The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 7th, 2009

24.981 Topics in computational phonology and morphology

24.981 Topics in computational phonology and morphology
M 2:30-5:00pm, plus lab sessions to be determined
Location: TBA


Computational modeling can usefully inform many aspects of phonological theory. Implementing a theory provides a more rigorous test of its applicability to different data sets, and requires a greater degree of formal precision than is found in purely expository presentations. By training learning models on realistic training samples, we can test whether a posited analysis can actually be discovered from representative data, and we can observe what proportion of the data is actually accounted for by that analysis. Modeling also provides a direct means of testing whether a proposed formal device facilitates the discovery of generalizations, or whether it hampers learning by greatly increasing the size of the search space. In the most interesting cases, computational modeling uncovers facts about the language that would have been difficult to discover by eye, and forces us to ask which facts are treated as linguistically significant by speakers.

This class is intended to serve two distinct functions:

  • We will discuss recent theoretical work informed by computational implementations, and tools for modeling phonological knowledge of various kinds. Special attention will be paid to the relation between formal learning models and empirical data concerning phonological acquisition.
  • The class also functions as a practical introduction to some scripting techniques, allowing those who have no programming background to gain some hands-on experience with modeling. No previous programming experience is assumed or required.

Topics will include: (subject to revision)

  • Statistical “baseline” models (n-gram models, exemplar models)
  • Algorithms for constraint ranking and weighting
  • Algorithms for constraint discovery
  • Integrating learned and innate constraints
  • Learning in the midst of variation and exceptions, and discovery of gradient patterns

Requirements: readings and small regular problem sets, final project+presentation.

24.956 Seminar on Topics in East Asian Linguistics

24.956 Seminar on Topics in East Asian Linguistics
T 10-1, 66-156 (when meeting at MIT, including the first class on 9/15)
C-T James Huang, Shigeru Miyagawa

We will take up some recent studies of East Asian syntax that have important theoretical relevance.

Issues include:

  • agreement/topic/focus
  • NP structure: the status of classifiers, plurality, and no/de, etc.
  • ellipsis and null arguments in clauses and nominals
  • comparatives
  • intervention effects
  • Case alternation

While the focus will be on Chinese and Japanese, we will make an attempt to bring in data and analysis from Korean whenever possible. Students are expected to do one class presentation and a final paper. We will alternate the meeting location between Harvard and MIT. See Calendar for the location of each class.

Syntax-Semantics Reading Group

With the beginning of the new semester, the Syntax-Semantics Reading Group gears up again.

  • Presentations: Although we have turned into a practice talks group in the last couple of years, we again hope to turn the tide a little bit and have some presentations this semester in which actual reading is required from the participants. There are already two such meetings planned: McCloskey prep & Bobaljik prep. We are also planning to have some discussions of readings relevant for the upcoming NELS talks. We will also have an occasional invited speaker.

If there are papers that you would like to see discussed, please let us know. Also contact Tue and Luka if you have any other suggestions for the group or, naturally, if you want to give a practice talk.

  • Suggested time: Mondays 3.30PM; the room will be announced. Let us know if you have planned to attend but can’t make it at that time.
  • Website: it will be updated once the scheduling is settled

See you soon!
Your LFRG organizers

Phonology circle: Organizational meeting 9/14

Phonology Circle will resume its fall schedule next Monday, 9/14, at 5pm in 32-831. If you cannot make this meeting, but would like to reserve a slot for the fall semester, please contact Adam.

See you there!

Meet Ling-09

Several of the incoming first year students have sent us brief introductions.

mitcho (Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine) grew up in Minnesota and is thus actively looking forward to the Boston winter. While at the University  of Chicago he worked on the syntax/semantics of Mandarin comparatives.  Since then, he’s lived in Taiwan and Japan, most recently working for  Mozilla.

Hadas Kotek grew up in a small town in northern Israel. Hadas reports: “My name literally means myrtle and is a shortened version of Hadassah, the Hebrew name of the biblical queen Esther. I did a BA in linguistics at Tel-Aviv university, then studied the first year of my MA at the Humboldt university in Berlin and the second year back at Tel-Aviv university. My previous work focused mainly on formal semantics and its interface with syntax. At present I am planning to continue working in these same areas.”

