Robert Henderson

I am an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. 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.


In concert with Elin McCready at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, this research explores a type of pragmatic enrichment that has come to be called ``social meaning''. We have been exploring game theoretic approaches to social meaning through the use of dog-whistles in political speech—namely, language that sends one message to an outgroup while at the same time sending a second (often taboo, controversial, or inflammatory) message to an ingroup. We identify for the first time two different kinds of dogwhistle meaning, show their connections to other kinds of pragmatic enrichment, and provide a game-theoretic account of dogwhistles and the evolutationary dynamics of their emergence into a language.

Compositional Morphosemantics of Plurality

I am PI of a 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?

Mayan Syntax and Phonology

I have worked on a series of problems on the K'ichean-branch Mayan languages lying outside of my core semantics specialty. I have a longstanding interest on ergativity in Mayan, especially the prohibition on WH-moving ergative arguments and how this interacts with binding phenomena. (I did a postdoc at McGill on this topic). I have also worked on how syntax is mapped to intonational phrases in K'ichee', and how this interacts with allomorphy in late-insertion theories of morphology like DM. I am currently working with Ryan Bennett on two projects (i) we are investigating whether absolutive morphology in Kaqchikel is affixal in virtue of head movement or prosodic conditions on word structure, (ii) we are working on the basic description and analysis of the distribution of lexical tone in Uspanteko, the only language in the K'ichean branch to have contrastive tone.