Kjell Johan Sæbø is professor of German linguistics in the Department of European languages at the University of Oslo. He holds a PhD from this university (1986) and has held temporary research positions in linguistics and computational linguistics at the universities of Constance and Tübingen. His main interests are in semantics, pragmatics and the philosophy of language, and his collaborations include European projects such as DANDI and DYANA, the Department of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin, the Zukunftskolleg at the University of Constance, and the CASTL-FISH group at the Arctic University of Norway. Sæbø is Co-Editor of the LSA's platinum open access journal Semantics and Pragmatics.

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

When did you first join the LSA?

I joined in 2016. I can only blame my European background and base for not joining earlier.

How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

My principal involvement has been as an associate editor of the LSA journal Semantics and Pragmatics and, since 2019, as co-editor in chief with Louise McNally. I have also been a regular reviewer for the Semantics and Linguistic Theory conference for many years.

What are you currently working on?

Something I asked Manfred Bierwisch about thirty years ago: Is it possible to define the meaning of the irrealis subjunctive in German or a language like it (or the fake past in English or a language like it)? He answered no it isn't, and so far it has seemed that he was right, but now there are data and tools on the table that make me feel we're beginning to see the light.

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

Possibly the paper that has left the deepest imprint on me is "Tempus und Temporaladverb" (tense and temporal adverb) by Rainer Bäuerle, published in Linguistische Berichte in 1977. It's just seven pages long but it sets out concisely and clearly his novel theory where tenses are neither quantifiers nor variables but modifiers of temporal adverbs, which can be silent variables. I have subscribed to this theory ever since.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

I can only answer for the subfield of semantics, and rather narrowly at that: I have yet to read a textbook of semantics that I find perfect. I think this reflects that the field still has not found itself as a mature science; we remain unsure of what is canonical, and there remain many choices along the road which may or may not be matters of notational variance. As I see it, this state of affairs also impinges on the ways we write and read and review each others' work, not always congenially and sometimes past each other. It's as if the stones in the foundation of the discipline are not one hundred percent stable – yet.

What advice would you give to students pursuing an advanced degree in linguistics?

What advice I can give is to students who continue to do research after receiving their degrees: Don't publish over and over on the same topic but move on. Have a heart for stepchildren among linguistic phenomena. Question received wisdoms, descriptively and theoretically, even if they are passed from leading figures. This may not be the best way to boost your impact in quantitative terms, but overall it benefits both you and the field​.​

What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

That is a big question, and as I have only been a member since turning sixty, I can only give a small answer. Still, based on what impressions I have, I wish there were something like it (smaller of course) in Norway or in Scandinavia, especially for the sake of junior linguists in less visible corners of academia or outside it, and also with a view to the image of linguistics in society. It would foster equality, solidarity and a sense of belonging, promote coherence and synergy, and strengthen the standing of the field.