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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

What's in a Word?

SU's Jaklin Kornfilt uses Humboldt Award to advance basic research in linguistics

Oct. 27, 2011, by Rob Enslin

Helmut Schwarz, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, presents Jaklin Kornfilt with the Humboldt Research Award at a special ceremony in Bamberg, Germany.
Helmut Schwarz, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, presents Jaklin Kornfilt with the Humboldt Research Award at a special ceremony in Bamberg, Germany.

The great medieval ruler Charlemagne once proclaimed that “to have a second language is to have a second soul.” No doubt he subscribed to the long-held belief that language shaped the way people thought.

That changed in the 1960s, when renowned linguist Noam Chomsky argued that all languages shared a “universal grammar” with common structural properties. Specifically, he envisioned a system that was hard-wired into the human mind, with thought being independent from language. By arguing in favor of these assumptions, Chomsky saw himself a successor to the traditions of René Descartes, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and other 17th- and 18th-century rationalist philosophers.

None of this was lost on Jaklin Kornfilt, who encountered such rationalist leanings as an undergraduate at Heidelberg University in Germany. When it came time to pursue graduate studies in theoretical linguistics at Harvard University, she had the good fortune of working with Chomsky at nearby M.I.T. “It was an exciting time,” she recalls, between sips of tea in Syracuse University’s Hall of Languages. “I guess you can say that the experience turned me into a ‘Chomskyian theorist.’ It laid the groundwork for what I’m doing today.”

When Chomsky opened the door to new ways of thinking about language, Kornfilt and others darted inside. A faculty member in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences since 1983, she has probed several of the world’s 7,000-plus languages, and has uncovered considerable evidence supporting Chomsky’s claims. Her groundbreaking research in Turkish and German syntax and morphology has not only put SU on the linguistics map, but also conferred international visibility and renown on the otherwise unassuming scholar. Case in point: Kornfilt was the recipient of the 2010 Humboldt Research Award, one of the highest honors in the academy. Designed to promote academic collaborations in Germany among the world’s top scholars and scientists, the prize enabled Kornfilt to spend two semesters at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. “The opportunity to work with specialists in Germany is important for me and for Syracuse University. It bodes well for future joint projects,” she told me, before leaving a year ago. “I am honored to have been chosen.”

“We are extremely proud of Jaklin, whose receipt of the Humboldt Research Award brings great honor to herself and to The University,” says Arts and Sciences Dean George M. Langford. “As a ‘Humboldtian,’ Jaklin joins the ranks of the world’s most important and innovative researchers, many of whom are Nobel Prize winners. Her appointment also speaks volumes about the importance of multinational, collaborative research—not only in the sciences, but also in the humanities.”

By all accounts, the Humboldt appointment met, if not exceeded expectations. From November 2010 to July 2011, Kornfilt thrived in Stuttgart’s well-known Institute of Linguistics, where she was a special guest of the Center of Linguistics and Cognition. Along with Klaus von Heusinger, a Stuttgart linguist who nominated her for the award, she worked on an intriguingly titled project: “Cross-Linguistic Syntax and Semantics of Specificity and Partitivity.”  

Kornfilt explains the notion of “specificity” through an example: “Suppose someone says to you, in English, ‘I want to hire a Norwegian.’ The utterance has two distinct meanings. If the speaker has someone specific in mind—say her name is Astrid, and Astrid is Norwegian—the utterance has specific meaning. But if being Norwegian is conditional to being hired and the speaker doesn’t have a particular person in mind, you have non-specific meaning.”

She points out that English does not distinguish between choice of words, their inflections, and their order, when expressing these two distinct meanings. “A number of languages, including Turkish, distinguish these meanings explicitly,” says Kornfilt. “When the accusative case marker is attached to the end of the word corresponding to ‘Norwegian’ in Turkish, you have specific meaning. The same word, however, is bare when expressing non-specific meaning.”

Her second project involved Artemis Alexiadou, an internationally renowned professor in the English section of the institute who also supported her nomination for the award. “We looked at contact phenomena between Anatolian dialects of Modern Greek and Turkish,” Kornfilt reports. “A number of dialects spoken in Asia Minor [Anatolia] were heavily influenced by Turkish, morphologically and syntactically. Most of these dialects are endangered, with few speakers surviving in Greece.”

