The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 4th, 2011

Syntax Square 4/4 - Rafael Nonato

Speaker: Rafael Nonato
Time: Monday, April 4, 11:30am-12:30pm
Location: 32-D461

Please join us for Syntax Square this coming Monday at 11:30am. Rafael Nonato is going to present the following paper:

Ritter, E. & Wiltschko, M. (2009) Varieties of INFL: TENSE, LOCATION, and PERSON. In: H. Broekhuis., J. Craenenbroeck, H. van Riemsdijk (eds.) Alternatives to Cartography. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

The paper is available here (pdf).

Phonology Circle 4/5 - Anne-Michelle Tessier (University of Alberta)

Speaker: Anne-Michelle Tessier (University of Alberta)
Title: Learning Restrictively in Harmonic Serialism
Time: Tuesday 4/5, 5-6pm, 32-D831

This talk provides an initial attempt at a theory of restrictive error-driven learning for Harmonic Serialism grammars (as originally proposed in Prince and Smolensky 1993, but more so McCarthy 2000, 2008ab, Pruitt 2010 and others.) Harmonic Serialism (HS) is a derivational variant of OT with some compelling advantages for capturing phonological typology — but if HS is going to be a good theory of phonology, it requires a good theory of HS learning. In the talk, I will present a view of how existing OT ranking algorithms (Prince and Tesar 2004, Hayes 2004) can be adapted fairly simply to learn HS grammars, including those rankings that are ‘hidden’ from the learner and arise crucially from the workings of HS. I also point out that to successfully learn hidden rankings, the HS learner must be guided to learn unfaithful URs in a particular way, providing an interesting and unresolved challenge.

Upcoming talks:
Apr 12: Ricardo Bermudez-Otero
Apr 13: WCCFL Practice Talks ***Time TBA
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.

LFRG: Wed 4/6 and Fri 4/8

This week, we have two LFRG meetings: one on Wednesday at 4pm, another one at the usual 2pm on Friday.

WHO: Alya Alsarina
WHAT: Constraints on Quantifier Lowering
WHEN: April 6, 4:00PM-5:30PM
WHERE: 32-D831

WHO: Guillaume Thomas
WHAT: “Another” and the meaning of measure phrases
WHEN: April 8, 2:00PM-3:15PM
WHERE: 32-D831

Ling-Lunch 4/7 - Edward Gibson

Speaker: Edward Gibson
Title: The communicative basis of word order
Time: Thursday, April 7, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

Some recent evidence suggests that subject-object-verb (SOV) may be the default word order for human language. For example, SOV is the preferred word order in a task where participants gesture event meanings (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2008). Critically, SOV gesture production occurs not only for speakers of SOV languages, but also for speakers of SVO languages, such as English, Chinese, Spanish (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2008) and Italian (Langus & Nespor, 2010). The gesture-production task therefore plausibly reflects default word order independent of native language. However, this leaves open the question of why there are so many SVO languages (41.2% of languages; Dryer, 2005). We propose that the high percentage of SVO languages cross-linguistically is due to communication pressures over a noisy channel (Jelinek, 1975; Brill & Moore, 2000; Levy et al. 2009). In particular, we propose that people understand that the subject will tend to be produced before the object (a near universal cross-linguistically; Greenberg, 1963). Given this bias, people will produce SOV word order – the word order that Goldin-Meadow et al. show is the default – when there are cues in the input that tell the comprehender who the subject and the object are. But when the roles of the event participants are not disambiguated by the verb, then the noisy channel model predicts either (i) a shift to the SVO word order, in order to minimize the confusion between SOV and OSV, which are minimally different (just one local swap apart); or (ii) the invention of case marking, which can also disambiguate the roles of the event participants. We test the predictions of this hypothesis and provide support for it using gesture experiments in English, Japanese and Korean. We also provide evidence for the noisy channel model in language understanding.


