Campus & Community

Polinsky named professor of linguistics

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Maria Polinsky, a linguist who combines careful empirical work with a subtle appreciation of linguistic theory, has been named professor of linguistics in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.


Polinsky is currently professor of linguistics and co-director of the Center for Research in Language at the University of California, San Diego.

“Professor Polinsky is a versatile theoretician, a skilled researcher, and a collaborative colleague,” says William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Versed in two very distinct linguistic traditions, her work is unusually rich and fresh. It is a pleasure to welcome her to Harvard.”

Polinsky’s research interests include language universals and their explanation, comparative syntactic theory, the expression of information structure in natural language, and languages as diverse as Austronesian and languages of the Caucasus. She has done extensive fieldwork on quite a few languages, including Chukchi, Tsez, Malagasy, Kabardian, Abkhaz, Maori, Kinyarwanda, Crimean Tatar, and others. In this research she has established unusual patterns of grammar, which pose significant challenges to linguistic theory.

On the basis of a vast collection of new data that she gathered, she has formulated new rules, which were unthinkable in linguistic theory five or 10 years ago but now widely accepted. Among her discoveries are such phenomena as long-distance language agreement, a phenomenon whereby a verb in one sentence can agree with an element in a different sentence, and backward control, which has provided critical arguments for a particular theory of sentence structure.

For the past several years, Polinsky’s research has focused on incomplete language acquisition, which occurs when children switch from their heritage language to the dominant language of their society without having fully mastered the first language. She argues that this incomplete acquisition of what would have been a mother tongue may shed light on psycholinguistic processes distinct from those seen in normal language acquisition. Her work on incomplete acquisition combines the insights of theoretical linguistics with the new experimental methodologies explored by linguists as they move closer to cognitive science. Polinsky is currently working on a book on incomplete language acquisition, tentatively titled “A Language Never Born: Incomplete Acquisition and First Language Loss.”

Polinsky received a B.A. in philology from Moscow University in 1979, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in linguistics from the Institute for Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1983 and 1986, respectively. She joined the University of Southern California as an Andrew Mellon Fellow in 1989, becoming an assistant professor in 1991 and an associate professor in 1995. She joined UCSD as an associate professor in 1997, receiving promotion to full professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics in 1999.

Polinsky has been a visiting professor at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Amsterdam University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has served as associate editor of the journal Language, as an expert on the funding panel of the National Science Foundation, and is currently on the editorial boards of the Heritage Language Journal, Linguistic Discovery, Linguistics, and Studies in Language.