I started out in 1981 as an undergraduate math major at the University of Minnesota, and then transferred to MIT as a math major halfway through my sophomore year.
At MIT, I learned about syntax in an undergraduate psycholinguistics course, which was a lab requirement for graduation. There was a unit on syntax, and I was immediately hooked. It was exactly what I wanted to do. It combined my interest in the human mind with a mathematical kind of reasoning that appealed to me. So that is an argument for taking a wide range of classes as an undergraduate. You never know what will resonate. When you take a wide range of classes, you may stumble across something that you really love.
In the summer of 1984, I read through Andrew Radford’s Transformational Syntax (Cambridge University Press, 1981) in its entirety and worked through the exercises with a friend. I am very happy that I have had the chance to collaborate with Andrew in recent years. I learned a lot about basic syntactic argumentation from his wonderful textbook, and I learned even more when I worked with him later on.
After that, during my senior year as an undergraduate, there were syntax classes with Luigi Rizzi on the ECP, Ken Hale in Syntax I, Haj Ross on Islands and an introductory course called “The Study of Language” with Wayne O’Neil. I was hungry for syntax. I could not get enough of it. I was extremely lucky to be able to take courses early on with these brilliant and inspiring teachers.
They were great teachers in different ways. I remember Ken’s use of Navajo examples. He had many of them, and he did not use notes. He just had them memorized. I remember a guy in the back of the room asking difficult questions. He turned out to be Haj Ross. In his Islands course, Haj could go on about any syntax topic, bringing up endless interesting examples from English. Luigi Rizzi was the paradigm of a theory builder in the Principles and Parameters framework. At that point, he was developing Relativized Minimality, in contrast to Lasnik and Saito’s influential analysis of locality constraints. And as for Wayne, I still remember him talking about “fucking” in “Get off my fucking back.” I also remember learning about phonological rule ordering from his class, which blew my mind. My perspective on language and syntax was built up during these early formative years. I owe a great debt to all of them.
Then in 1985, I was off to the Peace Corps in Togo, where I taught math in a Lycee (mainly calculus at the Premiere and Terminale levels). I learned a lot of French and some Ewe. I was captivated by serial verb constructions (SVCs) in Ewe, and my interest in comparative syntax was born. My writing sample for MIT was on some basic things that I had noticed about SVCs in Ewe. I eventually wrote my dissertation on Ewe syntax, including a chapter on SVCs. I am still fascinated by them to this day.
After the Peace Corps, I worked for a year at Honeywell in Minneapolis, and then I started graduate school at MIT in Fall 1988, and took classes with Richard Larson, Ken Hale, James Higginbotham, Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle, Michael Kenstowicz, Wayne O’Neil, Irene Heim, Francois Dell, David Pesetsky, and Ken Stevens (in phonetics). And although Howard Lasnik did not teach at MIT, I would meet with him as often as I could when he came in for Noam’s lecture. Those years in Building 20 (from Fall 1988 to Spring 1993), when Chomsky-Halle-Hale were active together were the Golden Years of MIT, rivaling any period before or since.
My cohort at MIT included: Phil Branigan, Jill Gaulding, Bill Idsardi, Miori Kubo, Friederike Moltmann, Kumiko Murasugi and Hiroaki Tada. Because I did a year of fieldwork in Togo, I graduated one year after my cohort (in summer 1993) and ended up spending a lot of time with Akira Watanabe too (we shared an office one year). (linguistics.mit.edu/alumni/#1993)
Larson’s course on double objects and VP shells was one of my first courses at MIT. I thought to myself, “Can one really do this?” It seemed so different from other things I had seen. I was captivated by his theoretical fearlessness and his ability to argue for his positions. I was also impressed by his control of the literature, including very early literature (e.g., Chomsky 1957). There is no doubt in my mind that all current work in the minimalist framework on argument structure owes a large debt to Larson’s work. Also, I believe that it was one of the courses that had the biggest impact on my education.
I remember that once in Morris’ phonology course, he invited Ken to give a lecture on clicks. I am pretty sure that Ken had never interacted with a native speaker of a Khoisan language, yet he was able to produce the various click sounds. The story stands out in my mind because it shows how Morris regarded the department as an interlocking set of people with different talents and backgrounds with a common goal. For Morris it was clear that clicks were important to understanding human language and that Ken was the person to give that lecture. It is rare (perhaps even impossible) to find somebody as good at making a department a cohesive unit as Morris. I have never met somebody with a similar ability, not even close. This was his big contribution to the Golden Age, I think.
And of course the excitement of attending Noam’s courses is well-known. He was always clearly focused on theory construction, in a way no other linguist is. I learned what it is to build a theory of syntax from him. At that time, he was just starting the minimalist program. What he was lecturing on gave rise to new empirical vistas and new ways of looking at well known syntactic phenomena (e.g., the copy theory of movement and reconstruction phenomena). Students at that time were excited about what he was doing, and eager to apply it. So his intellect fed the excitement of the students, and their results fed directly into his thinking.
In graduate school at MIT, I returned to Togo to study Ewe for a year on a Fulbright (1990-1991, my third year), which led to my thesis “Topics in Ewe Syntax”, which was mainly about serial verb constructions and the morphological reflexes of successive cyclic movement in Ewe. My thesis committee consisted of Ken Hale (supervisor), Noam Chomsky and David Pesetsky. Once again, I feel lucky to have had three such exceptional syntacticians on my thesis committee. I learned a lot from each of them.
