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Maria Polinsky

Photo of Maria Polinsky

Professor, Linguistics

1417A Marie Mount Hall
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Mo: 2:00-5:00 LING 819M
Tu: 10:00-11:00, 2:00-3:00 , Advising meetings
We: 11:00-5:00 Advising meetings
Th: 11:00-12:00 Office hours
Fr: 1:00-4:00 Project meetings

Research Expertise

Syntax

Publications

Headedness and the Lexicon: The Case of Verb-to-Noun Ratios

Is there a correlation between the relative size of a lexical class, such as verbs in relation to nouns, and whether members of that class precede or follow a dependent in phrases they head? This paper finds that there is.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Lilla Magyar
Dates:
This paper takes a well-known observation as its starting point, that is, languages vary with respect to headedness, with the standard head-initial and head-final types well attested. Is there a connection between headedness and the size of a lexical class? Although this question seems quite straightforward, there are formidable methodological and theoretical challenges in addressing it. Building on initial results by several researchers, we refine our methodology and consider the proportion of nouns to simplex verbs (as opposed to light verb constructions) in a varied sample of 33 languages to evaluate the connection between headedness and the size of a lexical class. We demonstrate a robust correlation between this proportion and headedness. While the proportion of nouns in a lexicon is relatively stable, head-final/object-verb (OV)-type languages (e.g., Japanese or Hungarian) have a relatively small number of simplex verbs, whereas head-initial/verb-initial languages (e.g., Irish or Zapotec) have a considerably larger percentage of such verbs. The difference between the head-final and head-initial type is statistically significant. We, then, consider a subset of languages characterized as subject-verb-object (SVO) and show that this group is not uniform. Those SVO languages that have strong head-initial characteristics (as shown by the order of constituents in a set of phrases and word order alternations) are characterized by a relatively large proportion of lexical verbs. SVO languages that have strong head-final traits (e.g., Mandarin Chinese) pattern with head-final languages, and a small subset of SVO languages are genuinely in the middle (e.g., English, Russian). We offer a tentative explanation for this headedness asymmetry, couched in terms of informativity and parsing principles, and discuss additional evidence in support of our account. All told, the fewer simplex verbs in head-final/OV-type languages is an adaptation in response to their particular pattern of headedness. The object-verb/verb-object (OV/VO) difference with respect to noun/verb ratios also reveals itself in SVO languages; some languages, Chinese and Latin among them, show a strongly OV ratio, whereas others, such as Romance or Bantu, are VO-like in their noun/verb ratios. The proportion of nouns to verbs thus emerges as a new linguistic characteristic that is correlated with headedness.

Morphology in Austronesian languages

Postdoc Ted Levin and Professor Maria Polinsky provide an overview of morphology in Austronesian languages.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Theodore Levin
Dates:
This is an overview of the major morphological properties of Austronesian languages. We present and analyze data that may bear on the commonly discussed lexical-category neutrality of Austronesian and suggest that Austronesian languages do differentiate between core lexical categories. We address the difference between roots and stems showing that Austronesian roots are more abstract than roots traditionally discussed in morphology. Austronesian derivation and inflexion rely on suffixation and prefixation; some infixation is also attested. Austronesian languages make extensive use of reduplication. In the verbal system, main morphological exponents mark voice distinctions as well as causatives and applicatives. In the nominal domain, the main morphological exponents include case markers, classifiers, and possession markers. Overall, verbal morphology is richer in Austronesian languages than nominal morphology. We also present a short overview of empirically and theoretically challenging issues in Austronesian morphology: the status of infixes and circumfixes, the difference between affixes and clitics, and the morphosyntactic characterization of voice morphology.

Understanding heritage languages

Maria Polinsky joins UC Irvine’s Gregory Scontras to “synthesize pertinent empirical observations and theoretical claims about vulnerable and robust areas of heritage language competence into early steps toward a model of heritage-language grammar.”

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Gregory Scontras
Dates:
With a growing interest in heritage languages from researchers of bilingualism and linguistic theory, the field of heritage-language studies has begun to build on its empirical foundations, moving toward a deeper understanding of the nature of language competence under unbalanced bilingualism. In furtherance of this trend, the current work synthesizes pertinent empirical observations and theoretical claims about vulnerable and robust areas of heritage language competence into early steps toward a model of heritage-language grammar. We highlight two key triggers for deviation from the relevant baseline: the quantity and quality of the input from which the heritage grammar is acquired, and the economy of online resources when operating in a less dominant language. In response to these triggers, we identify three outcomes of deviation in the heritage grammar: an avoidance of ambiguity, a resistance to irregularity, and a shrinking of structure. While we are still a ways away from a level of understanding that allows us to predict those aspects of heritage grammar that will be robust and those that will deviate from the relevant baselines, our hope is that the current work will spur the continued development of a predictive model of heritage language competence.

