Matt Tyler defends his dissertation

After a really special day yesterday, when my first PhD student, Matt Tyler, successfully defended his dissertation Argument Structure and Argument-Marking in Choctaw, I would like to use this platform to say what might qualify, among my in-laws, as a toast (and among my side of the family as a speech).

For the past few years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being Matt Tyler‘s PhD advisor at Yale. Through much of that time, we met weekly to discuss his ongoing research, and even collaborated on a journal article on syntactic dialect variation in English. But more than anything, we would discuss his work on Choctaw. He would bring in some data he’d collected or been trying to analyze, and we would discuss it in detail, draw tree diagrams on the whiteboard, stare at those diagrams trying to make sense of it, altering our assumptions and trying again, and on and on and on. It has been an intellectually stimulating and deeply rewarding experience. I can’t even say how many times we would come to what felt, to me, like a satisfying approach or analysis, only to have Matt come in the next week saying he thought it was all wrong and that we had to take a completely different approach, which he would spell out in detail. We would then work through that. He would consider anything, question everything, and leave no empirical details aside. He took my ideas and suggestions seriously, but made his own choices: he often didn’t do, with this data, what I would have done, and that is, of course, exactly what I would hope for.

What has resulted is a dissertation that is almost startling in its combination of theoretical and empirical sophistication. The linguists among you, especially theoretical syntacticians and morphologists, will see what I mean when he makes the final version publicly available. It starts two highly detailed overview chapters, one as an introduction to the theory and the dissertation as a whole, and another as a detailed overview of the things the reader needs to know about the Choctaw language. It then has four incredibly packed chapters working out the details of transitivity marking, the clitic doubling system, the applied argument system, and the case-marking system. He doesn’t gloss over the theory in the name of good description of the language, and doesn’t gloss over the description of the language in the name of a pretty theory. Despite all this detail, the writing is clear and vibrant, and even has a bit of personality. His work is motivated at least in part by the belief that he has to do justice to the Choctaw language as its speakers present it to him, and not just be another Westerner who is “taking from” indigenous people. Two of the Choctaw speakers he worked with even showed up at his defense yesterday.

I will say more about the contents of the dissertation in another post, on another day, when it becomes available to read. For those of you who want a preview, you can see some of his journal articles in Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, Studia Linguistica, Syntax, as well as some of his other papers on LingBuzz,  although surprisingly enough, these actually don’t even overlap a whole lot with the contents of the dissertation. But they will give you a sense for the depth and sophistication of Matt’s work.

For now, I will just say that working with Matt has been a wonderful experience. I am grateful for that experience, and even though I am sad to see him go — the department won’t be the same without him — I am excited to see what the future holds for him, and proud and humbled to have had the privilege to play a role in this part of the development of his career.