The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Welcome to the Fall Semester!  

Today, Tuesday 9/6, is Registration Day. Whamit!, the MIT Linguistics Department Newsletter appears every Monday during the semester. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, Michelle Fullwood, Ryo Masuda, and David Pesetsky.

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 4pm before the next Whamit! appears. At the beginning of the semester, we’re particularly interested in news about what members of the department did during the summer break.


Course announcements, Fall 2011  

24.943: Topics in the Syntax and Semantics of Iranian
Maziar Toosarvandani
M10-1, 32-D461

The Iranian languages are among the least studied in the Indo-European language family. In this class, we will explore the structure of the Iranian languages with an eye towards understanding them both from the outside and from the inside. Since the extant theoretical literature focuses almost entirely on either Persian (a national language of Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan) or Pashto (a national language of Afghanistan), we will start by reading about several of these two languages’ more unusual properties—including light verb constructions, ezafe, scrambling, ergative agreement, and second-position clitics—with the goal of understanding how preexisting analyses fit into a crosslinguistically-informed theory of syntax and semantics. We will then turn our attention to some of the other, eighty or so Iranian languages, for which various levels of description exist, extending and developing our accounts from the two better-studied languages. In the end, we will have a more sophisticated understanding of the Iranian languages and of what they tell us about language more generally.

24.960: Syntactic Models
Omer Preminger
M2–5, 32-D461

The course has two main goals —

  1. Cross-framework “literacy”

    We will familiarize ourselves with two frameworks that compete with what we might call the Government & Binding / Principles & Parameters / Minimalist Program framework of syntactic analysis: HPSG (Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar) and LFG (Lexical Functional Grammar).

    The idea is to become comfortable enough with the notations and machinery that we can easily pick up an HPSG or LFG paper and understand it.

  2. What is at stake? Where do these frameworks crucially differ from one another (and where don’t they)? And what is the historical development that has led us here?

    Here, we will deal with some of the “bigger questions”; we want to understand how frameworks rise and fall in general, and how they have in fact risen and fallen in the history of modern syntax; we will ask ourselves questions like “what can framework X can do that framework Y cannot?”, as well as “what can they both do equally well?”

    In other words, we want to understand which differences between the various frameworks are notational choices, and which lead to actual differences in expressive power and empirical coverage.

We will examine these questions both synchronically (for example, comparing GB/P&P/MP vs. HPSG vs. LFG) and diachronically (e.g. why did the “Aspects” framework give way to GB? why was “Generative Semantics” abandoned in the ’70s, and effectively resurrected in the late ’90s?)

24.964: Topics in Phonology
Edward Flemming
F12-3, 32-D461

24.964 this semester is intended to be ‘Phonology III’ or ‘More Advanced Phonology’ rather than a seminar on a single research topic. The course will be organized around four main topics, all of which feature in recent research at MIT (details below). We will cover more or less of each topic depending on time and interest.

  1. The Dispersion Theory of Contrast

    There is good evidence for constraints against perceptually indistinct contrasts in phonology, but many issues surrounding the formalization of these constraints remain open. We will look at applications of these constraints in recent work from MIT, and explore issues of implementation.

    • Applications: Laryngeal cooccurrence restrictions (Gallagher 2010), stress-conditioned segmental phonology (Giavazzi 2010).
    • Issues of implementation:
      • The formulation of distinctiveness constraints (cf. Gallagher 2010 vs. Flemming 2004).
      • The comparison set for evaluation of distinctiveness constraints.
      • The nature of underlying representations (Flemming 2008).
  2. Phonetic grammars

    It has long been known that the grammars of languages must regulate relatively fine details of phonetic realization, but relatively little is known about the form of the relevant component of grammar. We will study a model based on weighted constraints (Flemming 2001) that has been applied in recent research from our department, and investigate interactions between phonetics and phonology in light of this model.

    • Applications: tone timing (Cho 2010), segment duration (Katz 2010).
    • Working with weighted constraints.
    • Interactions between phonetics and phonology
    • Phonetic detail in phonological analyses (e.g. Flemming 2008).
    • Phonetic constraints in phonological analyses (e.g. Katz 2010).
    • Effects of phonological structure on phonetic realization.
  3. Morphology-phonology interactions: what are the roles of morphology and phonology in accounting for allomorphic variation in paradigms?

    Case study: The distribution of stem allomorphs in Italian verb paradigms (Pirrelli and Battista 2000). Pirrelli & Battista argue for complex and arbitrary mappings from morphosyntactic specifications to the phonological forms of verb stems in Italian. However, they only consider phonological analyses of variation in stem form if they can be formulated in terms of exceptionless phonological processes. There is evidence that phonological constraints and constraints on the relationship between phonology and morphology can yield many patterns in which phonological processes show morphological conditioning (e.g. derived environment effects, inflection dependence etc). Do we arrive at a different view of allomorphy in Italian (and elsewhere) if we reanalyze the data in light of these phenomena?

