I started out in 1981 as an undergraduate math major at the University of Minnesota, and then transferred to MIT halfway through my sophomore year.
At MIT, I learned about syntax in an undergraduate psycholinguistics course. 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.
In the summer of 1984, I read through Andrew Radford’s Transformational Syntax in its entirety and worked through the exercises with a friend. I am very happy that I have had the chance to collaborate with Radford in recent years.
After that, during my senior year, 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 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. 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 his Relativized Minimality work, 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 learned a lot of French and some Ewe. I was captivated by serial verb constructions in Ewe, and my interest in comparative syntax was born. My writing sample to MIT was on some basic things that I had noticed about SVCs. I eventually wrote my dissertation on Ewe syntax.
I started graduate school at MIT in 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). Those years in Building 20, when Chomsky-Halle-Hale were active together were the Golden Years of MIT.
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. 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.
I remember that once in Morris’ phonology course, he invited Ken to give a lecture on clicks. I am pretty sure that Ken 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. 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.
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. I had a great sense of excitement in attending his classes. What he was lecturing on gave rise to new empirical vistas and new ways of looking at well known syntactic phenomena.
In graduate school at MIT, I returned to Togo to study Ewe for a year on a Fulbright (1990-1991), 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.
During graduate school, I met Jeff Gruber, who was a visiting scholar, and learned of his work on the Khoisan language =Hoan. Jeff is generally known for his work on theta-theory, but what is often overlooked is that he did a monumental 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.
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. We filled a monograph with data and generalizations that are mostly unknown in the field. This makes 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). We defended a syntactic view of NEG Raising against the consensus semantic/pragmatic views. This work has given rise to a series of papers expanding on the analysis of negation, NPIs and NEG Raising outlined in CP2014 and Paul’s earlier work. It has also led me back to working on Ewe (‘Ewe and the Typology of NPIs’).
My work on negation along with my work on imposters, has made it clear to me how difficult it is to argue for a syntactic analysis over a semantic/pragmatic analysis for certain phenomena. I am slowly forming a point of view where semantics should be very simple and transparent and directly related to syntax.
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 to me make my job continually interesting.