The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 20th, 2008

NSF Endangered Language Grants/Fellowships - Deadline November 1st  

The joint NSF/NIH program for documenting endangered languages will be accepting funding applications until Saturday, November 1st.


Special Phonology Circle *FRI* 10/24 10am: Larry Hyman  

On Friday, we will have a special additional session of Phonology Circle, with a talk by Larry Hyman (UC Berkeley). (Please note special time and place!)

Title: Situating Phonologization: The role of Contrast
Time: Friday Oct 24, 10am-12pm, 26-142

In this talk I have three goals: (i) to define and delimit the notion of "phonologization"; (ii) to determine how phonologization fits into the bigger picture; (iii) to discuss a few examples of (continued) interest to me, e.g. the effects of voiced obstruents ("depressor consonants") on pitch; vowel harmony; word- and utterance demarcation. I begin by considering the original definition of phonologization ("A universal phonetic tendency is said to become 'phonologized' when language-specific reference must be made to it, as in a phonological rule." (Hyman 1972:170)), a concept which can be traced back at least as far as Baudouin de Courtenay (1895 [1972:184]). Particular attention is paid to the role of contrast in the phonologization process. After presenting canonical examples of phonologization (particularly transphonologizations, whereby a contrast is shifted or transformed but maintained), I suggest that the term "phonologization" needs to be extended to cover other ways that phonological structure either changes or comes into being. Throughout the talk emphasis is on what Hopper (1987:148) identifies as "movements towards structure": the emergence of grammar (grammaticalization) and its subsequent transformations (regrammaticalization, degrammaticalization). After showing that phonologization has important parallels to well-known aspects of "grammaticalization" (Hyman 1984), I conclude that phonologization is but one aspect of the larger issue of how (phonetic, semantic, pragmatic) substance becomes linguistically codified into form.


Ling-lunch 10/23 - Patrick Grosz  

Please join us for this week’s Ling-lunch:
Patrick Grosz
“Particle-izing Imperatives”
Thursday, Oct. 23

The semantics of imperatives has been in the focus of recent research such as Portner (2005, 2007) and Schwager (2005, 2006). Schwager assumes a covert performative modal with universal force. Portner claims that imperatives do not encode modal force and suggests a pragmatic account in which imperatives contribute to the hearer?s To-Do List and a rational speaker aims to realize as many entries on her To-Do List as possible. To account for the difference between universal, “commanding” imperatives and existential, “permissive” imperatives, Schwager (2005) develops a pragmatic account that crucially assumes that the hearer has already wanted to carry out the action expressed in the imperative, but has felt that it was prohibited to do so (see also Han 2000 in this context). In contrast, Portner (2007) suggests that such differences are linked to various sections of the hearer’s To-Do List, corresponding to different ordering sources (e.g. orders are deontic and invitations/permissions are bouletic, referring to the hearer’s wishes). Crucially, both assume that imperatives always express “necessity” and the feeling of “possibility” is a derived effect. In this talk I show that this cannot be correct.

In this talk I revisit the semantics of imperatives in the light of the German discourse particles JA (pronounce: “stressed JA”, homophonous with ja ‘yes’) and ruhig (homophonous with ruhig ‘quietly’). These elements occur only in imperatives and in modalized declaratives, but not in non-modalized declaratives. They restrict the modal type of the modal operator they occur with, and are sensitive to modal force (JA only combines with universal force and ruhig with existential force). I show that the distribution of JA and ruhig can only be accounted for by assuming that imperatives contain a covert element that introduces modal necessity or modal possibility. The empirical evidence thus favors an approach that assumes an element introducing modal quantification (such as Schwager’s) over an approach that does not involve quantification (such as Portner’s). However, it also requires a fundamental revision of Schwager, in that we need to assume the imperative operator to be lexically ambiguous between a universal necessity reading and an existential possibility reading.


Phonology Circle 10/22- Stefano Versace  

This week’s Phonology Circle will feature a presentation by Stefano Versace on Italian meter.

