How did you become a linguist?
Looking back, I think I was always a linguist. I remember in elementary school, the highlight for me was spelling. We had exercises where we had to make up sentences with our spelling words in them. I loved doing those exercises.
There was something about sentences that was particularly fascinating to Diane. She loved the structure of it all, subjects, objects, nouns and verbs. Of course like most people, Diane didn’t know anything about Linguistics. She thought she wanted to be a writer, so she did an undergraduate degree in English. One day she asked one of her professors why they never focused on the actual language the writers used. The professor told her she needed a course in Linguistics. So Diane took Introduction to Linguistics and fell in love. She says: “I found what I wanted.”
Diane did her undergraduate degree at York University in Toronto, graduating in 1979 and her MA at U of T (1980). At first she was interested in dialectology and historical linguistics and took a course with Jack Chambers; however, Elizabeth Cowper “turned her on to syntax”.
In 1980 she went to the Linguistics Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She got a scholarship to go which paid for her travel, food and lodging. Aside from that however, she had no money at all. As everyone knows, there is a lot of socializing at the LSA Summer Institutes, but Diane couldn’t go out on the town because she had no money. So, she stayed on campus with a small group of other students. They became fast friends, Among the group
was Juliette Levin (later, Blevins). Juliette and Diane decided to
apply to MIT together. At the summer institute Diane took courses
with Ray Jackendoff, Ken Hale and James McCawley setting the stage
for her work in theoretical syntax.
As a sideline to these developments, Diane had a short sojourn in Edinburgh as a Commonwealth Scholar, because she wanted to study Shetland English. However, the situation didn’t work out for her linguistically. Instead, she went to MIT.
As Diane explains it, being at MIT was another one of those “ever increasing moments of realization” of finding where you should be.
Diane studied at MIT from 1981-1985. Chomsky’s “Lectures on Government and Binding” (LGB) had just come out, so it was a very exciting time. LGB had grown out of a series of Lectures that Chomsky had done in Pisa, Italy. In so doing, he had drawn many European linguists into his theoretical orientation. This meant that many languages started coming into the theory, French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian. Diane’s supervisor was Noam Chomsky, but she also worked with Ken Hale, who had a strong interest in Polynesian languages, and Joan Bresnan who was working on cross-linguistic variation. These influences set the scene for Diane’s abiding interest in languages more generally, particularly Niuean (as we will find out below).
Diane reflects on her MIT experience like this:
“So, there was this perfect matching of Chomsky’s brilliant, beautiful perfect theories of human grammar with a lot of really rich and complicated and very different empirical data… that took my heart at that point. And that’s been sort of what I’ve been interested ever since.”
“There were wonderful people around. It was a great time to be a student at MIT. “Intellectually it was like nothing else I had ever experienced; personally I remember it as a time of friendship.”
I could not help but ask Diane what was it like to have Chomsky as her advisor
Chomsky’s modus operandi was to meet with his students every week for an hour. For the students, this meant that most of their waking life was spent focused on what they were going to say to him the next week. Everyone tried to bring him something worthy of his attention. Diane remembers him as a very human, warm, and kind advisor with a wry sense of humour.
“Like I think you know if you’re going to live in the 20th century, which it was then, you can’t ask for more than to be able to be around a mind like that on a regular basis.”
After she completed her PhD, Diane took a temporary post at UBC as a phonologist, replacing Patricia Shaw. Within the first week she met her husband, Yves Roberge (more on him later). In 1986, both Diane and Yves got post-docs at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and then again at UofT in Toronto in 1987, which was the year they got married.
What was the department of Linguistics like when she first arrived?
When Diane first arrived in the Department of Linguistics in 1979, the faculty included Ed Burstynsky, Jack Chambers, Al Gleason, Peter Reich, Hank Rogers and Ron Wardaugh. Elizabeth Cowper was the only female professor. Eventually a new cohort formed, including Elizabeth, and Keren Rice, Elan Dresher and Alana Johns. The way Diane sees it, the older group (especially Ed) “set the heart” of the Department that can still be felt today in 2017. Many of the newer layer of faculty and students that came along in the 2000’s may not know the old cohort. Diane describes them as follows: Everyone shared an “esprit de corps” focused on departmental well-being. People were willing to put their personal issues aside for the sake of the department.
“They cared about education. They cared about teaching. They loved Linguistics. They created the department with its good will and openness, openness not only to intellectual points of view and exploration but also to human qualities — being nice to each other and trying to make this a human place.”
