Language enables humans to express an infinite range of ideas for a diversity of purposes. My research explores the nature of this creative potential through the detailed investigation of individual languages. As a syntactician, I seek to understand what speakers know about the rules of sentence construction in their language. And as a semanticist, I seek to understand how they combine this knowledge with what they know about meaning in their language. My current research focuses on two indigenous languages of North America — Northern Paiute (Numu) and a group of southeastern Sierra Zapotec varieties (Dille'xhunh) — though I have a longstanding interest in Persian and other Iranian languages. By comparing these languages to others, it is possible to uncover how speakers use the grammatical resources of their language to create meaningful utterances.
One strand of my research explores the principles that govern how meaningful discourse is created. Just as there are rules dictating how words fit together into a sentence, there are conventions governing how sentences fit together in a conversation or a written text. What are these conventions, and how do they interact with the conventions of language? In recent work, I have been exploring how languages' temporal systems — including tense and aspect — contribute to the construction of narratives (see this paper and this paper on present tense in English, this paper on tenselessness and narrative discourse in Zapotec, and this paper on clause chaining in Northern Paiute). This connects with my work on information structure categories like focus, how these categories are processed in on-line comprehension (as in a recent paper), and how lexical expressions of parallelism and contrast make reference to them (represented by a paper on but and a paper on gapping).
Another strand of my research explores the grammatical representation of reference. All languages have pronouns that enable speakers to talk about themselves, other discourse participants, or other people or things. In many Zapotec languages, animacy — how alive or human something is — plays a central role in their pronoun systems and how speakers are able to refer to things in the world. Some recent papers, including new manuscripts on nominal intervention and the semantics of animacy, examine the internal structure and external syntax of pronouns in several Sierra Zapotec varieties. Other recent papers examine how the distribution of pronouns in a sentence is shaped by their rich animacy system (see this paper and this paper). This line of investigation is related to my earlier work on nominal structure in Northern Paiute (as represented by a paper on deverbal nominalization).
My research, as well as my teaching and service, activities are also directed towards creating knowledge with and for language communities. In part, this involves making language resources available and useful to native speakers and language learners. I maintain an online audio dictionary and text database for the Mono Lake and other varieties of Northern Paiute as well as for Santiago Laxopa Zapotec. These fully searchable web interfaces can be used by community members for learning or teaching their language, as well as by linguists for answering research questions. In addition, I have been involved in the organization of Nido de Lenguas, a series of events for the public to learn about the indigenous languages of Oaxaca, sponsored in collaboration with the local nonprofit organization Senderos. These events include language camps, regular Zapotec language classes, and pop-ups at local cultural festivals.