The research interests of linguists at Rochester range across several research areas and wide collaborative interests.

Language Documentation and Description

In the McKenzie Basin of the Canadian taiga, in the Amazon basin, and in eastern Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Department of Linguistics faculty members go into the field to record native speakers of endangered languages, then return to Rochester to transcribe and analyze. In many cases, these are oral languages spoken by a dwindling number of people whose cultures have been uprooted. To preserve these languages requires creating a written version as well. The stakes are high. When a language is lost, so is the culture of the people who spoke that language—and all of their history as well. There is a broader loss as well, just as when a rare or endangered species of plant or animal becomes extinct: Human language is fully understood only by examining it in all of its diverse forms.

Faculty members engaged in this area of linguistics are Nadine GrimmJoyce McDonough, Maya Abtahian, and Asia Pietraszko.

Typology, Historical Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

The study of language variation and change links synchronic variation in language with diachronic change in language over time. Linguists in this field study many aspects of the intersection of language and society, including how language is used and perceived to mark social and cultural characteristics of an individual or group of individuals, and the linguistic outcomes of sociohistorical processes that have resulted in the migration of people, leading to a variety of outcomes of language and dialect contact (including the creation of new pidgins, creoles, or dialects (through koineization) and the loss of languages and dialects due to shift toward a dominant language or standard dialect).

Related to our department's focus on language documentation is a focus on language variation and change in endangered languages and in the process of language shift. Maya Abtahian studies the linguistic and social causes and outcomes of language shift in minority language communities from a variationist perspective.

She is also currently running The Rochester Accent Project. The purpose of The Rochester Accent Project is to provide a sociolinguistic description of Rochester/Monroe County, NY within upstate New York and the Inland North dialect region. The specific aims of the project are to document features of the dialect of Rochester and the surrounding areas and to learn about the life, history and culture of Rochester as it relates to language change over time.

Phonetics and Phonology

Speech is a purposeful and complex activity organized to convey meaning and intent; it's the primary vehicle for the transmission of human language and linguistic structure. Phonetics and phonology concern speech production and perception, the analysis of the organization of sound systems in human language, and their interface with meaning and structure. Current research projects in the Phonetics Lab include field phonetics and language documentation, the developing an interactive online speech atlas of the Dene language communities, investigation and modeling of vowel coding in the midbrain (with Laurel Carney, biomedical engineering and neuro-anatomy), cross-linguistic tone and prosody. Past projects have included the ultrasound project for collecting and analyzing data on tongue movement during speech, an investigation of the perception and production of nasality in vowels, and the relationship between rhythm in speech and music.

Joyce McDonough of the Department of Linguistics oversees the Phonetics Laboratory.


Morphology is the study of the forms of words. Words play a critical role in formal linguistic theory, through the subfields of phonetics, phonology, syntax and semantics. Crosslinguistically, there is great variation in what constitutes a word in a grammar, from simple independent elements to highly complex, multidimensional nominal and verbal systems. In one view, morphology is a system whose building blocks are morphemes, with the notion of word having no special status in the theory. In another view, morphology is concerned with the relations among fully inflected word forms, represented in paradigms and subparadigms; here the notion morpheme has no formal status in the grammar. The latter approach studies morphological systems as inferential systems, using information theory and learnability by means of computational modeling. Both of these perspectives are represented in the department. Joyce McDonough studies the complex verbal morphology of Athabaskan/Dene languages, within the inferential Word and Paradigm approach. Asia Pietraszko works in Distributed Morphology (DM), investigating questions related to the syntax-morphology interface, including head movement and lowering, periphrasis and word formation. Ash Asudeh is involved in a research project that seeks to marry DM with a constraint-based syntactic theory, Lexical-Functional Grammar (LFG), without movement. This diversity of viewpoints is one of the strengths of the department.

Semantics and Pragmatics

Semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic expressions. This includes how the meanings of expressions are compositionally calculated from the meanings of their parts and their syntactic arrangement. Semantics therefore both links to the study of the lexicon, in particular lexical meaning (lexical semantics), and to the study of syntax, where this latter link is often called the syntax-semantics interface. Semantics also has strong links to pragmatics, which concerns how the meanings of linguistic expressions are used to communicate further meanings by language users. We routinely make inferences about what others “really" mean based on real-world knowledge and knowledge of each other’s intentions and beliefs and we put this to use when we form utterances. For example, “Can you pass me that bowl?” is normally understood as a request, not a yes/no question, but this is not part of the meaning of the expression per se, since the literal yes/no question can definitely be pertinent in a particular context, such as a physiotherapy session. Faculty members engaged in this area of linguistics are Scott Grimm, Aaron White, Ash Asudeh, and Greg Carlson (Emeritus). Among Ash Asudeh's current interests in semantics are Glue Semantics and the use of monads in a theory of Enriched Meanings, which is concerned with certain phenomena at the boundary of semantics and pragmatics.

Computational and Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics

Aaron White's research investigates how conceptual categories are reflected in grammatical categories and how knowledge of this relationship can be leveraged for building natural language understanding (NLU) systems. As part of this research, he develops precision instruments for measuring the distributional and inferential properties of linguistic expressions and builds scalable systems for synthesizing the data collected using those instruments to provide both scientific insights in the study of natural language semantics as well as modular components of NLU systems.

Faculty members engaged in this area of linguistics are Scott Grimm, Aaron White, Ash Asudeh, and Greg Carlson (Emeritus).


Syntax is the study of the system that mediates linguistic form (sound/sign) and linguistic meaning. The structure of natural language has shown properties of a unique cognitive system, shared by all humans. Syntacticians work on developing a theory of this system, using different types of data, such as typological comparisons (fieldwork-based linguistics) and cognitive behaviors (psycholinguistics). Asia Pietraszko specializes in fieldwork-based syntax and morphology, with specific focus on the Bantu languages of southern Africa. She works on developing a derivational theory of syntax within the generalized Principles and Parameters framework. Ash Asudeh works on constraint-based syntax, particularly Lexical-Functional Grammar, and is a co-author of the second edition of Lexical-Functional Syntax. He typically works on topics at the syntax-semantics interface, such as resumption and other unbounded dependencies, control and raising, copy raising and perception verbs, anaphora, and incorporation, but is also interested in the relationship between syntax and morphology. He has worked on various Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages, but most recently has focused on English.

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