    • Varieties of phonology-morphology interactions, e.g.
      • Derived-Environment Effects (Kiparsky 1973 etc)
      • Inflection dependence (Steriade 2008)
      • Phonological selection of listed allomorphs (e.g. Kager 1996)
      • Morphological contrast constraints (Löfstedt 2010)
  4. Do speakers’ grammars contain phonetically-based constraints?

    Phonological typology has been shown to reflect a variety of phonetically-based constraints, but it remains controversial whether these constraints play a role in individual grammars or whether they are external to grammar, applying only through processes of sound change (e.g. Blevins 2004). We will try to clarify the empirical claims that are at issue here and examine experimental evidence that bears on those claims.

24.979: Topics in Semantics
Rick Nouwen
T2-5, 32-D461

The main focus will be the semantic representation of gradability/degree and comparison in natural language. In particular, we will review the semantic structures and mechanisms that play a role in various degree phenomena as well as the logical form of degree constructions. We will cover both core issues and phenomena in degree semantics, such as the comparative, as well as more peripheral aspects of the expression of degree. The first weeks are geared to gaining a deep understanding of the foundations of the main analyses on the market, such as the various kinds of degree-based theories and the increasingly more prominent (and in some sense degree-less) delineation proposals. The rest of the seminar is meant to cover a broad range of empirical data, gradually moving away from the usual suspects in the degree literature.

Topics include: the comparative, the positive form, the absolute/relative distinction, degree approaches to degree versus delineation approaches to degree, degree operators and scope, interadjective comparison and incommensurability, intensifiers, exclamatives, gradability of nouns, degree phenomena in numeral quantification, and more. We will use a reading list of recent as well as not so recent articles on degree semantics.


Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, 2011-2012  

The MIT Linguistics Colloquium schedule for this academic year is below. All talks are on Fridays, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in room 32-141 unless otherwise noted. For further information, please contact Sam Al Khatib or Natalia Ivlieva. This schedule is subject to change, especially for Spring 2012.

Fall 2011

September 16: Line Mikkelsen (UC Berkeley)
September 30: Kie Zuraw (UCLA)
October 7: Ivan Sag (Stanford)
October 14: Anders Holmberg (Newcastle)
November 18: Maria Aloni (Amsterdam)

Spring 2012

February 10: David Beaver (UT Austin)
March 9: Yosef Grodzinsky (McGill)
March 16: Sun-Ah Jun (UCLA)
April 6: Benjamin Spector (Institut Jean Nicod, CNRS-ENS–EHESS)
April 13: Meghan Sumner (Stanford)
April 27: Uli Sauerland (ZAS)
May 4: Hagit Borer (USC)
May 11: Milan Rezac (University of the Basque Country) [rescheduled from Spring 2011]

Update, Sept. 7: Anders Holmberg’s talk will be on Oct. 14, and David Beaver’s talk will be on Feb. 10.


Meet our new visiting faculty  

We have four visiting faculty members in linguistics this Fall

Benjamin R. George has just completed his Ph.D. in semantics at UCLA. He writes that his interests include “question semantics, presupposition, logic, the semantics-pragmatics interface, and mathematical methods in semantic theory”.

Rick Nouwen will be visiting us only for the Fall semester. As his website tells us: “I’m a linguist interested in semantics and pragmatics. My research focuses in particular on (i) scalar phenomena in natural language; (ii) multi-dimensionality and projection phenomena in semantics; (iii) pronominal reference; (iv) the overlap between analytical philosophy, logic and linguistics.”

Maziar Toosarvandani joins us as an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow. He writes: “I received my PhD from Berkeley in 2010 where I wrote my dissertation on association with focus. More generally, I am interested in formal patterns that arise from the interaction of sentences in discourse and what these patterns tell us about speakers’ competence about syntax as well as their competence about discourse structure. Currently, I am working on a project to understand why the so-called corrective use of the coordinator “but” (as in “Max didn’t find an apartment in Cambridge but in Somerville”) requires the presence of a negative element in its first conjunct. I also do documentary fieldwork on Northern Paiute (a severely endangered Uto-Aztecan language of the western US), which feeds into my theoretical interests. I have recently been exploring how in Northern Paiute, a language that practically lacks syntactic subordinators, speakers combine lexical, syntactic, and world knowledge with knowledge about discourse structure to convey temporal, causal, and other typically “subordinating” relations.”

