2 min read
Ten second summary:
Familiar and new features of lesser known languages inform how we understand language as a whole.
Emily Gasser's interest in linguistics started with taking several language courses in high school and noticing groups of similarities and differences across languages. She decided on a linguistics major after a Swarthmore First Year Seminar experience. The field of modern linguistics explores possible forms of human languages and develops theories regarding why languages look or don't look a particular way.
Emily explores these questions by studying the Austronesian language of Wamesa with an estimated 5000 native speakers remaining. Since little is known about the language, and it was almost entirely undocumented prior to Emily's PhD dissertation, her research focuses on documenting phonology and morphology of Wamesa and drawing connections to related language. Emily identified three unusual features of Wamesa rarely found in related languages: noun phrase word order, changes in sound patterns that do not apply to the larger sound groups, and infixation. As Emily continues to explore features of the Wamesa language, she plans to compare Wamesa to similar languages in the region and determine how well Wamesa matches with larger linguistic theories about human languages. Current research challenges include a lack of data for comparative studies and numerous competing theories for language features.
In teaching linguistics, Emily encourages and teaches students to become good pattern matchers by looking at data and recognizing common rules. In native languages, these rules are often learned subconsciously, so Emily encourages students to become more introspective of their native language in addition to applying their new skills to previously unseen languages.