The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 14th, 2011

Syntax Square 2/14 - Maziar Toosarvandani

Speaker: Maziar Toosarvandani (UCLA)
Title: The role of nominalization in Northern Paiute embedding
Time: Monday, February 14, 11.30-12.30PM
Location: 32-D461

Northern Paiute—a Uto-Aztecan language of the western United States—has two strategies for creating nonsubject relative clauses: one that previous authors have treated as an externally-headed relative clause and another, previously unnoticed, that has the profile of an internally-headed relative clause. Both types involve a suffix “-na” on the embedded verb that is formally identical to a nominalizer that creates nonsubject event participant and event nominalizations. This is not an accidental similarity, since I argue that nominalization lies at the core of both nonsubject relative clause strategies.

Harvard Phonology Talk 2/14 - Matthew Wolf

Speaker: Matthew Wolf (Yale)
Title: Candidate Chains, unfaithful spell-out, and outwards-looking phonologically conditioned allomorphy
Time: Monday, February 14, 5:00pm
Location: Boylston Hall 335 (third floor)

If the phonological realization of morphemes proceeds serially, and in an cyclic, inside-out manner, it is predicted that the choice of allomorphs for some morpheme M cannot be ‘outwards looking’: it cannot be sensitive the phonological shape of morphemes that are structurally external to M, since these will not be phonologically realized until later in the derivation. By contrast, if the computation of allomorph choice proceeds in parallel for whole words (or utterances), outwards-looking suppletion should always be possible. The problem addressed in this talk is that outwardslooking phonologically conditioned suppletion is clearly not as freely available as a purely parallel approach would lead us to expect, but neither is it totally unattested, as a purely serial approach would predict.

In this talk I propose that the right balance between serialism and parallelism can be struck by using an OT with Candidate Chains grammar (McCarthy 2007) as the environment in which allomorphic choices are made. Specifically, I explore the idea that the potential for outwardslooking phonologically conditioned allomorphy is restricted to cases where the competing allomorphs differ as to which (if any) faithfulness constraints on morpheme/morph similarity they violate. This revision of certain assumptions made in Wolf (2008) would bring the treatment of morphological operations in OT-CC nearer to the way the phonological operations are treated, and it arguably does allow outwards-looking phonologically-conditioned allomorphy just in those cases where it is indeed attested. Examples from Western Armenian (Vaux 2003) and Tzotzil (Aissen 1987; Woolford to appear) are used to motivate the proposal.

Upcoming phonology talks at Harvard:
2/24: Karen Jesney (UMass Amherst)
2/28: Gillian Gallagher (NYU)


Ling-Lunch 2/17 - Jessica Coon

Speaker: Jessica Coon (Harvard)
Title: The role of Case in A-bar extraction asymmetries: Evidence from Mayan
Time: Thursday, February 17, 12:30pm
Location: 32-D461
(Collaborative work with Pedro Mateo Pedro and Omer Preminger.)

Many morphologically ergative languages display asymmetries in the extraction of core arguments, sometimes referred to as “syntactic ergativity”: while absolutive arguments (transitive objects and intransitive subjects) extract freely, ergative arguments (transitive subjects) cannot (see e.g. Dixon 1972, 1974; Manning 1996). This is the case in many languages of the Mayan family. In order to extract agents (for focus, question, or relativization), a special construction known as the “Agent Focus” (AF) must be used. These AF constructions have been described as syntactically and semantically transitive, because they contain two non-oblique DP arguments, but morphologically intransitive because the verb appears with only a single agreement marker and takes the intransitive status suffix (Aissen 1999; Stiebels 2006). Though AF constructions have been the topic of much recent work, there is no consensus on how to best analyze them. To complicate matters, in languages of the Q’anjob’alan branch of the Mayan family, the Agent Focus morphology has been extended to another domain: non-finite transitives. This construction is known in Mayanist circles as the “Crazy Antipassive”, and to this point it has remained unexplained.

In this paper we offer a proposal for (i) why some morphologically ergative languages exhibit extraction asymmetries, while others do not; and (ii) how the AF construction circumvents this problem. Through a comparison of Q’anjob’al and Chol we argue for an analysis which unifies the two environments which trigger AF morphology in Q’anjob’al. We propose further that the inability to extract ergative arguments does not reflect a problem with the ergative subject, but rather is a problem with how absolutive arguments are licensed in the clause. We argue that the AF morpheme -on circumvents this problem by assigning Case to internal arguments. We show how the appearance of intransitive verbal morphology is connected to this change in Case-assignment properties of these clauses.


LFRG 2/18 - more discussion of Jäger’s game-theoretical pragmatics

WHAT: Jäger’s papers on game-theoretical pragmatics
WHEN: February 18, 2:00PM-3:15PM
WHERE: 32-D831

We will continue to discuss Jäger’s and related work, this time concentrating more on the technical side of the analyses.


Linguistics Colloquium 2/18 - Gerhard Jäger

Speaker: Gerhard Jäger, Universität Tübingen
Time: Friday, February 18, 2011, 3:30pm-5pm
Location: 32-141 (PLEASE NOTE ROOM)
Title: Game Theoretic Pragmatics


Game theory is a mathematical framework that is being used in economics and biology, but also in philosophy, political science and computer science, to study the behavior of multiple agents that are engaged in strategic interaction. It has manifold applications in linguistics as well. In particular, it has been utilized to investigate stability conditions of linguistic features in a large speech community, and to explore the strategic aspects of single speech acts.

The talk gives an introduction into a particular incarnation of this research paradigm, the /Iterated Best Response model/ of game-theoretic pragmatics. It can be seen as a formalization of the neo-Gricean program of pragmatics. Empirical issues touched upon include exhaustivication, free choice readings, ignorance implicatures, embedded implicatures and the pragmatics of measure terms.


Interview with David Pesetsky

There’s a nice interview with David Pesetsky on the MIT News website (triggered by his being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which we reported on recently). David talks about universal grammar and about the relationship between language and music.


Linguistics Challenge for high school students

This weekend, several grad students in the department (Alya Asarina, Mitcho Erlewine, Michelle Fullwood, Peter Graff, Coppe van Urk) ran a linguistics “mini-event” as part of the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament. Thirty-seven high school students competed in teams to solve Olympiad-style linguistics problems. This was one of the more popular mini-events, and the first to have a room full of participants. The problems, several of which were written specifically for this competition, can be found here, and some solutions are here.

P.S. A special thanks to everyone who test-solved problems for us!

High school students solving Linguistics Challenge problems

High school students solving Linguistics Challenge problems