The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 1st, 2010

BCS Special Seminar 2/5: The neural basis and signatures of human infants and adults

Speaker: Daniel C. Hyde (Harvard)
Time: Friday, February 5, noon
Location: 46-3189

News from the LSA

MIT was well represented at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, held in Baltimore, January 7-10, 2010.

The following department members and recent graduates gave talks:

Gillian Gallagher: Systemic markedness and laryngeal cooccurrence restrictions

Maria Giavazzi and Jonah Katz: Interaction of phonology and morphology in Kinande loanword adaptation

Martina Gracanin-Yuksek (Middle East Technical University): Multiple guises of multiple coordinated wh-questions
(with Barbara Citko, University of Washington at Seattle)

Peter Graff: Metathesis as asymmetric perceptual realignment
(with Gregory Scontras, Harvard University)

Morris Halle: Dylan Thomas’s syllabic verse, polymeters, and Bracketed Grid Theory
(with Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde)

Jonah Katz: Phonetic similarity in an English hip-hop corpus

Ezra Keshet (University of Michigan): Focus on conditional and quantificational coordination

Giorgio Magri (Jean Nicod Institute): Constraint promotion

Wayne O’Neil: Looking beyond English: Linguistic inquiry for English language learners
Daniel J. Ginsberg, Center for Applied Linguistics, and Maya Honda, Wheelock College)

Omer Preminger: Basque unergatives, case-competition, and ergative as inherent case

Kirill Shklovsky: Syncope as failure to insert a copy vowel: A case of Tseltal (presented at the joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the America)

In addition:

  • Ginsbert, Honda, and O’Neil’s paper was referred to in the LSA’s pre-meeting press release (Linguists to Gather in Baltimore for National Conference), under the heading Research Highlights:
New findings in the area of second language acquisition will be presented at a concurrent session on Jan. 9th at 9:00am, entitled “Language Learning.” The panelists will present research exploring two main areas: the mental processes involved in acquiring a new language and how insights from linguistics can facilitate this acquisition process. The paper by Ginsberg, Honda, and O’Neil, for instance, shows how students learning English as a second language can use techniques similar to what trained linguists use when analyzing a new language.
  • The MIT Press reports that Shigeru Miyagawa’s new monograph Why Agree? Why Move? was very popular, and the first to sell out!

24.979 Topics in Semantics

Instructors: Danny Fox and Martin Hackl
Room: MIT 32-D461
Time: Tuesday 2-5 PM

In this seminar we will be discussing some recent experimental work that could bear on questions in semantics and in the syntax semantics interface, as well as relevant theoretical background. We will start with questions about the nature of quantification, and in particular about the syntactic and semantics mechanisms needed for the representation of quantificational expressions. We will then move to questions pertaining to the theory of scalar implicatures and degree semantics. Throughout we will try to characterize further experimental work that could be conducted, in the hope that people will pick up on our suggestions or come up with alternatives of their own.

In addition to class participation (and reading), registered student will be asked to write a paper broadly related to the topics and methodologies discussed. Experimental work is encouraged, but not required.

24.921 Topics in the semantics and phonology of sentence prosody

Instructors: Edward Flemming and Irene Heim
Room: 32-D461
Time: Monday 2-5
Course website: here

Different ways of pronouncing the same sentence can convey different messages. In at least some cases, the differences concern aspects of meaning of the type modeled by formal semantics and pragmatics (e.g. truth conditions, presuppositions, implicatures, context change potential). These are the sorts of phenomena we will study in this class, with the ultimate aim of sharpening phonological and semantic concepts that enter into their explanation.

Examples of semantic-pragmatic concepts that we will examine include focus, different kinds of focus (e.g. information focus, contrastive focus), givenness, topic, question-under-discussion, speaker’s and hearer’s commitment sets, and others. Examples of phenomena include question-answer congruence, association with focus, prosodic disambiguation of quantifier scope, “question intonation” on declaratives. We will discuss classic and recent work by Rooth, Schwarzschild, Büring, Truckenbrodt, Gunlogson, Wagner, Constant, and others. In the process, we will investigate the nature of the prosodic representations that are relevant to these phenomena, examining the roles of prominence/stress, intonational melody and phrasing in signaling meaning distinctions.

The first lecture will be partly based on the material in Jackendoff (1972) ch. 6, and will preview in more detail the research questions that will guide us for the remainder of the semester.


