The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Colloquium 12/7: Emily Elfner (York University)

Speaker: Emily Elfner (York University)
Title:  The Syntax-Prosody Interface
Time: Friday, December 7th, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

In this talk, I discuss word- and phrase-level prominence in two languages which may be characterized as “polysynthetic”: Kwak’wala (North Wakashan: BC, Canada) and Inuktitut (Eskimo-Aleut; Northern Canada). Polysynthetic languages are typically described as such in terms of their morphosyntactic characteristics: allowing complex morphological “words” which blur the lines between words, phrases, and clauses. In recent years, researchers have argued that complex words may be analyzed using the same syntactic tools used for less agglutinative languages, proposing that the unusually complex “words” result from the ways in which such structures are spelled out phonologically (e.g. Compton & Pittman 2010). This assumption places the onus on the syntax-phonology interface to account for notions like what constitutes a word, notions that were previously thought to be determined by a language’s morphological and syntactic properties.

Kwak’wala and Inuktitut share similarities in terms of their word-level systems of prominence: both show evidence of a single (tonal) prominence within each word-level domain, but little evidence of prosodic structure within that domain: no secondary stress or evidence of alternating metrical structure, as would be expected of foot structure, nor any apparent sign of word-internal morphophonological domains. What does this mean for theories of prosodic structure in which prosodic constituents are derived from syntactic structure? In other words, why do “words” spell-out as large domains in languages like Inuktitut or Kwak’wala, but smaller domains in languages like English? This talk will explore some preliminary answers to these questions on the basis of these two case studies.

Partly based on joint work with Patricia A. Shaw (Kwak’wala), Anja Arnhold (Inuktitut), and Richard Compton (Inuktitut).