Kornfilt states that standard Greek is like English, in that neither language expresses specificity in its morphology and syntax. Anatolian Greek dialects, on the other hand, do express specificity in a formal way, thus suggesting that they are influenced by Turkish, in this regard. “Our project demonstrated how these dialects expressed specificity and how those expressions were similar to or were different from expressions of specificity in Turkish,” she elaborates. “The results have important consequences for syntactic theory and for contact studies, in general.”

Although Kornfilt’s collaboration with two faculty “hosts” was unusual by Humboldt standards, it yielded productive and interesting results. Many of Kornfilt’s findings will surface in a forthcoming book about Turkish syntax. “As far as I know, there is no book in English about general Turkish syntax, although I am aware of some books in English about particular syntactic phenomena in Turkish. Something like this would be invaluable to people who study Turkish and Turkish languages, as well as to people working in syntactic theory and linguistic typology,” she says. Foundational to Kornfilt’s book—and much of her research—is the Chomskyian theory that humanity possesses an innate drive to acquire and use language.

“[Jaklin’s] scholarly contributions cover a substantial range,” writes Chomsky from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Perhaps her most distinctive contribution has been to bring Turkish and related languages to the center of concern in theoretical linguistics, [along] with the quite interesting and often unexpected properties that she has revealed, of considerable, broader significance.” 

Known as the “father of modern linguistics,” Chomsky was at the height of his acclaim by the time he worked with Kornfilt in the Eighties. (The Arts and Humanities Citations Index indicates that Chomsky was then cited as a source more often than any other living scholar.) He tells me that ever since she was a graduate student, Kornfilt has worked “creatively at the frontiers of understanding.” “She’s had an inestimable role in developing an outstanding and lively research and teaching program at Syracuse,” he says.

Chomsky riffs on Kornfilt’s research and on the globalization of language, proclaiming possession of language to be “the” unique feature of human beings. “[It is] the source of a great deal of their development and achievement,” he states. “International integration and interchange (‘globalization’) have been expanding for centuries, enriching our experience and our understanding of human capacities and opportunities.”

Although Kornfilt takes the compliments in stride, she is visibly pleased to have been nominated for an award as prestigious as the Humboldt. “You can’t apply for the Humboldt prize,” Kornfilt reminds me. “After Professor von Heusinger asked me for some letters and paperwork, I sent him a CV and my book on Turkish grammar. That was it, really. I had little to do with the [application] process.”

Von Heusinger, who has known Kornfilt for more than decade, felt the appointment was well deserved. He regards her as not only the “senior, most important linguist” in Turkish, but also one of the world’s leading scholars of syntax and morphology. “She is very well connected, produces high-quality research, and influences many researchers in the field,” he says, adding that most of their time in Germany was spent studying specificity and partitivity in Turkish and related Altaic languages. “As a person, she is friendly, open, and extremely cultured. We can talk about almost anything. As a teacher, she is extremely clear and knowledgeable—a combination that is good for colleagues and students.” Their chemistry has been so positive that they have begun planning an international workshop in Stuttgart on formal Altaic linguistics. 

Alexiadou also considers Kornfilt a leader in theoretical and comparative syntax. “Jaklin is one of the best people to discuss issues pertaining to typology and cross-linguistic similarities and differences,” says Alexiadou, who, as a Ph.D. student, first met Kornfilt in Berlin in 1994. “As a scholar, she has a deep understanding of the theory and its developments. I always find it beneficial to talk with her.” Last fall, Kornfilt invited Alexiadou to speak at a bilingualism workshop at SU.

Alexiadou’s and von Heusinger’s respect for Kornfilt were evidenced by a syntax workshop they co-organized for her this past July, in conjunction with Kornfilt’s Humboldt Lecture. (The Humboldt Foundation underwrites one major lecture per winner.) Both events drew many international scholars involved with theoretically informed typological research. “Together, they were one the highlights of my time in Stuttgart,” she says.

Click here for photos of the workshop and lecture.