Two MIT talks were on the program at the Old World Conference in Phonology 7, held in Nice, January 28-30, 2010:

Bronwyn Bjorkman: Morphologically triggered default-to-opposite stress in Nez Perce

Igor Yanovich & Donca Steriade: Uniformity, Subparadigm Precedence and Contrast derive stress patterns in Ukrainian nominal paradigms

Welcome to the spring semester!

Whamit! welcomes all the members of the MIT Linguistics community to the spring semester. We look forward to receiving items for inclusion in Whamit! throughout the semester. Items received by Saturday will be published in the following Monday’s edition. Please email all submissions to whamit@mit.edu.

24.964 Topics in Phonology: Topics in phonotactic learning

24.964 (MIT) Topics in Phonology / Ling 219r (Harvard) Advanced Phonology Topics in phonotactic learning

Instructors: Adam Albright and Michael Becker
Location: alternate weeks @ Harvard (Boylston 306) and MIT (32-D461)
Time: Thursdays 3-6 (see scheduling info below)
First meeting: Thurs 2/4 at Harvard

In this seminar, we will explore approaches to several related issues in the analysis and learning of phonotactic patterns. The format will be collaborative: for each issue, we will focus in detail on a small set of languages that exemplify the problem. Registered participants will make regular presentations on proposals from the literature, and we will work together to evaluate their potential applicability to the problem at hand. In each case, the goal will be to develop a possible analysis to the point of implementing a “proof of concept” model of how the pattern could be learned. The emphasis will be on both grammatical mechanisms (primarily within OT) and learning models (constraint ranking, Bayesian approaches, etc.)

We assume basic familiarity with Optimality Theory

Scheduling info:
We will meet alternate weeks at MIT and Harvard. Please note the following:
- The first meeting is 2/4 at Harvard (Boylston 306)
- We will not meet 3/18 or 3/25
- The last meeting is 5/13

Topics (subject to revision)

  1. Morpheme Structure Conditions
    Languages frequently exhibit phonotactic restrictions that hold of roots or underived words, but are not enforced in derived forms. For example, English has no monomorphemic words ending in fricative-fricative clusters, but they may be created by affixation (myth-s, fif-th, cave-z). Such restrictions have often been taken to require a distinct level of evaluation, e.g., through conditions on lexical entries (Halle 1959), but this approach has generally been avoided in OT. We consider the arguments for various alternatives.
  • Representative cases:
    English final clusters
    Semitic OCP restrictions

  • Some possible tools:
    Output-output faithfulness; stratal OT; domain-sensitive markedness; accidental gaps

  1. Exceptions to Morpheme Structure Conditions
    Another challenge posed by MSCs that are not enforced in derived forms is that they are frequently tendencies rather than absolute restrictions. We review proposals for protecting individual words from conforming to broader generalizations, which include representational and grammatical mechanisms. We ask how exceptions are defined in a theory where the generalizations are gradient, or violable, or imposed on differing domains.
  • Representative cases:
    Semitic OCP restrictions
    Romance diphthongization

  • Some possible tools:
    Constraint indexation; faithfulness to listed forms; dual route models

  1. Conditions on subclasses: lexical strata, parts of speech, etc.
    MSCs frequently hold over a subset of the lexicon. We consider evidence that lexical strata are more than simply sets of exceptions, considering speakers’ ability to integrate potentially independent facts into broader observations. For example, in Hebrew, complex codas are only found in items with fixed stress, and in Turkish, long vowels are only found in nouns. Independent facts can also be combined gradiently: In Turkish, a long vowel reduces, but does not eliminate, the chance of finding voicing alternations in a stem-final stop.
  • Representative cases:
    Turkish (long vowels, voicing alternations)
    Japanese (syllable structure, inventory, voicing alternations)
    Spanish (intervocalic voiceless stops, clusters, diphthongization)

  • Some possible tools:
    Constraint indexation; co-phonologies; hierarchical Bayesian models

Harvard Colloquium 2/5: Alan Prince

Speaker: Alan Prince (Rutgers)
Time: Friday, February 5, 2010, 4:00pm
Location: Harvard, Boylston 103
Title: OT without Ranking

9.591 / 24.495 Language processing

Language processing: An introduction to the experimental investigation of language, above the word level
Instructors: Ted Gibson (egibson@mit.edu), Evelina Fedorenko (evelina9@mit.edu)
Location: 46-3015
Currently scheduled: Mondays 2-5. We already know of some conflicts with students who would like to take this class. So we may re-schedule the class to 4-7 or 6-9 on Mondays, or possibly some other time slot, depending on the schedules of the students who want to take the class.

This course has two goals: (1) to teach students about experimental design and basic results in language processing; and (2) to tutor students through the design and execution of an experiment of their choosing, in a language research area above the word level (e.g., syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse, working memory).

This is a project-oriented class. Because of the time needed to work on each project, registration is limited in this class to 10 people. If more than 10 people sign up, we will form groups so that the total number of projects does not exceed 10. We will meet with students individually (or in groups) early in the semester in order to decide on a topic area for an experiment to be run during the term. During the semester, students will design, run and analyze at least one psycholinguistic experiment. A paper presenting the study will be due at the end of the semester.

The course will meet once a week for three hours at a time. The lectures will survey some critical results from the field of sentence processing. Throughout the course we will emphasize quantitative methods for investigating language. We will also discuss how to design experimental materials to evaluate hypotheses (including basic statistics, using the language R) from all areas of language, controlling for factors not relevant to the hypothesis in question. Some later lectures will be devoted to discussing students’ experiments.

Students taking the course may come with their own hypotheses to evaluate. Alternatively, we have suggestions for projects in different areas of language. One requirement of any proposed experiment is feasibility. Consequently, most experiments will need to evaluate a question using English participants, because of the availability of this group locally. Proposed experiments on other languages are possible, but only if the experimenter can demonstrate feasibility of getting access to the relevant participant group during the term.

Ling Lunch-No meeting 2/4

There will be no ling-lunch this Thursday (Feb 4). If anyone would still like to schedule a talk for this semester, the following dates are still available:

  • February 11
  • February 18
  • February 25
  • March 11

To reserve a date, just email the ling-lunch organizers — Bronwyn Bjorkman and Alya Asarina — and ask to be added to the schedule.

MIT to host FAMLi

MIT will host the first Formal Approaches to Mayan Linguistics (FAMLi) Workshop this spring, April 23–25th. The program has just been posted on the conference website.

The program consists of presentations and posters by researchers from around the world, including many native speakers of Mayan languages who will be traveling from Mexico and Guatemala to present their work. The workshop will also feature five invited speakers: Judith Aissen (UCSC), Heriberto Avelino (Max Planck Institute), Ximena Lois (U. Michigan), and B’alam Mateo-Toledo (CIESAS), along with our own Norvin Richards, who will give a talk about the relationship between work on under-documented languages and theoretical linguistics. The workshop is bilingual and talks and posters will be given in both English and Spanish. However, when possible participants presenting in Spanish will include some English on their handout or poster.

Registration for the workshop is free before March 1st, but we do ask you to register if you plan to attend more than just a talk or two in order to get an accurate head count for the caterers.

24.956 Topics in the relation between syntax and prosody

Instructor: Norvin Richards
Room: 32-D461
Time: Tuesday 10-1

In Minimalist approaches to syntax, movement operations are sometimes said to occur in order to satisfy requirements imposed by the interfaces. In this class we will try to develop explicit theories of some of these requirements, on the PF side. We will take as our starting point the theory developed in Richards (2006, in press), which attempts to predict the distribution of overt and covert wh-movement by allowing syntax to make direct reference to prosodic structure.

We will spend the semester applying this general way of thinking to a variety of traditionally posited parametric differences between languages, eventually attempting to develop explanations of cross-linguistic differences in A-movement, the EPP, and head-movement that are rooted in observable differences between languages. Time permitting, we will then go on to consider phenomena such as scrambling and head direction (attempting to derive the effects of the Final-over-Final Constraint). Along the way, we will develop new answers to a variety of traditional and not-so-traditional questions (why is PRO always null? why is French participle agreement only possible with objects that undergo movement? why do some languages, but not others, allow nominative subjects in infinitives (Szabolcsi 2007)? why can languages like Chichewa optionally leave wh in situ in all positions except for preverbal subjects, which must overtly move via clefting? why do some languages (e.g., Niuean, Chol) perform phrasal fronting of their predicates? why is extraposition to the right of the verb in German possible just when the VP has been topicalized (Haider’s puzzle)?)

The class will thus have two major goals: we will try to deepen our explanations for a variety of syntactic phenomena, and to improve our general understanding of the relationship between syntax and phonology. We will also do some general reading of current work on the prosody-syntax interface.

Registered students will be asked to do in-class presentations (either of relevant readings or of the student’s own research), and to hand in a (possibly very rough draft of a) final paper.