Assistant Professor Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine from the NUS Department of English Language and Literature was recently granted the FASS Award for Promising Researcher (APR). This award is presented to researchers who have produced research that shows potential impact and promise.
Dr Erlewine’s research aims to investigate various linguistic phenomena in a variety of languages in Southeast Asia. A linguistic theorist who works with original empirical data, he has published five articles, three as sole-author and two as first and second author, respectively, in prestigious international journals (Language, Linguistic Analysis, Semantics and Linguistic Theory, and the Journal of East Asian Linguistics) on the theme, “Comparative grammar in Southeast Asia”. Four of these articles deal with a language significantly underrepresented in Theoretical Linguistics and all of them relate patterns in these languages (Mandarin, Burmese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Toba Batak) to those in other, unrelated languages so as to explain fundamental properties of the human linguistic system. Moreover, Dr Erlewine was recently awarded a Tier 2 Ministry of Education grant of S$ 475,000 for his project, “Subjecthood in Southeast Asia: Description and Theory”. Visit Dr Erlewine at his personal website: https://mitcho.com.
We congratulated Dr Erlewine and spoke to him about his research work.
Manuscript in Toba-Batak language, central Sumatra, early 1800s, Robert C. Williams Paper Museum
What initially drew you to the field of Theoretical Linguistics and specifically the research of understudied Asian languages?
I became interested in linguistics when it was introduced to me by my high school French teacher. As I grew up bilingual in English and Japanese, and was always active in studying math and science, she recognized that it might be something I would enjoy studying. She was right. My own work within linguistics investigates how different languages form sentences and express meanings in a systematic way, using mathematical tools of pattern description. The use of formal models allows for a precision in the theories that we develop, which leads to testable predictions which we can verify in the behavior of different languages of the world.
A major question in theoretical linguistics is an understanding of in what ways and to what extent human languages differ in their grammars. However, much of this work has been driven by comparisons between languages of Europe and major languages of East Asia (Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). Southeast Asia is home to many languages which are historically underrepresented in such theoretical debates. My goal is to highlight the theoretical relevance of these languages to these broader questions, as well as showing what new theoretical questions of global interest are motivated by these languages.
'Danger - Keep Out!' from SRN's SG Photobank
What do you find most interesting about the languages used in Singapore, and in Southeast Asia as a whole?
Singapore has an incredibly rich linguistic history. The national languages of English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil are all of different major language families of the world, and their sister languages spoken in Singapore and the region also offer many possibilities for in-depth comparisons. A particularly interesting reflex of this history are the various contact languages of Singapore — languages such as Baba Malay, Kristang, and Singlish — all products of the intense contact between different peoples and languages. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the Kristang community here in Singapore and also investigate the grammar of Singlish. Languages such as Singlish which have lower social prestige are often described as lacking grammar, but a careful investigation shows that they are subject to systematic rules, just like other languages.
My research involves fieldwork in the region, but I also work with many speakers of different languages right here in Singapore. As an economic hub in Southeast Asia, there are communities of speakers of many regional languages who have moved to Singapore to attend school or to work. In part in collaboration with students, I’ve had the opportunity to work with speakers of Toba Batak (Indonesia), Bikol (Philippines), Burmese, and Nepali in Singapore, just to name a few.
With Atayal teacher in Taiwan, 2008
What is/are your memorable fieldwork experience(s)?
The most memorable aspects of fieldwork are interactions with individual people. One of my first fieldwork experiences was studying Atayal, an endangered, indigenous language of Taiwan. I met regularly with an elder in the village, who offered to teach me Atayal and cooperate with my research questions. Later I asked him why he was willing to spend so much time sharing his language with me. He noted that fewer and fewer people are speaking Atayal, and someday in the future perhaps no speakers will remain. If by helping to teach Atayal to a foreigner and cooperate with their research, more people around the world can come to learn about the Atayal people’s unique language and culture, that would make him proud, and that is why he agreed to work with me. These words have stuck with me and continue to inspire me to work with speakers of understudied and endangered languages.
