Orange Alert

SU's Jaklin Kornfilt co-edits prestigious linguistics journal

Special issue of Lingua devoted to nominalizations in linguistic theory

Feb. 13, 2012, by Rob Enslin

Jaklin Kornfilt
Jaklin Kornfilt
Jaklin Kornfilt, professor of linguistics in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, believes learning has no boundaries. Witness her recent involvement with Lingua (Elsevier, 2011), an international journal devoted to problems of general linguistics. A majority of the editorial work, she says, was completed via email and Skype in Germany, where a Humboldt Research Award enabled her to spend two semesters at the University of Stuttgart.

The result is an acclaimed special issue on nominalizations in linguistic theory that she co-edited with John Whitman, professor of linguistics at Cornell University. Both scholars also contributed a joint article on syntactic theory in the afterword.

“Lingua is a top-tier journal in theoretical linguistics, and is widely read,” says Kornfilt, a member of the languages, literatures, and linguistics (LLL) faculty since 1983. “The topic of clausal nominalizations is important for linguistic theory because such clauses are verbal internally and are nominal externally. They have a categorially hybrid character that poses interesting theoretical challenges.”

Kornfilt attributes the success of this issue to the contributors, all of whom are internationally renowned syntacticians and theoretical typologists. One contributor, Cornell linguist John Bowers, authored an article on non-event nominals and argument structure. “[The journal] looks excellent,” he says. “The papers are interestingly divergent in their approaches, but, at the same time, are thematically coherent. It is quite a useful volume.”

Nominalization is often viewed as the process of turning a single verb or adjective into a noun. The articles in Lingua address a related phenomenon: clausal nominalization. They examine complete sentences that are nominalized, and, therefore, have the distribution of noun phrases, while preserving the syntactic structure of regular clauses.

To better understand these properties, consider the following example, where a noun phrase serves as the object of a preposition:

We talked about [the mazurkas].

“About” is the preposition. “The mazurkas” is its object, and is a noun phrase. 

Regular clauses, however, cannot serve as objects of prepositions. The following example is an ill-formed utterance:
We talked about [(that) children played the mazurkas].
Gerundive clauses pattern with noun phrases, instead of with regular subordinate clauses, as in the previous example. The following utterance is well-formed:
We talked about [the children’s playing the mazurkas].

Nominalization occurs in languages all over the world. “Some languages allow verbs to be used as nouns, while others require some type of morphological transformation,” says Kornfilt, who has probed several of the world’s languages, including German, Greek, and Turkish. “In Lingua, we construct a working typology of nominalizations, based primarily on papers collected for this issue. We also argue that certain internal syntactic phenomena are characteristic of different types of nominalization.”

Kornfilt’s involvement with Lingua marks the latest chapter of a high-profile career. Born and raised in Istanbul, she earned a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics at Harvard University, while taking courses at M.I.T., where linguist Noam Chomsky served as her main dissertation advisor.

“Jaklin’s scholarly contributions cover a substantial range,” he says. “Perhaps her most distinctive contribution has been to bring Turkish and related languages to the center of concern in theoretical linguistics, [along] with the quite interesting and often unexpected properties that she has revealed, of considerable, broader significance.” 

Kornfilt’s foray into syntax and morphology has not only put SU on the linguistics map, but also conferred on her international visibility and renown. As a “Humboldtian,” Kornfilt worked on several projects in Stuttgart’s Institute of Linguistics, where she was a special guest of the Center of Linguistics and Cognition. Some of her findings will surface in a forthcoming book about Turkish syntax—the only one of its kind in English.

Kornfilt is the author of many other publications, including the landmark book “Turkish: Descriptive Grammars” (Routledge, 1997). She also has led a linguistics working group of The Central New York Humanities Corridor, an interdisciplinary partnership with SU, Cornell, and the University of Rochester.

Gerald Greenberg, associate professor of Russian and linguistics at SU, considers Kornfilt an asset because of her specialization in syntactic theory and in the study of Turkish and Turkic languages. “There is no doubt why Jaklin enjoys the international reputation she does,” he says. “She is creative and prolific. Her research is extremely interesting, and has influenced the work of many others, including my own. This kind of research translates into better learning for our students.” Former chair of LLL, Greenberg is The College’s senior associate dean for academic affairs; the humanities; and curriculum, instruction, and programs.

“I think theoretical research is often misunderstood as something esoteric or inaccessible,” says Kornfilt. “The truth is that it is the foundation for many of the advances that affect our lives. Pure research can exist without applied research, but the latter can’t flourish without the former.”

Lingua is published by Elsevier, the world’s leading provider of science and health information. The Dutch company serves more than 30 million scientists, students, and health and information professionals worldwide.

LLL is The College’s largest academic department, with more than 20 tenured or tenure-track professors, 50 instructors, and dozens of language coordinators and staff members. The department teaches 21 languages, as well as offers nine undergraduate degrees; three master’s degrees in French, Spanish, and linguistics; and the certificate of advanced studies in language teaching.

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Rob Enslin