Mary is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science and Chair of the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Pomona College

The Structure of Sentences and the Structure of Syllables: Mary Paster visits UCSC

Within the field of linguistics it is common for researchers to draw a distinction between the syntax of a language (the order of words within sentences) and the prosody of a language (the structure of units such as syllables and individual sounds). When conferences, workshops, and journals are organized, they are often partitioned along these lines, with research shaped by the existing boundaries between “syntactic” research and “prosodic” research. Very often this distinction is an artificial one imposed by limited data or research interest — it is hard to describe the structure of sentences when one only has data on the sounds which make up individual words, for instance.

In more recent years, several faculty and graduate students at UCSC and Stanford University have been working to change this approach. Founded in 2009, the Institute for Humanities Research Cluster Crosslinguistic Investigations in Syntax-Prosody (CrISP) has sought to bring evidence from many different languages to bear on the question of how much these distinctions between syntax and prosody are necessary in theories of language. The group was first composed solely of faculty and graduate students at UCSC, but with Vera Gribanova‘s move to Stanford University, the cluster’s focus broadened to include faculty and grads from both universities, working on languages as diverse as Arabic, Bulgarian, Estonian, Irish, K’ichee’ (Mayan), Maltese, Russian, and Tz’utujiil (Mayan). CrISP advocates the idea that it is only through deep comparisons between unrelated languages that theories of syntax-prosody interactions can be evaluated.

The CrISP cluster has been very active in its first three years, holding weekly meetings at both Stanford and UCSC where work by graduates and faculty is presented and interesting papers are read. Since its inception, CrISP has also sponsored (with support from the IHR) a yearly Distinguished Visitors Series which aims to bring influential researchers in related topics for visits to UCSC/Stanford. These biannual talks are accompanied by a workshop led by graduate students, aiming not only to bring the Distinguished Visitor’s work to CrISP, but also to allow for discussion and substantive intellectual progress during the visit. In the the past, the group has sponsored visits by Alec Marantz (Professor and Chair of Linguistics and Psychology, NYU) and Andrew Nevins. The Saturday workshop, in which Paster also took part, featured a talk about the nominal morphology of Estonian and the verbal prosody of Maltese, both languages under investigation by CrISP members. As the workshop closed, many of the participants noted that their thinking was shaped by the discussions of the weekend.

Last week, the 2012 CrISP Distinguished Visitor Mary Paster came to UCSC to give a talk entitled “Phonologically Conditioned Morphology.” Professor Paster is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where she is currently also serving as chair of the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science. In her talk, Professor Paster argued that phonological and prosodic concerns play very little part in the morphologies of natural language. Using data from Ulwa (Nicaragua), Witsuwit’en (British Columbia), Hamer, and Afar (both Ethiopia), Paster showed that whenever a phonological or prosodic explanation is advanced for a particular word-form, a broader examination reveals problems which cannot be solved purely by appealing to prosody.

Professor Paster was invited this year to speak as a CrISP Distinguished Visitor for several reasons, though one is paramount. In many ways, Paster’s research methodology is identical to CrISP’s: her work is broadly typological insofar as it attempts to use data from a multitude of languages to answer theoretical questions. However, in doing so, Paster’s work does not lose sight of the unique character of each language; her work always includes a component of deep description and fieldwork on indvidual languages, making comparisons to others only when they are warranted. To date, Professor Paster has done this work on many genetically unrelated languages, including Gah (Ghana), Leggbo (Nigeria), Achumawi (Northeastern California), Buchan Scots (Scotland), Pulaar (Senegal), Mixtec (Mexico), Tiriki (Kenya), Maay (Somalia), Luganda (Uganda), Asanti Twi (Ghana), Malayalam (Zimbabwe), and Tofingbe (Benin). As UCSC Linguistics graduate student and IHR Summer Fellow Ryan Bennett said in his introduction of Paster,

As some of you may remember, Mary’s PhD thesis had a real impact on the kind of phonological research that graduate students like myself were doing back in 2007 and 2008. That thesis showed many of us — myself included — that deep architectural questions in morphology and phonology can and should be explored through serious empirical investigation, no matter how academic and abstract the issues at hand might seem. Mary’s work sowed an important intellectual seed for much of our own research, and I donĀ“t think it’s an exaggeration to say that CrISP owes its existence in part to the theoretical questions that she’s raised and the answers that she’s provided.

The theme of Paster inspiring graduate student research continued strongly throughout the weekend. Not only were a majority of the questions at her talk asked by graduate students, Saturday saw presentations by UCSC grads Mark Norris and Nathan Arnett. The Saturday workshop, in which Paster also took part, featured a talk about the nominal morphology of Estonian and the verbal prosody of Maltese, both languages under investigation by CrISP members. As the workshop closed, many of the participants noted that their thinking was shaped by the discussions of the weekend.

The Crosslinguistic Investigations in Syntax-Prosody group is a research cluster of the UC, Santa Cruz Institute for Humanities Research, funded by the UC Humanities Network. Matthew A. Tucker is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics at UCSC and a UC Network Correspondent on linguistics events.