The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, March 28th, 2011

BCS Cog Lunch 3/29 - Steve Piantadosi

Speaker: Steve Piantadosi (Gibson lab)
Title: What is the language of thought?
Time: Tues 3/29, 12pm
Location: 46-3310 (note the change from our usual location)

We present a computational model of learning compositional, structured concepts in a “language of thought.” We show that language of thought models out-perform alternatives such as exemplar models in capturing people’s patterns of generalization in a massive, online, concept-learning experiment. We additionally develop a method for formally evaluating different representation languages using the experimental results. We compare 9 different representation languages for simple boolean concepts, and 12 for languages for concepts that move beyond boolean logic, towards the types of representations necessary for natural language semantics.


Phonology Circle 3/29 - Sverre Stausland Johnsen

Speaker: Sverre Stausland Johnsen (Harvard University)
Title: Rhyme acceptability determined by perceived similarity
Time: Tuesday 3/29, 5-6pm, 32-D831

Intuitively, a-b is a better rhyme than a-c when a and b are more ‘similar’ to each other than a and c are. But how do we measure this similarity? I show in this talk that the perceptual similarity between segments as calculated from confusion matrices is a much better predictor of people’s judgments of rhymes than are similarity measures based on articulatory or acoustic feature systems.

Upcoming talks:
Apr 5: Anne-Michelle Tessier
Apr 12: Ricardo Bermudez-Otero
Apr 13, 3-5pm: WCCFL Practice Talks ***Note Special Day and Time
Apr 26: Jongho Jun
May 3: Nina Topintzi
May 10: RUMMIT practice talks

You can view the current, up-to-date version of the schedule here (click ‘agenda’ to see the schedule as a list), or subscribe via iCal here.


Good News on the Job Front

  • Gillian Gallagher (PhD 2010) has officially accepted a tenure track phonology position at NYU, starting Fall 2011; Gillian has already been teaching at NYU this year
  • Jessica Coon (PhD 2010) has officially accepted a tenure-track syntax position at McGill; Jessica is currently a post-doc in the Polinsky lab at Harvard
  • Luka Crni? has accepted a one-year post-doc position at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem
  • Patrick Grosz has accepted a post-doctoral position (Akademischer Mitarbeiter), at the University of Tübingen.

Congratulations, Gillian, Jessica, Luka and Patrick - and congratulations also to NYU, McGill, Tübingen and Hebrew University!


LFRG: Wed 3/30 and Fri 4/1

This week, we have two LFRG meetings: one on Wednesday at 4pm, another one at the usual 2pm on Friday. Note the change of room on Friday (and perhaps on Wednesday too.)

WHO: Hadas Kotek & Yasutada Sudo
WHAT: A superlative reading for MostPROP (practice talk for CLS)
WHEN: March 30, 4:00PM-5:30PM
WHERE: 32-D461 or 32-D831 - please stay tuned

WHO: Ben George (UCLA)
WHAT: Which answers matter, and how?
WHEN: April 1st, 2:00PM-3:15PM

[Click on the talk titles for abstracts]

Upcoming meetings:

4/06 Alya (special extra Wedn. meeting)
4/08 Guillaume
4/15 Igor
4/22 Sarah Ouwayda
4/29 Eva Csipak


ECO5 on Saturday April 2

On Saturday, April 2 MIT will host this year’s ECO5 student syntactic workshop. It is a yearly small conference where graduate students from five East Coast departments (Harvard, UConn, UMass, UMaryland and MIT) can present their ongoing or completed work on syntactic issues to a friendly crowd of faculty and students, which rotates between the five co-organizing departments.

This year it is MIT’s turn to run things, and you can find the tentative schedule here.

The workshop starts at 11am on Saturday, and will continue until around 6pm.

