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Department of Linguistics

Julia An-Lun Cheng

BA in Music (Trinity College of Music, UK), MA in English (Colorado State University, USA), MA in Linguistics (University of Colorado at Boulder)


Julia An-Lun Cheng
Julia An-Lun Cheng
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Thesis title:
Exploring the concept of grammatical relations in Mandarin Chinese using real conversational data
Internal Supervisors


Julia has MA degree in both English and Linguistics: English from Colorado State University and Linguistics from University of Colorado at Boulder. Her thesis for MA English was ‘Exploitation of The Gricean Maxims in Narrative Jokes’. Apart from doing research, she also loves language teaching. She speaks three languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese and English, and was an English lecturer in Taiwan for seven years.

PhD Research

The focus of Julia’s research is to explore the concept of grammatical relations in Mandarin Chinese using real conversational data. Mandarin has been a language to attract considerable attention in the area of grammatical relations. Li & Thompson (1976) first proposed that Mandarin is better described as a topic prominent language than a subject prominent language because the verb does not bear any syntactic relationship with any of the nouns in the clause. They define ‘topic’ as ‘the theme of a clause’ and in Mandarin it almost always occurs in the clause-initial position. Since ‘topic’ is defined by the structure of discourse, Li & Thompson believe that hearers in this language assign semantic roles to the constituents of a discourse on the basis of pragmatics rather than on syntactic relationships. Yet such an argument does not explain how hearers can understand if the ‘topic’ of a clause is the person or thing that is acting on or being acted-upon. Van Valin and LaPolla (1993, 1995, 1997) have also argued that Mandarin lacks grammatical relations because there is no strict [S, A] alignment (syntactically accusative) or [S, O] alignment (syntactically ergative) in this language. However, if Mandarin really lacks grammatical relations, how do Chinese speakers tell ‘who does what to whom’ when they are engaged in a conversation? Is it possible that Mandarin utilizes other linguistic means which have been overlooked to manifest grammatical relations?

Julia's dissertation intends to address the following three questions:

  1. Is there a grammatical subject in Mandarin Chinese?
  2. Is it essential to employ grammatical relations such as ‘subject’ or ‘object’ to describe the grammar of Mandarin?
  3. What implications are offered by the findings regarding the discourse function of ‘subject’ (if there is one) and how do they contribute to the understanding of language typology and language universal?

She will conduct her research in the theoretical framework of Discourse-Functional Syntax, examining real conversational data to see if the language exhibits determining grammatical relational phenomena such as syntactic alignment, coordination and reflexivization.

PhD Conferences

In February, 2013, Juila presented a paper on her research topic at the 5th Biennial Meeting of the Rice Linguistics Society in Houston, Texas. The paper is titled ‘Exploring the Concept of Grammatical Relations in Mandarin Chinese Using Real Conversational Data’. She is currently working on two conference papers focusing on the grammaticalization of the Chinese nominal classifiers and the semantic functions of the Chinese classifiers.