The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 26th, 2011

Phonology Circle 9/26 - Gillian Gallagher  

Date: Monday Sept 26
Time: 4 pm (please note the unusual time!)
Location: 36-112 (please note the change of venue!)
Presenter: Gillian Gallagher, NYU
Title: Speaker awareness of non-local phonotactics in Quechua

I present evidence that speakers of Cochabamba Quechua are aware of non-local restrictions on laryngeal features in their language. A repetition task was run to investigate the synchronic status of two of the laryngeal restrictions in Quechua: the cooccurrence restriction on ejectives, which prohibits roots with two ejectives (e.g., *[k’ap’i]), and the ordering restriction on ejectives, which prohibits roots with an initial plain stop and a medial ejective (e.g., *[kap’i]). Medial ejectives are generally attested in the language, but only occur in roots with an initial fricative or sonorant e.g., [mat’i] ‘forehead’. Native Quechua speakers from the Cochabamba area of Bolivia were asked to repeat a mixture of real and nonsense words with medial ejectives, where the nonsense words were either phonotactically legal but unattested roots or phonotactically illegal roots that violated either the cooccurrence restriction or the ordering restriction. Medial ejectives are accurately repeated significantly more often in nonce roots where the medial ejective is phonotactically legal than when it is illegal. Moreover, there is no significant difference in error rate between attested and unattested but legal roots, nor any signficant difference in error rate between roots that violate the cooccurrence restriction and those that violate the ordering restriction. These results show that both restrictions are synchronically active. Additionally, there is variation in how roots that violate the ordering restriction are repaired, both deletion of medial ejection, e.g., target [kap’i] produced as [kapi], and movement of ejection, e.g., target [kap’i] produced as [k’api] are common. This variation in repair strategy has implications for the formal analysis of the restriction, which must predict all well-attested repairs.


Syntax Square 9/27 - John Berman  

Please join us Tuesday, when John Berman (one of our ling majors) will be presenting his work on Chol.

Speaker: John Berman
Location: 32-D461
Time: Tuesday, Sept. 27, 1-2p

In Chol Mayan, there are a variety of nominalizing suffixes in –Vl. One such suffix, –el, appears throughout the language in four apparently unrelated places – imperfectives of unaccusatives, derivations of unergatives and antipassives, and derivations of inalienable nouns. While –el is traditionally analyzed as a nominalizer in Mayan (Kaufman calls it a gerund), there have been no proposals to link its four Chol meanings together, nor have there been any explanations for its comparatively widespread distribution in Chol relative to other Mayan languages. I hope to answer these questions by providing a unified analysis of Chol –el as a little nº head used to nominalize nouns and verbs which take internal arguments. This proposal will draw upon and support claims that inalienable possessors are generated as internal arguments to their nouns.


Ling-Lunch 9/29 - Peter Graff  

Speaker: Peter Graff
Title: Perceptual Dispersion in the Lexicon
Time: Thursday, Sept. 29, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

We explore the hypothesis that the global organization of the lexicon maximizes the perceptual distinctness of words, by preferentially relying on highly perceptible contrasts, even when the phonotactics of the language permit less perceptible ones. We predict that distinctions among words will predominantly rely either on few highly perceptible contrasts (e.g. /t?n/ vs. /k?n/ with a place contrast in prevocalic position) or on many globally distributed contrasts, with multiple differences keeping the words apart (e.g. /s?ts/ vs. /??ks/ with a postvocalic place contrast further disambiguated by other differences). We present evidence for this hypothesis from a study investigating the typology of minimal pairs in 58 languages and a study relating the frequency of English minimal pairs to patterns of perceptual confusion. These results evidence a link between distinctness of words in the lexicon and the perception of speech as indicated by the significant effect of perceptibility beyond the phonotactic control variables. They suggest that the lexicon preferentially assigns minimal pairs for any feature to contexts where that feature is better perceived. We discuss implications of these findings for competing theories of the relation between perceptual distinctiveness and phonological patterns (e.g. Ohala 1981, Steriade 2001, Blevins 2004, Hayes and Steriade 2004).


