Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Student highlights: Dave Kush, research trip to Sweden
Dave Kush is a 2nd year graduate student in the Dept of Linguistics. Dave spent March at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden conducting experiments on syntactic constraints in Swedish, in collaboration with Prof. Elisabet Engdahl and Filippa Lindahl. Dave’s project is supported by Maryland’s NSF-IGERT program and by an NSF grant awarded to Norbert Hornstein, Howard Lasnik and Juan Uriagereka.
Dave’s motivation for going to Sweden was not the cool air or dark evenings. He wanted to understand a puzzle that has been troubling linguists for almost 30 years. Most languages have constructions that allow words and phrases to be displaced indefinitely far from their thematic position, e.g., “Who did the website say that the department sent __ to Sweden?”. But there are many constraints on these displacements, such as a ban on displacement out of relative clauses. For example, English speakers find the following example horrible: *How much pizza did you meet a man who ate __? Linguists refer to such constraints as “island constraints”, based on the notion that these are environments that one cannot escape from. Yet Swedish speakers are reported to be rather accepting of displacements from relative clauses, a fact that undermines universalist theories of language variation and language acquisition (and it is not currently well understood in any theory). Dave’s studies in Sweden built upon preliminary findings from his work at Maryland, which showed a number of restrictions on Swedes’ liberal acceptance of island violations, and suggested to him that what appears to be a cross-linguistic anomaly may in fact be a case of surface structure ambiguity. Look out for an upcoming IGERT Lunch talk for results from Dave’s work.