The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Syntax Square 4/25 - Nick Longenbaugh

Speaker: Nick Longenbaugh (MIT)
Title: Towards a unified treatment of the φ-Agree/Move correlation
Date/Time: Tuesday April 25, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The past two decades have seen an explosion of research into the cross-linguistic manifestation of φ-Agreement and the basic principles at stake in its operation. Much of the original impetus for this investigation came from a desire to understand the precise correlation between φ-Agree and movement. If anything, however, ensuing discoveries have muddied the waters in this domain. While it is almost universally acknowledged that φ-Agree and Move are related (see van Urk 2015 for discussion and a formalization of this link), there has been a steady retreat from the strong position of the early 1990s that φ-Agree is parasitic on movement.

(1) Specifier-head agreement (Kayne 1989): If AgrX is an agreement head and DP a phrase bearing φ-features, morphological agreement obtains only if the following structural configuration obtains: [AgrXP DP [AgrXP AgrX […DP…]]]

A principle like (1) is especially successful for capturing agreement phenomena in the vP domain, e.g., past-participle agreement (PPA) in Romance and Scandinavian (Kayne 1985, 1989a; Christensen and Taraldsen 1989), but a wealth of cross-linguistic data (in at least Tsez (Polinsky and Potsdam 2001; English (Chomsky 2000, 2001), Icelandic (Sigurðsson 1996, 2008; Boeckx 2010), Hindi-Urdu (Boeckx 2004; Bhatt 2005), Basque (Etxepare 2006; Preminger 2009)) supports a “long-distance” φ-Agree operation, as in Chomsky 2000, 2001.

(2) Agree (Chomsky 2000, 2001): An Agree relation obtains between a head H and a phrase XP, provided:
(i) Matching: XP bears valued features that are a superset of the unvalued features on H
(ii) Locality: There is no YP asymmetrically c-commanding XP that satisfies matching

Given that (2) formally dissociates Agree and Move, the link so commonly observed between them must be added back in, a task that usually falls to ad-hoc “EPP” features, either stipulated to be present on heads or probes themselves. This state of affairs leaves unanswered a number of fundamental questions, both theoretical and technical: How do we handle cases like PPA and other apparent instances of Spec-Head agreement? Can we predict which probes trigger movement, or must this be stipulated in an ad-hoc, language specific way? Most crucially, why should Agree and Move ever be correlated in the first place?

It is to these questions that this talk will be addressed. Beginning with a case study of PPA, I argue for the conclusion that every φ-probe has the postulated “EPP-property,” so that φ-Agree must trigger movement unless independent factors intervene to block it. This allows us to remove “EPP” as a feature of heads or probes, and to predict straightforwardly whether φ-Agree triggers movement. I then explore two consequences of this proposal. The first is that those “null subject” languages where T has φ-probe have both the traditional EPP (T must project a specifier) and null expletives (following Chomsky’s 1981 proposal), a result I argue for on independent grounds following Bresnan & Kanerva (1989) and Sheehan (2010). The second is a new theory of expletive there that treats it as a semantically vacuous oblique pronoun. By analogy to the behavior of oblique pronouns in Icelandic and cross-linguistically, I show this treatment better captures the distribution of there in English and cross-linguistically with fewer stipulations than competing treatments.


LFRG 4/26 - Keny Chatain

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: Relative clauses; interactions with modals and definite article choice in Fering and Akan
Date and time: Wednesday April 26, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I propose a different semantics for relative clauses that brings them closer to the semantics of conjoined sentences. This accounts for the intuition that in many cases (albeit not all), a sentence with a relative clause is paraphrasable as a conjunction of two clauses:

1. I saw a dog that was limping.

2. I saw a dog and it was limping.

I explore two consequences of this idea in two unrelated areas.

First, I show that this semantics can improve over the standard Grosu & Krifka (2007)’s account of intensional relative clauses (as in (3)), in that it avoids postulating type-shifters that are specific to this construction and it does not posit higher-order abstraction.

3. The gifted mathematician you claim to be should be able to solve this problem in no time.

Second, I show that this semantics can explain interactions between relative clauses and the choice of the definite article in languages with the weak/strong definite article distinction. While strong articles are standardly taken to be anaphoric to previously mentioned entities (Schwarz 2012), they can appear in combination with a restrictive relative clause even when no previous referent is available. However, using the strong form in contexts where they are not licensed is not possible in all languages that make the weak/strong distinction: while Fering can, Akan and Haitian creole cannot. I account for this split in terms of the syntax/semantics interface given here.

Finally, I will discuss other patterns that may fall out from the proposal, and patterns that probably won’t.


MIT Colloquium 4/28 - Jonathan Bobaljik (UConn)

Speaker: Jonathan Bobaljik (UConn)
Title: On Some Universals(?) of Case and Agreement
Time: Friday, April 28th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

The distribution of the major case and agreement alignments has been held to reflect a tetrachoric (implicational) universal: languages may show the same alignment in both case and agreement, but if they diverge, then it is always the case that case alignment is ergative-absolutive, while agreement alignment is apparently nominative-accusative. The reverse combination is unattested. After reviewing the explanation of this universal in Bobaljik 2008 (cf. Baker 2008, Legate 2008), I examine alleged counter-examples, arguing that the universal survives scrutiny, once the distinction between accusative case and differential object marking is made clear. The proposed explanation makes use of the grouping of cases known as the Dependent Case Hierarchy: {nom/abs} < {erg/acc} < {dat/obl}. Dependent Case Theory may play a central role in the explanation of another asymmetry between case and agreement, specifically, in explaining the the typological observation that “Split-S” and other “active” alignments are surprisingly much rarer as case alignments than as alignments of bound person marking. The account, developed in joint work in progress with Mark Baker, relies on the observation that where active agreement systems can be readily described, an active case pattern cannot arise as a core alignment under DCT. Such patterns can only arise as the interaction of one of the core alignment patterns with independent aspects of the grammars of individual languages. In developing that account, we predict a further, and as far as we are aware previously unobserved, asymmetry between what Bittner & Hale called “accusative active” and “ergative active” languages.

Juliet Stanton Defends

Congratulations to Juliet Stanton, who just defended her dissertation, titled Constraints on the Distribution of Nasal-Stop Sequences: An Argument for Contrast, last Friday!

Juliet Stanton at her post-defense celebration

As readers may remember, Juliet will be joining the Department of Linguistics at NYU as an Assistant Professor in the Fall. Well done Juliet!


Brillman to Spotify

Ruth Brillman, who is currently finishing her dissertation on antilocality and non-finite clauses, has accepted a fantastic position at Spotify. Here is Ruth’s description of the job:

I’ll be working as a Research Scientist alongside Spotify’s machine learning team (the force behind their recommendation systems like Discover Weekly and Daily Mix) at their Somerville office. A lot of my work will involve figuring out how their machine learning systems should deal with natural language data, and how to evaluate those systems once they’re off the ground. My team will also help establish research goals and standards for the company. I’m so excited!

Congratulations, Ruth!


The University of Delaware organized the 47th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages, which took place in April 20—23. MIT was represented by the following presentations:

Benjamin Storme (5th year grad student): Schwa-stem derivatives in French and gradient attraction

Nikos Angelopoulos & Dominique Sportiche (PhD ‘83): Romance Scrambling and Hierarchy within Clitic Clusters

Luca Iacoponi & Viviane Déprez (PhD ‘89): Negative Concord in Italian: An experimental approach

Sophie Harrington & Maria Cristina Cuervo (PhD ‘03): Mood selection under parecer (‘to seem’): introducing the polarity indicative [poster]


And the 2017 SHASS Levitan Award goes to… Donca Steriade!

Our very own Donca Steriade is among the recipients of the 2017 James A. and Ruth Levitan Teaching Awards in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Announcing the 2017 award recipients, Dean Nobles remarked, “This prize honors those instructors in our School who have demonstrated outstanding success in teaching our undergraduate and graduate students. These great educators, who are nominated by students themselves, have made a difference in the lives of our remarkable students.”

That Donca should receive an award for fantastic educators should come as no surprise to those of us lucky enough to have taken one of her classes. David Pesetsky notes, “The most important point is indeed the fact that Donca’s students themselves nominated her for this award — honoring one of our most distinguished colleagues and most devoted teachers.”

Congratulations Donca!


Aboh and DeGraff in Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar

Enoch Aboh (University of Amsterdam) and Michel DeGraff have recently published a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar. The chapter, titled A Null Theory of Creole Formation Based on Universal Grammar argues that Creoles emerge from principles of UG as all other languages do, and thus can provide important insight into both contact induced and diachronic language change.

Michel writes:

Enoch and I propose an analysis of Creole formation that goes against the grain of the most popular classic textbook dogmas which cast Creoles as the “exceptional” outcome of a Pidgin-to-Creole cycle. Our is a straightforward theory of “creolization,” without any “pidgin” phase and without any other creolization-specific stipulation. That is, ours is a “Null theory of Creole formation.”

An online version of the chapter is available here.


Welcome to our 2017 incoming graduate class!

Joining our graduate program next Fall will be 10 new students. They come to us from 8 different countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Russia, USA) and 8 different universities. We are so excited that you will be joining us — see you next September!

  • Daniel Asherov (Tel Aviv University)
  • Tatiana Bondarenko (Moscow State University)
  • Cater Chen (University of Toronto)
  • Sherry Chen (University of Oxford)
  • Boer Fu (UCLA)
  • Filipe Kobayashi (University of Toronto)
  • Vincent Rouillard (McGill)
  • Dóra Takács (University of Göttingen)
  • Chris Yang (UCLA)
  • Stanislao Zompí (University of Pisa)

Ling-Lunch 4/20 - Ian Roberts

Speaker: Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge/UConn)
Title: Verb Movement and Cartography in English and Romance
Date/Time: Thursday, April 20th, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

I begin by presenting the recent important proposals in Schifano (2014, 2015a,b) showing that across Romance there are at least four distinct landing sites in the TMA zone of the clause for finite lexical verbs, all of them higher than the position of the English lexical verb and lower than the V2 landing site. I then show, on the basis of the interaction of verb- and object-placement with very low adverbs in the Cinque (1999) hierarchy, that English has low vP-fronting, to SpecVoiceP. Both Romance and English verb-movement license a very low event variable (arguably a condition on “anchoring” the clause to the utterance situation, in Wiltschko’s 2014 sense). I then briefly consider the English auxiliary system, drawing largely on Harwood (2013). Finally, I briefly consider three further kinds of system: the fully analytical TMA system of Haitian Creole, and two kinds of V-initial system, comparing Welsh/Irish with Niuean. A range of quite simple parameters governing V-movement and licensing the TMA field emerges.

Explanatory Adequacy in Formal Semantics Reading Group 4/21 - Itai Bassi (MIT)

Speaker: Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Katzir, R., & Singh, R. (2013). Constraints on the lexicalization of logical operators. Linguistics and Philosophy 36:1–29.
Date/Time: Friday, April 21, 2–3pm
Location: 32-D831

We revisit a typological puzzle due to Horn (Doctoral Dissertation, UCLA, 1972) regarding the lexicalization of logical operators: in instantiations of the traditional square of opposition across categories and languages, the O corner, corresponding to ‘nand’ (= not and), ‘nevery’ (= not every), etc., is never lexicalized. We discuss Horn’s proposal, which involves the interaction of two economy conditions, one that relies on scalar implicatures and one that relies on markedness. We observe that in order to express markedness and to account for a bigger typological puzzle, namely the absence of lexicalizations of ‘XOR’ (= exclusive or), ‘all-or-none’, and many other imaginable logical operators, one must restrict the basic lexicalizable elements to a small set of primitives. We suggest that an ordering based perspective, following Keenan and Faltz (Boolean semantics for natural language, 1985), makes the stipulated primitives that we arrive at more natural. We also propose a modification to Horn’s proposal, based on recent work on implicatures, in which only the implicature condition is operative and in which markedness is part of the definition of the alternatives for scalar implicatures rather than an independent condition.

MIT Colloquium 4/21 - Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)

Speaker: Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)
Title: Sonority Sequencing in Polish: Interaction of Prior Bias and Experience
Time: Friday, April 21st, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

Recent work on phonological learning has questioned the traditional view that innate principles guide and constrain language development in children and explain universal properties cross-linguistically. In this talk I focus on a particular universal, the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP), which governs preferences among sequences of consonants syllable-initially. Experimental evidence indicates that English, Mandarin, and Korean speakers exhibit sensitivity to the SSP even for consonant sequences that never occur syllable-initially in those languages (such as [nb] vs. [bn] in English). There is disagreement regarding the implications of this finding. Berent et al. (2007) argue that these results can only be explained with reference to an innate principle; however, Daland et. al (2011) show that computational models capable of inferring statistical generalizations over sound classes can detect evidence for these preferences based on related patterns in the language input (and therefore no reference to innate principles is required). Building on these studies, I argue that English is the wrong test case: it does not differentiate predictions of these two hypotheses. I examine learning of syllable structure phonotactics in Polish, a language with very different sonority sequencing patterns from English. Polish provides a crucial test case because the lexical statistics contradict the SSP, at least in part. I review developmental evidence indicating that children acquiring Polish are nonetheless sensitive to the SSP, producing larger sonority rises more accurately in spontaneous production (Jarosz to appear). I then present results from two experiments investigating adult Polish native speakers’ phonotactic knowledge. The findings indicate that Polish native speakers’ phonotactic preferences are sensitive to the SSP and that this SSP sensitivity is not predicted by the computational models that succeeded for languages like English, Mandarin, and Korean. This suggests a crucial role of an inherent bias or a constraint on generalization from the input. At the same time, native speakers’ sonority-sequencing preferences are not entirely expected on the basis of SSP alone, suggesting an important role for experience as well. I discuss implications of these prior bias – experience interactions for modeling of phonological learning.


The 22nd Workshop on Structure and Constituency in Languages of the Americas (WSCLA) will take place later this week at the University of British Columbia, Canada, on April 21—23. Some current students and alumni will present their work:



The East Coast Syntax Workshop (ECO5) was held at the University of Connecticut on Saturday April 15. MIT was represented by two current students.

