Robert Henderson

I am an assistant 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 the LLaMa group for more information and 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.

Ideophones and Plurality

I have been exploring the semantics of ideophones. After building a novel account of ideophones based on recent work on the semantics of iconicity in sign languages (Davidson 2015), I show through two detailed case studies of ideophones in two Mesoamerican languages, that there are two kinds of plurality in the ideophone domain that have never been discussed before. This work not only extends my thinking on plurality to new empirical domains, it opens up a new research program on formal approaches to iconicity in spoken language and allows us to compare parallels between spoken and signed languages that have not yet been explored.

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.