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Graduate Student Spotlight: Mary Moroney, PhD Student Linguistics

Mary Moroney Linguistics

"I think that it’s valuable to learn more about lesser-known languages, in order to make others more aware of the smaller linguistic communities found throughout the world. It also gives people insight into the vast array of languages that are actually spoken, beyond the handful of major ones most of us are exposed to."



Interviewed and edited by Javier Agredo, undergraduate student in Linguistics and Classics, Cornell Arts and Sciences

JA: What are you studying and what is your area of focus?

MM: I am a third-year PhD student in the Department of Linguistics. I broadly study syntax and semantics, and right now I’m focusing on looking at internally-headed relative clauses in Shan, a Tai-Kadai language spoken in Myanmar and nearby countries. Shan has internally-headed relative clauses, but the closely-related Thai does not. My research concerns why Shan has these and Thai doesn’t, as well as how this linguistic phenomenon compares with other languages. I’m also performing broader fieldwork on Shan to have context with which to answer this question.

JA: Could you tell me a bit about how you became interested in this language and the region it’s spoken in?

MM: I became interested in Shan through a class I took at Cornell during spring 2016 called Field Methods, in which linguistics students learn how to perform language fieldwork by observing and investigating a language that is less well-documented with the help of a native speaker who lives in the Ithaca area. It just so happened that our consultant that semester was a Shan speaker, and from working with her I gained interest in studying the language further. I was particularly interested the internally-headed clauses since most other languages in the Tai-Kadai language family do not have it.

JA: What is an internally headed relative clause and how does it play into your research of Shan and Thai?

MM: Thai and English both have relative clauses, with similar structures. For instance, in the English sentence “The book that Suzie bought is red,” the phrase “the book that Suzie bought” would be the relative clause. This same construction is found in Shan, but they additionally allow for a sentence structure that would be something like “the that Suzie bought book is red” in English, with roughly the same meaning as the grammatically correct English sentence. This sentence sounds as bad in Thai as it does in English, but is perfectly grammatically correct in Shan. This construction, which is not allowed in English and Thai, is the internally headed relative clause.

JA: What kind of research have you conducted?

MM: So to figure out what kind of questions to ask on the subject, I read through papers and books that people have written on internally headed relative clauses and other features relevant to the syntactic structure of Shan, in order to see what people have said about them and what kind of data they use to support their claims. For the fieldwork aspect, where you’re trying to get the linguistic data, there are a number of tasks I use to get the data I’m interested in, such as eliciting translations from my speaker, asking her if a sentence is grammatically correct, and testing to see whether a sentence can be used in a certain pragmatic context. Another method is to ask the speaker to tell a story in the language order to simulate natural, unprompted speech.

JA: What would you say is the significance of researching languages like Shan?

MM: I think that it’s valuable to learn more about lesser-known languages, in order to make others more aware of the smaller linguistic communities found throughout the world. It also gives people insight into the vast array of languages that are actually spoken, beyond the handful of major ones most of us are exposed to. For linguistics, it’s important to see where these smaller languages fit in the context of linguistic theory, especially considering that any language is still a language, no matter how widely spoken or well known it is, and can still contribute to our understanding of human language as a whole.

JA: How have you connected with SEAP at Cornell?

MM: I started taking Thai at Cornell at the beginning of this academic year. As a result of that, I have gotten into contact with SEAP. I have applied for a few fellowships and plan to participate in some of the events coming up (like Southeast Asia Language Week!).

JA: What are your future plans for your research?

MM: I’m going to Thailand for a conference in June, and I’m hoping to use the time that I’m there to make some contacts with native Shan speakers that live in the area, with the goal of doing fieldwork with a wider variety of speakers to corroborate my findings and look for any dialectal differences that may exist.