  • Colin Davis: Cyclic Linearization and Partial Pied-Piping
  • Suzana Fong: Getting out of a finite CP: an analysis of hyper-raising

Abdul-Razak at NYU on Q-particles

Friday April 14th, our third-year student, Abdul-Razak Sulemana, gave a talk at NYU Syntax Brown Bag Talk series on Q-particles and the nature of Covert movement: evidence from Bùlì.


Michelle Yuan — invited speaker for Workshop on Person

Our fourth-year graduate student Michelle Yuan is an invited student speaker for Manitoba Workshop on Person, which is going to take place in September 22-23.


Storme in Glossa

Congratulation to Benjamin Storme (5th year), who’s paper “The loi de position and the acoustics of French mid vowels” was accepted for publication in Glossa. The paper investigates the effect of syllable structure on vowel duration and vowel quality in French. The results are relevant for the study of closed syllable laxing. A pre-publication version can be found on lingbuzz: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003395


Teaching award to Claire Halpert

Congratulations are due to our alum Claire Halpert (PhD 2012), an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, on this teaching award from her university!

According to the UMN website, the Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award, “acknowledges faculty who inspire and care, make themselves approachable, show an interest in individual students’ well-being and in programs for the benefit of students generally, give of themselves generously in advising, counseling, and directing projects, and create an active classroom atmosphere.”

We might add that two of Claire’s former students from Minnesota are students in our PhD program right now, as well as another who she taught at the African Linguistics School — so we know first-hand the power of her teaching. Congratulations, Claire!


Ling-16 did a puzzle!

Whamit! is happy to announce that, after many weeks of hard work, Ling-16 has completed* a 3000-piece puzzle depicting the fierce naval battle between the French ship “La Cannoniere”, and the English ship “The Tremendous” during the Action of 21 April 1806.

*Careful readers will notice that a single piece is missing from the puzzle. We can only assume this is intentional, and is meant to represent the ever-incomplete nature of our work as linguists.


Phonology Circle 4/10 - Benjamin Storme

Speaker: Benjamin Storme (MIT)
Title: Cyclicity in Standard French: the role of stem-base perceptual similarity
Date/Time: Monday, April 10, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

In Standard French, stems in derivatives behave regularly or cyclically depending on the phonological shape of the suffix: stem-final mid vowels behave regularly if the suffix starts with a non-schwa vowel or a glide, and cyclically otherwise. I compare two approaches to explain this pattern: a syllable-based analysis (cf van Oostendorp 2004 on a similar pattern in Dutch), and a perceptually-based analysis. The syllable-based analysis predicts that cyclic application entails identical syllabification of the base-final consonant and its correspondent in the stem. The perceptually-based analysis predicts that cyclic application entails greater perceptual similarity of the base-final consonant and its correspondent in the stem. A comparison of the results of two experiments (a small experiment based on a syllabification task and an experiment based on a discrimination task) suggests that the perceptually-based analysis is superior: it can better explain the difference between liquid-initial suffixes (before which stems behave cyclically) and glide-initial suffixes (before which stems behave regularly). The results of this study are relevant for two debates in phonology: whether phonotactics are better explained in syllable-based or perceptually-based terms (Steriade 1999), and whether phonetic detail plays a role in cyclicity (Steriade 2000).

LFRG 4/12 - Neil Banerjee

Speaker: Neil Banerjee (MIT)
Title: A problem with future-shifting
Date and time: Wednesday April 12, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The English verbs hope and want are future-shifters in that they allow their non-future complements to be interpreted as occurring in the future.

(1) a. Paul hopes to win the championship.
b. Sam wants to live in Boston.

Assuming that non-finite clauses behave like bound present tense, Abusch (2004) builds the future shift into the lexical semantics of future-shifting verbs. Work by Lekakou and Nilsen (2008), as well as Klecha (2016) suggests that the difference, while lexical, can be made to fall out from Condoravdi’s (2001) diversity condition and the modal base of the attitude report. This gives us a lexical semantics where the future is introduced because of the modal base of the attitude report. Verbs compatible with non-doxastic modal bases are predicted to be future-shifters. Independent evidence from want suggests that it can indeed have a non-doxastic modal base, and is also a future-shifter. But the prediction then is that hope and want should then have the same truth conditions in the following case.

(2) a. I have what I want
b. *I have what I hope

Evidence from other future shifters in English (other attitude verbs, antecedents of conditionals, probability reports) suggests that locating the source of futurity in the modal base may not be on the right track. I leave finding the right track as a puzzle for the future.

Ling-Lunch 4/13 - Ezer Rasin

Speaker: Ezer Rasin (MIT)
Title: Severing stress from phonology
Date/Time: Thursday, April 13th, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

According to the consensus view in generative linguistics, the cognitive module known as ‘phonology’ is responsible for various phonological computations, including the computation of word stress, tone, and segmental processes. I will present two differences between stress and segmental phonology to motivate a modular decomposition of phonology, where the computation of stress is carried out in a separate module with a limited interaction with the rest of phonology:

1) Information Encapsulation: drawing on observations by de Lacy (2006) and Blumenfeld (2006), I propose a universal asymmetry between stress and segmental processes. Segmental processes are often sensitive to the position of stress (In American English, for example, [t] is flapped between a preceding stressed vowel and a following unstressed vowel, as in políDical vs. politícian) but the computation of stress is never directly sensitive to segmental information: stress patterns like ‘stress the rightmost vowel followed by a velar’ are unattested, and can be excluded in the modular architecture if the input to the stress module excludes representations of segmental features.

2) Weak Generative Capacity: Heinz (2014) observes that the computational complexity of attested stress patterns goes beyond that of segmental patterns. In particular, stress patterns can require exactly one primary stress per word, but segmental patterns that require exactly one e.g. sibilant per word are unattested. This difference places stress and segmental phonology in two different domains of the Chomsky hierarchy of formal languages, a hallmark of modularity.


Explanatory adequacy in formal semantics 4/14 - Keny Chatain

The reading group on explanatory adequacy in formal semantics continues this week with a discussion of the paper “The logical primitives of thought” by Piantadosi, S. T., Tenenbaum, J. B., and Goodman, N. D. led by Keny Chatain.

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: Piantadosi, S. T., Tenenbaum, J. B., and Goodman, N. D. (2016). The logical primitives of thought: Empirical foundations for compositional cognitive models. Psychological review, 123(4):392–424 (link)
Date/Time: Friday, April 14, 2:00-3:00pm
Location: 32-D831

The notion of a compositional language of thought (LOT) has been central in computational accounts of cognition from earliest attempts (Boole, 1854; Fodor, 1975) to the present day (Feldman, 2000; Penn, Holyoak, & Povinelli, 2008; Fodor, 2008; Kemp, 2012; Goodman, Tenenbaum, & Gerstenberg, 2015). Recent modeling work shows how statistical inferences over compositionally structured hypothesis spaces might explain learning and development across a variety of domains. However, the primitive components of such representations are typically assumed a priori by modelers and theoreticians rather than determined empirically. We show how different sets of LOT primitives, embedded in a psychologically realistic approximate Bayesian inference framework, systematically predict distinct learning curves in rule-based concept learning experiments. We use this feature of LOT models to design a set of large-scale concept learning experiments that can determine the most likely primitives for psychological concepts involving Boolean connectives and quantification. Subjects’ inferences are most consistent with a rich (nonminimal) set of Boolean operations, including first-order, but not second-order, quantification. Our results more generally show how specific LOT theories can be distinguished empirically.

Tenure for Omer Preminger

Special congratulations to distinguished alum Omer Preminger (PhD ‘11) on his promotion to Associate Professor with tenure at the University of Maryland!


A new Haitian Creole-English elementary school opens in Boston

Faculty member Michel DeGraff shares with us the news of the opening of the first dual-language Haitian Creole-English elementary school in Boston, as reported in The Atlantic:

“I think this is a great example of linguistics and education for social justice—-and an antidote against “othering” in our political era. I particularly like these headlines from the Atlantic:  ”Dual-language programs universally focus on both language and culture, giving students who come from that given culture an opportunity to see their own histories prioritized by their schools and giving other students an opportunity to develop a deep appreciation for people who are different from them.”“



AFLA 24 happened over the weekend, and MIT was represented by students both current and erstwhile. TC Chen (Ling-11) and Mitcho Erlewine (PhD ‘14) gave talks, while Julie Anne Legate (PhD ‘02) was an invited speaker.

TC presenting at AFLA

Credits for the picture: Michael Erlewine (mitcho)


Phonology Circle 4/3 - Kevin Ryan (Harvard)

Speaker: Kevin Ryan (Harvard)
Title: Onset vs. rime effects in phrasal weight
Date/Time: Monday, April 3, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

Prosodic end-weight (PEW) refers to the specifically phonological aspect of end-weight, whereby prosodically heavier constituents tend to be preferred domain-finally, all else being equal (i.e. controlling for semantics, frequency, morphosyntactic complexity, etc.). This tendency can be seen in coordination (“X and Y” or “Y and X”?) among numerous other constructions, is widespread (though not universal) cross-linguistically, and is amply supported by experiments, including wug-tests. Several explanations have been put forth for PEW, including final lengthening, complexity deferral (for reasons related to processing), metrical optimization, phonotactic optimization, and (esp. in my own work) stress-weight alignment in sentential prosody. I maintain that the stress-weight interface best explains the core properties of PEW, while the other factors are either irrelevant or at least largely orthogonal to it. One area in which the stress-weight analysis illuminates PEW concerns its differing treatment of onset vs. rime segments. For instance, in the nucleus and coda, greater sonority correlates with greater weight, while in the onset, the generalization is reversed: Greater obstruency patterns as heavier. This reversal is also evident from other types of weight systems (with phonetic rationales in Gordon 2005, Ryan 2014). Thus, I propose that PEW instantiates the same stress-weight interface that is well-documented for stress, meter, etc., a generalization of Weight-to-Stress (Prince 1983 et seq.). The proposed generalization is formalized as a stringent weight hierarchy (e.g. moraic sonorant X > moraic X > X), partly to avoid monsters, but stringency can only be maintained if one recognizes a natural class that is the union of onset obstruents (which cannot be analyzed as moraic in English) and rime segments (which are moraic), among other issues.

Syntax Square 4/4 - Colin Davis

Speaker: Colin Davis (MIT)
Title: English Possessor Extraction, Pied-piping, and Cyclic Linearization
Date and time: Tuesday April 4, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In my previous syntax square, I introduced possessor extraction in English. This essentially undocumented possibility in colloquial speech stands in contrast to canonical pied-piping wh-movement of possessors in English.
  1. Who do they say[[_’s cat] is cute]? (Possessor extraction)
  2. [Whose cat] do they say [_ is cute]? (Pied-piping)
English possessor extraction cannot happen all the time, however. In this talk, I go on to analyze the phenomenon’s restrictions. For example, non-subject DPs must be pied-piped to the edge of their clause for PE out of them to be licit, producing a unique instance of partial pied-piping. In a very general sense, pied-piping to an intermediate position provides a nice piece of overt evidence for successive-cyclic movement through intermediate specifiers of CP.
  1. *Who do they think [John likes [_’s cake]]? (No PE from object in-situ)
  2. Who do they think[[_’s cake] John likes _]? (PE from pied-piped object)
I argue that this pied-piping and a number of other details result from an adjacency condition between possessor and the saxon genitive (cf. Gavruseva & Thornton 2001) which interacts with phase-by-phase linearization of syntactic structure (Fox & Pesetsky 2005, Ko 2005, 2014). Along the way, this analysis finds a explanation for the fact that successive-cyclic movement through spec-vP cannot strand anything in English, a curious gap in the paradigm of McCloskeys’s all-stranding and true of P-stranding in English generally. This finding leads to a number of broader predictions about stranding and its interaction with movement and the nature of specifiers (cf. Ko). The interaction of English possessor extraction with existential constructions also leads to a novel argument from linearization that expletive there originates in vP (Biberauer & Richards 2005, Deal 2009).

LFRG 4/5 - Colin Davis

Speaker: Colin Davis (MIT)
Title: English possessor extraction and LF pied-piping
Date and time: Wednesday April 5, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The colloquial speech of many English speakers permits what looks like possessor extraction, which A’-moves a possessor (1) without pied-piping the rest of the DP (2).

1. Who do they think [[_’s fat cat] is cute]? (Possessor extraction)

2. [Whose fat cat] do they think [_ is cute]? (Standard pied-piping)

This movement is interesting in light of the fact that English is a language that otherwise obeys the Left Branch Condition (Ross 1967), which describes a lack of extraction of the leftmost constituent of a nominal phrase. I argue that despite appearances, the possessum is in fact covertly pied-piped in (1), meaning that there really is no Left Branch Condition exception here. Some evidence for this comes from parasitic gaps, where a possessum stranded in an embedded clause can bind a parasitic gap in the matrix clause, as in (3).

3. [Who did you say[_’s haircut is awful] despite wanting help from PG]?

If who moved alone and didn’t carry haircut into the matrix clause, we expect the PG to be bound by who and so refer to a person. If there was full pied-piping we predict whose haircut to bind the PG, giving a silly reading where you want help from a haircut. By the judgments of most speakers, it turns out that the silly reading is the most salient for sentences like this, with the non-silly reading being absent or difficult. Importantly, we only expect the silly reading to be available if the possessum was covertly pied-piped, binding the PG. von Stechow (1996) argues against Nishigauchi (1990), saying that covert pied-piping does not exist, or at least is not interpreted. In (3), covert pied-piping is interpreted. I also apply the logic of covert pied-piping to sluicing in answers to possessor-extracting questions, and some puzzles regarding free relatives, which don’t pattern as expected.

Ling-Lunch 4/6 - Adrian Stegovec

Speaker: Adrian Stegovec (UConn)
Title: Two’s company, three’s a crowd: Strength implications in syntactic person restrictions
Date/Time: Thursday, April 6th, 12h30—1h50pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk I argue for a novel approach to syntactic person restrictions (SPRs) such as the Person-Case Constraint (PCC) in ditransitives and analogous restrictions in transitives. I present data from a broad cross-linguistic survey of SPRs (101 languages), revealing a generalization on the distribution of SPRs across combinations of External-Internal and Internal-Internal arguments —- the Strength Implication Generalization: “If a language has both an External-Internal argument and an Internal-Internal argument SPR, the Internal-Internal one is never “weaker” than the External-Internal one”. I propose that SPRs arise due to the inherent person feature underspecification of relevant pronominal markers which makes them dependent on phase heads for external person feature valuation. This is shown not only to derive the generalization from standard assumptions on argument structure, but also to capture the cross-linguistic variation in SPR types in terms of lexical (micro-)variation in pronominal markers and a contextual approach to phases.

