Saturday, March 23, 2019


I have been catching up on a show called Counterpart on cable TV (as of March 2019) with my daughter. Here is the premise, as summarized on Wikipedia: “Howard Silk has been working for a United Nations agency based in Berlin for thirty years; however, his rank is too low for him to be told what his work really involves. In fact, the agency oversees a crossing point to a parallel Earth (the "Prime world"), a copy of Silk's world. This crossing point was opened or created by East German scientists in 1987 and these two versions of Earth have been diverging ever since.”
A running theme of the show is to explain how counterparts become different from one another. For example, one Howard Silk is a calm, loving husband, with a low rank in the agency. The other Howard Silk got divorced long ago, and is an impatient, aggressive man with a much higher rank in the agency. But their lives only started to diverge after the crossing point was created.

Watching this show brings to mind a question that I have had for a number of years: if I had not been a syntactician, what would I have been? In other times and places, such a question would not have even come up. If your father were a carpenter, you would be a carpenter. But nowadays, there are a dizzying array of possibilities.

In spite of these apparent possibilities, does one really have a choice at all? Maybe the different choices are illusory. You can think about it as an equation: x2 – 1 = 0. There are two solutions to this equation: 1 and -1. Perhaps our career choice is like that. We are constrained by strong hidden forces, including our family background. Given these forces, we choose a career that is the optimal fit. There may be several choices, but ultimately all of them have to fit into the framework of our life, and the different choices may not really be that different at all.

Some equations have an infinite number of solutions. For example, the equation sin(x) = 0 has an infinite number of solutions of the form x = np where n is any natural number. Even though there are an infinite number of solutions, they are all similar to one another. You may have an infinite number of career choices, but how different are they from one another?

Is there some aspect of your personality that determines what subfield of linguistics you go into? What kind of personality traits do syntacticians have? When you meet a semanticist, does his or her personality seem similar to that of other semanticists?

Here is a potential study: Take 100 linguists who have just graduated from graduate school. Give each one a designation as syntactician, semanticist, phonologist, or whatever. Then ask them to fill out a questionnaire about their background and interests before they discovered linguistics. Based on the information in the questionnaire, is it possible to correlate subfield selection with some other non-linguistic interests or characteristics? For example, could there be some kind of link between mathematics (e.g., having a mathematician in the family) and linguistics or even syntax more specifically? Or are there no correlations at all, any combination at all being possible.

Another way to approach these questions would be through studies of identical twins separated at birth. In such studies, are the career choices of the twins correlated? Suppose that at least one person in the pair were a linguist. In what percentage of such cases would both twins be linguists? And if both twins were linguists, in what percentage would they choose the same subfield?

What about my specific case? Why am I a syntactician? What was the path that led to that choice, and could the path have been otherwise?

After high school, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota (UM) as a math major, and then transferred to MIT halfway through my sophomore year. I forget how I decided on math as a major, but it was probably a kind of default. I felt I could do it, and I needed a major, so I chose math. I don’t think I was ever really passionate about mathematics in the same way that I was later about syntax.

From my MIT transcript, it is clear that I was searching for courses related to cognition. The titles of the courses were: Artificial Intelligence, Psychoanalysis, Robot Manipulation, Cognition and Psycholinguistics, Cognitive Processes, Neuroscience and Behavior, Cognitive Science Lab, in addition to a few courses in computer science which were also relevant to my quest (e.g., I learned about Turing machines in one CS course). At some point, I also had a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity) with Jay Huff who worked on anomia. So I was looking around for something in the area of cognitive science.

In the second term of my junior year (Spring 1984), I took the course 9.401 Cognition and Psycholinguistics, which had a unit on syntax. I believe that this course was taught by Steven Pinker and Merrill Gerrit (at least I remember them being present). I also believe that is when I first got interested in syntax.  

Curiously, none of my courses at UM had anything to do with cognitive science or linguistics, even though I now know that there was linguistics at UM at that period (this would have been the Michael Kac, Gerald Sanders, John Hutchinson period). It seems likely that when I was at UM as an undergraduate, I did not know anything about linguistics, and would not have even thought to take a course in it.

Also, it seems that my interest in human cognition only really gained momentum once I arrived at MIT. Why? Perhaps I finally realized that math was not the path I wanted to follow, and I was falling back on earlier interests. Perhaps it was because of the atmosphere at MIT at the time, where a lot of cognitive science seemed to be taking place in various departments.

That summer (Summer 1984), I read through Andrew Radford’s Transformational Syntax (Cambridge University Press, 1981) in its entirety and worked through the exercises with a friend. After that, during Fall 1984, I took the graduate introduction to syntax (Syntax I with Ken Hale) at the same time as I took the introductory Study of Language (with Wayne O’Neil). And in Spring 1985, I took two more graduate syntax courses (one with Haj Ross on islands and one with Luigi Rizzi on the ECP). So I was definitely hooked, and had a fair amount of advanced syntax under my belt by the time I graduated.

After I graduated, I decided to go into the Peace Corps. I believe that the only preference I listed was that I wanted to go to a francophone country. I was assigned to Togo, where eventually I tried to learn Ewe. In learning Ewe, I became interested in serial verb constructions, and wrote up my notes. These notes then became my writing sample for graduate school. The Peace Corps experience has been essential to defining me as a linguist. During my career, I have been interested in fieldwork, and the syntax of typologically diverse languages. I am also interested in education in Africa. All of these interests originated in my Peace Corps experiences.

So what were the relevant choice points in my life, and how could I have made different choices, leading to different careers? If I had made a different choice, how much would it have mattered for my intellectual development?

I feel that if I had a counterpart, they would be doing something related to what I am doing now in the real world. Whatever choice I made, I would have eventually come to some destination that resonated with the larger forces governing my intellectual development. If my counterpart were a linguist, I am certain they would be doing syntax. And if somehow they made it into another subfield of linguistics, they would still have a strong interest in syntax. If they had not discovered linguistics, they would still be an academic, somehow shaped by my general background and interests.

For example, if I had not applied to the Peace Corps, I probably would have travelled to other countries in some other way. Attributing my interests to experiences in the Peace Corps seems circular, since maybe my interests are what lead me to the Peace Corps in the first place, and would have led me to similar experiences even without the Peace Corps. Rather, my decision to go into the Peace Corps amplified and articulated intellectual interests that I already had.

What if I had not been accepted to MIT as a graduate student? Somewhat strangely, I had also applied to NYU and was accepted there. I remember talking to Mark Baltin about secondary predicates (which I had probably connected up to serial verb constructions), and being impressed with his knowledge of syntax and his ability to address my questions. So if I had not gone to MIT, I would have gone to NYU, and my career path would have been nearly identical.

A bigger question is what would have happened had I not been accepted to MIT as an undergraduate, which I have always thought of as an amazing stroke of luck. How would I have managed at UM? Would I have eventually stumbled on cognitive science and linguistics there? Would the professors of UM have been as inspiring as the ones at MIT? Or would I have continued with mathematics, maybe branching out into logic and philosophy, and finding linguistics through that route? Or alternatively, would I now be an engineer at Honeywell (a well-know corporation based in Minnesota), doing natural language processing, and getting to syntax through that route?

I stumbled on my life’s interest by taking a wide variety of different courses after transferring to MIT as an undergraduate. I have always thought that syntax resonated with me because of my mathematical background and my interest in the human mind. It was a way for me to study the human mind, in a way that I found combinatorially appealing. So syntax was a solution to an equation defined by my background, my interests and the location where I found myself when I had to make such large life choices.

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