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Puzzling Over the Complexities of Language

Hagit Borer: “I think language offers us a unique window into the structure of cognition and the brain in general, because it is so accessible.”

Photo by Irene Fertik

THERE ARE COMPLEX phenomena happening around us all the time that we take for granted: Objects fall to the ground when we drop them, the sun rises and sets every day, and children learn to speak a language.

It is only when we ask why these things happen that we make conceptual leaps, said Hagit Borer, professor of linguistics.

For Borer, who joined the linguistics department last year but was on leave until this past fall, the task of linguistics is to understand the phenomenon known as language.

“I think language offers us a unique window into the structure of cognition and the brain in general, because it is so accessible,” said Borer, who is trained as a formal syntactician but whose research also focuses on language acquisition.

“Language is all around us. However, when we stop taking it for granted and start asking questions about it, we realize that it is very complex, and that is when conceptual leaps in our understanding are potentially made.”

She believes such a leap was made by Noam Chomsky, who asked the question: Given the complexity of language and the confused nature of input to a child, how is it possible children learn to speak?

In her research, Borer has sought to answer various aspects of this question. She belongs to a school of thought that considers language as a biological human faculty, something for which we are biologically predisposed. She notes that children acquire language properly, although adults around them do not always speak in complete, well-formed sentences.

“When people speak, there are often interruptions and false starts. I may cough in the middle of a sentence and the child is not going to mistake the cough as part of the sentence,” Borer explained. “So how do they learn what is a well-formed sentence when there is no direct relationship between what they hear around them and what they end up doing?”

Borer received a $281,000 National Science Foundation grant to seek answers to this question. In her study, “The Maturation of Grammar,” she and K. Wexler, then at UC Irvine, looked at how language development in children is a function of biological maturation.

“We know that there are well-documented stages in the development of language. The question is what determines the particular schedule, and there are various possibilities,” Borer said. “We explored the possibility that the order (of language development) is biological. We sought to link changes in the brain to the development of particular linguistic abilities as they are applicable to syntax.”

In a later study, funded through a faculty research grant from the University of Massachusetts, Borer looked at how adults learn a second language. The issues are different from those for children, because adults have a grammatical structure in place.

“We already know that adults learn language with more difficulty than children. The question is whether you learn a second language the same way as the first language, only a little bit more slowly, or, possibly, by using an altogether different learning mechanism.”

BORER IS THE AUTHOR of Parametric Syntax: Case Studies in Semitic and Romance Languages (Foris Publications, 1984) and editor of The Syntax of Pronominal Clitics, Syntax and Semantics Vol. 19 (Academic Press, 1986). She has published nearly 50 journal articles.

Her book in progress, Parallel Morphology (MIT Press), posits a new way of looking at the relationship between syntactic structures and word structure.

While most people assume that the syntactic properties of a word, such as a particular verb, derive from its meaning, Borer’s approach is that the overall meaning of a word is largely determined by its syntactic and morphological environment. “I think we know the syntax first, which helps us understand the specific words, rather than the other way around,” she said.

Borer, a native of Israel who grew up in Jerusalem, earned her bachelor’s degree in literary theory from Tel-Aviv University, Israel, in 1977, and her Ph.D. in linguistics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981.

Before joining USC, Borer was a professor of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, since 1990. Before that, she was an associate professor of linguistics at UC Irvine. Borer has worked stints as a visiting professor at USC and such institutions as Tel-Aviv University, Israel; University College, London; the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the University of Vienna; North-western University; and Tilburg University, the Netherlands.

Borer was attracted to USC by the prospect of working with Joseph Aoun, dean of the faculty of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and professor of linguistics, to develop a concentration in Semitic languages in the linguistics department. She is organizing a conference, “The Syntax of Semitic Lan-guages,” to be held May 1-3.

Linguistic issues in Semitic languages – a relatively new area of research that has only become prominent in the past 10 years – is “something that’s very dear to me,” Borer said. “It’s one place we can make a difference.”

Puzzling Over the Complexities of Language

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