Explanatory adequacy in formal semantics 4/7 - Irene Heim

Earlier this semester there were three LFRG presentations on topics that had to do with explanatory adequacy in formal semantics. Since there was interest in discussing these issues further, a separate reading group on explanatory adequacy in formal semantics will start this week.

The goal is to discuss theoretical, experimental, and computational work in formal semantics that addresses the question of how denotations of lexical items are acquired, with a special focus on 1) typological and experimental work that contributes to the characterization of the range of possible denotations available to the child, and 2) computational work on semantic learning.

The reading group will meet on Fridays at 2-3pm in 32-D831. The first meeting’s details are below.

Speaker: Irene Heim (MIT)
Title: Type Economy
Date/Time: Friday, April 7, 2:00-3:00pm
Location: 32-D831

Lexicalist and syntactic accounts of a given construction have often been pitted against each other in the linguistic literature. Proponents of either account ought to do more than argue that their favorite account derives better empirical predictions from simpler assumptions. They also should tell us how the language learner chooses this analysis. For example, a linguist who favors a raising-to-subject analysis of verbs like seem should formulate constraints or biases which may guide children to acquire this analysis and not a lexicalist one. Informally, a bias in favor of “simpler” semantic types could fill the bill in this case. But what exactly is the relevant metric of simplicity?

MIT Colloquium 4/7 - Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero (Manchester)

Speaker: Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero (Manchester)
Title: The phonological lexicon, usage factors, and rates of change: Evidence from Manchester English
Time: Friday, April 7, 3:30-5:00 pm
Venue: 32-155

This paper reports the results of research conducted jointly with George Bailey (University of Manchester), Maciej Baranowski (University of Manchester), and Danielle Turton (University of Newcastle upon Tyne).

In classical modular feedforward architectures of grammar, phonetic implementation does not have access to information about lexical items beyond the discrete properties encoded in phonological representations. This hypothesis accounts for fundamental facts of human language such as double articulation and the existence of neogrammarian change, but it fails to explain the fact that fine phonetic detail is also affected by gradient usage-related properties of lexical items such as token frequency and neighbourhood density.

Exemplar Theory seeks to explain the phonetic effects of usage factors by abandoning the classical hypothesis that lexical phonological representations consist solely of categorical information. Less radical approaches, however, continue to uphold this assumption: some, such as Baese-Berk & Goldrick’s (2009) account of neighbourhood density effects, rely on the notion of gradient symbolic computation, according to which phonological representations are made up of symbols that are discrete but exhibit continuously varying degrees of activation (Smolensky & Goldrick 2016).

These two approaches to the phonetic effects of usage factors differ in their diachronic predictions. In the case of lexical token frequency, in particular, it has been repeatedly observed that, synchronically, high-frequency words exhibit more lenition than low-frequency words. From this observation the proponents of Exemplar Theory infer that, during historical language change, high-frequency words undergo reduction at a relatively faster rate due to greater exposure to reductive phonetic biases, whose effects are claimed to be directly registered in phonetically-detailed lexical representations. Pace Hay & Foulkes (2016), however, this diachronic pattern has never been reliably observed, and these accounts fail to consider another logical possibility: namely, that high-frequency words are ahead synchronically but actually change at the same rate as low-frequency words.

In this talk I report the findings of an investigation into the effect of lexical token frequency on the glottal replacement of word-medial /t/ in Manchester English, using apparent-time data from 62 speakers born between 1926 and 1985 (2131 tokens). Two stringent tests (mixed effects logistic regression and comparison between curve-fitting models) show that lexical token frequency gives rise to a ‘constant rate effect’ in the sense of Kroch (1989): high-frequency words exhibit more glottalization at all points in apparent time, but the size of their advantage remains unchanged. This suggests that glottalization advances historically through an increase in the probability of application of a single process targeting both high- and low-frequency words, whilst the impact of frequency is produced by time-invariant orthogonal mechanisms, possibly involving gradient symbolic computation. Thus, the evidence is consistent with the classical assumption that lexical phonological representations consist solely of discrete categories and do not encode fine phonetic detail.

A PDF copy of the abstract (with references) is also available.


Aravind in NLLT

Good news from fourth-year student Athulya Aravind, whose paper “Licensing long-distance wh-in-situ in Malayalam” has been accepted for publication in Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. Congratulations, Athulya! Follow the link for a pre-publication draft.


Kotek to NYU

Congratulations to Hadas Kotek (PhD 2014), who has accepted a position as Visiting Assistant Professors at NYU’s Department of Linguistics next year!


Sugawara accepts Assistant Professor position

We are delighted to report that our 2016 alum Ayaka Sugawara has accepted a position as Lecturer (the equivalent of a tenure-track Assistant Professor), at Mie University. Ayaka’s dissertation concerned “The role of Question-Answer Congruence (QAC) in child language and adult sentence processing”. Fantastic news — congratulations, Ayaka!


DeGraff’s paper at PROSPECTS

Michel DeGraff published the article “Mother-tongue books in Haiti: The power of Kreyòl in learning to read and in reading to learn” in the UNESCO journal PROSPECTS (Comparative Journal of Curriculum, Learning, and Assessment). The article is available here.



While WHAMIT! was on hiatus because of Spring Break, the 48th Annual Conference on African Linguistics took place at Indiana University, Bloomington. 3rd year grad student Abdul-Razak Sulemana gave the talk GETCASE is Violable: Evidence for Wholesale Late Merger.


MIT@ Формальные подходы к русскому языку

Last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the linguists of Moscow State University and Moscow State Pedagogical University hosted the second workshop on Formal Approaches to Russian Linguistics, with several MIT connections. The excellent conference was organized by frequent MIT visitor, former Fulbright Fellow and former visiting faculty Sergei Tatevosov and his colleague Ekaterina Lyutikova.  David Pesetsky and alum Ora Matushansky (PhD 2002) were the invited speakers. David’s talk was entitled “Clause size and Nominal size: towards a derivational theory of both”.  Ora, well-known for her work on semantics, syntax and morpology, spoke about … Russian phonology — specifically “A problem in the Hallean approach to the Russian verb”. In addition, alum Natasha Ivlieva (PhD 2013) of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics presented a talk on to li…to li disjunctions and Tatiana Bondarenko, a member of next Fall’s incoming class (!), spoke about “Russian applicatives and the lexical decomposition”. After FARL, David Pesetsky also presented a colloquium talk on his research concerning clause size at Moscow State University.

at the conference dinner: L to R: Ekaterina Lyutikova, David Pesetsky, Misha Knyazev, Natasha Ivlieva, Maria Vassilyéva, Tatiana Bondarenko, Sergei Tatevosov
the conference dinner.  From left to right: Katya Lyutikova, David Pesetsky, Misha Knyazev, Natasha Ivlieva, Maria Vassilyéva, Tatiana Bondarenko, Sergei Tatevosov


Phonology Circle 3/20 - Joan Mascaró Altimiras (UAB)

Speaker: Joan Mascaró Altimiras (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona/MIT)
Title: Stress Dependent Harmony and Featural Affixation: Metaphony in Romance
Date/Time: Monday, March 20, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

Stress-dependent harmony in Romance (aka metaphony) has been usually analyzed as a case of phonological spreading from/licensing of a final trigger affecting the stressed vowel. In cases in which the trigger has become opaque, either an abstract analysis (Calabrese 1985, 1998) or a morphological analysis (featural affixation or similar; Kaze 1989, Finley 2009) has been proposed. The determination of trigger-target interactions has been analyzed as determined by a prosodic domain (the foot, Hualde 1989, Flemming 1994) or as licensing of features in a weak position (Cole 1998, Majors 1998, Walker 2005). In this talk, I will examine all these possibilities and suggest that even in transparent cases an analysis in terms of featural affixation cannot be ruled out given current empirical evidence, and that the original analyses in terms of foot domains might be a more appropriate solution.

Syntax Square 3/21 - Kenyon Branan

Speaker: Kenyon Branan (MIT)
Title: Contiguity Preservation: Another Look at Defective Intervention
Date and time: Tuesday March 21, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Some languages, like English, allow raising across an experiencer in sentences like [John seems to me to be intelligent]. Other languages, like Icelandic, don’t. In this talk, I will attempt to build a theory that will predict whether or not a language will allow raising across an experiencer. This theory will not make reference to the notion of defective intervention, which has commonly been used to account for the facts in Icelandic. I show that a number of other syntactic properties correlate with the “allows raising across a dative property”, and that these properties can be explained straightforwardly with Richards’ (2016) Contiguity. I then propose a requirement that Contiguity relationships may not be broken in the same phase they are created, and show that this accounts for the fact that English-like languages allow raising across a dative, but not Icelandic-like languages. Finally, I attempt to extend the account to English tough-constructions.

LFRG 3/22 - Itai Bassi

Speaker: Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Phi features on focus-bound pronouns: a semantic account
Date and time: Wednesday March 22, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Some researchers (Kratzer 1998, Heim 2008, a.o.) have argued that phi features on bound pronouns are not (always) semantically interpreted. Their presence, it is claimed, is a PF-only phenomenon, perhaps as a reflex of an agreement relationship with the binder of their pronoun. One motivation for this conclusion comes from focus constructions like (1). The point is that under standard assumptions about binding and about the meaning of phi features, the phi features on my better not be semantically active, or else the right interpretation of (1) would not be derived.

1. Only I brushed my teeth.

But other authors (Jacobson 2012, Sauerland 2013) have taken a more semantic view, capitalizing on the observation that (1) is a focus construction. On this approach the phi-features in (1) do contribute their usual meaning, but only at the level of the regular semantic value of the expression and not at the level of its focus semantic value.

The goal of this talk is to develop a novel account of focus constructions like (1) within the semantic approach. The core of the proposal is that (1) involves F-coindexation between the two pronouns:

2. Only [I]F1 brushed [my]F1 teeth.

My account builds on Kratzer’s (1991) version of focus semantics, where focused phrases carry an indexed F-feature. I will propose that the grammar has a mechanism that allows a focused phrase to share its F-index to matching pronouns. The fact that phi-features contribute only to the regular semantic value will be derived in this system.

I will show how the phenomenon of split binding (Rullmann 2004), which is problematic to PF accounts, can be handled in my theory rather straightforwardly.

Finally, I will try to independently motivate the notion that focus dependencies like (1) makes the dependent pronoun (silently) F-marked.


Talk 3/22 - Loes Koring

Speaker: Loes Koring (MIT)
Title: Looking for structure in strings
Time: Wednesday March 22, 3:00 – 5:00 pm
Room: 32-D461

The class of intransitive verbs poses an interesting puzzle for the language-acquiring child. The child has to work out which of these verbs project an unergative and which an unaccusative syntax. The puzzle here is that, in many languages, the surface strings these verbs give rise to, do not provide any (useful) information regarding their underlying structure. A potential complicating factor is that there are reasons to think that young children are not able to project an unaccusative structure in which the internal argument has moved up to subject position. In this talk, I will use the Visual World Paradigm to probe more directly into the underlying structure children assign to sentences with unaccusative verbs by looking at children’s processing signatures for these sentences. The results from the eye-tracking experiments I present are not only informative regarding (the acquisition of) unaccusativity, but the paradigm itself opens up a new way to uncover the underlying structures of different strings (and thus to tease apart competing hypotheses about the structure). Finally, I will discuss the implications of these results with respect to how we think about (the acquisition of) constraints on structural alternations verbs can participate in.

Ling-Lunch 3/23 — Michelle Yuan

Speaker: Michelle Yuan (MIT)
Title: Against morphological diagnostics for object agreement vs. clitic doubling: Evidence from Inuktitut
Date/Time: Thursday, March 23, 12:30—1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

There has been much recent debate concerning the proper analysis of object agreement—whether it is true agreement (phi-feature valuation) or clitic doubling (a pronominal D0 co-referring with a DP). Various diagnostics have been put forth to determine whether a given “object-referencing morpheme” is one or the other (e.g. Preminger 2009, Nevins 2011, Kramer 2014). In this talk, I argue against the use of morphological diagnostics (as in Zwicky & Pullum 1983, also Nevins 2011) in discerning between the two, based on a comparison between Inuktitut and related Inuit languages (mostly West Greenlandic).

In Inuit, subject- and object-referencing morphemes surface as mood-sensitive portmanteaux; this has been previously taken as an argument for true object agreement in Inuit (Compton 2014). However, novel data from Inuktitut reveal that the Inuit languages actually display a split: while in West Greenlandic the object-referencing portion of these portmanteaux is underlyingly true agreement, in Inuktitut it is clitic doubling. Unlike West Greenlandic, Inuktitut displays a number of syntactic and semantic effects that strongly parallel the behaviour of pronominal object clitics cross-linguistically (e.g. Dobrovie-Sorin 1990, Cardinaletti & Starke 1999). I will moreover show that this split is not arbitrary, but falls within a broader pattern across Inuit.

Crucially, despite this contrast, the West Greenlandic and Inuktitut agreement paradigms are almost entirely identical; their morphological properties therefore have no bearing on the underlying syntax associated with these forms. To properly discern between agreement and clitic doubling, we must instead focus on syntactic and semantic diagnostics that specifically take into account the determiner/pronominal status of doubled clitics, i.e. that they are D0’s in a syntactic dependency with a co-referring DP (see, for example, Preminger 2009).


MIT LingPhil Colloquium 3/24 - Cleo Condoravdi (Stanford)

This Friday, Cleo Condoravdi will be giving our third annual MIT Linguistics and Philosophy Colloquium!

