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Maria Polinsky


Maria Polinsky

Harvard University

Research Interests: Language universals and their explanation, comparative syntactic theory, the expression of information structure in natural language, incomplete acquisition (heritage languages), Austronesian languages (esp. Malagasy, Maori), languages of the Caucasus (esp. Tsez, Kabardian).

My work is at the intersection of theoretical syntax and study of cross-linguistic variation in sentence structure. I am interested in the ways linguistic theory can be used as a roadmap for understanding how people process language and for obtaining meaningful results that feed back into theory. Language-wise, I specialize in Austronesian and languages of the Caucasus. I also have a particular interest in heritage languages which are strikingly similar to each other, regardless of the input (baseline) language. It is important to understand why they share so many grammatical similarities with each other. In terms of linguistic phenomena, I am particularly interested in long-distance dependencies, case assignment, and control/raising.



  • Forum Lecture by Maria Polinsky & Reception

    Friday, July 31, 2015 - 6:00pm to 10:00pm

    Look before you leap

    Forum Lecture by Maria Polinsky, at the Charles M. Harper Center, room 104, at 6pm. Reception to follow at 7:30pm at the Smart Museum, on 5550 S. Greenwood Ave..

    Experimental work is now pervasive in linguistics, as a glance at any recent LSA Meeting Program will demonstrate. In my own research, I try to combine theory with basic experimental work; the present talk will draw on my experiences in this area to discuss and evaluate those contexts in which experimental work can, in my opinion, be truly useful, versus those contexts where I believe such work it does not move the field forward. In thinking about experiments, it is important to draw a line between confirmatory studies, which help us choose one theory over another, and exploratory studies, which are needed to establish a general idea of the empirical landscape — before a solid theory is built. Formal experiments are well suited to the needs of confirmatory studies, which test competing theories, but it is less clear whether such experiments are fit for exploratory work. In the context of confirmatory studies, successful experimental work should be driven by theoretical questions. Worthwhile experiments build on theoretical knowledge and feed back into existing linguistic theories, forcing us to revisit familiar concepts and develop new theoretical principles. This unsurprising conclusion also suggests an important corollary: that we may get the best overall results by working in teams. A successful team needs a theoretical linguist, an empirical expert who controls the subtleties of the language under investigation, and a good experimental linguist. Building on this premise, this talk concludes by considering a number of readily available opportunities for team building, including dissertation committees, community involvement, cross-disciplinary projects, and international collaborations.