September 29, 2016

Phonology and psycholinguistics research group meetings

The first official meeting of the Phonology Research Group is this Friday, September 30, from 9:30 to 11:00 am in SS560A.  The speaker is Suyeon Yun, our new postdoc this year.

The Psycholinguistics Research Group will be meeting on October 7,  from 9:30 to 11:00 am in SS560A. The speaker is Jessamyn Schertz of the Department of Language Studies at UTM.

September 26, 2016

RCM highlights Susana & Abdel-Khalig's daughter!

The Royal Conservatory of Music is using this photograph of an inspired young violinist in its publicity materials, and it is easy to see why. Though the musician is unidentified, we know that it is Dalila, daughter of Susana Bejar (Linguistics Faculty) and Abdel-Khalig Ali (PhD graduate and Faculty in U of T's Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations).

Congratulations to Dalila, Susana and Abdel-Khalig for this stealth media appearance!

September 23, 2016

A conversation with Alana Johns

by Sali Tagliamonte

 Alana Johns is retiring at the end of 2016-2017, marking a 20 year sojourn at the University of Toronto and a lifetime of linguistic research on Inuktitut and especially within Inuit communities in Labrador. Although Alana is retiring from the Department of Linguistics, she will continue to do research. Her plan is to devote herself full time to five SSHRC research projects, including one to collect, transcribe and analyze oral stories and conversations working with Inuit research assistants who will ensure that the materials are made available to Inuit communities. I spoke to Alana on August 26th about this important milestone in her life.

Early days of discovering linguistics

Alana was at Carleton University in Ottawa in the 1970’s. Like most people she didn’t know Linguistics existed. “I was very interested in languages, learning about them, learning to speak them. When I hit upon Linguistics, it seemed to be very attractive because it involved languages and it involved analysis. And I really liked complex words right from the very beginning.”
Things got really exciting for Alana when she became a graduate student at the University of Ottawa. She was asked by Doug Walker to supervise a summer student project on Ojibwe and she got to do fieldwork to her heart’s content and ended up doing her MA on the topic.
At the time, the University of Ottawa had just started a new PhD program and Alana was among one of the first students to enter the program.  She says, “we were a motley crew.” Sitting in on a graduate course on morphology with John Jensen, the students were going through Marantz’s thesis  that had just come out (Marantz, Alec. 1978. On the Nature of Grammatical Relations. Ph.D. thesis, MIT.) and Alana knew enough about Inuktitut by that time to think that his ideas about ergativity couldn’t entirely be right. However, to argue against his analysis she needed critical Greenlandic data, but fortunately she didn’t have to go to Greenland. She found a language consultant in Montreal. Alana demonstrated that what Marantz had proposed “did not go through entirely”. Moreover, reading the thesis was good training in constructing analyses as a foundation for future research.
Alana was hired by Memorial University in St John’s to do research on Labrador dialects of Inuktitut. During her time there she would go up to communities in Labrador in the summer to teach Linguistics, Inuktitut language and do research. In 1996, she was lucky enough to get a position at the University of Toronto. She was very excited by the challenge of a busy, strong institution but the thing that struck her the most when she first arrived was the quality of the graduate students. “I would like people to consider that one of the first times I taught morpho-syntax, in that class, was Milan Rezac, Susana Bejar and Daniel Currie Hall. You know we tell the graduate students that they learn from each other, but we’re learning from them a lot too!”

