Robert Henderson

I am a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, with appointments in Cognitive Science and Second Language Acquisition and Teaching. My research is in formal semantics with a special focus on the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica (especially Mayan languages), languages on which I have done many years of fieldwork. I currently have three major research projects, though see my papers page (which includes handouts and work in progress!) for a full scope of my current research directions.

Village Sign Languages

I am Co-PI on a joint CNRS-UA grant with Jeremy Kuhn and Carlo Geraci (CNRS) focused on village and emerging sign languages in Mesoamerica. There are a large number of small sign languages throughout Mayan-speaking region of Mesoamerica due to high rates of congenital deafness in various Maya communities (Le Guen 2019). Fox Tree 2009 documents how some of these sign languages, for example Meemul Tzij, used in the K'iche' Maya speaking area, incorporates pan-Maya gestures of arguably ancient origin (due to the fact that they are seen in Classic Maya inscriptions). The goal of this project is to document the pluractional systems of both Mayan sign languages, as well as co-speech gesture with pluractionals in spoken Mayan languages.

Compositional Morphosemantics of Plurality

I am PI of an NSF grant (with Co-PI Heidi Harley) to document and analyze the morphosemantics of plurality across languages of the southwest, espectially Hiaki (yaq, Uto-Aztecan) and Seri (sei, Isolate). The project will investigate the semantics of plurality and pluractionality, as well as how it is morphologically encoded and compositionally interpreted. The primary research questions are (i) How do we implement pluractionality in a featureal system alongside nominal plurality to control the complex morphological systems we see in the target languages; (ii) How do we do compostional semantic interpretation below the level of the word in the opaque morphological systems of Seri, in particular (iii) What are the consequences of the plurality and pluractionality systems of Hiaki and Seri for morphological and semantic monotonicity of word formation operations; (iv) How do we reconcile suppletion for subject number in Seri with the broad typological generalization, exemplified in Hiaki, that verbal suppletion only occurs for object number?


I am Co-PI on a multiyear NSF grant with Francis Tyers (Indiana) focused on developing syntactically annotated corpora of Mesoamerican languages. These will be paired with free and open-source natural language processing (NLP) pipeline models to automatically perform word segmentation, stemming, morphological analysis, and syntactic parsing for each of the above-listed languages, also made freely available in public-facing code repositories. We are additionally working on novel methods for identifying areal linguistic clusters in large multilingual language models, and for leveraging this information to bootstrap NLP systems for other Mesoamerican languages.