The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 20th, 2009

MIT Linguistics Colloquium - 4/24 - Daniel Buering

The MIT Linguistics Department is pleased to announce the penultimate linguistics colloquium of the spring semester, which will take place on April 24th, 2009:

Speaker: Daniel Buering, University of California, Los Angeles
Title: At Least and At Most: The Logic of Bounds and Insecurity Time: Friday April 24th, 3:30pm
Location: 32-141

This talk addresses the meaning of the complex determiners at least and at most and their kin in related languages. I explore the idea that the basic meaning of these is ‘exactly n or more/less than n’, and that this meaning triggers an implicature familiar from disjunction: That the speaker is not sure that exactly n, nor that more/less than n. This, I submit, covers the basic meaning of simple sentences with these, which I call speaker insecurity. Adopting a proposal in Klinedinst (2007), I then argue that at least/most trigger embedded implicatures when embedded under modal verbs, resulting in a second reading I call authoritative (making such sentences ambiguous). I then speculate about a third construal in which the determiners are split up, yielding another, stronger authoritative reading. A compositional semantics for the numerical use of these is provided, and the proposal is compared to that in Geurts and Nouwen (2007), which derives the same set of meanings by more semantic means. (This talk is based on my 2007 WCCFL paper (Buering, 2008), but more comprehensive in that it addresses the full range of meanings you get with at most, including the third construal.)

Buering, Daniel. 2008. The Least at least Can Do. Proceedings of the 26th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, edited by Charles B. Chang and Hannah J. Haynie, 114–120. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
Geurts, Bart, and Rick Nouwen. 2007. At Least et al : The Semantics of Scalar Modifiers. Language 83:533–559.
Klinedinst, Nathan. 2007. Plurality and Possibility. Ph.D. thesis, UCLA.

LF Reading Group - 4/22 - Igor Yanovich

TIME: Wed 4/22 3:00pm
PLACE: 34-303
TITLE: “Presuppositions of the gender features of anaphoric pronouns”

The common wisdom about the interpretation of phi-features of pronouns is that they contribute to the meaning the corresponding presuppositions (cf. Heim&Kratzer 1998, Sauerland 2003, etc. etc.). Namely, a pronoun “she" contributes presuppositions about its referent requiring it to be an atom and a female. This particular view of the gender features goes back to Cooper's 1983 book.

However, one important detail is missing: in an intensional environment where some individual have different genders in different sets of worlds under consideration, where must the requirement to be female be fulfilled? While the common wisdom usually does not go that far when talking about gender features; Cooper himself started to investigate the question and came to the conclusion that the features of bound pronouns contribute real normal presuppositions, while the features of free pronouns contribute a special kind of presuppositions - indexical presuppositions, which can only be fulfilled in the actual world.

As a closer look at the relevant data shows, Cooper's was a wrong generalization. After the discussion of relevant examples, I hope you will agree that, first, Cooper was right saying that presuppositions associated with gender features are special - they cannot be accommodated in the way “normal" presuppositions usually can; secondly, that it is not only free pronouns that trigger such special presuppositions, but bound pronouns as well - there is no difference between the two classes (which is probably good news.) The empirical generalizations emerging, however, seem to require a lot of work to accommodate into current semantic frameworks. I will discuss the demands the new data makes of the semantic theory, and will try to sketch a schema of a theory that should be able to accommodate those.

More information, incl. the schedule for the rest of the semester, can be found here.

Ling Lunch - 4/23 - Omer Preminger

Speaker: Omer Preminger
Title: Failure to Agree is Not a Failure: phi-agreement and (un)grammaticality
Time: Thurs 4/23, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461

Based on the patterns of phi-agreement with post-verbal subjects in Hebrew, I argue against the idea that failure to establish a phi-agreement relation between a phi-probe and its putative target (e.g., due to intervention) results in ungrammaticality, or a “crash”; at the same time, I argue that phi-agreement also cannot be optional.

At first glance, these claims—-that phi-agreement is neither optional, nor does its failure result in ungrammaticality—-might seem contradictory. However, I argue that there is a third possibility, which is in fact the only one that can account for the data under consideration: phi-agreement must be attempted by every phi-probe; but if it fails (e.g., due to the presence of an intervener), its failure is systematically tolerated.

Interestingly, this mirrors the behavior of the ruled-based systems of early generative grammar, where rules were composed of a Structural Description (SD) and a Structural Change (SC). In these terms, the effects of phi-agreement, as far as valuing the features on the phi-probe, could be thought of as the SC; the locality conditions associated with phi-agreement (incl. intervention) could be thought of as the SD.

Finally, I note that these result are in conflict with the idea that Case arises as a result of phi-agreement (e.g., as a result of valuing a full phi-set on a probe; Chomsky 2000, et seq.); I show independent evidence—-from empirical domains outside of the ones discussed above—-that a theory claiming that Case is dependent on phi-agreement is untenable.