Campus & Community

Deep structure

6 min read

Theoretical linguist Huang exposes the roots of language

C.-T. James
C.-T. James Huang: ‘It has been shown that … investigation into East Asian languages may shed light on the nature of human language in ways that might not have been possible from the investigation of other, more familiar, languages.’ (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

If you were to say, “John is a red-headed physics student,” any native speaker of English would instantly accept the sentence as normal and correct.

But what if you said, “John is a physics red-headed student”? Obviously, the word order (or syntax) is wrong, but why? Why can’t you arrange a group of adjectives any way you like? And how do you know which arrangements are correct and which are not?

Most of us would dismiss the question by saying, it’s a convention. There’s no logic to it. It’s just the way people speak.

But to theoretical linguists like C.-T. James Huang, such seemingly simple questions may lead to discoveries about the basic nature of language and, beyond that, the nature of the mind itself.

Huang joined the Harvard faculty as a professor of linguistics in the fall of 2001. A native of Taiwan, he studied linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) under Noam Chomsky, who originated the theory of a Universal Grammar, a system of structural rules said to underlie all human languages. He also studied with the late Kenneth Hale, a legendary linguist who was competent in more than 50 languages, including Navajo, Wampanoag, and Warlpiri, a language spoken by aboriginal Australians.

“Hale was a model for me,” said Huang. “He forced students at M.I.T. to be aware of other exotic languages and showed how such languages might be understood in the context of Chomsky’s theory, or even enlighten it.”

Huang’s scholarly accomplishments have since made him something of a model for others in the field.

“We are delighted and honored to have Jim Huang join our faculty,” said Michael Flier, acting chair of the Linguistics Department. “Jim is one of the most distinguished researchers working in generative syntax today. As the leading specialist in Chinese linguistics in the West, he complements our existing strengths in Japanese and Korean linguistics. Happily, I can report that he is a wonderful teacher and mentor for our students as well.”

As a native speaker of Chinese, Huang is passionate about including East Asian languages within theoretical language study and establishing them as equally representative of the human language instinct.

“People tend to think of the Western tradition as the mainstream. They tend to forget that knowledge of East Asia can also be a contribution to our knowledge of humanity. Time and again in recent years, it has been shown that theoretical investigation into East Asian languages may shed light on the nature of human language in ways that might not have been possible from the investigation of other, more familiar, languages.”

Among theoretical linguists, Huang is generally recognized as among the foremost authorities on the theoretical study of Chinese and other East Asian languages. His discoveries about these languages have caused other linguistic theorists, including Chomsky himself, to revise their original analyses.

For example, one of Huang’s many contributions to linguistic theory is his re-examination of the phenomenon of wh-movement. In English and other Western languages, wh-words (who, what, where, when, why) are shifted to the beginning of the sentence when one asks a question. In Chinese and Japanese, they are not. The sentence, “What do you think John likes most?” would be “You think John likes what most?” in Chinese.

Huang proposed that while Chinese speakers do not move the wh-word to the beginning of the sentence, there is a covert syntactical change that is not represented phonetically. Huang’s demonstration of this principle has had a significant impact on later work in this area of linguistics.

Another of Huang’s discoveries has to do with what are known as null-pronouns, or pronouns that can be omitted from a sentence. In English, the answer to the question, “Did John see Bill?” must be expressed as “Yes, he saw him.” In this case, English does not permit dropping either the subject or object pronoun.

In Spanish and Italian, one can drop the subject but not the object pronoun. That is, one can say, “Yes, saw him.”

Previously, this phenomenon was explained by the fact that Spanish and Italian verbs are more strongly inflected for subject-verb agreement than English verbs are. One can reconstruct the pronoun from the form of the verb, and therefore it can be dropped.

But Huang pointed out that in Chinese, there is no agreement of verbs at all, yet both the subject and object pronoun can be dropped. Thus, one can say “Yes, saw him,” or “Yes, he saw,” or “Yes, saw.” He then developed a generalized theory governing the interpretation of null pronouns which simultaneously accounts for their distribution, both in languages that allow them as well as cross-linguistically.

“Not only can East Asian languages verify principles of Universal Grammar, but they can help to discover new principles,” said Huang.

In addition to work on these languages, his research also includes several important publications based primarily on the analysis of English syntax, especially in the areas of pronoun reference, movement theory, and issues of the syntax-semantics interface.

Huang’s efforts to discover the underlying rules of language reflect an even more basic concern, shared by other linguists in the field of generative grammar. This is a belief that by studying language, it is possible to understand the nature of the mind itself.

The ability to use language, linguists believe, is genetically programmed in the brain. Huang compares the brain to computer hardware and the linguistic rules that underlie language to software. Since the software is invisible to us, we can only study it by studying its product, namely language.

Or to extend the metaphor, just as computer hackers make guesses about the structure of software in order to gain access to its inner workings, theoretical linguists have a similar aim in trying to understand human language.

“It’s an effort to hack the mind,” Huang said.

Before coming to Harvard, Huang was a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Irvine. He has also taught at Cornell University, National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, and the University of Hawaii. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and is the founding editor of the Journal of East Asian Linguistics.