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Field work on four continents
Since November 2009, the MPI has a new research group on information structure, headed by Max Planck Fellow Robert Van Valin. The group consists of four enthusiastic researchers doing field work on four different continents - from Oceania to America, from West-Africa to Siberia. 'We can add a couple of dots on the institute's map of MPI field sites.'
Feb 5, 2010
Van Valin's group on Syntax, typology, and information structure consists of group leader Robert Van Valin (US/Germany), post-doc Dejan Matic (Yugoslavia/Germany), and the PhD's Saskia van Putten (The Netherlands) and Jeremy Hammond (Australia). These four scholars set off to investigate the way in which languages of a range of structural types mark information structure.
Interesting spread of languages
Their central research question is: What role does information structure play in explaining cross-linguistic differences in grammatical systems? 'We are focussing on the languages our group was already doing research on', Van Valin says. Their field work concentrates on six languages on four continents: the Oceanic languages Whitesands and Futuna-Aniwa, the North-East Siberian languages Even and Yukaghir, the West-African Kwa language Avatime (spoken in Ghana) and the native American language Lakhota.
'These languages are all very different in terms of structure, and they have different methods of expressing information structure. Lakhota, for instance, is a headmarking language, which means that case relations are marked by affixes on the verb. But Futuna is an isolating language in which words are composed of a single morpheme - the complete opposite. Obviously, the systems of information structure marking in these languages strongly diverge from each other. We have an interesting geographical and structural spread. Moreover, some of these languages are endangered. It helps to describe them.'
Enhance our knowledge
The research field is relatively new and has become of wide interest the last ten to fifteen years. Van Valin: 'Information structure has always been regarded as an appendix to the grammar, but it is a crucial component of language itself. The central function of language is to communicate, and when you talk about communication, then you automatically get to information structure. We are looking at language in a pragmatic way and are taking an inductive approach. In the end, we will write up the similarities and differences in the languages we study and will enhance our knowledge of how pragmatics and syntax interact.'
Volcanoes and goats
The group is now developing common experimental methods and stimuli to make their research comparable. 'Cross-linguistic comparison is still difficult, but none of us is a beginner in language research', Matic concludes. 'We all have years of field work experience.' They will soon spread all over the globe again to collect natural discourse. Jeremy Hammond will set off to Vanuatu, Saskia van Putten to Ghana and Dejan Matic to Siberia. 'Jeremy's field site is next to an active volcano', Matic tells and Hammond smiles: 'On my audio tapes, you always hear it rumbling in the background. No, it is not dangerous, the volcano has been active for the last 800 years.' 'On my tapes you only hear goats', Van Putten adds and Van Valin starts humming an Indian song. Field work is calling...