by Nicholas Lotito
The following is the second edition of a semi-weekly contribution from The Haverford Journal, Haverford’s student-run academic journal.
The senior thesis is the capstone of a Haverford or Bryn Mawr education. For most of us in the bi-co community, the thesis seems like a blip on the horizon, but for a lucky few, this exciting (and daunting) assignment is a hurdle already cleared. Majors in a few tri-co departments complete their theses during the fall semester. Haverford’s Brian Hsu ‘10, who recently completed his linguistics thesis, sits down with us to discuss the thesis process and his research on Chinese syntax.
Nick: Your thesis focuses on syntax (“grammar” for us non-linguists). What makes syntax so interesting?
Brian: It’s the problem of why words are arranged the way they are, which is still somewhat mysterious. Even after decades of people thinking about it and some significant progress, it’s not that much clearer than it was back then.
N: What’s your thesis specifically about?
B: I created a model for Mandarin passives using lexical functional grammar (LFG), a framework I learned while studying in France. Most linguists, including professors at Haverford and Swarthmore, work within the standard framework, in the tradition of Noam Chomsky. Linguists working in LFG simply approach syntax using a different formal model.
N: Passives remind me of the line from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, “Prefer the active voice.” Is that the kind of passive we’re talking about?
B: Yes, though Mandarin passives have a very different structure. There are long passives (roughly analogous to “John got hit by Mary”) and short passives (“John got hit”). Though the two forms are intuitively the same to a native speaker, most current theories claim that they have two different structures.
But as in any science, you want to look for the easiest, simplest solution. If you can come up with one explanation for both forms, then that is de facto a better explanation. My goal was to create a single model for Mandarin passives using the LFG framework.
N: Where did you get the idea for your project?
B: It started at the University of Paris last semester. I took in an upper-level syntax class taught in LFG, an entirely different framework from what I’d learned at Haverford and Swarthmore. It was hard to learn, but it was interesting because LFG is an entirely new way to look at linguistic problems. I really enjoyed it at the time.
I learned a lot from the class, and I thought it would be cool if I could do something with that framework. At Haverford, I had done interesting work in Chinese linguistics, since that’s my native language, so I decided to try to apply LFG to a question in Chinese syntax. It’s been a long time since anyone has written on Chinese passives through the LFG framework, so my work was adding something new.
N: That sounds like quite a challenge. Were you successful?
B: Partially. My model worked pretty well for most passives, and fit long passives perfectly. The problem was, now that you have a model that accounts for most data, does it account for all of them, short and long? It turned out that one model cannot apply to both, at least with the specific model I proposed. In the end, there are just one or two problems, or sets of data, that don’t really fit the analysis I wanted to do.
I managed to create a good account of most passives within LFG, but not all. My main goals for my project were achieved, and I did come up with something that was new, even though I didn’t meet all of my overall goals.
N: What was the biggest difference between your thesis and your regular work?
You’re not given a topic. I think that’s what makes it really cool. I took a class on the structure of Chinese and ever since then I’d wanted to write a substantial paper on an issue in Chinese, and the senior paper was an opportunity for me to do that. If I hadn’t had the opportunity of senior thesis, I probably wouldn’t have done anything with LFG.
N: What’s your advice for those starting their theses?
Have fun with it. Think of it as an opportunity to explore something that interests you. You should look forward to writing your thesis and enjoy the process. Just try not to take that many other classes during your thesis semester, or too many grad school applications. Otherwise, it’s not so bad! I’m definitely glad I went through the process.