Sarah Babinski and Matt Tyler speak about North American languages

May 13, 2018

PhD candidate Matt Tyler and graduate student Sarah Babinski presented research they have been conducting on indigenous languages of North America at the Workshop on the Structure and Constituency of the Languages of the Americas (WSCLA). Additionally, Sarah gave a talk at the Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL). 

Matt spoke about Choctaw, a Native American language primarily spoken in Mississippi and Oklahoma. To study this language, Matt has taken several trips to Mississippi, where he interviewed native speakers to gain a better understanding of the language’s grammar and culture. From his field work, Matt has written on a variety of topics in Choctaw syntax and prosody. In his Friday morning talk at WSCLA, Matt described two kinds of possessor raising, a grammatical construction in which a sentence with a possessed subject is turned into one where the possessor is the subject. For example, instead of Mary’s dog died, in Choctaw it is possible to construct a possessor-raised sentence resembling Mary is such that her dog died. While possessor raising in Choctaw has been studied in the past, Matt’s talk showed that the language actually has two different kinds of possessor raising: thematic and athematic. In addition to using different kinds of word and sentence structure, sentences with thematic and athematic possessor raising have different nuances in meaning. Despite these differences, however, the distinction between the two kinds of possessor raising have gone unnoticed in the past because sentences with the two constructions can often sound very similar to one another. As an example, compare the following two sentences.

  • Thematic Possessor Raising: Maryat ofi imillih. ‘Mary is such that she has a dog who died’ (i.e., Mary’s dog died).
  • Athematic Possessor Raising: Maryat imofi illih. ‘Mary is such that her dog died’ (i.e., Mary’s dog died).

Whereas Matt conducted his field work in the Deep South, Sarah’s work takes us north to Canada. Cree is a language spoken by First Nations across the country, and Southern East Cree is a variety of this language spoken in Quebec. Sarah has been interested in the Algonquian language family since her undergraduate studies, and she has continued to follow these interests by studying Southern East Cree for her qualifying paper work. In her poster at WSCLA and talk at WAIL, Sarah spoke on the subject of stress. In Algonquian languages, stress usually falls on the second- or third-to-last syllable of a word, but never on the last syllable. Some scholars believe that this is because Algonquian languages have implicit rules that ban stress from falling on the last syllable, and any exceptions to this rule must be justified by other explanations. This theory is called the extrametricality theory. Earlier this year, however, Sarah discovered that in Southern East Cree, the rarity of final-syllable stress may have another explanation. Rather than saying that Southern East Cree bans final-syllable stress, Sarah proposed that the language requires syllables to be organized in a certain way. In the majority of cases, the syllable-organization rules require stress to occur on the second- or third-to-last syllable, and only in a small number of cases do these rules require stress to occur on the last syllable. These small cases, however, include many of the exceptions that are not explained by the extrametricality theory. In her presentations, Sarah put her theory to the test against the extrametricality theory by developing a statistical model that tries to predict where stress should fall in a word. The model performed better when assuming that Sarah’s theory is correct than when it assumed the extrametricality theory to be correct, suggesting that her theory may be preferred over the extrametricality theory for Southern East Cree.

WSCLA was held at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada, from April 13 to 15. WAIL was held at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in Santa Barbara, California, from April 20 to 21. Programs are available on the conference websites. Additionally, abstracts are available for WSCLA talks and posters.

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