Theoretical Perspectives on Languages of the Pacific Northwest
Proseminar on Semantic Theory
Linguistics 720
Tuesday, Thursday 2:30 - 3:45


Course Description and Syllabus

Reading List

Class Handouts


This seminar will explore recent, theoretically-informed research into the semantics and syntax of the languages of the American Pacific Northwest.

The Northern Pacific Coast of North America is home to some of the most typologically distinct languages on the continent. Amongst their notable features, these highly endangered and understudied languages have played a pivotal role in the development of linguistic science as the earliest and most sustained impetus to the work of Franz Boas and his students.

More importantly, since even this earliest work, scholars have recognized that these languages are of great value to the perennial debate concerning the scope and limits of linguistic variation, as they appear to display many rather marked differences from the grammars of 'standard European' languages. Indeed, when Ken Hale was once asked in a popular interview which languages he considered the 'most unlike' English, he named a language of the Pacific Northwest (Coast Salish).

Interestingly, these alleged differences are almost always 'absences'. For decades, grammatical study of these languages concluded that they lack a variety of properties common to more familiar languages: nominal arguments, lexical categories, adnominal quantifiers, tense, etc. In recent years, however, theoretically-informed research into these languages has argued that many of the earlier claims regarding them were mistaken, and that those features initially thought to be absent from these languages are simply less surface-apparent than in more familiar languages.

Either answer, of course, holds long-ranging consequences for our understanding of the nature of linguistic variation and thus of UG. Furthermore, the argumentation on either side of this debate has greatly advanced both our knowledge of these particular languages, as well as the empirical/experimental techniques that can be used with untrained native speakers to diagnose various semantic and syntactic properties of their languages. Thus, theoretically-informed research into these languages can often be exported directly to novel field situations, to further the analysis and documentation of other endangered and understudied languages.

This seminar will explore a variety of areas - both semantic and syntactic - where the languages of the Pacific Northwest have advanced or otherwise impacted our theory of UG. The topics discussed will be among the following:

1) (Non)-Configurationality and the Pronominal Argument Hypothesis
2) Lexical Categories (or Lack Thereof)
3) Syntax and Semantics of Transitivity
4) Presuppositions
5) Quantification
6) Principle C (and Lack Thereof)
7) Tense
8) Modals and Evidentials
9) Wh-Questions
10) Polysynthesis (in the Wakashan language family)
11) Information Structure and Intonation
12) Topic-Tracking, Argument Hierarchies and the Passive/Inverse
[13) The Left-Periphery]
[14) Ergativity]
[15) Possessor Raising]
[16) Control and Backwards Control]
[17) Matrix Subordinates (main, independent clauses that have the surface form of subordinate clauses).]

It is likely that time will permit only subjects (1) - (12) above to be covered in class. However, materials covering subjects (13) - (17) will also be made available to anyone that is interested.