LFRG 9/30 - Igor Yanovich  

WHO: Igor Yanovich
WHAT: Embedded epistemic claims in the light of the recent epistemics debate
WHEN: Sept 30, 1:00PM-2:30PM
WHERE: 32-D831


Rather than give a formal talk, I plan to introduce a certain current debate in the literature, and discuss some thoughts about new data bearing on it. This is very much work in progress - I have just started to think about those issues. But I do hope I’ll convince you that at the very least the issues are fun.

There is currently a big debate between epistemic relativists (e.g., MacFarlane) and “cloudy contextualists” (von Fintel and Gillies) about what is going on in the scenarios like this:

(1) a. Sarah: The keys might be in the car.
    b1. Mary: Yeah, that’s right. Let me check. / b2. Mary: No, I’ve checked there an hour ago.
    c. Sarah, after (b2): OK, then I guess I was wrong.

Suppose that the epistemic claim in (1a) is relative to a modal base representing the speaker’s, Sarah’s, knowledge. Then (1a) is only about the private knowledge, and it is mysterious why Mary can reject that claim, why she can act as if Sarah’s claim was about their common knowledge, and why Sarah may want to retract her earlier claim - even though at the time she made it, she may have been fully right in doing that.

Relativism and cloudy contextualism are two families of approaches which aim to explain puzzles like (1). Both have put forward a lot of evidence in their favor, and despite serious disagreements, converge on many important points. It is hard to evaluate all the arguments, and I will not try to do that on Friday, though I will try to give you their flavor.

Instead, I want to look more closely into an area which has not yet been subject to much scrutiny during the debate: epistemic claims embedded under attitude verbs. The key observation is that in some circumstances, such embedded epistemic claims may behave just as matrix epistemic claims - even though Hacquard (2010) has shown that they have to be dependent on a different source of knowledge than matrix epistemics. As they stand, I think neither relativist nor cloudy contextualist theories can explain the data.

There is a quick fix which seems to favor cloudy contextualism. However, I believe that once we look more carefully at the evidence coming from the functioning of embedded claims in discourse, a more complex and interesting picture emerges. It is that picture which I’d like to talk about on Friday. Rather than a quick fix, it seems to call for a more thorough analysis of how different sorts of attitude verbs work.


Linguistics Colloquium 9/30 - Kie Zuraw  

Speaker: Kie Zuraw (UCLA)
Title: Korean sai-siot: phonological and non-phonological factors
Date: Friday, 9/30
Time: 3:30 PM
Location: 32-141

Some Korean compounds are pronounced as though /s/ were inserted, followed by various automatic rules of the language. A following lenis obstruent becomes tensified (/twi+s+pa?/ ? [twip’a?] ‘back room’), and a following nasal becomes lengthened (/p?+s+nol?/ ? [p?nno??] ‘sailors’ song’). This phenomenon is known as sai-siot ‘middle s’. Much literature has debated the nature of the sai-siot morpheme, rule, or constraint (/s/-insertion, mora insertion, etc.), but this talk focuses on sai-siot’s distribution.

This talk uses corpus data to investigate phonological and other predictors of sai-siot that have been noted in previous literature, as well as some new ones. These include the branching structure of compounds, their etymology (Sino-Korean vs. native Korean), frequency of the whole compound and its members, syllable counts of compound members, sonority of the segments surrounding the compound boundary, and presence of an underlying tense consonant.

A recurring finding is that most of these factors interact quantitatively rather than in a strict hierarchy. For example, it’s not the case that compounds can be divided, based on their branching structure, into those that can’t undergo sai-siot and those that may, depending on other factors. Rather, branching structure and other factors all contribute to the probability that a compound will undergo sai-siot. This suggests that phonological and certain non-phonological factors can interact directly, rather than belonging to completely separate modules.