The research interests of UR linguists range from the documentation of endangered languages, to the way sentence structure affects meaning, to the way sounds are physically produced by one person, transmitted, and then received and processed by another. Fascinating on their own, these areas of research also have significant practical applications: preservation of cultures, improved voice recognition software, and a better understanding of speech and learning impairments, to name just a few.

Read more about our research areas of focus below.

Experimental Syntax

Syntax is the study of the sentence structure in the world's languages. Experimental syntax uses tools from experimental psycholinguistics to learn more about the ways these structures differ cross-linguistically as well as to understand how a language's structures affect how people use and produce their language. For example, an eye-tracker can be used to monitor people's eye movements while they look at scenes on a screen and listen to sentences. What they look at while listening to the sentences provides a fine grained moment-by-moment window into how different syntactic structures affect people's on-going understanding of the sentences they are listening to. This type of research can not only be valuable for a better understanding of how language structures differ and how these different structures affect people's understanding of language, but also for providing the basis for better computational applications.

Jeff Runner of the Department of Linguistics oversees the Experimental Syntax Laboratory.

Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics

When you pull out your iPhone and ask Siri a question, how does it understand what we mean? After all, even other humans sometimes aren’t sure what we’re really trying to say “between the lines.” This is the realm of semantics and pragmatics – which examines the conventional or literal meaning of words and sentences, but also how meaning can change depending on the context. Applications range as widely as improving voice recognition software, to determining exactly what does or does not constitute perjury, to more effective advertising.

Faculty members engaged in this area of linguistics are Greg Carlson and Scott Grimm.

Phonetics and Phonology

Speech is a purposeful and complex activity organized to convey meaning and intent; it's the primary vehicle for the transmission of human language and linguistic structure.  Phonetics and phonology concern speech production and perception, the analysis of the organization of sound systems in human language, and their interface with meaning and structure. Current research projects in the Phonetics Lab include field phonetics and language documentation, the developing an interactive online speech atlas of the Dene language communities, investigation and modeling of vowel coding in the midbrain (with Laurel Carney, Biomedical Engineering and Neuro-anatomy), cross-linguistic tone and prosody.  Past projects have included the ultrasound project for collecting and analyzing data on tongue movement during speech, an investigation of the perception and production of nasality in vowels, and the relationship between rhythm in speech and music.

Joyce McDonough of the Department of Linguistics oversees the Phonetics Laboratory.

Documentary Linguistics

In the McKenzie Basin of the Canadian taiga, in the Amazon basin, and in eastern Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Department of Linguistics faculty members go into the field to record native speakers of endangered languages, then return to Rochester to transcribe and analyze.  In many cases, these are oral languages spoken by a dwindling number of people whose cultures have been uprooted. To preserve these languages requires creating a written version as well. The stakes are high. When a language is lost, so is the culture of the people who spoke that language -- and all of their history as well. There is a broader loss as well, just as when a rare or endangered species of plant or animal becomes extinct: Human language is fully understood only by examining it in all of its diverse forms.

Faculty members engaged in this area of linguistics are Joyce McDonough and Nadine Grimm.

Language and Music

Given the University’s strong emphasis on music, at both the Eastman School and the River Campus, it is not surprising that a Sound and Music Initiative is being developed, linking faculty members in engineering, brain and cognitive science, music, and linguistics in an exploration of music cognition, music engineering and music-language connections such as the pitch and rhythmic contours of speech and music.  Music cognition symposiums, held four times a year, promote interdisciplinary study of music cognition through many lenses: music theory, linguistics, cognition, computation, brain imaging, learning and development, sound component analysis and synthesis, statistics and probability, ethnographic research, and others.

Joyce McDonough of the Department of Linguistics is collaborating with jazz pianist Harold Danko, Eastman School of Music (ESM), is investigating the relationship between rhythm in speech and music.

Typology, Historical Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

Most European languages have written records that go back 2000 years,  so it is relatively easy to reconstruct how those languages have evolved over time. It is not so easy with endangered oral languages; the only clues are often notes taken by field linguists during the last century. From this research we can learn much about human history, and the movements of people.