Advances in understanding Polysynthesis

Alana’s career has focused on trying to understand the complex morphology of Inuktitut as a polysynthetic language. “One of the things we always thought about was what rules will give you these complex words. The rules that we had already thought about for English wouldn’t give you the complex words. You could see they were related but they weren’t exactly the same. If you take an English sentence and you just cram it all into one word, that doesn’t give you a polysynthetic word. So, then how do you get it?”
Alana developed the idea that all the verbs that are involved in noun incorporation were not regular verbs; they were light verbs. There were no verbs like ‘tickle’ or ‘brush’ or ‘smash’. They were all verbs like ‘get’ or ‘have’ or ‘be’.
Then Richard Compton and Christine Pitman came up with the idea that maybe the complex verb was a phase, a specific limited domain in syntax. You take an English sentence and take out anything that’s an NP and then take everything you have left and smoosh it together. “I never wanted to eat apples.” If you took out ‘apples’, ‘never wanted to eat’ would be the verb. It was a very pretty idea.”
“My current interest is to try and look at it from the perspective of agreement. It may be that instead of agreement it involves clitic pronouns. I want to see if I can do a formal treatment of it. However the collection of data to do this work coincides with what the community wants. The majority of written Inuktitut that is available in communities is a translation from English sources. Very few of the written materials were originally composed in Inuktitut. I think there should be natural written materials of the language for native speakers.”
Alana goes on to explain that, “Inuit don’t tell stories. Their accounts are either true accounts of what they saw in their lifetime or traditional stories, true accounts of things they didn’t witness. So, there is no story idea. There is no sense of fiction. People don’t make things up. It’s almost like they are on the stand all the time.” She muses that if Inuit start writing in their own language they might come up with a whole new genre.

What has it been like working on Inuktitut and what would you like people to know about it?

There’s always two sides [Alana Johns: two things about Inuktitut]. On the Linguistics side I would like people to know that the language has these complex words that seem very very different from English. But the more you look at it, the more you realize it’s got a lot of similarities to English, you just have to turn it upside down. If you turn something and invert it, it’s not like it’s randomly related to the other thing. In fact Inuktitut complex words are ordered the inverse to English. So, if you wanted to say “I want to drink some tea” you would start with “tea” and “drink”, then “want”, then “I”. So, there’s all these relationships that make you see that it’s similar to English. It’s the opposite order but it’s the same order.
From the other part of my research, which is always more on the community side, I’ve always wanted people to realize how interesting indigenous languages are and then of course the whole issue of people trying to keep them healthy in the modern framework.
The writing issue is also important. You go all across the Arctic. You might go into a cultural centre and you’ll see a bank of tapes “Oral Inuktitut” and then you see another bank of paper, “English Translation”. But what you don’t have is the bank of paper, “Inuktitut Transcription”. That’s the missing piece. And I think it’s a rich piece that needs to be increased and brought into a position of strength, as a tool within the community.

What is the project you will be doing in your retirement?

Together with Sipila Tuglavina, the Language Co-ordinator in Labrador, we’re going to make a written description of how the Inuktitut writing system works and make it public. Then, the plan is to have workshops teaching people how to use it. At the same time we’ll collect written data. The whole idea is to strengthen knowledge of the Inuktitut writing system. At the same time, I can teach a bit of Linguistics, which is very useful to sort out controversies about language. A healthy Linguistics perspective is extremely useful and we will teach the Linguistics that is useful in that context.
Another current project is to produce a phrase book on Inuktitut. It will be marketed to the Inuit themselves but the book may also be used by other people. The kinds of phrases that will be in the book are ones that people can use in everyday conversations. Phrases such as “that tastes good”, or Aso! (which means “so” or “really!”).

What did you enjoy about working in the Department of Linguistics?

I enjoyed being Graduate Coordinator because the students were very good and it’s an opportunity to fix a few things. I enjoyed teaching because you learn so much from teaching and it’s so nice to see students developing.

What will you miss the most?

I’m hoping I won’t miss anything! But if I think of it in terms of what will I look back fondly on, it would be the research projects with the graduate students.
I remember one time we were in Baker Lake. I was with Midori Hayashi and Conor Cook and Richard Compton and we were invited us to go out ice fishing. This was June in Baker Lake. You had to go out on skidoos all day. Richard and I thought, “no!” But Connor and Midori agreed to go. You had to take a boat from the shore across the melted water to the ice where you got on the skidoo. It was cold and it was blowing. They looked a little miserable, but off they went. Richard and I went back to the house and drank tea and read Linguistics and everything. So, we were kind of smug. They came back at 11pm that night and they were so happy. They brought back char that they’d caught. Midori was admiring the spots on the belly of the char. Conor cooked up the char. He’s a wonderful cook. So, Richard and I actually went out the second time because we realized that we’d really missed out on a really wonderful experience. [This is an abbreviated version of the actual story: Alana Johns, fishing story]

I have a lot of nice memories!

