HFA Faculty Profile: Seth Cable
Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Seth Cable, recently won the Linguistic Society of America Early Career Award. Here, he tells us about the research that led to the award and his connection to the Tlingit language.
Where are you from?
I mainly grew up in suburban New Jersey, in a town named Freehold. My family, though, are originally from the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina. We moved to Jersey when I was seven, and I lived there until I was 22. In that sense, then, I'm a Jersey kid.
How did you first become interested in linguistics?
Like most people in our field, I first learned about linguistics in college. I was something of a classics nerd in high school, and so I signed up for Introduction to Linguistics during my first semester, thinking I'd learn about the history of Indo-European and such. Little did I know, it was a far more fascinating and exciting area of study than anything I could have imagined. It also helped that I was an undergrad at Rutgers University, home to one of the best linguistics programs in the country, and so my first teachers were some of the most talented and exciting people in the discipline.
What is your area of focus?
Generally speaking, I'm interested in the way that a sentence structure is mapped onto its meaning, and how this mapping varies (and doesn't vary) from language to language. A technical name for this subject area is "cross linguistic variation at the syntax/semantics interface." But, it all boils down to the following question: How do the rules and principles that relate a sentence structure to its meaning vary across languages?
You have quite a few papers on the Tlingit language. How did you first get interested in that particular language and why?
My wife's uncle and her cousins are Tlingit. That's basically what sparked my initial curiosity about the language back in 2002. I read what I could on the language, particularly the marvelous introductory textbook by Dick and Nora Dauenhauer. While doodling around on the internet, I bumped into the 'Tlingit Language and Culture Discussion List' run by Roby Littlefield, an incredibly dedicated and inspiring Tlingit cultural activist in Sitka, AK. I made a few postings introducing myself and asking a few linguistic questions. Amazingly, I was contacted a few days later by Dr. Rosita Worl, the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI). She mentioned that SHI would be able to help support my linguistic interests - including getting me in touch with speakers of the Tlingit language - if I shared the results of any research with them. I leapt at this great opportunity, and the rest built on from there.
Congratulations on winning the Linguistic Society of America Early Career Award; can you tell us about the research that led to this award?
Well, my doctoral work concerned the syntax and semantics of questions and so-called 'pied-piping structures'. Without going too far into the details, the main gist is the following: At first glance, the grammar of questions in Tlingit looks rather similar to the grammar of questions in languages like English. However, when you look more closely at Tlingit questions, you are ultimately led to a formal analysis that is rather different from what's usually assumed for English-like languages. However, this needn't mean that Tlingit and English are ultimately very different from one another. I try to show that English (and similar languages) can actually be analyzed in terms closer to the Tlingit system. I also try to show that this "Tlingit-centric" view of questions actually helps resolve several long-standing puzzles concerning the grammar of questions in English-like languages.
Besides this larger work, I've published some shorter papers on Tlingit, as well as on Tibetan, Dholuo, and (of course) English. Each of these is interested in a distinct puzzle or phenomenon, but they are all in line with my general interests in "cross linguistic variation at the syntax/semantics interface."
What courses are you teaching next semester?
Next semester I'm teaching a graduate-level course in field methods, as well as our graduate-level seminar in semantics.
What are you currently working on?
At this exact moment, there are three projects I'm actively working on.
The first concerns languages that seem to have tense systems that make finer-grained distinctions than the tense system of English. For example, in the Kikuyu language, there is a past-tense prefix that seems to be used only when describing events that happened earlier on the day of speaking, a separate past-tense prefix used when describing events that happened on the day prior to the day of speaking, and a third past-tense prefix used when describing events that happened before either of those times. As you might expect, these informal descriptions are not 100% accurate. I'm studying certain details of the meaning of these prefixes in Kikuyu, including several ways in which their grammatical behavior differs from what is typically expected for 'tenses'. (I should mention here too that the Kikuyu speakers I've had the fortune to work with are two incredible individuals in the UMass Center for International Education: Nancy Gachigo and Sarah Kahando.)
The second project concerns something linguists call 'distributive numerals'. In languages like English, we can express propositions like "My sons each caught three fish", where the particle "each" indicates that the predicate "caught three fish" 'distributes' over the subject "my sons". In other languages, like Tlingit, this kind of proposition is not expressed by marking the predicate with a particle, but by adding a suffix to the numeral "three". Numerals that are marked in this way are called 'distributive numerals' by linguists. I'm studying certain details of the meaning of distributive numerals in Tlingit, including the ways in which their meaning is similar to and different from English sentences like "My sons caught three fish each" or "My sons caught fish in threes".
The third project concerns the semantics of reflexive and reciprocal marking in several languages of Europe. In many European languages - especially the Romance languages - the same verbal form can be used to express both reflexive and reciprocal action. Interestingly, slight changes to those forms can cause the sentence to only describe reflexive action. I'm studying a certain class of those effects, and how they might help us to understand languages like English, where reflexively-marked predicates generally cannot describe cases of reciprocal action.
You’ve been teaching at UMass for 4 years now; what do you enjoy most about it?
Well, the students, of course. I don't think I need mention our incredibly talented graduate students, who have a long tradition of being leaders in the field. I also greatly enjoy working with the undergraduates here at UMass. Having myself come from a public university, I really tend to identify with them on a personal level. Though much of the undergrad experience has changed in the ten years since my graduation, a walk across campus here always transports me back to my formative years at Rutgers. The best part of those years was how incredibly open the faculty were to the undergrads, how enthused they were to share their time and their knowledge with us. Like the other faculty here, I try whenever I can to contribute something of that atmosphere that was so precious to me as an undergrad.
What advice would you give students interested in linguistics?
Well, if they're just interested in the subject, I would encourage them to take Linguistics 201 (particularly with Kyle Johnson). If they've taken 201 and are interested in becoming a major, the advice that I do in fact give them is to make an appointment with our outstanding departmental undergraduate advisors, Rajesh Bhatt and Kyle Johnson. If they're already majors and are interested in pursuing a career in linguistics, I think everyone would agree that the most important advice to give is 'get involved with research now'. This is for two simple reasons. First, a strong research sample and research statement is a requirement for getting into any post-baccalaureate program in linguistics. Secondly, it is only after trying one's hand at linguistic research that one can be sure that a graduate education in linguistics is right for them. That is, if you don't like actually doing linguistic research, then graduate study in linguistics is not the right path for you.