Speaker: Cleo Condoravdi (Stanford)
Title: Conditional imperatives
Time: Friday, March 24th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Venue: 32-155

I present an analysis of imperatives as preferential commitments and show how preferential commitments get conditionalized in conditional imperatives, including imperatives in anankastic conditionals. The analysis allows for uses of modals and imperatives to be equivalent in their communicative effect, despite their different underlying semantics. It also accounts for a new observation about a crucial difference between modals and imperatives: while modals can be used to give advice on why a certain goal should be rescinded given the facts of the matter, imperatives cannot.

What I will talk about builds on three previous papers on imperatives and on anankastic conditionals (1, 2, 3), but there is no paper yet corresponding to the content of the talk and one does not need to be familiar with the previous work.

Juliet Stanton, new NYU Assistant Professor!

We are thrilled to congratulate our very own Juliet Stanton for having accepted a tenure-track position of Assistant Professor in phonology at New York University, Department of Linguistics! Wonderful news!


LSA 2017 Institute Fellowship Award recipient — Elise Newman

First year graduate student Elise Newman (also MIT S.B. 2016) has received an LSA 2017 Institute Fellowship Award to attend the 2017 Linguistic Institute at the University of Kentucky. Congratulations, Elise!


Precious Little at Central Square Theater

‘Tis truly the year of the linguist in popular culture (if theatre can be considered popular culture). Central Square Theater’s current season includes a play about a linguist, which several of our own linguists attended on Saturday. Precious Little, written by Madeleine George, explores the mind of linguist faced with the fact that her child may never be able to learn a language. The piece is thought provoking and the linguist humour is on point. We all enjoyed it thoroughly, and would recommend the show to anyone interested in linguistics and theatre!


Phonology Circle 3/13 - Aleksei Nazarov (Harvard)

Speaker: Aleksei Nazarov (Harvard)
Title: Learning to mark exceptionality in probabilistic OT
Date/Time: Monday, March 13, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

In this work in progress, I seek to simulate how the language-learning infant learns that certain words are exceptions to their phonological grammar. Existing learners that assign exceptionality marking to words in OT (Becker 2009, Coetzee 2009) are non-probabilistic, making them unable to represent within-word variation (Coetzee and Pater 2011; see Temkin-Martínez 2010 for the necessity of representing both variation and exceptionality). The logic of those learners – comparing (pairwise) ranking conditions between words – cannot be applied to most existing probabilistic OT learners (e.g., Boersma 1997, Goldwater and Johnson 2003). I present an extension of Jarosz’s (2015) Expectation Driven Learning approach that is able to embody this logic and induce exceptionality labels. The efficacy of this approach is tested on several mini-case studies, including the case of default and exceptional Dutch stress (Kager 1989).

Syntax Square 3/14 - Colin Davis

Speaker: Colin Davis (MIT)
Title: English Possessor Extraction and Linearization
Date and time: Tuesday March 14, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Continuing from my previous Syntax Square, I analyze English possessor extraction, which is interestingly restricted. One such restriction that becomes apparent in long-distance possessor extraction is that non-subject DPs must be pied-piped to the edge of their clause for PE out of them to be licit:
  1. *Who do they think [John likes [t’s cake]]? (No PE from object in-situ)
  2. Who do they think[[t’s cake] John likes t]? (PE from pied-piped object)
I argue that this and other restrictions result from an adjacency condition between possessor and the Saxon genitive (cf. Gavruseva & Thornton 2001) which interacts with phase-by-phase linearization of syntactic structure (Fox & Pesetsky 2005, Ko 2005, 2014). Along the way, this analysis provides further evidence for Ko’s claim that specifiers of a head cannot be rearranged, finds an explanation for a general lack of spec-vP stranding in English, and additionally, an independent argument from linearization that expletive there originates in vP.

LFRG 3/15 - Robert Pasternak

Speaker: Robert Pasternak (Stony Brook/MIT)
Title: Want comparatives and the natural language metaphysics of desire
Date and time: Wednesday, March 15, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Bach (1986) famously argues that part of the task of model-theoretic semantics is to engage in what he refers to as natural language metaphysics: in short, the determination of what sorts of objects and relations must be included in our model in order to account for the full range of possible meanings in natural language. In this talk, I will propose a natural language metaphysics of desire states—-and a semantics of want to go with it—-in which the intensity of desire tracks the part-whole relations of a desire state in a particular dimension. This is based on two independent observations from the literature. The first is that want can appear in comparatives in which the intensity of desire is being compared (Villalta 2008, Lassiter 2011):

1. Ann wants to leave more than Mary wants to stay.

The second observation is that verbal comparatives require that the measure functions used track part-whole relations of eventualities (Nakanishi 2007, Wellwood et al. 2012, Wellwood 2015). Hence, (2) can be a comparison of the time or distance of Ann’s and Mary’s running (since a running event covers more time/distance than its proper parts), but not the speed:

2. Ann ran more than Mary did.

If this constraint is to hold more generally, and if want comparatives—-which by all appearances are verbal comparatives—-allow for a comparison of intensity, then intensity of desire must track part-whole relations of desire states. After illustrating what such a natural language metaphysics might look like, as well as how the denotation of want interacts with the part-whole structure of such states, I then show how this view can be folded in with von Fintel’s (1999) broadly Hintikkan semantics of want, in which the denotation of want universally quantifies over bouletically ideal worlds.


Talk 3/16 - Robyn Orfitelli

Speaker: Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield)
Title: Middle Class Acquisition
Time: Thursday March 16, 12:30 – 2:30 pm
Room: 32-D461


One of the most discussed puzzles in language acquisition is that children learning English (and a typologically diverse array of other languages) are delayed in acquiring adult comprehension of verbal passives and subject-to-subject raising (1a-b), but show very early comprehension of numerous other forms of A-movement, including subject-to-object raising and unaccusatives (2a-b).

I have previously argued that the cause of this split is that the sentences in (1) violate locality restrictions on movement, making them impossible for young children to derive, while the sentences in (2) do not violate these restrictions. In this talk, I present data from three studies investigating the acquisition of the A-movement that derives the middle voice (3), and a related structure with similar properties (4). Both (3) and (4) are structurally ambiguous: the nominative subject may be interpreted as either the external argument (reading i) or internal argument (reading ii) of the predicate, making these ideal test cases for locality-based intervention accounts.

Collectively, the data from the three studies suggest that children have no difficulty representing internal arguments as subjects, despite their non-canonical alignment, and the extreme rarity of sentences like (3) and (4) in child-directed speech. I discuss the significance of these findings for both our understanding of A-movement acquisition, and for our understanding of implicitly represented arguments in syntactic/semantic structure.

  1. a. Amber was seen by Graham.
    b. Amber seems to Graham to be lying.
  2. a. Amber believes Graham to be lying.
    b. Amber arrived.
  3. Adorable kittens sell easily.
    i. Adorable kittens make particularly talented sales-cats.
    ii. Adorable kittens can easily be sold.
  4. Scientists make great parents.
    i. (Mad) scientists create great parents (a la Dr. Frankenstein).
    ii. Scientists are generally great parents.


The 40th edition of GLOW (Generative Linguistics in the Old World) will take place later this week (March 15—17) at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. As usual, MIT will be represented by many current students and alumni.

Hagit Borer (PhD ‘81) is the invited speaker of the main conference.

There will also be workshops during GLOW. Laura Downing and Lisa Cheng (PhD ‘91) organized the workshop Syntax-Phonology Interface – What does Phonology need to know about Syntax and vice versa. Eulàlia Bonet (PhD ‘91) will be the invited speaker and will give the talk Phases and prosodic domains in exponence and phonology. At the same workshop, Nomi Erteschik (PhD ‘73), Gunlög Josefsson & Björn Köhnlein is presenting the work titled Mainland Scandinavian Object Shift, Match Theory and Prosodic Displacement.

Hamida Demirdache (PhD ‘91) and Janet Grijzenhout organized the workshop Heritage Language Knowledge and AcquisitionHeritage Language Knowledge and Acquisition. Esther Rinke, Cristina Flores & Pilar Barbosa (PhD ‘95) will give the talk Null objects in Heritage Portuguese and Jiyoung Choi & Hamida Demirdache the talk Experimentally investigating intervention effects in adult, child and Heritage Korean

Ezer Rasin will take in part in special workshop called The Interface Within, presenting the work titled ‘Predictions of a phonological architecture with stress encapsulation’.

Finally, GLOW is also hosting a special workshop to honor the retirement of Hans Bennis. Timothy Stowell (PhD ‘81) is one of the invited speakers, talking about ‘Government by Agreement’.


A new linguistic summer school in Crete

Several faculty (Kai von Fintel, Sabine Iatridou, and Shigeru Miyagawa) will be teaching at the Crete Summer School of Linguistics at the University of Crete, in the beautiful city of Rethymnon, from July 10 to July 21, 2017.

Kai will be teaching a class on modals and conditionals, Sabine will be teaching an Introduction to Syntax class, and Shigeru will be teaching two classes, one on the topic of his recent monograph, Agreement Beyond Phi, and one on language and animal communication in evolution.

Full information (including details on the application due April 10th), can be found on the summer school website.


Phonology Circle 3/6 - Abdul-Razak Sulemana

Speaker: Abdul-Razak Sulemana (MIT)
Title: GETCASE is Violable: Evidence for Wholesale Late Merger
Date/Time: Monday, March 6, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I examine reconstruction effects in a class of A-bar constructions in Bùlì, building on recent proposals about the mechanisms that yield reconstructions asymmetries in A and A-bar movement Takahashi and Hulsey (2009) and the asymmetries within English preposition stranding (P-stranding) Stanton (2016).

A well known asymmetry between A and A-bar movement is that: while A-movement bleeds binding Condition C, A-bar movement doesn’t. This led to the conclusion that: while A-movement optionally leaves a trace, A-bar movement obligatorily leaves a copy (Sauerland 1998, Fox 1999). This conclusion, however, posses a serious challenge to the copy theory of movement. To resolve this, Takahashi and Hulsey (2009), extending the idea of late marge (Lebeaux 1988, Chomsky 1995) and adopting insights from (Fox 2002), argue that late merger is allowed whenever an output representation can be interpreted in the semantic component (wholesale Later merger(WLM)). By this operation, they maintain that there is no distinction between A and A-bar movement with respect to the copy theory, independent properties of grammar like Case, account for the reconstruction properties of A and A-bar movement: while WLM can apply to A movement because it involves movement from a non-Case position to a Case position, WLM cannot apply to A-bar movement because A-bar movement involves movement from a Case position to a non-Case position. The goal of this talk is to show that wh-questions in Bùlì, a Gur language spoken in Ghana, provides new evidence for WLM. In particular, I argue that the outcome of overt movement in the language is as a result of ranking the constraint LATEMERGE, which requires constituents to merge as late as possible, above GETCASE, which penalizes a Caseless NP and *TOOLATE, which assigns a violation to late merge if the relationship it establishes is not the structurally highest of its type (Stanton 2016). I argue that the interactions of these constraints are responsible for the cross linguistic variations we observe between A-bar extractions and reconstruction effects in Bùlì as well as other well studied languages, including English.

Data and Analysis: Bùlì permits wh-phrases to appear in the left periphery of the clause (1a-b). The sensitive of these phrases to islands (1c) is taken as evidence to show that they undergo movement.

(1)  a. (ká) bwa ātì bí:ká dìgì:
Q what C child.DEF cook
‘What is that the child cooked?

b. ká lām būnā ātì bí:ká
dìgì:Q meat which C child.DEF cook
‘Which meat did the child cook?’

c. *ká bwa ātì bí:ká dà gbáŋ ālī:
Q what C child.DEF buy book CONJ

In analyzing this data, I assume that the QP moves overtly to the Spec, of ātì. However, unlike movement of the whole QP-NP-DP complex from the base position (2), I propose that it involves movement of QP-DP followed by Late merging the NP lām ‘meat’ to the structure at the final landing site (Takahashi and Hulsey 2009, Stanton 2016). This derivation, I argue, is responsible for the lack of reconstruction effects in the language (2b). Since Ajohn foto ‘picture of John’ (2b) is merged after moving the QP and DP, the co-referential pronoun, wà‘3SG’ doesn’t c-command a copy of John in the base position, hence its ability to bleed principle C.

(2) a. [ká [lām] būnā ] ātì bí:ká dìgì ká būnā]

b. ká Ajohnfoto kūnā ātì wài à-yā:lī:
Q John picture which C 3SG IMPF-like
‘*Which picture of John does he like’


Syntax Square 3/7 - Snejana Iovtcheva

Speaker: Snejana Iovtcheva (MIT)
Title: An Applicative Account of Bulgarian Double Object Constructions
Date and time: Tuesday March 7, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

I will present and discuss data on Bulgarian ditransitives, in which clitic doubled Goal arguments differ systematically from their non-double counterparts. More concretely, I will demonstrate that clitic doubled ditransitive constructions, behave in par with English Double Object Constructions (DOC) of the type [I gave John the book], while non-doubled ditransitive constructions behave like Prepositional Ditransitive Constructions (PDC) of the type [I gave the book to John].

The DOC/PDC distinction is not obvious right away since the language has free word order and Goal arguments are always marked with the same preposition na. The correlation between clitic doubling in DOC and the absence of clitic doubling in PDC has already been established for Spanish (Cuervo 2003) and Romanian (Rivero & Diaconescu 2006, Diaconescu 2007). In my analysis on Bulgarian DOCs, I follow Marantz (1993), Pylkkänen (2003), Cuervo (2003) and Slavkov (2008) and I propose that na-marked clitic doubled Goals in Bulgarian are introduced by functional ‘Low’ Applicative heads. The clitic itself is treated as a spell out of the Appl0.

In addition to contrasting clitic doubled na-Goals to non-doubled na-Goals, I will discuss also na-marked arguments of transitive and unaccusative verbs and I propose that the language has also ‘high’ Applicative heads, which are introduced above the VP domain.