Diane’s cohort went on to develop the curriculum and grow the graduate program. Issues of equity came to the fore. Elizabeth and Keren started the practices that made it possible for both women and men in the department to have a family life. For example, they instituted departmental meetings and guest talks starting at 2 or 3pm rather than at 5pm. These adjustments were quite different to what had before been the UofT norm and further enhanced the humanness of department.
Next, we turned to talking about Diane’s intellectual contributions.
Diane explains that she works “on the A side of syntax.” The A side is the part of syntax that focuses on argument structure, subject-hood and object-hood etc. However, Diane’s interests on the A side are unusually broad because her work is not only theoretically oriented but also language oriented. She works on both Niuean and English, and she likes to work on pretty much anything that is of interest in those languages.
How did you come to work on the Niuean language?
Diane’s first answer to this question was tongue in cheek: “There’s something in common about all my interests. They are all focused on islands! I grew up on an island, Vancouver Island. I loved the Shetland Islands. I’m drawn to islands.”
However the real answer to her love affair with Niuean starts at MIT and her association with Ken Hale who worked on Polynesian languages. Under Hale’s teaching, Diane became interested in Niuean and subsequently Niuean figured prominently in her dissertation. There was a big hiatus in her Niuean work when she started her job at UofT. Instead of fieldwork in far-away lands, she was busy teaching and writing papers on English and starting a family. However, when she had her first sabbatical in 1995, she finally had the funds and the time to go to Niue and New Zealand and do fieldwork, and get to know many wonderful members of the Niuean community, and to learn from them more about Niuean language and culture. To Diane, Niuean has “everything I could possibly want in a language from a linguistic point of view”.
Why is that Diane?
Niuean is verb initial. The basic puzzle that I’m interested in is sentences and what the basic structure of a sentence is. Aristotle said that sentences consist of a subject and a predicate. But in a VSO language, questions immediately arise. There is no single entity you can point to and say that’s the predicate and that’s the subject. So, that’s been the focus of my research mostly. Are VSO languages fundamentally different? On top of that, Niuean has ergative case marking. It raises all kinds of interesting things about subject hood.
I don’t know about you, but no-one has ever been able to explain ergativity to me as well as Diane did during our interview so, let’s hear it in her own words.
“The best way I think of to explain it is that we’re all used to English and languages like English that are nominative systems. So, in that language when you have a transitive sentence, you would say something like: “she saw her”. So, we have two forms of the feminine pronoun, ‘she’ and ‘her’. And they’re very different but they mean the same thing, but one is the subject and one is the object. So, ‘she likes her’. Now, when you have an intransitive sentence, there’s one instance of this pronoun and is it like ʻsheʻ or like ʻherʻ? And in English it is like ʻsheʻ. You say “she slept’. You don’t say ‘her slept’. So you’ve got ‘she’ and ‘her’, and then ‘she’. In an ergative language — if English was an ergative language — we would say something like: “she saw her” and then we would also say “her slept”. So the subject of an intransitive verb has the same form as the object of transitive verb in an ergative language. Whereas in a nominative language the subject of an intransitive verb has the same form as the subject of a transitive verb. So, if that makes any sense at all you can understand why it’s interesting. Subject hood becomes a big issue in these languages because, the intransitive subject, the ‘her’ in ‘her slept, is it a subject? But then why doesn’t it look like ‘she’? Or is it an object? But then how can it be an object when it’s the only argument in the sentence? It’s the only noun phrase in the sentence. So, if it’s an object then you’ve got this sentence that consists of a verb and an object but it doesnʻt have a subject. We also have to ask if the transitive object might really be a subject, since it looks the same. So, the questions are endless.”
Looking back at your career, what gives you the most satisfaction?
First of all, Diane said: “Every moment that I work on Niuean - it is just a treasure trove.” One of her favorite topics has been verb fronting. She recalls one time on a long-haul flight back to Toronto from Niue she had one of those rare Eureka experiences. She had been wondering about verb fronting and it struck her that what was fronting was not just a verb, as had been previously thought, but a larger structure. Ah hah! She drew trees all the way home trying to figure out how to work it out structurally. Two developments provided the empirical insight she needed: verb fronting and noun incorporation.
People thought verb initial languages were derived by the verb moving to the front of the sentence. In parallel, theories of noun incorporation developed that said that a noun phrase that is an object can form a lexical item along with the verb to get a single word, e.g. like “meat-eat”. Then, that single lexical item can move.
