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"Passau was an ideal place for me"

Forty years after joining the University of Passau as the university's first research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Stiftung, Marc Van de Velde returns to visit the city where he has friends to this day. Among them Professor Hans-Werner Eroms, his supervisor at his Chair at the time. By Nicola Jacobi

Professor Marc Van de Velde (r) and Professor Hans-Werner Eroms (l) in front of the University Library, which is housed in the Nikolakloster building. Photograph: Benedikt Kuhnen.

Linguists among themselves. Every now and then when Belgian linguist Marc Van de Velde and Professor Emeritus of German Language Hans-Werner Eroms from the University of Passau get together, they are drawn into reminiscing about the time they had got to know each other. Linguistics colloquia held in the late 70s at various venues had been brought together. "At the time, there was a sense of a new beginning in linguistics," Eroms recollects. "Young language researchers like us began to explore new areas. It was no longer just about grammar – pragmatics that captures the spoken language in different contexts represented a new exciting area of research."

What makes the Humboldt family so special is that everyone stays in touch

Professor Hans-Werner Eroms

First Humboldt fellow at the University of Passau

Their shared research interests and regular meetings eventually inspired Marc Van de Velde, who had earned a doctorate in German Studies at Ghent University by then, to apply for a research fellowship with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His destination: the budding University of Passau where Hans-Werner Eroms had been appointed to the Chair of German Language in 1980. Forty years ago, in 1983, Van de Velde moved to Passau with his family, consisting of his wife and two young sons. His baggage included not only plenty of ideas and textbooks but – being a typical Belgian –also a deep fryer to make chips.

Präsident Prof. Dr. Ulrich Bartosch begrüßte die beiden inzwischen emeritierten Professoren.  Foto: Benedikt Kuhnen

University President Ulrich Bartosch welcoming the two professors who are now both retired. Photograph: Benedikt Kuhnen

The Belgian was the first Humboldt Foundation fellow to research at the University of Passau. Ultimately, the family stayed nearly two years. "In hindsight, Passau was an ideal place for me and my family," he says on a tour of the campus. "We felt very much at home here. I found the university to have a committed supervisor and lots of inspiration for my research, and, on a more personal level, we were warmly received in our neighbourhood.

From colleagues to friends

Van de Velde is "an absolute experts for questions on word order". At least that is how his erstwhile supervisor Hans-Werner Eroms describes him, adding: "Word order is an important chapter of linguistics. How are the different constituents of a sentence arranged in a given language and why is that? That’s an essential question in any language." German is a typical example of rather complicated word order rules. Van de Velde, who taught at the University for Translation and Interpretation of the Province of East Flanders, adds: "When interpreting in Germanic languages – like into German, for instance – the fact that the verb or constituents like the negation come at the very end of a sentence is obviously a problem. Interpreters are specially trained to deal with that."

Although both scholars have long ended their academic career, they continue to bond over their shared interest in language. And their love for Passau. Eroms, who originally hails from Lower Saxony, and the Belgian Van de Velde, who continues to hold German, his first foreign language, close to the heart, have become good friends. Since completing his fellowship at the University of Passau, Van de Velde has been coming down to the City of Three Rivers with his family on regular visits. Over these years, he has witnessed how the campus has grown and expanded. Back in the day, his walk to university had taken him along the Inn River. Now, forty years later, he arrives for the meeting on campus on foot as well – and is just as charmed by the university's unique location.

Prof. Dr. Marc Van de Velde und Prof. Dr. Hans-Werner Eroms vor der Bibliothek im Nikolakloster. Foto: Benedikt Kuhnen

Professor Marc Van de Velde (r) and Professor Hans-Werner Eroms (l) in front of the University Library, which is housed in the Nikolakloster building. Photograph: Benedikt Kuhnen

From Passau into the world

Van de Velde was Eroms's first fellow in a long line of Humboldt fellows to research at his Chair. Once Van de Velde had left, Eroms went on to supervise six young male researchers from Poland, Austria, Bulgaria and Japan and a young female researcher from Finland while serving as professor at the University of Passau, propelling the name of the small Low Bavarian university into the world. "What makes the Humboldt family so special is that everyone stays in touch," says Eroms. "At a conference in Warsaw many years ago, I found myself in a group with lots of international researchers and all of them had some kind of link to Passau."

The University of Passau has hosted some thirty further Humboldt fellows ever since and was awarded a Humboldt Professorship in 2022.

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