Plenary Speakers

Collectively, our invited speakers cover a wide range of different types of language variation. Each is a prominent figure, working on variable properties and/or their origins and taking a distinctive angle. Here we give their biographies and a relevant list of recent papers; please see the Program for the conference program and abstracts.

Elan Dresher - University of Toronto

B. Elan Dresher is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. He has published on phonological theory, learnability, historical linguistics, West Germanic and Biblical Hebrew phonology and prosody, and the history of phonology. He has argued in many places and in many ways that for a better understanding of phonology and syntax linguists should be paying more attention to their acquisition. His books include Old English and the Theory of Phonology (1985), Formal Approaches to Poetry: Recent Developments in Generative Metrics (ed., with Nila Friedberg, 2006), Contrast in Phonology: Theory, Perception, Acquisition (ed., with Peter Avery and Keren Rice, 2008), and The Contrastive Hierarchy in Phonology (2009). He is the author of ‘The phoneme’ in The Blackwell Companion to Phonology (2011) and ‘Rule-based generative historical phonology’ in the Oxford Handbook of historical phonology (2015), and recent articles in Linguistic Variation (2015) and the Annual Review of Linguistics (2016).

Dresher, B.E. 2009. The contrastive hierarchy in phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dresher, B.E. 1999. Charting the learning path: Cues to parameter setting. Linguistic Inquiry 30: 27-67.

Dresher, B.E. 2014. The arch not the stones: Universal feature theory without universal features. Nordlyd 41.2, 165-181.

Dresher, B.E. 2015. The motivation for contrastive feature hierarchies in phonology. Linguistic Variation 15, 1-40.

Dresher, B.E. 2016. Contrast in phonology 1867-1967: History and development. Annual Review of Linguistics 2, 53-73.

Dresher, B.E. (in press). Covert representations, contrast, and the acquisition of lexical accent. In J. Heinz, R. Goedemans, & H. van der Hulst, eds. Dimensions of Stress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lisa Green - University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Lisa Green holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She returned to UMass after eleven years in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. Green is the founding director of the Center for the Study of African American Language at UMass Amherst. Its goal is to foster and integrate research on language in the African American community and applications of that research in educational, social, and cultural realms. The Center will serve as a resource for communities across the country, with a commitment to furnishing information and training to educators who address language- and dialect-related issues. In Fall 2009, Green was an Old Dominion Fellow in Linguistics at Princeton University.

Lisa Green’s research investigates variation within and across varieties of English, with a focus on African American English (AAE). In moving away from the traditional approach of studying isolated features of AAE that differ maximally from constructions in the standard and mainstream varieties of English, she considers systems in the AAE grammar, such as the systems of tense/aspect marking and negation. Green’s work also explores the link between discourse and structural positions of elements in the left periphery. Her work on child AAE addresses questions about optionality and variation in language development. 

Green, L. & T. Roeper. 2007. The acquisition path for tense-aspect: Remote past and habitual in child African-American English. Language Acquisition 14, 269-313.

Green, L. 2011. Language and the African American Child. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Green, L. & J. White-Sustaita. 2015. Development of variation. In S. Lanehart, ed. The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 475-491.

Newkirk-Turner, B. & L. Green. (In press). Third singular –s and event marking in African American English. Linguistic Variation.

David Lightfoot - Georgetown University

David Lightfoot writes mainly on syntactic theory, language acquisition, and historical change, which he views as intimately related. He argues that internal language change is contingent and fluky, takes place in a sequence of bursts, and is best viewed as the cumulative effect of changes in individual grammars, where a grammar is a "language organ" represented in a person's mind/brain and embodying his/her language faculty. That, in turn, entails a non-standard, discovery approach to language acquisition, which he treats as "cue-based," which enables us to understand how a language like English may develop so many idiosyncratic properties. He has published eleven books, most recently The Development of Language (Blackwell, 1999), The Language Organ (with S.R. Anderson) (Cambridge UP, 2002), and How New Languages Emerge (Cambridge UP, 2006). In 2004, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2006, as a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America. He has been elected as President of the Linguistic Society of America, serving 2010-2011. 

Lightfoot has held regular appointments at several universities including McGill, where he taught many undergraduates who went on to become major figures in linguistics and psychology; the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands; and the University of Maryland, where he established and chaired for 12 years, a new department of linguistics with a unique focus--viewing linguistics as the study of the human language organ. He was also the associate director of the neuroscience and cognitive sciences program there. In 2001, he moved to Georgetown University as dean of the graduate school. From 2005 to 2009 he served as Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, heading the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. In 2009 he returned to Georgetown, where he is Professor of Linguistics, directs the graduate program in Communication, Culture & Technology, and co-directs (with Elissa Newport) the new Interdisciplinary PhD Concentration in Cognitive Science.

Lightfoot, D.W. 1991. How to set parameters: Arguments from language change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lightfoot, D.W. 1999. The development of language: Acquisition, change, and evolution. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lightfoot, D.W. 2006. How new languages emerge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightfoot, D.W. 2012. Explaining matrix/subordinate domain discrepancies.  In L. Aelbrecht, L. Haegeman & R. Nye, eds. Main Clause Phenomena: New horizons.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 159-176.

