School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics

Linguistic Theory

Research Themes

Linguistic theory includes:

  • syntactic theory and comparative syntax
  • phonological theory, morphophonology and morphosyntax
  • semantics and pragmatics
  • philosophy of language
  • philosophy of linguistics
  • the architecture of the language faculty

In terms of grammar, all human languages are variations on a theme. Our research aims to characterise this theme and to uncover the nature and limits of the variation. Within the field of syntax, we work on syntactic theory, particularly within a generative framework, and comparative/descriptive syntax.

Our research on phonological theory and morphophonology centres particularly on suprasegmental phonological structures, such as the syllable, foot, and phonological word, also from a generative perspective. We focus on the phonological characteristics of these structures in their own right, as well as investigating how they behave with respect to word formation.

Members of this subgroup also research the origins and architecture of the language faculty and its place in human cognition. We are additionally interested in language interfaces, working on the phonology-syntax interface, especially as this bears on the status and nature of functional categories and linguistic parameters, and the syntax-semantics and semantics-pragmatics interfaces.


Emeritus Professor Noel Burton-Roberts' research concerns the theory of meaning and pragmatics and, more generally, the architecture of the human Faculty of Language (FL) and its place in human cognition. He has advanced the Representational Hypothesis, which proposes that phonology should be excluded from, because representational of, objects generated by the language faculty. The claim of the Representational Hypothesis is that the morpho-phonological systems of particular languages stand in a (semiotic) relation of conventional representation to a (morpho-)phonology-free, wholly syntactico-semantic, generative system (FL) and that, consequently, FL is not distinct from the Language of Thought. His work covers the following areas:

  • semantics and pragmatics (particularly presupposition and negation, ambiguity, quotation, malapropism);
  • the architecture of the language faculty (in Minimalism especially) and its relation to other faculties of mind;
  • the phonology-syntax interface, especially as this bears on the status and nature of functional categories and parameters.

Cristina Dye is interested in discovering the true content and organization of the human language faculty, and in particular, what type of linguistic knowledge might be available in the initial state before experience, as opposed to the type of linguistic knowledge that must development in the child's mind over time, upon exposure to a given language. A particular interest is grammatical (lexical vs. functional) categories. She has worked on French, Romanian, Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian. Her research is interdisciplinary, cross-linguistic, and collaborative.

S. J. Hannahs' work is in phonological theory and morphophonology, centring particularly on suprasegmental phonological structures, such as the syllable, foot, and phonological word. The focus is both on the phonological characteristics of these structures in their own right - identifying the syllable, foot and word structures of specific languages - as well as investigating how these structures behave with respect to word formation. He has worked most extensively on French and Welsh.

Anders Holmberg's research is mainly on syntactic theory in a comparative perspective. The objective is to understand the fundamental properties of the grammar of human languages, and the nature and the limits of grammatical variation. Presently he is working, together with colleagues in Cambridge, on the ERC-funded project Rethinking Comparative Syntax (ReCoS) (directed by Ian Roberts at the University of Cambridge) which aims to explain the structure and limits of syntactic variation among languages in terms of hierarchies of parameters. Other projects include one about the typology and syntactic structure of answers to yes/no-questions among the languages of the world (The Syntax of Yes and No, funded by the Leverhulme Trust 2011-2013), one on word order and passives in the double object construction (with Bill Haddican of CUNY), and one about generic pronouns in radical pro-drop languages (with On-Usa Phimsawat of Burapha University). A different project is on the meaning of self-talk, on the use of forms of address when talking to oneself.

Geoff Poole's research concerns the syntactic expression of topic and focus in the left-periphery of the sentence and its relation to discourse/information structure, chiefly from the cartographic perspective of Rizzi (1997). His work focusses on synchronic and diachronic aspects of the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan). He is specifically interested in the syntactic expression of focus as it relates to object pronoun position and verb-second in Old Romance, as well as in the analysis of negative polarity items and negative concord. He also has a strong secondary interest in the philosophy of linguistics, particularly regarding the architecture of the grammar, and has collaborated with Noel Burton-Roberts on several papers within his Representational Hypothesis framework, on the architecture of the language faculty with specific reference to the role of phonology.

Maggie Tallerman works on the syntax and morphosyntax of modern Welsh, and is particularly interested in the system of consonantal mutation, which illustrates interactions at the phonology-syntax interface. Together with Robert D. Borsley (University of Essex), she has worked extensively on the XP Trigger Hypothesis, which demonstrates the reality of phrasal categories - both overt and unrealized - in grammatical competence.

The other major strand to her work involves investigations into the origins and evolution of the human language faculty, especially as this relates to syntax, the lexicon and morphosyntax. She defends the concept of a syntax-free protolanguage in our distant hominin ancestors, and specifically has consistently argued for a synthetic view of protolanguage, in which single words were initially juxtaposed in short, syntax-free groupings, before any formal grammar developed.

Joel Wallenberg develops and tests hypotheses about syntactic structure and potential universals about the organisation of the syntactic component, usually in combination with data on language use and syntactic change. He also works on the theory of language variation and change, developing hypotheses about how changes progress in detail, and why some changes begin and spread while others never get off the ground. He is also interested in the question of where linguistic variation (especially alternations between categorical variants) is encoded in the human language faculty, and why two distinct types of variation seem to be compatible with the linguistic system: diachronically unstable variation (language change in progress) and stable sociolinguistic variation.