Field stations for linguistic research: A blueprint of a sustainable model

Professor Polinsky describes the advantages of field stations for linguistic fieldwork, and the implementation of the UMD station in Guatemala.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
There are often practical barriers to doing fieldwork in a novel, remote location. I propose a model for linguistic research designed to overcome such barriers: a linguistic field station. It is a centralized facility that coordinates scientific research by providing (i) research infrastructure, (ii) access to specific social, biological, or ecological systems that are not immediately available otherwise, (iii) training for students at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and (iv) access to local communities with the goal of obtaining data from them as well as training local specialists. Field stations are particularly important for research on and documentation of Indigenous languages, including contexts where colonial languages are supplanting Indigenous ones. Although the field station model is not new in research outside of language sciences, it has not yet been utilized widely in language research. I describe how the proposed model has been implemented in Guatemala and compare the field station there with other linguistic field stations.

Heritage Languages and their Speakers

Professor Maria Polinsky gives an overview to a field which she has helped found: the linguistics of heritage languages.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
This book provides a pioneering introduction to heritage languages and their speakers, written by one of the founders of this new field. Using examples from a wide range of languages, it covers all the main components of grammar, including phonetics and phonology, morphology and morphosyntax, semantics and pragmatics, and shows easy familiarity with approaches ranging from formal grammar to typology, from sociolinguistics to child language acquisition and other relevant aspects of psycholinguistics. The book offers analysis of resilient and vulnerable domains in heritage languages, with a special emphasis on recurrent structural properties that occur across multiple heritage languages. It is explicit about instances where, based on our current knowledge, we are unable to reach a clear decision on a particular claim or analytical point, and therefore provides a much-needed resource for future research.

Antipassive

A handbook chapter on Antipassive constructions: intransitive clauses where an oblique dependent corresponds to the direct object in a transitive with the same verb.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
A handbook chapter on Antipassive constructions: intransitive clauses where an oblique dependent corresponds to the direct object in a transitive with the same verb.

Experimental approaches to ergative languages

A summary of major results in experimental work on ergative syntax, focussing on competition with accusative syntax, and the effects of ergativity on processing of long distance dependencies.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Nicholas Longenbaugh
Dates:
A summary of major results in experimental work on ergative syntax, focussing on competition with accusative syntax, and the effects of ergativity on processing of long distance dependencies.

Cross-linguistic scope ambiguity: When two systems meet

Scope ambiguities permitted by most speakers of English are not permitted by those who are also heritage speakers of Mandarin, suggest Maria Polinsky and her collaborators.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Gregory Scontras, C.-Y. Edwin Tsai, Kenneth Mai
Dates:
Accurately recognizing and resolving ambiguity is a hallmark of linguistic ability. English is a language with scope ambiguities in doubly-quantified sentences like A shark ate every pirate; this sentence can either describe a scenario with a single shark eating all of the pirates, or a scenario with many sharks—a potentially-different one eating each pirate. In Mandarin Chinese, the corresponding sentence is unambiguous, as it can only describe the single-shark scenario. We present experimental evidence to this effect, comparing native speakers of English with native speakers of Mandarin in their interpretations of doubly-quantified sentences. Having demonstrated the difference between these two languages in their ability for inverse scope interpretations, we then probe the robustness of the grammar of scope by extending our experiments to English-dominant adult heritage speakers of Mandarin. Like native speakers of Mandarin, heritage Mandarin speakers lack inverse scope in Mandarin. Crucially, these speakers also lack inverse scope in English, their dominant language in adulthood. We interpret these results as evidence for the pressure to simplify the grammar of scope, decreasing ambiguity when possible. In other words, when two systems meet—as in the case of heritage speakers—the simpler system prevails.

Looking ahead

A prospectus of what lies ahead for the studies of Spanish as a heritage language in the U.S., and of understanding heritage language as a general phenomenon.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
A prospectus of what lies ahead for the studies of Spanish as a heritage language in the U.S., and of understanding heritage language as a general phenomenon.

Bilingual children and adult heritage speakers: The range of comparison

There are many kinds of bilinguals. This paper compares and contrasts three: child bilinguals, adult heritage speakers, and adult bilinguals who speak their home language natively.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
This paper compares the language of child bilinguals and adult unbalanced bilinguals (heritage speakers) against that of bilingual native speakers of their home language (baseline). We identify four major vectors of correspondence across the language spoken by these three groups. First, all varieties may represent a given linguistic property in a similar way (child bilinguals = adult heritage speakers = bilingual native speakers of their home language). This occurs when either (i) the property in question is highly robust and is acquired by learners without difficulty or (ii) the property is already in decline in the baseline. We illustrate scenario (i) with data from Russian count forms, which are morphologically quite complex. The preservation of these forms in child bilinguals and adult heritage speakers suggests that simplicity of encoding is not the only factor determining robustness of retention. Second, child and heritage speakers may share a linguistic structure that differs from the one found in the baseline (bilingual native speakers of their home language ≠ child bilinguals = adult heritage speakers). This scenario occurs when incipient structural changes in the baseline become amplified in the language of next-generation bilinguals, or when a given structure is rare, confined to a specific register, and/or reinforced through literacy. Third, a structure may be acquired by bilingual children faithfully, but undergo reanalysis/attrition in the adult heritage language (bilingual native speakers of their home language = child bilinguals ≠ adult heritage speakers). Russian relativization illustrates this scenario; child bilinguals show native-like performance on relative clauses but adult heritage speakers show an exaggerated subject preference in the interpretation of gaps. Finally, a structure that is not fully learned by child speakers may be reanalyzed by adult heritage speakers following general principles, thus bringing the adult heritage representation closer to that of the baseline (bilingual native speakers of their home language = adult heritage speakers ≠ child bilinguals). Heritage speakers’ production and comprehension of psychological predicates in Spanish illustrates this possibility.

