Emily Clem

Assistant Professor, Linguistics, UC San Diego

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My work in morphosyntactic theory and formal semantics is grounded in data collected through collaborations with speakers of underdocumented languages. Starting in 2015, I began conducting in situ fieldwork in the town of Sepahua in the Peruvian Amazon with speakers of Amahuaca, an endangered Panoan language. In addition to in situ fieldwork, I also work with diaspora communities in the US on languages like Tswefap, a Narrow Grassfields Bantu language of Cameroon, and Mam, a Mayan language of Guatemala. Through fieldwork I aim not only to document and describe understudied languages, but also to understand how the structure of these languages can inform our models of grammar. In addition to creating materials with linguists in mind, I also work with these communities to create materials that will be of use to speakers and learners of the language.


A phenomenon that has become of particular interest to me given my work in Amazonia is systems of switch-reference. I am interested in both the internal and external syntax of switch-reference clauses in Amahuaca. The major question I am working to address is what the formal mechanism is that gives rise to the morphological tracking of argument coreference. I am especially interested in the insight this phenomenon can provide about the nature of the operation of Agree and its locality restrictions. In addition, I am working to understand the various meanings that switch-reference clauses can be used to convey and what consequences this has for the semantic interpretation of switch-reference clauses.


I am interested in the differences between abstract Case and morphological case in languages with overt case marking. One research question I am working to address is how features on DPs can yield syntactic indications of abstract Case differences without resulting in morphological marking. I am also interested in how both A and A'-movement can affect overt case marking. I primarily address these questions with data I've collected through fieldwork on Amahuaca, which has a tripartite case system. I am also working with Virginia Dawson to explore how case can be realized on discontinuous DPs, using data from Amahuaca and Tiwa (Tibeto-Burman; India).


A question that I have explored is how crosslinguistic differences in binding patterns can be accounted for via differences in the internal structures of pronouns. Through work on Tswefap, I investigated the role of situation pronoun binding versus local A-binding via indices in determining the distribution of different types of pronouns.

Linguistic Areality

I am interested in how the geographic distribution of linguistic features can inform our understanding of language contact and genetic inheritance. I have worked with Lev Michael, using data from the South American Phonological Inventory Database (SAPhon), which we curated, to explore areal patterns in phonological inventories of languages of South America. Another project I have been involved in with Larry Hyman and Hannah Sande explored what tone systems of languages reveal about linguistic areality in Sub-Saharan Africa.