LFRG 3/8 - Matthew Mandelkern

Speaker: Matthew Mandelkern
Title: Bounded Modality
Date and time: Wednesday, March 8, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

To what degree does the meaning of an epistemic modal claim like ‘It might be raining’ resemble the meaning of an avowal of ignorance like ‘For all I know, it’s raining’? Progress on this question has been made by exploring differences in how constructions along these lines embed—-in particular by exploring their behavior as part of larger constructions like Wittgenstein (1953)’s ‘It might be raining and it’s not’ and Moore (1942)’s ‘It’s raining and I don’t know it’, respectively. A variety of approaches have been developed to account for those differences. All approaches, however, agree that the infelicity of unembedded Moore sentences and unembedded Wittgenstein sentences is to be explained in roughly the same way: such sentences are classically consistent, but commitment to both conjuncts is incoherent.

In this paper I argue against this consensus. If this consensus were right, then disjoined Moore sentences, and disjoined Wittgenstein sentences, would be felicitous. This prediction is borne out for disjoined Moore sentences, but not for Wittgenstein sentence. This creates a puzzle, since there is decisive reason to think that ‘Might p’ is consistent with ‘Not p’. I propose a new theory of epistemic modals and their interaction with embedding operators which predicts that, while ‘Might p’ is indeed consistent with ‘Not p’, when evaluating their conjunction, ‘Might p and not p’, we are forced to do so relative to an accessibility relation which makes the conjunction false. I show that this theory accounts not only for Wittgenstein sentences and their disjunctions, but also for the subtle behavior of embedded modals across the board. The upshot is that there is much in common between ‘For all we know, p’ and the meaning of ‘Might p’—-and thus much that is correct in the standard semantics for the latter—-but also a crucial difference: interpretation of the latter, but not the former, depends in a striking way on the intersentential dynamics of information.

Talk 3/9 - Roni Katzir

Speaker: Roni Katzir (MIT and Tel Aviv University)
Title: Choosing between theories of UG using compression-based learning
Time: Thursday March 9, 12:30-2:30pm
Room: 32-D461

I will discuss an approach to learning — compression-based learning — and show how it can help us choose between competing grammatical architectures in some cases where adult judgments alone are insufficiently informative.

Compression (or the principle of Minimum Description Length; also very closely related to Bayesian approaches) considers both the size of the grammar and that of the description of the data given the grammar and attempts to minimize their sum. By doing so, compression guides the learner to hypotheses that balance between generality and the need to fit the data. Compression appears to match subjects’ generalization patterns in a variety of tasks, and it has yielded working learners for realistic linguistic theories in different domains.

I will review these properties of compression-based learning and show how we can use it to compare between competing architectures with two case studies, one in phonology and one in semantics. The phonological case study concerns constraints on underlying representations (also known as morpheme-structure constraints), which were central to early generative phonology but rejected in Optimality Theory. Evidence bearing directly on the question of whether the grammar uses constraints on URs has been scarce. I will show, however, that if the child is a compression-based learner, then they will succeed in learning patterns such as English aspiration if they can use constraints on URs but run into difficulties otherwise. In semantics, I will discuss two architectures for the representation of quantificational determiners: building blocks and semantic automata. While both choices support the representation and learning of quantificational determiners, I will show a specific domain where they predict different learning paths.


Hot off the press: Miyagawa’s Agreement Beyond Phi

Shigeru Miyagawa’s most recent book, Agreement Beyond Phi has just been published by the MIT Press as an LI Monograph. Building on his previous monograph Why Agree? Why Move?, this book investigates agreement in so-called agreementless languages in arguing for a unified view of grammatical features that includes both phi-features and discourse configurational features.

Miyagawa opens up formal syntax to include discourse-related phenomena and thus contributes to the building of a new research agenda.”—Liliane Haegeman

Congratulations Shigeru!


Syntax Square 2/28 - Abdul-Razak Sulemana

Speaker: Abdul-Razak Sulemana (MIT)
Title: Q-particles and the nature of Covert movement: evidence from Bùlì
Date and time: Tuesday February 28, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

It is a well known fact that wh-questions in many languages may contain an in-situ wh-phrase. The nature of this wh-phrase, however, has been a contentious issue in the literature. While some have argued that the in-situ wh-phrase undergoes covert movement at LF (Aoun, Hornstein, and Sportiche, 1981; Huang, 1982; Nishigauchi, 1990; Pesetsky, 2000, Richards, 1997; 2000; Nissenbaum, 2000; Cable, 2007; 2010; Kotek, 2014; 2016), others have argued against this view (Watanabe 1992; Chomsky 1995; Reinhart 1998). A well-known puzzle for proponents of covert movement are the apparent differences in island-sensitivity between overt and covert movement — leading Huang (1982), for example, to propose that island-sensitivity is a property of S-structure or PF but not LF. The goal of this paper is to show that wh-questions in Bùlì provide strong arguments for covert movement of wh-in situ that eliminate the need to posit any overt/covert differences in island-sensitivity cross-linguistically. The key to this demonstration is the distribution of an overt Q-marker in Bùlì, and Bùlì’s status as an in-situ language.


LFRG 3/1 - Athulya Aravind and Ezer Rasin‏

Speakers: Athulya Aravind and Ezer Rasin‏
Title: The nature of the semantic stimulus: quantifier learning as a case study
Date and time: Wednesday March 1, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Language acquisition involves making sense of unanalyzed input: the child brings to the task a hypothesis space, each point in which represents a grammar, and she chooses a point in that space that can generate the input. If two grammars G, G’ are compatible with the input and the child ends up converging on G, we can draw interesting conclusions regarding acquisition: it could be, for example, that G’ is outside of the child’s hypothesis space, or that the child is biased towards choosing G over G’. The literature on acquisition in syntax and phonology has identified cases where the input is not rich enough to eliminate alternatives to the adult grammar, suggesting that learning in those domains is non-trivial.

Our goal is to evaluate the richness of the input in semantics, and our case study is the acquisition of quantificational determiners. We address the following question: are there logically weaker or logically stronger alternatives to quantifier meanings that are compatible with the child’s input, or is the input rich enough to eliminate competing hypotheses? We report our preliminary conclusions from a study of several English CHILDES corpora:

  • Systematic truth-conditional evidence for ruling out logically weaker meanings does not seem to be available. Obvious candidates for providing such evidence like the direct rejection of a child’s utterance and the use of quantifiers in downward-entailing environments were either absent from most corpora or consistent with weaker meanings.
  • Contextual evidence for ruling out logically weaker meanings is available. We identify contexts where a weaker meaning for a quantifier would violate some pragmatic constraint. If children can use this contextual evidence early enough, then logically weaker meanings would be incompatible with the input.
  • With respect to logically stronger alternatives, the situation is quite different. We construct classes of quantifiers with complex, logically stronger meanings designed to be consistent with any finite number of utterances. If such quantifiers are in the child’s hypothesis space, then converging on adult meanings would require non-trivial induction.

Thursday, 3/2 — talk by Victoria E. Mateu

Speaker: Victoria E. Mateu (UCLA)
Title: On the Acquisition of Raising and Control: A Cross-linguistic Study
Time: March 2 (Thursday), from 12:30 – 2:30
Room: 24-121

This study investigates the delays observed in the acquisition of raising with seem (e.g. Mary seems to John _ to be cautious) and control with promise (e.g. Mary promises John _ to be cautious). One prominent explanation for the difficulties with these constructions holds that it is related to the presence of the intervening argument. Crucially for this type of accounts, an intervener is possible with Spanish prometer ‘promise’, but not with the modal-like verb parecer ‘seem’. The experiments presented here were designed to answer the following questions: i) are the delays observed in these constructions due to intervention effects? If so, ii) are they grammar- or processing-based? and iii) if they are grammar-based, is the grammatical machinery used to by-pass the intervener the same in raising and control?

The results obtained from the raising experiments reveal that Spanish-speaking children comprehend raising sentences with the semi-modal verb parecer by age four, while English-speaking children experience difficulties with raising seem until at least age six – even when the intervening argument is not overtly produced. This cross-linguistic asymmetry suggests that the (overt or covert) intervening argument is the root of the difficulty. Consistent with intervention accounts, the results obtained from the control experiments reveal that both English- and Spanish-speaking children show difficulties comprehending control with promise/prometer until at least age six.

Regarding our second question, an in-depth look into the raising and control data reveal two different groups of children: i) below-chance group: children who lack the grammatical means to circumvent the intervening argument and ii) chance and above-chance group: children who have an adult grammar system but still experience difficulties due to their immature processing system. We refer to this as the Dual Source Intervention hypothesis.

Importantly for our third question, our results do not show a correlation between performance on raising and control in all children –some children perform below chance with raising and above chance with control and some vice-versa, showing a grammatical dissociation between these two constructions. This has important consequences for syntactic theories that claim that raising (with seem) and control (with promise) are derived similarly (e.g. by A-movement, Hornstein 1999, Boeckx & Hornstein 2004, i.a.; or Smuggling, Belletti & Rizzi 2013).


MIT Colloquium 3/3 - Vera Gribanova (Stanford)

Speaker: Vera Gribanova (Stanford)
Title: Head movement, ellipsis, and identity
Time: Friday, March 3rd, 3:30-5:00 pm
Venue: 32-155

In this talk I examine paradigms of crosslinguistic variation concerning the the verbal identity condition in verb-stranding ellipsis, building on a recent proposal about the mechanisms that yield head movement configurations (Harizanov and Gribanova, 2017).

When phrasal material is extracted from ellipsis sites (e.g. in sluicing), violations of lexical identity of the extracted material are permitted under focus of that material (Schuyler, 2001; Merchant, 2001). This is usually attributed to the licensing condition on ellipsis (Rooth 1992, Heim 1997, Merchant 2001), which takes distinct variables inside the ellipsis domain and its antecedent to be identical. I focus on analogous paradigms with head movement out of ellipsis sites (yielding verb-stranding), which appear to lead to contradictory conclusions regarding the architectural status of head movement. Languages like Russian - among them Hungarian, European Portuguese, and Swahili - permit mismatches between extracted parts of the verbal complex and their corresponding antecedent components under focus, just as with phrasal extraction in sluicing. Languages like Irish and Hebrew do not permit such mismatches under any circumstances, pointing to a postsyntactic status for head movement: there is no genuine movement out of the ellipsis site, giving rise to a total identity requirement (Schoorlemmer and Temmerman, 2012; McCloskey, 2016).

A point of leverage into understanding these patterns comes from a proposal by Harizanov and Gribanova (2017), who argue in favor of a bifurcation, both empirical and theoretical, in head movement types. One type involves displacement of fully formed words to higher syntactic positions (e.g. verb second, long head movement). The other type constructs complex morphological words (e.g. affixation, compounding). They point out that the empirical properties of the two types are quite distinct, and justify a theoretical move in which they correspond to distinct operations, in distinct modules of the grammar. They propose that the operation responsible for upward displacement of heads is genuine syntactic movement (Internal Merge); on the other hand, word formation is the result of postsyntactic amalgamation, which has properties that are not associated with narrow syntax.

With this revised view in hand, we can revisit the paradoxical verbal identity patterns: we expect that mismatches in verb-stranding ellipsis will be permitted when head movement is syntactic, but not when it is postsyntactic. I present independently motivated analyses of Irish and Russian clause structure which support exactly this conclusion. Verb movement in Irish involves postsyntactic amalgamation only, predicting a strict lexical identity requirement. By contrast, verb movement in Russian involves both the syntactic and the postsyntactic head movement types, with one of the movement steps being syntactic and giving rise to the possibly of verbal mismatches in verb-stranding ellipsis.


FASAL 7 on March 4-5

The MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy will be hosting the seventh annual Formal Approaches to South Asian Languages (FASAL 7) workshop on March 4-5, 2017. The aim of this workshop is to provide participants with a platform to discuss formal or experimental approaches to syntax, semantics, phonology and morphology from the perspective of South Asian Linguistics.

The invited speakers are:

The full program can be found on the FASAL 7 website. Attendees are requested to register for the workshop. We hope to see you there!


More on DP@60 at the SHASS blog

The MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has a great post up about the David Pesetsky@60 workshop! The post can be seen here.


2/21, Tuesday: talk by Alexis Wellwood

This Tuesday 2/21 at 5:30-7:30pm Alexis Wellwood from Northwestern University will give a talk on “Meaning, vision, and acquisition” in the room 32D-461.

Speaker: Alexis Wellwood (Northwestern University)
Title: Meaning, vision, and acquisition
Date and time: Tuesday, February 21, 5:30-7:30pm
Location: 32-D461


LFRG 2/22 - Masha Esipova

Speaker: Masha Esipova (New York University/MIT)
Title: Focus on what’s (not) at issue: co-speech gestures, presuppositions, and supplements under Contrastive Focus
Date and time: Wednesday, February 22, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

I would like to discuss some of my work in progress (or, as of very recently, in regress) on the interaction of various types of non-at-issue content with Contrastive Focus.

This project started out as a reaction to the debate on the status of the inferences triggered by co-speech gestures between Ebert & Ebert (2014), who claim that those inferences are supplemental, and Schlenker (2015, to appear), who argues that they are presuppositional. We will start from an observation that sometimes co-speech gestures seem to be making an at-issue contribution, in particular, under Contrastive Focus. We will then explore the data on how co-speech gestures, presuppositions, and supplements (in particular, non-restrictive relative clauses and appositives) interact with Contrastive Focus, and will see that while those data don’t necessarily settle the debate on the status of co-speech gestures, they shed some light on how different types of non-at-issue content come to have at-issue uses.

Ling-Lunch 2/23 - Zheng Shen

Speaker: Zheng Shen (UConn)
Title: Multi-Valuation and the Agreement Hierarchy
Day: Thursday, February 23
Time: 12:45pm—1:50 [please note the different time]

In this talk I present arguments for treating cross-linguistic agreement patterns of multi-valuation (Shen to appear) as an instantiation of the Agreement Hierarchy (Corbett 1979).

The nominal right node raising construction in (1) has been argued to involve a single probe that is valued by multiple goals; that is, it involves multi-valuation. In contrast to the multi-valued N in (1), a T node that’s valued by two singular features can be spelled out as plural in summative agreement in (2) (Grosz 2015). Thus there is an asymmetry between multi-valued N and multi-valued T which remains unaccounted for.

(1) This tall and that short student(*s) are a couple.

(2) [Sue’s proud that Bill __ ] and [Mary’s glad that John __ ] have/has traveled to Cameroon.