Tibetan temple in Dharamsala, India
What is/are the most intriguing language(s) you have studied?
I think every language that I have had the fortune of studying is fascinating in its own way, but recently I’ve spent a lot of time learning about Tibetan. A notable feature of Tibetan and many related languages is their use of different verb forms when describing an argument of that event. For example, in Tibetan, “the thing that was eaten,” “the person who ate,” “the place where someone ate,” and “the tool that someone ate with” are all expressed by different versions of the basic verb form for “eat,” with different suffixes. While the basic use of these different forms have been well documented in the past, new data that I collected last summer among the Tibetan community in north India shows that we have to rethink how we describe and think about these suffixes.
Among which languages have you found surprising commonalities?
A surprising and striking similarity that I’ve found — together with collaborators Ted Levin (recent postdoc at NUS) and Coppe van Urk (Queen Mary University of London) — is that the grammar of a language of South Sudan, Dinka, has much in common with the grammars of Austronesian languages of Southeast Asia.
The Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world, and comprises many of the languages of island Southeast Asia and the Pacific, including Malay, Tagalog/Filipino, and Hawaiian. A distinctive feature of many of these languages is a grammatical system which privileges the “subject” argument in various ways. For example, only the subject can be questioned: the equivalent of the subject question “Who ate the cake?” is fine, but “What did Mary eat?” is strange, instead requiring passivation first: “What was eaten by Mary?” The special grammatical status of the subject is also reflected in differences in word order and morphology.
Coppe van Urk’s original investigation of Dinka shows that Dinka privileges the subject argument in exactly the same ways. Moreover, these similarities extend to the morphological form of verbs and nouns in the different types of sentences which take different arguments as their subjects.
This type of connection and collaboration is made possible through the framework of theoretical linguistics, which allows us to describe abstract grammatical relationships that underlie the structure of sentences, across genetically unrelated language families. This comparison informs both to the study of Dinka itself and of these many Austronesian languages, and helps us understand the ways in which languages do and do not vary around the world.
Map of Austronesian languages
Which research finding(s) are you most proud of?
In a couple of recent projects, I’ve found that this requirement of Austronesian languages to privilege the subject is not exceptionless. In Toba Batak, a minority language of Indonesia spoken by the Batak people of northern Sumatra, I found that if one noun is questioned or focused, it must be the subject, but it is also possible to question or focus the subject and object at the same time — but still not the object alone. To my knowledge no previous work on any Austronesian language has demonstrated such patterns, and it runs counter to the widely established expectation that only subjects can be questioned or focused. This surprising ability to simultaneously question or focus both the subject and object helps us better understand the nature of this originally stated subject privilege itself. My hunch is that such patterns are not actually impossible in related languages, but that they’re rare and haven’t been systematically investigated.
My work on Toba Batak was published in Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America and one of the widest read journals in Linguistics. Preliminary findings from this work also led to my current grant on “Subjecthood in Southeast Asia” (MOE Tier 2), which further investigates the grammatical notion of “subjecthood” in different languages of Singapore and Southeast Asia.
What future research project(s) do you have in mind?
A major research project that I’ve recently begun is the study of the diverse use of question words like “who” and “what”. We naturally think of such words as linked to question meanings, but many languages also use question words to express other quantificational meanings. I am interested in how these meanings are systematically expressed, especially when question words are combined with logical words and connectives like “only,” “even,” and “or”. This project will involve both typological work on as well as original, in-depth investigations of such constructions in languages of the region. The goal is a unified theory that can explain the range of variation observed in the use of question words across the world’s languages.
Lastly, which languages and fieldwork sites do you most want to study and visit, but haven’t yet had the opportunity?
I’ve been interested for some time in the languages of Borneo and Sulawesi. Each of these land masses have a great diversity of Austronesian languages which are still very understudied. The comparison of these languages to better studied Austronesian languages of Indonesia (of Java and Sumatra) and the Philippines will help us better understand the range of grammatical diversity within Austronesian languages, as well as the historical connections between these language groups. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to start learning about some of these languages!
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Michael! And congratulations again on being awarded Promising Researcher!