The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

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.