I argue that this asymmetry is an instantiation of the Agreement Hierarchy (Corbett 1979 et sq, Smith 2015). Cross-linguistically, three out of the four logically possible patterns of multi-valued Ns and Ts are attested (3), parallel to the original Agreement Hierarchy observed for collective nouns. I will discuss other positive consequences of this proposal, in particular regarding the agreement patterns of multi-valued adjectives and determiners reported in King and Dalrymple 2004.

Multi-valued NMulti-valued T

MIT Colloquium 2/24 - Rachel Walker (USC)

Speaker: Rachel Walker (USC)
Title: Temporal Structure in Phonology
Time: Friday, February 24th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Venue: 32-155

In phonological structure, the segment root node is classically the locus of temporal organization for sub-segmental units, such as features, governing their sequencing and overlap (e.g. Clements 1985, Sagey 1986). Segment root nodes also classically mediate hierarchically between moras and sub-segmental elements, and by structurally identifying segments, roots figure in the calculation of weight-by-position, where coda consonants are assigned a mora (Hayes 1989). In this talk, I discuss evidence from phonotactic patterns that motivate an enriched representation of temporal relations, where coordination is represented directly among sub-segmental elements. Weight-by-position is also calculated over this sub-segmental temporal structure. In light of these representations, I consider implications for segment roots and suggest that root nodes be eliminated in favor of a set-based understanding of segments, extending set-based notions of feature classes (Padgett 2002).

Rachel Walker at MIT (2/22-2/24)

Rachel Walker will be here for an extended visit from 2/22-2/24. In addition to her colloquium on Friday, she will also be teaching a mini-course on Wednesday and Thursday. Details are below.

Speaker: Rachel Walker
Title: Sub-segmental Representation

  • Wednesday 2/22: 1-2:30pm in 36-112
  • Thursday 2/23: 4-5:30pm in 36-155


In this course, we will examine the representation of sub-segmental elements in light of patterns involving the neutralization of vowel quantity contrasts in the context of coda consonants. A case study of patterns of vocalic neutralization in General American English, supported by a real-time MRI study of speech articulation, will motivate a phonological representation of sub-segments as gestures (Browman & Goldstein 1986 et seq.). Key advantages that gestures offer are the representation of temporal coordination among sub-segments and encoding of goal articulatory states that may be blended under conditions of overlap. A phonological approach will be developed that governs sub-segmental temporal relations, formalized in terms of optimality theoretic constraints, building on proposals of Davidson (2003) and Smith (2016). Cross-linguistic predictions for patterns of vowel quantity neutralization in other languages and dialects will be considered.

Save the dates: FASAL 2017

The 7th Annual Formal Approaches to South Asian Languages (FASAL) will be hosted at MIT March 4-5, 2017. The conference offers a platform to discuss formal and experimental approaches to natural language from the perspective of South Asian Linguistics.

The program is available here. The invited speakers are Miriam Butt (Konstanz), Ashwini Deo (Ohio State) and Norvin Richards (MIT).

We ask that those who are planning to attend to please register. There is no registration fee.


MITWPL 81 - Papers on Morphology

MIT Working Papers in Linguistics is pleased to announce the publication of its 81st volume, Papers on Morphology, available at the MITWPL webstore. Edited by Snejana Iovtcheva and Benjamin Storme, the volume contains the following contributions:


DeGraff at the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences

Michel DeGraff participated in a panel, with Ann Charity Hudley, Christine Mallinson and Mary Bucholtz, at the 2017 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences. The panel was about Leveraging Linguistics for Broadening Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). Michel’s abstract is available here, and photos are available on Michel’s Facebook wall.


New Student Fellowship In Honor of Yuki Kuroda

Linguistic Society of America has established a new student fellowship in honor of our own alumnus S.-Y. (Yuki) Kuroda (1934-2009), a former Professor Emeritus at UCSD; MIT dissertation from 1965 “Generative Studies in The Japanese Language”, supervised by Noam Chomsky. Sige-Yuki Kuroda, known most universally as Yuki, is considered by many the father of modern Japanese linguistics. From LSA: “His work showed that not only could Japanese be fruitfully analyzed using the theory of generative grammar, but that it could play an important role in extending and expanding that theory.”


Celebrating David Pesetsky @ 60

This Saturday, linguists from around the world gathered in Cambridge to celebrate the life and work of our very own David Pesetsky, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. The workshop, organized in secret over the last year and half by Claire Halpert (PhD ‘12), Sabine Iatridou (PhD ‘91), Hadas Kotek (PhD ‘14), and Coppe van Urk (PhD ‘15) (with the generous help of Mary Grenham), included two lively panels on topics close to David’s heart, case and wh-questions, and two poster sessions which presented work from linguists that David has inspired over the many years. The breadth of topics covered during the workshop spoke not only to David’s intellectual curiosity, but also to his ability as a teacher and adviser.

In tandem with the workshop, MITWPL also produced a festschrift, A pesky set: Papers for David Pesetsky, which includes 60 papers on a diverse range of topics written by David’s students.

Thank you to everyone who worked to make this a success!









(Thank you to Athulya Aravind, Snejana Iovtcheva, Michel DeGraff, and Abdul-Razak Sulemana for providing photos.)

Further information on the workshop, including handouts and slides, can be found on the workshop website.


Syntax Square 2/14 - Colin Davis

Speaker: Colin Davis (MIT)
Title: English Possessor Extraction and Linearization
Date and time: Tuesday February 14, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461
Received wisdom tells us that in English, wh-movement of a possessor requires pied-piping of the whole DP containing that wh-possessor, as in (1). This falls under the Left Branch Condition of Ross (1967), describing a ban on moving the leftmost element of a nominal phrase in languages like English. Unexpected in light of this generalization is the fact that for some English speakers, wh-movement of just the possessor, stranding the DP it originated in, is also possible. This is possessor extraction (PE), as in (2):

  1. [Whose fat cat] do they think [t is cute]? (Pied-piping)
  2. Who do they think [[t’s fat cat] is cute]? (Possessor extraction)

A classic example of a PE language is Hungarian (Szabolcsi 1984), some others are Chamorro, Tzotzil, and much of Slavic. However, English has never been recognized as a PE language as far as I know, though in the course of a study of child English Gavruseva & Thornton (2001) get some adult English PE data, and take it to be a production error. I show that to the contrary, English PE is a productive and interestingly constrained phenomenon. An example of such a constraint is the fact that PE out of an in-situ object is impossible, as in (3). PE out of the embedded object in (3) can be rescued, however, if the residue of the DP where the possessor was born is pied-piped/moved to the edge of the embedded clause, as in (4):

  1. * Who do you think [John likes [t’s cake]]? (No PE from object in-situ)
  2. Who do you think[[t’s cake] John likes t]? (PE from pied-piped object)

In the context of a Cyclic Linearization framework (Fox & Pesetsky 2005), I argue that some movements independently necessary for coherent linearization in PE contexts are in conflict with a PF constraint which, roughly speaking, requires adjacency between a (moving) possessor and the saxon genitive ‘s at the phase level. My ambition is to show that the quirks of English PE are an automatic consequence of this tension and the methods of its resolution. I argue that the unique pied-piping in (4) and a family of similar examples is one way of resolving this tension, while in some structures there is no possible repair, ruling out PE in those contexts.


LRFG 2/15 - Roni Katzir

Speaker: Roni Katzir (Tel-Aviv University & MIT)
Title: Structure and learning of quantificational determiners
Date and time: Wednesday, February 15, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461
Acquiring semantic denotations — even the entry for a single, well-exemplified, low-type element — presents the child with a difficult inductive challenge. I start by illustrating this challenge using the notion of learning known as identification in the limit, before switching to a less complete notion of learning, compression-based learning, which offers a more constructive way to approach the inductive challenge. Focusing on the representation and learning of quantificational determiners, I show how compression-based learning maps representational choices — e.g., basic determiners and their combinations, in an intensional variant of Keenan & Stavi 1986 (following last week’s discussion), or semantic automata, as in van Benthem 1986 — onto learners. This mapping, in turn, makes empirical predictions that can help us choose between competing architectures.


DeGraff on ‘linguistic apartheid’ in Haiti

Michel DeGraff published an article on ‘linguistic apartheid’ in Haiti, sharing his concerns about human rights, education and development in his native Haiti.  The article is published in both English and Kreyòl.


Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

While snow in a New England winter isn’t news, MIT’s second snow closure within five days might be. The institute is having its second snow closure of the season on Monday February 13th. A reminder to check the MIT Emergency Information page for up to date announcements about closures and other campus emergencies. Stay warm, watch your step, and enjoy the snow day!


Welcome to the Spring 2017 semester!

Welcome to the first Whamit! edition of Spring 2017!

Whamit! is the MIT Linguistics newsletter. It is published every Monday during the semester. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Suzana Fong, and as of Spring 2017, Neil Banerjee, Yadav Gowda, and Mitya Privoznov. Welcome Neil, Yadav and Mitya!

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 6pm.

Our best wishes for an enjoyable semester!


Welcome to our new visitors!

Visiting Scholars

Mascaró received his PhD from our department. Currently, he is a professor at UAB and he works on phonological theory and descriptive phonology and morphology

“My research interests are in semantics, pragmatics (particularly formal and experimental approaches), and reasoning. Currently, I’m working on implicative verbs (in Finnish and English) and related issues, inlcuding actuality entailments on ability modals.”

Visiting Students

“I am a third year PhD student at NYU Linguistics. My research interests lie primarily in the area of semantics and pragmatics, and their interfaces with syntax and prosody. I am keenly interested in cross-modal phenomena, in particular, in sign language and gesture.”

“I’m a fourth-year PhD student at Stony Brook University specializing in semantics and its interfaces with pragmatics and syntax. More specifically, my work is primarily in intensionality, event semantics, gradability, and the pragmatics of co-speech gesture.”


Winter news

We have several items of winter news from students and faculty:

  • First and foremost, we are very happy to congratulate Amanda Swenson on the successful defence of her dissertation “The Morphosyntax and Morphosemantics of Malayalam verbs”.11336851_946035558749855_9007491336874171080_o-2
  • The most pressing world news of the winter affected MIT linguistic community as well. Our leaders can be smart or stupid, but, as a Soviet comedian once said, dealing with us, they have no idea of the class of professionals they are messing with, because we are quite accomplished at defending ourselves and our friends. Many members of MIT linguistic community participated in the Boston Women’s March, as well as in the protests against the President’s recent executive order. Faculty Wayne O’Neil reports: “On 21 January, I was among the ~175,000 at the Boston Women’s March. And on 29 January, I was with the ~20,000 at Copley Sq, protesting Trump’s illegal executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries.”
  • The linguistic life, however, goes on. Many our faculty members, students and alumni participated in the Linguistic Society of America’s 2017 Annual Meeting (see detailed account at our other post). As linguistics may at some point take its rightful place among such respectable high school disciplines as physics, The LSA Annual Meeting held an organized session on Getting high school students into linguistics - Current activities and future directions (7 January), where Wayne O’Neil presented a paper (‘This time is different’) at an LSA2017/Austin TX. The entire session will shortly appear on line.
  • Another faculty member Michel DeGraff was part of a panel on Language and Educational Justice organized by Prof. Anne Charity Hudley and Prof. Mary Bucholtz on January 6, 2016.
  • Michel DeGraff also took part in the General Assembly of the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (“Haitian Creole Academy”) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on December 15-18, 2016.
  • MIT was also represented at the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Michelle Yuan and former visiting student Nico Baier (UC Berkeley) presented “Anti-agreement with bound variables”. Omer Preminger (PhD 2011) gave a plenary talk titled “Privativity in Syntax”.
  • Meanwhile, in the Old World our faculty member Roni Katzir and our graduate student Ezer Rasin taught a mini-course in Paris on “Compression-based learning in phonology and semantics”. A description of the course is available here (phonology) and here (semantics). This would be specifically interesting for those who plan to attend Roni Katzir’s class “Special Topics: Learning and Learnability” (24.S96) offered this semester, as well as several LFRG sessions devoted to the explanatory adequacy in semantics (keep an eye on WHAMIT and LFRG announcements).
  • In Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Michel DeGraff taught a one-week course at the LOT Winter School of Linguistics (see also here) (January 9-13, 2017). He also gave the Schultink lecture, with the title “A Cartesian Creolist’s Agenda for Linguistics in the 21st century”. Abstract and more details are available here.
  • David Pesetsky gave a six-hour mini-course entitled “Exfoliation: towards a derivational theory of clause size” at the University of Bucharest on January 19-20 (just as the anti-government demonstrations were getting under way) at the invitation of Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin and Alexandra Cornilescu, and was delighted to reunite with our Spring 2016 visitors Alexandru Nicolae and Adina Dragomirescu.

MIT Linguistics at the LSA

MIT linguists had another strong year at the LSA 2017 Annual Meeting, this year held in Austin, TX from January 5th-8th, 2017.