Junya Nomura reports: “I’m from Japan. My main interst is in syntax. I’ve studied especially Japanese syntax, but I’m planing to study other East Asian languages such as Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Khmer, too. Apart from linguistics, I like sports, especially basketball and baseball, and shogi (Japanese chess).”

Daeyoung Sohn reports: “I am from South Korea. I have an MA in linguistics, and BAs in international relations study and English. I am interested mainly in Syntax and also have interest in Semantics. ”

Yusuke Imanishi reports: “I was born and grew up in Nara, Japan. The city is not as famous and large as cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Nevertheless, it is filled with nature preserves, forests and temples/shrines!! We also have a big Buddha, which reaches the height of approx. 50m. I completed my MA in Linguistics at Osaka University in Spring 2009. My thesis proposes that dative subjects in the Standard Japanese and some Japanese dialects are structurally Case-assigned, opposed to traditional analyses. I also extended empirical coverage to other languages and attempted to devise a unified account of dative subject constructions. My research interests include syntactic theory and comparative syntax based on a macro/micro-parametric approach. I’m also interested in the interfaces of phonology and semantics with syntax. 

Iain Giblin is from Australia. He reports: “My academic background is in music, but I’ve had a long interest in linguistics and in my postgraduate music studies I sought to apply generative models of language to music. I’m also interested in the philosophical questions that arise from the generative approach. I’m looking forward to the program here at MIT and learning all the techniques of modern linguistic theory so I won’t commit myself to one domain just yet. I still like to noodle around on the guitar and Boston is a great guitar town.”

Stay tuned for intros to the rest of the incoming class.

24.993 Topics in Syntax: Leftward, Rightward, Overt, Covert: Rules of Linearization

24.993*: Topics in Syntax
Leftward, Rightward, Overt, Covert: Rules of Linearization
Danny Fox, David Pesetsky
Time: Wednesdays 10-1
Place: 32-D461 (but first class will meet in a different room; look for e-mail)

*Note about the subject number: This class was announced as 24.956, but since that same number is being used by Shigeru Miyagawa and Jim Huang for their seminar, we will be teaching ours under 24.993. If you register for the class, please register for the new number, 24.993. This class will satisfy any requirements that mention 24.956.


On the surface, syntactic movement appears to raise two independent questions for the phonology:

  1. Leftward vs. rightward movement: How is the moved element ordered relative to the constituent with which it has just merged — to its left or to its right?
  2. Overt vs. covert movement: Which of the two positions occupied by a moved constituent is relevant for its ordering — its new position or its old position (the trace)?

In this class, we will investigate the possibility that these two questions are closely connected. In particular, we will argue that when a moved element is ordered to the right of the constituent with which it has just merged, the result is covert movement. More generally, we will argue that the answer to question 1 for each instance of movement determines the answer to question 2.

We further propose that the answer to question 1 itself might be predictable from Rules of Linearization that are not specific to movement, but order the constituents of the language more generally. That is, the direction of particular movement operations in a given language may be predictable from other basic word order facts of the language.

Among the topics relevant to this investigation are:

  • (a) Extraposition: Why do extraposed modifiers appear on the right, and why does this type of extraposition appear to influence scope?
  • (b) Scrambling and scope rigidity: Why do OV languages generally allow scrambling but disallow inverse scope in the absence of scrambling?
  • (c) Parasitic gaps: Why does covert A-bar movement license parasitic gaps only in very restricted configurations?
  • (d) Righthand subject phenomena: Why do certain types of fronting, including Locative Inversion and wh-movement, allow or require an otherwise preverbal subject to appear on the right in many languages?
  • (e) Object shift and quantifier movement in Scandinavian languages: Why is Object Shift subject to a requirement of order preservation (Holmberg’s generalization) and Quantifier Movement subject to a seemingly opposite constraint?

Particular attention will be devoted to the implications of our ideas for the timing of linearization—in particular, for the Cyclic Linearization proposal of Fox & Pesetsky (2005).


