Maria Piñango, Linguistics

Maria Piñango has been a singular voice in her research area throughout her career. As a graduate student at Brandeis University, she was the only student in the Cognitive Science & Linguistics program for most of her time there, and at Yale she is the only experimental semanticist in the Linguistics department. Since her arrival in 1999, Piñango has built up her subfield at Yale, creating the Language and Brain Lab, advising numerous students, and forming interdisciplinary connections across departments at Yale and nearby Haskins Laboratories. When she was granted tenure in 2008, she became the first woman and the first person of color to achieve this milestone in the Linguistics department.

Piñango describes the overarching goal of her work as seeking “to understand the architecture of the language system and how it is embedded in the larger cognitive system.” More specifically, she conducts research in experimental semantics, focusing on linguistic meaning structure and how it interacts with non-linguistic cognitive processes: “To the extent that the purpose of language is to convey meaning, then the structure of linguistic meaning can tell us about  the structure of language and also about the cognitive constraints [on language.]” Her work has largely focused on the use of copula systems in English (the verb be) and Spanish (the verbs ser and estar­), and on English aspect, often conducting experiments measuring real-time language processing and functional localization through focal-brain lesion research and brain imaging technologies such as fMRI.

One of the most important things that Piñango received from her mentors as a student was “the opportunity to get into their heads… [to demonstrate that] this is how we think through a problem, and this is how we make decisions… You may choose to do it differently, but at least you know one way how.” Her advisors were open to considering her ideas and offering potential ways to move forward while allowing her to steer her projects in the direction(s) she found most rewarding. She cites the positive impact of the mindset of her mentors at Brandeis and Yale, that “we all make mistakes, we understand that you are growing [as a scholar], and that’s okay. … and we have absolute trust that you will succeed.” She continues to practice this sort of open and trusting mentorship with her undergraduate and graduate student advisees at Yale.

Piñango takes inspiration from younger generations that improvements to gender and racial inequity in academia and beyond are attainable. She states, “In a way [as an older person] you clear a path, but you don’t realize the impact of that path on yourself. It’s realized on the people behind you, and then they reflect it [back to] you… it’s a positive feedback mechanism.  It gives you strength to push forward.”  Her message to younger people pushing for change is simple and encouraging: “Be bold and fearless, because you are not only paving the way for the people behind you, but you are also giving energy to the people who are ahead of you, the older people who can use that confidence boost [to continue to believe change for the better is possible.]”

Selected Works of Maria Piñango:

  • Piñango, M. M., & Deo, A. (2016). “Reanalyzing the complement coercion effect through a generalized lexical semantics for aspectual verbs.” Journal of Semantics, 33(2), 359-408.
  • Fuchs, Martín & Piñango, María Mercedes. (in press). “Language variation and change through an experimental lens: Contextual modulation in the use of the Progressive in three Spanish dialects.” In: Bridget Drinka & Whitney Chappell (eds.). Spanish Socio-Historical Linguistics: Isolation and Contact. Advances in Historical Sociolinguistics Series. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Piñango, M.M (2019). “Concept Composition during Language Processing: a Model and Two Case Studies.” The Routledge Handbook of Applied Chinese Linguistics, Chu-Ren Huang (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), Zhuo Jing-Schmidt (University of Oregon), and Barbara Meisterernst (Humboldt Universität) (eds.) Chapter 39 pp 624-644.
  • Piñango, M.M., Zhang, M., Foster‐Hanson, E., Negishi, M., Lacadie, C., & Constable, R.T. (2017). “Metonymy as Referential Dependency: Psycholinguistic and Neurolinguistic Arguments for a Unified Linguistic Treatment.” Cognitive Science, 41, 351-378.

Profile by Sarah Babinski, PhD candidate in Linguistics