During graduate school, I met Jeff Gruber, who was a visiting scholar at MIT. He had graduated from MIT in 1965 in the first class (which included such giants as Partee, McCawley and Kirparsky, amongst others). During that year, I learned of his work on the Khoisan language =Hoan. My family stayed in Togo for a year, and so I had lots of time to talk with Jeff. Jeff is generally known for his work on theta-theory. His thesis on thematic relations was revolutionary. But what is often overlooked is that he did an important descriptive and theoretical study of =Hoan, a highly endangered Khoisan language of Botswana. He graciously made available all his field recordings (on reel to reel!) and boxes of field notes. This led to my work on =Hoan starting in 1996, which in turn lead to my work in Ju|’hoansi, N|uu, Sasi and Kua. My work on Khoisan continues to this day. Had I not run into Jeff at MIT, I would not have gone into Khoisan linguistics, which has been one of the major threads of my career.
Other linguists from whom I have learned valuable lessons about Khoisan linguistics include Tony Traill, Rainer Vossen, Willie Haacke, Levi Namaseb, Linda Gerlach, Amanda Miller, Bonny Sands, and Andy Chebanne.
In 1993, I started as an assistant Professor at Cornell University. I benefited from discussing syntax and linguistics, and co-teaching with the faculty there, including John Bowers, Vicki Carstens, Molly Diesing and Amanda Miller amongst others. In working with colleagues in a department, one tends to absorb a certain amount of knowledge about their research basically by osmosis (e.g., John B.’s work on argument structure, Vicki’s work on Kiswahili, Molly’s work on the syntax/semantics interface and Amanda’s work on the phonetics of Khoisan). This knowledge has come in useful to me at many points in my career.
In 2005, I moved to NYU (and was set back from full professor to associate professor, at least temporarily). Intellectually, I felt I needed a change, and NYU at the time had super strong syntax faculty, including Mark Baltin, Richard Kayne and Paul Postal. Almost immediately after arriving, I started collaborating with Paul Postal (see Collins, Moody and Postal 2008). Although we do not see eye-to-eye about many deep and important issues, he is an excellent syntactician, and I learned a lot from him about how to do syntax. I have also learned a lot about Arc Pair grammar (a version of Relational Grammar), which I have found useful in various ways in the work I have done.
Soon after I arrived at NYU, I created the African Linguistics School (ALS), which first took place in Accra, Ghana in 2009. I originally got the idea by hearing about EGG (Eastern Generative Grammar). I invited Enoch Aboh, Akin Akinlabi and John Singler to be co-organizers with me, since I knew that organizing such a school would be beyond the capabilities of a single person. Without a doubt, teaching at the ALS has been the most rewarding teaching experience of my career.
Some things that I am especially proud of in organizing the ALS are (a) the emphasis that I put on gender balance in the choice of faculty and students, (b) the formal semantic component of the school which I created and organized, and (c) the workshop on applying to graduate school that is held on the Sunday in the middle of the school. Mostly because of (c), we were very successful in helping high powered graduate students from Africa get into high powered North American and European graduate schools. I feel grateful to have been part of this school.
In 2012, I published an MIT Press monograph with Paul Postal on English expressions such as “the present author” which are 3rd person singular, but refer to the speaker. This monograph was a continuation of the themes started in Collins, Moody and Postal 2008, so we owe a debt of gratitude to Simanique for her role in the earlier work. We filled a monograph with data and generalizations that are mostly unknown in the field.
My experience writing about imposters has made me feel that even with the intense activity of the last 50 or so years, we have just begun to scratch the surface of English syntax. What we know about syntax (and language more generally) is just the tip of the iceberg, even for a well studied language like English.
Another monograph I wrote with Paul Postal is on NPIs and NEG Raising (2014, MIT Press). We defended a syntactic view of NEG Raising (in sentences like “I don’t think this course is interesting”) against the consensus semantic/pragmatic views. This work has given rise to a research project investigating negated quantifier phrases (not every person) and it has also led me back to working on Ewe with Paul Postal and Elvis Yevudey (‘Ewe and the Typology of NPIs’).
My work on negation along with my work on imposters and my work on the passive and ellipsis has made it clear to me how difficult it is to argue for a syntactic analysis over a semantic/pragmatic analysis for certain phenomena (and vice versa). I am slowly forming a point of view where semantics should be very simple and transparent and directly related to syntax. I call this point of view TUSC (Transparency and Uniformity of Semantic Composition). It serves as a kind of guiding light in my thinking about the syntax/semantics interface.
In 2016, I published a formalization of minimalist syntax with Ed Stabler. Minimalist syntax is simple enough that formalization is possible, and it is abstract enough that formalization will be helpful in understanding its basic concepts. I feel this work could trigger a lot of work testing predictions of various formulations of fundamental concepts in syntax (e.g., occurrence, Spell-out, derivation, etc.).
From the beginning, my research has focused on these intertwined threads: studies of African language syntax, studies of English syntax and studies on minimalist theory. How these strands relate, and the new research avenues they open up make my job continually interesting and challenging. I am eager to see what comes next. I am eager to enter the unlighted room, and to find the light switch, illuminating other doors to other unlighted rooms and other light switches.