September 21, 2016

Slavic Linguistic Society Conference at U of T!

This coming weekend, a number of University of Toronto linguists will present at the 11th annual meeting of the Slavic Linguistic Society, hosted by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Toronto. It will be in Carr Hall and Alumni Hall Friday, 23 September to Sunday, 25 September.

ELAN DRESHER (Faculty)  & DANIEL HALL (PhD grad, now at St. Mary’s)
Halle’s ‘Sound Patterns of Russian’: The Road Not Taken

An acoustic comparison of Russian & English sibilant fricatives

Shifting through history: Lexical stress in East Slavic

Exceptionality and conspiracy in Polish vowel-zero alternations

A preliminary ultrasound analysis of liquids in Upper Sorbian

JULIE GONCHAROV (PhD grad, now at Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
What can silent elements tell us about grammar?

MARINA SHERKINA- LIEBER (PhD grad, now at Carleton)
Acquisition of Russian embedded yes-no questions by monolinguals and heritage speakers

Case Marking Variation in heritage Slavic Languages in Toronto

September 20, 2016

Michelle Troberg honoured for TA mentorship!

The LGCU decided last year to present an annual award to a faculty member who showed excellence and dedication in the mentoring of teaching assistants. Linguistics faculty of any rank, from sessionals to emeriti, are eligible.
This year, Michelle Troberg (UTM) received the award. Elaine Gold and Eri Takahashi received honourable mentions.

The award includes a certificate as well as either a pub night with the grad students sponsored by the LGCU or a gift certificate.

Congratulations, Michelle!

Canadian Language Museum now open!

The Canadian Language Museum officially opened on 19 September, in its permanent location in Glendon College, with speeches by Elaine Gold (Director of the Museum), the Principal of Glendon College, Donald Ipperciel, Maya Chacaby (Glendon College's Course Director of Linguistics and Languages), María Constanza Guzmán (Director of the Centre for Research on Language and Culture Contact), Amos Key Jr. (Assistant Professor at U of T's Centre for Indigenous Studies), and Roberto Dante Martella of Language & Linguine.
 We hope all U of T linguists will pay a visit before long to congratulate Elaine and her team on their new home!

September 18, 2016

The Undergraduate Awards 2016: Honours for UofT Undergrads

The Undergraduate Awards (UA) is an awards program recognizing research and original work done by undergraduates in the sciences, humanities, business and creative arts. It received 5,514 submissions for 2016, and those ranked in the top 10% of their category were deemed "Highly Commended Entrants". Among those receiving that honour in the category of Languages & Linguistics includes UofT students: Leah Brainin, who submitted her paper written in Meg Grant's class this spring, and Anneliese Mills. See a full list for Highly Commended 2016 here. Congratulations both of you!

September 14, 2016

Dan Milway's response to a Scientific American article on Universal Grammar

Dan Milway (Ph.D.) recently wrote a response to a popular science article in Scientific American that presented a grim view of Chomsky's idea of Universal Grammar in linguistics. Dan's response, "Don’t believe the rumours. Universal Grammar is alive and well." (available here), makes reference to some of the research going on in this department. The original article, "Evidence Rebuts Chomsky's Theory of Language Learning" by Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello, is available here.

September 13, 2016

Congratulations, Yu-Leng!

Yu-Leng Lin successfully defended her thesis, "Sonority Effects and Learning Biases on Nasal Harmony", on September 12th, 2016. The committee was comprised of Keren Rice (supervisor), Alexei Kochetov, Yoon Jung Kang, Peter Jurgec, Philip Monahan, and external examiner Gunnar Hansson (University of British Columbia). Congratulations, Dr. Lin!

