Program Description

Fields of Study

The graduate program focuses on linguistics as a cognitive and social science. We offer strong theoretical grounding in phonetics, phonology, syntax, and semantics, as well as the opportunity to investigate the intersection of these subfields with language contact, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, psycholinguistics, and computational linguistics. Students are encouraged to formulate and test theories of speakers' linguistic knowledge, and theories of linguistic variation and use, drawing on observational, experimental, and computational methods.

The program at Michigan takes a strongly interdisciplinary approach. Thus, in addition to the six research areas described below, the research agendas of many faculty and students bridge these areas (as is apparent from descriptions of faculty research interests and recent Ph.D. theses). 

Computational Linguistics

Steven Abney specializes in computational linguistics, particularly parsing and language learning. Ezra Keshet has interests in computational semantics. Drago Radev (School of Information and Linguistics) specializes in computational linguistics in information systems, especially summarization and question answering. Richmond Thomason (Philosophy and Linguistics) has interests in natural language generation and dialogue systems. Richard Lewis (Psychology and Linguistics) studies computational models of human sentence processing.

Historical Linguistics

Among the themes of faculty members' historical linguistic interests are sound change, methods and practice in establishing language families, language contact and the relation between language change and cognitive and social factors. Sally Thomason specializes in changes resulting from language contact; she also studies deliberate linguistic changes and (mainly from a skeptical viewpoint) proposals for long-distance relationships. Bill Baxter specializes in Chinese historical linguistics; he also has strong interests in questions of distant linguistic relationships. Pam Beddor, primarily a phonetician, investigates phonetic routes to sound change. Steve Dworkin is a historical Romance linguist, with a special emphasis on processes of lexical change. Ben Fortson specializes in Indo-European linguistics. Acrisio Pires, primarily a formal syntactician, investigates syntactic change in connection with language acquisition. Robin Queen, a sociolinguist, focuses on interactions among language contact, language ideology, and language change. The historical linguistics group in the Department is augmented and strengthened by research on language history being carried out by other faculty in this and other departments at the university, as well as by faculty in neighboring universities.

Phonetics and Phonology

The research interests of the phonetics and phonology faculty converge in relating phonological (cognitive) representations to their physical instantiation, and in the experimental investigation of spoken language. San Duanmu specializes in phonology, with a focus on using quantitative or corpus data to evaluate phonological entities, such as segments, features, and syllables, both within and across languages. Patrice Beddor and Jelena Krivokapić specialize in phonetic theory. Beddor's current research investigates the production and perception of coarticulation and their consequences for sound change. Krivokapić studies speech prosody; she investigates the relation between prosodic representation and articulation, acoustics, and perception. Andries Coetzee's work straddles the boundary between phonological and phonetic theory, with a particular focus on the relation between perception and production. All four faculty also have special interests in variation, which are shared by intonation specialist Robin Queen. The Department's historical linguists provide further phonological expertise to our curriculum. Colleagues from other departments with interests in speech and phonological processing include Julie Boland and Ioulia Kovelman (Psychology), Greg Wakefield (Computer Science & Engineering), and faculty at the Kresge Hearing Research Institute.

Psychology of Language

Research in this domain falls into two primary areas: sentence comprehension and language acquisition and processing across the lifespan. The research on comprehension (Jon Brennan, Julie Boland, Richard Lewis) focuses primarily on syntactic parsing and its relationship to lexical and semantic processes. These cognitive processes are studied using multiple experimental techniques (e.g., eye-tracking, reaction time paradigms, electroencephalography/EEG, magnetoencephalography/MEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging/fMRI) and computational modeling. Research in the psychology of language across the lifespan investigates first and second language acquisition and bilingualism in children and adults (Sam Epstein, Carmel O'Shannessy, Acrisio Pires) and the relationships among language, social and cognitive factors in aging (Deborah Keller-Cohen). Faculty from other departments with related interests include Nick Ellis, Susan Gelman, Ioulia Kovelman, Frederick Morrison, Thad Polk, and Twila Tardif (all from Psychology), and Diane Larsen-Freeman (the English Language Institute and School of Education).

Sociolinguistics, Language Contact and Discourse Analysis

These overlapping subfields of linguistics examine language variation and language use, with a concern for developing theoretical insights into the ways that situations, identities and macro-level social, cultural, and political factors relate to beliefs about language, to language structure and use and to theories of language.  Sociolinguistics, which relies on both quantitative and qualitative analysis, covers a broad range of topics, including bi- and multilingualism, language variation and change, language attitudes, ideologies about language and language standardization (Carmel O'Shannessey, Robin Queen). Language Contact covers multilingualism, language change, pidgins and creoles and the effect that contact among people has on linguistic structure and language use (Marlyse Baptista, Carmel O'Shannessy, Robin Queen, Sarah Thomason).  Discourse analysis focuses on the qualitative and corpus-based analysis of spoken and written texts (Deborah Keller-Cohen).  Faculty working in these areas share interests in sociophonetics that overlap with colleagues in phonetics and historical linguistics and in syntax that overlap with colleagues in theoretical syntax and semantics. Faculty from other departments with related interests include Bruce Mannheim, Judith Irvine, Webb Keane, Barbara Meek, and Alaina Lemon (Anthropology), Anne Curzan (English), Renee Anspach (Sociology), and Lesley Rex (Education).

Syntax and Semantics

The faculty specializing in syntax and semantics share an interest in developing explanatory, restrictive theories of human syntactic and semantic knowledge. Epstein and Pires are primarily generative/minimalist syntacticians. Epstein has focused extensively on the development of derivational approaches to syntactic relations in minimalist syntax. Pires conducts research on Minimalism and comparative syntax, and has also focused on theoretical and experimental investigation of the connections between generative/minimalist syntax, language acquisition and syntactic change. In addition to their related research interests, Epstein and Pires have co-chaired several Ph.D. dissertations. Ezra Keshet conducts research in semantics; his work interfaces with syntax, pragmatics, discourse and he is also interested in computational semantics. Marlyse Baptista uses the generative/Minimalist linguistics framework to study various issues in creole languages, including the syntax and semantics of bare nouns and DPs, complementizers and pro-drop phenomena. Jon Brennan conducts experimental research in neurolinguistics with a focus on syntax, semantics and their interface. Jon Brennan, Rick Lewis and Julie Boland develop and test psycholinguistic and computational theories of syntactic, semantic and lexical information flow during sentence processing. Each one of the faculty members in the syntax-semantics research group has strong interdisciplinary outlook. Daniel Seely (Eastern Michigan University), Hisatsugu Kitahara (Keio University, Japan) both carry out research in Minimalism syntax, and are also regular visitors in the department, working closely with the faculty and students interested in syntax the department.