Lightfoot, D.W. 2015. How to trigger elements of I-languages. In D. Ott & A. Gallego, eds. 50 years of Aspects. MITWPL 77, 175-185.

Elissa Newport - Georgetown University

Elissa L. Newport, Ph.D., is Professor of Neurology, Psychology, and Linguistics and Director of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery at Georgetown University. She came to Georgetown in 2012, after 24 years at the University of Rochester, where she was the George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and also served as Department Chair. Her primary research interest is in language acquisition, including naturalistic studies of children learning their first languages, experimental studies of infants and adults learning miniature languages in the lab, fieldwork on emerging sign languages, and fMRI research on language and the brain. Her most recent research includes two main lines of work: one is on recovery of language in children and adults after left hemisphere stroke; the other is on children's acquisition of structural regularities and variation in the languages of the world. Her research has been funded by the NIH since 1980 and has received the Claude Pepper Award of Excellence from NIH.  She is a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Cognitive Science Society, Society for Experimental Psychologists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013 she received the William James Lifetime Achievement Award for Basic Research from the Association for Psychological Science and, in 2015, the Franklin Medal for Computer and Cognitive Science from the Benjamin Franklin Institute. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Culbertson, J. & E.L. Newport. 2015. Harmonic biases in child learners: In support of language universals. Cognition 139, 71-82.

Fedzechkina, M., T.F. Jaeger & E.L. Newport. 2012. Language learners restructure their input to facilitate efficient communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 17897-17902.

Hudson Kam, C.L., & E.L. Newport. 2009. Getting it right by getting it wrong: When learners change languages. Cognitive Psychology 59, 30-66.

Newport, E.L. 2016. Statistical language learning: Computational, maturational and linguistic constraints. Language and Cognition. In press. 

Schuler, K.D., C. Yang & E.L. Newport. 2016. Testing the Tolerance Principle: Children form productive rules when it is computationally more efficient to do so.  Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. In press.

Maria Polinsky - University of Maryland

My primary research is centered on syntactic theory, but I situate this work at the intersection of cognitive science and cross-linguistic studies. I am equally interested in language structure and linguistic diversity: I strive to combine both facets in my own work, believing that we cannot understand one without the other. As a result, my “hands-on” research includes both primary fieldwork and full-scale experiments on understudied languages. Although I have worked on several “exotic” languages, my approach to these languages is largely opportunistic; I am drawn to particular phenomena — such as ergativity, or the interaction of word order with prosody, or gender categorization — rather than to particular languages. I consider it the ultimate challenge of linguistics to apply our theories to new data, especially when the data are messy and hard to analyze. Indeed, it’s precisely this challenge that has driven my long-standing interest in heritage languages: they are messy, but they are also lean. If we can figure out what makes them tick, we will have a much better understanding of which components of natural language design are indispensable and which are more fragile. Ultimately, I believe most linguistic work can be enhanced through teamwork and collaboration with numerous scholars, all of whom bring different types of expertise to the table. By working with a diverse range of colleagues and students to investigate novel research questions, I strive to achieve my overall goal of informing central issues in linguistic theory.

Benmamoun, E., S. Montrul, & M. Polinsky. 2013. Heritage languages and their speakers: Opportunities and challenges for linguistics. Theoretical Linguistics 39, 129-181.

Polinsky, M., C. Gomez Gallo, P. Graf, & E. Kravtchenko, 2012. Subject preference and ergativity. Lingua 121, 125-145. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2011.11.004

Polinsky, M., C. Gómez Gallo, P. Graff , E. Kravtchenko, A. Milton Morgan, & A. Sturgeon. 2013. Subject islands are different. In J. Sprouse & N. Hornstein, eds. Experimental syntax and island effects. Cambridge: CUP, 286-309.

Polinsky, M. 2015. When L1 becomes an L3: Assessing grammatical knowledge in heritage speakers/learners. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 18, 163-196. DOI:10.1017/S1366728913000667.      

Scontras, G., Z. Fuchs, & M. Polinsky. 2015. Heritage language and linguistic theory. Frontiers in Psychology 6, 1545. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01545.

Gillian Sankoff - University of Pennsylvania

Gillian Sankoff‘s 1968 McGill University Ph.D. dissertation was a study of language contact among speakers of Buang (Austronesian, Papua New Guinea). Followup research (four more field trips to Papua New Guinea during the 1970s) included a study of the creolization of Tok Pisin by the new generation of child and adolescent native speakers.  Teaching at the Université de Montréal from 1968-79, she designed and carried out a major sociolinguistic study of Montreal French (jointly with David Sankoff and Henrietta Cedergren).  That study was repeated in 1980s and 1990s by former students, and this longitudinal corpus is now the basis for her current trend and panel studies of the relationship between real-time language change and change across individual lifespans.  Since 1979, she has been a member of the Linguistics Department at the University of Pennsylvania, chairing that department from 1988 - 1993.  Since her retirement from teaching in 2012, her general interests in linguistic microevolution have led her to the study of the differentiation over time of the three southwestern Pacific English-based creoles: Bislama, Solomon Islands Pijin and Tok Pisin.  She is also currently working on a dictionary of Buang, a book on real-time change in Montreal French, and several papers related to language change across the lifespan. 

