Diane Massam

What was the broad question that you most wanted to get an answer to during your time in the program?

a) What is Syntax? (and relatedly, what is Universal Grammar?) How can we be sure it exists? Meaning and Sound/Sign are obviously part of language, but does Syntax really exist, if so, where, and what form does it take in the mind/brain? Even if I am convinced, how can I convince others of its existence and reality?

b) Secondary question: What are the range and limits of syntactic variation?

What is the current status of this question?

a) I still think it is hard to answer, that is, it is always a challenge for me to find ways to answer it to the satisfaction of some of my introductory (and increasingly, even advanced) students. I think syntax and abstract concepts in general are in danger of being sidelined, and we need to advance ways to evidence them.

b) The second question is being answered daily in all the incredible cross-linguistic work that is now being done, though we still need more expertise in endangered languages to better record diversity.

Has it been answered?

a) For me, personally, it was answered and then some, during my time at MIT and beyond, but it keeps re-emerging in my interactions with others.

b) No, but we are learning more all the time.

Did it turn out to be an ill-conceived question?

a) No, especially judging from students’ reactions today.

b) No.

If it’s a meaningful question as yet unanswered, please tell us what you think the path to an answer might be, or what obstacles make it a hard question.

a) The scientific method, sound argumentation, and theoretically informed experimental and inter-disciplinary research. Obtacles include a trend toward superficiality and a belief that only what can be measured computationally is valid.

b) Encouraging fieldwork and native speaker linguists. Obstacles include the way the world is organized, unfortunately, and continued language endangerment.