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Agreement and concord in heritage grammars

Date: Friday April 12, 2019

Time: 11:30 am to 1:00 pm

Location: TSH 203

Guest Speaker: Dr. Maria Polinsky

Bio: Maria Polinsky is Professor of Linguistics and Associate Director of the Language Science Centre at the University of Maryland. She has done extensive primary work on several language families, in particular, on languages of the Caucasus: Nakh-Dagestanian, Norwest Caucasian, and Kartvelian. Her research emphasizes the importance of lesser-studied languages for theoretical linguistics. Polinsky has been a pioneer of heritage language study and has played an active role in introducing heritage languages into modern linguistic theory.

Abstract: This talk presents and analyzes main findings on the morphosyntax of number and gender agreement in the nominal domain of heritage language grammars. A heritage language is understood as the weaker language of a simultaneous or sequential bilingual: the language that such an individual grew up hearing and possibly speaking, but one that is used significantly less than the other language in the bilingual dyad.

In investigating differences in linguistic behavior between native and heritage speakers, the null hypothesis holds that both groups possess the same grammar, but heritage speakers are constrained by a scarcity of online resources: their usage differs from that of natives due to the overwhelming processing load of speaking in a non-dominant language. Under the competing hypothesis, differences in performance are symptomatic of deeper, structural differences in the heritage grammar. This hypothesis can be further subdivided: there are two obvious forces that could lead to a diverging grammar. Representational economy: Heritage speakers may prioritize restructuring their grammar in favor of lighter-weight linguistic representations; this would create a preference for less articulated, more parsimonious structures (e.g., structures with fewer explicit agreement features and projections). However, simplifying representations decreases analyticity. Processing economy: Conversely, heritage speakers may restructure native grammars by prioritizing one-to-one correspondences between underlying features and stem forms; this would increase analyticity, eliminating ambiguity and the costs associated with resolving it.

I argue that changes in the matching of gender and number features on determiners and modifiers in several heritage languages, as compared to a monolingual baseline, cannot be accounted for by processing limitations alone. Instead, these changes instantiate grammatical restructuring observed throughout heritage grammars. Based on the principled nature of these changes, I also argue that the erosion of agreement and concord in heritage languages is undergirded by systematic reorganization of heritage grammars.