Part 1: We will begin by sketching our proposals and conjectures over the first few weeks. This presentation will leave many questions open, and will certainly yield many unsolved problems.

Part 2: After this, we will back up and spend the middle portion of the class investigating many of the topics raised in the first part in greater depth. The discussion of these topics will be along the lines of other syntax classes in which such topics are discussed, and will not necessarily be limited to questions that are relevant to our proposals in any obvious way.

Topics will include those listed above, but will also include discussion of other recent work on linearization and movement — especially some extremely interesting discoveries recently reported by Biberauer, Holmberg and Roberts (and colleagues).

Part 3: We hope to be able to return to part 1 (re-teaching it, in fact) in light of what we have learned from part 2 and earlier discussion.


  • Reading assignments throughout the semester.
  • In part 1, we will give some small problems and questions to be investigated.
  • For part 2, students will be asked to collaborate with us and with each other on the presentation of particular topics.
  • Finally, there will be a squib or short paper on some topic related to the class. This squib could reflect questions you have asked, investigations you have conducted, or scathing attacks on our proposals. It is up to you!


Read the paper and handout on extraposition by Fox & Nissenbaum. Many of you have seen this material in 24.952 (or discovered some of it for yourself in a problem set from that class). This work will be our starting point for the topics discussed in this class.

There will be a class website on Stellar, to which subsequent readings will be posted.

24.960 Syntactic Models

24.960 Syntactic Models

Time: Tuesdays 2-5
Place: 32-D461
Website: http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa09/24.960/

The course has twin goals:

First, it gives a quick introduction to at least two “frameworks” for syntactic research that compete with the Government-Binding/Minimalist tradition in the current syntax world: HPSG and Lexical-Functional Grammar (LFG). We work speedily through much of the HPSG textbook by Sag, Wasow and Bender, and also look at the LFG textbook by Bresnan.

Next, the class turns historical, tracing the development of generative syntax from Syntactic Structures (1957) up to the early 1980s, when HPSG and LFG first separated themselves off from the research program that became GB/LSLT. An overarching theme of the course is the issue of derivational vs. representational views of syntax — a theme that offers some surprising observations about who said what at various points in the history of the field, but also gives the course a focus relevant to the most current work.

You can get a good sense of what the class will be like from its old Stellar pages: >http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/sp07/24.960/ and http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa03/24.960/. I plan to follow essentially the same structure, but I will work extra hard to make room for the book by Jackendoff and Culicover, which I did not end up teaching the last two (!) times I announced it and still want very much to.

The requirements are:

  1. regular attendance and participation
  2. problem sets in the first half of the class, and
  3. three class presentations or co-presentations (depending on numbers): of an HPSG paper, an LFG paper, and a paper from the period of generative semantics/interpretive semantics debates

No paper! (A major attraction in the past.)

Many students have reported finding this class both fun and enlightening (and not just because there is no required paper). Ask some of your predecessors for their reviews.

The most important book to order right now is the following one:

  • Sag, Wasow and Bender “Syntactic Theory” (e.g., here or here)

…and please start reading it. It will be great if you come to the first class already somewhat prepared. This book is intended as an introduction to syntax for undergraduates, so you will find the early chapters go quickly. But the syntax it introduces is HPSG, so fairly soon you will be learning new things.

The books we will be using later in the semester are:

  • Bresnan “Lexical-Functional Grammar”
    [Out of print in paperback, but ">available used. I will, however, post relevant parts to Stellar, so we can make do even if you don’t get the book.]
  • Chomsky “Syntactic Structures” (e.g., or here)
  • Culicover and Jackendoff “Simpler Syntax” (e.g., here or here)

Other readings (papers and excerpts from books) will be downloadable from the Stellar website for the class.

Hope to see you there!

24.979 Topics in Syntax & Semantics: “Without glue, what do we do?”

24.979 Topics in Syntax & Semantics
von Fintel, Iatridou
MW 1:30-3

“Without glue, what do we do?”

The theme of our seminar is the question of how meanings are put together when there seems to be a lack of explicit marking of how things fit together. One famous example (seminally studied by Stump) is the variety of meanings a free adjunct can take on:

(1) Having long arms, John can reach the ceiling.
(2) Standing on a chair, John can reach the ceiling.

