The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

NSF Grant for Michelle Yuan

We are very excited for Michelle Yuan, a graduate student in her fourth year, who has been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Research grant by the National Science Foundation!! — for a project entitled “Pronominals and Verb Agreement in Inuktitut

Here’s the official abstract:

“A central question in theoretical linguistics concerns the range of linguistic variation (to what extent languages differ) and language universals (to what extent languages are fundamentally the same at an abstract level, despite surface variation). Answering this question requires both detailed investigation of particular languages and broader cross-linguistic comparison. This project will investigate sentence structure and word structure in an indigenous language of North America. Many of the indigenous languages of the Americas are under-documented; detailed research into the linguistic properties of individual dialect groups is even more lacking for the dialects of the language targeted in this study. Specifically, the project will provide a comprehensive description and analysis of the structural properties of pronouns and pronoun-like verbal agreement forms and will compare the findings with what is already known about related and genetically unrelated languages. The documentation will form the core material analyzed in a doctoral dissertation produced by the CoPI. Broader impacts include a publicly available deposit of the recordings and transcriptions at the Alaska Native Language Archive at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, as well as the linguistic training of indigenous community members working on translation and language pedagogy. This, in turn, will aid the facilitation of dialect-specific language learning materials and thus contribute towards work in language sustainability.

“The CoPI, a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, will document and analyze Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, one of a group of Inuit languages spoken in the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, and which are related to Eskimo-Aleut languages spoken in Alaska. The work produced in this project will therefore build a solid empirical foundation for future linguistic research on Inuktitut and Inuit, as well as for the field of theoretical linguistics more broadly. The main hypothesis of this project is that the verbal agreement markers that encode transitive objects in Inuktitut are not canonical agreement markers, but rather ‘doubled clitics,’ pronoun-like elements that co-occur with objects. Historically, linguistic research on these elements has focused on European languages; however, evidence for such an approach for Inuktitut comes from striking distributional and structural parallels with these better-studied languages. This project will investigate how these clitics interact with the case system of Inuktitut as a whole, and show how their absence in other Inuit languages yields a slightly different case system, despite surface appearances. Variation in the distribution of case morphology across the Inuit languages is therefore tightly linked to the underlying structure of the verbal agreement forms. This project will also explore how this novel approach may be extended to account for other pronoun-related phenomena in Inuktitut, as well as case systems cross-linguistically.”