Research

Current Projects

Long-distance dependencies from a number of perspectives

  • English: Resumption and processing of long-distance dependencies

Is English resumption akin to the resumption found in Irish or Lebanese Arabic? And if not, then in what ways is it different? Resumptive pronouns are claimed to ameliorate island violations, yet this theoretical intuition is not substantiated experimentally. What is going on? We investigate these and other questions using behavioral experimental methodologies; the answers are expected to feed back into syntactic theory construction. We base our investigations on long-distance dependencies, which allow us to tease apart purely linguistic effects and effects related to memory or attention.

  • Morphological and syntactic ergativity: theory and processing

A large body of work on the processing of long-distance dependencies argues for the subject processing advantage (SPA). However, until recently, cross-linguistic evidence for the SPA was limited to nominative-accusative languages where grammatical function (subject vs. object) and case (nominative vs. accusative) align. This makes it harder to determine whether the processing advantage is due to subjecthood or surface cues like word order, case marking, or agreement. Ergative languages provide an opportunity to tease apart grammatical function and surface cues, since they associate more than one case with the subject position. With that in mind, we have been examining the processing of long- distance dependencies in several ergative languages. If we find that the ergative is more difficult to process than the absolutive in long-distance dependencies, that may allow us to provide a processing explanation for syntactic ergativity— the phenomenon where the absolutive can extract leaving a gap but the ergative cannot. In parallel we have been working on a purely syntactic analysis of syntactic ergativity; this work involves a better understanding of the way the ergative can be licensed in syntactic structure.

Languages we have been working on

  • Heritage languages: morphological deficits and variation in heritage populations

Linguistic theorizing and experimental studies of language development rest heavily on the notion of an adult, linguistically stable, native speaker. Native speaker competence and use are typically the result of normal first language acquisition in a predominant monolingual environment, with optimal and continuous exposure to the language. Our studies focus on heritage speakers: bilingual speakers of an ethnic or immigrant minority language whose first language does not typically reach native-like attainment in adulthood. What shapes heritage speakers’ linguistic system? How is their language different from the language of a monolingual? The examination of the linguistic knowledge of heritage speakers allows us to question long-held ideas about the stability of language before the so-called critical period for language development, and the nature of the linguistic system developing under reduced input conditions.

  • Languages of the Caucasus: Acquisition and processing

The languages of the Caucasus (Russia) possess a variety of features that make them both fascinating and theoretically important, including their rich case systems, complicated agreement systems, and syntactically challenging null elements.  We are interested in the analysis of these features, but we also are interested in their acquisition by children learning these languages and the processing of these features by adult speakers.  In addition, these languages are important to our work on ergativity because they display morphological and syntactic ergativity.  Many of these languages are endangered and severely under-documented, and we hope to demonstrate the vital importance of the study of these languages for linguistic theory.

  • Austronesian and Mayan languages: Relative clauses, wh-questions, and nominalizations

We are interested in these languages because they are verb-initial, because many of them are ergative, and because many of them have not been studied extensively. We have done work in Madagascar, Tahiti, Niue, New Zealand, Mexico, and Guatemala. The derivation of verb-initial orders constitutes a challenge for linguistic theory. These languages are important to our work on ergativity, described above. And we see work on understudied languages both as a matter of scientific responsibility and as a significant driving force in the progress of linguistic theory in the past and in the present, and certainly moving forward.

Dialectal variation in Malagasy / Variation dialectale en malgache