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SU linguist lands coveted Humboldt Research Award

May 05, 2010

Rob Enslin
(315) 443-3403

Jaklin Kornfilt, professor of languages, literatures and linguistics (LLL) in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been elected recipient of the 2010 Humboldt Research Award. She was nominated by Klaus von Heusinger, the pre-eminent linguistics professor at the University of Stuttgart, where she will pursue two major projects from October 2010 to July 2011.

The award was granted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which promotes academic collaborations in Germany among the world’s top scholars and scientists.

kornfilt“We are extremely proud of Jaklin, who is one of the field’s leading scholars,” acknowledges Gerald Greenberg, associate professor and interim chair of LLL, as well as College of Arts and Sciences senior associate dean for the humanities and academic affairs. “Her groundbreaking research in Turkish syntax and morphology, as well as in cross-linguistic perspectives, has helped put our department on the map. The opportunity for her to work with specialists in Germany is important for her and for Syracuse University, and bodes well for future joint projects.”

Kornfilt will be affiliated with the Institute of Linguistics at the University of Stuttgart, where she will also be a guest of the Center of Linguistics and Cognition. With Heusinger, who leads the German section of the institute, Kornfilt will work on a project tentatively titled “Cross-Linguistic Syntax and Semantics of Specificity and Partitivity.”

Kornfilt explains the notion of “specificity” through an example. “Suppose someone says to you, in English, ‘I want to hire a Norwegian,’” she says. “The utterance has two distinct meanings. If the speaker has someone specific in mind—say her name is Astrid, and Astrid is Norwegian—the utterance has specific meaning. But if being Norwegian is conditional to being hired and the speaker doesn’t have a particular person in mind, you have non-specific meaning.”

Kornfilt points out that English does not distinguish between choice of words, their inflections and their order, when expressing these two distinct meanings. “A number of other languages, including Turkish, distinguish these meanings explicitly,” she says. “When the accusative case marker is attached to the end of the word corresponding to ‘Norwegian’ in Turkish, you have specific meaning. The same word, however, is bare when expressing non-specific meaning. This shows that Turkish, unlike English, has a morphological way to express specificity. A syntactic distinction is also made because the direct object expressing specific meaning is freely moveable, while the direct object carrying non-specific meaning is, by and large, fixed in pre-verbal position.”

She continues: “German, on the other hand, may be viewed as being typologically between English and Turkish because it distinguishes specific and non-specific noun phrases syntactically in ways quite similar to Turkish, but has no morphological expression for this notion.”

Kornfilt’s second project involves Artemis Alexiadou, an internationally respected professor in the English section of the institute. “We intend to look at contact phenomena between Anatolian dialects of Modern Greek and Turkish,” says Kornfilt. “A number of dialects spoken in Asia Minor [Anatolia] were heavily influenced by Turkish, morphologically and syntactically. Most of these dialects are endangered, with few speakers surviving in Greece.”

Kornfilt explains that standard Greek is a lot like English, in that neither language expresses specificity in its morphology and syntax. Anatolian Greek dialects, on the other hand, express specificity. “This project aims to study the exact ways in which these dialects express specificity and how those expressions are similar to or are different from expressions of specificity in Turkish,” she says. “The results will have important consequences for syntactic theory and for contact studies, in general.”

Alexiadou, who supported Kornfilt’s nomination for the award, was an invited speaker at a bilingualism workshop last fall at SU, organized by Arts and Sciences professors Tej Bhatia and Silvio Torres-Saillant and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Central New York Humanities Corridor, an interdisciplinary partnership with SU, Cornell University and the University of Rochester. At the workshop, Alexiadou talked about her work on contact phenomena between Greek and German. “I am excited to reconnect with Artemis, whose work is widely known internationally,” Kornfilt adds.

Since earning a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics at Harvard University in 1985, Kornfilt has made the leap from assistant professor to full professor at SU. Along the way, she has held visiting professorships at the University of Leipzig and Harvard University. Kornfilt has also served as a visiting scientist on both sides of the Atlantic—from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Radboud Nijmegen University in the Netherlands to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the universities of Konstanz and Frankfurt (on a Fulbright fellowship), all of the latter three in Germany.

Kornfilt has published two books (one singly authored and the other co-edited) and is currently working on a book about Turkish syntax. Also, she has published dozens of scholarly articles and chapters on theoretical syntax, syntactic typology and the Turkic languages. Kornfilt has organized many conferences and workshops, including several for the Mellon CNY Humanities Corridor, of which she is a charter faculty member. “Since its inception in 2005, Jaklin has been a driving force behind the linguistics initiatives of the Mellon CNY Humanities Corridor,” says Gregg Lambert, Dean’s Professor for the Humanities and director of both the SU Humanities Center and Mellon CNY Humanities Corridor. “She is a caring and insightful scholar who plays a leadership role in many of our local and regional events.”

Lambert adds that Kornfilt coordinates the corridor’s linguistics cluster, whose core faculty members include Arsalan Kahnemuyipour (SU), John Bowers and John Whitman (Cornell), and Jeff Runner and Greg Carlson (Rochester).

Much in demand, Kornfilt has been an invited speaker at the Altaic Formal Linguistics workshop series, which she founded with MIT professor Shigeru Miyagawa; the Mediterranean Syntax Meetings; and the International Conferences on Turkic Linguistics.

Named for the 19th-century German naturalist and explorer, the Humboldt Foundation enables more than 2,000 researchers from all over the world to spend time each year researching in Germany under various fellowship categories. As many as a hundred Humboldt Research Awards are granted each year. This prize is awarded to internationally renowned scientists and scholars whose fundamental discoveries, new theories or insights have a significant impact on their own discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future. The foundation maintains a network of more than 24,000 “Humboldtians” from all disciplines in more than 130 countries, including 43 Nobel Prize winners.

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