The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 16th, 2009

No Phonology Circle this week

Phonology circle is on hiatus this week, recuperating from a highly successful weekend of NELS talks. There is also a slot available next week (11/23)—please contact Adam if you would like to sign up for it.

Upcoming schedule:

Nov 23 OPEN
Nov 30 Sverre Johnsen
Dec 7 Maria Giavazzi

Stay up to date! Check out the online schedule, or subscribe via iCal

Ling-Lunch 11/19: Omer Preminger

Please join us for Ling-lunch this week:

Speaker: Omer Preminger
Time: Thurs 11/19, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461
Title: On the nature of ergativity: New and old evidence from Basque

Basque unergatives have long been held as evidence that unergatives have an implicit object (Hale & Keyser 1993). Recently, I have argued that the presence of absolutive agreement-morphology in Basque is by no means an indication of an agreement relation being successfully established with a nominal target (Preminger 2009, LI). Building on this, I present two new arguments (and one old one) that Basque unergatives systematically lack an implicit object.

Since the single argument of these predicates is nonetheless marked with ergative Case, these facts furnish an argument against ergative in Basque adhering to a Case-competition logic (i.e., against ergative in Basque being “dependent Case”; Marantz 1991). At first glance, this seems to favor an account of ergative as inherent Case (Woolford 1997, Legate 2008, among others). However, there is evidence internal to Basque which casts doubt on such an account: (i) raising-to-ergative constructions (Artiagoitia 2001), and (ii) the existence of ergative Theme arguments (Etxepare 2003, Holguín 2007, among others).

In response to these facts, I propose a slight variation on the inherent Case theory of ergativity: ergative Case is still assigned in [Spec,vP], but [Spec,vP] is not unambiguously a base-generation site; it can be the target of movement, as well. If a DP is base-generated in [Spec,vP], it will receive not only ergative Case, but also an Agent theta-role; but if a DP moves into [Spec,vP], it will get ergative Case but retain whatever theta-role it already had.

MIT Linguistics Colloquium 11/20: Jonathan Bobaljik (UConn)

Speaker: Jonathan David Bobaljik (University of Connecticut)
Title: Idiosyncratic syncretic patterns: Some Chukotko-Kamchatkan evidence
Time: Friday, November 20, 2009, 3:30pm
Place: 32-141

Syncretism (homophony within paradigms) has played a significant (if somewhat controversial) role in morphological theory. There is relatively broad agreement that there are no limits on the patterns of surface homophony that may be attested. In addition to stipulated accidental homophony, many current theories have powerful mechanisms (feature-manipulating rules, for example) that ultimately allow for essentially any pattern to be described. In this talk, I aim to support the rather conservative notion that there is nevertheless a line to be drawn between natural syncretic patterns on the one hand, and idiosyncratic patterns on the other. The natural patterns are those that can be represented as underspecification of vocabulary items (exponents), while the idiosyncratic patterns require the invocation of special rules, the residue of contingent factors such as historical changes.

I start with a brief discussion of a feature inventory motivated by categorical universals in the area of person marking, which are independent of the issue of syncretism. I show that this feature inventory defines a division between natural and idiosyncratic patterns that is robustly supported by the distribution of language types in large scale surveys (thus converging with Pertsova 2007 over a different sample). I then turn to an in-depth investigation of one set of extremely idiosyncratic patterns in a single language family, looking at the reflexes of Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan agreement prefix *næ-. Comrie (1980) has famously discussed this prefix as providing evidence for a functional “inverse” alignment in these paradigms, leading to a complicated form:function mismatch, and requiring a theory in which rules of vocabulary insertion are governed by constraints on the overall shape of the paradigm. Continuing a line of work arguing against appeals to such paradigm-level constraints (e.g., Bobaljik 2002, 2008), I argue that the proper description of the quirky Chukotko-Kamchatkan facts is best stated in terms of deletion (impoverishment) rules (ranging over specific features, or in some cases entire terminal nodes, cf. Arregi & Nevins 2007, Calabrese 2008), but that the explanation of these rules is entirely diachronic. An appeal to paradigmatic constraints is neither sufficient, nor necessary to explain the observed idiosyncratic syncretic patterns.