What Diane realized was that in Niuean the incorporated nominal was much larger than in other languages. It was not just a noun but a phrase that was forming a unit with the verb. Looking at the details of that, led to a new way of understanding how verb fronting works in some languages. The series of papers Diane wrote on this topic is one of her most satisfying intellectual accomplishments.
The other thing that Diane is known for is her work on unusual syntactic constructions in English. One question is how do people hold on to different rule sets in different registers, like recipes and diaries? Recently, Diane worked on the ‘is is’ construction, e,g, The thing is is that… and this paper has just appeared in Language (2017, 93:121-152.), the flagship journal of Linguistics. There had been a lot of different ideas going around about the “is is” construction. However, none of them made sense to Diane. She thought to herself:
“No, this has to be plain old ordinary syntax. It can’t be something too weird because we all do it all the time. So, it must be part of the syntax.”
Diane explained to me her three main observations about these constructions. First, they are always in specificational contexts. For example, to specify what a problem is you can say: The problem is that … and to specify what an issue is you can say: The issue is that…. You donʻt find an extra be in sentences like "She is pretty." The second observation is that these constructions occur with ‘shell nouns’. Shell nouns encapsulate a lot of information, such as a problem, an issue, or a question etc. And third, the shell noun is shared by two verbs. Once you pull together these pieces of information, the syntax falls out from those observations. But to get the complexities, Diane says, you will have to read the paper.
Massam, Diane (2017). Extra be: The syntax of shared shell-noun constructions in English. Language 93: 121-152.
Diane said: Those two projects, the Niuean one about noun incorporation verb-fronting and the double ‘be’ one in English were really satisfying to me.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your research?
“I taught courses on Language Diversity and Linguistic Universals. That topic sums up my research love. That tension of having a theory of human language that is true for all languages and then accounting for the diversity that you find across languages. That’s been the larger focus of my interest.”
“I love theory and I love data so I’m very happy that I was able to combine them throughout my career. I think it’s partly the time I lived in that made that possible.”
You’ve been married to Yves Roberge, another linguist, for most of your academic life. What was it like being married to another linguist?
Yves has formed a huge part of the tapestry of my life. Linguistics has been in my life at work, but also part of my life at home. We don’t talk about Linguistics all the time, but when we need to, it’s just great to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Being with Yves has also given me access to a whole other aspect of Linguistics, Romance Linguistics, a whole other dimension to Linguistics and all the people I came in contact with from Yvesʻ associations. Yves was also Principal of New College at UofT for 7 years, and this has given me access to the broader, college life of UofT. Finally, bringing up kids, seeing their language development in a bilingual household. Linguistics has been present in all aspects of my life.
At this point, we turned to Diane’s reflections on her work in the Department of Linguistics.
What did you enjoy most about the department? What makes you think this department has ‘heart’?
Diane’s own words on this topic are a poignant record of her sentiments. I have included three of her observations:
I think that the department has heart and I think it has a big heart. Part of it is what I like to bring out in my own teaching and advising and part of it is what I inherited.
Everyone who comes here is quite wonderful. They’re super intelligent people who have stories and richness to them but they’re all very different. Create an environment where people can be who they are. Sometimes things don’t go so well and a lot of things happen along the way. It’s very important to create an environment where that’s okay. I think we have a department like that.
We used to have this saying: “Not in front of the students; not in front of the Dean.” In the department we might have problems and issues but we didn't want to show that to the Dean and we wanted the students to think everything is good. It has made the department strong.
What was it like to be departmental chair?
The call to be Chair of the department came as a bit of a shock to Diane, but she thought of it a great privilege. She liked being part of the larger university community. It was a time for her to stretch out beyond the department and learn more about the broader University of which it is a part. It was also a great time to lead the department. It didn’t need a lot of heavy-handedness. There were all kinds of powerhouses working in the department at that time and everyone was doing really well with their research. So, in one sense being the Chair was easy. All Diane had to do was create an environment where people could do what they were already doing.
Diane was chair between 2002 and 2008 (as well as Interim Chair in 2012). To her, remembering it all is often a blur. It was an extremely intense time in her life, getting up very early in the morning to prepare her teaching, doing her morning walks (or runs) in the dark, juggling work and family, kids and students, faculty and staff. One year she even had to be both chair and graduate coordinator, which I can hardly believe (because I am currently the graduate coordinator and it’s bad enough just doing that!) Finally, it must be told that there was one thing that Diane remembers only too well: the end of the day deadline, which came at 4:30pm sharp. She recalls many times people walking down the hall to the elevator with her for some last minute Q&A because at 4:30 the workday ended and Diane went to pick up her kids.
