Linguistics PhD candidate Alan (Hezao) Ke traces his enthusiasm for studying syntax and psycholinguistics to a time several years ago when he was a Master’s student studying Linguistics and Applied Linguistics in China. Alan's program advisor recommended a short list of foundational books on linguistics, and reading them had a profound impact, recalls Alan:

“I read almost every page of the books, taking notes and writing comments. I was amazed by the understanding that language is a mental faculty, and one of the goals of linguistics is to reveal the content of that mental faculty, i.e., Universal Grammar.”

For Alan, coming to U-M was the next logical step to further his academic studies. Having done some work on first-language acquisition, Alan felt then that a systematic training in theoretical linguistics--mainly syntax and semantics--would be crucial to advance his research.

“U-M Linguistics has great advisors in these fields!” says Alan, who is now in his sixth year in the Linguistics doctoral program. Alan was also impressed with the program’s relationship with professors in the Psychology Department, which offered the opportunity for additional advising on his psycholinguistic research. In addition to doing his PhD in Linguistics, Alan is one of fourteen U-M students pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Cognitive Science. 

Projects on the Syntax and Acquisition of Quantification
This cross-disciplinary dynamic has already yielded impressive results.

“Finishing my Qualifying Research Paper (QRP) and having part of it published has meant a lot to me,” says Alan. The paper, entitled “The Quantificational Domain of dou: An Experimental Study,” was published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research in 2018.

Alan co-authored the paper with his advisors in the Linguistics and Psychology departments--Professors Samuel Epstein, Richard Lewis, and Acrisio Pires, all of whom are now on Alan’s dissertation committee, which also includes Assistant Professor Jon Brennan.

Projects on Relational Nouns
In addition to the experimental study on quantification, Alan has written several papers on relational nouns, described below.

Alan’s paper, “On the implicit anaphoric argument of relational nouns in Mandarin Chinese,” (co-authored with Ya Zhao, Liqun Gao, Shuying Liu and Acrisio Pires), an experimental study, argues for the first time that relational nouns in Mandarin bear a reflexive argument. This paper is currently in press with the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.

Alan’s 2018 LSA proceedings paper “Covert reflexive argument in inalienable relational nouns” (co-authored with Acrisio Pires) extends this line of research by providing several theoretical arguments. This paper further points out a crucial distinction between the reflexive argument in two types of relational nouns, i.e. body-part nouns and kinship nouns: the former must be locally bound, while the latter can be either locally or long-distance bound. Alan says his next plan is to extend this theory of relational nouns to various other languages, such as Norwegian, Japanese and Portuguese.

Another of Alan’s papers, recently published in 2019 in the leading Chinese linguistics journal Yuyan Kexue (Linguistic Sciences), applies the theory of relational nouns developed in his previous papers to solve a long-standing problem regarding the syntactic analysis of person-denoting complex NPs such as fuqin de fuqin de fuqin ‘father’s father’s father’.

Dissertation on the Processing of Agreement and Binding
Building on his body of research, Alan's PhD dissertation (currently in progress) will integrate knowledge from different subfields to answer questions about how linguistic knowledge interacts with other cognitive systems (e.g., the memory system).

In his dissertation, Alan develops a theory of agreement to capture the similarities between the syntax of subject-verb agreement and reflexive binding. He also argues that there is a crucial difference between these two types of agreement or concord: The number and person features on the agreeing verb (e.g. is vs. are) are semantically vacuous; however, these features on complex reflexives (e.g. himself vs. themselves), and bound pronouns generally, must be semantically interpretable, contrary to the classical theory of bound pronouns.

Alan then conducts judgment and reading experiments on the sentence processing of these two types of agreement and argues that although syntactically these two types of agreement are similar, the semantic differences on the agreeing verbs and the reflexives are expected to lead to relevant processing differences. Finally, Alan is developing a computational model of these predicted differences within the framework of cue-based memory retrieval.

When he's not working on his research, Alan enjoys living in Ann Arbor with his family:

“There is a marvelous Chinese community in Ann Arbor, and my family and I are members of a church here. The people are kind and friendly, and my family and I felt very welcome from the first day of our stay in Ann Arbor.”

Photo: Alan Ke and Professor Sam Epstein.