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Greetings from Kunming June 13, 2012

Posted by mikeopper in China, Individual Fellowship.
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Michael Opper

I write to you all from Kunming, China, where I am conducting preliminary dissertation research this summer for my PhD in linguistics at the University of Michigan. My trip has been funded though an Individual Fellowship through the U-M International Institute. In my humble opinion, Yunnan province, the Chinese province in which Kunming city is the capital, in southwest China is a paradise for two reasons. First, the weather is temperate all year round; most parts of Yunnan do not see snow in winter and temperatures seldom rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer. Second, Yunnan is home to twenty-eight of the fifty-six ethnic groups officially recognized by the Chinese government—each having distinctive attire, cuisine, and, most importantly for researchers in linguistics, unique languages.

My subfield of research within linguistics is generative phonology, the study of how sounds are patterned in the mind of language users. More specifically, I am interested in prosodic properties of languages such as syllables, stress, and tone. My research deals with how different languages use phonological units to form words and phrases. This line of work is called “Prosodic Morphology” which originated in a 1986 monograph of the same title coauthored by John McCarthy and Alan Prince. The framework of prosodic morphology has accounted for various phenomena in linguistics. I’ve provided an example in the next paragraph of an English word formation process which utilizes prosodic morphology.

English speakers often abbreviate long words to minimize redundant information. For instance, the University of Michigan is often referred to as UM, U of M, UMich, or UMichigan. These abbreviations are acceptable based on two linguistic factors. First, abbreviations must effectively index their long forms. We as English speakers get enough information from the abbreviated forms above to mentally access the concept of University of Michigan without any additional information. Second, abbreviations must obey certain prosodically determined rules. Consider the potential abbreviations—UniMich, UnMi, UniMichigan, verMich, or UniversityM. These forms are never used by English speakers in reference to the University of Michigan due to violations in the metrical requirements dictated by the prosodic morphology of English.

Mike at the gate of Yunnan University

For my dissertation, I intend to examine aspects of the prosodic morphology of a few languages in Yunnan. I am currently reading over sixty-six language surveys in search of theoretically-pertinent datasets. Most of the languages in Yunnan can be typologically classified as “monosyllabic.” For example, most units of meaning in the lexicon (mental dictionary of words in a language) are one syllable in length. Additionally, these languages have phonemic tone. This means that pronouncing the same syllable with a different pitch will yield a different meaning.

One of my advisers, San Duanmu, has already investigated some of these prosodic phenomena in Standard Chinese. For instance, Standard Chinese has a very strong prosodic preference such that a disyllabic verb tends not to take monosyllabic objects. Imagine if in English “John liked Sally” were grammatical, but “John likes Sally” were not grammatical. Luckily this preference does not hold for English!

Anyway, that’s all I have for the moment. More to come!



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