Professor of Linguistics, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge
Ian's research is in theoretical linguistics, more specifically in comparative syntax. His work is set against the background assumptions argued for by Noam Chomsky: that there exists a specific human cognitive capacity for language which is present at birth and requires simple environmental stimulation in order for linguistic competence in the mother tongue to develop during the early years of life. The theory of this capacity is known as Universal Grammar. Accepting this nativist approach to language raises the challenge of accounting for the existence of seemingly very diverse grammatical structures in the languages of the world. His work, along with that of a very active worldwide community of linguists, is concerned with showing how these grammatical systems differ along relatively simple lines in such a way that the central distinguishing features are accessible to children acquiring language on the basis of primary linguistic data. To this end, he has worked on the comparative and historical syntax of many of the Germanic, Romance and Celtic languages. Ian currently hold a European Research Council Advanced Grant funding a project whose goal is to investigate a specific hypothesis as to the way in which the grammatical options made available by Universal Grammar are organised. Refining and testing this hypothesis involves looking at languages from all over the world, and assessing the extent to which certain patterns recur.