Kornfilt flanked by Klaus von Heusinger and Artemis Alexiadou
Kornfilt flanked by Klaus von Heusinger and Artemis Alexiadou
Kornfilt has always had a passion for studying languages and their grammar. This curiosity has probably been as much a reflection of her heredity is it has been of her culture. Born and raised in the Turkish megacity of Istanbul, Kornfilt grew up speaking German, but benefitted from the presence of French-speaking parents, Turkish playmates, and a Greek nanny. Her home-life was later enriched by a Russian grandmother who lived with the family and insisted on conversing exclusively in Yiddish. Kornfilt suspects that this “multilingual environment,” coupled with enrolling at a Turkish primary school and German high school, had a lasting effect on her. “I eventually realized that our brain has an innate linguistic capacity, enabling us to pick up as many languages as we want, if we experience them early enough,” she recalls.

During graduate school, Kornfilt took her cue from Chomsky, whose theories of language have been as popular as they have been controversial. (One of his challengers has been Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who endorses “universal grammar,” but does not agree with Chomsky about how the human “language instinct” evolved.) Whereas some researchers have clamored for more evidence of ways language affects thinking, others, such as Chomsky and Pinker, have maintained independence of thought from language. Thus, the demand for pure research has never been greater: “It’s important that research doesn’t become too politicized or ‘of the moment.’ Otherwise, it can’t sustain itself,” warns Kornfilt. “Basic research in linguistics cuts right to fundamental questions about who we are.”

Samuel Gorovitz, professor of philosophy and former dean of SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, notes that Kornfilt is a “no-nonsense exemplar of quality” and “intellectual rigor.” “Language is among the most powerful and pervasively important capacities we have. Yet it is in many ways mysterious. To understand it is to understand ourselves—and one another—more deeply,” says Gorovitz, also a former Chomsky student. “That is Jaklin’s quest. It has always been and remains the sort of pursuit that should be of central significance to a fine university.”

Kornfilt’s deep understanding of linguistic structure, coupled with a detailed knowledge of particular languages, has endeared her to The College. Linguistics professor Tej Bhatia is a fan of her landmark book, “Turkish: Descriptive Grammars” (Routledge, 1997). “Her passion for research is evident throughout ‘Turkish,’ which has had a lasting impact on the field,” he says. “Furthermore, her international collaborations are impressive, and have helped establish her as a pioneer in syntactic theory and language typology.”

Kornfilt’s love of research is further underscored by her participation in The Central New York Humanities Corridor, an interdisciplinary partnership with SU, Cornell University, and the University of Rochester. From the Corridor’s inception in 2005 until the fall of 2010 (when she left for Stuttgart), Kornfilt led a linguistics working group that organized and presented a host of scholarly events. “Jaklin has been a driving force behind our linguistics initiatives,” points out Gregg Lambert, Dean’s Professor for the Humanities and director of both The SU Humanities Center and CNY Humanities Corridor. “She is a caring and insightful scholar who plays a leadership role in many of our local and regional events.”

SU’s Gerald Greenberg is a Slavic linguist specializing in Russian who, like Kornfilt, has a penchant for syntactic theory. “Jaklin’s reputation as a linguist of the highest caliber is well-deserved,” he writes. “Her expertise and accomplishments in linguistic research and in the study of Turkish and Turkic languages have already garnered her many honors, with many more likely to come. She is an outstanding asset to SU, as witnessed by her academic successes and the personalized attention she gives every student.” A former chair of LLL, Greenberg is The College’s senior associate dean for academic affairs; the humanities; and curriculum, instruction, and programs. 

Cathryn Newton, dean emerita and professor of interdisciplinary sciences at SU, feels that Kornfilt brings an “incisive intellect” to anything she undertakes, whether developing a linguistic studies program or chairing LLL. “The Humboldt Award recognizes her dazzling scholarship and her longstanding collaborative contributions, as viewed by the international community,” says Newton. “Here in our region, Jaklin’s irresistible energy and collaborative ability helped establish a strong faculty cluster in The Central New York Humanities Corridor.”

“I think theoretical research is often misunderstood as something esoteric or inaccessible,” remarks Kornfilt. “The truth is that it is the foundation for many of the advances that affect our lives. Pure research can exist without applied research, but the latter can’t flourish without the former.”

Kornfilt takes a final swig of tea before admitting that she was happy to hear this viewpoint endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Humboldt Foundation’s annual meeting in June. “The federal chancellor promised to support basic research for as long as she remained in office,” she states. “Let’s hope someone from the U.S. government was there in the room, taking notes.”