See you there! Coppe and Igor, MIT ECO5 representatives


Linguistics at school

Wayne O’Neil has recently returned from his annual (since 2000) March stay in Seattle, where he and his partner Maya Honda spent several days doing linguistics with David Pippin’s fourth- and fifth-graders at St Thomas School in Medina WA. On this occasion, ‘doing linguistics’ focused on some aspects of English orthography: why, example, civil, solemn, and moral are spelt the way they are. However, Wayne was also required to give a spirited reading of the opening lines of Beowulf as a lead-in to a discussion of the history of the English language.

Some of the work that Wayne and Maya have done in Seattle over the past decade is discussed in Honda, O’Neil, and Pippin’s paper “On promoting linguistics literacy: Bringing language science to the English classroom”, in Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck (ed.) Linguistics at school: Language awareness in primary and secondary education, 175-188 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Jay Keyser interviewed on WGBH re MIT hacking culture

Jay Keyser was interviewed last week on the Callie Crossley Show on WGBH. Full audio of the 24 minute interview is available on the show’s website. Here’s a direct link to the mp3 stream.

The show’s description:

The history of hacks and pranks at MIT dates back almost as far as the venerable institution itself. Students with expertise in engineering, computer science, robotics, and math — and presumably with a little extra time and brainpower to spare — have taken pranksterism to the level of high art. Their hijinks have included a firetruck, police cruiser, and biplane replica, alternately hoisted atop MIT’s Great Dome; a fully appointed room — including a billiards table, a cat, chairs, and an illuminated lamp — hung upside down from the Media Lab; numerous interruptions staged during the annual Harvard - Yale football game; and a cross-country hacking war with rival institution, Caltech. MIT Professor Emeritus Jay Keyser, has seen a lot of it in his time, and he’ll talk about the school’s secret hacking society, the best hacks, and why bright students at a world-class institution can still find time to put one over on faculty.

Mentioned during the interview is Jay’s forthcoming new book: Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows.


Maria Babyonyshev

We are deeply saddened by the news that our former student and colleague in linguistics Maria Babyonyshev has died at the untimely age of 44, from complications of a devastating 2006 car accident. Masha received not one, but two degrees from MIT. She received her undergraduate degree in linguistics from MIT in 1990 (Phi Beta Kappa) and her PhD from our department in 1996, with a dissertation entitled Structural Connections in Syntax and Processing: Studies in Russian and Japanese. In fact, the word “connections” aptly describes Masha’s entire varied and influential research career, which steadfastly and continually charted and explored the links between linguistic theory, language acquisition and processing - as well as the links between the structure of her native language, Russian, and the other languages of the world. In her own papers and her many collaborations, Masha made some of the most interesting and cleverest connections we know between the theoretical and experimental sides of linguistics. Most recently, working with students and colleagues at Yale (where she was a member of the linguistics faculty) Masha had started investigating a striking pattern of language impairment widespread in one village in the Arkhangelsk region of Russia. As a researcher, as a member of our field, and as a friend, she will be badly missed.

Masha’s family writes us that they are “creating a fund to complete a project that Masha was pursuing over the last year out of her love of plants, flora and trees. The Antonovka Apple was her favorite apple growing up in Russia, but it is rarely used as an eating apple here and therefore is essentially not grown. She had recently imported seeds of the apple and was working on the plant science of growing seedlings. We wish to hire a plant scientist and nursery to complete the project and provide seedlings to our friends and family to plant where they would like. Masha’s living legacy will be the trees and apples. Please send contributions to: The Antonovka Fund, c/o Ted Walls and Nadia Babyonyshev, 67 Prospect Avenue, North Kingstown, RI 02852.”


MIT at CLS 47

MIT will be well represented at the 47th meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, to be held next week (April 7-9). In addition to plenary talks by Colin Philips (PhD 1996) and faculty member Norvin Richards, the program includes talks by:

  • Ezra Keshet (PhD 2008): “Contrastive focus and paycheck pronouns”
  • Giorgio Magri (PhD 2009): “Correctness of OT online algorithms on Prince and Tesar’s (2004) test cases”
  • Hadas Kotek, Yasutada Sudo, Edwin Howard, and Martin Hackl: “A superlative reading for mostprop
  • Ora Matushansky (PhD 2002) and Tania Ionin (BCS PhD 2003): “More than one solution”
  • Young Ah Do and Seunghun J. Lee: “Acoustic bases of emotion related sound symbolism”
  • Peter Graff and Jeremy Hartman: “Constraints on predication”
  • Gillian Gallagher (PhD 2010): “Auditory features: the case from laryngeal cooccurrence restrictions”
  • Jessica Coon (PhD 2010) and Omer Preminger: “Towards a unification of person splits”

Thank you to David Pesetsky for compiling this information.