The following department members and recent graduates presented talks and posters:

Athulya Aravind and Kristen Syrett (Rutgers): Gradability and vagueness in the nominal domain: an experimental approach

Lauren Clemens (SUNY Albany), Jessica Coon (PhD ‘10), Carol-Rose Little (Cornell), and Morelia Vázquez Martínez (ITSM): Encoding focus in Ch’ol spontaneous speech

Michel DeGraffLinguistics, STEM, educational justice and political and economic equality: MIT-Haiti as case study for retooling linguistics

Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (PhD ‘14): C-T head-splitting: evidence from Toba Batak

Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine and Ted Levin (PhD ‘15): On the unavailability of argument ellipsis in Kaqchikel

Rachel Dudley (UMD), Meredith Rowe (Harvard), Valentine Hacquard (PhD ‘06) and Jeffrey Lidz (UMD): Distributional cues to factivity in the input

Aron HirschFragments, pseudo-clefts, and ellipsis

Michela Ippolito (PhD ‘02), Angelika Kiss (UToronto), and Tomohiro Yokotama (UToronto): The semantics of object marking in Kinyarwanda

Sudheer Kolachina (S.M. ‘16): Vowel harmony in Telugu

Hadas Kotek (PhD ‘14): Movement and alternatives don’t mix: a new look at intervention effects

Ivona Kučerová (PhD ‘07): Evidence against φ-feature resolution accounts of agreement with DP coordinations

Ted Levin (PhD ‘15): Palauan DOM is a licensing phenomenon

Lilla MagyarGemination in loanwords: interaction between perceptual similarity and gradient phonotactic well-formed ness

Kevin Tang (Yale) and Andrew Nevins (PhD ‘05): Expectation and lexical retrieval in naturalistic and experimental misperception

Christopher O’BrienATB-movement and island effects: an experimental study

Wayne O’Neil: This time is different

Juliet StantonInteractions between prenasalized stops and nasal vowels

Coppe van Urk (PhD ‘15): Mixed chains in Dinka

Michael McAuliffe (McGill), Michaela Socolof (McGill), Sarah Mihuc (McGill), Michael Wagner (PhD ‘04), and Morgan Sonderegger (McGill): Montreal Forced Aligner: an accurate and trainable forced aligner using Kaldi

Michelle YuanOn apparent ergative agreement in Inuktitut

Ryan Sandell (UCLA) and Sam ZukoffThe development of the Germanic preterite system: learnability and the modeling of diachronic morphophonological change

Additionally, Christopher Baron (A prospective puzzle and a possible solution) and Cora Lesure (Phonologically null morphemes and templatic morphology: The case of Chuj (Mayan) ‘h’) presented at SSILA (Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas) 2017, which was held jointly with the LSA annual meeting.


Spring 2017 reading groups

Phonology Circle will be meeting on Mondays, from 5-6:30pm in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Presentations about work in progress, papers from the literature, and old squibs are every bit as welcome as practice talks. Light refreshments will be provided. Please contact Rafael Abramovitz and/or Abdul-Razak Sulemana if you would like to reserve a slot.

  • February: 13, 27
  • March: 20
  • April: 24

Syntax Square will be meeting on Tuesdays, from 1-2pm in 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). Rough ideas, works in progress and presentations of papers from the literature are very welcome! Please contact this semester’s organizers, Justin Colley or Danfeng Wu to reserve a slot. The following dates are still open:

  • February: 14
  • March: 7, 14, 21
  • April: 4, 11, 25
  • May: 2, 9, 6

LFRG will be meeting on Wednesdays from 1-2pm in 32-D461. LFRG is an informal, weekly semantics and syntax/semantics interface group. Rough ideas, work in progress, practice talks and discussion of papers from the literature are most welcome. Please contact this semester’s organizers Itai Bassi or Mitya Privoznov for more information.

LPRG will be on Wednesdays, 3:30-5pm in the 7th floor conference room. The Linguistics & Philosophy Reading Group is encouraging people planning to attend to sign up for presenting a paper or leading a discussion on a paper. Co-presenting is especially encouraged. Further questions can be directed to Chris Baron and/or Maša Močnik.

Ling-Lunch is a series of weekly talks, held on Thursdays from 12:30 to 1:50pm. It is open to all linguistics topics and everybody is welcome to present their work, though preference is given to members of the MIT Linguistics Department. Contact this semester’s organizers, Keny Chatain and/or Suzana Fong, to reserve a slot.

  • April 20
  • May 4

MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2017

Colloquium talks will be held on Fridays from 3:30pm - 5:00pm in 32-155 unless otherwise noted. Please check the colloquia webpage for details and any updates. For further information, please contact organisers Nick Longenbaugh or Elise Newman.


LFRG 2/8 - Ezer Rasin

Speaker: Ezer Rasin (MIT)
Title: Keenan, E. L., & Stavi, J. (1986). A semantic characterization of natural language determiners. Linguistics and Philosophy, 9, 253–326 (link)
Time/date: Wednesday, Feb. 8, 1-2pm
Location: 32D-461


Ling-Lunch 2/9 — Stuart Davis

Speaker: Stuart Davis (Indiana University)
Title: On Explaining English Schwa Syncope
Time: Thursday, February 9, 12:30pm-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

English schwa syncope (Zwicky 1972, Hooper 1978, Kenstowicz 1994, Polgardi 2015) deletes schwa between word-internal consonants.  The structural observation is that schwa syncope is likely to occur if the resulting consonant cluster has rising sonority (1) but not if the resulting cluster has falling (or level) sonority (2) (where the target schwa is underlined).

(1) chocolate opera family happening javelin Deborah

(2) pelican felony monitor canopy picketing melody

Hooper (1978) emphasizes the structural conditions noting that even high frequency words will disfavor schwa syncope if the structural conditions are not right. Thus, mel­ody strongly disfavors schwa syncope since the resulting cluster after syncope has falling sonority.

Typologically, the schwa syncope pattern is odd since it favors rising sonority clusters over falling ones in syllable contact.  This can be contrasted with English hypocoristic formation which favors intervocalic falling sonority clusters over rising ones as can be seen in the comparison of Barbara-Barby with Gabriella-Gabby (not Gabry).  Further, the exact location of the syllable boundary of the resulting schwa-deleted forms in (1) is not clear; Hooper (1978) maintains that the resulting cluster is always ambisyllabic.   On the other hand, if schwa syncope were to apply in (2) the resulting cluster would have a clear syllable boundary. For example, schwa syncope applied to pelican (i.e. pel.can) results in a clear syllable break between the two consonants of the resulting cluster.  Under a new conception of English schwa syncope developed in this talk, schwa syncope is viewed as a problem of foot structure reduction:  Schwa syncope reduces a dactylic foot into a preferred trochaic one.  We will maintain that a preferred trochee in English has ambiguous syllabification within the foot and that this functionally helps to enhance the foot-initial boundary.


MIT Colloquium 2/10 - Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)

Speaker: Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)
Title: Sonority Sequencing in Polish: Interaction of Prior Bias and Experience
Time: Friday, February 10th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

Recent work on phonological learning has questioned the traditional view that innate principles guide and constrain language development in children and explain universal properties cross-linguistically. In this talk I focus on a particular universal, the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP), which governs preferences among sequences of consonants syllable-initially. Experimental evidence indicates that English, Mandarin, and Korean speakers exhibit sensitivity to the SSP even for consonant sequences that never occur syllable-initially in those languages (such as [nb] vs. [bn] in English). There is disagreement regarding the implications of this finding. Berent et al. (2007) argue that these results can only be explained with reference to an innate principle; however, Daland et. al (2011) show that computational models capable of inferring statistical generalizations over sound classes can detect evidence for these preferences based on related patterns in the language input (and therefore no reference to innate principles is required). Building on these studies, I argue that English is the wrong test case: it does not differentiate predictions of these two hypotheses. I examine learning of syllable structure phonotactics in Polish, a language with very different sonority sequencing patterns from English. Polish provides a crucial test case because the lexical statistics contradict the SSP, at least in part. I review developmental evidence indicating that children acquiring Polish are nonetheless sensitive to the SSP, producing larger sonority rises more accurately in spontaneous production (Jarosz to appear). I then present results from two experiments investigating adult Polish native speakers’ phonotactic knowledge. The findings indicate that Polish native speakers’ phonotactic preferences are sensitive to the SSP and that this SSP sensitivity is not predicted by the computational models that succeeded for languages like English, Mandarin, and Korean. This suggests a crucial role of an inherent bias or a constraint on generalization from the input. At the same time, native speakers’ sonority-sequencing preferences are not entirely expected on the basis of SSP alone, suggesting an important role for experience as well. I discuss implications of these prior bias – experience interactions for modeling of phonological learning.

Course announcements, Spring 2017

24.956: Topics in Syntax

  • Instructors: Noam Chomsky, Sabine Iatridou, David Pesetsky
  • Time: Fridays 10am-1pm
  • Room: 32-D461

This semester’s 24.956 will cover a number of loosely related topics.

  1. For the first five or six weeks, we will explore the syntactic behaviour of elements that are (apparently) totally or mostly devoid of meaning. We will have two foci: expletives and light verbs (such as English do of do-support fame). We will start with expletives. For the first class, please read and be prepared to hear about Amy Rose Deal’s 2009 paper in Syntax, entitled “The origin and content of expletives: evidence from selection”
  2. Then, for the next three or four weeks we will look into recent work by Chomsky and by researchers inspired by his recent papers, with a focus on labeling and related matters. These papers are not always easy, and have not been a focus in recent classes at MIT, so this should be new to most of you. In particular, the idea is to be well prepared for…
  3. … three classes by Noam. Here is an abstract for those classes:
    Assume, as reasonably well-established, that UG is a species property, with I-languages as instantiations, each a combinatorial system CS yielding representations at the conceptual-intensional CI interface, and modes of externalization to sensorimotor systems. Assume also that both methodological and empirical considerations suggest that the operations of CS are quite simple, perhaps approaching a version of the Strong Minimalist Thesis SMT. Crucial open questions arise at every point in this outline, among them the status of externalization (is it ancillary, or does it feed CI) and the nature of the operations of CS, which, there is reason to believe, have not yet been properly formulated, a matter of particular interest that I would like to turn to after some critical review and discussion of the general picture.
  4. Following this, there will be three more classes, on a topic that we will choose together.

Sabine will be mostly in charge of part 1, David of parts 2 and 4 — and, well, you know who will be in charge of part 3


Following we we think was a successful experiment in 24.956 last Spring, this class will not require a final paper or squib, on the grounds that if you’re interested in syntax, you are working on papers anyway. Instead, we will ask for :

  • weekly submission of a comment or question+discussion based on that week’s reading
  • co-presentation of one or two of the topics to be covered in parts 1, 2 or 4 of the class (details to be announced after class 1, partly depending on registration numbers)

If you find the class topics interesting and plan to attend, please register! Our hope is that people who attend will be active participants, and without the burden of a final research paper will find it more attractive to register— so they truly involve themselves in the class.

24.964: Topics in Phonology: The Phonetics and Phonology of Sentence Prosody

  • Instructor: Edward Flemming
  • Time: Wednesdays 10am-1pm
  • Room: 32-D461

Different ways of pronouncing the same sentence can convey different meanings. The properties of pronunciation that modify meaning in this way are referred to as sentence prosody. There are three components of prosody: intonational melody, prominence, and phrasing. These components will be introduced through an overview of English prosody, then we will investigate the phonological representation and phonetic realization of each in more detail based on data from a variety of languages.

The goal of this course is to provide sufficient understanding of the phonetics and phonology of sentence prosody for participants to be able to engage in research on prosody in its own right, or in relation to other areas of linguistics (e.g. syntax, semantics/pragmatics, sentence processing).


  1. Overview of the prosody of English
    • The Pierrehumbert/Beckman analysis of American English intonation
    • ToBI transcription
    • The phonetic implementation of intonation and phrasing
  2. Instrumental and experimental techniques
    • Pitch tracking
    • Resynthesis
  3. Intonational melody
    • What are the contrastive units of intonation?
    • Phonetic realization of melody
    • Alignment of F0 and segments
  4. Prominence
    • The variety of meaningful prominence distinctions
    • Focus marking across languages
    • Phonetic correlates of prominence
    • The interaction of downstep and declination with prominence marking (Japanese, English)
  5. Phrasing
    • Representation (prosodic hierarchical structure? boundaries?)
    • The factors that determine prosodic phrasing

24.979: Topics in Semantics

  • Instructors: Gennaro Chierchia & Irene Heim
  • Time: Thursdays, 2-­‐5PM
  • Places: 32-­‐D461 (MIT) & Emerson 106 (Harvard)

Indefinites: where do we stand?

This class will analyze the scope, quantificational, and anaphoric properties ofi ndefinites. We will start from the ‘classic DRT’ period and work our way to present days, through dynamic approaches and situation based ones.

  • Week 1: Introduction to classic DRT for the uninitiated. Indefinites as variables, quantificational variability, adverbs of quantification, existential closure.
  • Week 2: Developments of classical DRT. Diesing’s mapping hypothesis, aspects of the theory of generics
  • Week 3: Basically, Heim (1982) and its developments. The birth of dynamic semantics: File Change Potentials.
  • Week 4: “Standard” Dynamic Semantics of the 90’s. Indefinites as Dynamic Generalized Quantifiers, weak and strong readings of donkey pronouns, existential disclosure.
  • Week 5: Situation based approaches and e-­‐type anaphora
  • Week 6: More on situation based approaches and e-­‐type anaphora
  • Week 7: The debate on long distance indefinites: Non canonical scope properties of indefinites. Weak 8: Students’ presentations
  • Weak 9: An interesting way to compare dynamic vs. e-­‐type approaches: Plural anaphora.
  • Week 10: Student presentations
  • Week 11: An attempt at explaining Weak Crossover with dynamic semantics
  • Week 12: More on Weak Crossover
  • Week 13: Other Binding Theoretic issues (especially, principle B and principle C).

24.S95: Computation and Linguistic Theory

  • Instructor: Roni Katzir
  • Time: Tuesdays 10-1
  • Room: 32-D461

In this class we will explore the connection between linguistic theory and models of learning, examining considerations of learning that have been central to work in theoretical linguistics over the years.

The first half of the class focuses on the learning challenge from a mathematical and computational perspective. We will discuss work by Gold, Angluin, and others showing that, on certain innocent-looking assumptions, the child faces insurmountable problems when faced with even basic learning tasks. We will further see that making the learning criterion probabilistic seems at first to make the learning task much easier but ultimately does not help. During this formal part of the course we will also discuss mathematical notions of complexity and look at how these provide a natural handle on the kind of generalization needed for learning, along with a tight connection between linguistic representations and the learning process.

In the second half of the semester we will look at experimental attempts to determine what can and cannot be learned both in humans and in other organisms, starting with the radical empiricist approach of behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner and moving to the instinct-centered approach of ethologists like Lorenz and Tinbergen. In this context we will discuss Chomsky’s review of Skinner, as well as other early generative work on learning. We will then turn to the familiar argument from the Poverty of Stimulus and examine its implications for the child in light of the conclusions arising from the first part of the semester. We will then consider results that show that humans are very good at extracting certain kinds of statistical regularities from unanalyzed data but very bad at learning other, seemingly similar patterns. We will end the semester by looking at what can be said about the division of labor between innateness and learning based on typological generalizations and at the nuanced view on this connection offered by evolutionary approaches to language change.

Requirements: attendance and participation; reading; and a final paper.