Omer Preminger received his PhD here at MIT just this summer, and will be splitting his time between our department and Masha Polinsky’s lab at Harvard. He describes his interests as including “syntax, morphology, and everything in between, including but not limited to: agreement, case, ergativity, argument-structure, and wh-movement”. He will be teaching 24.960 (Syntactic Models, graduate) in the fall, and 24.900 (Intro to Linguistics, undergrad) in the spring.


Visiting Scholars and Students  

We extend our warmest welcome to the new (and returning) visiting scholars and students to the department:

New Visiting Scholars

  • Khaled Al-Asbahi: Sana’a University.
  • Toni Borowsky: Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney.
    Toni’s research interests are in phonology and phonetics. She is working on language games, and syllable structure related matters.
  • Barbara Citko: Assistant Professor, University of Washington-Seattle.
    Barbara’s research interests are: syntactic theory, syntax of relative clauses, wh-questions, multidominance, syntax of Slavic languages (Polish in particular).
  • Young-Sun Kim: Hanshin University.

New Visiting Students

  • Laura McPherson: 3rd year PhD student at UCLA.
    Her primary research interests are phonology and morphology, particularly grammatical tone and other areas of phonology-syntax interface. She is currently working on a reference grammar of Tommo So, a Dogon language of Mali.
  • Jeffrey Watumull: PhD student at the University of Cambridge.
    Jeffrey’s research interests are “in general, mathematical biolinguistics—a research program to discover the mathematical properties universal to human syntax and their possible homologues/analogues in nonhuman animals; in particular, revamping the Chomsky Hierarchy in terms of strong generative capacity and formulating optimal decision procedures for traversing parameter hierarchies.”


Meet Ling-11  

And last but certainly not the least, there are six incoming graduate students this year.

Tingchun Chen, who goes by T.C., grew up in Taiwan and received a B.A. in linguistics from McGill University. “My main areas of interest are syntax and syntax/semantics interface. I work on Atayal, an indigenous (Austronesian) language of Taiwan and spent the past two summers doing fieldwork in a small Atayal tribe. Besides linguistics, I also enjoy tennis, hiking and the company of cats.”

Snejana Iovtcheva reports: “I am originally from Bulgaria, but I grew up in Germany and I have my first MA degree in Political Science and German Philology from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. I then discovered my affinity for linguistics and received my second MA degree from Syracuse University. In my MA thesis I investigate the syntactic structure of the Bulgarian wh-questions, especially the interaction between [topic]-, [focus]-, and [wh]-fronting. I am further interested in grammatical gender, clitics, pro-drop constructions, and left-dislocated subjects. If I am not in the library, then you will most probably meet me at the playground with my toddler.”

Paul Marty

Miriam Nussbaum, who likes to go by ‘Mia’, is from Ithaca, New York. In May 2011, she graduated from Cornell, where she majored in music in addition to linguistics. Her current list of favorite topics to study in linguistics mostly consists of things that have to do with syntax and/or semantics (passive/impersonal constructions, information structure, and de se semantics, to name a few); outside of linguistics, she enjoys playing the flute, composing music, and reading novels in various languages.

Despina Oikonomou writes: “I grew up in Greece, in a small seaside village. I received my BA in Balkan, Slavic & Oriental Studies from the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki. I recently completed my MA in Linguistics at the University of Crete. I am particularly interested in syntax/semantics interface, pragmatics and language acquisition. Outside of linguistics, I enjoy classic literature and comics.”

Amanda Swenson grew up in a small town in Wisconsin near St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN. She writes: “I received my B.A. in Language and Linguistics from Baylor University in Waco, TX. My main interest in linguistics is syntax. I am also interested in the syntax-semantics interface, 1st language acquisition and language evolution. My research to date has focused on long-distance binding across a large cross section of languages. As far as languages go, I am particularly interested in working on Greek and Dravidian languages. Outside of linguistics, I enjoy sports and cooking.”


A summer’s worth of dissertations!  

Over the summer, six students defended their dissertations! In order of defense date, they are…

Patrick Grosz - On the Grammar of Optative Constructions
Omer Preminger - Agreement as a Fallible Operation
Tue Trinh - Edges and Linearization
Luka Crnic - Getting Even
Alya Asarina - Case in Uyghur and Beyond
Bronwyn Bjorkman - BE-ing Default: The Morphosyntax of Auxiliaries

Congratulations to all six for their splendid achievements!!


The latest issue of Linguistic Inquiry  

…contains two papers authored and coauthored by current graduate students. Congratulations!

The Semantic Uniformity of Traces: Evidence from Ellipsis Parallelism” by Jeremy Hartman

On the Ungrammaticality of Remnant Movement in the Derivation of Greenberg’s Universal 20” by Sam Steddy and Vieri Samek-Lodovici