Common Tongues

Associate Professor of Linguistics Julie Legate examines language structures.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

By Blake Cole

While foreign languages can seem bafflingly different from English on the surface, Julie Legate, Associate Professor of Linguistics, says seemingly divergent languages have more in common than we think. Discovering the commonalities, though, often requires a close examination of the way meaning is structured in each language. These commonalities reveal details about humans’ universal imperative to communicate.

“Humans have a biological endowment for language,” says Legate. “A language doesn’t have to be related to any other language to select the same possibilities. For example, right now speakers of both Icelandic, a Scandinavian language spoken in Iceland, and Bemba, a Bantu language spoken in Zambia, are innovating an atypical passive construction. Looking beyond the superficial differences between the languages, I discovered that these new passive constructions are structurally identical.”

Legate’s most recent book, Voice and v, focuses on the structure of such atypical passive constructions, starting from those used in Acehnese, a language of Aceh, Indonesia. For example, when using a passive in English, you would say, “the cooking is done by me.” This shifts agreement with the subject away from the doer (“me”), to instead what’s being done (“the cooking”). Acehnese, Legate says, is one of the only languages to have agreement with the doer in the passive, which means the same passive sentence in Acehnese translates to: “The cooking am done by me.”

“These kinds of structures look very strange and unusual,” she laughs, “but strange and unusual is my specialty.”

Reflection of social hierarchy also differs between Acehnese and English. Acehnese has no gender-specific pronouns; instead its pronouns encode levels of politeness. For instance, if speaking to an elder in Acehnese, one might say “I (a level lower than you).” It’s these kinds of subtle differences, Legate says, that are invaluable when studying the possibilities for language structure across different cultures and regions.

Investigating the intricate details of a language cannot be accomplished without the consultation of a native speaker. Aceh, located on Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia, has a population of less than 4 million people, which makes finding enclaves of speakers here in the U.S. rare. However, Legate—whose dissertation focused on an aboriginal Australian language with only about 2,000 speakers—was able to connect with a handful of native speakers in and around the Penn community. 

When it comes to communicating with the consultant, linguists don’t need to be fluent in a language to study it. This would be wholly unrealistic given the number of rare dialects a linguist might study over a short period. So in order to prepare for one-on-one sessions with native speakers, Legate uses any existing dictionaries or grammars, as well as her own research, to establish the outlines of the grammar, then formulates and tests hypotheses on the sentence structures she wants to study.

Legate has always had an interest in languages. “I was pursuing a degree in French, and we were required to take a linguistics course, and I loved it,” she says. “I also have a strong affinity to logical and mathematical reasoning, and linguistics is a combination of language and logic that doesn’t exist in any other discipline. It’s ideally suited to me.”

This January, Legate will take over as editor-in-chief of Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, one of the most prestigious journals in the field of theoretical linguistics. The journal emphasizes the combination of detailed language work and linguistic theory that Legate thrives on. “There is a wealth of work describing languages, but these descriptions typically do not include the kind of information that would elucidate the human language faculty,” says Legate. “When we combine those resources with sophisticated linguistic theory, that’s when we discover the properties that define human language. It’s a growing area and I’m excited to be part of it.”