hispanic and Lusophone Cultural Studies
  • Language at Leeds

Current postgraduate researchers

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://phd.leeds.ac.uk">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>