Structure vs. use in heritage language

The grammars of native and heritage speakers may differ fundamentally in their representation of certain grammatical categories.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
This paper provides an overview of the phenomenon of heritage language and offers evidence in support of representational differences between (baseline) native grammars and heritage grammars, arguing that such differences that cannot be reduced entirely to the effects of processing constraints or memory limitations. Data from heritage Spanish number/gender agreement and from Russian ellipsis indicate that baseline native grammars and heritage grammars may have a fundamentally different organization of certain categories.

Deconstructing Ergativity: Two Types of Ergative Languages and Their Features

Maria Polinsky identifies two kinds of ergative languages: those where ergative subjects are prepositional phrases, and those where they are determiner phrases. She illustrates using her fieldwork on Tongan and Tsez.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
Nominative-accusative and ergative are two common alignment types found across languages. In the former type, the subject of an intransitive verb and the subject of a transitive verb are expressed the same way, and differently from the object of a transitive. In ergative languages, the subject of an intransitive and the object of a transitive appear in the same form, the absolutive, and the transitive subject has a special, ergative, form. Ergative languages often follow very different patterns, thus evading a uniform description and analysis. A simple explanation for that has to do with the idea that ergative languages, much as their nominative-accusative counterparts, do not form a uniform class. In this book, Maria Polinsky argues that ergative languages instantiate two main types, the one where the ergative subject is a prepositional phrase (PP-ergatives) and the one with a noun-phrase ergative. Each type is internally consistent and is characterized by a set of well-defined properties. The book begins with an analysis of syntactic ergativity, which as Polinsky argues, is a manifestation of the PP-ergative type. Polinsky discusses diagnostic properties that define PPs in general and then goes to show that a subset of ergative expressions fit the profile of PPs. Several alternative analyses have been proposed to account for syntactic ergativity; the book presents and outlines these analyses and offers further considerations in support of the PP-ergativity approach. The book then discusses the second type, DP-ergative languages, and traces the diachronic connection between the two types. The book includes two chapters illustrating paradigm PP-ergative and DP-ergative languages: Tongan and Tsez. The data used in these descriptions come from Polinsky's original fieldwork hence presenting new empirical facts from both languages.

The differential representation of number and gender in Spanish

Number are gender features are syntactically separate, argues visiting PhD student Zuzanna Fuchs, with mentor Maria Polinsky.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Zuzanna Fuchs, Gregory Scontras
Dates:
This paper investigates the geometry of phi-features, with a special emphasis on number and gender in Spanish. We address two sets of questions: (i) are number and gender bundled together or do they constitute separate categories, and (ii) does the internal feature composition of number and gender follow a single- or a multi-valued system? Given the lack of consensus on these issues based on primary data, we approach these questions experimentally, using the phenomenon of agreement attraction: a situation in which ungrammatical sequences are perceived as grammatical when one of the NPs is erroneously identified as determining agreement. Our results offer novel support in favor of an agreement model in which number and gender are in separate projections and are valued independently. In addition, our results indicate that number but not gender in Spanish is multi-valued.

Heritage language and linguistic theory

Case studies on heritage linguistics, documenting some of the deficits and abilities typical of heritage speakers, together with the broader theoretical questions they inform.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Gregory Scontras, Zuzanna Fuchs
Dates:
This paper discusses a common reality in many cases of multilingualism: heritage speakers, or unbalanced bilinguals, simultaneous or sequential, who shifted early in childhood from one language (their heritage language) to their dominant language (the language of their speech community). To demonstrate the relevance of heritage linguistics to the study of linguistic competence more broadly defined, we present a series of case studies on heritage linguistics, documenting some of the deficits and abilities typical of heritage speakers, together with the broader theoretical questions they inform. We consider the reorganization of morphosyntactic feature systems, the reanalysis of atypical argument structure, the attrition of the syntax of relativization, and the simplification of scope interpretations; these phenomena implicate diverging trajectories and outcomes in the development of heritage speakers. The case studies also have practical and methodological implications for the study of multilingualism. We conclude by discussing more general concepts central to linguistic inquiry, in particular, complexity and native speaker competence.