Sankoff, G. 2012. Longitudinal studies. In R. Bayley, N. Schilling, & R. Cameron, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 392-413.

Sankoff, G. & H. Blondeau. 2013. Instability of the [r] ~ [R] alternation in Montreal French: an exploration of stylistic conditioning of a sound change in progress. In L. Spreafico & A. Vietti, eds. Rhotics: New Data and Perspectives. Bozen-Bolzano University Press, 249-265.

Sankoff, G. 2016. Before there were corpora: the evolution of the Montréal French project as a longitudinal study. In S.E. Wagner & I. Buchstaller, eds. Panel Studies of Language Variation and Change. Routledge. In press.

Wagner, S. E., & G. Sankoff. 2011. Age grading in the Montréal French inflected future. Language Variation and Change 23 (3), 275-313.

Natalie Schilling - Georgetown University

Natalie Schilling holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown. She specializes in the study of language variation and change in American English dialects, including regional, ethnic and gender-based language varieties. She currently heads two research projects investigating dialect variation and change in real and apparent time, the Language and Communication in Washington, DC (LCDC) project, and Smith Island Voices, a sociolinguistic study of the endangered dialect of a small island community in the Chesapeake Bay. Dr. Schilling’s main expertise is stylistic variation: how and why individuals use different language styles as they shape and reshape personal, interpersonal, and group identities and relations. She also conducts forensic linguistic investigation of speaker and author profiling and authorship attribution, and she teaches university courses and professional training workshops in forensic linguistics.

Dr. Schilling is the author of Sociolinguistic Fieldwork (Cambridge University Press, 2013), co-author of American English: Dialects and Variation (Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edition 2006; 3rd edition in press), and co-editor of The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edition 2013). She is also co-editor-in-chief of Language and Linguistics Compass, an online peer-reviewed journal providing state-of-the-art overview articles in all subfields of linguistics.

Dr. Schilling has published and presented widely in premier academic venues and is a frequent invited speaker at academic conferences and universities in the U.S. and internationally. She is also committed to disseminating linguistic knowledge to communities beyond academia and has produced various materials for general audiences, including English in America: A Linguistic History (2016), a video/audio course in The Great Courses lecture series. Among other leadership positions, Dr. Schilling is a member of the Linguistic Society of America’s Executive Committee.

Cutillas-Espinosa, J.A., J.M. Hernández-Campoy, & N. Schilling-Estes. 2010. Hyper-vernacularisation and speaker design: A case study. Folia Linguistica 44.1: 31–52.

Schilling, N. 2013. Investigating stylistic variation. In J.K. Chambers & N. Schilling, eds. The handbook of language variation and change, 2nd edition. Malden/Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. 327-349.

Schilling, N. 2013. Sociolinguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schilling, N. 2014. Investigating ‘self-conscious’ speech: The performance register in Ocracoke English. In R. Bayley & R. Cameron, eds. Language variation and change (Critical Concepts in Linguistics). [Reprinted from N. Schilling 1998. Routledge. Language in Society 27.1, 53–83]

Wolfram, W. & N. Schilling. 2016. American English: Dialects and variation, 3rd edition. Malden/Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Charles Yang - University of Pennsylvania

Charles Yang is a computer scientist trained at MIT (PhD 2000). He was on the faculty of linguistics and psychology at Yale University until 2006 and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he now teaches linguistics and computer science and directs the Program in Cognitive Science. Yang is a specialist on language acquisition, variation, and change and has published widely in these areas, and his research has been featured in a wide range of national and international newspapers and other media outlets.  He is the author of Knowledge and Learning in Natural Language (2002 Oxford), which introduces probabilistic learning methods to the study of generative grammar, and The Infinite Gift (2006 Scribner), a book on child language aimed at the general public which has since been translated into several languages. His latest work, The Price of Productivity: How Children Learn to Break the Rules of Language, will be published by the MIT Press, in which he develops a simple equation to resolve many outstanding problems in theoretical linguistics, language acquisition, and language change. Yang is a widely sought-after speaker and has delivered over 150 invited lectures around the world.

Schuler, K.D., C. Yang, & E.L. Newport. 2016. Testing the Tolerance Principle: Children form productive rules when it is computationally more efficient to do so. Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. In press.

Stevens, J., L. Gleitman, J. Trueswell, & C. Yang. 2016. The pursuit of word meanings. Cognitive Science. In press.

Yang, C. 2013. Ontogeny and phylogeny of language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 6324-6327.

Yang, C.  2015. Negative knowledge from positive evidence. Language 91 (4), 938-953.

Yang, C. 2016. The price of linguistic productivity: How children learn to break the rules of language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.