I’m a linguist.

I hold the position of Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at UMD.

NOTE: I am on sabbatical starting in the summer of 2020.

photo of Omer PremingerMy research interests span the linguistic sub-fields traditionally identified as syntax and morphology.

I work on phenomena that resist explanation in terms of sound and/or meaning. (If you are unfamiliar with linguistics, the very idea that such phenomena exist might strike you as a little bit counter-intuitive. But phenomena of this sort are surprisingly common in natural language!)

Modularity, and the difference between syntax and semantics

Lately, I have become particularly interested in issues of grammatical modularity. Specifically, I have come to believe that much of what passes for “syntax” these days is really semantics, masquerading as syntax. Or, if you prefer: semantics, obliquely described using the vocabulary of syntactic theory. The idea of a transparent, reliable mapping between syntax and semantics is an indispensable methodological heuristic. But in much of the current work in syntax and semantics, this methodological heuristic has been elevated, often implicitly, to the status of bona fide grammatical principle. Is this category change justified? I would argue not. (See here and here.) Not only that, it is counterproductive to research both in syntax and semantics. (On the latter, see here.)

As syntacticians, we can and should aim to do more than redescribing meaning using syntactic tools. Agreement and case represent two of the clearest yardsticks against which we can measure this. That’s because agreement and case are hierarchy-sensitive phenomena that, nevertheless, cannot be reduced to interpretation. Thus, they provide an ideal window into that which is quintessentially syntactic. If your theory gets the meaning right, but not agreement and case, then what you have on your hands is a theory of semantics, not a theory of syntax.

A non-semiotic approach to language

I have also been thinking a lot about the nature of the atoms of linguistic computation. Traditional lexicalist notions (like word, or even morpheme) have proven inadequate for capturing the relation between syntax and morphophonology: it turns out that syntactic terminals align with neither “words” nor exponents. Hence the need for more sophisticated approaches to the syntax-morphophonology mapping, such as Distributed Morphology or Nanosyntax. While it is less often remarked upon, lexicalist notions are every bit as inadequate when it comes to the relation between syntax and semantics.

The solution I propose is to reject once and for all the semiotic underpinnings upon which linguistic theory has traditionally been built. Plainly put, syntactic atoms are neither pronounced nor interpreted, in the general case. Syntactic atoms certainly form the basis for the mapping to morphophonology, but that mapping is far from transparent. They also form the basis for the mapping to semantics, but that mapping is also far from transparent. Most importantly, the two mappings are not always idiosyncratic in the same ways, or even in the same places.

The idea that “morphemes have meanings” and/or “meanings have spellouts” is thus a misapprehension. It is on a par with a claim like “the form of the English past-tense is fully regular”: it might be true for a large tract of cases, but it is categorically false as it regards the design of the underlying system. (And the degree to which it successfully approximates the truth is likely an artifact of learning pressures, in both cases.) In reality, morphemes are context-sensitive spellouts of bits of syntactic structure, and meanings are context-sensitive interpretations of bits of syntactic structure. Sometimes, those bits even align! But that is, at best, a tendency. And so we shouldn’t let it mislead us about the nature of the underlying system.

Some other topics I am interested in are:

  • predicate-argument agreement
  • nominal case
  • the Person Case Constraint (PCC)
  • clitic doubling
  • head movement
  • ergativity

I work on various (and often unrelated) languages, including: Basque, Kaqchikel, Icelandic, English, Hebrew, Sakha, Q’anjob’al, Kinyarwanda, Shi, Oromo, and Georgian.

See my research page for further details.

And now, a linguistic Dinosaur Comic:

dinosaur comic

(made using the blank Dinosaur Comic template, available here)

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