Eric Potsdam, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Linguistics

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

2011 Awardee

Eric Potsdam’s linguistic research is in the overlapping domains of descriptive and theoretical syntax.

While almost every child unconsciously controls his or her language by the age of six to eight, linguists are still discovering and deciphering these complex systems of implicit grammatical rules. Eric Potsdam believes this knowledge will have important implications for our understanding how the brain works, how to best teach foreign languages, and how our language defines us.

His current descriptive work focuses on Austronesian languages, some 1,200 genetically related languages spoken in a wide area encompassing Madagascar, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and islands of the Pacific. For the past ten years, he has worked on Malagasy, the native language of Madagascar, and has investigated a range of topics relating to the syntax of different clause types, including interrogatives, exclamatives, imperatives, and subordinate clauses. Potsdam’s work has shown that some clauses that superficially resemble their English counterparts in fact have a radically different structure, one that is hidden because of other unique properties of the language.

Potsdam’s recent theoretical work has focused on cross-linguistic variation in sentential complementation: structures in which a clause is embedded inside another clause. Sentential complementation has been at the forefront of linguistic theorizing since its inception. He and his colleagues have been documenting and analyzing new and theoretically challenging patterns, such as Backward Raising and Backward Control, which were the subject of a 2002-2006 NSF grant, “Variation in Control Structures”. These unique phenomena were found in several understudied languages, such as the Caucasian languages Adyghe and Tsez, and the Austronesian languages Malagasy and Indonesian. Papers published in the leading journals Linguistic Inquiry and Syntax explore theoretical approaches to these new data.

In 2010, Potsdam was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for “elegant contributions to syntactic theory and for broadening the range of languages that inform theories of the biological basis of the language faculty.”