Yu-Leng and her committee (L-R: Gunnar Hansson, Peter Jurgec, Philip Monahan, Yu-Leng Lin, Keren Rice, Yoon Jung Kang, and Alexei Kochetov)

September 6, 2016

Research Groups: Welcome, 2016-17

Our department has six lively research groups that meet every second Friday during the academic year. Graduate students are expected to attend at least one group. New graduate students in particular take note, because our research groups are a great way for you to meet people in the Toronto linguistics community working in and around your sub-field, to get friendly feedback on your own work, and to learn about new research that other people are working on. Meeting dates can be found on the calendar on the department homepage, and through the year, a weekly announcement about research-group meetings will appear on this blog.

Psycholinguistics Group
The University of Toronto Psycholinguistics Group is primarily interested in the investigation of how language is acquired, processed and produced. Faculty, post-docs and graduate students from a number of unique disciplines contribute, and their work reflects research topics across all levels of linguistic analysis. Different investigative approaches and techniques are brought to bear on these issues, including behavioural discrimination experiments, eye tracking, brain imaging and explicit judgment tasks - to name but a few. In addition to members of the Department of Linguistics, the group includes integral tri-campus participation from the Departments of Psychology, Computer Science, Spanish and Portuguese, and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). For more information, please get in touch with Daphna (daphna.heller AT

Phonetics/Phonology Group
The Phonetics/Phonology Research Group (or just Phon Group for short) is a place for anyone working on the P-side to present work in progress or do dry runs of upcoming talks. We've had presentations on everything from pure theoretical phonology to descriptive phonetics to experimental work in production and perception. This is a very informal setting, and a great place to get feedback on an upcoming talk, research that's still in a rough state, or data you've been working through. We also try to have a few discussion sessions each year, usually going through a recent phonetics/phonology paper of interest but sometimes a more general conversation about methodology or issues in phonetic and phonological research. If you'd like to be added to the mailing list, please contact Radu (radu.craioveanu AT

Fieldwork Group
Fieldwork Group is a project dedicated to the discussion of linguistic fieldwork and field methodology. We have a mixed bag of activities including hearing informal presentations about particular methods, problems, or data; discussing papers on methodology; and holding the occasional workshop on a practical technique. Expect to discuss both theoretical and practical considerations about work in the field and elicitation technique, relative to different subfields and different language situations (i.e. endangered, indigenous, understudied, or none of the above). We welcome different levels of experience and history with fieldwork, as long as you have an interest! Contact Clarissa (c.forbes AT to be added to the mailing list.

Language Variation and Change Group
The LVC Group is centred on research in variationist sociolinguistics and overlapping subfields (e.g. dialectology, historical linguistics, language and society). Meetings typically consist of presentations from members, visiting scholars, and guest speakers; work in progress is encouraged! From time to time we read a major paper, host a software workshop, or talk about a noteworthy line of research. Anyone with an interest in variationist research is welcome at our meetings. If you'd like to be added to the mailing list, email Lex (a.konnelly AT and/or Sali (sali.tagliamonte AT

Semantics Group
The Semantics Research Group usually features presentations from members and guests on research in semantics and pragmatics. Work in progress is encouraged. Occasionally we read a paper, prepare for a guest speaker, and/or organize practice talks in preparation for conference presentations. Everyone who is interested in semantics or would like to learn more about it is welcome to attend the meetings. To be added to the mailing list, please contact Angelika (angelika.kiss AT

Syntax Group
The Syntax Project provides linguists from the University of Toronto and beyond with the opportunity to share their work on issues in syntax, morphology, and semantics. During a typical meeting, a participant presents on their ongoing research, but we welcome practice runs for conferences, discussion sessions on new work in the field, and suggestions as well! If you’d like to present or join the mailing list, please contact Heather (heather.yawney AT

September 3, 2016

Sali on intensifiers in The Paris Review

The Paris Review has a great interview with Sali Tagliamonte: "Truly trending: An interview on intensifiers". The author wanted to learn more about the current use of truly as an intensifier. In the interview, Sali describes the rise and fall of successive intensifiers in the history of English. It's swiþe/full/well/right/really/truly worth a read!