Title: Metrical form and Montale’s meter
Time: Wed 10/22, 5pm, 32-D831

(1) nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita “in the middle of our life’s stride”
(2) mi ritrovai per una selva oscura “I found myself in a dark wood”
(3) e tu seguissi le fragili architetture “would you follow the frail architectures”

At first blush, the three lines above may appear to be written in the same meter, but in fact they are not. Famously, example (1) and (2) are the first two lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and instantiate two different patterns of endecasillabo, the most common meter in the Italian tradition: Generative Metrics (Cf. Nespor & Vogel (1986)) has provided a scansion of this meter in terms of an abstract iambic pattern, elaborating on Halle & Keyser (1966) proposal. Example (3) instead is a line from Montale’s poetry, and it differs from an endecasillabo in that it has more syllables than expected. It therefore exemplifies what the metrical tradition has labelled tredecasillabo (i.e. a 13- syllable line), simply acknowledging a difference in measure. Here I am going to claim instead that such lines can be scanned as endecasillabi by applying some deletion (Δ-) rules (as proposed by Fabb & Halle (2008)). After providing the necessary specifics about scansion rules in Italian metrics, the talk will focus on the interpretation of this meter, also discussing different frameworks for motivating the deletion. Beside the aforementioned Fabb & Halle (2008) modular approach, they mainly include constraint-based and prosodic-constituency-based interpretations; here, I will argue for the first one to be the most appropriate.

The schedule for the rest of the term is:

  • November 12: Hrayr Khanjian
  • November 19: Jonah Katz
  • December 3rd: Jen Michaels
  • December 10: Giorgio Magri

Linguistics Colloquium 10/24: Larry Hyman  

Larry Hyman (University of California, Berkeley)

Title: Tonal and Non-Tonal Intonation in Shekgalagari

Time: Friday, October 24th, 2008, 3:30pm, Room 32-141

There will be a party in honor of Larry, beginning at 6:30pm, at Donca’s place.

The study of intonation in a (fully) tone language presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to see how a language which exploits F0 mainly for the purpose of lexical and grammatical contrasts succeeds in encoding the functions often expressed by means of intonation in non-tonal languages. As is well-known, word-level distinctions can be quite rich in tone systems, which contrast up to five pitch levels and a dozen or more tonal contours or clusters, e.g. Wobe (Kru; Liberia) (Bearth & Link 1980, Singler 1984). Word-level tones, in turn, can be subject to considerable manipulation by the postlexical phonology, where juxtaposition, syntactic conditioning, or phonological phrasing can modify the word-level inputs and introduce additional pitch features, e.g. the phrase-final H% boundary tone of Kinande (Bantu; DRC) (Hyman 1990). Particularly when tone systems are complex in these ways, the question is how there can be much room left for intonation to modify or add pitch specifications without obscuring the word-level tonal contrasts. On the one hand, there are specific strategies that different tone languages employ to keep tones and “intonemes” separate. For example, in Mazahua (Otomian; Mexico), there are no lexical tonal contrasts on the last syllable of a word. As Pike (1951:101) puts it, “The pitches of all syllables which do not immediately precede word space are those of the tonemic system. The pitch of any syllable immediately preceding word space is part of the intonemic system.” On the other hand, there are languages where intonation clearly overrides lexical tones. In Coreguaje (Tukanoan; Colombia), for instance, CVCV nouns contrast H-H, H-L, L-H, and L-L tones. However, when such nouns occur in isolation, their tones merge as L-HL with statement intonation and H-L with question intonation (Gralow 1985). If these two strategies can be termed “accommodation” vs. “submission”, a third option is “avoidance”: In many languages with highly developed tones systems there doesn’t seem to be “structured” as opposed to what Ladd (1996) terms “paralinguistic” intonation, e.g. the raising or lowering of pitch associated with excitement, fear, etc. Can a language do without such structured intonation, and if so, what does it put in its place? The strongest limiting cases are probably languages with highly developed tone systems. This constitutes the opportunity side of the above-mentioned challenge: Since they have more reason to resist, tone languages offer a particularly appropriate forum for investigating the essential properties of intonation, e.g. the universal tendency to phonologize Gussenhoven’s (2005) “three biological codes”.