Can you tell me about your love of the department through the history of lounges?
The lounge has always been a gathering place. It is the defining nature of UofT Linguistics. We had one at the Queenʻs Park building in 1979 when I first came to the department as an MA student. Gleason was always there talking about language. There was always intellectual stuff going on. Then, we moved to the 6th floor of Robarts Library. While I was at MIT, I came back as a TA. Many of us drank wine late at night and talked about language and the meaning of life. Then I came back again as a Canada Research Fellow and then a professor. I often worked on my teaching materials in the lounge and everyone talked about things in the lounge. That’s where we came up with the idea of the Syntax Research Group. Then when we were about to move to the fourth floor of Sid Smith there was a big controversy. We wanted a lounge and a meeting room, but the administration said we couldn’t have both. So, we said we could not live without a lounge. The lounge is necessary for our department. It’s the heart and soul of the department. So, we got a lounge and the tradition continues.
The lounge in the department of Linguistics is truly unique. Some departments don’t have lounges. There is nowhere for students to go. Some departments have lounges but they typically allow only faculty and maybe graduate students to use them. In the Linguistics department everyone can use the lounge. This makes it possible for faculty, staff, graduates and undergraduates to interact, creating an environment of interaction and camaraderie. The egalitarian nature of the lounge gives everyone the opportunity to talk to each other. It makes everyone feel like they are a part of something. In particular, the undergraduates get the opportunity to see firsthand what it is like to be a graduate student. This gives them the competitive edge when they apply to graduate school themselves. But it gives them life training more generally too.
You have a large number of intellectual achievements and administrative positions, what is the thing you are most proud of?
Diane did not hesitate in her answer to this question! She told me straight out that the things she is most proud of are her graduate students. From the very beginning, the most rewarding part of Diane’s academic life has been advising, at both the MA and PhD levels. She loves giving students the space to explore and discover their own abilities. Diane says, “Each student has been a joy and a treasure.” Most of her 20 doctoral students have gone on to be academics themselves, working in countries around the world - Canada (Toronto, Winnipeg), France, Israel, Italy, Korea, Oman, Taiwan, Thailand, and the USA, and those who have left academia have distinguished themselves in a range of different careers in Toronto.
It must have been a hard choice to retire?
Academic life is exhausting. With the full range of things that Diane has done she uses this expression to sum up her experience: “run ragged”. This is not because academics are under extreme pressure to ‘do-it-all’ but because they inherently want to do it all, so they just keep over doing. As Diane explains, the choice for retirement arose logically: “I am always governed by my list of things to do and I wanted my list of things to do to be shorter and more manageable.” That imperative meant that Diane had to give up something. So, she made the choice to give up classroom teaching and administration — the things that take tremendous time and energy, and the things that she could give up without forsaking her true love — research.
What are your plans for the future?
For someone who is about to retire, Diane has a long list of things to do on her list. First, she wants to write a theoretical book on Niuean syntax. Up to this point there has never been enough time to do it. Now there is. Second, she’d like to continue her work on weird syntax in English and write more papers on Niuean. Third, she’d like to write a grammar of Niuean. She also speculates that she might want to try other types of writing, returning to her long lost penchant for wordsmithing. She also muses about painting, travel, reading, cryptic crossword puzzles (a private fascination), spinning, hiking, biking, etc.
What are you going to miss the most?
Diane has obviously struggled with this sensitive subject. She said very clearly: “What I am going to miss the most is daily and given-to-you-for-free deep and rich contact with young people. I worry that I won’t have that anymore. I think I’ll still have access to colleagues and to graduate students to some extent but the young undergrads, like the ones in my 199 and 300-level courses, I’m not sure I’ll have that and I’m sad about that.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Not long before Diane and I had our conversation, we had a department retreat. Our discussions primarily focused on the graduate program, how to improve it and the best ways forward. Diane recalls that she was sitting back a bit during the meeting because she knew she would not be part of the decisions that were being made. Then, she looked across the table at Alana and they shared a secret smile, together acknowledging that the department is in good hands. The newest cohort of young colleagues are working together and gelling. They came into the department as individuals. They didn’t have any joint goals as a group but now Diane notices they are developing this quality. She smiles and says: “It’s going to be exciting to see where the department goes in the future. I just hope that it stays as a really good department and really warm department, with a lounge, and a heart.”