(Please, check back for updates!)


Miyagawa in MIT News

Faculty Shigeru Miyagawa is featured on MIT News’ top page: his work on language evolution inspired a musical piece, which premiered in NYC’s World Financial Center. The full article is here.


Syntax Square 12/12 - Kenyon Branan

Speaker: Kenyon Branan (MIT)
Title: Predicate fronting and copy pronunciation
Time/date: Monday, Dec. 12, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

“Predicate doubling” has been seen as a strong argument for copy theories of movement. However, it also poses a challenge for such theories, since they must explain why two copies of a fronted predicate are pronounced, but not two copies of a fronted nominal. In this talk, I’ll try to give a simple explanation of this difference between predicates and nominals, where an independent requirement on the syntax-prosody mapping overrides the usual requirement that multiple copies. After doing that, I’ll tell you about some other outcomes when you assume such a system.

Phonology Circle 12/12 - Edward Flemming

Speaker: Edward Flemming (MIT)
Title: Boundary tones in Mandarin Chinese intonation
Time: Monday, December 12th, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

(Joint work with Helen Nie (MIT)

Mandarin Chinese echo questions present an interesting test case for intonational theory because they are distinguished from declaratives by intonation alone, but it is not obvious that the intonational distinction can be characterized in terms of the familiar elements of intonation. There are no obvious pitch accents or boundary tones distinguishing echo questions from corresponding declaratives because F0 movements are primarily determined by lexical tones, so final F0 is rising if the lexical tone of the final syllable is rising, and falling if the tone of the last syllable is falling. Instead echo questions are distinguished from declaratives by an optional increase in overall pitch range and modifications to the final tone that have been characterized as a further expansion of pitch range, since high targets are raised but low targets may not be.<\p>

We provide evidence that these modifications to the final tone are in fact due to the presence of a high boundary tone, but its realization differs from familiar boundary tones because it is realized simultaneously with the final lexical tone. The conflict between the simultaneous demands of lexical tone and boundary tone are resolved by compromise between their conflicting targets, an analysis formalized in terms of weighted constraints.



LFRG 12/14 - Aron Hirsch

Speaker: Aron Hirsch (MIT)
Title: Constructing pseudo-clefts
Time/date: Wednesday, Dec. 14, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

In this talk, I present data with implications for the syntax and semantics of specificational pseudo-clefts: cases where the post-copular XP contains an adverbial, e.g. (1).

(1) a. What Obama approved was [this bill and, with difficulty, that bill].
b. What Obama approved was [this bill and possibly that bill].

First, I relate these data to a syntactic debate. Illustrating with the simple pseudo-cleft in (2), one approach posits just the structure apparent in the surface string, (2a) (e.g. Jacobson 1994, Sharvit 1999, Caponigro & Heller 2015), while a second approach takes the overt post-copular material to be the remnant of a full clause otherwise elided, (2b) (e.g. Ross 1972, den Dikken et al. 2000, Schlenker 1998/2003).

(2) What Obama approved was this bill.
a. [what Obama approved was [this bill]]
b. [what Obama approved was [<Obama approved> this bill]]

I argue that clausal structure is required to host certain adverbs, so data like (1) provide new evidence for ellipsis. In particular, the structure for (1a) has this bill and that bill the remnants of two separate elided clauses, conjoined by and; the PP is adjoined to the TP in the second conjunct. Other tests adapted from Hirsch (2015) further support ellipsis.

Second, I will show that the adverb data pose a challenge for current approaches to the semantics of pseudo-clefts (citations above), and explore a new compositional analysis which crucially relies on the syntactic results in the first part of the talk.

Syntax Square 12/5 - Carolyn Spadine

Speaker: Carolyn Spadine (MIT)
Title: Source-of-information applicatives in Tigrinya: A preliminary analysis of il:-u/-a
Time: Monday, December 5, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461
Abstract: here (PDF)


Phonology Circle 12/5 - Adam Albright

Speaker: Adam Albright (MIT)
Title: Why do speakers try to predict the unpredictable?
Time: Monday, December 5th, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

(Joint work with Michelle Fullwood (MIT) and Jongho Jun (Seoul National University))

Generative phonology traditionally distinguishes two types of feature values: (1) unpredictable, or contrastive values, and (2) contextually predictable values. Unpredictable values are listed in the lexicon as arbitrary properties of morphemes, whereas predictable values are assigned or enforced by grammar. However, statistical studies of lexicons have revealed that contrastive feature values are often surprisingly predictable. For example, Ernestus and Baayen (2003) observed that although stem-final obstruent voicing is nominally contrastive in Dutch, it is actually fairly predictable based on the obstruent’s place and continuancy, and the preceding vowel’s quality. Furthermore, speakers are aware of this predictability, and can use it to judge likely voicing values for stem-final obstruents in nonce words. Similar results have been found for contrasts in numerous other languages, including Korean stem-final continuancy and laryngeal features Jun (2010), Spanish mid vowel vs. diphthong contrasts (Albright et al. 2001), and others. These results support a model in which phonological grammars attempt to predict at least some contrastive feature values.

In this study, we ask why there is this redundancy between the grammar and the lexicon. One possibility is data compression (Rasin and Katzir 2015, and others); if the grammar can exploit statistical asymmetries to predict certain feature values, they need not be listed in the lexicon. Maximal compression is achieved if the grammar supplies all predictable feature values. An alternative possibility is that values must be predicted when there is neutralization. In Dutch, stem-final obstruents undergo final devoicing, so speakers must sometimes guess the voicing of a stem-final obstruent, based on the neutralized singular form. Under this account, the grammar must supply only those feature values that are neutralized in the singular. We test the predictions of these accounts by comparing the predictability of feature values that are subject to neutralization in different languages. We compare place, continuancy, and laryngeal contrasts in Korean, Dutch, and English. In English, all three features contrast word-finally (with numerous specific restrictions), whereas in Dutch, voicing is neutralized, and in Korean, continuancy and laryngeal features are both neutralized in this position.

In order to test predictability, we extracted the most frequent items in each language (5018 Korean nouns; 5151 Dutch nouns; 5085 English words). When trained the Minimal Generalization Learner (Albright and Hayes 2002) to predict the values of various features based on remaining features of the segment in question, and the preceding context. We then wug-tested the resulting grammars, to determine whether feature values get more predictable at lower frequencies. The reasoning is that, as with morphological regularity, low frequency words should be less able to sustain exceptionality, and should therefore reflect grammatical preferences. The results show that although overall predictability does tend to be higher for neutralizing features, neutralizing and non-neutralizing features both get more predictable at lower frequencies, as predicted by the data compression model. Neutralization may increase the likelihood that a speaker will need to use their grammar to predict an `unpredictable’ feature, but it is not a prerequisite to learning and enforcing such generalizations.



LFRG 12/7 - Mitya Privoznov

Speaker: Mitya Privoznov (MIT)
Time: Wednesday, December 5th, 1-2pm
Place: 32-D831
Title: Discussion of Aloni and Port’s 2006 and 2014 papers on epistemic indefinites

English someone can give rise to the speaker’s ignorance implicature (Somebody arrived late —> the speaker doesn’t know who). Some of its analogues in other languages, e.g. German `irgendein’ or Russian `kto-to’, have conventionalized this implicature into an inference. Namely, the ignorance inference became a part of their semantics. And it is these elements that Aloni and Port call epistemic indefinites (EIs).

The ignorance inference is the main focus of Aloni and Port’s papers. They are proposing an analysis that derives this inference with the use of Aloni (2001)’s theory of concepts and conceptual covers. They argue that EI represent a special case of domain widening.


Enoch Aboh at MIT

Enoch Aboh (University of Amsterdam) will be visiting our department this week and will give two talks.

  • The role of vulnerable interfaces in language change: the case of the C-, and D-systems
    • Date: Wednesday, December 7
    • Time: 2—5pm
    • Location: TBA
    • Reading: Chapters 5-6 of Enoch (2015),  The Emergence of Hybrid Grammars: Language contact and change
  • The emergence of serial verb constructions
    • Date: Friday, December 9
    • Time: 1:30—3:15pm
    • Location: TBA
    • Reading: chapter 7 of Enoch (2015)

For more information, please contact Michel DeGraff (degraff@mit.edu).


Ling-Lunch 12/8 - Jenneke Van Der Wal

Speaker: Jenneke van der Wal (Harvard)
Title: The AWSOM and RANDOM in Bantu object marking
Time: Thursday, December 8/12:30pm-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Many Bantu languages mark objects on the verb by a prefix agreeing in noun class:

(1) N-a-va-et-eaa anca mUhUmba. [Nyaturu, Hualde 1989]
1SG.SM-PAST-2OM-bring-APPL 2.girls 1.boy

‘I brought the girls a boy.’

However, object marking (OM) shows fascinating microvariation across Bantu, along the following parameters:

1. the nature of the OM: doubling / non-doubling
(OM and DP can co-occur in the same domain in Nyaturu = doubling);
2. the behaviour in ditransitives: asymmetric / symmetric
(only benefactive and not theme can be OM-ed in Nyaturu = asymmetric);
3. the number of object markers allowed: one/two/multiple
(Nyaturu is restricted to one).

This talk maps the parameter settings of 50+ Bantu languages, revealing two gaps:

Asymmetry Wants Single Object Marking correlation (AWSOM)
→ Almost no language has multiple markers that are doubling.
Relation between Asymmetry and Non-Doubling Object Marking (RANDOM)

→ No language has non-doubling asymmetrical object marking.

I argue that these gaps are in fact not random, but can be understood as obligatory marking of salience, in the form of a [Person] feature in either the non-clausal domain (doubling) or the clausal domain (symmetry)

(The abstract can also be read here.)


Heidi Harley at MIT

Heidi Harley (University of Arizona, MIT PhD ‘95) will be visiting the department this week. In addition to her Colloquium talk on Friday, she will be offering a mini-course on head movement. Details below:

Speaker: Heidi Harley (University of Arizona)
Title: Report from the bleeding edge of the head movement debate
Time: Wednesday, December 7th and Thursday, December 8th, 2016, 5:00-6:30 pm
Place: 32-124 (Wed), 32-144 (Thurs)

I will review and discuss various models of head-movement and the evidence that has been brought to bear on them, including but not limited to conflation (Hale&Keyser 2002, Harley 2004), remnant movement (Zeller 2013), (phrasal mvt +) m-merger (Matushansky 2004, Harizanov 2014, Harley and Folli ms), and traditional head-adjunction (Keine and Bhatt 2016), or some combination of different mechanisms (Harley 2013, Gribanova and Harizanov 2016handout). In doing so, I’ll talk about the idea that head-movement does or does not have syntacticosemantic (LF) effects, and if it does, what they are and why, borrowing heavily on a presentation by McCloskey including some discussion of LaCara (2016), Hartman (2011), Gribanova (ms), Lechner (2007), as well as Keine and Bhatt (2016)).

A reading packet is attached for people to browse at will if they want but I’m not going to assume attendees will have read any of it. The ones I most highly recommend for the interested are the Keine and Bhatt 2016 on German verb clusters and the Zeller 2013 on Zulu relatives; Harizanov 2014 on Bulgarian clitics and Gribanova (2016ms) on Russian ellipsis & polarity-licensing are interesting too. Not to be discussed but included because it’s mind-blowingly weird are the results of Lipták 2013, 2016handout, on the (failure of) the verbal identity condition on VPE in Hungarian).

Keine & Bhatt (2016)
Gribanova (2016)
Liptak (2016)
McCloskey (2016)
Gribanova & Harizanov (2016)
Zeller (2013)
Harley (2013)
Lacara (2016)
Hartmann (2011)
Lechner (2007)


MIT Colloquium 12/9 - Heidi Harley (University of Arizona)

Speaker: Heidi Harley (University of Arizona)
Title: We don’t need word-internal phase boundaries (for Hiaki)
Time: Friday, December 9th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

Hiaki verbs exhibit what looks like a word-internal phase boundary, with some, more derivational affixes attaching to a ‘bound’ stem, which only appears with suffixal material attached, and other, inflectional affixes attaching to a ‘free’ stem, which can also appear unsuffixed; a classic type of stem-attaching vs word-attaching dichotomy. The mirror-principle boundary for stem-attaching suffixes located more or less at VoiceP. Only inflectional suffixes can attach outside the passive voice marker, and only derivational ones can attach inside it, and there can only be one Voice marker per verb complex. However, there are problems identifying the bound-stem/free-stem boundary with Voice, particularly having to do with the existence of embedded external arguments within the bound-stem complex in causatives and related forms.

In fact, I will argue that the correct analysis is in a sense precisely the opposite. The particular form taken by bound stems shows evidence of word-level morphophonological processes, such as a word-final fortition of the voiceless affricate, and echo vowels that appear to extend monomoraic stems to satisfy minimal word requirements (or actually probably exhaustive footing requirements). The ‘bound’ stems which appear to the left of Voice morphology behave like independent morphophonological words with respect to these constraints. The ‘free’ stems, in contrast, all have a recently-detectedmorphemic final vowel on them.

I propose that the whole complex verb word is simply a cluster of verbs lined up on the right by the head-final nature of Hiaki. This cluster of verbs is subject to very quotidian inflectional requirements: The highest (rightmost) [+V] head in the domain is attracted to Voice and T (and sometimes C). That head-movement process which creates the ‘free’ forms. That is, the ‘bound’ forms are free, and the ‘free’ forms are all inflected; the only process we need to appeal to is the usual expectation that the highest eligible head in a verbal complementation sequence is the one that moves and inflects. The entire complex is pronounced (and spelled) as a unit, perhaps due to postsyntactic Morphological Merger, perhaps due to the prosodic rules of the language.

​In short, the syntactic picture presented by the apparently complex agglutinative Hiaki verb word is actually most appropriately analyzed in the same way as auxiliary and light verb complexes in left-headed languages. No level-ordering-type of cyclicity hypothesis involving word-internal phase boundaries is motivated by this data. This is good, because the notion of a word-internal phase boundary in a structure created by syntactic head-movement is somewhat problematic, technically speaking. I’ll also exhibit cases from Cupeño and maybe Korean that seem to require analysis in similar terms.