In this paper we take a close look at the intonational properties of Shekgalagari, a Bantu language of the Sotho-Tswana (S.30) subgroup spoken in Botswana. We begin by presenting the tone system, which has two underlying tones /H, Ø/ and a derived phonemic downstep (!H). We then turn to the relatively rich intonation system. We start with what we term “declarative” penultimate length + L tone (PLL): the vowel of a prepause-penultimate syllable is lengthened and a marked L is assigned to its second mora. We then go through the different contexts where PLL typically fails to occur: (1) yes-no and WH-questions; (2) imperatives and hortatives (e.g. ‘may he enter!’); (3) vocatives and exclamatives (e.g. ‘what a fool!’); (4) paused lists (e.g. ‘I ate corn… rice… and beans’); (5) ideophones (e.g. ‘it went splash!’). While other Southern Bantu languages have also been noted to “suspend” penultimate lengthening in questions, Shekgalagari is unusual in having so many other contexts where the vowel remains short. Recall that the declarative not only lengthens the penultimate vowel, but also assigns a L tone. It is therefore striking that all five of the above are speech act types where speakers might be expected to raise their voice, and hence resist the L tone. We claim therefore that non-declarative = unmarked in Shekgalagari: penultimate lengthening (+ L) is not suspended, but rather is not assigned in questions, imperatives, vocatives etc. (Shekgalagari also differs from related languages in not assigning PLL when the prepause word is monosyllabic.)

After illustrating the above speech act types, we discuss their interactions. For example, words which occur in paused lists may optionally lengthen their final vowel in the declarative, but not in questions or imperatives. Also, polysyllabic ideophones obligatorily devoice their final vowel, but not in hortatives (‘may it go splash!’) and questions (‘did it go splash?’). We then discuss two types of intonational overlap. The first, termed “emphasis”, allows PLL to be assigned in all of the above contexts except (1), with varying results, e.g. making a WH-question or imperative seem more like a statement, repeating the question or command in exasperation, or other “emphasis”. Although receiving PLL, the intention of these utterances remains clear, since the speech act is still decipherable from the various redundancies, e.g. a WH word, the lack of a subject in an imperative, PLL on the final word of the paused list, etc. However, if PLL is assigned to a yes-no question, there is no such redundancy, and the result is a statement. In addition, an intonation which we call “urgency” takes the declarative form with PLL and raises the whole register, exaggerating the pitch intervals (e.g. ‘Fire!’, ‘Thief!’). We interpret this as a case of Ladd’s paralinguistic intonation.

After demonstrating that Shekgalagari has a rich and interesting intonational system, we draw two conclusions. The first is that the so-called avoidance strategy needs to be refined: A tone language may resist a tonal implementation of intonation, which poses potential complications, but there are other intonational features that do not necessarily have to be avoided: lengthening, devoicing, glottalization, breathiness, and even nasalization. Perhaps we have been too tonocentric? On the other hand, Shekgalagari confirms the strategy of accommodation: While many Eastern and Southern Bantu languages have penultimate lengthening, it has long been recognized that such lengthening exists only in languages which have lost the historical lexical vowel-length contrast. (Languages which have preserved the contrast would, in turn, tend to avoid penultimate lengthening, which could merge long and short vowels.) Although the effect of the L of PLL is rather noticeable (short H-H alternates with long HL:-L), here too there is no loss of contrast, and similarly for the other intonations. We end with some speculations on the limitations on what features can be used for intonation and on how lexical contrasts accommodate, submit to, or avoid intonational competition.


MIT at IATL 24  

The 24th annual meeting of the Israel Association for Theoretical Linguistics (Hebrew University of Jerusalem on October 26-27) features talks by Sabine Iatridou with ivy Sichel (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) on English NegDPs and Scopal Predicates, and by Martin Hackl with Jorie Koster-Moeller and Andrea Gottstein (Pomona College) on Processing Opacity. The program culminates in an invited talk by Danny Fox: Economy and Embedded Implicatures (joint work with Benjamin Spector, CNRS).


Call for papers: WAFL6  

WAFL6 (Workshop on Altaic Formal Linguistics) will be held in Nagoya, Japan, May 22-25, 2009. Call for abstracts and other details including invited speakers can be found at the WAFL6 site: