The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, January 31st, 2011

Welcome to the spring semester!

Whamit! welcomes all the members of the MIT Linguistics community to the spring semester. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, and newcomers Michelle Fullwood and Ryo Masuda (who take over for Claire Halpert as student editors). Thank you Claire for all your hard work on Whamit! over the past year and more!!!

We look forward to receiving items for inclusion in Whamit! throughout the semester. To submit items for inclusion please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 4pm before the next Whamit! appears.


24.956 Topics in syntax: Binding Theory and Beyond

Instructors: Sabine Iatridou & David Pesetsky
Time: Tuesday 2-5
Place: 32-D461
Course website: here

We are all familiar with the proposals crystallized by Chomsky in his 1981 book Lectures on Government and Binding that describe the manner in which syntactic structure interacts with anaphora: Binding Theory. In the three decades since that work, a number of researchers have rethought and reworked these proposals. This new research reflects recent advances in syntactic and semantic theory and responds to many new cross-linguistic discoveries.

In this seminar, we begin by surveying some of the more prominent and thorough efforts to rethink Binding Theory (especially Principles A and B), including recent books and book manuscripts by Safir, by Reuland, and by Rooryck & Vanden Wyngaerd. We will then turn to several topics that interact closely with Binding Theory, including the internal composition of pronouns, implicit arguments (and their interaction with passive), interactions with case, and control theory.


Syntax Square

Syntax Square will meet this semester on Mondays from 11:30-12:30 in 32-D461. If you would like to lead a discussion or give an informal presentation of your work, please contact Natasha Ivlieva or Coppe van Urk.


24.943 Topics in the Syntax and Semantics of Slavic

Instructors: David Pesetsky & Sergei Tatevosov
Time: Thursday 2-5
Place: (32-D461)
Course website: here

This class will explore in depth several interconnected semantic and syntactic phenomena of the Slavic language group, in very much the spirit of “More Advanced Syntax” and comparable classes in semantics. After a quick survey of the language family, we will begin with a discussion of two broad topics that are fundamental to almost every other topic we might want to discuss in Slavic. The first of these is the internal structure of the verb stem, especially the rich system of verbal prefixation characteristic of Slavic. The second is the internal structure of the Slavic nominal phrase — where there is particularly lively debate about whether those Slavic languages that lack definite articles also lack a DP layer, as well as much discussion of the case systems found in all Slavic languages except Bulgarian and Macedonian.

After these topics have been discussed, we will look at a variety of puzzles found in Slavic (both semantic and syntactic) including: aspect; unaccusativity (and its interaction with case, especially the infamous genitive of negation); dative subjects; adjectives (which are morphologically and semantically complex across Slavic); as well scrambling; and the (also infamous) multiple-wh constructions.


Harvard Ling 204: Topics in Syntax: Verb Initiality

Instructors: Masha Polinsky & Jessica Coon
Time: Thursday, 1-3PM (class began on 1/27)
Place: Boylston 303, Harvard

Researchers agree that not all verb-initial languages are built the same way, and this suggests that paths toward verb-initiality may differ. The course will examine cross-linguistic patterns of verb-initial languages, with the emphasis on micro-variation and its challenges for theoretical accounts. These patterns will be analyzed with the goal of deriving verb-initial orders in current syntactic theory.


LFRG: first meeting 2/2, 2:30-3:30

LFRG will meet this semester on Wednesdays, 2:30-3:30PM. The first meeting of the semester will take place on February 2, in 32D-831. For more information, contact Igor Yanovich or Yasutada Sudo.


24.942 Topics in the Grammar of a Less Familiar Language: Kaqchikel

Instructors: Jessica Coon & Michael Kenstowicz
Time: Monday 2-5
Place: 32-D461

24.942 will meet Mondays from 2:00-5:00 in the 4th floor seminar room, except for the first class, which will meet on Friday 2/4 from 9am-12pm (no class on Monday 2/7). If you are interested in attending the class, but are not registered, please email Jessica Coon and Michael Kenstowicz so they can update you about the classroom for the first day.

Ana López de Mateo will join the department this semester as a consultant for 24.942. Ana is originally from Patzún, Guatemala, and is a native speaker of Kaqchikel, a Mayan language of the K’ichean branch. Ana has worked with the Peace Corps, as an elementary school teacher, and is currently teaching in the Spanish department at Harvard.