Patel-Grosz at UMass Workshop on South Asian Syntax and Semantics

Pritty Patel-Grosz recently presented her work on Agreement at Rajesh Bhatt’s South Asian syntax-semantics workshop which took place at UMass on March 19th-20th. The program can be found here.


Ling-Lunch 3/31 - Micha Breakstone

Speaker: Micha Breakstone
Title: Inherent Evaluativity
Time: Thursday, March 31, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

Two related challenges have been the focus of research on the semantics of degree constructions. The first is the distribution of Measure Phrases (MPs), and the second concerns the distribution of evaluative readings. A theory of MP distribution should account for e.g. (1).

1. a. John is 6 feet tall.           b. *John is 3 feet short.

Evaluativity (aka ‘norm-relatedness’) may be defined as the phenomenon in which the interpretation of an adjective in a given construction is dependent on a contextual standard. A theory of evaluativity should explain the pattern which emerges in (2) [(+E) denotes Evaluative].

2.  a. John is tall. (+E)e. John is short. (+E)
b. How tall is John? (-E) f. How short is John? (+E)
c. John is as tall as Mary. (-E) g. John is as short as Mary. (+E)
d. John is taller than Mary. (-E)      h. John is shorter than Mary. (-E)

It has been noted (Bierwisch 1989, Sassoon 2008) that these challenges are related: Adjectives that do not license MPs (1b) are evaluative in equatives and degree questions (2g,f). The goal of this talk is to meet these two challenges and account for the correlation noted by Bierwisch.

Previous approaches assume a semantics for gradable adjectives under which evaluativity must enter independently (see Rett (2008), Cresswell (1976)) and for which explaining MP distribution entails additional assumptions (with Bierwisch’s correlation left unexplained). I will present an alternative under which evaluativity is an inherent part of the semantics. Instead of accounting for evaluativity, the challenge will be to do away with it. As it turns out this simple reflective move holds promise of significant explanatory power.


Linguistics Colloquium 4/1 - David Adger

Speaker: David Adger, Queen Mary, University of London
Time: Friday, April 1, 2011, 3:30pm-5pm
Location: 32-141 (PLEASE NOTE ROOM)
Title: The syntax of (some) apparent complements to N


The usual view of the syntax of the title of this talk is the following:

(1) [the [ syntax [ of [ some [ apparent [ complements [ to N ]]]]]]]

where the arguments of the nominal heads are introduced as complements. I will argue that at least PP arguments of Ns are introduced much higher up in the structure. The main argument is cross-linguistic and relies on the following:

(2) In a structure where an N is modified by an intersective AP and takes a PP complement, the unmarked order is one where the AP intervenes between N and PP (so we have [PP AP N] and [N AP PP]).

The standard view makes this generalization difficult to derive. What is required is that the surface position of the PP is high. But then the question is why? Standard views of the syntax/semantics interface (as well as of the linearization properties of specifiers) would suggest that the PP moves to a high position (e.g. Kayne 2004). I argue instead that it is Merged in a high position and that its semantics are negotiated directly by functional structure (cf Borer 2005, Ramchand 208 etc for `complements’ to V). I propose that the linear order of this high PP with respect to the N arises because the syntax allows part of the extended projection of N to be generated as a high left daughter, as well as as a lower right daughter, of the head in whose specifier the PP sits (cf. Brody and Szabolcsi 2003). This gives us:

(3) [ the [ [ alternative syntax] [ [ of [ some [ apparent [ complements ]] [ [ to N ] ]] ]]