The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 12th, 2011

Phonology Circle resumes 9/12

The first meeting of the Phonology Circle for the fall semester will be Monday, 9/12, at 5pm in 32-D831. We will have an organizational meeting to discuss the schedule for the rest of the semester. If you cannot come to the meeting but would like to reserve a date, please contact Michael Kenstowicz


Syntax Square 9/13 - Shigeru Miyagawa

Syntax Square, the department’s informal discussion group for syntax, will be starting back up this week with a talk by Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa. The talks will be held on Tuesdays, 1-2pm in 32-D461.


The organizers are Coppe van Urk and Ted Levin. Please send them an e-mail if you have ongoing or completed syntactic work that you would like to present or if there is a recent article or book you would like to discuss. Keep in mind that Syntax Square is there for work in various states of disarray. Feel free to use it to present an interesting problem or a theory you are developing.

Speaker: Shigeru Miyagawa
Title: Minimal Parametric Variation
Time: Tuesday, Sept 13, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

A linguistic theory should minimally tell us the following:
  • How are natural languages the same?
  • In what ways can they be different?

GB theory had a straightforward answer to these questions. All languages contain the same set of principles such as subjacency; where languages differ is in the setting of the parameter built into many of the principles. In MP, there are no principles like those in GB, and obviously no parameters based on such principles. Chomsky suggests the following.

Uniformity Principle (Chomsky 2001: 2) In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, assume languages to be uniform, with variety restricted to easily detectable properties of utterances.

The first part is clear, but the second portion that speaks to how the languages may differ needs clarification. I will attempt to provide a concrete instantiation of both portions of the Uniformity Principle (UP) by extending the proposal in Miyagawa (2010), in order to understand both the content of the universal statement and the precise nature of the variation being described in the UP. In so doing, I will look at the variations in the way agreements arise, particularly paying attention to languages that do not evidence any overt agreement such as Chinese and Japanese.

Ling-Lunch 9/15 - Aya Meltzer-Asscher

Speaker: Aya Meltzer-Asscher (Northwestern University)
Title: Training verb argument structure production in agrammatic aphasia: Behavioral and neural recovery patterns
Time: Thursday, Sept. 15, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

Many individuals with agrammatic aphasia have difficulty producing verbs. However, relatively little is known about the effects of treatment for this deficit, with most research in the area examining semantic or phonological cueing approaches, adopted from object naming treatments. Interestingly, although such treatments generally improve production of trained verbs, they result in little to no generalization to untrained verbs.

The current study examines the effects of treatment focused on argument mapping in sentence contexts. Based on previous studies showing a complexity effect in treatment, three-argument verbs were trained, and generalization to two- and one-argument verbs was tested, in both action naming and sentence production. In addition, the study addressed the neural substrates of treatment effects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during verb naming pre- and post-treatment.

In the behavioral portion of the study, we found successful learning of three-argument verbs, as well as generalization to untrained verbs with simpler argument structures, in all participants who received treatment. Significant differences between treated and control participants were found in both constrained verb production and sentence production. Treated participants also showed improved verb production in spontaneous speech. As for the neural activation patterns associated with recovery, post- compared to pre-treatment fMRI scans revealed upregulation in cortical regions implicated for verb and argument structure processing in healthy controls.

We conclude that treatment for verb deficits incorporating thematic role mapping is effective for improving both verb and sentence production and results in recruitment of brain regions engaged for verb and argument structure processing in healthy individuals. Further, the finding that training verbs with complex argument structure results in generalization to verbs of lesser complexity reinforces the tenet that treatment of more complex language structures promotes generalization to less complex, linguistically related, structures (Thompson, Shapiro, Kiran, & Sobecks, 2003).

Linguistics Colloquium 9/16 - Line Mikkelsen

Speaker: Line Mikkelsen - University of California, Berkeley
Title: Verb-second structures: Evidence from Danish VP anaphora
Date: Friday, 9/16
Time: 3:30 PM
Location: 32-141


Most work on verb-second order in Germanic languages assumes that the choice of initial constituent in declarative verb-second clauses is a matter of textual organization which falls outside the domain of syntax. In this talk I give evidence that in at least one Germanic language there are intrasential syntactic principles that restrict what may occupy initial position in declarative verb-second clauses. I further show how these principles bear on one of the central disagreements in the generative literature on Germanic clause structure, namely whether subject-initial verb-second clauses have the same structure as non-subject-initial verb-second clauses. The proposed analysis uses dedicated wh and information-structural features to drive A-bar movement and thereby offers a theoretical counterpoint to recent work arguing against the existence of such features and their involvement in A-bar movement, including Fanselow and Lenertová (2011) and Chomsky (2008).

Summer student news round-up

mitcho (Michael Erlewine) stayed mostly in Boston this summer, presenting “The Constituency of Hyperlinks in a Hypertext Corpus” at the International Society for the Linguistics of English at BU and “Focus Interpretation and Covert Movement: the Dake Blocking Effect” at the GLOW in Asia Workshop for Young Scholars in Japan.

Claire Halpert was awarded an NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant for her project on Zulu syntax, Agreement and Argument Structure, which supported seven weeks of fieldwork in South Africa this summer. Claire has been living in Umlazi, a Zulu-speaking township in Durban, and commuting several days a week to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where she is a visiting scholar. She has been working closely with students and faculty in the department, and has given two talks on her research during her stay. In July, Claire taught Syntactic Field Methods at the African Linguistics School (ALS 2011) in Porto Novo, Benin. This second meeting of the ALS brought together students from all over Africa to study linguistic theory, with a focus on African languages. Her class focused on the syntax of Tofingbe, an undescribed and threatened member of the Gbe cluster spoken in the Porto Novo region. Efforts are currently underway by Claire and members of the class to continue research on the language!

One of our undergraduate majors, John Berman, reports:

I spent most of June near Palenque, Mexico, where I stayed with a Ch’ol family and did research on the Ch’ol language. Ch’ol is a native American language of the Mayan family spoken by about 150,000 in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco. I will present some of my findings this October at UT Austin’s Center for the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA) conference.

MIT Linguistics at Sinn und Bedeutung 16

MIT students, visitors and alumni contributed 8 talks to Sinn und Bedeutung 16, which took place from September 6-8 in Utrecht. They are:

New time for Syntax and Semantics of Iranian

Maziar Toosarvandani’s class Topics in the Syntax and Semantics of Iranian (24.943), described in last week’s WHAMIT, has been moved to Tuesdays 5-8 and will meet in 32-D461.

Faculty summer news

“How I spent my summer vacation” - faculty version:

  • Norvin Richards spent a week in the foothills of the Himalayas, teaching a mini-seminar on the syntax-phonology interface at the 5th LISSIM (Linguistics Summer School in the Indian Mountains).
  • Sabine Iatridou had an Eastern European summer vacation, co-teaching a week-long seminar on “3 Puzzles in Syntax and Semantics” at the New York-St. Petersburg Institute founded by John Bailyn, then moving to the Czech Republic, where she taught two classes at the famous EGG School: a solo class on Binding Theory and a joint class on negation with Hedde Zeijlstra, who we remember fondly as a visiting faculty member here in 2008-2009.
  • Jay Keyser’s book Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows was published by MIT Press.
  • Wayne O’Neil spent July co-teaching a language acquisition course at the Navajo Language Academy workshop. He writes: “This summer workshop, founded by Ken Hale, meets annually on or near the Navajo reservation, bringing together thirty or so Navajo linguists and educators. This summer we were on the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff AZ, suffering through college dormitory life and cafeteria food, but the work was good, and the workshop, as usual, produced a fine T-shirt.”