MIT at the LSA

MIT had a strong presence at this year’s LSA meeting, held in Pittsburgh, January 6-9. The following faculty, students, and recent graduates gave presentations:

  • Bronwyn Bjorkman: The syntax of inverted conditional antecedents
  • Jessica Coon (Harvard): Prepositions and the perfective: Deriving aspect-based split ergativity
  • Jessica Coon and Omer Preminger: Transitivity in Chol: A new argument for the Split VP Hypothesis
  • Kai von Fintel (with David Beaver): Semantics and pragmatics: The creation of an open access journal
  • Suzanne Flynn (with Janet Cohen Sherman, Alex Immerman, Barbara Lust, James Gair, Jordan Whitlock, and Diane Rak): Language in aging and dementia: A pilot study
  • Gillian Gallagher (NYU): Auditory features: the case from laryngeal cooccurrence restrictions
  • Peter Graff (with Max Bane and Morgan Sonderegger): Phonetic convergence among reality television contestants
  • Peter Graff (with Gregory Scontras and Noah D. Goodman): Plural comparison and collective predication
  • Peter Graff (with Jeffrey Lim and Sophie Monahan): The determiner complexity hierarchy
  • Jonah Katz (Centre national de la recherche scientifique): English duration patterns mirror perceptual asymmetries
  • Giorgio Magri (École Normale Supérieure): Towards a non-universal approach to the problem of the acquisition of phonotactics in Optimality Theory
  • Tara McAllister (Montclair State University): Patterns of gestural overlap account for positional fricative neutralization in child phonology
  • Pritty Patel: Binding conditions and alienable vs. inalienable possession
  • Kirill Shklovsky: Tseltal unnegatives

Pesetsky named AAAS fellow

Congratulations to David Pesetsky, who has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)! From the MIT press release, “fellows are recognized by their peers for their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.” Pesetsky was chosen for “his innovative and critical research on syntactic theory, connecting it to issues in phonology, morphology, reading, language acquisition and neuroscience, and for his contributions to linguistic education at many levels.” Read more about the appointment here.


24.964 Topics in phonology

Part 1: Units of rhythm: intervals and syllables
Part 2: OT with Ranked Violations

Instructors: Edward Flemming & Donca Steriade
Time: Friday 12-3PM
Place: 32-D461
Course website: here

Part 1. Units of rhythm.

Stress and meter operate on rhythmic units that consist of a nucleus plus some neighboring consonants. These units are currently assumed to be syllables. In the first part of the course, we compare syllables with a different unit, the Vowel-to-Vowel interval. An interval is contains the nucleus plus any segments following it, up to the next nucleus or the end of the domain. Phenomena that depend on counting rhythmic units get identical accounts under both analyses, but the location of unit edges is predicted to differ. This difference has a wide range of consequences for the analysis of quantitative phenomena, for rhyming and alliteration, for segmental phonology and prosodic morphology. We will explore as many of these differences as we can fit in 6 sessions.

Part 2: Optimality Theory with Ranked Violations

In the second half of the semester we will explore a new model of constraint interaction in Optimality Theory. The main motivation for pursuing this variant is to provide a better analysis of scalar constraints in phonology.

Standard OT adopts a mechanism based on constraint ranking to resolve constraint conflicts: in cases of conflict the higher-ranked constraint prevails. In this framework, there can be no compromise between scalar constraints. This is potentially problematic because trade-offs appear to be common. For example, preferences to minimize effort and maximize the distinctiveness of contrasts can be given natural formalizations in terms of scalar constraints, but in an OT setting, one constraint has to dominate the other so it is only possible to derive maximum distinctiveness or minimum effort where we actually observe compromises between the two: moderate distinctiveness in exchange for moderate effort. In standard OT, compromise can only be accommodated by decomposing scalar constraints into multiple sub-constraints.

In the new model of constraint interaction, constraints are weighted and each violation of a constraint incurs a cost equal to the magnitude of the violation multiplied by the constraint weight. Evaluation then proceeds much as in standard OT except that ranking of violations is based on their costs rather than being fixed for a given constraint, so a large violation of scalar constraint C1 can rank above a violation of constraint C2 while a lesser violation of C1 ranks below a violation of C2. This makes it possible to derive trade-offs between constraints.

We will compare these lines of analysis in case studies of markedness and faithfulness scales, including those pertaining to sonority, distinctiveness, and P-map correspondence.


Student News

  • Luka Crnic gave a talk titled “Rhetorical imperatives and other challenges” at Beyond ever and any - challenging theories of NPI licensing, a workshop on NPIs held at the University of Göttingen on January 14-15.

  • Peter Graff reports that his CLS paper with Max Bane and Morgan Sonderegger, `Longitudinal Phonetic Variation in a Closed System,’ on the Big Brother corpus is now available on his website.


Phonology Circle - Tues 2/1, 5-6pm

The first meeting of the Phonology Circle for the semester will be this Tuesday (in our new time slot)

Date: Tues 2/1 5-6pm
Location: 32-D831

It will be an organizational meeting in which we arrange the schedule for the semester, and also possible topics and papers for discussion. Also, if you can’t make it on Tuesday, but would like to sign up for a slot this semester, let Adam know.