Carrie Gillon has come for the bare nouns.
The linguist, a B.C. native, is here on a postdoctoral fellowship jointly funded by the Faculty of Arts and the Department of Linguistics. She’ll spend this year at Memorial examining Inuttitut and Innu-aimûn, two Labrador languages that feature nouns which are always bare that is, nouns that are never qualified by articles.
Dr. Gillon’s doctoral research, done at the University of British Columbia, focused on Squamish, a language in the Salish family found on Canada’s west coast.
“In most Salish languages, nouns always have to have an article,” she explained.
Coming to Memorial to study Inuttitut and Innu-aimûn gives her a chance to look at the opposite structure.
She explains that in English, nouns almost always have articles, which can indicate a unique or not-so unique entity (a chair versus the chair). Still, some plural and mass nouns can be used without articles (e.g. cats, water). The article chosen affects the meaning.
However, in a language with no articles, the rules of meaning could be different. “If I say ‘I picked berries,’ does it have to mean ‘I picked only the berries we have already talked about,’ or could it mean something else? Could it mean different berries altogether?”
It could be, she noted, that languages with bare nouns actually feature “covert” articles that are understood to be there, based on the context.
Her project, co-supervised by Drs. Julie Brittain and Doug Wharram, will involve working with native speakers of Inuttitut and Innu-aimûn, both here at Memorial and in fieldwork she’ll conduct in Labrador, to learn more about how the nouns work.
“I’ll need to do some subtle tests with the speakers,” Dr. Gillon said, adding that she expects to use particular items so that she and the subject are clearly discussing the same thing. “For these kinds of tests, you really have to make sure that the context is clear.”
In addition to building the overall knowledge base about language and how they can vary, Dr. Gillon explained that understanding such fine rules about a language can prove beneficial in developing methods for teaching it.
Dr. Gillon speaks only English fluently, though she has competency in French and has studies Arabic, Navajo, Squamish and Inuktitut.
She said she didn’t start out wanting to be a linguist; in fact, after a year of engineering, she was considering focusing on physics. “Then one day I was looking through the UBC calendar and I saw this thing I’d never heard of before: linguistics,” she recalled. “It seemed to be a combination of science plus language, both of which I love.”
She said linguistics reminds her of physics both are about getting down to the smallest parts of something. “In my work, I’m looking at the basic components of meaning.”
On Oct. 11, Dr. Gillon will present “The Meaning of ‘the’: Evidence from English and Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish Salish)” as part of the Cognitive Science Lecture Series, an interdisciplinary lecture series that examines the study of mind, intelligence, and information.