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Ussery receives long-term linguistics grant

Cherlon Ussery, Associate Professor of Linguistics, recently received a prestigious grant from the Icelandic Research Council (RANNIS) to fund a three-year project titled “Ditransitives in Insular Scandinavian.” The overall research objectives include tracing the evolution of ditransitives in Icelandic and Faroese—both of which evolved from Old Norse—and assessing the legitimacy of predictive models.

Ditransitives are verbs with two objects such as “give” and “send.” In English, these verbs can be used with two noun phrases (“She gives him the book”) or a noun phrase and prepositional phrase (“She gives the book to him”). Ussery’s interests lie in how and why these verbs behave differently in Icelandic and Faroese—both in relation to languages like English and to each other. While hypotheses exist as to why Faroese has evolved more than Icelandic—Danish influence takes the top spot—there has yet to be the sort of comprehensive study that Ussery and her team seek to provide.

Ussery will serve as the co-Principal Investigator with Johannes Jonsson of the University of Iceland, heading a team of four other researchers from various academic institutions. She anticipates multiple trips to Iceland within the next three years during both summer and winter breaks along with a sabbatical towards the end of the third year.

Although this group has not yet conducted official research together, these professional relationships are nothing new. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Iceland over the past ten years,” Ussery explained. “When I go, I’m based at the University of Iceland, so I’m part of the department in a lot of ways.”

Dee Menning, Carleton’s Sponsored Research Grants Specialist, noted that Carleton’s administration—which offers start-to-finish support for faculty grants—was minimally involved during the grant process because the University of Iceland served as the lead institution.

However, Ussery still hopes to share this experience with Carleton. She said, “I’ve worked with students on other projects in the past and would really like to get one or two Carleton students involved. There are lots of balls in the air because there are so many people involved, but if everything worked out, I’d love to bring students over for a specific, research-targeted visit.”

Catherine Fortin, Chair of Linguists, acknowledged this grant as “unique” and stated, “Cherlon’s success in obtaining this grant shows that she is involved in the same kind of ground-breaking research that faculty conduct at far more research-intensive institutions.”

Ussery’s long-term focus on the Icelandic language stems from a “serendipitous moment” in graduate school — her professor suggested looking into Icelandic, so she did, and things seemed to fall into place. She did emphasize, however, that she is not an exclusive Icelandic linguist, but rather a syntactician with a focus on Icelandic.

“I’m interested in the bigger question of how languages organize themselves, and Icelandic has been a good language to look at for answers to that question,” she explained.

This current focus on ditransitives—which has been in play for the past year and a half—emerged in a similar light. Ussery recalled, “I was reading some of the literature when I stumbled across open questions and realized that there weren’t a ton of answers. So I immediately thought, ‘There’s a gap here; there’s space for something new.’”

Ussery was on sabbatical at the University of Iceland in the fall of 2017 when she and Jonsson began crafting their application to RANNIS. She was speaking at a conference about the same general topic and had ideas on where she wanted to take the research, but it was still a long process.

“We chipped away at [the grant application] for almost six months,” she remembered. “There was lots of revising and, after I left, lots of Skyping. The two of us primarily wrote it, but the rest of the team contributed to different sections as well.”

The work paid off when they learned they were among the 17 percent of applicants who received a grant. Ussery highlighted the experimental techniques in their proposal as a factor that may have stood out in such a competitive pool.

“Linguistics as a field is moving towards incorporating large-scale data analysis with theories about how languages work. There have always been psycholinguists, but it’s becoming more and more common for theorists to combine the theory with experimental methodology,” she noted.

“We’re trying to understand how the brain processes language. One of our experiments is giving people a sentences with “give” or “send” that’s either in the double noun-phrase form or the noun-phrase and prepositional-phrase form. If people take longer to read one, it suggests that they were expecting the other. There are theories out there that predict why speakers would expect a particular form, so we can test if those predictions are actually borne out.”

The inclusion of experimental methods is a special opportunity for Ussery herself. Since her graduate school days, the only experimental research she has conducted has been a so-called “mini-experiment” in her most recent paper. With that, she acknowledged, “This is definitely an opportunity for me to push my work in a different direction.”

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