April is a busy month for MIT Linguistics: In addition to CLS, mentioned last week, a number of students, faculty, and alumni of the department will also be at the 29th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics at the University of Arizona, April 22-24. Faculty member Norvin Richards and alumnus Tom Bever (PhD 1967) will be giving plenary talks, and the program includes talks and posters by:

  • Alya Asarina: “Constraints on Quantifier Lowering” (poster)
  • Bronwyn M. Bjorkman: “The Crosslinguistic Defaultness of BE” (poster)
  • Micha Breakstone (current visitor), Alexandre Cremers (former visitor), Danny Fox, and Martin Hackl: “Processing Degree Operator Movement: Implications for the Analysis of Differentials”
  • Jessica Coon (PhD 2010) and Omer Preminger: “Towards a Unification of Person Splits”
  • Luka Crni?: “How to get ‘even’ with imperatives”
  • Young Ah Do: “Learning alternations without bias”
  • Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine: “Share to Compare: the Mandarin b? Comparative”
  • Claire Halpert: “Case, agreement, EPP and information structure: a quadruple-dissociation in Zulu”
  • Claire Halpert and Hadil Karawani (former visitor): “Aspect in counterfactuals from A(rabic) to Z(ulu)”
  • Natalia Ivlieva: “Agreement with Disjunction” (poster)
  • Hadas Kotek, Yasutada Sudo, Edwin Howard, and Martin Hackl: “A superlative reading for mostprop
  • Mikko Kupula (current visitor): “The role of Spec,vP in clitic doubling” (poster)
  • Giorgi Magri (PhD 2009): “HG has no computational advantages over OT: towards a new approach to computational OT”
  • Ana Arregui, Maria Luisa Rivero, and Andres Pablo Salanova (PhD 2007): “The construction of imperfectivity in Mebengokre” (poster)
  • Erik Schoorlemmer (current visitor) and Tanja Temmerman: “Head Movement as a PF?phenomenon: evidence from identity under ellipsis”
  • Shoichi Takahashi (PhD 2006): “Anatomy of tough movement”
  • Coppe van Urk: “Visser’s Generalization: A Window Into the Syntax of Control” (poster)
  • Susanne Wurmbrand (PhD 1998): “The syntax of valuation in auxiliary-participle constructions” (poster)

Thank you to David Pesetsky for compiling this information.

Linguistics Colloquium 4/8 - Rick Nouwen

Speaker: Rick Nouwen (Utrecht University)
Time: Friday, April 8, 2011, 3:30pm-5pm
Location: 32-141 (PLEASE NOTE ROOM)
Title: Superlative modifiers and modality


In the literature on the semantics of “at least” and similarly superlative modifiers, there has been much attention to the interaction of such modifiers with modality. In this talk, I will focus on two observations that are central to this interaction: (I) sentences like (a) give rise to ignorance implicatures, in the sense that (a) implies that the speaker does not know how many cards John picked; and (II) such implicatures disappear in modal environments: (b) has a reading that is simply a statement of minimum requirement, with no implicature about the speaker’s knowledge.

(a) John picked at least 3 cards.
(b) John is required to pick at least 3 cards.

In this talk, I will compare two strategies to account for these observations: (I) ignorance implicatures are due to the requirement that the modifiers operate on a scalar argument; (II) the ignorance implicatures triggered by “at least” are the ignorance implicatures triggered by disjunctions. I will compare these approaches with respect to a larger data set that includes the behaviour of ordinary superlatives, adjectives like “minimal” and “maximal” and definite descriptions that refer to scalar end-points, like “the earliest John should arrive”.

SNEWS at UConn: 4/16

The program for SNEWS (Southern New England Workshop in Semantics) is now available.

Claire Halpert at Berlin Bantu Conference

Fourth-year student Claire Halpert is off to the Berlin Bantu Conference where she will present a paper this Saturday on “The Syntactic Licensing of Zulu NPIs”.