We will talk about the syntax & semantics of such adjuncts, of parentheticals, of free relatives, of appositive relatives, of conjunction, of concessives, of conditionals, and of paratactic coordinations. The reading list will evolve over the course of the semester, since this is a topic that is mostly new to us. We will be learning with you as we go along.

In a departure from our usual seminar format, we are meeting twice a week in more bite-sized chunks of time. To make this format be productive, preparatory reading will be even more important than usual.

Apart from keeping up with the reading and participating vigorously in the seminar discussions, which is an expectation for all seminar participants, registered students will write a term paper that is at least tangentially related to the topic(s) of the seminar. Early consultation about the term papers is advised.

For the first meeting on Wednesday September 9 at 1:30pm in Room 66-160, the preparatory reading is a (not completely randomly chosen) article on the meaning of conjunction:

Txurruka, Isabel Gómez. 2003. The natural language conjunction and. Linguistics and Philosophy 26(3). 255–285. doi:10.1023/A:1024117423963.

Everybody who intends to attend the seminar should read this article beforehand and think of questions and comments about it for the seminar discussion.

Welcome to the Fall Semester

Tomorrow, Tuesday 9/8, is Registration Day. Whamit!, the MIT Linguistics Department Newsletter appears every Monday during the semester. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, Claire Halpert (who’s taking over as student editor from Jonah Katz), and David Pesetsky. To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 4pm before the next Whamit appears. At the beginning of the semester, we’re particularly interested in news about what happened during the break.

What we did this summer: MIT linguists at the LSA Institute

Four MIT linguistics faculty members taught at the LSA Institute in Berkeley this summer:

  • Adam Albright taught “Morphological innovation and change”
  • Kai von Fintel and Sabine Iatridou taught “Morphology, syntax, and semantics of modals”
  • Donca Steriade taught “Correspondence and the phonological lexicon”

Donca also gave the Edward Sapir Lecture on “Units of representation for linguistic rhythm”. In addition, third-year grad student Peter Graff attended the institute on a LSA Summer Institute Fellowship.

What I did this summer: Wayne O’Neil

For the last three years, the route from Boston to Bellingham WA to Diné Bikéyah (Navajoland) to Boston has come to define Wayne O’Neil’s summers.

During the summer now ending, Wayne taught a three-week course on Navajo phonology at the summer workshop of the Navajo Language Academy (6-24 July). Nearly all of the twenty or so 2009 workshop participants were Navajo teachers of the language and fluent speakers of Navajo.

NLA’s summer workshops are held annually at various Diné Bikéyah venues — NLA 2009 being located at Diné College near the high desert, intersection of Indian Roads 12 and 64 (Tsaile AZ, pop. about 1000).

The course was based on Ken Hale and Lorraine Honie’s unpublished Introduction to the sound system of Navajo (no date [1972?]), as revised and expanded by Wayne during spring 2009. Since returning from his NLA work, Wayne has continued to revise and expand the Hale-Honie ms., with a view toward making it available through the NLA.

(Hale and Honie’s ms. can be found at http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/tfernal1/nla/halearch/halearch.htm, from which there is also a link to NLA’s home page. As for Lorraine Honie [Navajo], she was briefly a graduate student in this department in the early 1970s; she is now at Rough Rock Community School, Rough Rock AZ.)

Immediately prior to working at Diné College, Wayne participated in the third annual Western Washington University Linguistics in Education workshop (WWULiE-2009) in Bellingham WA.

What I did this summer: Norvin Richards

Norvin spent three weeks teaching introductory syntax in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the New York-St. Petersburg Institute of Linguistics, Cognition, and Culture (NYI).

He also spent a weekend teaching and learning Wampanoag at the third annual Wôpanâak immersion camp (at which only Wampanoag is spoken).

And he went to Budapest for the Minimalist Approaches to Syntactic Locality (MASL) conference, where he gave a talk about Improper Movement and tough-movement

His other project over the summer was finishing his book, Uttering Trees, which is scheduled to come out as an LI Monograph in 2010.