Kyle Rawlins

Associate Professor, Cognitive Science Department


Mathematical properties of natural language.

I am interested in mathematical characterizations of properties of natural languages. For instance, it is an open question whether English is in the class of context-free languages, though it is generally believed that some natural languages (e.g. Zurich Swiss German) are not context free. Geoff Pullum and I have a recent paper in Linguistics and Philosophy discussing a potential argument for non-context-freeness from the “X or no X” construction, an apparent case of syntactic reduplication. If there were a syntactic identity constraint on the two Xs, this would ensure that (the syntax of) English is not context free. However, we show that the relevant constraint is semantic, not syntactic.

The semantics of definite descriptions and possessives

A long-standing interest is definite descriptions, especially “of”-possessives (the side of the cube, the sister of a famous linguist). This construction is unusual on both familiarity and uniqueness theories of definite descriptions — it seems to be exceptional on standard formulations of either. It can, in some cases, appear in existential constructions and antecede donkey pronouns. I have a paper in the WCCFL 25 proceedings, and several manuscripts.

Iroquoian Languages

I have a continuing interest in the structure of Iroquoian languages, especially Mohawk; my work in this area has centered on the prosody of Lake Iroquoian languages. My qualifying paper explores the stress/epenthesis interaction in Mohawk, which is notoriously complex. The classical derivational analysis (due to Postal and Michelson) involves a significant amount of opacity, and this has been extremely challenging to deal with in constraint-based frameworks. Previous constraint-based analyses have tended to rely on highly non-standard assumptions: empty nuclei, discontinuous feet, and free moras. I show that the complicated set of data can follow straightforwardly if Mohawk is actually a moraic trochaic system, with feet alternating between a single heavy syllable and a light-light trochee.

While I have done little semantic work on Mohawk, this is part of my longer-term research plans.